Post-classical history


The length of time Harold spent in Normandy is as unknown as its precise date or, indeed, its purpose. All that is known is that he was back in England in 1065. ‘Before Lammas’ (1 August), according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he ordered the building of a hunting lodge at Portskewet in Wales, so that the king (who was presumably at that time in good health) could hunt there; but on 24 August the site was overrun by Caradoc ap Gruffydd and the workmen killed. In September, more serious trouble broke out. In Northumbria, where Harold’s brother, Tostig, had been earl since 1055, there had been unrest on account of his harsh rule. Whether Tostig was really harsh or simply enforcing laws that had fallen into disuse under his predecessor, Earl Siward, cannot now be known; he is described by the author of the Vita Ædwardi as ‘a little over-zealous in attacking evil’, which perhaps implies a combination of the two. The Northumbrians seem to have had a good case: according to Florence of Worcester, the immediate cause of the rising was Tostig’s slaying of two Northumbrian nobles who were in his house under safe conduct, and the murder at court of Gospatric, a member of the old Northumbrian ruling house, in which he rather discreditably implicated his sister, Queen Edith, who organized it for him. Certainly, he seems to have doubled the taxes, which alone would be enough to cause unrest. On 3 October, while he was at court with the king, the Northumbrians rose up and killed as many of his housecarls and servants as they could find, broke open his treasury and carried off all his effects. They repudiated Tostig and sent a summons to Morcar, brother of Edwin, Earl of Mercia since the exile and death of their father Ælfgar, to be their earl; led by him, the Northumbrians advanced into England where they were joined by Edwin with his Mercian troops and some Welsh reinforcements. At Northampton they were met by Harold, sent by the king to try to effect some kind of reconciliation, but on this occasion his diplomatic powers failed. The Northumbrians refused point blank to take Tostig back. Edward tried to call out the army, as he had done in 1051, to restore Tostig by force of arms but found that on this occasion they would not fight. Confronted by the armed forces of all Northumbria and Mercia, and with a general feeling elsewhere in the country that Tostig had come by his deserts, the king had little alternative but to give in. The meeting was adjourned to Oxford where, after the feast of All Saints (1 November), Edward was obliged to agree to the exiling of Tostig and his replacement as earl by Morcar, and swore to uphold the laws of Cnut.

These events raise some interesting points, in addition to the fact that the outlawing of Tostig was almost certainly indirectly responsible for the defeat at Hastings. Firstly, although much is made of the separateness and of the Scandinavian sympathies of the inhabitants of the Danelaw, of which Northumbria was the most important part, there seems to have been no idea of any claim for independence in the rising. The Northumbrians did not want to leave the kingdom of England, they simply wanted a different earl – and the earl whom they chose, in preference to the half-Danish Tostig, was a man with no Danish blood in his veins at all. Even Cnut, a Danish king, had had difficulty with his relations with Northumbria; it was a turbulent region. Secondly, it has been suggested that the demand for the reaffirmation of the laws of Cnut indicates a demand for specifically Danish legislation for Northumbria alone; it is more likely that, since Edward, unlike so many of his predecessors, had never issued a law-code, and Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut had never had time to do so, the laws of Cnut were presumably the legal code in force over all England throughout his reign. The laws of King Edward, that the Conqueror was later symbolically to invoke, were in fact the laws of an earlier conqueror. The laws of Cnut were actually written for him by the impeccably English Archbishop Wulfstan of York and were based on the earlier laws of King Edgar. Patrick Wormald has surmised that the significance of Cnut’s law for the Northumbrian rebels was that it represented the pattern of northern rule subverted by Tostig’s government, and that their invocation of Cnut, like the Conqueror’s of Edward, was as much symbolic as practical; this seems likely.lxvi Thirdly, the insurrection caused an insuperable breach between Harold and Tostig, who blamed his brother for not supporting him and (if the Vita Ædwardi is to be believed) accused him in public of fomenting the rising to injure him. Finally, it is clear from Harold’s activities at Portskewet that the king was at that time in good enough health to be able to contemplate a hunting break there.

This was soon to change. According to the Vita Ædwardi, both Edward and the queen became ill with grief over the loss of Tostig, and a more modern biographer has guessed that the king may have suffered one or more strokes as a result of the stress.lxvii From this point on, his health declined steadily. Tostig, meanwhile, sought refuge once again in Flanders, and cast around for allies to support his restoration. He is said (there is no firm evidence) to have tried Normandy, but if he did, he got no direct help from William, who may none the less have been pleased enough to encourage him to add to Harold’s problems. He tried Denmark, but his cousin, Sweyn Estrithson, pleaded other commitments. He did rather better in Norway with Harald Hardrada.

In the meantime, the king’s health continued to decline. His condition worsened on Christmas Eve, but he was able to hold his normal Christmas court, though in London, rather than the usual Gloucester, partly because of his health, but also because his new foundation at Westminster was to be consecrated during the festival. But when it came to the day of consecration, he was too ill to attend and the ceremony was performed in his absence. The double ceremony, Christmas and the consecration, combined with the king’s failing health, no doubt accounts for the large assembly there was in London over the festival. Charter lists issued over the period make it clear that virtually everyone of consequence in the country was there – English, Scandinavian, French, Norman, lay and cleric. As Frank Barlow has pointed out, it was not an assembly that could have been intimidated or overawed: ‘It was thoroughly representative of the various interests in the land, and any decision it took can be considered the voice of the kingdom’.lxviii On 5 January, according to the Vita Ædwardi, after having recounted to those standing about him a dream that prophesied disaster to the kingdom on account of the sins of the people and the Church, the king spoke his last will and testament, commending his widow and servants, with the kingdom, to Harold’s care. It has been argued by many, then and now, that his words could be construed as asking Harold to care for them as proxy for the true heir; if that is so, it is extremely strange that he should not have named that heir since his nomination would have been required before his nominee could have been ratified by the Witan, the final and crucial step. But we must sympathize with the predicament in which the anonymous author of the Vita Ædwardi found himself at this point. Precisely when he wrote is not known but certainly by the time he reached this stage in his narrative, Hastings had been fought and the Normans had won. It is to this hindsight that the relevance of the king’s strange dream has been attributed. William was established on the throne and Harold was declared a usurper. Certainly a little ambiguity of wording in the recording of the king’s last speech is understandable in the circumstances; and we must allow for the fact that the king’s last words were probably retailed to the author by the queen, the commissioner of her husband’s biography, and the person to whom the author would most naturally look for information on this important point. Her views on her brother’s succession are believed to be equally ambiguous. Florence of Worcester reports the fact without any uncertainty:

