The Bastard of Normandy Versus the Golden Warrior
The year of 1066 started out with three contenders for the throne. As Edward lay dying in the early days of January, William of Normandy waited to hear news from England that he was now the new king of England. But unbeknown by him, Harold Godwinson was elected by the Witan, and the third contender, the young atheling, Edgar, had been cast aside, deemed as too young and inexperienced, without the kind of support Harold possessed. Edward, delirious in his sick bed, had given his blessing (as per the Vita Edwardi), and had appointed Harold as guardian of his queen, Harold’s sister Edith, and entrusted him with his kingdom.
With Edgar out of the race, this left just two main contenders, until Harald Hardrada was persuaded by Tostig to set his sights on the English Crown. Tostig was Harold Godwinson’s brother and had been very put out by Harold’s lack of support when Harold voted in favour of his brother being ousted. So, come the summer, there were three contenders once more: William, the Bastard of Normandy, Harold, the Golden Warrior, and Harald Sigurdson, the Thunderbolt of the North.
William at this time was busy making his preparations for his planned invasion. Harold had amassed the fyrd along the coast so that if William arrived, he was going to be well greeted. Tostig and Harald Sigurdson eventually arrived in the north with thousands of men and ships in September, and it was around the 20th of that month that they defeated the York armies of Earl Morcar and his brother Earl Edwin. Whilst waiting for supplies and hostages to arrive, Godwinson the Golden was marching northwards from London, calling out the fyrds on the way to augment his troops. He defeated Sigurdson’s army at Stamford Bridge and both leaders, Tostig and Harald, were killed, knocking Harald Sigurdson out of the race, leaving just two final contenders, William the Bastard, and Harold Godwinson.
So what about these two men; who were they and what were their sagas?
William of Normandy
Born around 1027 in Falaise, William was the illegitimate son of Robert, Duke of Normandy and Herleve, daughter of a tanner and embalmer. William was eight years old when his father died on pilgrimage, and had, just before leaving for it, made William his heir. It seems that William’s illegitimacy caused some resentment amongst his father’s relatives, who Robert had not always enjoyed good relations with.
Not only was William illegitimate, his mother had also been a low-born servant and not of noble blood at all. This gave William’s enemies the ammunition to try to have him deposed. So, William was not off to a great start. After William’s main supporter, the powerful Archbishop Robert, died, the Duchy of Normandy descended into chaos. One of his mother’s brothers, Walter, had been given a position in the duke’s household. Walter became a steadfast supporter of his nephew and he and William had some lucky hair raising escapes from would-be assassins out to rid Normandy of this boy duke. It was said that Walter was often forced to hide William in the peasant homes of his mother’s people as Orderic Vitalis, writing in the 12th century, claims.
Though young William had many supporters, one such being King Henry of France, many of William’s guardians were killed protecting him and one, who was called Osbern, was killed as he slept on the floor of William’s chamber. In 1046, when William was a youth of 19, opponents attempted to capture him but he escaped, seeking refuge with the king of France. William defeated the rebels in the next year with the aid of King Henry at the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes. Poitiers, the duke’s biographer, claimed that the battle was won because of William’s efforts. William could now return to his duchy and assume power again. This experience brought about the Truce of God, a proclamation that would limit warfare throughout his duchy by restricting days when fighting would be allowed. Battle of Val-ès-Dunes was a pivotal point for William in gaining control of his duchy; however, there was still a long road ahead to full control over his nobles and duchy. Continuous conflicts occurred in the period between 1047 – 1054. It was around then that William fell out with the King of France who joined the Norman rebels’ attempts at invading. William repelled all the incursions into his duchy. By 1060, William had more or less consolidated his position in Normandy. It was time to draw his thoughts to an event that happened nine years ago, when it was said that King Edward of England promised him the throne.
William was reported to be burly and full of vigour. He was tall for a man in this era; an examination of his bones proved him to be around five feet 10 inches. He was robust and apparently had a guttural voice. He was pious, well, he had to be, mainly because he owed his victory in England to the pope, who had given his mission to conquer England his blessing and approval along with a papal banner to show his support. William appears to have been a man who, when he wanted something, would take it if it was not given freely. His wife Matilda was said not to have desired the match because William was an uncouth, low-born bastard, so, William, not taking no for an answer, burst in on her chamber and threw her over his shoulder, took her outside and threw her in the mud. She must have liked his caveman style tactics, for she changed her mind and agreed to marry him.
