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THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS

First published in hardback in Great Britain in 2008 byAtlantic Books, an imprint of Grove Atlantic Ltd.

First published in paperback in Great Britain in 2009 byAtlantic Books, an imprint of Grove Atlantic Ltd.

Copyright © Harriet Harvey Wood, 2008

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To my sister

William the Bastard, having driven out the legitimate king of the English, seized the kingdom.

Annales Corbeienses

O fools and sinners! Why did they not ponder contritely in their hearts that they had conquered not by their own strength but by the will of almighty God, and had subdued apeople that was greater, and more wealthy than they were, with a longer history: a people moreover amongst whom many saints and wise men and mighty kings had led illustrious lives, and wondistinction in many ways at home and on the battlefield?

Orderic Vitalis,Ecclesiastical History, book IV

CONTENTS

List of Plates

Introduction

The Background

The Contenders

The Prize

The Armies

The Prologue

The Battle

The Aftermath

The Sources

Notes

Bibliography

Index

LIST OF PLATES

1. Bayeux Tapestry: Earl Harold talks with King Edward © Bayeux/Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library

2. Bayeux Tapestry: ‘Where Harold makes his oath to Duke William’ © Bayeux/Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library

3. Jumièges Abbey Church courtesy of Nicholas J. Higham

4. Bayeux Tapestry: ‘[Harold] comes to Edward’ © Bayeux/Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library

5. Hinged clasp from the Sutton Hoo burial mound © The Trustees of the British Museum

6. Bayeux Tapestry: ‘Here sits Harold, King of the English’ © Bayeux/Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library

7. Harold’s coinage © National Portrait Gallery, London

8. Bayeux Tapestry: ‘Here King Harold is killed’ © Bayeux/Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library

9. Bayeux Tapestry: ‘And the English turn in flight’ © Bayeux/Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library

10. Map of the battlefield drawn by General E. Renouard James

11. The Benedictional of St Æthelwold © British Library Images Online

INTRODUCTION

Very few battles change history. The claim has been made for the battle of Waterloo, but Waterloo merely confirmed the course of a history that wasclearly visible before it, but had been rudely interrupted by Napoleon’s re-entry on the European stage. It marked a turning-point; it was not a catalyst. The battle of Britain is, perhaps, astronger contender. Or the battle of Lepanto. William Golding has, with some justice, claimed the distinction for Thermopylae, on the grounds that it won thirty years’ respite, enablingAthens to develop from a small provincial town to the city of Pericles that was to dominate the Mediterranean for centuries. ‘If you were a Persian,’ he writes, ‘you could notknow that this example would lead, next year, to the defeat and destruction of your whole army at the battle of Plataea, where the cities of Greece fought side by side. Neither you nor Leonidas noranyone else could foresee that here thirty years’ time was won for shining Athens and all Greece and all humanity.’i

Such a claim, if substantiated, means that what Leonidas and his Spartans achieved at Thermopylae ranks that desperate defence higher in its cultural implications than almost any other battle inhistory. John Stuart Mill claimed a similar distinction for the battle of Marathon, adding that it was more significant than the battle ofHastings, even as an event inEnglishhistory, since it changed the whole basis of western civilization. It is perhaps impossible to make a comparable claim for the significance of the battle of Hastings but it cannot bedenied that it too was a battle that was to change the face of Europe, and cause a fundamental realignment between its major players. It was, wrote one eminent historian of the Anglo-Saxon period,one of the rare battles that have decided the fate of nations. Crécy, Agincourt, Magna Carta and much more lay implicit in the early-morning mist that hung over Caldbec Hill on 14 October1066. But whatever the consequences of the battle, one fact is undisputed: it wiped out overnight a civilisation that, for its wealth, its political arrangements, its arts, its literature and itslongevity, was unique in Dark Age Europe, and deserves celebration. In the general instability, lawlessness and savagery of the times, Anglo-Saxon England stood out as a beacon. Yet the timing ofthe battle and its result were the consequences of a series of accidents that could not have been predicted by either of the commanders. William, when he fought it, was generally known throughoutEurope as William the Bastard. It has been suggested that he might more accurately have been known as William the lucky bastard.

Its outcome was far from a foregone conclusion. Any bookie, invited to give odds on the result a month before, would not have rated William’s chances very high. The betting must always beagainst the invader of a country, especially when the invasion has to be by sea, and the defender is prepared for it. Had the winds been favourable and William been able to launch his attack even amonth earlier, as he had hoped to do, it is highly likely that he would have been repelled with ignominy. Philip of Spain’s later attempt at an invasion of England failed because the windsblew, and his great Armada was scattered. The English lost the battleof Hastings not least because the winds did not blow in the right direction at the right time.

It was a battle that was much more fully documented – in itself, in its causes and in its consequences – than almost any other battle that took place in western Europe in the DarkAges. It is notable that, even at the time, it was recognized as an event of enormous historical significance. There is no shortage of testimony as to the events that led up to it nor to theconduct of the battle. The problem is that – with one exception – all this body of testimony comes from the winning side. The only contemporary English account, in the Anglo-SaxonChronicle, is stark in its simplicity:

Then came William Earl of Normandy into Pevensey on the eve of St Michael’s mass, and as soon as he had disembarked his army, he built a castle at the port ofHastings. When this was told to King Harold, he gathered a great army and came against him at the hoar apple tree. And William came upon him unawares before his men were arrayed. But the kingfought bravely against him with the men who would fight with him and there was much slaughter on either side. There were slain King Harold and Earl Leofwine his brother and Earl Gyrth hisbrother and many good men. And the Frenchmen held the place of slaughter. All as God granted it to them for the sins of the people.

On the Norman side there is, by contrast, almost a superfluity of accounts, both of the battle itself and of the events that led up to it. It will be important to establish (asfar as possible) the status and interrelations of these, and a list of the most significant of them is provided in the Sources chapter. Ideally, it should be readbeforeproceeding too far with the story, to understand the degree of authority of each. Through them it may be easier to see how it came about that King Harold lost a battle that it might have beenthought impossible for him to lose and how the conquest and pillage of England took place under the banner and with the blessing of the Vicar of Christ.

This is a story that has often been told, and will go on being told as long as there are readers willing to read about it and writers to be drawn to its characters and events and to itsinsoluble puzzles and ambiguities. Almost all writers on the subject are partial on one side or the other and I am not less so than most. A recent eminent historian of the period has announced withhis customary enthusiasm that, if he had been present, he would have been charging with William; I make no bones about stating that I would have stood beneath the standards of the Dragon of Wessexand the Fighting Man with Harold. For many years now the civilization of Anglo-Saxon England has seemed to me a wonderful and astonishing product of the late Dark Ages, a lamp to illuminate Europe,and its destruction at Hastings a matter for infinite regret. By 1066 it was an old civilization, and old civilizations tend to fall to energetic upstarts. With hindsight, and the advantages ofmodern research, it is possible to see how much of Anglo-Saxon England did actually survive the conquest, and that the combination of what survived with what was new produced a great deal that wasequally worthwhile. But much also was lost.

THE BACKGROUND

The story that ended on the battlefield of Hastings began many years earlier, when the Danes resumed their invasions of England shortly after theaccession to the English throne of Æthelred, known ignominiously but not entirely unjustifiably to history as the Unready. Viking raids had become familiar to the English in earlier years,and in a sense had never entirely ceased; but since their defeat by Alfred and his son, Edward the Elder, in the ninth and early tenth centuries and during the triumphant reign of Alfred’sgrandson, Athelstan, the Danes established in the north-east of England had gradually settled down into relatively law-abiding citizens. Athelstan’s code of laws had made special provisionfor the punishment of crimes in their territory (which gradually came to be known – for obvious reasons – as the Danelaw) by Danish, rather than English, custom. Under Athelstan’simmediate successors, such raids as there were seem to have been brief, uncoordinated affairs, designed to procure the maximum return in booty for the least investment in time and risk; during thereign of Edgar, remembered by later generations as a golden age of peace, they seem to have ceased completely. But Edgar died unexpectedly in 975, leaving two sons by successive wives, the elder,Edward, a teenager, and the younger, Æthelred, a child often. The character of Edward, despite his later sanctity as Edward the Martyr, appears to have been unattractiveand to have boded ill for his future rule; none the less his assassination three years later by a faction supporting Æthelred was carried out in an act of treachery that appalled and sickeneda society inured to almost every kind of violence. It would be too much to lay the blame for all that was to follow on the circumstances in which Æthelred began his reign; but there can belittle doubt, judging from the contemporary chronicles, that they overshadowed it to an extent from which it never really recovered, and there can be equally little doubt that the temptationoffered to the Danes by a wealthy kingdom ruled by a child of thirteen must have been irresistible.


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It was not resisted. The first of the new generation of raiders arrived in 980, met only local opposition, ravaged Hampshire, Thanet and Cheshire and departed. More came in 981 and 982, andDevon was invaded in 988. The new Viking settlement of Normandy, established in 911 by a treaty between Charles the Simple of France and the Norwegian Hrolf Ganger (better known to history asRollo), provided a convenient jumping-off point and refuge for these raiders, and the most notable response to their activities was a treaty in 991, brokered by the Pope, between Æthelred andRollo’s grandson, Duke Richard I of Normandy, which provided that neither should entertain the other’s enemies. The treaty seems to have been more honoured in the breach than theobservance, and it may have been in an attempt to secure a more effective understanding with Normandy that Æthelred in 1001 took as his second wife Emma, sister of Richard II of Normandy, adecision that was to prove fateful to England in future years. In the meantime, the raids continued and intensified. We would probably know little of one of the raids of Olaf Tryggvason, later Kingof Norway, had it not been the subject ofone of the greatest late Old English poems,The Battle of Maldon. Olaf’s herald announced the raiders’ objectivesto Byrhtnoth, the elderly ealdormaniiof Essex, in what must have been fairly standard terms:

Bold seamen send me to you, and bid me say that you must speedily buy safety with treasure; far better is it for you to buy off this battle with tribute than that we shoulddeal in bitter warfare. We need not destroy each other if you are generous to us; we are ready to establish peace for gold. If you, who are richest here, agree to ransom your people, and togive the seamen goods for truce in accordance with their demands and to accept peace from us, we will go back to our ships with the treasure, return to sea, and keep treaty with you.

Byrhtnoth rejects the raiders’ demands scornfully (‘Too shameful it seems to me that you should go with our treasure unopposed, now that you are come thus far intoour land’). Although he held the causeway to the island where the invaders had landed, and could have defended it with not more than three men, he allows the Vikings to cross the Blackwaterto the mainland so that they may fight on equal terms. Battle is joined, Byrhtnoth falls, some of his men desert, but his bodyguard fight around his corpse to the death, in accordance with the oldGermanic tradition that held it shameful to survive a fallen leader. Many of the features of the battle of Maldon in 991 foreshadow with almost uncanny accuracy the later battle at Hastings.

Byrhtnoth’s action may not have been as rash and quixotic as it seems in retrospect. If he had not allowed the Vikings to cross the causeway to fight, there was a risk that they might havetakento their ships and landed on a less well-defended part of the coast. It was his responsibility to hold them where there was at least an armed force in being to opposethem. If he had lived to give an account of his actions to the king, this might have been his excuse for his defeat. But in the story of the battle, as it has come down to us in the poem, the blamefor the defeat is laid squarely on his chivalrous action – hisofermod,or overconfidence, as it is described in the text. In the immediate future, however, the most significant resultof the battle of Maldon was that tribute was paid to the raiders within the next four months. How much was paid is not recorded; we do know that by a treaty later in the year 22,000 pounds of goldand silver was paid to Olaf Tryggvason for peace. When he returned in 994, it was in the company of Sweyn Forkbeard, son of Harold Bluetooth, King of Denmark, and with ninety-four warships. Afurther 16,000 pounds was paid. The next time the tribute amounted to 24,000 pounds. In 1002, in a political misjudgement that alone would have earned Æthelred the title ofUnrædor ‘Unready’ (literally, ‘no counsel’, presumably a pun on the king’s name, which means ‘noble counsel’, though there is no evidence that the nickname wasused during his lifetime), he ordered the massacre of all the Danes in England on the grounds that he had heard that they were planning to assassinate him. The order was meaningless, becauseimpossible to implement (in the Danelaw, there was virtually no one but Danes and the English with whom they had intermarried), but many were killed, among them Sweyn’s sister Gunnhild whowas in England as a hostage. To what extent this influenced Sweyn’s later actions we do not know, but it can hardly have had an emollient effect. In 1003 and 1004 Sweyn, by this time King ofDenmark, harried again in England. In 1007 he was paid 36,000 pounds. In 1009 he was back again with the most formidable army yet, and stayed. In 1012,48,000 pounds was paidto them. The fact that these enormous sums could be raised comparatively quickly – by a tax that came to be known as the Danegeld – is testimony alike to the wealth of the country andto the efficiency of the fiscal system inherited by the king. By 1018, the total paid over since 991 came to a staggering 240,500 pounds, including a final payment of 18,500 pounds in 1018 torecompense the Danish army with which Cnut had conquered England. The figures are so vast that many historians have doubted whether they can be accurate, suggesting that they have been exaggeratedby chroniclers. Recent research, however, has tended to vindicate the chroniclers.

The events of these disgraceful years are bitterly and sardonically recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; in 1010 the chronicler writes,

for three months they harried and burned, right into the wild fens. And they burned Thetford and Cambridge and then went southward to the Thames and those who were mountedrode towards the ships and then turned westward to Oxfordshire and thence to Buckinghamshire and so along the Ouse until they came to Bedford and so forth to Tempsford and burned everythingwherever they went. Then they went to their ships with their plunder. And when they were dispersing to their ships, then our levies should have gone out again in case they decided to turninland. Then the levies went home. And when the invaders were in the east, then our levies were in the west, and when they were in the south, then were our levies in the north. Then all theWitan [the king’s Great Council] were called to the king to advise him how the land should be protected; butwhatever was advised lasted no longer than a month andfinally there was no man who would raise levies, but each fled as far as he could. No shire would any longer help its neighbour.

And all these misfortunes, he adds, befell the English through lack of good counsel, in that tribute was not paid in time, but only after the Danes had done as much harm as theycould; ‘and when peace had been made and tribute paid, they went wherever they would and raped and slew our wretched people’. The whole country suffered from a collective loss ofmorale; Sweyn was accepted as King of England in 1013, and at Christmas King Æthelred followed his wife and his two sons by her into exile in Normandy. He was to return to England and histhrone for a brief period after the death of Sweyn in February 1014, on condition that he would rule better than he had done before (an interestingly early constitutional agreement between peopleand king), and died in London in 1016, leaving his eldest surviving son by his first marriage, King Edmund Ironside, to defend England against Sweyn’s son Cnut. This he did effectively,winning four outright victories before he was betrayed at the battle of Assandun later in the same year. The struggle between Edmund and Cnut ended in a peace treaty and the division of the kingdombetween them; but the suspicious death (almost certainly murder) of Edmund in November 1016 left the whole of England in Cnut’s hands.

It has been said that Cnut fought as the son of Sweyn Forkbeard, but ruled as the brother of Edmund Ironside. The chronicler William of Malmesbury reports him as praying at the latter’stomb at Glastonbury. In one charter of 1018, he includes the words ‘when I, King Cnut, succeeded to the kingdom after King Edmund’. Whatever his feelings for his former enemy,fraternal or otherwise, they did not prevent him from sending the two infant sons of Edmund Ironside out of the country, delivering them to the King of Sweden with, according to someaccounts, a request that they should be killed. This the Swedish king apparently felt unable to do but passed the children on to hosts elsewhere. At some stage during their wanderings, one of themdied, but the survivor, Edward the Athelingiii, eventually reached the court of Hungary where he grew to manhood, prospered and married. Nor did Cnuthesitate to eliminate the remaining sons of Æthelred by his first marriage. In the meantime, he established his rule over England, and sought to make it more acceptable by sending for Emma,the Norman widow of King Æthelred, and marrying her. Since she was presumably still living in Normandy at this time (though she may have returned with Æthelred in 1014), it seems likelythat her remarriage took place with the approval of her brother, the Duke of Normandy. By her, Cnut had one son, Harthacnut, and a daughter; by an earlier, probably handfast marriageivto an Englishwoman, Ælfgifu of Northampton (with whom he must have continued his relationship since she later appears in the records as co-regent in Norway),he already had two sons, Sweyn and Harold Harefoot, a situation that made future contention almost inevitable. In the short term, he was probably seeking to forestall any Norman attempt at therestoration of one of Emma’s exiled sons by Æthelred by diverting the Duke of Normandy’s attention from his nephews by Æthelred to his nephew by Cnut. In the meantime, hetook over the administration of England very much as he inherited it from his predecessors: he recognized its ancient laws, honoured its Church and gave peace to a much-harassed people, largelythrough the fact that he was able to protect them from the Danish raids that in the recent past had played so large a part in disturbing it.During the years that he ruledEngland, despite the bloodbath with which he began his reign, he achieved a greater degree of assimilation to and acceptance by the English than the later conqueror was to do. His brother, KingHarald of Denmark, had died in 1018 or 1019, leaving Cnut to succeed to the Danish and, later, the Norwegian thrones in addition to the English. His dominions have been dubbed ‘the Empire ofthe North’; the degree of his acceptance and security in England is best indicated by his ability to leave it to be governed by regents while he secured his position in Denmark andNorway.

What the extensive areas he controlled mainly did for England was to reopen to it the routes for trade and external contact, especially in the Baltic, from which it had been largely cut offduring the troubles of Æthelred’s reign. In this his personal choices and priorities made a substantial contribution to the peace and prosperity of England. Whatever his ability as awarrior (he is said to have declined Edmund Ironside’s challenge to personal combat on the grounds that he was much the smaller), his diplomatic skills were clearly of a high order, and hewelcomed the possibilities of interaction with the rulers of Europe. Sir Frank Stenton summarizes Cnut’s achievements:

His own conception of his place among sovereigns was expressed to all the world in 1027, when he travelled to Rome in order to attend the coronation of Conrad, the HolyRoman Emperor. In part, his journey was a work of devotion. Rome, to him, was the city of the apostles Peter and Paul, and its bishop was the teacher of kings. Early in his own reign he hadreceived a letter from Pope Benedict VIII, exhorting him to suppress injustice, and to use his strength in the service of peace. In thechurches which he visited on theway to Rome he appeared as a penitent. But he was also a statesman, and there is no doubt that he regarded the coronation of an emperor as an appropriate moment for a gesture of respect towardsthe formidable power which threatened his Jutish frontier. It was also an opportunity for negotiations on behalf of traders and pilgrims from northern lands who had long been aggrieved by theheavy tolls levied at innumerable points on the road to Rome. Before the company dispersed he had secured valuable concessions from the emperor himself, the king of Burgundy, and the otherprinces through whose territory the great road ran. From the pope he obtained a relaxation of the immoderate charges hitherto imposed on English bishops visiting Rome for theirpallia.v

The possibility that he may have aimed to model his rule on that of Alfred suggests itself. Alfred also made pilgrimages to Rome, Alfred also seized the opportunity while he wasthere to negotiate better terms and conditions for English pilgrims, Alfred also conducted international diplomacy on a scale of which few of his predecessors except Offa of Mercia were capable;and Alfred married his daughter into a European royal family, as Cnut was also later to do.

One minor innovation in particular was to establish itself in England. Cnut, as a king who had come to his throne by conquest rather than by rightful succession or election, perhapsunderstandably surrounded himself with a bodyguard of formidably efficient professional fighting men who became known as housecarls. Such a force may have been an innovation in England but inDenmark one had probably existed for some time. Cnut’sgrandfather, Harold Bluetooth, is said to have established a colony of such men at Jómsborg, at the mouthof the Oder. This was no casual Viking settlement but a body of men bound together by loyalty to the king and to each other and by a code of behaviour designed to promote the wellbeing and honourof the company. Several of the Danish housecarls had appeared in England during Æthelred’s reign and played an active part in affairs during his successor’s. Cnut’s Englishbodyguard may have been constructed on the same lines as the Jómsborg Vikings (though there is no reference to such a body in his code of laws) and it gradually came to form the core of theEnglish army, paid for by the Danegeld, more properly known as the heregeld or army tax; in many cases individual housecarls were rewarded with land, and the distinction between them and other ofthe king’s thegns and landowners became imperceptible. The chief duty of the royal housecarls was to guard the king and to provide the first defence of the country in time of war. As timewent on, the great lords of Anglo-Saxon England would have employed their own housecarls who would go to war with them; they became the eleventh-century equivalent of thecomitatus, the bodyof retainers described by Tacitus in hisGermania,who served their lord in war and defended him to the death. The army that fought at Hastings would have included both royal housecarls andthose of the chief landowners who were present at the battle.


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The strongest recommendation of Cnut’s reign, as has been remarked, is that his contemporaries found so little to say about it. His comparatively early death in 1035 left the kingdom tothe chaos of a disputed inheritance. Neither he nor any of his sons appears to have been physically robust. It is an ironic reflection that, if Cnut had been as healthy and lived as long as Edwardthe Confessor (there cannot have been more than a few years between them in age), therewould never have been a Norman Conquest. It is probable that Cnut had intended his sonby Emma to succeed him; but Harthacnut’s absence in Denmark at the time of his father’s death left the way open for his half-brother, Harold Harefoot (Sweyn had predeceased his father),to fill the vacancy, first theoretically as regent until Harthacnut could return, but later as King Harold I. His tenure of the throne was brief; but it included one event that was to producereverberations as late as 1066.