On Thursday the vigil of our Lord’s Epiphany. . .the pacific king, Edward, son of King Ethelred, died at London, having reigned over the English twenty-three years six months and seven days. The next day he was buried in kingly style amid the bitter lamentations of all present. After his burial the under-king, Harold, son of Earl Godwine, whom the king had nominated as his successor, was chosen king by the chief magnates of all England; and on the same day Harold was crowned with great ceremony by Aldred, archbishop of York.lxix

What is notable is that no other candidate than Harold seems to have been put forward at this stage. The king’s last word was important, but not overridingly so. If he had bequeathed his kingdom to an unacceptable candidate, perhaps more significance would have been attached to Stigand’s whisper at the deathbed (as the king recounted his dream) that the old man was raving. As it is, no party seems to have supported the claims of the boy Atheling; no other candidate is even mentioned. Harold appears to have been elected unopposed by the Witan; it would be the last occasion until 1689 on which an English king owed his title not to hereditary descent but to the will of the people as represented by the chief men assembled in council. He was, as Ann Williams concludes after assessing the evidence, a popular choice for the kingship.lxx He was crowned by Ealdred, Archbishop of York, the day after (some say the same day as) Edward’s burial in his new church, Westminster Abbey, probably in the same building. According to William of Poitiers, Stigand performed the ceremony; but according to William of Poitiers, Harold was elected by ‘a few ill-disposed partisans’. Harold would have been very careful to avoid coronation by Stigand for the same reason as he seems to have avoided asking him to consecrate his new church at Waltham: Stigand was under papal interdict, and his actions as archbishop could therefore have been seen as invalid. Although written down later, the testimony of Florence of Worcester, who would have obtained his information from those who were present at the ceremony (probably his own bishop, Wulfstan, since Ealdred himself, previously Bishop of Worcester, had died in 1069), is far more satisfactory.

The coronation ceremony followed hard on the heels of Edward’s funeral for reasons of practical convenience. Coronations normally took place at the great feasts of the Church. That Christmas, all the magnates who should be present on such an occasion were gathered in London and would disperse after the funeral. They could probably not be reassembled until Easter. Kings in the past had waited longer than from Epiphany to Easter to be hallowed, but on this occasion, with the various threats facing the kingdom, it was desirable that there should be a king on the throne, properly consecrated and acclaimed, who could speak with authority for the people. At no stage does it seem to have been disputed, even by William of Poitiers, that Edward had indeed named Harold as his successor, and it would not have been difficult for a different story to be circulated after the conquest if any of those who had been present and survived had cared to do so. And in fact all those whom we know to have been at the deathbed (with the exception of Harold himself) did survive the conquest: the queen, Stigand and Robert FitzWymark (a cousin of both Edward and William) were all alive and able to give evidence if they had wished to. None seems to have done so, not even FitzWymark who clearly favoured the Norman takeover, or the queen who is reputed to have done so.

A point of interest about Edward’s death and Harold’s election is the fact that William was not there. He had ample opportunities for getting news from England, and it would be most surprising if he had not heard by Christmas that the king was failing fast. There were no such reasons in 1065 as there had been in 1051 to keep him in Normandy. If he truly believed that he was Edward’s chosen heir, nothing could have been more natural than that he should go immediately to attend his cousin’s last moments and receive his final deathbed nomination. It would have been his best chance of a peaceful succession. It can be argued that he placed his trust in Harold’s oath to represent his interests and support his election. But it seems strangely unlike William to trust a rival to that extent.

At the opening of Harold’s reign, life seems to have continued normally. Again, the situation is described by Florence of Worcester in fulsome terms:

On taking the helm of the kingdom Harold immediately began to abolish unjust laws and to make good ones; to patronise churches and monasteries; to pay particular reverence to bishops, abbots, monks and clerks; and to show himself pious, humble and affable to all good men. But he treated malefactors with great severity, and gave general orders to his earls, ealdormen, sheriffs and thegns to imprison all thieves, robbers and disturbers of the kingdom. He laboured in his own person by sea and by land for the protection of his realm.lxxi

Few records of Harold’s short reign survive, for obvious reasons; no one, after Hastings, would want to produce any of his charters or writs in evidence, and in fact only one writ has survived. But from what indications there are, there is no reason to doubt the general tenor of Florence of Worcester’s remarks. Of the few tangible pieces of evidence that survive, the most impressive is his coinage, elegant silver pennies of good weight, bearing his crowned head in profile, struck in more than forty mints. The number of coins minted indicates the urgent need he felt he was likely to have for ready money.

Trouble began in the late spring. On 24 April Halley’s comet made its appearance, causing wonder and consternation on both sides of the Channel. Shortly after, the exiled Tostig appeared with a fleet, pillaged along the south coast from Wight to Sandwich, pressganging men as he went, and, scared off by King Harold’s arrival, continued up to Lindsey where he is said to have burnt many villages and put many men to death. There he was encountered by Earls Edwin and Morcar, who beat him off with much loss. Most of his remaining men deserted, and he limped with his remaining twelve small ships up to Scotland where he was sheltered by King Malcolm, his sworn brother.

In the meantime, the main activity shifted to Normandy. William must have got early news of Harold’s coronation. William of Poitiers tells how he consulted the Norman barons who at first discouraged an armed attack on England, thinking it beyond the resources of Normandy, but were brought by their confidence in his judgement to agree; how he set in hand the building of ships; how he received the many foreign knights who came to join his standard, ‘attracted partly by the well-known liberality of the duke, but all fully confident of the justice of his cause’.lxxii

His diplomatic efforts, however, were no less intensive than his military preparations. According to his biographer,

The chronology of the duke’s acts during the earlier half of 1066 is somewhat confused, but their nature and purpose is clear, as is also the ultimate end to which they were all so steadfastly directed. During this critical interval, Duke William of Normandy secured the support of his vassals. He fostered divisions among his rivals. He successfully appealed to the public opinion of Europe. And he made the preparations essential for equipping the expedition which was, at last, to take him to victory overseas.lxxiii