William does not appear to have been overly educated and there is no evidence that he supported learning or scholars. Orderic wrote that he tried to learn to read English in his later years, but couldn’t devote the time to it. William had great stamina and determination, as is proved by the resilience he showed in his long struggle as duke of a dangerous and chaotic duchy. It took him most of his youth to quell uprising after uprising before he could feel secure in his dukedom. This would have stood him in good stead, putting down English rebellions for at least five years after Hastings before he could sit safely on the English throne. The long haul in England must have seemed like a walk in the park as far as recalcitrant subjects were concerned.
William was not a soft touch by any means; he did not get where he was by treating everyone with respect and generosity, though he could be respectful and generous when the mood took him. It seems he wanted to be a good king to the English, but the damned rebels didn’t seem to like having to pay extortionately for their own lands that he himself had confiscated from them. He couldn’t understand that in English law, the king did not own all the lands. That there was such a thing called bookland, in Old English bocland, whereby the land was owned by virtue of a charter, meaning that the king’s power was removed from any influence over it.
Later medieval historians have referred to William as being avaricious and cruel. He regarded the land as belonging to himself. And although he could be patient, if someone or a group of people refused to toe the line, he could also be brutal, as when he harried the north to the point of genocide. This was the time referred to as The Harrowing.
The Norman influence in English matters was a clash of cultures. William didn’t understand the customs and laws of England prior to the conquest. He didn’t understand that kings were elected in Anglo-Saxon law, and that the crown was not immediately passed onto the choice of the precious king, or the heir to the throne, of which he had been neither the choice, nor the heir, at least not by blood. He didn’t understand that the king’s decisions were always confirmed by the Witan who had the right to vote against them. He didn’t understand that women had a certain amount of freedom, to own their own property and land, and dispose of it as they wished. Women could not be forcibly married without their consent. Women had rights in law regarding rape and sexual assault. He also used the murdrum law to ensure that if an Englishman was suspected of killing a Norman, justice would be sought robustly. But if a Norman killed an Englishman, it was not.
When William died, he died alone, deserted by his sons. His death was ignominious and his funeral even worse when, having grown so stout over the years, they had to pierce his bloated corpse to get him to fit into his coffin. Not a glorious end to a glorious career.
Background and Family
This golden warrior, as his personal banner depicted him, was born circa 1022 to Godwin Wulfnothson, an English noble, and Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, daughter of a Danish jarl. Harold was the second eldest of their nine children, which included bad boy Swegn, Tostig, later Harold’s enemy, brothers Gyrth, Leofwin, and Wulfnoth, sisters Edith and Gunnhild, and possibly another daughter who may have been called Aelfgifu. Godwin’s rise to power came when Cnut took the whole of the kingdom after King Edmund had died. Godwin had been loyal to Edmund, and when Cnut was sorting out his administration, he rid himself of the Englishmen who had changed sides, figuring that if they could betray their own lord, then it was possible they would betray him. Godwin, on the other hand, felt a safer bet, because of his steadfast loyalty towards Edmund. It wasn’t long before Cnut made him earl of Eastern Wessex, which probably comprised Sussex, Kent and Surrey. By 1020, he was earl of all of Wessex. Godwin became the most powerful earl in England, and maintained his success throughout the reigns of Cnut, Harald Harefoot and Harthacnut. Upon the death of Harthacnut, he became an advocate of Edward the Confessor. Edward married Godwin’s daughter, Edith, and earldoms went to Godwin’s sons Swegn and Harold, and Gytha’s nephew, Beorn, the son of Cnut’s sister, Estrith. But Harold’s other brothers Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwin were not to receive earldoms until after Godwin’s death in 1053.
It was when Harold became earl of East Anglia in 1045 that he most likely met and fell in love with the beautiful, mysterious, Edith Swanneck. The couple also, like Harold’s parents, went on to have a large family: Godwin, Gytha, Edmund, Magnus, Gunnhild and Ulf. This appears to have been a love match as opposed to an official alliance. Edith was the daughter and heiress of a wealthy landowning magnate in the eastern midlands, which meant that Harold, as her husband more danico, would have access to more wealth and supporters. It may have been a love match, but it was a prosperous one, too.
