Now 1066 has passed, as has its 950th anniversary, and we look back upon the year, in some ways not unlike how its inhabitants might have. The Christmas coronation of William, who they later called the Conquerer, has occurred, and the old year passed into a new … January becomes February, and time marches forward.
Before, we marked our memories in a structured sort of fashion, when the new order was still getting its grips, with remarks such as, ” A week ago today …” or “One month ago.” Now the memories and longing wrap themselves around us as they strike our inner minds randomly, as the required daily tasks remind us that life plunges forward; some events remain as ordinary as before, and yet we aren’t completely sure what to expect. Promises have been made, but the outcomes are troubling. Transitional, perhaps, difficult only in this phase. Or is the foreign conquerer as fearsome as our imaginations lead us to believe? Our anxieties and uncertainties seek consolation in familiarity and affection, and it is difficult not to remember our old king, how awful it is to refer to Harold Godwinson as belonging to the past. Were his deeds all we thought they were? How all these others now talk of him with distrust, admiration, of betrayal and foolhardy leaps into the unknown? Did we really know him? What did we know? He is gone now, and we struggle to make sense of exactly who he was, this king of ours ….
“A Dynasty Denied” by Rob Bayliss
Harold Godwinsson is somewhat of an enigma. He is a hero to some and a usurper to others. He marks the last page of the Anglo-Saxon period in English history, when England truly ceased to be a nation in the Scandinavian world and was drawn deeper into the power play of continental politics. But who was this grandson of a minor thegn who rose to be King Harold II? To find out we must fully explore the world he lived in and the roots from which he grew.
Harold was born in 1022, the second child of Godwin, the Earl of Wessex, and Gytha Thorkelsdottir. It is thought that Godwin himself was the son of Wulfnoth Cild, a thegn with large estates in Sussex. During the ill-starred reign of Aethelred the Unraed (ill-counsel) Wulfnoth was outlawed and his lands confiscated. The reasons for this banishment are unclear, but it occurred during a muster of 300 ships in 1008AD to counter the Viking threat. Unknown charges were brought against Wulfnoth by Brihtric, brother of the infamous Eadric Steona.
Wulfnoth fled with his twenty ships; obviously he had been a man of power and influence to command such a number. Brihtric gave chase with 80 vessels but he was obviously not the sailor that Wulfnoth was. A storm drove Brihtric’s fleet ashore whereupon Wulfnoth fell upon his hunters and burnt the 80 ships. With a third of his fleet lost the king was unable to stop the Viking invasion of Kent; Aethelred the Unread indeed.
What subsequently happened to Wulfnoth is unknown, but he died in 1014. His son Godwin served under Aethelred’s son, Aethelstan and was bequeathed a Sussex estate on the prince’s death, also in 1014.
This was time of chaos. The Dane, Sweyn Forkbeard, had invaded England after years of raiding, and driven Aethelred into exile, to be declared king. However, a mere two months into his reign, Sweyn died and Aethelred and his family returned to England. The Danes still in England declared for Cnut, Sweyn’s youngest son and a bitter time of conflict, unseen since when Alfred had fought the Great Army, fell across England. Aethelred’s eldest surviving son by his first wife, Edmund Ironside fought Cnut to a near standstill. Eventually the two made a form of peace; Cnut became king of the old Danelaw and Mercia, while Edmund retained Wessex and London.
Within weeks of the peace treaty Edmund died in November 1016, ushering in the reign of Cnut the Great, now ruler of a vast North Sea empire. Cnut married Emma of Normandy (Aethelred’s second wife and widow) and cemented his position. He had Edmund’s family sent into exile to Sweden – presumably intending them to be killed there; instead, however, they found their way to Hungary and safety.
Among Cnut’s new English followers was a certain Godwin. It seems that Godwin had followed the Ironside after Aethelstan’s demise. One thing Cnut prized above all others was loyalty and, keen to have a smooth transition of power, accepted the Sussex thegn’s oaths given to him.
Godwin’s rise under King Cnut’s patronage was rapid. By 1018 he was Earl of East Wessex but by 1020 he was Earl of all of Wessex. He accompanied Cnut on an expedition to Denmark and obviously gained Cnut’s trust and affection.
Godwin married Gytha, Cnut’s sister in law; they would go on to have 11 children, including Harold, Swegn and Tostig. Godwin also took under his wing Cnut’s nephew, Beorn Estrithson, who grew up alongside his cousins Swegn and Harold.
Cnut the Great died in 1036 and the Witan – the council of earls, bishops and chief thegns – was duly held in Oxford to decide upon the succession. There were two sons from the union of Cnut and Emma: Harold Harefoot, the eldest son and locally based in England, and Hardecnut, based in Denmark. Harefoot had his base in the Midlands and his claim was supported by Earl Leofic of Mercia and Cnut’s Danish fleet. Harefoot certainly appeared as the easier option and yet Emma and Godwin, and through him Wessex, backed Hardecnut. It would appear that the realm would be split between the two but Magnus of Norway was threatening Hardecnut in Denmark and so the promised king never came. Godwin increasingly felt threatened as Harefoot stamped his authority on the north. He had too much to lose to react to Harefoot seizing the treasury at Winchester, within Wessex itself. Real politics of the time forced Godwin towards Harefoot’s claim.