He was in a particularly favourable position in 1066. If Edward had died ten years earlier, it is possible that William would have felt it too risky to invade England. In 1056 he had just repelled the latest in a series of joint attacks by his overlord the King of France and the Count of Anjou; in 1060 both died. The former left a boy as his heir, and appointed as his regent and guardian the Count of Flanders who was William’s father-in-law; the latter had no direct heir and left Anjou to be contested between two nephews. By 1066 William had secured possession of Maine and the Vexin, which safeguarded his southern borders; he was overlord of Ponthieu on his eastern flank, Flanders under his father-in-law was unlikely to be any threat to him and even the erratic Count of Brittany to his west, who took the opportunity of William’s venture to stake a claim to Normandy, died conveniently (reputedly by poison) while preparations for the invasion were in progress. Neither the Breton count’s death nor William’s recent campaign there appears to have harmed his reputation among the Bretons, judging by the number of them who fought at Hastings. He controlled all the Channel ports from the river Coesnon to the Flemish frontier. Within Normandy, he had formed a tight network of landed magnates, all allied to him by kin or by interest, to the oldest of whom he could confide the oversight of his duchess (nominally his regent), his heir and his duchy during his absence. None of his predecessors had ever felt himself as secure in Normandy as William did in the summer of 1066. It is a proof of his efficacy that he was able to undertake the English invasion without any attempt, internal or external, being made on his power at home. But luck favoured him too. He could not have dictated the deaths of the French king and Martel; nor could he have foreseen the chance that had delivered Harold into his hands, nor the rising that led to Tostig’s outlawing and caused a weak spot at the heart of England at the worst possible moment. Indeed, if Edward had died in 1063, not 1066, William’s situation would have been much weaker; at that stage, Harold had not made his ill-fated journey, had sworn no oaths and the bond between the two Godwinson brothers had not been broken. But Edward did not die in 1063; he died in 1066, at the moment most favourable to William’s ambition.

Duke William did not delay in appealing to public opinion in Europe; according to William of Poitiers, he sent delegations to the Holy Roman Emperor and to the King of Denmark; what answer he received from the empire is not known, probably at best neutral, but it appears that Sweyn Estrithson sent men to the support of his cousin Harold rather than to William. But these were comparatively small fish. His most important appeal was to the Pope. His delegate to the Vatican is said to have been Gilbert, Archdeacon of Lisieux. No records of his appeal have survived, but it is not difficult to imagine its grounds: his promise from the late king and Harold’s oath and perjury would have formed the central plank of it, but there would have been more. And for an understanding of what he could offer and what the Pope could offer him, we must look at the situation in the Vatican in 1066.

The occupant of the papal chair at that time was Pope Alexander II, who had succeeded Nicholas II in 1061. The short reign of Nicholas had been marked especially by three policies: the energetic pushing forward of the movement for ecclesiastical and monastic reform, the transfer of the responsibility for the election of the Pope to the College of Cardinals; and an intensification of the Vatican’s relationship with the Normans of southern Italy. In all of these Nicholas had the vigorous support of Cardinal Hildebrand, himself to succeed Alexander II in 1073 under the name of Gregory VII. Hildebrand’s power under his two predecessors was enormous; once he had succeeded, his ambitions went much further than earlier popes would have contemplated. His reign has been described by the historian of Europe, H. A. L. Fisher:

With imperious courage Hildebrand conceived of the world as a single Christian polity governed by an omnipotent and infallible Pope, a Pope bound by no laws, by whom an offending prince might be driven from his throne, cut off from the sacraments of the church, and severed from the allegiance of his subjects. Believing that the time had now come to reconstruct the militia of the Catholic church, he preached the doctrine of a celibate clergy under the undivided control of the Vicar of Christ. At one and the same time he was prepared in the interests of an autonomous clerical profession to break up the family life of the German clergy and to sap the power of the German king. His claims were exorbitant.lxxiv

What Fisher does not mention is the third plank of the papal policy under Nicholas II, the link with the Normans of southern Italy. The infiltration of the southern states, then a multiracial if turbulent mix of Greeks, Saracens and the indigenous inhabitants, had been started about 1000 by bands of younger sons of Norman families, hungry for land and wealth. They operated at first as mercenaries, selling their swords to whichever ruler in the wartorn district paid best. The arrival in the 1030s of several younger sons of the minor Norman baron Tancred de Hauteville, changed the situation; from then on, the Normans fought for themselves. By 1066 the de Hautevilles dominated southern Italy and Sicily, and their leader, Robert Guiscard, had in 1059 been invested by the Vatican with the titles of Duke of Apulia and Calabria and King of Sicily, in return for oaths of fealty and promises of assistance to the Holy See. The methods by which he attained this eminence are perhaps best indicated by Dante, who compares a sight in the eighth circle of hell in which countless shades lie horribly wounded with a battlefield on which Robert Guiscard had fought. The alliance between Hildebrand and the Italian Normans in the papal battles against other enemies, which may be compared to the policy of casting out devils through the prince of devils (or indeed to Æthelred’s policy of hiring one lot of Vikings to cast out another), was to rebound upon Gregory VII in due course; in 1066 it still held good, to the extent that Norman priorities mattered to the Vatican and could, when necessary, be enforced.

This was not only because Guiscard and his cohorts were in effect the protectors of the papacy. As part of the ecclesiastical reform movement, the campaign against the heathen that very shortly afterwards was to lead to the first Crusade was already gathering strength and enthusiasm. Norman mercenaries who fought the Saracens in Spain did so as soldiers of Christ. In Italy, the Norman campaigns against the Muslims in Sicily were conducted with papal blessing to ‘win back to the worship of the true God a land given over to infidelity’, according to William of Malmesbury. The first Crusade was not to be preached until 1095, but the spirit that caused thousands of knights all over Europe to enlist in it was already widely disseminated. The prospect, therefore, of a venture that combined the virtue of a religious mission to bring down a perjurer and usurper and to bring spiritual health to the Church in England with the promise of land and booty was irresistible.

The closeness of the assumptions and theories that underpinned the first Crusade to those that supported the conquest is uncanny. As the Pope launched the Crusade, so, we are told, he blessed the conquest. Where those who preached the Crusade declared that infidels were untrustworthy and unfit to rule Christians, so William maintained that Harold was forsworn and, as a usurper, unfit to rule over England. As Crusaders were promised God’s aid and absolution for past sins and the wealth of the conquered infidels, so were the soldiers of fortune who enlisted in William’s army (indeed, William pointed out to his mercenary recruits that whereas he had the power to promise Harold’s lands and wealth to his followers, Harold had no power to give anything of William’s to his men). As the main objective of the Crusade was to rescue the holy places of the east and the Christians who worshipped in them, so one of the main objectives of the conquest was to be the reform of the English Church.