Following on from his appointment as Earl of East Anglia, Harold went on to command a fleet of ships for King Edward. He engaged in some conflicts with foreign pirates who were using European coastal regions to launch their raids. Harold’s duties did not end there. Among his many tasks, he would also have been the king’s representative in his earldom, doling out the king’s law and justice in the shire courts of his jurisdiction. He would need to collect revenue, oversee transfers of land, witness charters, and attend the king on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, Harold’s brother Swegn, now Earl of Herefordshire, was causing trouble. Earls would often find themselves up against their own thegns in conflicts of a political nature, but Swegn’s behaviour went beyond that expected of nobles. Swegn, it seems, had grown up somewhat spoilt by Godwin, and no matter what he did, no matter how bad (even murder and the abduction of an abbess was excused), his father’s loyalty never wavered. Godwin’s entreaties for his eldest son ingratiated neither Swegn nor Godwin to the king. Harold, however, along with his cousin Beorn, endeared themselves in the king’s eyes by opposing Swegn’s return and reinstatement; this seems to have worked for Harold on a grand scale, for he was to later find such favour with the king he became his right-hand man. Unfortunately, Beorn was murdered by Swegn, which stopped his career in its tracks.
In 1051, the whole of the Godwinsons were exiled, and Queen Edith put into a nunnery. Godwin and Swegn were required to give hostages. This severe punishment had something to do with Godwin’s refusal to deal harshly with the men of Dover, who were accused of attacking the Count of Boulogne on his way home. The whole event seems to have been a plot, hatched to get rid of Godwin, possibly by the Norman contingent amongst Edward’s advisers. Harold and his younger brother Leofwin went to Dublin to seek aid from the Irish, whilst the rest of the family went to the court of Count Baldwin in Flanders. Later in 1052, the family were to fight their way back home. Harold and Leofwin, with their Irish mercenaries, landed at Porlock in Somerset and a battle ensued with the thegns who had gone to oppose them on behalf of the king. They did, however, pick up loyal thegns who had been under Godwin’s service before his exile and with Harold’s father gathering support in the eastern shires of Wessex and the Isle of Wight, the family was returned to their former stations. This had been Harold’s first excursion into diplomacy, having to entreat with the Irish king for help. His former experience as a warrior sailor would have stood him in good stead, too.
It was not long before Harold was to be promoted. With Godwin’s sudden death at the Easter court, Harold was endowed with his estates and made Earl of Wessex. As East Anglia was now vacant, this went to his rival, Alfgar, son of Leofric of Mercia. Alfgar had been compelled to return the earldom to Harold when he returned from exile. Brother Swegn and cousin Beorn were now out of the picture, having both died, so their estates went to Ralph, the king’s nephew.
Harold would go on to improve his status by becoming Dux Anglorum, which is Latin for Very Big Chief in England. His family by this time had grown, and he and his wife were still together, and to all intents and purposes, very much in love. He would begin to take more of a leading role by managing the security of the kingdom whilst Edward sat back, prayed, hunted, prayed, hunted some more, and probably prayed again. In 1055 Earl Ralf, the nephew of King Edward, took on the might of Gruffudd of Wales, Alfgar, and a bunch of Irish/Norse mercenaries, and disgraced himself by running away. Harold went with a great army into Wales along the Golden Valley in pursuit of the army, but had to abandon the chase as the enemies seemed to have disappeared into the mountains. He returned to Hereford, or what was left of it, as Alfgar and Gruffudd had razed it to the ground, and reinforced the defences. Ralph seems to have disappeared from public eye, nursing his disgraced pride and was then after called Ralf the Timid.
The next few years were mostly filled with diplomatic tasks for Harold. It was in these years up to 1062 that Harold honed his ambassadorial skills, engaging in peace talks with King Gruffudd of Wales. Harold developed a reputation as preferring peace and compromise to war. Harold went a long way to improve relations amongst the leading earls and nobles. Civil unrest and war within Britain was a thing to be avoided. It was a far better thing that the country remained united. A united kingdom would be strong to fight off invaders from overseas. But in 1062, Harold had enough of playing the diplomat. It was time the English showed their mettle to the Welsh King Gruffudd. Alfgar, now earl of Mercia, had long been an ally to the Welsh king and had married his daughter Aldith to him. Alfgar had probably been the only thing protecting Gruffudd from Harold’s frustrations, and once Alfgar was dead, the protection he had provided to the Welsh went south. Harold made one of his lightening marches, in difficult terrain, into Wales on horseback. He burned Gruffudd’s palace at Rhuddlan. But Gruffudd escaped after a tip off. Later in 1063, Harold allied himself with his brother Tostig, now Earl of Northumbria, and they razed Wales north and south until the Welsh executed Gruffudd and sent Harold the Welsh king’s head.