During Cnut’s relatively peaceful reign, his stepsons Edward and Alfred, Emma’s children by Æthelred, had grown up in Normandy. We know little of their life there. They do notseem, for example, ever to have been granted land or honours in Normandy when they reached adulthood, though their sister was respectably married to the Count of the Vexin. On the occasions whenthey appear as charter witnesses there, their names generally occur rather insultingly low in the order of precedence. In 1033 William’s father, Duke Robert, assembled a fleet for thepurpose, it was said, of assisting the young athelings to regain their inheritance. The fleet lay for some time at Jersey and then sailed for Mont St Michel to attack Brittany instead. It washardly a convincing gesture of support. On the other hand, they do appear to have been recognized as the rightful heirs of their father, despite their mother’s subsequent marriage to hisconqueror and the birth of another son. Emma herself appears to have remembered them only intermittently, at least in public, her main ambitions being centred on her son Harthacnut, a fact thataroused the lasting resentment of her eldest son Edward. In 1036 the younger brother, Alfred the Atheling, returned to England, to visit his mother at Winchester. According to the anonymous authorof the life of Emma, he was lured over by a forged letter from Harold Harefoot, written in Emma’s name, asking that one of her sonscome to her immediately to discusshow the throne might be regained.viWhether this story is true or not, it is unlikely that he was coming simply to make a social call. On the other hand,he does not seem to have arrived in any kind of strength. According to the life of Emma, he brought only a few men. He was intercepted by Godwin, Earl of Wessex and handed over by him to KingHarold Harefoot who had Alfred’s men murdered or mutilated and the Atheling himself blinded so savagely that he died of his wounds at Ely.

Blinding was not at that time a very unusual punishment (after 1066 it was, for example, the penalty for poaching one of the royal deer). Like other forms of mutilation common at the time (andpromoted by the Church in England as a more merciful fate than death), it was designed to render the victim harmless. None the less in this instance it created consternation. (It may be noted thatit is unlikely that so common an act of Dark Age violence would have aroused such surprise or revulsion in other countries; that it did so in England indicates the extent to which a less savage andmore law-abiding society had prevailed there.) Harold Harefoot’s motives are perfectly clear; the Atheling posed an obvious threat to his power. Godwin’s motives are less clear. He hadvoted for Harthacnut’s succession and against Harold after Cnut’s death, and this may have appeared a way to reinstate himself in the king’s good graces. In later years, when hecame to trial for his part in the crime, he maintained that in surrendering Alfred to Harold’s men, he was acting under the king’s orders and had not known that the Atheling’smutilation was intended. Whatever the facts of the case, it shocked the inhabitants of England, most of whom had probably virtually forgotten the Atheling’s existence during the peaceful daysof Cnut’s reign. Never was a bloodier deed done in this land since the Danes came, declared the Anglo-SaxonChronicle, which recorded the death of ‘the guiltlessAtheling’ in a burst of poetry. Whatever Godwin’s motives, his part in the crime permanently stained his name and soured his relations with Alfred’s brother Edward when the lattereventually succeeded to the throne. Not the least of the Norman accusations against Godwin’s son Harold in future years would be the fact that his father had betrayed a prince of the royalhouse of Wessex who was kin to their duke and was under Norman protection.

If Godwin had hoped to propitiate Harold Harefoot by his betrayal of the Atheling, he might have saved himself the trouble. Within four years Harold was dead, succeeded by his half-brother,Harthacnut, who had been Godwin’s candidate for the throne all along. Harthacnut lasted a bare two years on the throne before dropping dead at a bridal feast, but during his short reign heinvited his half-brother, the Atheling Edward, by now the only surviving son of Æthelred, to return to England and (it is assumed) to succeed him. Thus, after a gap of twenty-four years, thedirect heir of the royal house of Wessex returned to the English throne.

It is difficult, on the limited evidence available, to assess the character of King Edward fairly. In part, this is due to the atmosphere of piety spread retrospectively over his life by theappellation – which he acquired only after his death – of St Edward the Confessor. What is definitively known of him suggests that his later sainthood may have been no more deservedthan the title of ‘the Martyr’ was merited by his uncle Edward, assassinated in 978 for the benefit of his father Æthelred. The only thing we know of his personality is that heseems to have had a tendency to fly into ungovernable rages. The main characteristic that can be deduced from his policies is a determination never to leave England again. The situation in Englandto which he returned, though clearlypreferable to his former position of impoverished hanger-on at the ducal court in Normandy, cannot have been without difficulty, and it ismuch to his credit that he negotiated it so successfully that he contrived (though clearly no warrior-king, like his half-brother Edmund Ironside) to die peacefully in his bed after a relativelyprosperous reign of twenty-four years. His biography, theVita Ædwardi Regis,commissioned by his wife,portrays him as an old man, majestic, white-haired and white-bearded, allhis thoughts fixed on the next world. He is probably more realistically described by his twentieth-century biographer:

If there is one trait that runs through the whole and can usefully be stressed at the beginning, it is Edward’s ability to survive. Despite an inclination to rashnessand inflexibility, he was blessed with a saving caution. And there is a general characteristic which must be held in mind. Edward was never aroi fainéantor a puppet ruler.Although he was neither a wise statesman nor a convincing soldier, he was both belligerent and worldly-wise. He caused most of his enemies to disappear and outlived almost all who had disputedhis authority. He wasrex piissimus,a fortunate king, blessed by Heaven.vii

Since, however, it was during his reign that the faultlines that were to lead to Hastings became perceptible, we must make some effort to understand him.

He was born in or around 1005, and can therefore have been a child of no more than seven or eight when his mother took him to her native Normandy as an exile. He seems to have made a briefreappearance in England when his father Æthelred was restored to his throne in 1014. Apart from one or two rather half-heartedskirmishes around the coast, he saw nomore of England until his return as heir-presumptive to Harthacnut in 1041. Since he was educated from childhood at the Norman court, we may assume that he was bred to arms as no other form ofeducation for a king’s son would have been contemplated there. Whatever his belligerent impulses, he seems never to have put such an education into practical use. There is no credibleevidence of his appearance on any battlefield. According to the ScandinavianFlateyjarbók, he fought beside his brother Edmund in 1016 and nearly killed Cnut, but this is a very latefourteenth-century source and cannot be regarded as reliable. Since he could only have been eleven or twelve at the time, this story seems particularly unlikely. Cnut may not have been a greatwarrior, making up in guile what he lacked in physical prowess, but he cannot have been as feeble as that. Of the personalities who then dominated England he knew nothing. It is improbable that heeven spoke much English. If he did, it would certainly have been as a foreigner. In the first few years after his return, he must have had much to learn. One of the things he must have learned veryquickly was that, though he enjoyed a substantial reservoir of goodwill in the country as a whole as the last representative of the line of Alfred, in practice he held the throne only through thecontinuing support of the dominant nobles of the kingdom, and in particular three of them: Siward, Earl of Northumbria; Leofric, Earl of Mercia; and Godwin, Earl of Wessex. All three had originallybeen appointed by Cnut; all enjoyed considerable power in their own domains. The prospect of asserting his authority over them might well have daunted more forceful men than Edward.

His first conspicuous action, almost as soon as he was crowned, was with the support of all three and revealed much both about Edward’s own character and the reserves of resentment he felthehad to pay off. In company with the three great earls, he rode without warning to Winchester where his mother, Emma, was living, stripped her of all that she owned,‘untold riches in silver and gold’, and abandoned her there with a bare subsistence. The reason given for this in one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is that in past days she hadbeen very hard towards him, and had done less for him than he had wished before he was king. A more practical reason may have been that she had control of the royal treasury, which was normallykept in Winchester, the old capital of the kingdom. She may have been holding it on behalf of her son Harthacnut, and using it to interfere in matters of state (one version of the Chronicle statesthat she was holding it ‘against him’). The fact that he was accompanied on his raid by the three most powerful men in the land indicates that there was more than a private grudge here,but a private grudge there must undoubtedly have been, and the fact that it, rather than a perfectly legitimate public reason, is officially recorded in the Chronicle suggests that it must havebeen widely known. Whatever lay behind his actions, it signalled Emma’s retirement from public life. Her death is recorded in 1051.

In the meantime, Edward had to come to terms with the main men of his new kingdom. Of the three great earls, his most difficult relationship was with Godwin. To begin with, Godwin was on hisdoorstep. Northumbria was far distant, alien, Danish territory, and Edward would not be the first King of England never to visit it. There is no evidence that his father ever went there, apart froman attack on the Danes in Cumbria in 1000. Siward, a Dane himself, was powerful, but he concerned himself only minimally with the affairs of central government; his chief preoccupations were withhis frontier with Scotland and with potential threats from Scandinavia. Mercia, stretching right acrossthe English midlands from Wales to the North Sea, was nearer, but notnear enough to demand Edward’s attention on a daily basis; and with Leofric he had no quarrel. Wessex, which included most of the south of England, including London, Winchester and most ofthe king’s own lands, was unavoidable, and with Godwin he had a very definite quarrel, since he held him responsible for the death of his younger brother Alfred. On the other hand, Godwinseems to have played the greatest part in supporting Edward’s claim to the throne. This was almost certainly not entirely disinterested. Godwin had six sons who needed to be provided withearldoms, and he had daughters, one of whom might prove to be the mother of an heir to the throne. We do not know what arguments were used to persuade Edward that Godwin’s eldest daughter,Edith, would make him a suitable queen. Whatever they were, he did not resist them, and the marriage took place in 1044. To Edith herself, there seem to have been no objections; records describeher as beautiful, accomplished, well-educated and pious. From surviving stories, she also appears to have been humourless, acquisitive and arrogant. None the less, marriage to the daughter of theman whom Edward regarded as responsible for his brother’s death must have been an unwelcome pill to swallow, and the fact that the marriage proved childless raised inevitable speculation.

At the outset of Edward’s reign, the lack of an obvious heir cannot have appeared as a serious problem to anyone. Aged no more than thirty-eight when he succeeded to the throne, he hadample time to provide an heir of his own body, and his wife, who must have been in her early twenties when she married, came of a conspicuously prolific family. The legend of Edward’s vow oflifelong celibacy had its origins later in his reign, and, in due course, did much to strengthen his claims to sanctity; but it is notimpossible that, jostled into marriagewith the daughter of the man against whom he maintained an unremitting grudge, he hit on this expedient to deny Godwin what he wanted most: a grandson who was heir to the throne. It would have beentypical of what can be deduced of his sense of humour.

It was only in 1051 that the cracks in the political façade began to surface. They showed then through an incident that seemed, in its apparent total irrelevance and irrationality,entirely unplanned. Edward’s brother-in-law, Eustace of Boulogne, second husband of his sister Godgifu, came to England on a visit to the king at Gloucester, and, in the words of one versionof the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘spoke with him what he would’ and set off home. As he approached Dover, he and his men stopped to eat, and, for no explained reason, put on their armour.In Dover, they attempted to commandeer lodgings by force. One of Eustace’s men wounded a householder when he tried to enter his home against his will and was killed by the outraged townsman.A riot immediately broke out; Eustace and his men slew the townsman on his own hearth and then more than twenty other men throughout the town. The citizens retaliated by killing nineteen ofEustace’s men and wounding as many more. Eustace escaped with his remaining followers and returned to the king at Gloucester where he appears to have given Edward a very one-sided account ofthe fracas. The king, enraged, sent for Godwin and ordered him to carry war into Dover and punish the town. Godwin refused, being loath, as the Chronicle reports, to harm his own people.


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The reports of the incident raise many questions, few of which can be pursued in detail here. Why did Eustace come to talk to his brother-in-law at this particular time? Boulogne was along-standing ally of England, there might have been good diplomaticreasons for Eustace’s visit, but they are not explained in the sources. Why did Eustace, on hisjourney home, stop to arm before entering Dover? There was no reason why the townspeople should have been assumed to be hostile until they were provoked. Whatever lay behind it, the consequenceswere great. Godwin’s refusal to punish the town infuriated the king, who summoned the most important men in the country to Gloucester for a meeting of the Witan, the general council of thekingdom. The coincidence with these events of a rising by the Welsh on the frontier in the earldom of Godwin’s eldest son Sweyn may have been chance or may not. Accusations against Godwin,who had become too powerful too fast, were being made to the king. Robert of Jumièges, the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury (who had managed to insinuate himself into the appointment againstGodwin’s candidate, though the latter was supported by the monks of Canterbury), alleged that Godwin was plotting Edward’s death as he had plotted his brother’s. In the meantime,Godwin with his sons Sweyn and Harold were assembling their men at Beverstone in order to go to the king in force to present their case. The northern earls Siward and Leofric, summoned to a meetingof the Witan, arrived with a modest entourage but, finding the south in uproar, sent hastily for reinforcements to support the king. There was then a period of stand-off. The forces confrontingeach other must have been fairly evenly balanced, but it is noticeable that no one was prepared to strike the first blow or be responsible for tipping the country into civil war. It was realized,says the Chronicle, that this would be great unwisdom, since it would leave the kingdom open to attack by its enemies. This is worth marking as possibly the first recorded instance of all the greatmen of the kingdom deliberately drawing back from war in the interests of the country at large. The matter wasadjourned to a hearing in London in September, to which Godwinand his sons were summoned to defend themselves against accusations of treason.

By the time of the hearing, Edward had, with considerable adroitness, strengthened his position to such an extent that he was able to order Godwin to present himself in court with no more thantwelve men to support him; he refused, through Stigand, Bishop of Winchester, to give Godwin hostages for his safety, adding the slightly sinister message that Godwin could have peace and pardononly when he returned to Edward his brother Alfred, alive and well, with all his followers and possessions. Godwin, a pragmatic man if ever there was one, rode to the coast and took ship forFlanders with all his family, except his sons Harold and Leofwine who fled to the Viking kingdom of Dublin. Edward sent Bishop Ealdred in pursuit of Harold and Leofwine, but he could not catchthem, ‘or [said the Chronicle] he would not’. All were outlawed. Queen Edith was stripped of her possessions and consigned to the custody of the king’s half-sister, who was Abbessof Wherwell. There are indications that considerable pressure was put on Edward to divorce her, probably by Robert of Jumièges. If there was, he resisted it. It was a wonderful business,says the Chronicle, because Godwin was so exalted that he ruled the king and all England, and his sons were earls and the king’s favourites.

Flanders was a natural refuge for English political exiles. Together with Normandy, it had also proved, over the past century, a convenient jumping-off point for Viking marauders, and an equallyconvenient place for them to sell the booty they obtained in England. Much of Edward’s foreign policy was designed to neutralize or contain the hostility of the Count of Flanders; the recentmarriage of Godwin’s third son, Tostig, tothe count’s half-sister can have done as little to reassure Edward as the marriage of William of Normandy to thecount’s daughter Matilda at about this time. There were suspicions that William’s choice of Matilda could have been influenced by the fact that she could claim descent from King Alfredthrough her father. Godwin lay low and waited.

In the meantime, the D Chronicle, the northern version, records an event unnoted by any other sources, English or Norman. Immediately after the outlawing of the Godwin family, it says, EarlWilliam came from beyond the sea with many Frenchmen and was received by the king and then went home again. If William of Normandy did indeed pay a visit to Edward at this time, it is almostincredible that this is not mentioned by the E or C versions of the Chronicle, especially E, which is so closely associated with Canterbury and whose writer must have been much nearer to the sceneof action than the author of the D version. However, there are many instances throughout the history of the Chronicle when its silence in a certain year is contradicted by evidence in other sourcesthat recordable events had in fact taken place. This may be one example of an inexplicable silence, and the absence of comment in E and C, therefore, cannot necessarily be taken to mean thatWilliam’s visit did not happen. It is, however, even more incredible that it should not have been recorded by the Norman chroniclers, who could have turned it to so much advantage whenWilliam needed to bolster his claim to the throne. There are, as will be seen, good reasons for doubting whether the visit ever took place. But either way, there is plenty of evidence that inGodwin’s absence foreigners, particularly Normans, were in the ascendent at court.

In the meantime Godwin was preparing to try his luck in England again. Harold and Leofwine made a preliminary raidingexpedition from Dublin to Porlock in summer 1052 andthen retreated after harrying Porlock and its environs and provisioning their ships. Godwin left the river Yser on 22 June and arrived off Sandwich, after landing briefly at Dungeness where hereceived a warm welcome. The king sent out ships to take him but Godwin evaded them and, when a storm blew up, returned to Bruges. The king, in a piece of strategy reminiscent of his father, thendecommissioned part of his fleet to save money. A rendezvous between Godwin and his sons was eventually effected in August, and their united fleet sailed along the south coast of Sussex and Kent,carefully refraining from any kind of harrying or pressure of the inhabitants of what had been part of Godwin’s earldom. They did, however, encourage volunteers, and by the time they roundedthe North Foreland had assembled a formidable fleet and army, with which they sailed up the Thames as far as Southwark, where Godwin had a large manor and where the Londoners were generallyfriendly to him. The king had sent out an appeal for troops and ships but the response was slow. On this occasion, Godwin had the advantage in strength and was given passage through London Bridgeby the townspeople. Once through, he drew up his ships to encircle the king’s and the two fleets sat and looked at each other.

Godwin sent emissaries to the king to open negotiations, asserting that he had no desire to attack and only sought permission to come before the king and clear himself. Leofric and Siward madeit equally clear that they were not prepared to fight Godwin. Civil war could only damage their lands and property, and they may, for all we know, have been as opposed to the idea of foreigndomination at court as Godwin clearly was. Robert of Jumièges and his friends read the writing on the wall, as Godwin had done a year earlier. They did not wait for Godwin to meetthe king but fled London, killing a number of the townspeople in their haste, sailed from Essex in a clapped-out old ship and made for Normandy; they left behind Robert’spallium, the symbol of his position as archbishop, in their hurry. Stigand, acting once again as intermediary, arranged the audience with the king, where Godwin and Harold, fully armed, threwthemselves at his feet, casting aside their weapons, and asked for leave to clear themselves. Edward, in no position to refuse, listened to Godwin’s case, gave him the kiss of peace andrestored to him and his sons (with the exception of Sweyn, whose murder of his cousin Bjorn and abduction and rape of the abbess of Leominster had sent him on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the courseof which he died) the earldoms that had been forfeited. His short bid for independence from the Godwins was over. The queen returned from Wilton to which she seems to have been moved from Wherwelland resumed her usual place at the king’s side. Stigand’s diplomatic efforts were rewarded with Robert’s archbishopric of Canterbury, which he continued to hold in plurality withhis bishopric of Winchester; this caused great offence in Rome, not so much because Stigand retained Winchester (holding appointments in plurality was deplored but hardly unusual in the eleventhcentury), but because Robert had been uncanonically superseded. The offence was compounded by the fact that Stigand economically kept Robert’s pallium for his own use.

The king did not have to maintain his appearance of friendship with Godwin for very long. Godwin died in 1053, felled by a stroke at the king’s Easter feast. He was succeeded as Earl ofWessex by his son Harold who thus became the richest and most powerful man in the kingdom. On the death of Siward in 1055, Tostig, Harold’s next brother, received his earldom of Northumbria;Mercia passed to Ælfgar, Leofric’s son, on hisfather’s death in 1057; and Gyrth, Godwin’s fourth son, succeeded to East Anglia, which had been heldsuccessively by Harold and Ælfgar. The possessions of the Godwin family, added together, dwarfed the king’s. On the other hand, Harold’s relationship with the king was much easierthan his father’s had been, and it seems clear that Edward gradually came to rely on his strength and ability more and more, to the extent that he is described in the Chronicles assubregulus,under-king. Edward’s relations with Tostig seem to have been even warmer. But there was still no heir, and it was clearly unlikely that Edward and Edith would have a child,still less that he would have reached an age to be able to rule by the time his father died. It may have been the urging of his councillors that persuaded Edward to look elsewhere for a successor,and remember that his half-brother, King Edmund Ironside, had left sons. One of them, Edward the Atheling or Exile, was still living at the court of Hungary, and steps were taken to fetch him hometo England as heir-apparent.

There were diplomatic problems over this, caused by wars between Flanders, the German emperor and Hungary. Bishop Ealdred of Worcester was sent with a mission to Cologne in 1054 to seek the helpof Emperor Henry III of Germany in contacting the King of Hungary and negotiating for the return of the Atheling. But the diplomatic relations between Germany and Hungary were strained at thistime, and, after waiting for a year, Ealdred was obliged to come home without success. The death of Henry III in 1056 made it possible for a second attempt to be made, and it may well have beenEarl Harold who made it; his name as witness to a Flemish diploma issued by his brother-in-law, the Count of Flanders on 13 November 1056 is suggestive. The count himself travelled on to Cologneand Regensberg where he spent Christmas; if Harold went with him, it would not havebeen difficult to contact the Hungarian court from Regensburg. There is no proof that hedid so, other than an indication in theVita Ædwardithat Harold had been travelling on the Continent at about this time, and the fact of his witnessing of the Flemish diploma. Whetherthrough Harold’s persuasions or not, the Atheling did agree to return, though it was not till 1057 that he reached English soil. He brought with him a Hungarian wife, Agatha, his son, Edgar,and two daughters, Margaret and Christina. Within days of landing in London, he died without even seeing his uncle, and was buried in St Paul’s. It was inevitable that there should have beensuspicions of foul play, but it is hard to see whom a murder could have benefited. Not the king, certainly, and not the chief men of the kingdom who were desperate for a clear, undoubted heir. IfHarold had privately had his sights on the throne at this date (and there is no evidence that he had), it would have been a simple matter for him to prevent the exile’s return or to have himmurdered much further from England. Nor had there ever been suspicions of this kind against him, though there had been allegations of the kind against William of Normandy, several of whoseopponents met deaths in doubtful circumstances. It is far more probable that the exile died from natural causes; he had undergone a long and dangerous journey, he was a middle-aged man of aboutforty (elderly by contemporary standards though no older than Harold was to be in 1066), and may well have been in poor health anyway. The Witan was left with his son, Edgar, a child of six.