Queen Emma, now isolated, sent for her sons by Aethelred in exile in Normandy. So it was that the exiled aethlings Edward and Alfred landed in England attempting to rally support. Edward landed at Southampton, attempted to move inland to Winchester and his mother, but was driven off back to his ships. It would appear that the population, now resigned to accepting Harold Harefoot as king, had no wish to have the issue of the succession muddied further. Alfred landed at Dover with the intention of moving towards London but at Guildford Godwin apprehended Alfred and his followers.
What happened next would blight the reputation of Godwin and his family, especially in Edward’s eyes. Perhaps wishing to prove his loyalty and trustworthiness to Harold, Godwin yielded Alfred and his followers to Harefoot’s men. Alfred’s men were disposed of and the unfortunate aethling was taken to Ely where he was blinded and died of his wounds soon after. Godwin was therefore implicated in the murder and when Harefoot died and Hardecnut eventually claimed the throne in 1040, Godwin was forced to assist in the desecration of the dead king’s grave. As punishment for the support that Harefoot received, all England was subjected to a harsh taxation from Hardecnut. Godwin had to answer the charges ranged against him and swore an oath that Alfred’s cruel fate was by orders of the Harefoot alone. He gave the new king a magnificent ship, built at great expense and tried to keep his head down.
As the harsh tax regime began to bite, Hardecnut invited his half-brother Edward to his court. He may well have sought to sweeten his rule by sharing the throne with the remaining claimant but in June 1042 Hardecnut unexpectedly died. Eager to ingratiate himself, Godwin quickly announced that Edward should be king. Edward had brought with him close advisors from Normandy, including Robert, Abbott of Jumieges, who was appointed Bishop of London in 1043.
Godwin presented the king a coronation gift of a fine warship, even more magnificent than the one presented to Edward’s predecessor. In return Edward made earls of Godwin’s eldest sons, Swegn and Harold. Swegn received an earldom consisting of Wessex and Mercian shires while Harold was given East Anglia. As if cementing the rise of the Godwins, Harold’s sister married Edward in 1045.
Around about this time Harold began a relationship with the great love of his life, Edith Swannesha. She is commonly known as Edith Swanneck – from Swann Hnecca; however, this is a corruption of Swann Hnesce – Gentle Swan. Harold and Edith were married in the “Danish manner” (hand-fast) which was common among lay people in England and throughout northern Europe. It is thought that Edith was an independent heiress with holdings in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. True, her lands and position helped Harold cement his position as Earl of East Anglia, but their long-standing relationship hints that this was a meeting of hearts rather than merely political.
Not since 1021 when Cnut removed Earl Thorkell from office had East Anglia been an earldom in its own right. In the 1040s there was an increased threat from Scandinavia. It made sense, therefore, for Edward to appoint someone to actively guard the east coast and Harold, with his Danish connections, was an ideal candidate.
The rise of the Godwins to ever higher greatness seemed assured and even Edward’s policy of removing thegns who had been part of Cnut’s Danish faction seemed not to trouble them, although their replacement with favourites from Edward’s days of exile in Normandy may have denied Godwin his exclusivity to the king’s ear. But then, then there was Sweyn.
Sweyn, Godwin and Gytha’s eldest certainly veered more to the Danish side of his Anglo-Danish heritage. Much to Gytha’s consternation he claimed that Cnut was his real father and he would certainly prove to behave as a Viking. Part of his duty as earl was to guard the border against Welsh incursion. Acting in alliance with the northern Welsh Lord Gruffyrdd, Sweyn raided the south coast of Wales, thereby keeping the Welsh princes concerned with each other rather than raiding into England. Maybe drunk with victory or seeking lands through marriage as Harold had done, Sweyn snatched the abbess of Leominster and kept her for a year. Such actions were shameful and despite Godwin’s protests on behalf of his son, Sweyn was exiled, fleeing first to Flanders and then on to Denmark. It was the first setback to Godwin’s power dispensed by Edward, but it was somewhat sweetened by having Sweyn’s earldom split between Harold and his cousin Beorn.
Sweyn got involved in the developing war between Magnus of Norway and Swein Ulfson of Denmark. Swein, nephew to Godwin, had sent an embassy to Edward seeking assistance, which Godwin had urged his king to agree to. Edward, advised by Earl Leofric of Mercia had refused to get involved, much to Godwin’s irritation. It might well have been that Godwin had urged his son to help Swein but it was all for nought; Magnus emerged victorious while Sweyn Godwinsson was said to have “ruined himself with the Danes.”