The Vita Edwardi was commissioned by Harold’s sister and there are some references to his character and description. According to Vita, both Harold and his brother, Tostig, were handsome, graceful, robust and courageous. Harold was taller than Tostig, and had more experience. He was also the more temperate of the brothers, more intelligent, and more likely to act with patience when another challenged him. Harold shared his plans with his loyal men, had more patience when others urged action. Tostig was said to have been secretive and overzealous in attacking wrong doers. Harold was said to aim at happiness by acting prudently, Tostig aiming solely at success by acting vigorously. More contrasts of Harold’s character were said to have been in their use of language. Tostig was said to have been ‘decent’ in his speech, but Harold somewhat ‘prodigal’ with his oaths, perhaps meaning he was not disinclined to swear now and then.
The writer of the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio accused Harold of having been promiscuous and adulterous, but there is no evidence to say that he was ever unfaithful to Edith Swanneck throughout their time together until he married Aldith of Mercia for political reasons. Even then, he was still said to have remained her lover. The Carmen was written by Pro Norman Bishop of Amiens, who most likely wanted to demonise Harold to make his patron, William, look like a saint.
Harold was known to have enjoyed leisurely pursuits and to have been interested in hawking, and this is reflected in his library of books. He is also shown on the Bayeux Tapestry holding his bird of prey with his hunting dogs racing along nearby. Harold’s ostentatious lifestyle was reflected in his banner, which was worked in gold thread and precious stones. Ian Walker mentions that it was considered an expensive enough piece of work to be sent to the Pope as a gift by William after the Battle of Hastings. Harold’s gifts to the Holy Cross Church at his estate at Waltham also indicate his wealth. A man with Harold’s stature would have been expected to show off his bling when in public or when important visitors dropped by.
Harold was also renowned for his martial character. The greater military successes seem to have occurred when he had reached his forties, with both the Welsh campaigns, and the campaigns of 1066. William of Poitiers, another writing for William of Normandy and, who may have met him when he went to visit in 1064, described Harold as ‘warlike, courageous and eager for renown’. His ‘military’ character and his diplomatic successes are very much in conflict, for as said before, Harold preferred diplomacy to war; however, when Harold’s buttons were pushed, out came the warlike Harold, who would stop at nothing to defend his kingdom. We can see how he reacted to Gruffudd and Hardrada, and how he was determined to stop the Norman invasion occurring.
By 1064, Harold was at the pinnacle of his career as Dux Anglorum. He now had time to sit back and reflect, and think about two boys, held as hostages across the sea. He was about to make the first of a series of mistakes that would see the end of Anglo Saxon England. He took a trip across the sea to Normandy in the hope that he could ingratiate Duke William into agreeing to release his brother, Wulfnoth, and his nephew, Hakon, who’d remained for many years as hostages in William’s keeping. Unfortunately, he was kept there for around three months, a psychological hostage himself. William would not have let Harold go until he’d got him to swear his allegiance to him, that he would support him when Edward died, to be his successor. Harold was not on his own turf, and if he had refused? William would most likely have had him killed. William was not above murdering even his own relatives. By the time Harold was able to return home, he knew that this journey had been a very dangerous one, and one that King Edward had warned him against.