THE CONTENDERS

The question of the succession to Edward is clouded by uncertainty and lack of conclusive evidence, but this has not prevented innumerable scholarsfrom attempting to assess the legitimacy of the competition. In a sense, the question is irrelevant, since the problem was ultimately to be resolved by force, but the various possibilities are ofsome importance in accounting for the actions of the people involved. In the mid-eleventh century there was no right of primogeniture in England either for the throne or in family inheritance tothe extent that there was in Normandy and some other parts of Europe. Kingship was elective, though with a prejudice in favour of candidates from the ruling house. The situation regarding kingshipin England was set out concisely by the monk and homilist Ælfric at the end of the tenth century:

No man can make himself king, but the people have the choice to elect whom they like; but after he is consecrated king, he has authority over the people, and they cannotshake his yoke off their necks.viii

The child Edgar was only one of many who saw themselves as rivals for England, though lineally he may have had the best claim. Hewas of the royal blood,throne-worthy. The title of ‘atheling’ was normally reserved for the sons of reigning kings, and Edward the Exile had never reigned. The fact, therefore, that he was known as theAtheling in King Edward’s lifetime is significant and implies that Edward regarded him as a likely successor – which in itself undermines William’s claim that the king had givenhis promise to him. Lineage, however, was only one of several factors to be considered before a new king of England was crowned. Descent from the royal line of Wessex was important; but it was farfrom being the most important requirement. The emphasis throughout the pre-conquest period seems to have been on the most credible candidate whenever there was a choice, as there usually was. Themain consideration was the safety of the kingdom; in considering the claims of Edgar, the king’s councillors would not have forgotten the invasions and ultimate conquest that had followed thechild Æthelred’s accession in 978. In the past a deceased king’s eldest son might have been passed over, because he was too young, because it was not felt that he was the best manto defend the realm or because there was a later son by a more powerful mother. It was said that Emma had made it a condition of her marriage to Æthelred that their sons should takeprecedence over his sons by his previous marriage. In fact, Æthelred was succeeded by Edmund Ironside, a son of the earlier marriage, because Emma’s sons were not of an age to opposeCnut nor on the spot. Anglo-Saxon kings tended to die young, leaving eldest sons of tender years. King Alfred himself had succeeded three elder brothers who had held the throne in turn, one of whom(Æthelred I) had left at least one son, partly because it had been so set down in the will of his father, King Æthelwulf, but mainly because he was deemed the best available defender ofthe kingdom against the Danes at that time and his nephew was young anduntried. If Alfred had not already proved himself a competent general, it is probable that hisfather’s will would have been disregarded or at least challenged. Later, his own eldest son and successor had to deal with the resentment of the cousin who felt his claims had been set aside.However, Edgar, despite his youth, was still a factor, as was shown by his election as king by all the councillors in London, as soon as the death of Harold at Hastings was known.


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The main considerations in the selection of the heir were royal blood; nomination by the late king; election by the Witan; and the ability to defend the kingdom. With the death of Edward theExile, the king’s councillors were left with no one who fulfilled all of them. Edgar, grandson of King Edmund Ironside, had the royal blood, but was not, by age, upbringing or experience,qualified to undertake the land’s defence. There were the two sons of King Edward’s own sister, Godgifu, who, like her brothers, had been brought up in Normandy and had been married,first to Count Drogo of the Vexin, and, after his death, to Count Eustace of Boulogne, the author of the fracas at Dover. Her elder son, Walter, had succeeded his father as Count of the Vexin, buthad been offered the county of Maine in his wife’s right on the death of her brother the Count of Maine in 1051; Walter and his wife died by what was reputed to be poison shortly afterWilliam of Normandy’s conquest of Maine to which, he claimed, he had been promised the succession himself. The fact that Walter was so close in line to the English throne and that he and hiswife were in Norman custody at the time they died did nothing to allay the suspicions that their deaths inevitably aroused. Orderic Vitalis says carefully that they were poisoned ‘by the evilmachinations of their enemies’, of whom William was certainly one of the most prominent; he repeats the allegation later in his history. Poisoningwas certainly notuncommon at the Norman court; William of Jumièges suggests that Duke Richard III was poisoned by his brother, William’s father, Duke Robert. Walter’s younger brother, Ralph, hadfollowed his uncle Edward to England shortly after his succession and had been made Earl of Hereford; he was known in England, unenviably, as Ralph the Timid, and if he was of a naturally unwarlikedisposition, the rule of an earldom on the Welsh marches can have done little to encourage him. He died in 1057, in the same year as Edward the Exile, leaving an infant son and was therefore out ofthe running, though in view of his reputation, it is unlikely that he would have received many votes in the Witan anyway.

Outside the king’s close relatives, there were a number of other claimants. One of the most formidable, as well as the most absurd in lineal terms, was Harald Sigurdsson, King of Norway,known to history as Harald Hardrada or Harald Hardcounsel. His claim went back beyond King Edward to the reign of King Harthacnut who, he maintained, had made an agreement with Harald’snephew, King Magnus Olafson of Norway, before Harthacnut returned to England to claim his crown and while he was at war with Magnus for the crown of Denmark. By this agreement, whichever of the twoof them should outlive the other would inherit the other’s kingdom (or kingdoms, since Magnus continued to claim Denmark as well as England by right of this agreement); and under it, Haraldmaintained his claim to both the English and the Danish crowns as the heir and successor of King Magnus. Much of Harald Hardrada’s time as King of Norway was absorbed by his struggle withKing Sweyn Estrithson for the Danish crown; if he had chosen to enforce his English claim earlier, he would have been a formidable threat, for he was regarded as beyond doubt the strongest and mostdreaded warriorof his age and had, during a long life of battle and plunder in most parts of Europe and Byzantium, earned a reputation for courage, guile, cruelty and greedsecond to none. In his youth, after the death of his half-brother, King Olaf (later St Olaf), at the battle of Stiklestad where he also fought, he had fled through Sweden and the Viking states inRussia to Byzantium where he joined, and very soon captained, the renowned Varangian Guard, the elite Scandinavian bodyguard of the emperor. The Varangians’ reputation for expertise in everyform of warfare was well deserved, and their skills were kept well honed by the continual wars, internal and external, that the Byzantine emperors were engaged in. They were also specialists in theacquisition of plunder, from which Harald is reputed to have amassed a colossal fortune. He left Byzantium in 1043, returned through Kiev, marrying Grand Prince Yaroslav’s daughter Elisabethon the way, and reached Sweden in 1045. His immediate goal was the throne of Norway, held then by his nephew, Magnus Olafsson; after much negotiation, bloodshed and chicanery he eventually achieveda joint kingship with Magnus, inheriting the whole kingdom when Magnus died childless in 1047. Harald was then free to continue his struggle with Sweyn Estrithson for the throne of Denmark. Hisdesigns on England were well known there.

Sweyn Estrithson, son of Cnut’s sister Estrith, had his own claim to England to maintain. As Cnut’s nephew – who had survived Cnut’s sons – he was heir to a formerKing of England and he asserted that Edward the Confessor had promised that he should inherit if Edward died childless. There are reasons to doubt the likelihood of this promise. Sweyn was closelyconnected with the Godwin family. His father, Ulf, husband of Cnut’s sister Estrith, was brother of Godwin’s wife Gytha; Godwin had certainly fostered Sweyn’s brother Bjorn in hisfamily, and Bjornhad made his home in England and prospered there, until he was treacherously murdered by Godwin’s eldest son, Sweyn. Sweyn Estrithson may also havespent part of his boyhood at least in the Godwin household. The idea that Edward would voluntarily bequeath his throne to Godwin’s nephew by marriage, even though he was Cnut’s heir inDenmark, is implausible. When Sweyn appealed to Edward in 1049 for ships to help him in his struggle with Magnus of Norway, and Godwin sensibly recommended sending them since Magnus was muchstronger than Sweyn and was known to be planning an invasion of England, Edward refused to help (with, according to the D Chronicle, the support of all the people). On the other hand, Edward spentmuch of the early part of his reign under threat from Danish invasions, since Sweyn Estrithson had expected to succeed his cousin Harthacnut (from whom he claimed he also had a promise of thecrown). A promise of succession to Sweyn would have defused the immediate situation, left Sweyn free to pursue his warfare with Magnus and Harald Hardrada, and enabled Edward to stand down hisfleet and stop levying the unpopular Danegeld. If he made the undertaking (and he seems to have been remarkably free with promises of the crown, which in fact he had no right to give), he probablynever expected to have to honour it. The life expectancy of the Danish kings was poor.

The claims of Harald Hardrada and Sweyn Estrithson should be seen in the context of eleventh-century Scandinavia. Even a brief scrutiny of the history of Denmark, Norway and Sweden around thistime would be enough to show that constitutional propriety and primogeniture played little part in the choice of their kings; even a remote connection with a previous monarch was sufficient tosupport a claim, and the outcomes were usually decided by force, not justice. The success of Cnut was still vividlyremembered by the English. This should be borne in mindwhen considering the claims of the next contestant for the throne of England, who was also, if more remotely, of Scandinavian origin.

The claim of William of Normandy was based on the marriage of his great-aunt, Emma, to King Æthelred. This, he contended, made him Edward’s kinsman and certainly he was cousin to theking at one remove, though not in the legitimate line of succession. In addition his family had given shelter to Emma, her husband Æthelred and her children when they were exiled fromEngland, though, as has been noted, there is no evidence that any grant of land was ever made to Edward and Alfred while they were exiles in Normandy. In gratitude for the generosity of Normandy,William’s chroniclers allege, and in recognition of the outstanding abilities and merits of William himself and of the close and loving friendship between them, Edward promised him thesuccession when he returned to England. In the words of William of Poitiers:

it was also through [William’s] support and counsel that, on the death of Harthacnut, Edward was at last crowned and placed on his father’s throne, a distinctionof which he was most worthy, as much through his wisdom and outstanding moral worth as by his ancient lineage. For the English, when they had discussed the question, agreed that William’sarguments were the best, and acquiesced in the just request of his envoys to avoid experiencing the might of the Normans.ix

It may be asked how close and loving a friendship could be between a man of forty and a boy of thirteen, how much of the might of Normandy could have been spared from its ownproblems in 1041 for Edward’s assistance (had it been needed,which it was not), or how Edward managed to detect in the beleaguered boy duke of Normandy the outstandingabilities that fitted him for kingship; when Edward left Normandy, the prospects of William surviving his minority and the many plots against him long enough to take control of Normandy wereremote. It is, of course, perfectly possible to imagine a situation in which a middle-aged man might say lightly to a child cousin that he should be his heir, especially if there was then littleprospect of there being a throne to inherit or of the child surviving long enough to inherit it. It was William’s contention that the promise was made, was made seriously and was renewedafter Edward succeeded to the throne. If so, the timing of this renewal is problematic.

It has usually been assumed that the northern version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (D) was right in stating that William came on some sort of state visit to England in 1051, after the outlawryof the Godwin family in September, and that this was the occasion of the promise, though it should be noted that William’s biographer, D. C. Douglas, has suggested that this entry in theChronicle may have been a late interpolation; he points out that the surviving manuscript of D is almost certainly post-1100 and thus must have been copied from another version, nowlost.xThere are, however, grave difficulties with this 1051 scenario. Setting aside the peculiarity of this reference in the version of the Chroniclefurthest from the scene of events in the south, why did the two main Norman chroniclers (William of Jumièges and William of Poitiers) fail to mention the visit? Both were anxious to includein their accounts anything that tended to strengthen William’s claim. It has been suggested that they omitted it because it showed William as a suitor to Edward, which would have demeanedhim. This seems most improbable. There would havebeen nothing demeaning in the ruler of Normandy paying a state visit to his cousin in England and if, while he was there, theEnglish king had decided to make him his heir, this would have given him more, not less, prestige and would have been no more than they claimed had already happened in Normandy.

There is then the claim of William of Poitiers that the king’s promise was formally witnessed by the most important men in England, namely Siward of Northumbria, Leofric of Mercia, Godwinof Wessex and Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury. There was no occasion, certainly not in 1051, when all these people could have been assembled at court holding these particular offices. In late1051 Earl Godwin was in exile, and it was not Stigand who was Archbishop of Canterbury but the Norman Robert of Jumièges, who might indeed have been happy to witness such a promise; it ishighly unlikely that either Siward or Leofric would have been. Rumours of such an intention or such a promise might well explain why both Siward and Leofric declined to oppose Godwin’s returnin the following year, since he of all of them had most strongly opposed the Norman faction at court. If, on the other hand, such a promise had been publicly given and formally witnessed, as thisaccount implies, it is even more incredible that there should be no record of it in any of the English sources. The only point in favour of this extraordinary story is the indication, obliquethough it is, that William of Poitiers realized that the crown was not Edward’s to give away on his own whim. The alleged assent of the foremost men of the kingdom might be regarded as anearnest of the Witan’s reaction later on. It has been suggested that Edward’s promise might have been witnessed in two stages, at the time he gave it by Leofric and Siward and later, in1052, by Godwin and Stigand as a condition of Godwin’s reinstatement, and that this would account for Godwin givinghostages at this point, but the idea isunconvincing.xiGodwin, when he returned, was in a position of strength; he would not have needed to make such a concession.

There is also the allegation that at this time Edward gave hostages to William as a pledge of his promise; the hostages are named as Wulfnoth, the youngest son of Earl Godwin, and Hakon, the sonof Godwin’s eldest son, Sweyn. Nothing is known of Hakon. Wulfnoth certainly did pass into William’s hands as a hostage at some stage, since he spent his life in Norman captivity, wasreleased by William on his deathbed and promptly re-imprisoned by his son William Rufus. But at what stage and why he was handed over is not clear. It is highly unlikely to have been in 1051. Atthat date, he must have been little more than a boy, and it is very improbable that Godwin, removing all his family to exile in Flanders in September 1051, should have overlooked this one son orobliged Edward by leaving him to become a hostage. However, the Chronicle (E) does say that when the king and Godwin were reconciled in 1052, they exchanged hostages, a normal procedure on such anoccasion; this is the most likely time for Wulfnoth and Hakon to have been handed over and sent by Edward to Normandy for safe-keeping. The idea that the hostages were given to William by Edward in1051 in support of his promise is in any case a little ridiculous – and if his promise was, as maintained by the Normans, witnessed by all the chief men in the kingdom, why only Godwin familyhostages? Where were the hostages, for example, from the family of Leofric? In any case, a man would hardly be expected to give hostages to another on whom he was conferring a massive favour; andeven if he did, it would normally be a two-way affair; there is no indication of any hostages being given by William to Edward.


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The most convincing argument against William’s visit in 1051, however, is William’s own situation in Normandy. He had succeeded his father as Duke of Normandyin 1035 at the age of seven, on the death of Duke Robert who was returning from pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and had had a troubled minority, mainly through the resentment of legitimate adult kinsmenwho objected to the succession of a bastard child, partly through the ambition of those who aspired to dominance of the duchy through the guardianship of the child duke. Several of those originallyappointed his guardians met violent or suspicious deaths, and there was more than one attempt on his own life. During his minority, all order and prosperity in the duchy disintegrated. The ideathat William was in any way responsible for Edward’s return to the English throne, as his chroniclers claimed, can hardly be borne out by the situation in which the thirteen-year-old dukefound himself in 1041. In 1046 he was confronted by a rebellion raised by his cousin, Guy of Brionne, a grandson of Duke Richard II, who was strongly supported by many of the Norman nobility.William was forced to flee and to ask for the help of his overlord, King Henry of France, under whose leadership he confronted and defeated the rebels at the battle of Val-ès-Dune in 1047.It was his effective coming of age. Guy took refuge in his castle of Brionne, and it took William about three years to eject and banish him. In the meantime, King Henry demanded hisquid proquoin the form of William’s help against another turbulent vassal, Geoffrey Martel, Count of Anjou. William provided the help, but found himself, in consequence, with another dangerousenemy to the south of him in the form of Martel, who lost little time in challenging him. He was joined in this by King Henry who had clearly decided that William was, after all, even moredangerous than Martel. From 1050 onwards, William was under constantthreat from both. If his biographer, D. C. Douglas, is correct, in 1051 he was occupied with the sieges ofAlençon and Domfront on his frontier, and also with marrying the Count of Flanders’ daughter, Matilda, a matter of much delicate negotiation since they were declared by the Church tobe within the prohibited degrees of affinity. His dealings with the defenders of Alençon and Domfront were less delicate; the former defied him by beating pelts over the battlements inallusion to his birth as the bastard of a tanner’s daughter. William retaliated by chopping off their hands and feet when the castle eventually capitulated. The sieges of Alençon andDomfront are placed by Douglas in the autumn and winter of 1051, precisely the time at which the visit to England would have taken place.xiiWilliammust also have been aware that he was likely in the near future to face another family rebellion closer to home from his uncle, the Count of Arques; the rebellion eventually broke out in 1052 or1053, supported by the King of France and by a powerful coalition of neighbouring princes. It has been suggested that William’s English ambitions and the possibility of a shift in the balanceof power in France if he won the English throne had alarmed other northern French rulers. The Count of Arques’ rebellion was crushed and Arques himself exiled for life. From that date,however, until Martel and the king both died in 1060, William was under constant attack from both of them. The idea that in the midst of these threats to his rule, actual or threatened, Williamwould have contemplated leaving his duchy undefended for long enough to pay a visit to his cousin in England, even with the possibility that he might receive the promise of a throne in the courseof it, is quite simply incredible. There was no Channel tunnel in the mid-eleventh century; if William had come to England in late 1051, he ran the risk of being trapped there by contrary winds foras long as he was preventedin 1066 from launching his invasion fleet. He could not be sure of getting home in a hurry if Martel or the French king, both constantly on thelookout for an opportunity to attack, broke his borders. In 1051 Edward, though by contemporary standards an elderly man, was in good health. He hunted regularly and led an active life. There wasno imminent likelihood of his death. William, constantly in the battlefield, was much more at risk. Never a man to act without careful consideration, he would have been insane to risk his bird inthe hand (Normandy) for the possibility of a bird in the bush (England) at this particular juncture. Promises, after all, like piecrusts, are made to be broken. Edward can hardly have been pleasedby William’s marriage to the daughter of a man whom he regarded as an enemy and hostile to England; and his action in sending into Hungary so shortly afterwards to urge the return of Edwardthe Exile indicates clearly that, whether or not he had made any promises to William in the past, he was prepared to break them in the interests of a peaceful succession that would be acceptable tohis councillors.

There is another way in which a promise to William might have been conveyed. In 1051 Robert of Jumièges succeeded Eadsige as Archbishop of Canterbury and set off for Rome to collect hispallium from the Pope. The pallium, a narrow band of white lamb’s wool, was bestowed on metropolitans and primates by the Holy See and was the symbol of the power delegated to them by thePope. (In the Middle Ages, popes made a handsome income from the fees they charged recipients for it.) It has been suggested that Robert travelled south via Normandy, perhaps with a verbal messagefrom Edward to William, and according to William of Jumièges this was what happened. It is even possible that he might have ventriloquized one, in a spirit of wishful thinking. However, itis relevant to note that there is absolutelyno evidence whatsoever on the English side of any party supporting a Norman successor, although the question of the successionmust have been becoming more urgent every year. The first indication of any action in the matter is the move to repatriate Edward the Exile.

The final claimant to the throne was, of course, Harold Godwinson. It is fairly clear that William had set his sights on the English crown quite early in his career; it is less certain whenHarold realized that he could be a contender, possibly not until after the death of Edward the Exile, since he appears to have supported and indeed negotiated for his return to England. He may noteven have thought of it then. He might well have thought that he could re-enact the part played by the hero of the Old English epic poemBeowulfwho, after the death of his lord, KingHygelac, acted as guardian to Hygelac’s youthful son Heardred until he came of age. As guardian to Edgar during his minority, his own position would be assured and he would be well placed todefend the kingdom and, indeed, the interests of the Godwin family. At some time, however, the idea of his own succession must have occurred to him and to others. In terms of blood lineage, he had,of course, no possible claim, and never pretended to any. None the less, even in these terms, his claim was better than William’s. William was the great-nephew of a woman who had married areigning king; Harold was the brother of a woman who had married a reigning king. Neither of them had a drop of English royal blood. It has been suggested that Harold might have made a claimthrough his Danish blood, because his mother was a kinswoman of Cnut; but this claim would depend on the rather doubtful proposition that Edward had succeeded to the English throne as half-brotherof Harthacnut who had brought him back from exile, not as son of Æthelred. Even if this were to be allowed,his cousin, Sweyn Estrithson, had a far more direct claimthrough the Danish line. Apart from blood lineage, Harold had the advantage of having been born in wedlock. The conditions for kingship had been set out at an ecclesiastical synod held in Englandin the presence of papal legates in 786, and specified that ‘Kings are to be lawfully chosen by the priests and elders of the people, and are not to be those begotten in adultery orincest’. These conditions had not always been observed in the past; there had, for example, been considerable doubt over the legality of Edward the Elder’s marriage to his first wife,Ecgwynn, and thus over the legitimacy of Athelstan, but when such doubts were ignored, it was usually for good reasons.