Edward meanwhile, in alliance with Emperor Henry III of Germany, had gathered his fleet to act against Baldwin V of Flanders, who had long been assisting piracy against the English coasts. Amid Edward’s fleet were earls Godwin, Harold and Beorn with their retinues, but who should return, seeking forgiveness and the restoration of his lands from Edward, but Sweyn. The beneficiaries of his banishment, Harold and Beorn opposed Sweyn’s restoration, going against the wishes of Godwin. Edward gave Sweyn four days’ grace to depart England while his fleet continued in their defensive stance against the overseas threat. Desperate, Sweyn tried one more time, convincing Beorn to take ship with him with only three companions. Trusting his cousin proved a foolish decision. Taken west against his will to Dartmouth, Beorn was murdered and buried in a hastily dug grave. Any goodwill that Sweyn may still have retained was lost; he was declared a nithing, an outlaw beyond redemption, and most of his followers agreed, and abandoned him. He fled to Flanders, his options severely curtailed.
Harold ensured that Beorn was buried next to his uncle, Cnut. Although later Norman chroniclers would paint him as being greedy at his brother’s expense during this sorry affair, he had proven himself honourable and dependable, compared to the crazed Sweyn, and had voted in opposition to his father, Godwin. Harold seemed to understand the idea of consensus that Edward tried to foster in his Witan, perhaps much more so than Godwin. All these things Edward would have noted.
Yet deep within the king’s psyche there lingered his suspicion about Godwin’s role in Alfred’s cruel death which festered unseen.
Its seems quite extraordinary that in 1050 Edward should pardon Sweyn and reinstate him as an earl. Returning from the Easter Council of Pope Leo IX, Ealdred, the Bishop of Worcester, met the wayward earl in Flanders. Finding Sweyn suitably penitent, Ealdred brought him back to meet the king and he was pardoned. No doubt Godwin had constantly pressed Edward for such a boon, but the Witan in general must have agreed and Sweyn received lands that were once Beorn’s. This coincided with Edward bringing an end to the heregeld tax – used to pay for a mercenary force and ships at the king’s disposal. The last of the mercenary fleet was disbanded, the fleet that Beorn had once commanded. Edward probably thought the English fleet alone, supplied by his earls, could provide adequate defences to the realm; however, this needed to be mustered, which took time.
Meanwhile overseas, Duke William of Normandy married Matilda of Flanders, which reversed Edward’s long-term foreign policy of isolating Flanders, a long-term haven to the pirates and raiders who plagued England’s coasts. However, this coincided with Edward showing favours to his friends who accompanied him from Normandy; chief of these was Robert of Jumieges.
When the post of the Archbishopric of Canterbury became vacant the monks there voted for a relative of Godwin; however, Edward vetoed this and placed Robert of Jumieges in the seat instead. This put Godwin and the newly appointed archbishop on a collision course, all the more so, as Robert accused Godwin of depriving the church of lands in his earldom.
In the background as well was the issue of the succession. Edward and Edith had failed to produce an heir. Contrary to later writers conferring sainthood to Edward, there is no evidence that he chose a celibate life. It could be that Edward toyed with the idea of having a different queen. But how would that be possible, his wife being the daughter of his most powerful vassal?
Then in September of 1051, Edward’s brother in law, Eustace II of Bologne visited. In Dover there was a serious affray between locals and some of Eustace’s retinue. Edward demanded that Godwin punish the town, as it was in his earldom. Godwin refused to do this.
Archbishop Robert accused Godwin of planning to murder the king, bringing up the spectre of Alfred. Relations broke down as the other great earls Leofric of Mercia and Siward of Northumbria gathered their men to support the king. In response Godwin and Harold gathered theirs; the country was on the brink of a civil war. However, neither side wished to fight, and the men of Wessex and East Anglia were especially loath to make war on their king. Stigand, bishop of Winchester, attempted to bring peace and hostages were exchanged (Godwin’s youngest son Wulfnoth and Sweyn’s son Hakon), but emboldened Edward saw his chance to break the hold Godwin had over his throne. “If Godwin wished for peace,” joked the king bitterly, “he should restore to me Alfred and his companions, alive and well.” As Godwin’s supporters melted away, not willing to fight fellow Englishmen, Godwin and his family fled into exile. Godwin, Gytha and Sweyn fled to Flanders while Harold and his younger brother Leofwine fled to Ireland. Edward sent Queen Edith to the nunnery at Wilton, while Archbishop Robert urged him to divorce her. The seemingly unstoppable rise to power of the Godwins had been stopped in its tracks.
With the Godwins out of the picture, in late 1051 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles states that William of Normandy visited King Edward, yet the reason for this visit isn’t recorded, certainly not because of a promise of William’s succession. In fact, there appears to be some doubt that this event took place at all as the duke’s chief chroniclers for the conquest (Williams of Jumieges and Poitiers) don’t record it. The entry to the Chronicles seems to be added later. It would be doubtful that William could have risked visiting Edward as at the time he had his hands full retaining control of his duchy.