There was, in fact, little wrong with the English Church. For centuries, indeed, there had been a particularly close relationship between the English Church and the papacy. Since before the time of Alfred Rome had been regarded as the mother church by Anglo-Saxon England. The origin of the voluntary tax paid to the Pope (known variously as Peter’s pence, Rome-Scot, hearth-scot) by England is unknown, but it is thought to have started in the reign of Alfred; no other Christian country paid it. Most of the English payment was appropriated by the reigning Pope, though part is thought to have gone to the Church in the English quarter in Rome, known by the English as their burh or borough, a name supposedly perpetuated in the present Roman Borgo. Alfred had secured exemption from taxation for this area, and Pope Leo IX had acknowledged its right to bury all Englishmen who came and died there. During the two waves of Viking raids, contact with Rome had become more spasmodic than before, but between them, during the tenth century, it had resumed its previous regularity. Alfred’s successors had been hailed by the Vatican as Christian kings; Edgar in particular had played a prominent part in the monastic revival headed by the three great monastic saints, Dunstan, Oswald and Æthelwold, and had founded many monasteries. But Edgar’s death and the second wave of Viking raids ended this, and by the time Edward succeeded to the throne, the English Church was still recovering the energy it had lost during half a century of war and turmoil. Unfortunately, this coincided with the beginning of the reform movement in the Vatican in the 1040s, and by 1066 this was in full flood.

Under normal circumstances, the urgency of the Vatican to raise ecclesiastical standards, to stamp out simony and plurality, and to enforce a celibate clergy, and the slightly exhausted state of the English Church could have been reconciled over time. England was not the only Christian state that found difficulty in accepting immediately the new principles such as the celibacy of the clergy that were being formulated in Rome, and the papacy itself was not immaculate by the new standards; many of the highest ranking clergy there held in plurality. The situation in England was complicated by one particular problem: the status of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

As we have seen, when Robert of Jumièges, appointed and consecrated archbishop in 1051, fled in 1052, Stigand, then Bishop of Winchester, was appointed in his place without reference to Rome. Since Robert had never been canonically removed, this, in the eyes of the Pope, constituted an illegal intrusion, and Stigand was never recognised by the Vatican as validly appointed, and was never accorded the palliumlxxv by which the Pope conferred his authority on archbishops. Stigand survived the conquest and, indeed, the first few years of William’s reign, the latter having presumably found him too useful to discard immediately; but he was deposed at a legatine council in 1070, on grounds that included the accusations that he had retained his bishopric of Winchester and thus held in plurality and that he had been summoned and excommunicated by four Popes. It is true that Stigand’s relations with Rome had caused problems and that, while he was archbishop, no English bishop had accepted consecration at his hands except for one, who later pleaded rather improbably that he did not know that Stigand was under interdict. Harold had clearly taken care that his new church at Waltham should not be consecrated by Stigand, and, if Florence of Worcester is to be believed, Stigand did not crown him either. None the less, the accusations made against him in 1070 are hard to square with the facts that, in other respects, Stigand exercised his functions as archbishop normally from 1052 to 1070 and was in no way shunned by either clergy or laity, English or foreign. The papal envoys who visited the English Church in 1062 made no criticism of him although they did criticize Ealdred for holding the archbishopric of York and the bishopric of Worcester in plurality. Irregular as his position might be, it could hardly be compared, for example, with the scandal of the appointment of William’s half-brother, Odo, to the bishopric of Bayeux at the uncanonically early age of thirteen. It seems, however, that, as far as Rome was concerned, Stigand’s presence cast a taint over the whole English Church, and presented William and the reformers in the Vatican with a very convenient stick with which to beat the English. William of Poitiers takes pains to assure us that the duke’s intention was ‘not so much to increase his own power and glory as to reform Christian observance in those regions’.

When Gilbert of Lisieux arrived in Rome in 1066, therefore, he had a very strong case to present. His master had been promised the succession by the recently deceased king, Harold had sworn to uphold his claim and was now forsworn and perjured by usurping the crown himself; and, most persuasively, Vatican support in placing William on the throne that was his due would be repaid by a cleansing of the Augean stables of the English Church by a man who had proved himself effective in implementing every aspect of the papal reform agenda in Normandy. No record of the council in which he presented his case has survived; all that is known is that there was no English presence to represent the other side, and, as far as we know, no request was made for an English reply to the allegations made by Gilbert. There was, of course, no reason why there should have been a reply; the election of the king of the English was a matter for the English alone and had never been subject to Vatican approval. The only clue we have is a letter written many years later to William by Hildebrand, by then Pope Gregory VII, that indicates fairly clearly the part he had taken in the proceedings and places it in the context of the Hildebrandine policy of attempting to persuade the temporal rulers of Christendom to swear fealty to the Holy See. His letter was the preliminary to his making his demand for fealty to William (which in fact came the following month – and was refused). On 24 April 1080, he wrote:

I believe it is known to you, most excellent son, how great was the love I ever bore you, even before I ascended the papal throne, and how active I have shown myself in your affairs; above all how diligently I laboured for your advancement to royal rank. In consequence I suffered dire calumny through certain brethren insinuating that by such partisanship I gave sanction for the perpetration of great slaughter. But God was witness to my conscience that I did so with a right mind, trusting in God’s grace and, not in vain, in the virtues you possessed.lxxvi

The man who later in the same letter expressed the Church’s policy in the words, ‘Cursed be the man that keepeth back his sword from blood’ was certainly not the man to have been distressed by the carnage of Hastings. The promise of root and branch ecclesiastical reform in England was a cause in which Hildebrand would have regarded any amount of bloodshed as justifiable, impelled, as he says he was, by his conviction that it was his duty ‘to cry aloud and spare not’; but if it had not been for the low esteem in which the English Church was then held in Rome and, in particular, the scandal of Stigand’s situation, it is doubtful whether even he could have persuaded his brethren to support the unprovoked invasion of a peaceful and law-abiding nation, close for many centuries to the Vatican, by a foreign adventurer in search of a crown. As it was, the Hildebrandine arguments ultimately prevailed, William was apparently sent, along with the blessing of Pope Alexander II, a papal banner as witness to the justice of his cause, and the invasion took on the complexion of a holy war. It was, in words that have since been used to describe the first Crusade, ‘a monstrous exercise in hypocrisy in which the religious motive [was] used merely as the thinnest of disguises for unashamed imperialism’.lxxvii With his objectives achieved, William only had to complete his preparations and wait for a suitable wind. After waiting long for this, as William of Poitiers tells us, he transferred his forces to St Valéry, either to take advantage of a shorter crossing to England or, according to William of Poitiers, blown there by a prevailing west wind.