Harold’s chief claim, however, was not of blood or legitimacy; it was that he was ‘lawfully chosen’. In a situation in which the only remaining member of the West Saxon bloodline was a boy, and the kingdom faced the likelihood of invasion as in the days of Alfred and his immediate successors, the elders of the people looked for a candidate who had both theadministrative ability and the military experience to defend the country. In 1066 the elders of the people, personified by the Witan, faced with the prospect of invasion on two fronts, had urgentneed to find such a candidate. Harold qualified on both counts. He had to all intents and purposes ruled England efficiently assubregulusor under-king for many years (after the death ofGruffydd following Harold’s Welsh campaign, the Welsh swore fealty and obedience jointly to Edward and Harold); and he was beyond question the most experienced and able military commander inthe country. He also appears to have been genuinely popular. The Waltham chronicler (admittedly probably as biased in one direction as William of Poitiers was in the other, but writing after theconquest when Harold had already been defeated and praise of him wasnot encouraged) records that he was elected king by unanimous consent ‘for there was no one in theland more knowledgeable, more vigorous in arms, wiser in the laws of the land or more highly regarded for his prowess of every kind.’xiiiThemore unbiased Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (C and D) recorded his election in terms that are not those in which one describes a usurper, though these, like the Waltham Chronicle, must have been writtenafter Hastings:

And the wise king entrusted that kingdom to the high-ranking man, Harold himself, the noble earl, who at all times faithfully obeyed his lord in word and deed, neglectingnothing of which the king had need; and here Harold was hallowed as king. And he enjoyed little stillness while he held the kingdom.

In the context of the times, and in a situation where the royal line had failed, his succession in England was no more irregular than that of Hugh Capet to the throne of Franceon the collapse of the Carolingian monarchy some years earlier. Hugh Capet was crowned on the recommendation of Archbishop Adalbéron:

Crown the Duke. He is most illustrious by his exploits, his nobility, his forces. The throne is not acquired by hereditary right; no one should be raised to it unlessdistinguished not only for nobility of birth but for the goodness of his soul.

Harold was already virtual King of England, to much the same extent that Hugh Capet had been virtual King of France in 987. William, who received news regularly from England,would havebeen aware for some time that Harold was likely to pose an obstacle to his ambition. The question of how to circumvent that obstacle must have exercised himgreatly. He could hardly have hoped for the accident that delivered Harold into his hands.

The short story of the accident (which is only recorded in the Norman sources, though its essence has not been seriously challenged) was that Harold crossed the Channel, probably but notcertainly in 1064, for an unknown reason. It has been suggestedxivthat the trip took place in late 1065, immediately after the exile of Tostig, on thegrounds that William of Poitiers says that at this stage the king was very near death. Setting aside William of Poitiers’ doubtful veracity, Harold would have been extremely unlikely eitherto go on a pleasure trip or to make a diplomatic visit to Normandy to promise the crown to William when there had just been a major insurrection in England, as in 1065, and the king was very neardeath, especially if, as is assumed, he had designs on the crown himself by this time. The most reliable evidence indicates that Edward’s final illness began as a result of the exile ofTostig in 1065; after that, Harold would have been as mad to leave England as William would have been to leave Normandy in 1051, even if there had, in practical terms, been time to fit such a visitin between Tostig’s exile at the beginning of November 1065 and the king’s death on 5 January 1066. 1064, when he vanishes temporarily from the English chronicles altogether, is a muchmore likely date.

At all events, by storm or miscalculation, he was cast up on the coast of Ponthieu. The inhabitants of Ponthieu were well known as wreckers; this is confirmed even by William of Poitiers. Therewere many stories that lights were frequently shown at dangerous points of the coast to mislead sailors, since ships that were wrecked in their territory were legal prey and the sailors could beimprisoned ortortured for vast sums in ransom. Whether by storm or misleading lights, Harold’s ship foundered, and he and his companions were captured; he might havebeen able to extricate himself by payment of a ransom if one of his captors had not recognized him and betrayed him to the Count of Ponthieu, who immediately realized that in him he had a prize farout of the common and incarcerated him and his men in a dungeon. Someone (possibly one of Harold’s men, he is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry as moustached, the infallible sign of anEnglishman) went to the neighbouring duchy of Normandy and told the duke, who was the Count of Ponthieu’s overlord, what had happened. William immediately ordered Guy of Ponthieu to handHarold and his men over to him. He was rewarded by William with cash and land. Harold remained in Normandy for some time, was treated with honour by the duke, campaigned with him in Brittany(where, with great heroism, he rescued two of William’s soldiers from the quicksands), and left again for England after swearing an oath on the bones of the saints that he would supportWilliam’s claim to the English throne after Edward’s death. This, at least, is the version of the Norman chroniclers and of the Bayeux Tapestry.


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Many explanations have been offered as to why Harold happened to be crossing the Channel at this particular moment. The Norman version (William of Poitiers) was that he was sent by King Edwardto confirm his promise of the throne to the duke and did so voluntarily. An English version (Eadmer) is that he went on his own initiative to try to retrieve his brother and nephew who had beenhanded over to the duke as hostages. According to Eadmer, he went against the advice of the king, who warned him not to trust William. In the event he retrieved his nephew Hakon (of whom nothing isknown and whose very existence is slightly suspect) but not his brother Wulfnoth, whoremained in William’s custody. Yet another version is that he had gone sailing fordiversion with no intention of going to Normandy, and had been caught and blown ashore by a storm. According to Henry of Huntingdon, he was on his way to Flanders, not Normandy; this plausible ideais not corroborated elsewhere. There is no possibility now of discovering the truth. One can only make a guess at the likelihoods. There is very little probability in the idea that he was sent byEdward to convey a promise and swear an oath that would have been repugnant to him. After the king, he was the most powerful man in the kingdom; if Edward had asked him to do such a thing, he wouldhave had little difficulty in refusing or procrastinating. One modern apologist for William has offered the rather desperate explanation that he knew that if he refused to go, Edward would havesent his brother Tostig in his place.xvA message or an oath from Tostig, who had no support in England, would have been of little use to William; andmoreover, if Harold were prepared to break his own oath on holy relics in his pursuit of the crown, he would surely have had few scruples about ignoring his brother’s. It would, in fact, havebeen very much better from Harold’s point of view that Tostig should have gone and sworn oaths. If Harold proposed to sail into Normandy with the intention of demanding Edward’shostages back, he was more naive and trusting than history shows him to have been; William’s ambitions must have been common knowledge by this time, and Harold is described in theVitaÆdwardias having made use of his foreign travels to acquire a detailed knowledge of European politics, with the comment that he had such an exhaustive knowledge of European princes thathe could not be deceived by any of their proposals.xviThe idea that he was blown off course during a sailing trip is at least believable.

It is here, for the first time, that some help may be derived from the Bayeux Tapestry, for it begins at this point in the story. The first panel or frame shows King Edwardsitting in his chair of state, holding his sceptre and apparently conversing affably with two men standing beside him. The taller and more impressive of these is not named but is assumed to beHarold, since in the next panel Harold is shown setting off for Bosham with his men. Harold’s conversation with the king seems to be amicable. This is the image that has been interpreted asEdward instructing Harold to travel to Normandy to confirm his promise to William. But there is absolutely nothing in the picture or the text to confirm this. There is, in fact, no text over thepicture, which would as well fit any of the other explanations for his voyage; Harold might be asking permission to go on a fishing or hunting trip or to Flanders or proposing to go to redeem thehostages, though in that case the expression on the king’s face would perhaps be more concerned or anxious. If the mission were as important as the designation of the king’s successor,it would surely have been glossed; it would, after all, have been the foundation of the whole Norman claim.

The next few panels follow the standard version of the story: Harold arrives at Bosham, where there was a family manor, prays at the church there, eats and drinks with his companions, boards theship and, with the sails ‘full of wind’, comes into the territory of Count Guy. Here he is arrested by Guy’s men and taken to Beaurain. There is no explicit mention of a storm,though the wind in the sails might be interpreted that wayxvii. The narrative then shows his transfer to the hands of William, his campaign withWilliam in Brittany (including his rescue of two of William’s men from the quicksands) and finally the most important scene, the swearing of an oath to William. According to William ofPoitiers, who alone gives a detailed account, this oath consisted of undertakings to support William’s claim to the throne, to act for him in England until theking’s death, to fortify Dover and other places that William would specify for the duke’s use and garrison them with Norman knights whom Harold would maintain, to marry the duke’sdaughter and to send his sister into Normandy to marry a Norman. Immediately after this, he is shown returning home to England, where he has another interview with the king – but a verydifferent king this time. He is drawn and haggard, the finger extended towards Harold no longer indicating merely conversation but rather admonition or accusation. Harold for his part is apologeticand contrite, his head bowed, his hands extended in an exculpatory gesture. It is impossible to misread this scene: the king has heard something that worries and distresses him greatly, Harold isapologizing and excusing himself. If Harold had gone in the first place to confirm promises and make vows on the king’s behalf, why should he be apologizing? We have seen him do this. Theonly obvious answer is that he did not go to do this, but he has, for whatever reason, sworn a vow and in so doing has landed himself in bad trouble with his king. It is interesting that, havingportrayed the situation so graphically, the designer has not attempted to explain it; the legend overhead simply says ‘he [i.e. Harold] came to King Edward’. It is here, more thananywhere else, that the Tapestry is most ambiguous.

The only explanation that makes sense of everything is that offered by the monk Eadmer. According to him, Harold wanted to go to redeem the family hostages in Normandy and asked permission fromthe king to do so. The king apparently gave this reluctantly, but warned him that he would only bring misfortune on the whole kingdom and discredit upon himself, for ‘I know that the Duke isnot so simple as to be at all inclined to give themup to you unless he foresees that in doing so he will secure some great advantage to himself.’xviii

The duke was not simple and he did indeed gain great advantage for himself. Without the oath sworn and broken by Harold, it is highly improbable that the Vatican could have been persuaded toturn an unprovoked attack on a neighbouring independent and peaceful kingdom into a holy war against a perjurer (if indeed it did, as we shall see in due course). And without papal backing,William’s success would have been much less likely.

It is extremely improbable that Harold would willingly and freely have sworn to the conditions recorded by William of Poitiers; as has been noted by previous historians, at least two of themwould have amounted to treason against the present king. On the other hand, he was in a desperately precarious situation. As Eadmer points out, he was in danger whichever way he turned. He cannothave been unaware that his recent host, Guy of Ponthieu, had been captured by William after the battle of Mortemer and had been held incarcerated in Normandy for two years until he freed himself byswearing allegiance to the duke and accepting him as his overlord; nor that after William’s recent unprovoked conquest of Maine, the rival claimants, Count Walter and his wife (also possibleclaimants to the throne of England and with a much stronger claim than William’s), had died by poison in his custody. However courteously entertained at the Norman court so far, he was infact a prisoner, and if he refused to swear, his conditions were likely to become less comfortable. And as the effective deputy king of England, his prolonged absence would be disastrous. If hetook the oath, he probably did so relying on the generally accepted belief that a forced oath was not regarded as binding. He might also have remembered Alfred’s law (the veryfirst in his code) that, ‘If a man is wrongfully constrained to promise either to betray his lord or to aid an unlawful undertaking, then it is better to be false to the promisethan to fulfil it.’ No wonder that on his return the king is reported by Eadmer as saying reproachfully, ‘Did I not tell you that I knew William and that your going might bring untoldcalamity upon this kingdom?’xixSuch an explanation makes perfect sense of the expression on the king’s face in the Tapestry and ofHarold’s abject stance.

In considering this, one may also bear in mind the close connection that both the Tapestry and Eadmer had with Canterbury (Eadmer certainly and the Tapestry probably), and the possibility ofsome now unknown connection between the two accounts and also, of course, the fact that Eadmer was writing with the benefit of hindsight. If no hostages were ever given to William by Edward (weonly have William of Poitiers’ word that they were), and Wulfnoth was imprisoned by William on a different or later occasion, then Eadmer’s version would fall to the ground. But theremay be reasons for giving some credence to Eadmer’s account. It has been suggested by Harold’s biographer, Ian W. Walker, that Bishop Æthelric of Sussex, who was consulted byEadmer over his life of St Dunstan, may well have been the Æthelric of Christ Church, Canterbury, whose election as archbishop was rejected by King Edward in 1050 in favour of Robert ofJumièges. If so, he was a relation of the Godwin family; and if so, this connection would have allowed Eadmer access to a relative of Harold’s when he wrote his account of the eventsof 1064, giving his version some authority.xxAt the very least it implies the existence in Canterbury, and possibly further afield, of a reasonablyplausible account of events that might reconcile Eadmer’s history with the Tapestry.

Whichever version comes nearest the truth, William appears to have equipped himself in advance with, according to Goebbels, the best ingredient for propaganda – thebig lie consistently told: that the kingdom had been promised to him by King Edward (possibly not altogether a lie but certainly not proved and in any case not a valid promise), and that Harold hadfreely and voluntarily sworn on the bones of the saints to uphold his claim to it. William was to use his advantage skilfully.

THE PRIZE

It is impossible to understand the determination with which the various contenders pursued their claims without understanding the value of theprize for which they were competing. The civilization and culture that in the eleventh century distinguished England from her European neighbours were less important to them than her wealth, whichwas legendary and colossal, even after the Viking depredations of Æthelred’s reign. Looking back from this distance in time, it is easy to think of Anglo-Saxon England as a remote,comparatively brief and homogeneous phase of history, in much the same way that we think of Tudor or Victorian England. This would be to underrate its duration and its significance. TheAnglo-Saxons ruled England for six centuries, as long as from the Middle Ages to the present day, about as long as the duration of the Roman Empire, a period broken only by the twenty-five-yearkingship of Cnut and his sons. Naturally, during these six centuries, much changed, and the barbaric paganism of the original settlers evolved relatively peacefully into the rich, sophisticated,Christian kingdom of 1066, of which it has been said that ‘the most important economic developments before the Industrial Revolution took place in the later Anglo-Saxonperiod’.xxiIn the confusion of Dark Age Europe, and unlike theparvenuNorman dukedom founded in 911,England stoodout among other European states for its antiquity, its long-established line of kings, most of them highly effective rulers, its well-developed governmental systems, its stable and well-regulatedcurrency and, in consequence, its thriving economy and prosperity.

It was conspicuous, too, eventually, for another characteristic: its unity. How much of this was due to the fact that it was, to all intents and purposes, an island state is difficult to assess;the fact is that, in comparison with other western European states of the time, such as proto-France or Germany, it was a united and self-conscious nation state. The English king’s writ inthe eleventh century ran fairly consistently throughout his realm, admittedly less strongly in the north towards the Scottish border, though the legal concessions allowed in the Danelaw were moreapparent than significant. By contrast, the French king (or king of the western Franks, as he was more correctly known at this date) had real authority over an area little larger than the Ile deFrance, and was hemmed in on all sides by vassals who may technically have owed him allegiance but who in fact governed (and contended among themselves) as independent sovereigns in their own landssuch as Anjou, Maine, Blois, Ponthieu and Normandy. The English state may have started in the fifth century as a conglomeration of independent kingdoms known loosely as the Saxon Heptarchy; but itwas a more homogeneous body than has always been recognized, in which the various petty kingdoms very soon had more in common with each other than with either the former British races whom theyencountered on arrival or with the continental districts from which they had come. They quickly came to share a language that would have been in some degree intelligible in any of them. TheVenerable Bede, born in the seventh century, described the languages of Britain as English,British (that is, Welsh), Scots, Pictish and Latin; he did not subdivide Englishinto West Saxon, Mercian, Northumbrian or Kentish. Individual kingdoms expanded or shrank by a natural process of ebb and flow. Every now and then, one particularly strong ruler would manage toassert his power over his peers and achieve the slightly legendary title ofBretwaldaor ruler of all Britain; this usually ceased at his death and the title lapsed until a successor or arival was strong enough to claim it. Inter-marriages between the different royal houses produced a network of alliances and kinships that meant there was more to connect the various kingdoms thanto separate them. The importance of the conversion of the English and the developing institutions of the Church can hardly be overestimated. Monasteries were being founded the length and breadth ofEngland, all working to the same rule, with monks and abbots (many of them from the most powerful and noble families in the country) moving between them; the importance of their unifying role isobvious, as was that of the metropolitan sees of Canterbury and York.


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The ninth-century Viking invasions also played an important part in breaking down what by that time remained of the old divisions and pushing the various constituent parts of the countrytogether. To begin with, it seemed that the old Anglo-Saxon England would be submerged beneath the Scandinavian invaders; but after the fight-back by Alfred and his successors, England in more orless its eleventh-century form had emerged with Wessex predominant, and Alfred’s grandson, King Athelstan, could without exaggeration call himself king of all England. It is said that KingEdgar, Athelstan’s nephew, made a point of circumnavigating his entire kingdom every year by sea. If he did, he must have taken in Scotland and Wales as well, over which the English kingsrarely had more than a nominal supremacy, but certainlythe King of Scotland and Kings of Wales were among the eight subject kings who reputedly rowed Edgar on the river Deeat his coronation. More practically, he promoted the unity of his kingdom by introducing a uniform currency all over England that he alone controlled and that was withdrawn periodically, usuallyevery five or six years, and replaced by another. Apart from providing a significant source of royal revenue for himself and his successors, since all moneyers had to buy the new dies from the kingwhen this happened, this reform promoted the development of the economy at home and abroad, where English coins were much respected. This was to be one of the English customs that the Conqueror didnot abolish.

Thus, when the Viking raids resumed in the tenth century, the raiders found a united country in which the Byrhtnoth who confronted them at Maldon in 991 may have been a nobleman of the formerkingdom of the East Saxons but who announced himself to them as ‘Æthelred’s earl’, fighting to protect the West Saxon Æthelred’s England, his land and hispeople, with an army that included at least one Mercian and one Northumbrian, and representatives of all the social classes of England, united in a determination to defend their country. If, as hasbeen suggested,The Battle of Maldonwas not written until about thirty years after the battle, it looks even more like a deliberate attempt to portray the defence of a kingdom united inrace and class. It throws into sad contrast the verdict of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1010, later in the reign of Æthelred, when the demoralization of the country had led to a situation inwhich ‘no shire would any longer help its neighbour’.

Because of the length of time that the Anglo-Saxon rule lasted, it was naturally not the same throughout, but there were, none the less, consistent threads running through the period. Thekingdoms that the seventh-century Ine and the tenth-century Athelstan ruled were indeed very different in many respects, but those over which Athelstan and Edward theConfessor ruled were not in essence very dissimilar. The Domesday Book (1086), one of William’s most famous (and, it must be said, most valuable) achievements, aimed to take a snapshotpicture of England ‘on the day King Edward was alive and dead’, 5 January 1066; many of the institutions that it records as having existed then and that survived the conquest have beenshown to go far back in history, many of them to a time well before King Alfred or even King Ine. It has been surmised that some of the most important elements of them, for example the system ofhundreds, the local government units into which the shires were broken down for administrative and tax purposes, may well go back to a common Indo-European culture, for traces of it have been notedin Carolingian France also. Many of them survived far into the future as well. The shire structure itself continued through the conquest unaltered and untampered with until 1974. A retiring primeminister, resigning his parliamentary seat in the early years of the twenty-first century, still had to apply for the stewardship of the Chiltern hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham inBuckinghamshire.

The system of justice meant that wherever a man lived, he was rarely in a district so remote that he did not have access to a court of law: the king’s court, the shire court, the hundredcourt. The involvement of the different ranks of the people in the different levels of the national administration of justice was also a unifying factor, and gave the public at large a voice innational affairs that could never have been imagined in, say, Normandy during the reign of autocrats such as Duke William or his father. There were written law-codes in England from the time ofKing Æthelberht of Kent in the sixth century, andthere are many hints between the times of Æthelberht and Edward the Confessor that not even the king could beregarded as being above the law (not least the agreement between Æthelred and his people that he would be accepted back as king provided he ruled better). In considering why the Angevin kingswere to prove more effective legislators in England than in their homeland of Anjou, Patrick Wormald suggests that this could be because in the tenth and eleventh centuries, English kings had laiddown the law as no other western rulers did.xxiiHenry II, he points out, made law like no other twelfth-century king because he inherited a system ofroyal justice that was already uniquely well developed and active. There had never been any written law-code in Normandy. It has been said that

the English kings, like the Carolingians but unlike most of the Carolingians’ successors, maintained a system of rule in which their contact, via public courts, with afairly large number of free classes mattered for them, and for those classes. That those courts and classes survived the Conquest may well have done much to determine the later history ofEngland.xxiii

It has been estimated that in Anglo-Saxon England there were rarely more than two layers of lordship between the yeoman and his king. A situation in which King Alfred could givejudgement in a case while he was in his chamber washing his hands was recorded for posterity not because it was unusual but because it was habitual – one of the plaintiffs had appealed to theking from the local shire or hundred court.xxivIt is true that in the days of Alfred’s descendants, particularly during the reign ofÆthelred when the need to pay Danegeld led to the frequent levying of extrataxes, this independence of the peasant-farmer was to some extent eroded, probably in themain because of the increasing difficulty smallholders experienced in maintaining themselves. A bad harvest could bring them to the verge of starvation; a Danish raid could reduce them overnight tobeggary. It made sense in such cases for a smallholder to trade in his nominal independence for the security of binding himself and the land that he had inherited in some form of servitude to alord who was able to protect or maintain him. There is little doubt, however, that the process was accelerated and, to some extent, brutalized by the conquest; Stenton has noted that ‘manypeasants who in 1066 had been holding land immediately of the king, or as the voluntary dependents of other magnates, are represented in Domesday Book byvillani[serfs] on the estates ofNorman lords.’xxv

Moreover, the sophisticated system of land tenure in England meant that the kings always knew exactly what they could count on in terms of revenue and fighting men, and their subjects knew whattheir liabilities were as precisely. It has been calculated that in the whole of England, there was not a scrap of land unaccounted for in the assessment system. Each hundred was broken down intoso many hides of land (carucates in the Danelaw, sulungs in Kent). Theoretically, the hide was originally the amount of land sufficient for a peasant family to live on, but very soon the hideceased to have any relationship to a specific area of land (just as the modern pound has ceased to have any relationship to a specific weight of gold) and became simply a unit of assessment, sothat hides in different parts of the country might be assessed differently, often according to the wealth or productivity of the area. A man’s ownership of, say, five hides of land mighttypically mean that he was liable for so much in taxes, for the provision of a fighting man with all his equipment for aspecified number of days a year when the king neededhim for the defence of the realm, and for various other services. Such services might include, depending on the owner’s rank, duties of hospitality and escort to the king or his family, foodrent (the laws of Ine tell us that the food rent from a ten-hide estate should be ten vats of honey, three hundred loaves, twelve ambers of Welsh ale, thirty of clear ale, two full-grown cows orten wethers, ten geese, twenty hams, ten cheeses, an amber of butter, five salmon, twenty pounds of fodder and a hundred eels) and other miscellaneous services such as maintenance of hedges. Someof these might be remitted in special circumstances; the three services that were almost never remitted, whether the land were owned by a layman or the Church, were military service, theconstruction and maintenance of the country’s fortifications and bridge-building. It was this efficient system of assessment that made it possible for Æthelred to raise quickly as extrataxes the vast sums of money that were needed to pay off the Danes between 991 and 1016. It is hardly surprising that they kept coming back for more.