So we have two men, one called Harold, who was by the time of 1066, important enough to have been elected king. His character was unblemished, except by the Normans in their post-conquest writings. To demonise him, they accused him of being culpable of Edward’s brother Alfred’s murder, but Harold would not have been old enough to have been involved at the time of Alfred’s death. This was a crime that had been levelled at Godwin, and for which Godwin had cleared himself on oath. They also reported him as being lascivious and there is no evidence to state that this was the case. He seems to have remained faithful to Edith Swanneck even after he married Aldith of Mercia. Edith was said to have been there at the Battle of Hastings. Aldith, on the other hand, was not mentioned, and in all likelihood, Harold had sent her somewhere safe, being heavily pregnant. She called him Harold, so perhaps they, too, had a good relationship. In the short while that Harold had been king, it was said that he had begun to make new laws that would punish wrong doers, and had been known to be fair and just. If he had won the fight for his crown and remained king, the laws that protected women and their property would most likely not disintegrated, and those men who had been forced to buy back their lands would have not been impoverished. Thousands of children and women would not have been made vulnerable, and the laws that had protected English customs would have continued to do so. English lands and offices would have remained in English hands and hopefully the kingdom would have continued to prosper.
William was the other man who vied for the throne. He hasn’t come off very well at the hands of many historians over the years who regarded him as cruel, avaricious and a totalitarian tyrant whose actions saw the deaths of over 100,000 people and the wasting of much English land. But William was many things to many people. To his wife, I am certain, he was a good, loyal husband. There is evidence to say that he was all of the above, but there is also evidence to say that he was generous to those who were loyal, patient with those who crossed him, sometimes giving them more than one chance to behave. He gave much land and wealth to his loyal followers -albeit not his to give away, but still, these qualities show a more humane side to him. It must have frustrated him that the English rebelled so often against him, but then what else could be expected? It’s a fact that if you oppress people long enough, and hard enough, they will rise up and rebel. Unfortunately, the English couldn’t unite for long enough to stay the pace.
William was a remarkable man; his achievements from an early age showed that he was a strong character with more resilience than any other king of that era. The mission to build a fleet and cross the sea to conquer a people who stood so stubbornly against him was an amazing feat. However, I cannot translate these extraordinary accomplishments into something that benefitted his English subjects in quite the same way as they may have his fellow countrymen. The castles were a fabulous new way of subjugating people, and they put to use many good English peasants who had to work on the building of them. They were seen as icons of injustice and domination, hated by the people they oppressed. The murdrum law, which was manipulated to protect the Normans, and not the English, from murder. The many women who fled to nunneries to escape being forced to wed William’s Norman barons for their lands. Personally, I think I know who I would have voted for, had I been around then. What about you? Who would you have preferred to serve you as king?
Carmen de Hastingae Proelio – Guy de Amiens, Bishop of Amiens
Gesta VVillelmi Ducis Normannorum et Regis Anglorum – William of Poitiers
Historia Ecclesiastica – Orderic Vitalis
Vita Edwardi – author unknown
Harold: The Last Anglo Saxon King – Ian Walker
About the author …
Paula has always wanted to write. Since she was a little girl, coming home from school to sit at the table with her notebook and write stories that buzzed around in her head. A prolific reader, she loved nothing better than to spend weekends with a book in her hand. Earliest influences such as Rosemary Sutcliffe, Leon Garfield, Charles Dickens, C.S.Lewis, inspired an interest in history. It became her lifelong wish to one day write and publish a book, but not being able to type, and having no funds for a typewriter to learn on, this ambition was reluctantly put on hold.
With the advent of PCs and a need to retrain and use a computer, this old ambition was stirred and she decided to rekindle her love of books and writing at the grand old age of 42. At this point, she had reached a turning point in her life and studied nursing, and also decided to write the book she had promised herself one day she would write.
Her debut novel, the award-winning Sons of the Wolf, was first published with the assistance of SilverWood Books in 2012. More recently she has republished it with her new publishing company, Longship Books, in Kindle. A new paperback version will be published by June. It is a story set in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest of England and the first in the Sons of the Wolf series, about this amazing time in English history. Its sequel, The Wolf Banner, followed and has been reviewed in these pages.
She has always admired the works of Sharon Penman and Bernard Cornwell, Edith Pargetter and Mary Stewart, amongst many others. History is a great love of hers and her interest in the subject goes beyond that of the keyboard. She also enjoys Anglo-Saxon re-enactment with Regia Anglorum, also a great source of research for her writing. Paula says: “Write for enjoyment, write for yourself, regardless of what others say you should; for if you don’t write what you love, then how can you expect others to love what you write.”
Follow author Paula Lofting and keep up with her news, including her magnificent new blog and impressively researched and written entries about 1066, as well as the upcoming Wolf’s Bane, third in the Sons of the Wolf series. You can find her at her blog, Twitter and Facebook.