There is, however, an alternative scenario. The whole business of William’s appeal to the Pope rests on the unsupported evidence of William of Poitiers. Catherine Morton has examined the evidence for the episode and rejects it for a variety of reasons, among them that no other contemporary chronicler mentions it, that there was no more wrong with the state of the English Church than with the Norman, that the Pope’s own legates had sat in council with Stigand in 1062 without complaint, and that the Normans of southern Italy were unlikely to concern themselves particularly with the diplomatic niceties of their former duke’s proposed activities.lxxviii Primarily, she rejects it on the grounds that William of Poitiers was demonstrably a liar who did not even take the trouble to make his lies fit together. Harold’s biographer, therefore, on the basis of Morton’s research and a realistic assessment of the probabilities, suspects that no papal support was in fact provided for William’s invasion. He points out that William of Jumièges, the only other contemporary Norman chronicler of William’s deeds, makes no mention of any such support for William, which would be a curious omission for a churchman if it had been made public – and the duke would have had to make it public to benefit from it in recruiting. He guesses that what William of Poitiers describes in his account is ‘a later retrospective sanction by the Papal court for the fait accompli represented by William’s conquest’.lxxix This solution would clarify a lot of matters. Papal legates were sent to England in 1070, and it was as a result of their visit that Stigand was formally deposed, William was crowned (again) and a penance was imposed by Bishop Ermenfrid (who was one of the legates) on the Normans (not the English) who had fought at Hastings and had killed Englishmen after it. This would be very strange if the battle had been fought with papal sanction. It can only be explained by the assumption that William’s invasion was not seen by the Vatican as a just war but, even in 1070, as one of aggression, though one that by that time it was obliged to accept and ratify.

This explanation of a retrospective sanction would explain the events of 1070 very convincingly; not only the penance imposed on the Norman troops by the papal legates, but also the second coronation of William during their visit (surely unnecessary after his coronation by Ealdred in Westminster Abbey in 1066 except as a papal endorsement of a fait accompli). It is tempting also to see this legatine council as the cause of William’s foundation of Battle Abbey on the site of the English defence, as his own personal part of the Norman penance.lxxx Battle Abbey was not completed and dedicated until 1094; the legend, originated and maintained by the monks of Battle that William had vowed a monastery on the site of the battle before it had ever taken place, has now been demolished. The council, in short, could be seen as a general ratification of the fact of conquest and clearing up of unfinished business.

Given the absence of any other corroborating documentation in the Vatican than Hildebrand’s letter, the whole truth will probably never be known. Most historians of the period have accepted the fact that the duke’s appeal to the Pope was made, and that the papal blessing and a papal banner were given. Although William of Poitiers states that the banner was carried before the duke during the battle, nothing that could possibly be interpreted as a banner of such significance can be identified on the Bayeux Tapestry, which would seem strange if, as is generally assumed, the Tapestry was commissioned by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. There is the corroborating fact that Pope Alexander is known to have bestowed such a banner on Roger de Hauteville, younger brother of Robert Guiscard, together with absolution for all who fought with him against the heathen of Sicily.

The truth of the story of the banner, like that of the papal blessing, has usually been accepted by subsequent historians and is now part of the fable of the conquest. There may or may not have been such a banner. There may, or may not have been papal sanction of the conquest. On the other hand, it is difficult to make sense of Hildebrand’s letter of 1080 to William except on the assumption that some very categorical sign of approval and blessing had been sent by the Pope in 1066 at the urging of Hildebrand, and that both Hildebrand and William were aware of the fact. The balance of probability is that there must have been some expression of support from the Vatican, from the Pope or possibly just from Hildebrand (which would not preclude the necessity for a regularization of the situation in 1070), but it is fair to point out the arguments against this conclusion.

In the meantime, in England, Tostig had made his first contribution to the English defeat. The preliminary skirmish in May had convinced Harold that his brother was acting in league with William and that his descent upon the south coast was the preliminary to the full-scale invasion he was expecting. He called out the fyrd, and mobilized the navy. On this occasion he may well have called out the general fyrd, for the Chronicle tells us that he gathered a greater land and ship army than any king had ever raised before, but it telescopes events here, for it passes straight on from this remark to events later in the year. Florence of Worcester gives a fuller account:

King Harold arrived at Sandwich and waited there for his fleet. When it was assembled, he crossed over with it to the Isle of Wight, and, inasmuch as William, count of the Normans, was preparing to invade England with an army, he watched all the summer and autumn for his coming. In addition he distributed a land force at suitable points along the sea-coast. But about the feast of the Nativity of St Mary [8 September] provisions fell short so that the naval and land forces returned home.lxxxi

These dates indicate that he had held the fyrd in service not for the statutory two months but for nearly four, including the period of harvest, so it is hardly surprising that provisions should have run out. If William held his men together at Dives and St Valéry without foraging, he did well, but it can only have been for about half the time (though we have no certain knowledge of the date when William assembled his army, the evidence points to this being in early August). With hindsight, Harold must have been aware that he had called out the fyrd too soon but his belief that Tostig and William were acting in concert was reasonable; given the time it took for the host to assemble, he dared not wait. The land fyrd went home to rescue the harvest, the fleet was sent around to London to refit. There are rumours (as has already been noted, though the E Chronicle puts it earlier than September), though no firm corroboration, that there was a sea encounter with the Normans; if there was, it might have taken place at about this time, perhaps coinciding with William’s transfer of his forces from Dives to St Valéry. It is known from the Norman sources that there were storms in the Channel at this date, in which William lost many men and ships; it is perfectly possible either that the English fleet was also damaged in the storms (it is recorded that some of Harold’s ships were lost on the way to the North Foreland), or that there was in fact an encounter between the two opposing navies in which both sides lost ships as both were moving east up the Channel. There is an interesting note in the Domesday Book of a certain Æthelric of Kelveden in Essex who ‘went away to a naval battle against King William’ and fell ill on his return.lxxxii The storms at this point give some support to Harold’s reasons for standing his forces down. By the beginning of September, the period of the equinoctial gales had arrived, and normally seafaring would stop for the winter. The likelihood of William launching an attack later than this must have seemed to him to be much reduced. In fact, William’s luck held and 1066 was to produce a St Martin’s summer.