However efficient the tax-collecting system, it would hardly have worked if the money had not been there to be collected. Despite the frequent plundering raids, England was known to be wealthy– indeed, its notorious wealth had much to do with the frequency of the raids. Through the six centuries of its existence, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom had been a trading nation, but it had alsoachieved renown in various kinds of manufacture. Much of the detail of what the country once produced and contained is still obscure, despite recent archaeological research, and will no doubtremain so because by its nature it was perishable; the remaining archival evidence indicates only a fragment of what must once have existed. But there is enough information in the survivingletters, wills and deeds to give some idea of what people producedand had to dispose of. The evidence of the sheer amount of bullion in the country is impressive, withoutconsidering its artistry which, by all accounts, was equally so. As far as imports are concerned, especially those made of precious metals, even William of Poitiers, no friend to the English, and aman who believed that the sooner English treasures were sanitized by passing into Norman hands the better, noted the country’s wealth:

To this most fertile land merchants used to bring added wealth in imported riches. Treasures remarkable for their number and kind and workmanship had been amassed there,either to be kept for the empty enjoyment of avarice, or to be squandered shamefully in English luxury.xxvi

If we consider merely the Sutton Hoo treasure of c.650, the greatest find yet discovered, we are looking at imports from Byzantium, the Mediterranean, Egypt and Sweden at thevery least, and at jewellery that may well have been made in Kent, a known centre for this particular kind of fine workmanship. Frequent references in the various codes of laws drawn up bysuccessive kings make it clear how important trade was to the country and how vital they considered it to be that foreign merchants should be protected and their trade properly regulated.

Commerce was not the only channel through which foreign goods entered the kingdom. The diplomatic and marriage alliances that the English kings had built up throughout Europe meant that therewere many ways in which trade could be promoted, and goods and gifts of great value passed backwards and forwards. Dorothy Whitelockxxviiquotes animpressive list of the valuable gifts sent by Hugh, Duke of the Franks, to KingAthelstan when he asked for the hand of Athelstan’s half-sister Eadhild inmarriage.xxviiiThe eldest son of King Æthelred who predeceased his father, another Athelstan, left to his brother, Edmund Ironside,‘the sword which King Offa owned’. One can only conjecture whether this is the Hungarian sword known to have been sent by Charlemagne as a gift to the great Offa of Mercia; it may wellhave been. Swords were among the most treasured items a man could have, and were passed down as precious heirlooms, as was armour of all kinds, but swords had a particular value and were oftendecorated with quantities of gold and silver. Offa’s sword was clearly priceless and Edmund Ironside put it to good use; but items of greater monetary though possibly less historical andsymbolic value passed regularly between England and Europe.

It was not only through royal marriages and diplomatic dealings that there was contact with the outside world. One of the most striking things in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the frequency withwhich pilgrimages to Rome (sometimes even to Jerusalem) are mentioned. Many of these were, naturally, journeys made by clerics; all archbishops had to go to Rome to collect the pallium or stole ofoffice from the Pope. But many of them were made by lay people of all ranks, from kings downwards. The Chronicle also refers on several occasions to a special school or hostel in Rome built toaccommodate the English pilgrims who went there (and, on some occasions, to accommodate their graves); and one of the achievements of Alfred and Cnut on their visits was to negotiate better termsfor the English who made what was then an extremely hazardous journey. The itinerary of Archbishop Sigeric who fetched his pallium in 990 has survived, and records the names of seventy-nine stageson the journey from the Somme to Rome. On the assumption that each stage meant at leastone night’s lodging, the journey would have taken not less than three months ineach direction, when the cross-Channel voyage and any necessary travel within England to the south coast are included. An archbishop would have been able to ride; those who had to go on footprobably took longer. Pilgrims normally made their wills before leaving. But those who returned brought goods of foreign workmanship with them, apart from any spiritual benefits.


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Trade, however, internal as well as external, was the most important element in English prosperity in the late Anglo-Saxon period. It depended to a great extent on the maintenance of the meansof communication. The three basic services that landowners were rarely, if ever, excused contributed to this: if service in the fyrd or national host and the building and repair of fortificationswere demanded primarily for purposes of the defence of the realm, the work on fortifications would have included the maintenance of roads, and the bridge-building requirement, though it might alsohave military aspects, was a significant contribution to the ability of merchants and goods to move around the kingdom. The evidence of caches of coins from the period all over England confirmsthat money did move around, for the vast majority of the coins found so far were minted miles from where they were dug up. One of the problems of knowing what was exported is the fact that, asalready noted, much of it has perished during the last thousand years. Pottery tends to last better than other things and more pottery of the period has survived than anything else; if wood andleather and textiles were profitable articles of trade, as the written evidence suggests, few examples have been recovered to prove or illustrate it and we must rely on written sources forinformation. Henry of Huntingdon, writing about sixty years after the conquest (the basicconditions he described are unlikely to have changed significantly in the interim),tells us that, although little silver was mined in England, a large amount came into the country from Germany in payment for English exports (he mentions particularly fish, wool and cattle) so thatthere was more silver in England than in Germany itself.xxixAs for the imports, the merchant in Ælfric’sColloquy,that delightfuldialogue between a schoolmaster and his pupils, designed to be used to teach schoolboys Latin, gives us a list of what he brought back from overseas in the tenth century: purple garments and silks,precious stones and gold, various vestments and pigments, wine and oil, ivory, brass and tin (Cornwall must have seemed as remote as overseas to many Englishmen), sulphur and glass.xxx

Few artefacts, whether made in England or overseas, have survived from before 1066. This is easily understandable if we consider what hazards they were exposed to throughout the period ofAnglo-Saxon civilization. Early Anglo-Saxon England, like most Dark Age European countries, was a violent place; and in the ninth century there was the first wave of Viking invasions, starting withthe sack of Lindisfarne in 793 and continuing with the looting of most of the other English monasteries and churches for the precious metals and jewels with which they were lavishly and reverentlyendowed. What had been stripped was painstakingly restored during the comparative peace of the tenth century, only for the second wave of Danish depredation to begin in the 980s. Throughout theperiod, fire was a constant danger in a society that built largely in wood; textiles and books were especially vulnerable. The minsters in Canterbury (both of them) and York were all destroyed byfire shortly after the conquest. Christianity meant that burials from the age of the conversion onwards took place without grave goods such as those found atSutton Hoo, andwhere pagan burial sites did exist, they were frequently looted (that Sutton Hoo survived unlooted is, like the endurance of the Bayeux Tapestry, one of more inexplicable miracles). After theNorman Conquest English art treasures, particularly artefacts in gold and silver, were exported to Normandy and elsewhere in Europe on a scale unequalled in Europe until the days of the NaziProperty Transfer Office, no doubt to protect their original owners from the shameful luxury of which William of Poitiers complained. Finally, there was almost the worst act of vandalism of all,the dissolution of the monasteries at the Reformation, during which innumerable pieces of religious art were broken up or melted down. Items made of precious metals were always at risk of beingmelted down, either for refashioning in more modern styles or, more usually, for their cash value. William of Malmesbury records one such instance, this one not the responsibility of the Conquerorbut of his heir, William Rufus:

The bishops and abbots flocked to the court complaining about this outrage, pointing out that they were not able to meet such heavy taxation. . . To which, the officials ofthe court, replying as usual with angry expressions, said: ‘Do you not have reliquaries made of gold and silver, full of the bones of dead men?’ No other reply did they deign togive their petitioners. So, the latter, seeing the drift of the reply, stripped the reliquaries of the saints, despoiled the Crucifixes, melted down the chalices, not for the benefit of thepoor but for the King’s treasury. Almost everything which the holy frugality of their ancestors had preserved was consumed by the avarice of these extortioners.xxxi

Fortunately, there are records that give some idea of what England was once like. Dorothy Whitelock has given a good description of what the churches oncehad:

. . .while the St Cuthbert stole and the Bayeux tapestry let us understand why English needlework was so prized on the Continent, it is the constant reference to preciousobjects – a cloak of remarkable purple, interwoven throughout with gold in the manner of a corselet, which was turned into a chasuble; robes of silk interwoven with precious work of goldand gems; a beautiful chasuble that shone like gold when worn in the house of the Lord; a chalice of gold flashing with gems ‘as the heavens glow with blazing stars’; greatcandelabra, all of gold; images of the saints, covered with gold and silver and precious stones; and countless other treasures – vestments, altar-cloths, tapestries, dorsals, shrines,croziers, bells, etc. – which explains the great impression made on the Norman conquerors by the richness of the equipment of the English churches. We should never have guessed thiswithout the aid of literary records.xxxii

Professor C. R. Dodwell has taken the trouble to go through all the written records and bring together the evidence they contain about Anglo-Saxon artefacts. His valuable book,Anglo-Saxon Artxxxiii, has revealed an impressive amount of information about what used to exist, even if practically nothing of it hassurvived. It is clear from this that the average Anglo-Saxon, and even more the higher ranking ones, believed in conspicuous display. Anything that could be fashioned in gold was made of it.Objects that could not be made entirely of gold would at least be coveredwith it, like the ship presented by Earl Godwin to King Harthacnut, which not only had agold-encrusted prow but was also equipped with eighty warriors, each of whom wore two gold arm-rings and had a partly gilded helmet, a sword with a gilded hilt, a battle-axe edged with gold andsilver and a shield with gilded boss and studs. The description of Cnut’s ships supports the evidence for this kind of display:

So great, also, was the ornamentation of the ships, that the eyes of the beholders were dazzled, and to those looking from afar they seemed of flame rather than of wood. Forif at any time the sun cast the splendour of its rays among them, the flashing of arms shone in one place, in another the flame of suspended shields. Gold shone on the prows, silver alsoflashed on the variously shaped ships.xxxiv

Professor Dodwell discovered that much of what emerges from the study of everyday documents such as wills and charters supports what might otherwise have been taken for artistichyperbole in poetry:

If, inBeowulf,there are references to a gold-plated hall, we are told that, in the eleventh century, the domed architectural canopy that surrounded the high altarat Waltham was gold plated and had columns, bases and arches also embellished with gold, and a tenth-century portrayal of another canopy in a cathedral shows parts of the capitals and bases ingold. If, in that epic poem, the eaves of the same hall were said to be adorned with gold, we know that, if life had been his companion, as acontemporary delicately putit, King Eadred in the tenth century would have adorned the east porch of the church at Winchester with gilded tiles. If the same poem mentions a gold figured tapestry, we know that even sailsin the eleventh century could be embroidered with historic scenes in gold.xxxv

As he points out, the poets were not dreaming up gilded visions but delineating the tastes of the world around them. The golden banner that illuminated the dragon’s den inBeowulfwas paralleled by Harold’s golden and jewelled banner of the Fighting Man at Hastings, sent to the Pope by William after the battle as part of the spoils of war. Kenneth Clark,in his lectures on civilization, made the very accurate point that, when an Anglo-Saxon poet wanted to put his ideal of the good society into words, he spoke of gold.

Particular generosity was lavished on religious books and codices, and the magnificent standard of their production can be seen from survivors such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the CanterburyCodex Aureus, now in the Stockholm Royal Library. We know that St Wilfrid commissioned a gospel book for his church at Ripon in 678, to be ‘in letters of purest gold on purpled parchment andilluminated’; and he had a case made for it of purest gold, set with gems. Ironically, the very splendour lavished on such productions was to be their undoing, for it would be the gold andjewelled covers that attracted the attention of the illiterate pagan robbers. The Codex Aureus provides an interesting example of this. It was looted by Vikings who stripped it of its goldenjewelled cover, but had no use for the illuminated manuscript inside; they therefore sold this back to an Anglo-Saxon nobleman named Alfred for yet more gold, and it was restored by him toCanterbury.

Among the interesting characteristics of Anglo-Saxon life noted by Professor Dodwell was the passion for precious possessions in comparison with land which, after theconquest, would be prized by the Normans above any other form of wealth (though this is not to imply that the Anglo-Saxon was indifferent to land; there is ample evidence that he was not). Land,which he could pass on to his heirs, might come later when he could no longer fight; gold came first. It was the responsibility of any lord to reward the warriors who followed him with gold ringsand gilded weapons. The aristocratic Anglo-Saxon would have had gold arm-rings (weighing anything up to 100 mancuses of gold at 4 grams a mancus) on both arms, his clothes would have been made ofwool and imported silk with woven gold borders, with the addition of furs for warmth; his sword and dagger would have had hilts covered and decorated with gold and silver and inlaid with jewels. Hecould, in fact, have been wearing the price of a substantial estate. He would retain his warriors by the generosity with which he lavished gold rings and weapons on them. This could (from the pointof view of William of Poitiers) be accounted for by a weakness for luxury and display; it was more probably due to the conveniently portable nature of precious metals during periods of invasion andrapine. There is also the point that you could not be taxed on the possession of gold. When Godwin was exiled in 1051, the ample treasury he is reported to have packed into his fleet would havebeen in gold and jewels. But what Dodwell says of the importance to the Anglo-Saxons of the changing and shifting and reflected light on gold and silver and precious stones in a northern landscapethat must for most of the year have been dark and overcast is the most interesting of all:

Æthelwulf remarks on how the changing light gave vibrancy to gold vessels and, in the dark interiors of northern buildings, unlit as yet by ageneral and generous use of windows, we can understand how the warm glow of gold would give a delicate tremulousness to the surface of art treasures as they caught and reflected at variousangles the northern light or the gleam of wax lamps or candles.xxxvi. . . Perhaps, indeed, it is in the sea and the mesmeric fascination itstill has for us today that we can recapture some of the Anglo-Saxon interest in colour. Though the sea can change almost imperceptibly from blues to bruise-coloured greys and greens, its realvisual attraction lies in the fact that each colour can vary within its own range in terms of ‘depth’ and ‘brightness’. The merest ruffling of the surface produces anexciting mobility of brightness of the same hue which gives a new animation and interest to the whole. This vibrancy the Anglo-Saxons managed to achieve even in their coloured outline drawings,and the almost shimmering quality of some of their coloured drawings reminds us of Æthelwulf’s interest in the tremulous flames of the hanging torches at night which he likened togleaming stars.xxxvii

Quite apart from its treasures, however, England was, on the whole, a good country to live in by the standards of the times. It was, in many ways, a remarkably fluid society.There were, of course, class distinctions, as there were in every country at that time, but the possibilities of crossing class barriers seem by eleventh-century standards very enlightened. Thebasic ranks of society under the king, starting from the top, were ealdormen (after Cnut’s reign,known as earls), thegns (subdivided into king’s thegns, whopresumably held land directly from the king, and others who held from intermediate lords, and who roughly equated to gentry and yeomanry), and churls, or free peasants and farmers; these classeswere differentiated by their wergild or blood-price, the compensation that had to be paid to their kin if they were killed. The wergild of a nobleman was 1,200 shillings, that of a thegn 600shillings, that of a churl 200 shillings. Below all these came the unfree men or slaves, who naturally had no wergild. But the situation was not static. A churl who did so well that he possessedfive hides of land on which he paid the appropriate taxes was assessed at the wergild of a thegn and achieved a correspondingly higher social status; and if his son and grandson continued to holdthe same amount of land, the title, the status and the financial obligations became hereditary. A merchant who had crossed the sea three times in his own ship and at his own risk was also entitledto be upgraded to thegnship, a significant encouragement to trade. An unfree man could be manumitted by his lord and become free and technically could start to aim at thegnship. Equally in times ofhardship and famine, a man might, in desperation, sell himself or his family into slavery for the sake of food and maintenance, and a free man who failed or was unable to pay judicial fines mightbe sentenced to lose his liberty and become unfree. If he were, he could be redeemed by his relatives on payment of a stipulated sum. It was a system where, by contrast with Normandy, lessattention was paid to blood or descent than to achievement. Earl Godwin, the most powerful man in England under the king, was the grandson of a Sussex thegn of no particular distinction. Society inAnglo-Saxon England was, as in contemporary Europe, brutal, violent and frequently unjust; but there were more aspects of it that mitigated the general misery than elsewhere.


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Many of the ideas relating to family were remarkably modern. The position of women in society might well have been envied by their descendants in the post-conquest periodand much later; it is clearly stated in the law-codes that ‘no woman or maiden shall ever be forced to marry one whom she dislikes, nor be sold for money’. She had legal rights toshares in the property of the household and to the care of the children if there were a divorce or separation and, if widowed, a second marriage was, in theory at least, entirely at her owndiscretion. Indeed, according to the first Kentish laws, divorce was extremely easy in Anglo-Saxon society; a woman who wished to leave her marriage with her children was entitled to half the goodsof the household. Her freedom to own and dispose of land was remarkable, compared with the post-conquest period when the property of a woman became the property of her husband the moment shemarried. It has been suggested that Harold’s mistress or handfasted wife, Edith,xxxviiimay have been the woman named in the Domesday Bookas Edith the Fair or Edith the Rich, in which case she clearly came of good family and held extensive lands in her own right throughout East Anglia and Buckinghamshire. The Domesday Book alsorecords the situation of a woman in Yorkshire called Asa who held her land

separate and free from the rule and control of Beornwulf, her husband, even when they were together, in such a way that he himself could make neither gift nor sale of it,nor forfeit it. After their separation she herself withdrew with all her land and possessed it as its lady.xxxix

Not until the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1882 were women to enjoy such financial independence again.Moreover, a woman did nothave to be of noble birth to enjoy such rights: the Domesday Book records the grant to Ælfgyth the maid of two hides of land in Buckinghamshire

which she could give or sell to whom she wished, and of the demesne farm of King Edward she herself had half a hide which Godric the sheriff granted her as long as he wassheriff, on condition of her teaching his daughter gold embroidery work.xl

Gold embroidery work was, of course, one of the most highly prized and rewarded skills of the time and one for which the English were particularly renowned.

As for the upbringing of children, the ideas expressed in one of the gnomic poems (essentially collections of sententious utterances) were positively advanced even by twentieth-centurystandards:

One shall not rebuke a youth in his childhood, until he can reveal himself. He shall thrive among the people in that he is confident.

The history of education in Anglo-Saxon England divides into five periods: the conversion period, when missionaries from both Rome and Ireland brought learning and books withthem; the first high period of the Church, when Alcuin, an English missionary at the court of Charlemagne, recalled regretfully the richness of the library of York Minster that he had left behindand of which Alfred was thinking when he remembered the churches filled with treasures and books; the first Danish invasions, in which so many of those books and treasures were plundered ordestroyed; the beginning of the revival of learning under Alfred, and the gradual building up again of libraries and teachers during the peaceful times of Athelstan and Edgar;and then the second wave of Viking invasions under Æthelred, less destructive than the first but bad enough. At least Cnut was a devout Christian and his father Sweyn Forkbeard nominally one– Æthelred never had to answer the unanswerable question his forefather Alfred was faced with: how can you trust the oaths of pagans to whom nothing is sacred, not even their owngods?

The first and most important educational necessity throughout these centuries was to train recruits for the priesthood and the cloister. That the various minster schools succeeded in this isindicated by the number of English missionaries who went to convert the heathen on the Continent, such as St Boniface, or were sent for to take education and civilization to foreign schools, asAlcuin was recruited by Charlemagne. These men were accustomed to send back to England for books unavailable to them where they were working; English book production was clearly of a high standard.Boniface wrote to ask the Abbess Eadburh to copy St Peter’s epistles for him in gold. This would presumably be for ceremonial occasions, but more workaday books were in demand also. DorothyWhitelock listed the writings that were then available in England:

They were, of course, familiar with the Bible and the writings of the Christian Fathers, and with the Christian poets, Juvencus, Prudentius, Sedulius, Prosper, Fortunatus,Lactantius, and Arator. Bede makes use of a number of historical writings, of Josephus, Eusebius (in Latin translation from the Greek), Orosius, Cassiodorus, Gregory of Tours, etc., and ofsaints’ lives such asPaulinus’sLife of Ambrose, Possidius’sLife of Augustine,Constantius’sLife of Germanus.Of classicalauthors, both Bede and Aldhelm knew Virgil and Pliny at first hand, and Aldhelm used Lucan, Ovid, Cicero, and Sallust. Citations of other authors occur, but could have been taken from the worksof Isidore of Seville, or from the Latin grammarians, of whom a really remarkable number were available in England already in the seventh century. Some very rare works had already found theirway to England, and one, the grammar of Julian of Toledo, owes its preservation to this circumstance, for all surviving manuscripts go back to an English copy.xli

And the English monastics were not just reading these books, they were writing new works for themselves. Bede’s and Aldhelm’s works were produced at this period.