In fact, William of Jumieges records that Robert of Canterbury was sent to William in 1052 to offer the throne in thanks for the refuge affirmed Edward and his family. William of Poitiers elaborates that this promise had the assent of the English nobility, including the exiled Godwin and the Archbishop Stigand. (Stigand was bishop of Winchester at the time, not of Canterbury.) The two Williams state the hostages were taken to Normandy at this time as part of the deal, yet why hostages from one noble family? Why not from Siward (Earl of Northumbria) and Leofric (Earl of Mercia) as well?
Meanwhile the Godwins were not prepared to meekly accept their fate. Godwin had loaded treasure as well as his family, and in Flanders he looked to hiring mercenaries. He also received English supporters and began to build a sizeable fleet.
In Ireland Harold had sought the court of King Diarmait of Leinster and he must have made a good impression. Harold had been educated in diplomacy as well as war and had witnessed the workings of Edward’s court. Around about this time 1051-2 King Diarmait conquered Dublin and installed his son there. It might well be that Harold had helped. Fifteen years later Harold’s sons would find refuge at Diarmait’s court; obviously Harold was remembered with some fondness. With some of the family treasure and perhaps future trading agreements Harold built a mercenary force of his own; the scene was set for a two-pronged attack to win back the Godwins’ lands and fortune. One fly remained in the ointment, however: Sweyn.
It had taken much for Godwin to get Edward to accept Sweyn’s return, tainted by abduction and murder as he was. A grand gesture was needed so Godwin sent Sweyn off as a pilgrim to Jerusalem.
Word reached Edward of Godwin’s gathering fleet and a force of 40 ships was stationed at Sandwich. Crucially however, this force was without the professional mercenary fleet that the king had once commanded. Godwin in the summer of 1052 probed Edward’s defences and found them wanting. He found support in Dover (the natives there owed Godwin after all) and Sussex, of course. He returned to Flanders, successfully avoiding Edward’s fleet due to seamanship, knowledge of the coast, local goodwill and luck with an augmented force.
The time was right and Godwin’s fleet sailed to the Isle of Wight and on to Portland, targeting areas held by thegns who had deserted the Godwins in their hour of need. He sent word to Harold, whose fleet entered the Bristol Channel. At Porlock in Somerset, a large force of locals opposed Harold’s landing but in his first proper military engagement Harold was not found wanting. He soundly defeated the defenders and ravaged the area. (Ironically the areas ravaged were held by Odda, one of the commanders of Edward’s fleet.) Loaded with booty he sailed around the South West Peninsular and joined his father. The combined fleet now headed to the heart of what had been Godwin territory, gathering followers as they advanced.
Edward looked increasingly isolated: the other great earls, Siward and Leofric, were noticeably absent this time. Perhaps they had been shocked by the king’s judgement on Godwin and his family and felt similar plans were in the royal head for them also? Godwin sailed up the Thames and once more two armies faced each other across the river, Edward’s forces considerably weaker this time than Godwin’s.
Once more it was clear that neither army wished to fight each other but the king had to come to an agreement with the aggrieved Earl Godwin. Edward’s Norman allies saw that the game was up and fled. Robert of Jumieges left in a good deal of a hurry with an armed escort. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles records that there were deaths at London’s east gate as he fled; these may well have been men attempting to stop the abduction of the hostages Wulfnoth and Hakon, whom the archbishop had been holding for the king.
In September, the Witan met and Godwin, under oath, denied all charges against himself and his family. Edward duly restored Godwin and his sons to their lands and titles. Queen Edith was Edward’s wife once more and the plans for divorce were dropped. The remaining Frenchmen who were judged to have given bad counsel to the king were declared outlaws and required to leave the kingdom.
However, not all were held responsible and were allowed to stay. Bishop Stigand, who had handled negotiations both during the exile and restoration, was given the Archbishopric of Canterbury by Edward. Embittered, Robert of Jumieges journeyed to Rome and complained to the Pope. Stigand was condemned and the English church brought into question. Robert gave William of Normandy the hostages, Wulfnoth and Hakon, and it might be now that he planted the seed in the duke’s mind that he, William, was Edward’s appointed heir. This would certainly be chronologically in line with the raising of the matter as reported by William of Jumieges and William of Poitiers.
In England, though, normality seemed restored. However, there was still no prospect of a male heir with Edith’s return to the royal bed and Edward cannot have been happy with the return of Godwin, not to mention that that bone of contention, Sweyn, was due back from his pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
But things wouldn’t be the same. Godwin, in his sixties, fell ill late in 1052, no doubt exhausted by his efforts. To add to his woes word reached England that Sweyn had died near Constantinople on his return from the Holy Land. This can’t have helped Godwin and the great, king-making earl passed away at Easter 1053. Harold was now Earl of Wessex.