The reasons for William’s move from Dives to St Valéry are controversial. Some historians think he was looking for a base closer to England, or that his army had exhausted the area around Dives. William of Poitiers, who normally misses no opportunity to attribute any event, however unfavourably it may have turned out, to the duke’s foresight and sagacity, ascribes no such motive to the move:

Presently the whole fleet, equipped with such great foresight, was blown from the mouth of the Dives and the neighbouring ports, where they had long waited for a south wind to carry them across, and was driven by the breath of the west wind to moorings at Saint-Valéry. There too the leader, whom neither the delay and the contrary wind nor the terrible shipwrecks nor the craven flight of many who had pledged their faith to him could shake committed himself. . .to the protection of heaven.lxxxiii

This does not imply any kind of strategic planning. It is much more probable that the duke left Dives with a wind that he thought would carry him to England but that veered, and instead found himself driven by storms that he could not resist up the Channel, finding no shelter until his ships reached St Valéry. It is clear from William of Poitiers that the losses he sustained in men, ships and morale were heavy, and that he had the dead who came ashore buried in secret in order that morale should not be lowered further. We do not know the exact date of this move, but can work it out backwards (approximately at least) from the fact that the Carmen de Hartingae Proelis tells us that he lay for about a fortnight at St Valéry before he could sail, which would imply a move just about the time that Harold stood down his troops and sent his fleet to London. It is possible that his spies had told him that Harold’s force would have to be disbanded about this time, and that he had seized on this as the most opportune moment to make his attack and also probably the latest practicable time to do so before seafaring closed down for the winter. Although not a seaman himself, he would have had plenty of advisers to tell him when the Channel normally ceased to be navigable. If he had indeed succeeded in crossing the Channel at this time, he would have found Harold still in the south and (on the evidence of his later showing) well able to assemble a strong enough army to meet him successfully. What difference that encounter would have made to later events in the north can never be known.

We have to assume that both William and Harold had good intelligence systems set up and were both getting regular news of what went on on the other side of the Channel. Indeed, William of Poitiers tells that the duke captured one of Harold’s spies, showed him around his camp and sent him home to tell his master what he had seen. With so many Normans settled in England, the duke had good opportunities of knowing what was going on there. Not only did the abbey of Fécamp hold extensive estates in Sussex (its estate at Steyning had been repossessed by Harold but it had retained its other estates at Rye), but also the very considerable benefice at Bosham (which had excellent access to the sea – Harold had sailed from there on his ill-fated visit to Normandy) had been given by King Edward to his Norman chaplain, Osbern, later Bishop of Exeter, who was not only a cousin of William but whose brother was one of the duke’s closest advisers. If Harold had been truly as calculating or as ruthless as the enemy he was preparing to repel, he would surely have expelled such Norman settlements as these from England as soon as he was crowned. On the other hand, he may have calculated that William was most likely to make for the part of England where he had assured allies, and it would have been helpful to a man who had the whole south coast to guard to have some idea where his enemy was most likely to land. If this was his calculation, it was correct. William did make for Sussex. With his intelligence network already installed, he would have known when Harold called out the fyrd. Perhaps it was not simply opposing winds that delayed his crossing but also the desire to keep his enemy guessing, the hope that Harold would eventually have to do what indeed he did do, disband his forces. In fact, if this was indeed his strategy, he could not have delayed much longer, and he very nearly left it too late. He could not have known, any more than Harold did, that there would be a period of prolonged summer in September and October; and indeed, he ran into the September equinoctial gales when many of his ships and men were lost on the voyage to St Valéry and then was obliged to wait with considerable anxiety for much longer than he wanted for a favourable wind. What we do not know is how much William knew of what was happening in the north of England.

Snorre Sturlason’s King Harald’s Saga claims that Tostig went in person to Norway before he appeared in May off the south coast of England. If he went to Sweyn Estrithson in Denmark, he might well have carried on to Norway. Snorre provides an account of his interview with Harald Hardrada. Tostig would, Snorre suggests, have reminded Harald of his own claim to the English throne through his nephew, King Magnus, and of the plunder to be expected in England; he would have suggested that, if they were to conquer England together, they could share the kingdom and its riches (he might, however, have reflected that, on past performance, Harald Hardrada was not a man likely to share a kingdom); and, possibly most persuasive of all his arguments, he would have pointed out that in York, the capital of the northern Danelaw, there would be much sympathy and support for an invader of Scandinavian origins. How far this was true is not easy to estimate now. We have seen that, when the Northumbrians rebelled in 1065 against their last earl, Tostig, they did so not to gain Northumbrian independence but to secure a non-Scandinavian replacement for him. What Tostig would have ignored in his anxiety to be reinstated in his earldom, and what he would naturally not have mentioned to Harald Hardrada, was his own great unpopularity in Northumbria generally and York in particular.

Whether or not Tostig went to Norway, whether or not Snorre’s hypothetical conversation ever took place, contact must have been made between him and Hardrada in some way. Tostig, as we have seen, retired to Scotland to lick his wounds under the protection of King Malcolm and wait for the rendezvous. Snorre is irritatingly economical with dates, but says that Harald sailed from the Solund Isles to Shetland, where he stopped only briefly, before continuing to the Orkneys which were then Norwegian territory. Here he paused to deposit one of his two wives and both his daughters, and to pick up the Orcadian earls Paul and Erland with their men and ships. It has been estimated that, with what forces Tostig had been able to recruit from Scotland, the Norwegian armada consisted of about three hundred ships and nine thousand men. There may well have been more men than that. The crew of a Scandinavian warship could be anything between forty and eighty men, and, allowing for the fact that some of the ships would be supply ships that would hold fewer and whose crew might not be fighting men, it is not impossible that Hardrada’s fighting force could have been as many as twelve thousand. He then sailed down the east coast of Scotland and England as far as Scarborough. When and where the junction with Tostig took place is uncertain. He may have picked him up off the Firth of Forth on his way south; Snorre says they did not meet until Hardrada arrived in England and that Tostig then became his man. We do not know, therefore, whether they were together when Hardrada sacked and subjugated Cleveland and Scarborough and burned the town. At Holderness an English force opposed him but was defeated. The Norwegian fleet then turned into the Humber and proceeded up it and up the Ouse as far as Riccall, driving before it Earl Morcar’s ships, which were bottled up there at Tadcaster on the Wharfe, which joins the Ouse just above Riccall. Hardrada could have continued up the Ouse as far as York itself, but would then have risked the English ships coming back down river into the Ouse to cut off his retreat. At Riccall, he was only ten miles south of York.