It is impossible to know how far learning reached the lay population in the eighth and ninth centuries. There may have been, probably were, noblemen and women who were literate and could readLatin as well as English. Many of the most famous founders of monasteries, such as Benedict Biscop, the founder of Bede’s monastery of Jarrow/Monkwearmouth, and a noted buyer of books, musthave come into this category; many, like him, must have entered monasteries or taken holy orders later in life. If there had been no tradition at all of lay education, Alfred would hardly havelamented in his letter on the state of learning in England (?890s) that there were now few people north or south of the Humber who could even read English or translate a letter from Latin intoEnglish, or make use of the books that remained. It is not entirely clear from his letter whether he is thinking of clerics or laypeople or both. He may have beenthinkingprimarily of priests or monks; but if he had been thinking only of the clergy, his programme of translations into English of the books that were most necessary forallmen to know would lookrather strange. He would never have supposed that it would have been sufficient for a priest or a monk to know only these particular books and only in English. Their needs would have been far moreextensive. His programme of translation, as well as his own words, ‘all men’, imply a determination to reach the laity. Asser, one of the scholars whom Alfred recruited to make hiscourt a centre of learning, speaks in his life of Alfred of the king’s children being educated

in company with all the nobly born children of virtually the entire area, and a good many of lesser birth as well. In this school, books in both languages – that is tosay, in Latin and English – were carefully read; they also devoted themselves to writing, to such an extent that, even before they had the requisite strength for manly skills (hunting,that is, and other skills appropriate to noblemen), they were seen to be devoted and intelligent students of the liberal arts.xlii

We may well suspect that Asser is laying it on a little lavishly here, but even allowing for exaggeration, his specific mention of other noble children and some of lesser birthmakes it fairly clear that, in theory at least, Alfred’s conception of education was not limited to the Church and that the origins of comprehensive education may be found in England nearlytwo hundred years before the conquest.

There is no such direct testimony of the state of general literacy as Alfred provides in his letter from the reigns of his immediatesuccessors, but there is little doubtthat many could and did read. Professor James Campbell comments:

The use of written English went with a considerable degree of lay literacy; no doubt as both cause and effect. Æthelweard’s translation of the Chronicle was thefirst book written by an English nobleman and, for nearly four centuries, the last. Two of Ælfric’s theological treatises were written for thegns. The relative abundance ofinscriptions, not only on churches but also on, for example, brooches and rings, is suggestive. A layman who learned to read in the Confessor’s reign would be able to make out hisfather’s will, the king’s writs, the boundary clause of a charter, or a monastery’s inventories. In Henry II’s day, mere literacy would have won him none of theseadvantages. If he wanted them he had to learn Latin. There is no doubt that some did so; but it would be unwise to be confident that they were more numerous than those who were literate inEnglish a century or more earlier. If the late Anglo-Saxon state was run with sophistication and thoughtfulness, this may very well be connected with the ability of many laymen toread.xliii

In addition to these legally useful documents, the religious texts available to the Anglo-Saxon layman in English would have included the Gospels, the psalms, the Hexateuch, thecreed, the confessional formulae, homilies and the lives of the saints. Ælfric’s translation into English of the Old Testament was commissioned by a nobleman. Perhaps he wanted to haveit read to him in his own tongue; but possibly he wanted to be able to read it himself.It is worth remembering that, from the earliest period, the various codes of laws hadall been written in English, implying an ability in those who were not Latinists to read them. After a papal council at Rheims in 1050, King Edward ordered that a record of what had been said anddone there should be written in English and a copy kept in the king’s treasury. This would not be necessary for the clergy and could therefore only have been designed for the convenience oflaymen. There is a tradition that King Harold owned books – not just religious books, which any pious man might have, but books on hawking – which has caused his biographer to hazardthe cautious guess that he may have been literate. It would be more surprising if he had not been. He had been virtually running the highly sophisticated Anglo-Saxon state of which ProfessorCampbell speaks for years before he was crowned; a state in which, since at least the days of Alfred, one of the primary instruments of government was the royal writ, which recipients were expectedto be able to read. His sister, the queen, had received an excellent education at the abbey of Wilton, where there was a school for aristocratic young ladies, and one may assume that her youngersister, Gunnhild, who later took the veil, had been similarly educated; it would be strange if less trouble had been taken over the education of the boys of the family. We know from the anonymousauthor of theVita Ædwardithat Godwin took care to have his sons trained in all the accomplishments that would make them useful to their king. Indeed, Frank Barlow has pointed outthat, of all the English kings after Cnut, Harold was the only one who received a political education suitable for the office.xlivThere is noevidence either way for Duke William’s literacy. One of his biographers asserts categorically that he was not and that all his sons were similarly illiterate.xlvThe Norman court, he points out, was not a centre of culture. OrdericVitalis writes of his having witnessed a charter by making a cross.xlviIndeed, the point has been made by David Bates that, ‘for almost the first century of its existence, the government of the Norman rulers wasilliterate’xlvii– a circumstance that considerably complicates the writing of its history during that period. After Hastings, the newregime was to be much distressed to discover the extent to which English was used for the everyday affairs of church and state; the Normans made haste to substitute Latin, which their own clerkswere able to understand.

Alongside the literacy or otherwise of the laity in England was something that is much more easily estimated: their affection for the old Germanic heroic poems and lays. This was one of the mostlasting gifts that they brought from their continental homelands and it endured right up to the conquest. Of all the countries of Europe at that time, England was far ahead in having a flourishingvernacular literature, much of which is unfortunately lost, though enough has survived to give us a feeling for its quality. Before 1066, there was little to challenge it, apart from the Celticliterature of Ireland and Wales and the Frenchchansons de geste,the stories of heroic deeds, of which there were probably once many, though few, and those mostly considerably later, havesurvived. TheChanson de Rolandis the most important early example to survive and cannot much pre-date the conquest in its present form. There had certainly been vernacular poetry on heroicsubjects in Germany, but it was mainly oral; only scraps and shards of this have survived in written form, such as the tantalizingly short piece of the heroic poemHildebrand.The great ageof the Icelandic sagas came well after the conquest.

England, on the other hand, had the distinction of having poems not just of heroic deeds but also of a more reflective nature, asking the questions that good poetry has always asked about theunfathomable mystery of existence. It is miraculous that we have as much of it as we do: the odds must always have been heavily against its survival. In its original form,when the Anglo-Saxons first came to England, it must have been a purely oral tradition that they brought with them. When a more literate age arrived with the conversion, it was highly unlikely thatthe monks, then the only literate people, would have given priority to committing the pagan songs of pagan gods and heroes to paper. (Though it is a mistake to exaggerate the prudishness of thecloister; Professor Campbell has pointed out that a tenth-century transcription of Ovid’sArs Amatoria,the part concerned with the techniques of seduction, may well be in the hand ofSt Dunstan.) But the songs did somehow survive, indeed they must have flourished, and even in monasteries they must have had a following, or Alcuin would not have asked the Abbot of Lindisfarne hisindignant question,Quid enim Hinieldus cum Christo?, ‘What has Ingeld to do with Christ?’ Ingeld, prince of the Heathobards, makes a brief appearance inBeowulf, the onlysurviving Anglo-Saxon epic, in one of its many digressions through old Germanic legend. Freawaru, daughter of Hrothgar, the King of the Danes, is given to him in marriage to heal the breach betweenhis people and hers. But, prophesies Beowulf, the peace offering will surely turn sour, when the Heathobards see the daughter of their enemy at the feast, and indeed the blood feud breaks out againeven more strongly with Ingeld torn between love for his bride and his duty of revenge and loyalty to his people. The fact that he could be referred to so allusively, both inBeowulfand inAlcuin’s letter, implies the existence at some time of many well-known songs or poems about Ingeld and the Danish/Heathobard feud, so that the hearers or readers ofBeowulfwouldquickly pick up the allusion.


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There is a similar reference inBeowulfto the story of a fight at Finnesburg, of which we have confirmation in a mere fifty lines of another poem on the subject;the fragment of vellum on which it was originally written has vanished since it was transcribed in the seventeenth century but, to judge by what we have, it must have been a poem of considerabledistinction, though probably shorter thanBeowulf.The fragment describes the resumption of another blood feud; the young prince, trapped in the hall of his host, sees lights in the nightsky and warns his followers that they signal the advance of enemies:

Here there is no dawn from the east, here no dragons fly,

It is not the horns of this hall that burn,

They come to attack us. Birds sing,

The grey wolf howls, wooden war-gear echoes,

Shields receive the spear. Now shines the moon,

Wandering beneath the clouds; now arise deeds of woe

That will work harm to our people.

It is the combination of the small natural details (the alarmed birds singing, the moon shining erratically through the clouds) with the more standard descriptions of heroiclays (the wolf howling, the sound of spear on shield) that gives it its peculiarly evocative magic. But what is common to all the surviving Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry –Beowulf,theremains ofFinnesburhandWaldere,the remnant of a poem on Walther of Aquitaine (and also in the remnant we have of the Old High GermanHildebrand) –is a dignity ofproportion and style that gives it its indubitably epic stature. Beowulf being received by Hrothgar at Heorot is fully comparable to Odysseus at the court of Alcinous. Heroic epic rarely springs,fully formed, from the head of an original poet;generations of shorter, possibly cruder lays and songs on its subject herald its appearance. Many generations of legends andshorter poems on the subject of Beowulf and his exploits, now lost, must have preceded and generated the epic we have now. Not all would have been in English, but some undoubtedly were.

Beowulfitself (probably dating from the eighth century in its present form) has only survived through a series of happy accidents, the last being the rescue in 1731 of the only survivingmanuscript (though in a damaged form) from the disastrous fire in the Cottonian Library in Ashburnham House, Westminster, in which it was then held. As with so much else of the civilization of theAnglo-Saxons, we are tormented by our ignorance of what has been lost, as well as grateful for the little that has been saved. Not all of what has endured is on the epic scale or concerns bloodfeuds and monsters. Among the rest is something that at that date was peculiar to England – as far as we know, that is, since again we can never know what has been lost of the work of othercountries – and that is poetry of a more reflective nature. Most of it has a peculiarly elegiac or lyrical character. Some are shorter poems reflecting on the human condition, the loss of alord, a wife deserted by her husband, a husband who has made good overseas sending for his wife. Many mourn the transitory nature of worldly happiness, such asThe Ruin,in which the poetbroods over the remains of what was probably an ancient Roman city, possibly Bath, orThe Wandererin which the narrator laments:

A wise man may grasp how ghastly it shall be

When all this world’s wealth standeth waste

Even as now, in many places over the earth,

Walls stand, wind beaten,

Heavy with hoar frost; ruined habitations. . .

The maker of men has so marred this dwelling

That human laughter is not heard about it

And idle stand these old giant works.

How that time is gone, he mourns, vanished beneath the shadow of night, as though it had never been. But if the predominant mood of Anglo-Saxon poetry was elegiac, it wasflexible enough to serve other purposes: to depict the frenzy of battle, as when the sparks from the clashing swords blaze ‘as if all Finnesburh were aflame’ or to portray the almostMiltonic ambition and resentment of Satan in the retelling of the Genesis story (‘I could be God as well as He’). The Old EnglishGenesismay have been a biblical story, butSatan, declaring war on heaven, does so in the old Germanic heroic spirit:

Strong comrades, bold-hearted heroes, stand by me, who will not fail me in the fight; they, brave men, have chosen me for their master. With such can a man lay a plan, carryit out with such companions in war. They are keen in their friendship to me, loyal in their hearts; I can be their leader, rule in this kingdom. Thus it seems not right to me that I needflatter God any whit for any benefit; no longer will I be his follower.xlviii

But he finds himself in another land, ‘void of light and teeming with flame, a great peril of fire’, many hundreds of years before Milton described a laterSatan’s ‘darkness visible’.

There are quantities of riddles, a verse form in which even monks thought it permissible to indulge (which is presumably why so many, comparatively speaking, have survived) and whichfrequently illuminates life in Anglo-Saxon England. This riddle has more modern resonances:

The monster came sailing, wondrous along the wave; it called out in its comeliness to the land from the ship; loud was its din; its laughter was terrible, dreadful on earth;its edges were sharp. It was malignantly cruel, not easily brought to battle but fierce in the fighting; it stove in the ship’s sides, relentless and ravaging. It bound it with a balefulcharm; it spoke with cunning of its own nature: ‘My mother is of the dearest race of maidens, she is my daughter grown to greatness, as it is known to men, to people among the fold, thatshe shall stand with joy on the earth in all lands.’xlix

It is an iceberg.

And there is that unforgettable, extraordinarily powerful and fully achieved masterpiece,The Dream of the Rood,in which Christ’s cross speaks of its experience of the crucifixionwith a passion and imaginative originality that were not to be recaptured in English poetry for three centuries after the conquest:

As a rood was I raised up; I bore aloft the mighty King, the Lord of Heaven; I durst not stoop. They pierced me with dark nails; the wounds are still plain to view in me,gaping gashes of malice; I durst not do hurt to any of them. They bemocked us together. I was all bedewed with blood, shed from the Man’s side, after He had sent forth His Spirit. I haveendured many stern trials on the hill; I saw the God of hosts violently stretched out; darkness with its clouds had covered the Lord’s corpse,the fair radiance; ashadow went forth, dark beneath the clouds. All creation wept, lamented the King’s death; Christ was on the cross.l

When poetry was written in English again, it had a different character, the difference not always easy to define but probably due in part to the fact that, while before theconquest much of the most impressive work had been written for an aristocratic audience or readership, by the time of its revival it was being written for a more popular and provincial public. Itwas not until the fourteenth century that it regained its old authority.

Anglo-Saxon poetry has been accused of a gloomy overemphasis on the darker side of human existence. It is true that it tends to dwell on the transitoriness of life and of pleasure; happiness inany Dark Age society probably was transitory. But it reflects the circumstances of the life in which it was written. Just as the Anglo-Saxons’ love of gold was derived in part from the wayits radiance lighted the darkness and cold of their churches and houses, so their poetry mirrors the harshness of their daily existence. The reader is always conscious of the gloom and wildness ofthe northern landscape that produced it: the cold, the hard life extracting a living from the soil, the seaspray in the face, the loneliness of a life deprived of the support of a lord, contrastedwith the warmth and joy of feasting in the hall and the company of comrades. It calls to mind Bede’s famous story of the Northumbrian ealdorman’s comparison of the life of man to thesparrow flying through the warm lighted hall, passing from the cold darkness outside to another unknown darkness on the other side. There is none of the joy of the merry month of May in Anglo-Saxonpoetry. But there is a noble melancholy and an elegiac lyricism, combined with a stoic acceptance of fate, and a courage‘perfect, because withouthope’,liexquisitely summed up in the words of Byrhtwold, the old retainer, at the battle of Maldon:

Mind shall be the braver, heart be the fiercer,

Courage be the greater, as our strength lessens.

Here lies our lord, hacked and cut down,

A brave man in the dust; ever will he mourn

Who thinks from this war-play to return home.

England was unique in Europe in 1066 in having a fully developed vernacular prose. Its most remarkable manifestation is, of course, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which recorded inEnglish events from the seventh century onwards at a time when chronicles would normally have been written in Latin. It was, in fact, not one chronicle but several, different versions beingmaintained at different ecclesiastical centres around the country. Its establishment has been credited to Alfred, as part of his campaign to promote writing in English that could be read in theirown tongue by all of his people who were literate. There is no written evidence to support the claim, but the coincidence of the appearance of a chronicle in English at the time when Alfred wascampaigning for essential books to be available in English is, to say the least, suggestive, especially since it would have taken a certain amount of central authority to get the project going inthe first place. Whatever the origin of the Chronicle, it does, in itself, provide an overview of the development of written English, from the earliest entries, such as the rather incoherent butvivid account of the blood feud in 755 between Cynewulf and Cyneheard (the first ever substantial piece of historical writing in Europe in any vernacular) to the bitter irony of the late tenth- andearly eleventh-century entries on the Danish raids in the reign of Æthelred andthe fluency and power of the account of Count Eustace’s affray at Dover and theoutlawing of the Godwin family in 1051. The Cynewulf and Cyneheard episode gives a fair sample of Alfredian prose in its early stages, though it may be a reworking of an earlier account of theepisode that had been handed down: after telling us that Cynewulf had held the kingdom of the West Saxons for thirty-one winters, it continues:

He wished to drive out a prince named Cyneheard. . . and when [Cyneheard] heard that the king was lying with a woman at Merton, he rode there and surrounded the bower beforethe king’s men were aware of him. And when the king perceived that, he went to the door and there valiantly defended himself until he saw the prince and then rushed at him and severelywounded him. And then they were all fighting with the king until they had slain him. And when the king’s men heard the din from the woman’s bower they rushed there, whoever wasreadiest and swiftest; and the prince offered all of them life and goods but none would accept. And they fought together until all were slain but one Welsh hostage, and he was badly wounded.And in the morning when the king’s thegns that had been left behind heard that the king was dead they rode thither with his ealdorman Osric and his thegn Wiferth and the men who had beenleft behind, and found the prince where the king lay slain and the gates had been locked against them, and there they were fighting. And he offered them lands and goods at their own choice ifthey would grant him the kingdom, and told them that kinsmen of theirs were within who would not go fromhim. And they answered that no kinsmen were dearer to them thantheir lord, and they would never follow his slayer. And they offered that their kinsmen should go safely hence; and they said that the same had been offered to their companions who had beenwith the king. They said that they cared for this ‘no more than your companions who were slain with the king’. And they were fighting around the gates until they got inside and slewthe prince and all who were with him, all but one who was the ealdorman’s godson, and his life was spared though he was much wounded.

The confusion of personal pronouns, the abrupt unexplained switch from the third to the second person, all mark it out as early experimental prose; but nothing conceals thevitality and immediacy of the account given, even though it must have been written well over a hundred years after the events described. The contrast in fluency and control with the much laterChronicle extracts already quoted is striking but this early piece was written by a clerk who already had an instinctive feeling for the rhythms and potentialities of English prose.

Outside the Chronicle, it is equally possible to track the development of the language in flexibility and sophistication from the slightly elementary individuality and sincerity ofAlfred’s first efforts to the fiery eloquence of Archbishop Wulfstan’sSermon of the Wolfand the classic elegance of Ælfric. It is impossible not to wonder what would haveresulted if the language had been allowed to continue along its well-established trajectory; but the development of the prose, like that of the poetry, was stamped out brutally overnight on 14October 1066. When in the 1070s the English language ceased to be used for political and administrativepurposes, there was no longer any central authority to establish andpropagate a standard ‘received’ English and it broke down into a confusion of regional dialects. Indeed, it is likely that the written Old English that has descended to us, the Wessexform of the language, must always have been something of a literary and bureaucratic mandarin, probably different from its spoken form even in Wessex, certainly different from what was spoken inMercia or Northumbria. With the loss of its dominance, the regional variants had their way. Thus, when English prose began to be used again for literary purposes, three centuries later, it was, ineffect, a new English, and had returned to the tentative experimentalism that Old English had shown in Alfred’s day. Not until Malory’sMorte d’Arthur,roughly four hundredyears after the conquest, did it show itself again as a fully developed literary medium.


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THE ARMIES

The predominating ethos of Dark Age societies was martial; the king functioned first and foremost as a war-leader and as the defender of hispeople, and the more effective he was in this capacity, the higher his standing with his own people and his enemies. It was King Alfred who, in his translation of Boethius’Consolation ofPhilosophy,first defined what he called the tools of his kingship by separating them into what would be the traditional three classes, the praying men, the fighting men and the working men;but there was never any doubt about which of them formed the aristocracy. In England, as in Normandy, the ability to fight was the most important qualification for life, and the reputation of arenowned warrior the most eagerly sought.

It may seem rather contradictory, therefore, to make the point that major pitched battles, like Hastings, were on the whole avoided whenever possible, and the most successful rulers of the daywere generally those who were most efficient in avoiding them. It has been pointed out that the only major battlefield on which William had appeared before Hastings was that of Val-ès-Dunes,when he was only nineteen and where the commander-in-chief was his overlord, the King of France. Over the next twenty years until Hastings, he contrived withconsiderableadroitness to achieve his objectives by more indirect methods such as siege-work, in which in his early years at least he appears to have been masterly. The battle of Mortemer, in which the Normansdefeated the French under the French king and the Count of Anjou, was captained on the Norman side by William’s cousin, Robert of Eu, and the battle of Varaville against the same opponents,where William managed to catch the French army divided in two on either side of a ford, indicates patience and clever tactics but can hardly be compared with a battle of the scale of Hastings.Harold, in his warfare against the Welsh king Gruffydd ap Llewellyn in 1062, showed something of the same tendency. He pursued an extremely effective campaign of harassment against him, but thehands that eventually killed Gruffydd were Welsh, not English. On the whole he appears to have preferred negotiation to battle and to have resorted to force only when diplomacy failed. Edward, onthe other hand, despite his saintly reputation, seems to have favoured warfare rather than diplomacy on the occasions for which we have evidence (for example, the exiling of the Godwin family in1051 and the Northumbrian rebellion in 1065): a not uncommon example of the civilian who knew little at first hand of war contrasted with the soldier who knew all too much about it.