It wasn’t only his hereditary right that made Harold Earl of Wessex; he was also the king’s first choice. Whatever the distrust, or downright hatred, that Edward bore Godwin, none of this was passed on to the earl’s son, with the exception of Sweyn, of course. Harold was free of any guilt with regard to the spectre of Alfred and had none of the history of arm twisting that Godwin had attempted to apply to Edward throughout his reign. If anything it appeared as if Edward liked his new Earl of Wessex; during the crisis with Harold’s father, the king hadn’t called for hostages from Harold, although he had from Godwin and Sweyn.
Harold had only been Earl of East Anglia for eight years but in that time had shown himself to be a wise ruler, kind, patient and merciful to men of good will, but stern with thieves. He is described as being handsome, graceful, strong and brave. Harold would have worn his hair long and is shown on the Bayeux Tapestry as sporting a moustache, a feature which the embroiderers use as a way of differentiating between English and Norman. He had a mild temper and could suffer contradiction, something that Sweyn never could have done. Harold, rather than argue and harangue, wished to convince through debate in line with how Edward’s consensus Witan was, prior to Robert of Jumieges’ promotion to the Canterbury archbishopric.
When Siward of Northumbria died, the only heir to his estates was deemed too young to manage the turbulent northern earldom bordering Scotland. Aelfgar, son of Leofric of Mercia, hoped to be given Northumbria – a promotion from East Anglia which he held during Harold’s brief exile and later Harold’s inheritance of Wessex. However, Aelfgar would be disappointed and embittered as another of Godwin’s sons was given Northumbria: Tostig.
Aelfgar took the king’s decision very badly. He had stayed loyal to the king during the recent Godwin crisis and had stepped aside for Harold on their return. No doubt he had expected reward but instead saw the power of the Godwins expand with the inexperienced Tostig sent to rule Northumbria. He would also be aware that two more of Godwin’s sons were in the shadows, waiting for office: Gyrth and Leofwine. There was a furor, angry words were said at the Witan and Aelfgar was exiled from the kingdom. Just as Harold had done, he fled to Ireland and raised crews of mercenaries.
Chroniclers of the time list the differences between Edward’s favourite Godwinssons. Although Tostig could exhibit his brother’s restraint, Tostig’s views of the world were more black and white. Whereas Harold liked to share his plans with loyal followers, Tostig played his cards close to his chest so his decisions seemed decisive and shocking; in contrast Harold would defer decisions which some criticised him for. Both brothers had learned from their father and were measured and resolute, but while Harold aimed for happiness, Tostig sought success.
Tostig was joined in a political marriage with Judith of Flanders. Crucially this was a Christian marriage, not the Danish-fashion marriage of Harold and Edith. The church had more time for Tostig as he was generous with gifts to the church at the prompting of his religious wife. He was said to be sparing with his oaths whereas Harold seldom held back with his curses. Foreign chroniclers describe Tostig as noble and faithful to his wife and Harold as promiscuous. However, this may well be later attempts to blacken Harold’s name and reputation. The union between Harold and Edith was long and stable, producing six children.
Aelfgar, meanwhile, crossed from Ireland and allied himself with Gruffyyd of Wales. As Sweyn had done in the decade previously, Aelfgar aided Gruffyrd in attacking southern Wales and slaying Gruffyrd’s rival to the lordship of all Wales. With promises of booty and slaves, and eager to campaign for his reinstatement, Aelfgar encouraged Gruffyrd to raid across the border.
At Hereford English forces under Earl Ralph (Edward‘s nephew), adopting European style cavalry tactics, suffered a catastrophic defeat against the combined Welsh and Irish invaders. Attacking Herefordshire, Aelfgar avoided attacking his father’s lands in Mercia. The victors went on to sack Hereford, burning down the cathedral and stealing treasures and relics.
Edward demanded retribution and ordered Harold to raise an army and stabilise the situation. With forces that excluded Mercians, Harold moved from Gloucester to the war-torn area and into Wales but Gruffyrd and Aelfgar drew back from the superior forces of Harold’s and were not tempted to battle. It was late in the year and Harold drew back from advancing further, instead fortifying Hereford and entering into peace talks with his enemies. At first glance the agreement reached seems a poor showing for Harold’s first proper military campaign. Gruffyrd agreed to desist from raiding England and accepted Edward as his overlord, while Aelfgar was reinstated as Earl of East Anglia. But this shows Harold’s eye to the future and his tendency towards a consensus. He had brought peace to the border, for the present at least, and had separated Gruffyrd from his ally Aelfgar. In addition, he had now settled his brother’s accession to the earldom of Northumbria with Aelfgar.
