Welcome again to our continuing remembrance of the year 1066 in this 950th anniversary year of the Battle of Hastings (October 14) and start of the Norman Conquest. Today G.K. Holloway, author of 1066: What Fates Impose, discusses the motives behind the claims of four contenders to the English throne and how they pursued these declarations. In so doing he references laws and traditions that are quite different to how they are carried out today, adding significant layers of meaning to our re-assessments of this era.
Thank you so much to Glynn Holloway for joining us today!
1066 – One Crown, Four Claimants
In 1066 there were four claimants to the English Crown. Obviously, some of these claims had more validity than others. So, who were the claimants and by what right did they think they should be King of England?
The four men putting forward their claims were Edgar Atheling; Harald Sigurdsson, King of Norway; Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex; and William, Duke of Normandy.
Edgar’s claim was probably the most legitimate, in so far as he was the only atheling, or throne worthy one, in the kingdom. He was the grandson of King Edmond Ironside, and great-grandson of Ethelred the Unready. He was therefore of royal blood and would probably have been named as king by King Edward and the Witan if he had been a few years older but because of his youth, somewhere between 14 and 16 years of age, he was considered too young and inexperienced to wear the crown in what was a time of crisis. Having said that, once Harold had been killed at the Battle of Hastings, rather than accept Duke William as king, the Witan declared Edgar king. It’s just a shame for Edgar and his people that he never had a coronation and his reign, if you can call it that, only lasted a matter of a few weeks.
Harold (Hardrada) Sigurdsson’s claim to the throne is often dismissed as sheer opportunism. Well, it might have been opportunistic, but there was still some validity to it. His right to rule dated back to before King Edward’s time. Harthacnut, King of England and Denmark, had agreed with King Magnus of Norway, that he would recognise the independence of Norway as a separate kingdom and it was also agreed in a second compact that when one of them died the other would inherit his kingdoms. A few years later, when Harthacnut died, in accordance with the agreement, Magnus claimed Denmark as his own but King Swein and the Danes had other ideas. So, Magnus set out to take his new kingdom by force. To Edward, he wrote that out of compassion for his harsh early life in exile, he would hold his claim to the English throne for Edward’s lifetime but reserved his right to claim it after his death. This agreement formed the basis for Harald Sigurdsson’s claim.
Harold Godwinson was sub regulus at the time of Edward’s death, at a period in England’s history when there were no strict rules of succession. The successor should ideally have royal blood flowing through his veins, be legitimate and of good character, be designated by the previous king, and, last but definitely not least, be elected by the Witan, or Great Council. Nothing was automatic. Harold was the king’s brother-in-law but that is not really the same as having royal blood. His claim would have needed the strong support of his predecessor and the Witan. According to The Life of King Edward by an unknown author commissioned by Queen Edith, when the king was dying he addressed Harold, saying, ‘I commend this woman and all the kingdom to your protection,’ which sounds almost casual but nevertheless, if these were the actual words he used, they do sound like a designation. There is also a scene in the Bayeux Tapestry of the crown being handed to Harold, which reinforces his claim. Finally, he was elected king by the Witan and became the first King of England to be crowned in Westminster Abbey. His coronation was held the day after Edward died and on the same day as his funeral. The undignified hurry was probably because Harold had to consolidate his position before members of the Witan left London for their homes in the shires and before any challengers tried to oppose him.
Finally, William, Duke of Normandy, pushed forward his claim on the basis that King Edward had promised him the Crown in 1051 when the duke was visiting the English court. Was the promise made? Did William even visit England in that or any other year before 1066? William also claimed that he was the rightful successor because as Edward had no children and no brothers, he was the heir. William was the great-nephew of Emma, Queen of England and that, he claimed, was the blood tie which, along with Edward’s promise, gave him the right to rule. Let’s look a little deeper.
The Norman rule of primogeniture dictated that the eldest legitimate male would inherit the estate from his father. William was illegitimate and was not descended from Edward but through Emma, Edward’s mother and William’s great-aunt. Therefore, William is out of luck on two counts. But what about English law? As I mentioned above, the successor would need to be appointed by the previous king, be legitimate, of royal blood, good character and appointed by the Witan. Of the aforementioned, only the promise of the crown of England to William may be true. William always said that Edward had promised him the crown. But an English king was in no position to offer the crown to anyone. Plus, Edward is on record when asked about an heir, by answering, ‘God will provide.’ I think it safe to say William wasn’t entitled to the throne but he was ambitious, ruthless and politically astute.