The reason is not difficult to find. Far too much must be hazarded on the outcome of a single pitched battle, and, unless the odds on one side were overwhelming (in which case the lesser sidewould if it could find a way to avoid battle, such as retreating), the eventual outcome was far too uncertain for the hazard to be worthwhile. The principle was summed up succinctly by Vegetius inhisDe Re Militari, the military bible of the Middle Ages, probably written about AD 390: battle should be the last resort,everything else should be tried first.‘The main and principal point in war,’ he went on, ‘is to secure plenty of provisions for oneself and to destroy the enemy by famine. Famine is more terrible than thesword.’liiThe tactic of harrying and devastating the enemy’s territory (as Harold did in Wales and as William did when he landed inEngland) had the double advantage of damaging the enemy’s prestige and economy, and maintaining the invading army at no cost to the invader. As has been pointed out, one man’s foragingis another man’s ravaging. It was also a procedure much more popular with the individual soldier. In ravaging (or foraging), he not only looked after his own commissariat, he also had thechance of plunder. In battle, he was much more likely to be killed. It has been suggested that the harrying of Harold’s lands in Wessex was the most effective stratagem used by William toprovoke Harold into confronting him at the earliest possible opportunity. And it was, of course, what the Viking raiders did in the ninth and tenth centuries. Apart from the five pitched battles ofEdmund Ironside against Cnut and, of course, the battle of Maldon, there had been few major battles against the Vikings since Alfred’s conclusive victory at Edington. It follows that over thecentury before Hastings, the English defence capability had been geared more to combat guerrilla Viking invasions than to battles on the Stamford Bridge or Hastings scale, the one notable exceptionbeing Athelstan’s great victory in 937 at the battle of Brunanburh over the combined forces of the kings of Scotland and Ireland.

The myth of an Anglo-Saxon army primarily made up of peasants fighting with sticks and stones was exploded many years ago but dies very hard. Such an army could not have held back the Normansfor half an hour, let alone a full day. Another myth, strenuously promoted in some circles in recent years, is that thevictory of the Normans was that of a highly disciplinedfeudal force, composed in large part of well-trained cavalry, over some kind of home guard fighting on foot, enthusiastic but poorly equipped and largely untrained, called together in haste fromthe shires to meet the threat of invasion but hampered by obsolete organization in the face of the sophisticated opposition. In part, this is due to the retrospective effect of the outcome: theEnglish army was defeated by the Norman army, therefore it must,ipso facto,have been inferior. This argument does not take account of the circumstances in which the battle was fought.

A good deal of research has been done on the composition of the two armies that met at Hastings, but in essentials there are several unknowable facts, the most important of which is ourignorance of the size of the two forces. Many efforts have been made to compute these, on the one side from the numbers of men and horses whose heads are shown above the gunwales in the Normanships in the Bayeux Tapestry (and the belief that one can extrapolate from this a calculation based on the number of ships believed to have sailed), on the other on the assumed length of theEnglish position and the probable depth of Harold’s deployment along it. Neither hypothesis can provide a reliable result. The depictions on the Tapestry are symbolic, not naturalistic, andwe have no detailed knowledge of the types or sizes of the ships William built; and the topography of Harold’s original position has been changed so much by time and building work that itcannot support any reliable calculation. There is also the unreliability of the contemporary evidence. On the English side, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, corroborated by some later chroniclers, statesthat Harold fought before many of his troops had come up – contradicted by a different assertion, that in fact he had too many men for the position he occupied. On the Norman side, there arewildly unrealisticestimates of the size of the English army, designed in part, probably, to enhance the duke’s prestige in having beaten so colossal a force. As for theNorman army, William announced before the battle that if he had only 10,000 men rather than the 60,000 he had brought he would still fight Harold, but this was undoubtedly a rhetorical figure and60,000 is not credible. The possibility of armies of 20,000 or more on each side has been suggested, but is unlikely. The best guesses of the best authorities, based on calculations of the size ofthe battlefield, the number of men it could accommodate and the space between them that would be necessary for them to fight effectively, are that the two armies were fairly evenly matched, atbetween 6,000 and 8,000 men on each side, and this is borne out by the length of the battle since one would not expect a battle where one side was demonstrably superior to the other to last solong. But they are no more than guesses.

Ironically, of the two forces we know far more about the obsolete English than the professional Norman, and what can be deduced from the written evidence available does not support the idea ofan out-of-date amateur force, crushed by a highly trained professional army organized along feudal lines. This is not surprising, given the length of time over which the English system had evolvedand the various Viking invasions to which it had been forced to react. There must always, from the earliest days and on both sides of the Channel, have been some arrangements, of varying degrees offormality, linking the defence of a country to the holding of land in that country, so that all free landholders had a responsibility to the king, or to some intermediary lord, to give armedservice when required. Vestiges of such a system over the previous centuries can be found in many parts of Europe. England, by coincidence, provides more evidence of its development thanNormandy.

Long before the advent of the Vikings, the rulers of the individual kingdoms of the Heptarchy had had occasion to call on their subjects for fighting men. It was as aresult of the ninth-century raids that Alfred made the most far-reaching changes yet to the organization of that requirement. It was he who initiated the systematized construction of fortifiedtowns orburhs(or boroughs, as they became) throughout his kingdom, to be permanently maintained in a state of readiness and defence; in theory no one was more than twenty miles away from aplace of refuge in the event of Viking attack. The germ of this idea had been found earlier in Mercia, but it was Alfred who saw its relevance to the kind of hit and run raids to which so manyparts of England had been subjected, though it was left to his son, Edward the Elder, to complete the scheme. Edward also produced the complicated Burghal Hidage document, which provided for themaintenance and defence of theburhsand has been described as a watershed in the history of Anglo-Saxon governance.liiiThe lack of castles inEngland has been seen as a sign of the general backwardness of the English in military matters, in comparison with the achievements of the castle-building Normans, and Orderic Vitalis ascribes thespeed with which William was able to subdue the country after Hastings to the absence of English castles. But the virtue of castles lay chiefly in the part they could play in defending borderterritory (most of the few English castles that existed before 1066 were on the Welsh marches), or in holding down rebellious or conquered territory (the reason why William built so many of them)or in providing a focus for insurrection. In the centuries after the conquest, the many English castles held by rebellious nobles were to prove a mixed blessing to William’s successors.Alfred’s system of fortifiedburhswhose administration and upkeep were in the hands of their inhabitants, not ofindividual nobles, and into whichcountry-dwellers could retreat for safety in time of danger represented a much nobler vision and proved an effective deterrent to Viking raiders.

It was Alfred, too, who solved the problem of raiders who could attack and disperse before the English shire levies could be called out; he arranged a rota, as described in the Anglo-SaxonChronicle, so that half the fighting force would always be on military duty while the other half remained at home for purposes of immediate local defence and maintaining the general affairs of thecountry. This produced what was, in effect, the first English standing army, and it worked. But in order for it to work, he had to tighten up the legislation that laid the duty on the land toproduce the fighting men he needed. It is also Alfred who is credited with laying the foundations of the English navy when in 897 he commissioned the building of a fleet of longships to his owndesign, though in action these proved less successful than his other innovations, being too deep in the draught for the river work in which the shallower Viking ships excelled. None the less, hiswas the first recorded attempt to construct an official naval force for the defence of the nation, and his successors were to build on his achievements.

Naturally, there had been many changes in the detailed organization of the national defence between Alfred’s death in 899 and the mid-eleventh century. During the more peaceful years ofthe tenth century, the upkeep and manning of theburhswas not maintained with the same rigour as had originally been intended, and it was no longer necessary to keep a standing army in thefield. As time went on, though the service due from landowners was strictly maintained, there was a move to allowing it to be commuted for a cash payment with which paid troops could be hired. TheDanegeld or heregeld, in the reign ofÆthelred, was not used exclusively for paying the Danes to go away; it often paid one lot of Danish troops to fight off another,as Æthelred paid the famous Viking Thorkell the Tall for many years. After Cnut’s introduction of the housecarls in 1018, and their development into the front-line troops of the Englisharmy, cash was needed to pay them. But the theoretical obligation of all free men to give military service remained, and could be and was called on. There were clearly enormous variations in detailin different parts of the country, but in general there seem to have been two different types of service: first, the system by which the king could call on a force of warriors for a particularpurpose, based on the provision of a man for a certain unit of land; second, the responsibility of all free men to defend the country in an emergency such as an invasion. In the first case, the manwas provided, armed, paid and provisioned by the lord, the abbey, the village, the hundred from which he was due, and was expected to serve anywhere needed, at home or abroad, for a certain period,usually sixty days. These would be the men who were normally referred to as the shire levies or the select fyrd. In the second, when all free men were expected to turn out for a national emergency,they were not normally expected to go beyond their own locality and had to be able to return to their own homes at night (there were exceptions on the Scottish and Welsh marches); this has beendescribed as the general fyrd. When Byrhtnoth called together his force to meet the Danes at Maldon, he would have called out the shire levies and his own retainers, but he would almost certainlyhave regarded this as the sort of emergency in which all the local free men should come to the national defence. This might account for the presence of Dunhere, the ‘unorne ceorl’, thesimple peasant, though he might just as easily have been there as part of the shire levies.


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The provision of men for the shire levies was the most important part of the defensive system and was related to the tenure of land. The general basis (allowing forregional differences, for example in the Danelaw where the land was assessed in carucates, not hides) is set out fairly clearly in the account of Wallingford in the Domesday Book, and it wasprobably in accordance with this system that the summons would have been sent out in 1066:

If the king sent out an army anywhere only 1 thegn went out from 5 hides, and for his sustenance or pay 4s. for 2 months was given him from each hide. This money, however,was not sent to the king but given to the thegns. If anyone summoned on military service did not go he forfeited all his land to the king.liv

If the landowner went himself, he presumably paid himself from the profits of his land; if a man who was not a landholder (or held a unit of less than five hides) went, he wouldcollect his pay or the balance of it from those who did own the land that he was representing. But there are indications throughout the Domesday Book that it was usually the same man who answeredthe call on any individual territory unless he was unavoidably prevented (perhaps by increasing age or by sickness), and that he went well armed and equipped, suggesting that he was a reasonablyexperienced fighter. The evidence of the Domesday Book indicates that in 1066 the summons was to the general fyrd, since it gives instances where more than one man had gone to the army for lessthan five hides; and in this case they cannot all have been able to return to their homes at night.

There is also evidence that in general, representatives from thesame shire tended to fight together, and thus would have become accustomed to operating as a trained unit.Throughout the Chronicle there are reports that the men of this shire turned out on this occasion or the men of that shire repelled a landing on another or that an ealdorman opposed an enemy withthe levies of such and such shires. Legend has it, for example, that the men of Kent traditionally had the honour of forming the vanguard in any campaign in which they fought and striking the firstblow in any battle; the men of London traditionally fought around the king. It is tempting to see in these early arrangements the origins of the county regiments that mostly survived until the latetwentieth century and were such a distinguished part of English military history. It was, on the whole, a remarkably efficient and sophisticated system. It could be abused, though there is littleevidence that it was in pre-conquest days; the worst example is that of William Rufus who in 1094 summoned an army of 20,000 men and marched them to the coast where he demanded that each man gavehim 10s. they were carrying out of the 20s. that they were due (they would have received the balance when they returned home), and then sent them home again, thus raising the enormous sum of£10,000. This is recorded by several chroniclers. The story does nothing for William Rufus’s reputation but it does indicate that if that number of men had set out each with the samesum of money, there must have been a fairly uniform system in operation and that it had outlasted the conquest. There is no reason to see why it should have produced a less efficient orwell-trained force than any other. It has been well described by C. Warren Hollister:

The personnel of the select fyrd was heterogeneous because the obligation was based upon units of landrather than social rank. Throughout much ofEngland, each five-hide unit was obliged to produce a warrior-representative. Themileswho was produced was normally a thegn, but if no thegns were available he might be a man of lowerstatus. He might be a member of one of the intermediate groups – acniht,aradmannus,a sokeman. And he might, if necessary, be a well-armed and well-supported member ofthe ordinary peasantry. The important thing was that he represented an appreciable territorial unit which was obliged to give him generous financial support. As such, he belonged to anexclusive military group which can, in a sense, be considered a class in itself. And he may well have taken considerable pride in his connection with the select territorial army of SaxonEngland.lv

There is no reason to suppose that the shire levies were any less well equipped than the Norman infantry they would have encountered at Hastings. There is plenty of evidencethat those who served were expected to present themselves with body armour and appropriate weapons. Perhaps the best evidence of this is found in the heriot or tax that was payable on the death ofa thegn to his lord; this was, in origin at least, less a tax than a restitution of the arms and equipment with which he had been provided by his lord during his life and which presumably would bepassed on to his successor. The word ‘heriot’ itself derives from the termhere-geator war gear. The rules of this are set out in, for example, Cnut’s second code of laws,and are well illustrated in the will of a fairly modest thegn named Ketel (one of the people who made their wills before undertaking a pilgrimage to Rome) in the years shortly before theconquest:

And I grant to Archbishop Stigand, my lord. . .as my heriot a helmet and a coat of mail, and a horse with harness, with a sword and aspear.lvi

This is clearly the average equipment that the shire levies would be expected to turn up with; a nobleman would have been expected to produce more: at least four horses, morearmour and a cash payment as well. We cannot now confirm whether or not Stigand had provided Ketel’s equipment in the first place but it is perfectly possible that he did, and it is certainthat in most cases it was the lord’s responsibility to ensure that the fighters he was responsible for were properly turned out. It is noticeable that, although the Bayeux Tapestry shows whatmay be unarmed peasants hurling missiles at the battle, there is no indication that most of the regular English troops were less well equipped than their opponents. If it were not for the lavishEnglish moustaches shown by the embroiderers, and for the battle-axes that Normans did not use, it would frequently be difficult to distinguish one side from the other.

All the evidence suggests that the military duty that the shire levies had to provide included service at sea as well as on land, and there are many indications that the men who were summoned tothe king’s standard were able to fight afloat and that their commanders were as experienced at sea as on land. During the wars against Gruffydd ap Llewellyn in 1062, Harold sailed with theEnglish fleet into Cardigan Bay to attack from the sea while his brother Tostig invaded from Northumbria with land forces, and this was a tactic that had also been used by Athelstan in hiscampaigns against the Scots. In fact the English did not fight on sea often, and in 1062 Harold may have sailed into Cardigan Bay but then disembarked his men to fight on land. The occasions on which King Alfredtackled the Danes on the water were not his mostglorious successes. Nevertheless, Harold was more experienced than Duke William in naval matters, and William of Poitiers emphasizes the fear of the Normans at the prospect of encountering Haroldby sea:

They said. . .he had numerous ships in his fleet and men skilled in nautical arts and hardened in many dangers and sea-battles; and both in wealth and numbers of soldiershis kingdom was greatly superior to their own land. Who could hope that within the prescribed space of one year a fleet could be built, or that oarsmen could be found to man it when it wasbuilt?lvii

There were complicated regulations governing the provision of ships, but it was clearly a duty that, in an island nation, was laid on all landowners, secular or religious,though many of the great bishoprics and abbeys, especially the inland ones, appear to have commuted their obligations for cash payments with which the king could have ships built on the coast. Thelast recorded instance of a major ship-building exercise before the conquest is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) in 1009, when Æthelred gave orders for ships to be built all overEngland, one ship to every 300 hides of land, resulting in a fleet ‘greater than any that had ever been seen before in England in any king’s day’. He was clearly expecting a newinvasion since he ordered them to be built quickly, but, according to the Chronicle, he got little benefit from the expenditure. He and his successors had also relied on mercenary ships, althoughEdward the Confessor paid off most of these to save money in 1051 and 1052.

Despite the supposedly highly organized feudal nature of pre-conquest Normandy, we know much less about how its armedforces were assembled. It is clear that William hadno navy; all Norman accounts emphasize that his first action after taking his decision to invade was to order ships to be built, and it is fairly clear that he also hired and commandeered some. Theso-called ship list, which gives details of the numbers of vessels to be contributed by his various nobles, indicates that he must have started pretty well from scratch, and we have to assume thatthe fleet eventually assembled was varied, some large ships, some small, some transports for stores and equipment, others presumably designed for carrying horses. According to the ship list, abouta thousand ships were to be contributed by his nobles, apart from any he may have hired or commandeered, though many of the latter may have been transports; the probable total certainly casts somedoubt on the figure of 696 that Wace gives in hisRoman de Rou, which he tells us he got from his father who was an eyewitness, though Wace is probably nearer the truth than William ofJumièges’s 3,000. It may seem strange that a people so recently descended from sea-pirates should apparently have so completely lost touch with the sea, but by the mid-eleventh centuryNormandy was to all intents and purposes a French province, happy to accommodate the Viking raiders who visited her harbours with booty gained in England and elsewhere but preoccupied with threatsfrom further inland. In this respect, Harold, as William’s nervous followers pointed out, had a decided advantage in the possession of a fleet manned by an amphibious force that was certainlymore experienced than the Normans were in naval warfare.

Much has been written about the army William raised and its training but in fact little is known of the actual contractual arrangements that produced it. It has been too often supposed that tosay that the Norman army was feudal and relied heavily onhighly trained cavalry (the existence of the latter being regarded as proof of the former) was sufficient to accountfor their victory and their imposition of the feudal system on England after the conquest. In essence the feudal system meant that a man paid dues, which could be in services or in grain or someother kind of produce or goods, in return for the land with which he was enfeoffed by his lord, and in this sense the Anglo-Saxon system, as we have seen, was as feudal as the Norman. There wouldhave been in Normandy, as in France generally at the time, the custom ofarrière-banby which a ruler could summon his vassals and their own feudatories to battle, but it is uncertainprecisely what this meant in pre-conquest Normandy and what it would have produced. There certainly seems to have been some doubt whether it would have obliged vassals to fight overseas. Ineleventh-century Normandy, and doubtless in other French provinces, there was a contract between a ruler and his tenants- in-chief by which they would undertake to supply him with a certain numberof fighting men when required to do so, but the evidence, pre-1066, for the types of service a tenant was supposed to provide for the ‘feudom’ he held is extremely sparse, and survivingcharters give a very varied and (in military terms) unsatisfactory view of the kind of service likely to be required. There is a dangerous tendency to extrapolate from the more formalized andbetter recorded systems after the conquest (which, in England at least, were much influenced by pre-conquest English customs) to arrangements in Normandy before 1066, which appear to have beenvague and indefinite. In practical terms, as far as the battle of Hastings is concerned, the difference between the so-called Norman feudal system and the English five- hide system seems to havebeen minimal, and it may be fair to say that the average English and Norman men-at-arms at Hastingswould probably not have detected much difference in their conditions ofservice, except that the Englishman might have been better paid. The difference is that, whereas it is possible to make a theoretical calculation from the hidal system of the maximum number of menan English king could have raised in an emergency, no such calculation is possible in Normandy. The development of the feudal system in England after the conquest owed as much to the pre-conquestEnglish system as to the Norman, William and his immediate successors having found a lot in the English tradition that they did not wish to dispense with – as is indicated by themoney-raising machinations of William Rufus already referred to.

The biggest difference between the two armies was the heavy Norman use of cavalry. Much has been made of the absence of English cavalry at Hastings, and of this as further proof of an outdatedand obsolescent form of warfare. There was certainly no tradition of cavalry charges in the Anglo-Saxon army, though it is clear from the Chronicle that horses were used to get to the battlefieldand to pursue the enemy off it, as at Stamford Bridge. It should be noted that Snorre Sturlason’s account of Stamford Bridge inHeimskringlasays quite clearly that the English foughton horseback there. Snorre’s account, however, is so late and in many respects so unreliable that no confidence can be built on his report. Harold could hardly have covered the ground betweenLondon and Stamford Bridge as fast as he did if he had not had mounted troops (we have seen that Ketel and his colleagues, if Ketel was typical, were equipped with horses), but to what extent heused horses in the battle that followed is another matter and of that we have no firm evidence. Certainly the account of the struggle to take the bridge over the river implies a fight on foot; ifthe English had been fighting on horseback, they wouldsurely have been able to have ridden down the lone warrior defending it. Byrhtnoth and his followers rode to the battleof Maldon; but when they got there, Byrhtnoth dismounted and commanded his men to drive away the horses and fight on foot, and this seems to have been the routine procedure. J. H. Clapham, in hisessay, ‘The Horsing of the Danes’,lviiiwhich gives an interesting summary of what can be gleaned of the extent to which mounted troopswere used throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, maintains that the fighting habits that remained so strong in the century before the conquest represent the racial tradition, unaltered to the end. Itshould be remembered that, for the past century, the enemies the English had usually had to meet in the battlefield were either Welsh (guerrilla foot fighterspar excellence,often fightingin hilly country where cavalry would operate at a disadvantage) or Danish or Norwegian raiders who also had the tradition of fighting on foot and certainly did not normally bring warhorses withthem, as the Normans did. They helped themselves when they got here when they needed to move fast, as J. H. Clapham points out. If the English had not developed the art of fighting on horseback by1066, it was largely because they had never needed to.


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It should be remembered that when Harold went on campaign with William’s troops in Normandy he would have fought on horseback, like his peers, and apparently acquitted himself withdistinction. It was probably his first experience of cavalry in action, and it may have had considerable influence on his tactics at Hastings two years later. Even if, after his return to England,he had wanted to create a corps of cavalry to rival the Norman knights, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for him to do so in time for the invasion. The Norman knights rode stallions(the Bayeux Tapestry makes this unambiguously clear), speciallybred over many years and specially trained for fighting; it is unlikely that many comparably suitable horsesexisted in England at that date, quite apart from the problems there would have been in training their riders in the time available. None the less, Harold’s first-hand knowledge of thecavalry tactics he knew he would have to face at Hastings may account in part at least for the defensive position he adopted there. Whatever contempt the Norman cavalry may initially have felt forthe English infantry at Hastings, it did not last. In many of the most important battles that the Norman kings were to fight after 1066, they fought on foot – as Henry I did at Tinchebrai, asStephen did at the battle of Lincoln (though with cavalry on the wings). The lesson of the English shield wall had been learned.