Thought was given as to the succession; it was now clear that Edward and Edith would remain childless. Edward had nephews, but none would either be acceptable or capable of ruling the kingdom. The family of Edmund Ironside were still safely in Hungary; Edward the Exile had three children – Margaret, Christina and Edgar the Aethling. Edward therefore dispatched Bishop Ealdred of Worcester to Germany to negotiate with Emperor Henry III. However, this embassy came to nothing as Henry had a poor relationship with Andrew I of Hungary. But contact with the exiles had been made and when the German king died in 1056 Harold himself led a diplomatic mission to bring them to England. At the same time Harold visited Pope Victor II and returned with relics for the abbey he was building at Waltham in 1057. On his return journey he liaised with the exiles and escorted them to Edward’s court.
Tragically, Edward the exile died soon after his arrival but Edgar, although only five years old, was named as aethling by the king and therefore regarded as worthy of the throne and accepted into the court.
Along the Welsh border peace was fleeting. When the Aethelstan, Bishop of Hereford, died Edward appointed Leofgar to the see. Leofgar was a warrior bishop who saw his mission as one of earthly revenge as well as matters spiritual. He led a disastrous expedition onto Wales, perhaps to win back lands won by Gruffyrd but suffered defeat and was slain at Glasbury-on-Wye.
Once more a peace, of sorts, was hammered out but it would prove to be short lived. Along the Welsh border all changed in 1057 with the deaths of the marcher earls Leofric and Ralph. Aelfgar inherited Mercia and promptly married his daughter to Gruffyrd, without the king‘s consent. As before the wayward earl was exiled, but returned again with the help of Gruffyrd and a fleet of Viking raiders commanded by Magnus, son of Harald of Norway. Once more a peaceful resolution was achieved with the earl restored and the Viking fleet bribed to leave.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is distinctly unimpressed with the whole affair – “It is tedious to relate fully how things went.”
It would seem that Harold and Edward were biding their time with Gruffyrd, choosing diplomacy rather than outright conflict. The Welsh king was a very capable warrior, having defeated the English on several occasions, such as against Earl Ralph and Bishop Leofgar. To defeat him in the difficult terrain of Wales, where the mountains and forests could hide an ambush, would require a very large force, denying the Welshman the ability to choose his battlefield. Gruffyrd also needed to be isolated from Aelfgar as this alliance denied Edward the Mercian contingent of his army.
Perhaps when a comparison is drawn between Leofgar’s catastrophic invasion of Wales and Harold’s refusal to be drawn deep into hostile territory, the keen strategic mind of Harold may be discerned.
Once again peace seemed to reign on the Welsh border but in 1062, the troublesome Aelfgar disappears from the annals. The manner of his fate is a mystery; it might be that the manner of his death was shameful in some way. Aelfgar left two young sons, Edwin and Morcar; the elder, Edwin, still in his teens, inherited Mercia.
Aelfgar must have guaranteed peace as, despite the fact that Edwin was his brother-in-law, Gruffyrd commenced raiding into Mercia, walking into the trap that Harold had set. There would be no more peace while Gruffyrd yet breathed. A two-pronged campaign was commenced in 1063. Harold left Bristol with a fleet and ravaged and blockaded the Welsh coast, while Tostig invaded Wales from Chester. Gruffyrd escaped capture by the Godwinssons but Welsh nobles submitted themselves to Edward’s will. Eager for an end to hostilities, the fugitive Gruffyrd was slain by his own men and his head presented to Harold. North Wales was divided between Gruffyrd’s two half-brothers and Harold took their oaths of submission on behalf of King Edward. The Welsh unity that Gruffyrd had campaigned for so long now disintegrated. So complete and devastating was Harold’s ruthless campaign in Wales that his tactics were remembered and emulated by Edward I in his conquest of the principality two centuries later.
It seemed as if in the twilight years of Edward’s reign a new golden age awaited England. Harold, head of the Godwin family and premier earl, was described as Subregulus (sub king) and Dux Anglorum (Duke of England). Perhaps now as the king’s right hand he could attend to family matters or, as the Williams of Poitiers and Jumieges would have us believe, visit William to confirm the duke’s succession to the throne of England.
In 1064, as shown in the Bayeux Tapestry, Harold journeyed to Normandy. It begins with Harold, a hunting hawk on his wrist, leaving Edward and heading to Bosham before taking ship. It shows Harold’s capture by Count Guy of Ponthieu and William’s intervention effecting his release. As Harold rides with William it is interesting to note that Harold’s hawk is now on William’s wrist. Harold is shown joining William in his Brittany campaign and is seen saving two Norman soldiers who have become trapped in quicksand. The campaign ends with the surrender of Conan of Brittany. As reward for his assistance William presents Harold with arms, in effect making him a knight (and perhaps claiming overlordship?).
The next panel shows Harold swearing an oath over holy relics, yet it is interesting that the nature of the oath is not mentioned in the narrative margin. Clearly whoever it was who designed the tapestry, although aware of both the Poitiers and Jumiege narratives, did not entirely accept their details. The result is that the tapestry has a remarkably neutral overview of events.