From Riccall, leaving a substantial body of men to guard the ships, Hardrada and Tostig marched on York on 20 September but were confronted by Earls Edwin and Morcar at Gate Fulford, barring his road to the city. The English earls had thus had the opportunity to pick their ground for battle, and had arranged themselves with their right flank on the bank of the Ouse and their left defended by a deep ditch beyond which was bog and marshland. Hardrada, facing them, also drew up his army with one flank reaching down to the river Ouse, and the other and weaker stretching inland towards the dyke and the large area of swampy ground. He placed himself towards the river end where his forces were strongest, with his menacing standard Land Waster (a white silk banner on which Odin’s bird, the black raven, gaped for slaughter with wings spread) over his head. According to Snorre, the English approached in close formation, and launched their first attack on the weaker wing opposing them. This almost immediately gave way and, as the English pursued them, Hardrada swung his stronger wing around to take them in the rear and the flank, pushing them into the boggy land. There was really no contest. The English fought well but when pushed back into the quagmire behind them, many took flight and were drowned either in the river or in the swamp – so many, in fact, that it was said that the Norwegians could cross the swamp dryshod on the bodies of the dead. Edwin and Morcar survived, and surrendered York on 24 September. They could hardly do anything else. The fact that the city was not sacked may have been because it was the capital of Tostig’s old earldom and he wanted it back. None the less, the fate of Scarborough, if known to the citizens, would have done much to persuade them to accept whatever terms were offered.

Hardrada demanded hostages from all the main Northumbrian families, helpfully identified for him by Tostig, provisions for his army and agreement that the Northumbrians would join with his forces and march south to conquer the rest of England. According to Florence of Worcester, Hardrada also gave hostages in return; if so, this was presumably in earnest of his future good faith if he conquered England and a gesture to ingratiate himself with the men of York. This is not confirmed in any of the surviving versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which merely say that Hardrada took hostages. Some of these were delivered immediately, but more, and much of the commissariat, had to come from a distance. Since York was inadequately supplied to maintain the Norwegian army, Hardrada withdrew to his ships to await deliveries, which it was agreed should take place on 25 September at Stamford Bridge on the Derwent, a convenient central and strategic point where several roads met.

Since he had stood down the fyrd in the first fortnight of September, King Harold must have been waiting with considerable apprehension to see which of the two invasions would come first. The speed with which he reacted to both suggests that he had already arranged some early-warning system, but he could hardly have heard of Hardrada’s landing earlier than the attack on Scarborough, and even then he may not have been certain to begin with whether it was a full-scale invasion or merely a raiding party. As soon as the gravity of the situation – too grave for the young and untried northern earls to deal with by themselves – became clear, he was faced with the alternatives of leaving the south coast undefended while he attended to the northern invasion or staying where he was, on guard for the Normans. This would have given Hardrada and Tostig, already on the spot, the opportunity to strengthen their position in a notoriously turbulent part of the country. King Harold must have been aware that the wind had been settled northerly for the past few weeks, perfect for bringing the Norwegians, impossible for the Normans. It may have seemed a worthwhile venture to march north, face Hardrada and hope to get back to the south coast before the wind changed, and he opted for it. He may have left part of his forces in the south with a watching brief; he probably resummoned the fyrd before he left. On the assumption that he might have had the news from the north at any time between 18 and 20 September, he probably left London with his housecarls and whatever other forces he could take not later than the 20th on a day and night march that brought him to Tadcaster on 24 September, an incredible feat of speed. Twenty miles was normally considered a good day’s march; the distance from London to York is about two hundred miles. To have reached Stamford Bridge in fighting order by early morning on the 25th, the English must have done between forty and fifty miles a day. At Tadcaster, according to the Chronicle, he paused to array his fleet, presumably the ships that Hardrada had bottled up there. The word lið that the Chronicle uses normally means a fleet, but it is also used occasionally for land forces and for the men who would have fought on the ships, and in this case it would make much better sense to understand it as arraying his army, which he would have supplemented with levies on his way north and with the men from the fleet. He would also have heard, on arrival or en route, of the result of the battle of Fulford and that the Norwegians were even then awaiting the delivery of hostages and provisions at Stamford Bridge. On the 25th, he marched for York, where he would have picked up Edwin and Morcar with the remnants of their men (if they were still fit for service), and passed straight through the city for Stamford Bridge. R. Allen Brown sees in the surrender of the citizens of York to Hardrada a confirmation of Northumbrian separatism at this time and a lack of enthusiasm for the rule of Harold Godwinson, the brother of Earl Tostig whom they had so recently thrown out;lxxxiv in that case, it is remarkable that no citizen of York slipped out of the city ahead of the English army to give warning of its advance. According to Snorre, Harold closed all the city gates to make sure that no warning was given. It is not known where Snorre got this information; it is not corroborated in any English accounts, but these are so sparse on the subject of Stamford Bridge that this cannot of itself be held to disprove Snorre’s assertion. At all events, no warning was given. On this occasion, the St Martin’s summer operated in Harold’s favour. Hardrada, Tostig and about two-thirds of their men were lounging by the river, waiting for the hostages and supplies. It was a hot day and the men had left their mail coats and much of their armour at the ships. In Snorre’s words,

The weather was exceptionally fine, with warm sunshine; so the troops left their armour behind and went ashore with only their shields, helmets, and spears, and girt with swords. A number of them also had bows and arrows. They were all feeling very carefree.lxxxv

When they saw the cloud of dust raised by the approaching army coming over the brow of the hill, they were at first uncertain what it portended; then, ‘the closer the army came, the greater it grew, and their glittering weapons sparkled like a field of broken ice’.lxxxvi Tostig advised retreating to their ships and making a stand there, although the approach of the English host blocked the quickest way back to them; Hardrada compromised by sending his best riders to summon the rest of his army, and formed up his men into a shield wall with the wings curved so far back that it was almost circular, with his Land Waster standard in the centre.