As the year 1066 passed by, all four claimants would appear on the battlefield to pursue his claim. Harold Godwinson met Harald Sigurdsson at Stamford Bridge and won a great victory over the biggest Viking army ever to set foot in England. Three weeks later Harold met William on Senlac Ridge and this time it was the invader who was triumphant. And finally, William met Edgar at London Bridge where Edgar won the battle. Unfortunately for Edgar his victory wasn’t decisive and when William crossed the Thames further up river, to descend on London from the north, Edgar’s support evaporated and without the forces to defeat William, the newly proclaimed king of England had to submit to the duke.
The irony is, the person with the weakest claim to the crown was the one whose claim succeeded, and it is arguable he was not legally entitled to be the Duke of Normandy.
But what did William truly believe? Did he really think he had the right to the crown or was he just a chancer who saw an opportunity? Let’s visit him at the end of his life and hear what he has to say. According to the monk, Orderic Vitalis, writing in the 12th century, these were his final words:
‘I have persecuted the natives of England beyond all reason, whether gentle or simple, I have cruelly oppressed them. Many I unjustly disinherited. Innumerable multitudes perished through me by famine or the sword. I fell on the English of the northern shires like a ravening lion. I ordered that their houses and corn, with all their implements and chattels, be burnt without distinction and great herds of cattle and beasts of burden were butchered wherever they were found. In this way I subjected a foie race of people to the calamity of cruel famine and so became the barbarous murderer of many thousands of men and women. Having gained the throne of that kingdom by so many I dare not leave it to anyone but God . . . For I did not attain that high honour by hereditary right but wrested it from the perjured King Harold in a desperate bloody battle.’
This makes great reading but as for its accuracy, that’s another matter. Orderic was born ten years after the Norman Conquest and was writing forty years after the events he described. He was not an eyewitness but for me his account has the ring of truth about it. What do you think?
About the author ….
I’ve always liked stories ever since I was a kid and not fussy about what format they came in; whether it be stories read out loud on the radio, TV, comics, books or films, I still get great pleasure in listening to people telling me their own stories, whether it be at a bus stop or some heart to heart conversation, whatever. When other people get bored or impatient at the supermarket checkout, I find myself picking out other customers and working out their back stories or develop a character in a novel. I just love stories, so, I suppose, it’s only natural that I tell stories as well as listen to them. The only people I didn’t listen to were teachers – unless they taught history, literature or Bible stories.
Being dyslexic, I never really read much, until, at the age of eight, I ended up in hospital with appendicitis. Lying in a hospital bed is pretty boring and as there was no TV in hospital wards in those days, I read through all the comics I could get my hands on. So my Mum brought me in a couple of books and that’s what got me into reading. In my teens I progressed through every Biggles book ever published to Penguin Modern Classics and most of what they had to offer.
After leaving school I became a compositor on a local newspaper; trained in a job that should have seen me set for life. Along came photo-film-setting and I watched as printing changed overnight and saw a machine doing the job of half a dozen men in a fraction of the time they could. I knew this was just the beginning of the end for me and decided to get myself an education and a different career. Studying O Levels and A Levels part-time at the local technical college, I went on to take a history and politics degree in Coventry.
From Coventry I went to Bristol, studied to be a Careers Officer, worked in Gloucestershire in schools, colleges and Adult Education, before becoming a Student Welfare Officer.
What made me write? My wife, Alice, bought me a book for Christmas, which I just loved. It was called Harold: The Last Anglo Saxon King, by Ian W. Walker and it shone a light into the dark recesses of history I knew little about. I found the whole period so fascinating I just read more and more about it. In fact, I found the whole era so exciting I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been covered more in films, TV, books, etc. (think Tudors). ‘Somebody ought to write a novel about this,’ I thought, and decided that somebody ought to be me. Fortunately, things worked out in such a way I was able to realise my dream. The rest is historical fiction.