Harold’s expedition could be something else entirely. As Eadmer, a later chronicler suggests, it was Harold going to Normandy to secure the freedom of his younger brother and nephew, who had been hostages for some ten years. Perhaps, after loyally serving Edward in the campaign against Gruffyrd, Harold was finally, reluctantly, given leave to seek their release, the exchanged hawk perhaps symbolic of a paid ransom. It is then very probable that Harold was tricked by William into giving an oath; perhaps he realised he was in a similar predicament to that of his brother and nephew? It could well be that the oath was merely a confirmation of the long-standing treaty between the duke and Edward. Harold was allowed to return to England with his nephew, Hakon. The hapless Wulfnoth was not so fortunate and remained a hostage and, as events transpired, spent most of his life in captivity.
It seems odd to base an entire invasion on an oath quite possibly given under duress. Perhaps too much is made of it both by William and his namesakes of Jumiege and Poitiers.
Harold was only one earl after all. Surely William would have demanded hostages of all the other English earls, not to mention holding Edgar the Atheling, if Harold’s expedition was indeed to affirm some supposed promise given by Edward the Confessor? It is also entirely probable that the ambitious William, born out of wedlock and constantly facing threats to his position, had always cast envious eyes towards the English throne. In marrying Matilda of Flanders in 1049 William not only secured his northern flank, he had also gained a descendant of Alfred the Great as a spouse. Maybe now that seed planted by Robert of Jumieges was bearing fruit?
If we return once again to the Bayeux Tapestry, there is an interesting scene on Harold’s return to Edward from his trip. If we bear in mind the clues hidden in the symbolism, Harold is shown in supplication to Edward and is accompanied by one of the king’s huscarls – his axe facing the Earl. Edward has a huscarl by his side as well but his axe crucially faces away from the king. It’s almost as if Edward is admonishing Harold. Eadmer continues with this theme, that Edward’s reluctance and warnings regarding Harold’s mission have been borne out, that William has tricked him and trouble is now stored for the future. However, Eadmer is clear; Harold was forced to bow to force majeure.
Alas, trouble was brewing back in England and in 1065 events would tear the Godwissons apart. For in Northumbria trouble was brewing for Tostig. Northumbria was notoriously lawless in comparison with the rest of the kingdom and blood feuds were common. Tostig was a West Saxon attempting to instill West Saxon laws on Northumbria. Tostig seemed to have been on very good terms with Malcolm III of Scotland and seemed to have used their friendship as a way of forestalling Malcolm’s ambitions towards expanding his kingdom southwards. This ambition was despite Malcolm owing his position to Tostig’s predecessor, Earl Siward (with Edward’s backing), helping unseat the infamous Macbeth.
In 1061, when Tostig went on his own pilgrimage to Rome, Malcolm raided deep into Northumbria. Tostig restored the peace on his return but largely through diplomacy rather than enacting a bloody retribution on the invaders. Malcolm’s claim to Cumbria went unchallenged
However, when it came to controlling his subjects in the earldom, Tostig didn’t display such qualms – he ruled with a rod of iron, ruthlessly quashing any dissent. It all became too much for the Northumbrian nobility who rebelled against Tostig, while the earl was away hunting in Wiltshire with the king. Tostig was accused of using the law to rob enemies of life and land, of despoiling churches and instigating crushing taxation. He had killed enemies by treachery when guaranteeing safe conduct.
The Northumbrian rebels had sympathy outside of the earldom. Crucially this was a rebellion against an earl, not the king, as the rebels were keen to emphasise. They proposed that Tostig should be replaced with Morcar, brother of Edwin, the Earl of Mercia. King Edward was furious, as Tostig had long been one whose company the king enjoyed. He wanted the rebellion crushed but Mercia obviously wouldn’t commit troops to such an enterprise. There were only the other Godwinssons: Harold, Gyrth and Leofwine. Which way would the Dux Anglorum lead?
There is evidence that the rebels had colluded with Edwin and Morcar and it might well be that they had contacted Harold as well, although there is no evidence of this. Certainly, later, Tostig suspected this and openly accused Harold of being part of the conspiracy against him, which the Earl of Wessex strenuously denied.
The rebels marched south in force to make their own case to the king and were joined by Edwin and Mercian troops. At Northampton, they were met by Harold, without an armed following to negotiate. The Chronicles states that “he wanted to bring about an agreement between them if he could,” and presumably this would include Tostig’s restoration. However Harold must have realised during the negotiations that a clear majority of Northumbrian thegns were supporting the rebellion and only a destructive civil war could accomplish this. Harold would have been painfully aware of William’s ambition and at a royal council in Oxford the earl refused to make war on the rebels, despite Edward wishing to restore Tostig. It was now that Tostig accused Harold of conspiring against him but what would be in it for Harold? There is no evidence at this point that Harold coveted the throne and even if he did, why replace a potential supporter that Tostig would be with Morcar? Surely Morcar would be more inclined to support Edgar the Aethling?