The battle of Stamford Bridge, no less than the battle of Hastings, is encrusted with legends, and it is difficult to tell which legend originated at which battle. Hardrada, like William, fell before the battle when his horse stumbled, and claimed that a fall was good luck. King Harald Hardrada, like King Harold Godwinson, is said to have died from an arrow shot. The exchanges before the battle may have a foundation in reality, or may not. Snorre is a late witness:

Twenty horsemen from the English king’s company of Housecarls came riding up to the Norwegian lines; they were all wearing coats of mail, and so were their horses.

One of the riders said, ‘Is Earl Tostig here in this army?’

Tostig replied, ‘There is no denying it – you can find him here.’

Another of the riders said, ‘Your brother King Harold sends you his greetings, and this message to say you can have peace and the whole of Northumbria as well. Rather than have you refuse to join him, he is prepared to give you one third of all his kingdom.’

The earl answered, ‘This is very different from all the hostility and humiliation he offered me last winter. If this offer had been made then, many a man who is now dead would still be alive, and England would now be in better state. But if I accept this offer now, what will he offer King Harald Sigurdsson for all his effort?’

The rider said, ‘King Harold has already declared how much of England he is prepared to grant him: seven feet of ground, or as much more as he is taller than other men.’

Earl Tostig said, ‘Go now and tell King Harold to make ready for battle. The Norwegians will never be able to say that Earl Tostig abandoned King Harald Sigurdsson to join his enemies when he came west to fight in England. We are united in our aim: either to die with honour, or else conquer England.’

The horsemen now rode back.

Then King Harald Sigurdsson asked, ‘Who was that man who spoke so well?’

‘That was King Harold Godwinsson,’ replied Tostig.

King Harald Sigurdsson said, ‘I should have been told much sooner. These men came so close to our lines that this Harold should not have lived to tell of the deaths of our men.’

‘It is quite true, sire,’ said Earl Tostig, ‘that the king acted unwarily, and what you say could well have happened. But I realized that he wanted to offer me my life and great dominions, and I would have been his murderer if I had revealed his identity. I would rather that he were my killer than I his.’

King Harald Sigurdsson said to his men, ‘What a little man that was; but he stood proudly in his stirrups.’lxxxvii

We may be on safer ground with the legend of the Norwegian warrior who single-handed held the bridge across the Derwent while the Norwegian army drew itself up on the far side, and could only be killed by one of the English who took a boat under the bridge and stabbed him through the gaps between the planks. It is reported at the end of the C version of the Chronicle, though the entry is clearly a late addition in language a good hundred years later than the rest of the entry; but it is strange that Snorre should not have included a deed of Norse heroism if the story of it had been taken back to Norway.

Once the bridge was clear, the English were able to attack. According to Snorre, they opened with a cavalry charge, and this has been seized on as proof that the pre-conquest English did occasionally fight on horseback. But the lateness of this account and the many inaccuracies it contains make this a very doubtful proposition. The English, or some of them at least, may have ridden to the battlefield but would probably then have fought, as at Hastings, on foot. Hardrada’s main preoccupation would have been to withstand the attack until reinforcements from his ships could arrive; Harold’s would have been to make sure that he did not. Hardrada’s curved shield wall was essentially a defensive position, but without their body armour his men were unusually vulnerable, and, in the hand-to-hand fighting that followed, they were cut down in hordes. The first phase of the battle ended when Hardrada turned berserker himself and rushed forward into the front of the battle. ‘Neither helmets nor coats of mail could withstand him, and everyone in his path gave way before him.’lxxxviii At this point, according to Snorre, he was struck by an arrow in the throat and died.

The king’s death, as so often in mediaeval warfare, caused a hiatus in the proceedings, and at this juncture, again according to Snorre, King Harold renewed his offer to his brother and quarter to all surviving Norwegians. The offer was rejected, and the fighting around Land Waster resumed. The third phase of the battle started when the Norwegians from the ships, led by Eystein Orri, arrived to reinforce Tostig. The odds were not as uneven as might be supposed: the Norwegians were, most of them, fighting without armour, but the English were fighting without sleep, after a heroic forced march of several days; both sides were by this time exhausted by the battle and the heat – indeed, Snorre reports that even those from the ships who did have armour threw it off, and that many died from heat exhaustion without striking a blow, after covering the miles from Riccall at top speed. The fighting continued until late in the afternoon, by which time Tostig had also fallen, and those who had survived the carnage fled back to the ships, pursued by the English. There is no evidence to show who was responsible for Tostig’s death; Guy of Amiens attributes it to Harold, but this was obviously so that he could add the label of fratricide to those of perjurer and usurper. It was reported that his body was so mutilated that it could only be identified by a wart between the shoulders, and it was given honourable burial in York after the battle. Hardrada’s young son Olaf and the two Orcadian earls, who had all been with those who had remained with the ships, were given quarter and leave to return home by Harold, after swearing oaths never to attack England again, an oath that Olaf honoured when he succeeded his brother as king. Harold allowed them to take as many ships as were necessary for their remaining men. They took twentyfour, out of the three hundred that had brought them.

If it had not been for what happened so soon afterwards, Stamford Bridge would be remembered as a battle of the highest significance in its own right. The death of Harald Hardrada, the legendary and most feared warrior of his time, and the destruction of his army, marked the end of the Viking age that had influenced so much of Europe, from Byzantium to the Atlantic. It also marked the end of centuries of assault on England; although there were to be sporadic and local attacks thereafter, mainly from Sweyn Estrithson, there would be nothing on the scale of what had gone before. Under any circumstances, it was a remarkable achievement for the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, one that the bones of Alfred, Edward the Elder and Æthelred would have saluted; in the peculiar circumstances of 1066, it was astonishing. But it was not achieved without damage. The Norwegian army may have been virtually destroyed, but they took many Englishmen with them. Between the men lost by Edwin and Morcar at Gate Fulford and those killed and wounded at Stamford Bridge, the fighting strength of the kingdom was much diminished.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!