There were differences of approach between England and Normandy. All societies in Europe at this time were military to some extent (it was an aggressive and belligerent period) but not all wereobsessed with fighting to the degree that the Normans were. It has been said that ‘If not all Norman knights in 1066 were men of substance, it is already true that all great men wereknights’.lixThe corollary is also true: all great men may have been knights, but all knights were certainly not great men nor men of substance.If ‘substance’ is to be defined here as ‘property’, most of those who enlisted in William’s army, particularly those who were not Norman, certainly weren’t. Itwas property they were signing up for. Many ‘knights’ were little more than mounted thugs. Precisely how to define the word ‘knight’ in 1066 is controversial – it wascertainly not as formalized as it would be by the time of Malory or even Chaucer – but it did indicate a man who fought on horseback and had undergone a long and arduous training to do so.Whether he did so as a condition of the land he held or was a sword for hire was immaterial. Indeed, the veryderivation of the word ‘knight’ is suggestive. Thereseems to have been no precise Norman-French equivalent for it other than the purely descriptive word ‘chevalier’, one who goes on horseback – who need not, of course, be amilitary man at all. In the Latin chronicles, which are what we have principally to rely on, a knight would frequently simply have been referred to asmiles, a word with a wide range ofpossible applications (William of Poitiers usesmilesandequitesindifferently). The word ‘knight’, so redolent of chivalry and romance today, derives from the OldEnglishcniht, a serving man or serving boy, possibly because that was how they were seen, post-conquest, by the English in their relationship to the lord who employed them.

Yet, for a people so obsessed by war, the overall picture regarding obligations for military service in Normandy before the conquest does seem to be obscure and messy, by comparison withEngland. The situation has been summarized by Marjorie Chibnall who, after describing the general arrangements as far as they can be deduced, points out that

there is no clear proof of any general system of military quotas imposed from above; or of an accepted norm for feudal services and obligations, legally enforceable on theinitiative of either side in a superior ducal court – and this surely is a necessary corollary for any accepted general norm. It is at least arguable that the services owed were eitherrelics of older, Carolingian obligations, or the outcome of individual life contracts between different lords and their vassals, and that their systematization was the result only of theintense military activity of the period of the conquest, and the very slow development of a common law in the century after it.lx

In other words, the feudal customs to which William’s victory has often been ascribed were the result, not the cause, of the conquest. This makes the calculation ofwhat William might have been able to call on within his own duchy very difficult; that it was insufficient for the enterprise we know, since he advertised widely for mercenaries throughout Europe.It is hardly surprising if one compares the size of Normandy with the size of England: William, the vassal of the King of France, controlled an area only a little larger than the earldom of EastAnglia held by Harold, the vassal of the King of England, before the death of his father and smaller than the earldom of Wessex he held after it, let alone the totality of the kingdom of England.In theory, since the size of territory had a direct effect on the number of men who could be expected from it, Harold should have been able to raise an army many times the size of anything Williamcould bring against it from Normandy. In fact, the situation at Hastings was com- plicated by many other factors, as we shall see. One document does give a rough indication of the components ofWilliam’s army: this is the penitential code drawn up in 1070 by Bishop Ermenfrid, according to which the sins of those who fought in the Norman army were to be expiated. It distinguishesbetween those who William had armed, those who had armed themselves, those who owed him military service for the lands they held and those who fought for pay. There is no way now of establishinghow many men fell into the various categories; the Bretons seem to have formed a large contingent, presumably fighting for pay, and it is notable that they continued to fight as mercenaries forWilliam in his later career and for his sons.

We know most about the training and equipment of those who fought on horseback. It was the custom, in Normandy as in other parts of France, for a boy of good family to be sent for a knightlyeducation in the household of the ruler (if the boy was of sufficiently elevated rank) or of one of the great lords, and he would presumably find himself there in the companyof other boys of his own age and rank, all training for the same future. It was rather like going to public school. The lord who undertook the training of the youngsters would have the pick of themto join his household retainers in due course. From their ranks he would provide the knights who would be called for by his own lord when he needed an army; those whom he did not need or want, orwho did not wish to remain with him, would probably have found employment elsewhere quite easily. Those of them who were eldest sons would in due course inherit family estates and would then lookfor their own retainers. The younger sons on the whole had to fend for themselves, and large numbers of them did so outside Normandy – in Spain, in Byzantium, and most of all in Italy. TheNorman conquest of Apulia was largely the work of younger sons of noble families, looking for lands and heiresses outside their homeland. While they were training they would learn horsemanship, theuse of weapons, the techniques of war and, in theory at least, manners and chivalric behaviour. They would be trained in hunting and tournament, the main education and diversion of the knightlyfamilies if there did not happen to be a war in progress. And they would learn to fight together as a team, usually in squadrons, orconrois,of ten.

The costs of a knightly profession were high. A young man would not, unless he were extremely lucky, be considered for employment by any lord unless he possessed a hauberk or coat of mail,helmet, shield, sword, lance and at least one well-trained war-horse, preferably more (in fact, very similar equipment to that of the English thegn Ketel). But this would be the minimum. Moreover,he would need an esquire or servant of some kind who would alsohave to be mounted, and presumably a baggage horse as well. All these things were extremely expensive and, intime of war, would frequently have to be replaced. William is said to have had three horses killed under him at Hastings, and this cannot have been unusual. To some extent, replacements could befound on the battlefield. The discrepancies between the differently shaped shields (some round, some kite-shaped) of the English at Hastings, as illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry, have beenhypothetically attributed to the fact that the bearers of the round shields had replaced their damaged kite-shaped shields with those of the dead Norwegians at Stamford Bridge, since round shieldswere used in Scandinavia later than in England; the borders of the Tapestry show Norman soldiers stripping the English dead of hauberks and swords in the later stages of the battle. But if a fatherwanted to send his younger son out into the world as a freelance knight, he would have had to spend a great deal of money on his initial equipment. It was to the freelances of this kind thatWilliam looked to make up his ranks, and it is not hard to see how his promises of land and wealth in England attracted them.

What the system did produce was an excessive number of testosterone-fuelled young men, unqualified and unsuited for any profession other than fighting and killing, and regarding any otheroccupation as below their dignity. While the average English thegn, when not required for the defence of his country, would perfectly happily settle back into a routine of agriculture and possiblyeven a little trade, the young Norman knight would have regarded any such occupations as totally inconsistent with his chivalric training. It is this outlook that explains the large number ofnecessitous Norman knights that are to be found in the wars of southern Italy, Spain, Constantinople, the Crusades later on – and, of course, in William’s army.

We know least about the infantry parts of his army. We know that he did have foot soldiers, with and without body armour, and also quantities of archers; it has beenestimated that he probably had no more than 2,500 cavalry. The infantry would have formed the largest part of his force. It is less clear where they came from and on what basis they were raised.Some of them were probably mercenaries, like the freelance knights, but what kind of training and experience they had (especially the archers) and how they were found is not so easy to establish.If some of them came as part of the service provided by his barons and landowners, what were the terms on which they were sent? Who was responsible for their keep? There seems to have been no suchclear arrangement for their provision and payment as there was in the English hidal system. William of Poitiers makes it clear that in this particular case the duke himself paid for their keep toprevent them from ravaging his land for subsistence (he does not say whether they were paid anything more than that, and one must deduce that his promises of money and land in England were in lieuof more orthodox payment), but this cannot always have been so; indeed, it is implied that it was an exceptional arrangement. In enemy territory, of course, they would be expected to live off theland, as they did after they landed in Sussex. But if they were on campaign within Normandy, during the invasions of the King of France, for example, how were they normally maintained? Off the landagain, one must suppose. They may, in everyday life, have been professional men-at-arms, huntsmen, peasants; we can only guess. There is nothing to show where the infantry came from or under whatconditions they served, and yet they formed the greater part of the army. One of the most remarkable of William’s achievements during the invasion was that he managed to keep his men togetherduringthe lengthy period at Dives and St Valéry while he was waiting for favourable winds without allowing any plundering or foraging. To organize a commissariat onthis scale must have been a mammoth job, and awed calculations have been made of the amount of meat, grain and ale that would have been necessary for the men, of the amount of fodder for thehorses, and of the tons of excrement, human and equine, that would have had to be disposed of in the interests of health (B. S. Bachrach estimated 9,000 cartloads of grain, straw, wine andfirewood, 700,000 gallons of urine from the horses and 5 million pounds of horse- droppings, for a month’s staylxi). Yet, if we are to believeWilliam of Poitiers, he did it, and ‘the cattle and flocks of the people of the province grazed safely, whether in the fields or on the waste. The crops waited unharmed for the scythe of theharvester, and were neither trampled by the proud stampede of horsemen nor cut down by foragers’.lxiiIt was indeed a remarkable achievement,and one in which William is considered to have outgeneralled his rival, who had to disband his forces in August through lack of food. Still, Harold had held his together for four months, a longerperiod.

In the end, the outcome was determined not by what each man might normally have been able to raise, but by circumstances. If Harold fought at Hastings without archers (one small miserable archeris shown in the English ranks in the Bayeux Tapestry, almost in mockery, though it has been suggested that his appearance is symbolic in character, and that he represented a larger contingent), itwas almost certainly because he had used them at Stamford Bridge (the Norwegian king was killed by an arrow), and could not get them south quickly enough, or could not get fresh men in time.Whether they would have made a difference to the final result can never be known.

It may be helpful to add a brief note on the armour and equipment that both sides would have had.lxiiiThe term‘body armour’ may imply more to twenty-first century ears than it meant to eleventh-century wearers. For many soldiers, a coat of mail or hauberk probably merely signified metal ringssewn to a leather or boiled leather foundation. For those of higher rank, the hauberk was more likely to be interlinked chain-mail, worn over some sort of padded undergarment, which both cushionedblows and protected the body from having the mail driven into it by sword or axe cuts. Sometimes the hauberk incorporated a sort of hood, which protected the neck and was covered by the helmet.This is, interestingly, one way in which the Bayeux Tapestry designer seems to betray his English nationality. He depicts both sides in hauberks that appear to be trousered. These would have beenvery impractical (indeed, agonizing) for cavalry wear; the Norman hauberks would probably have been skirted, slashed fore and rear, so that they would divide on horseback and protect the legs. Thisis borne out by the story that when William was arming on the morning of the battle, he was accidentally handed his hauberk back to front and put it on over his head that way. The English, on theother hand, fighting on foot, did indeed need the trousered variety to protect the groin and other areas that would be more vulnerable. How the wearer got into and out of this kind of mail is stilla matter of conjecture. The problem is not solved by the pictures of the Norman soldiers stripping the English dead in the final scenes of the Tapestry. Snorre Sturlason tells us that HaraldHardrada’s coat of mail ‘was called Emma. It was so long that it reached below his knee, and so strong that no weapon could pierce it’.lxivHe was probably not wearing it at Stamford Bridge, but Emma would not have saved him in any event; he was reportedly killed by an arrow in the throat.


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Helmets were conical and made of iron, with a nose-piece at the front (clearly shown in the Tapestry) and, in some cases, a metal flap or curtain of mail at the back orsides to protect the neck and cheeks; they seem to have been identical for all ranks. Surviving examples are either cast in one piece, with the addition of the nose-piece and neck-protector, or areconstructed from four joined plates coming together in a point at the top and bound by metal or possibly, in some cases, leather, around the head at the foot. Some of those found have traces insidethat suggest that they were sometimes lined or padded. Such a helmet is a far cry from the magnificence of the reconstructed Sutton Hoo helmet; but this was more likely to have been a piece ofroyal regalia (primitive kings are thought to have been crowned with a helmet rather than the later crown, a symbol of their role as protector of their people) than a working helmet. It probablynever saw service on the battlefield.

The shield would have been made of wood (lime was generally favoured), covered in many cases with leather and edged with either leather or metal. A round hole in the centre was fitted with ametal boss (round or conical) that covered the grip for the hand and could be used for thrusting. Towards the end ofBeowulf,the aged hero orders a shield of iron to be made for his lastfight with the dragon, knowing that a wooden shield would provide little protection from the beast’s fiery breath. That the English army at Hastings still had wooden shields is indicated bythe Tapestry’s portrayal of the Norman arrows piercing them like pincushions; arrows would have been more likely to have rebounded from metal shields. William of Poitiers’ remark thatthe English battle-axes had no difficulty in shearing through them suggests that the Normans also used wooden ones.

As for weapons, it is clear from the Tapestry that the Norman knights charged with spears or javelins rather than the lances thatbecame the chief cavalry weapon veryshortly afterwards. The ones we see are sometimes wielded overarm, for throwing or piercing, sometimes underarm, as the lance would later be held. But the weight of the couched lance and thediscipline of the concerted charge that could pierce the walls of Babylon, as Anna Comnena, the historian daughter of Byzantine Emperor Alexius I, was later to write, were not available atHastings. There was probably little difference between the spears carried by the two sides. Some surviving spears have wings a short way below the head, presumably to prevent the weapon penetratingso deeply that it could not be drawn out and reused. It was obviously a weapon common to all ranks; it was part of the basic equipment of the English thegn Ketel, and Duke William was found with abroken spear in his hand at the end of the battle. Snorre Sturlason gives an account of Harald Hardrada’s instructions to his men at Stamford Bridge: ‘those in the front rank are to settheir spear- shafts into the ground and turn the points towards the riders’ breasts when they charge us; and those immediately behind are to set their spears against the horses’chests.’lxvSince it is almost certain that the English did not fight on horseback at Stamford Bridge, this has been read as a confused memory ofwhat actually happened at Hastings; at any rate, it is a very plausible account of how spears were used by the English there.

The most feared English weapon was the two-handed bearded axe (so called because of the shape of the blade), the weapon of choice of the housecarls but of other warriors as well, since the kingis shown with one in his hand as he is cut down. Indeed, he is shown carrying one earlier, when he is offered the crown, which suggests that some royal or sacramental association may have attachedto the axe. In battle, it was normally wielded to strike from the left, to attack the side of the opponent that was notprotected by his shield, but in fact it must easilyhave cut through wood and even through chain-mail, as reported by William of Poitiers. The biggest disadvantage of the axe was that, since it had to be swung with both hands, the axeman could notuse his shield to protect himself (unless it was simply hung around his neck), and was therefore very vulnerable at the top of his swing. It is possible that the line included spearmen interspersedamong the axemen, who, fighting in the way Snorre described, could provide some cover for them. In addition to this fearsome weapon, there would have been smaller lighter axes for hand-to-handfighting and for throwing. One weapon that seems to have been peculiar to the Normans at the battle was the mace. The Tapestry shows both William and his half-brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux,carrying what appear to be club-like maces, but these may have been symbols of authority (perhaps ancestors of the field-marshal’s baton) rather than weapons.

As for swords, all free men who could afford them would have carried them, Norman and English, and there were enormous variations in quality and strength. It was very much a question of what youhad inherited or what you could pay. Those of the English who did not aspire to a double-edged sword, and no doubt also many of those who did, probably carried theseax, a sort ofsingle-edged cutlass or long dagger.

One last point needs to be noted. Snorre Sturlason, in his account of the battle of Stamford Bridge, speaks of the English horses of the housecarls wearing chain-mail. There is no hint in theBayeux Tapestry of any kind of protection, chain-mail or otherwise, for the Norman horses. If armour for horses was generally in use in 1066, and the English mounts had it, it is incomprehensiblethat the cavalry-obsessed Normans should not have had it too. By the time Snorre wrote two centuries later, itsavailability would have been taken for granted. His assumptionthat it was available in 1066 is a further reminder that we should not be seduced by his readability.

THE PROLOGUE

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 inEngland 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 waspresumably 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. InNorthumbria, 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 hadfallen into disuse under his predecessor, Earl Siward, cannot now be known; he is described by the author of theVita Ædwardias ‘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 oftwo 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 implicatedhis sister, Queen Edith, who organized it for him. Certainly, he seems to have doubled thetaxes, which alone would be enough to cause unrest. On 3 October, while he was atcourt 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 Tostigand 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 wherethey 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 thisoccasion 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 butfound 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 hisdeserts, 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 Tostigand 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 ismade 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 forindependence 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 thehalf-Danish Tostig, was a man with no Danish blood in his veins atall. Even Cnut, a Danish king, had had difficulty with his relations with Northumbria; it was a turbulentregion. 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 likelythat, 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 codein 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 wereactually 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’slaw 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.lxviThirdly, the insurrection caused an insuperable breach between Harold and Tostig, who blamedhis brother for not supporting him and (if theVita Ædwardiis to be believed) accused him in public of fomenting the rising to injure him. Finally, it is clear from Harold’sactivities 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 theVita Ædwardi,both Edward and the queen became ill with grief over the loss of Tostig, and a more modern biographer has guessed that theking may have suffered one or more strokes as a result of the stress.lxviiFrom 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) tohave tried Normandy, but if he did, hegot 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 othercommitments. 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 theusual 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 tooill 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 largeassembly 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 variousinterests in the land, and any decision it took can be considered the voice of the kingdom’.lxviiiOn 5 January, according to theVitaÆdwardi,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 lastwill 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 carefor 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 beenratified by theWitan, the final and crucial step. But we must sympathize with the predicament in which the anonymous author of theVita Ædwardifound himself atthis 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 therelevance 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 ofthe 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, thecommissioner 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 arebelieved 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 sixmonths 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 hadnominated 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


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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 hadbequeathed hiskingdom to an unacceptable candidate, perhaps more significance would have been attached to Stigand’s whisper at the deathbed (as the king recounted hisdream) 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 bythe 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 incouncil. He was, as Ann Williams concludes after assessing the evidence, a popular choice for the kingship.lxxHe was crowned by Ealdred, Archbishop ofYork, 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 theceremony; 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 samereason 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, sinceEaldred 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. ThatChristmas, 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 thepast had waited longer than from Epiphany to Easterto be hallowed, but on this occasion, with the various threats facing the kingdom, it was desirable that there should be aking 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 hadindeed 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 todo 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 bothEdward 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 isreputed 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 mostsurprising 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 wasEdward’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 wouldhave 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 strangelyunlike 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 payparticular 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 ordersto 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 hisrealm.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 onlyone 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 thatsurvive, 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 theurgent 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 appearedwith 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 haveburnt 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 hisremaining twelve small ships up to Scotlandwhere 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 firstdiscouraged 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; howhe 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 hiscause’.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 whichthey 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 successfullyappealed 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 1056he 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 hisregent and guardian the Count of Flanders whowas William’s father-in-law; the latter had no direct heir and left Anjou to be contested between two nephews. By 1066William 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 beany 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) whilepreparations 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 bythe 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, allallied 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 predecessorshad 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 orexternal, 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 deliveredHarold 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 beenbroken. 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 inEurope; according to William of Poitiers, he sent delegations to the Holy Roman Emperor and to the King ofDenmark; 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 havesurvived, 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 beenmore. 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 energeticpushing 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 theVatican’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 ofGregory 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 beendescribed by the historian of Europe, H. A. L. Fisher:

With imperious courage Hildebrand conceived of the world as a single Christian polity governed by anomnipotent and infallible Pope, a Pope bound byno 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 nowcome 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 wasprepared 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 wereexorbitant.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, thena 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 operatedat 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 investedby 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 thiseminence 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 hadfought. The alliancebetween Hildebrand and the Italian Normans in the papal battles against other enemies, which may be compared to the policy of casting out devils throughthe 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 theextent 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 shortlyafterwards 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 Normancampaigns 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 ofMalmesbury. 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 andbooty was irresistible.


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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 blessedthe 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 torule over England. As Crusaders were promised God’s aid and absolution for past sins and the wealth of the conqueredinfidels, so were the soldiers of fortune whoenlisted 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 nopower 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 mainobjectives 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 timeof 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) byEngland 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 isthought to have gone to the Church in the English quarter in Rome, known by the English as theirburhor borough, a name supposedly perpetuated in the present RomanBorgo. Alfred hadsecured 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 hadbecome 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. ButEdgar’s death and the second wave ofViking raids ended this, and by the time Edward succeeded to the throne, the English Church was still recovering the energy it hadlost 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 ofthe 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 theclergy 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 wascomplicated 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 toRome. 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 wasnever accorded the palliumlxxvby which the Pope conferred his authority on archbishops. Stigand survived the conquest and, indeed, the first fewyears 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 accusationsthat he had retained his bishopric of Winchester and thus held in plurality and that he had been summoned and excommunicated by four Popes. It istrue that Stigand’srelations 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 didnot 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 archbishopnormally 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 theydid 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 thescandal 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 ofPoitiers 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 touphold 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 acleansing of the Augean stables of the EnglishChurch by a man who had proved himself effective in implementing every aspect of the papal reform agenda in Normandy. No recordof 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 anEnglish 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 andhad 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 hehad 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 wasthe 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 youraffairs; 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 gavesanction 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 youpossessed.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 fromblood’ 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 haveregarded 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 lowesteem 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 supportthe 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 argumentsultimately 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 aholy 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 ofdisguises for unashamed imperialism’.lxxviiWith his objectives achieved, William only had to complete his preparations and wait for asuitable 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, accordingto 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 theevidence 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 ofthe 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 concernthemselves particularly with the diplomatic niceties of their former duke’s proposed activities.lxxviiiPrimarily, she rejects it on thegrounds 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’sresearch 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 onlyother 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 thePapal court for thefait accomplirepresented by William’s conquest’.lxxixThis solution would clarify a lot of matters. Papallegates 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 oneof 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 canonly 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 toaccept 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 afaitaccompli). 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 Normanpenance.lxxxBattle Abbey was not completed and dedicated until 1094; the legend, originated and maintained by the monks of Battle that William hadvowed 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 andclearing 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 haveaccepted 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 carriedbefore 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 generallyassumed, 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 brotherof 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 andis 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 1080to 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 wereaware 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 thenecessity 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 Williamand 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 calledout 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 fromthis remark to events later in the year. Florence of Worcester gives a fuller account:

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