Edward had to accept the terms of the rebels and Harold conveyed this decision to them. Perhaps due to the wild accusations thrown around during that crisis-ridden meeting in Oxford, Tostig was outlawed and expelled from the kingdom. With his wife Judith and local supporters he sailed to his brother-in-law, Count Baldin V of Flanders.
Soon after Tostig’s exile, King Edward, perhaps heartbroken by recent events, became increasingly frail.
For Harold, the subregulus, probably now directly governing in the king’s stead, with the king’s health in terminal decline during the Christmas court, a decision on the future had to be made. Word would have spread that Edward was not long for this world and around England the ravens circled.
Harold knew that William would attempt a claim to the throne but another claimant could be found across the North Sea, in the looming frame of Harald Hardrada, the celebrated king of Norway. Harald based his claim on the agreement between his predecessor Magnus and Hardecnut, whereby each would inherit the other’s kingdom if they died childless. Events had brought this agreement to nothing, but as successor to Magnus and with an eye on restoring the empire of Cnut the Great, Harald drew up his plans for invasion.
In Flanders and in contact with his friend Malcolm of Scotland, the embittered Tostig gathered a fleet of his own and was bound to attempt to fight his way back from exile as Harold, Tostig and his father had done before. But who was there in England to sit in the throne? There was Edgar the Aethling, a youth of 14, untried and unbloodied, who would have to somehow bind the kingdom together and face a year of battles.
To many in the Witan, by now no doubt, only one individual seemed capable of steering England through this troubling time and that was the Dux Anglorum himself. In many ways he was the perfect candidate, a capable warrior and a proven military commander. He was adept at administration and a fine diplomat. Despite his later reputation, due to the Church looking down upon his marriage, it seems that he bore a strong personal faith as can be seen by his close friendships with churchman and his building of the abbey at Waltham. By his actions with Tostig he had proven that, great family he may be from, he would not further their interests at the expense of the realm.
As Edward departed this mortal coil he bequeathed Harold with the care of his wife and kingdom. On January 6, 1066 the old king was buried and the new one, King Harold II, crowned. He seems to have received popular support except in Northumbria, where the northern thegns, fearing Tostig’s return, were in a state of unrest. Harold journeyed north, but not at the head of a royal army. He met the rebellious lords and promised them that Tostig would not return as their earl. He needed to bind the northern earls to him, to give them a stake in his kingship, and to that end he married Alditha, sister of Edwin and Morcar (and widow of Gruffyrd) early in the year. His hand-fast marriage to Edith allowed him to conduct this Christian marriage of a more political nature. We can only surmise at the lively discussions between Harold and Edith when this idea was first mooted, but maybe the nature of their Danish-fashion marriage always hinted that a political marriage for Harold may have been in the cards at some point.
What manner of king was this Harold II, for his short reign of some nine months? “As soon as he took over government of the kingdom he began to abolish bad laws and establish good ones, to become a patron to churches and monasteries…” wrote John of Worcester. William of Malmesbury conceded that, “because of his character, had he obtained the kingdom lawfully, he would have ruled it wisely and bravely.” Perhaps as a sign of good government, coin dies of high quality were sent out to 44 local mints to issue silver pennies. They bear the face of King Harold facing left with crown and sceptre. On them is written PAX (peace); alas such a hope was denied to the all-too-brief reign of this remarkable man.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles – collated and translated by Anne Savage – 1982
The Bayeux Tapestry – Wolfgang Grape – 1994
Gesta Regum – William of Malmesbury
Gesta Guillelmi – William of Poiters
Gesta Normannorum Ducum – William of Jumieges
Vita Aedwardi Regis – Anonymous
Historiaq Novorum in Anglia – Eadmer
Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King – Ian W Walker
Edward the Confessor – Frank Barlow – 1989
The Godwins – Frank Barlow – 2002
See also Rob Bayliss’s previous guest post for our “950: 1066 Remembered” series, a wistful, mourning, hopeful poem in response to the death of King Harold Godwinson. Click here.
About the author …
Rob Bayliss is a cider loving, mandolin plucking, amateur writer and reviewer who pens for his own blog, Rob’s Ramblings, as well as The Review. He is the author of Hymns of Mortality: A Collection of Short Stories and contributor to Felinity, an anthology of flash fiction. Additionally he has published, so far, books I and II in his Flint and Steel, Fire and Shadow series: The Sun Shard and The Dead Gods, with book III in the works. Titles may be purchased here. Bayliss writes of himself:
“I’ve always had a love of history (and Anglo-Saxon history in particular) and through the wonder of social media I found mutual aficionados of the subject. Always ravenous of books of historical fiction, I found myself guided by Facebook friends to The Review. Here, as the name suggests, books are reviewed, discussed and word of them spread far and wide amongst a supportive network of readers and writers. Through The Review I have been made aware of, and subsequently read, a wide variety of books outside my usual comfort zone of historical fiction and fantasy.”