The Promise That Never Was
By Paula Lofting
September 1066 and Harold, King of England has been in the job for only 9 months. In that time, he has known little peace. William, Duke of Normandy had been preparing for some months to invade from across the channel after getting it into his head that somehow he had a right to the English throne. Harold’s brothers-in-law, Edwin and Morcar, were about to fight the king’s own brother, Tostig, who had been exiled from his earldom in Northumbria after ten years’ service. Tostig was out for revenge, blaming Harold for his downfall - and he’d brought Harald Hardrada with him just for good measure. Hardrada was, as his name suggests, a hard man, and king of Norway, looking to expand his empire. Harold, having heard of Tostig’s landing on the Northeast coast was getting ready to march north to come to the aid of his young brothers-in-law. It had been a tough time.
Harold had been elected king by the witan, which was how they did things in Anglo-Saxon England, directly after, or perhaps before, the demise of Edward the Confessor. It was a choice of either the experienced, powerful Earl of Wessex, or the fourteen-year-old boy Edgar, an atheling of royal blood, who was about as powerful as a fish out of water, with little following other than his own household perhaps. So just what was a kingdom to do? They elected the man who had the power to protect England the best.
This was going to shake things up a bit over in Normandy, and rightly so, after all William had waited fifteen years for his cousin to up and die and leave his throne to him and what does that pesky son of Godwin do? He steals it right out from under him! The fact that Harold had sworn an oath to William on a casket of holy relics, surely meant something. After all, this Harold had done willingly whilst on a trip in 1064 to the Norman court. Duke William’s cousin, King Edward, had specifically sent his dux Anglorum, Harold Godwinson, to confirm a promise made to William in 1051 that Edward would consider him his heir should he not be brought to fatherhood by his wife, Edith. And as the years went by, it became obvious that no such heir was going to materialise before Edward’s demise.
But why would a supposedly intelligent chap like Harold, swear fealty to the Norman duke having been sent by King Edward to purposely confer the promise of his throne to him, and then once home conspire to take the throne himself? Seems like asking for trouble if you ask me… but, there is another story, which admittedly did not come to light till some years later, which can also be seen within the threads of the Bayeux Tapestry. The story in brief is that Harold was not sent to Normandy by King Edward but rather, he took himself off to Normandy, against the advice of the king that nothing good would come of it, to negotiate the release of his brother Wulfnoth and nephew Hakon. What?! I hear you exclaim. How can this be so? This is not the story we have been led to believe!
Most of the early contemporary sources are of Norman origin and speak of Harold’s visit to Normandy, suggesting that Edward sent Harold to confirm Edward’s intention of making him king of England on his death. This was said to have occurred somewhere between the autumn of 1064 and Summer of 1065. We know that Harold was definitely in England in the late Summer of 1065 and considering what was happening at that time I would plump for his travel to Normandy in the autumn of 1064. It is strange that the Anglo-Saxon chronicles do not mention this trip, which if it had been a state visit, arranged by Edward, I’m sure it would have been. Contemporary English sources do not mention it at all suggesting it was a private endeavour, corroborating Eadmer’s story written somewhere in the late 11th century when William was dead and it was safer to do so.
So who was Eadmer and where was he likely to have got the story from?
Eadmer, a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury, was a historian and theologian was born in 1060. It is thought that he had known of or possibly trained under the tutelage of Æthelric who later became Bishop of Selsey. A kinsman of Earl Godwin’s, Æthleric had been elected Archbishop of Canterbury by his fellow monks. Edward however refused to endorse him and instead installed his best-friend Robert of Jumièges, causing the start of the rift between Archbishop Robert and Godwin. It is possible that Eadmer learned of what really happened to Harold in Normandy and why he went, from Harold’s uncle, Æthelric.
The Bayeux Tapesty shows Harold speaking with Edward as soon as he arrived home, but it may be that upon his return to England, he went first to visit his Uncle Æthelric, then Bishop of Selsey, not far from Harold’s family home of Bosham. Who better to absolve him from his oath than a holy man and a relative to boot. In canon law, if one was forced into an oath under duress, that oath could be rescinded later. One can imagine the distress Harold felt having made the monumental mistake of going there in the first place. Edward, as Eadmer would have us know, had warned him nothing good would come of it, and apparently told him “I told you so on his return”. And this is most likely why, Harold’s trip to Normandy is not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, they wanted it kept quiet.
And later, that oath was rescinded, and Harold was crowned despite it. One can understand William’s anger. He did not pluck the notion that Edward had offered him the crown out of thin air, but to understand where this notion comes from, we must go back to 1051.
In 1051, tensions between the king, his friend Robert de Jumièges and Godwin had reached boiling point. The king’s favourite was doing his best to undermine the king’s father-in-law, by reporting to the king with seditious tales of Godwin’s plotting to kill the king like he had killed the king’s brother, Alfred. It all kicked off by September when Edward’s brother-in-law was returning home to Boulogne from a visit. He and his retinue put on their mail coats before entering the town and caused trouble which erupted into a violent dispute in which a good number on both sides were killed. (It is very telling that the Frenchmen were said to have put on their coats of mail before they entered to the town. Were they expecting trouble?)
Edward ordered Godwin to punish the town, but Godwin, who had heard the side of the townfolk, refused. The Godwinsons were sent into exile and were gone for almost a year while between them, they gathered support in Ireland and St Omer in Flanders. During this time, it is thought that William visited Edward and ‘spoke about what they wanted to talk about, and when they were finished, he let him go again’. It was at this meeting, so the Norman chronicles say, that Edward promised his crown to William. Only one of the AS chronicles mentions this which is weird for a state visit where a discussion around succession supposedly took place. It is thought to be a late entry into the chronicle, written after the conquest. Despite this, I think it is possible it did happen, or if it wasn’t the duke himself who came, it might well have been his representative, maybe William FitzOsbern, his closest counsellor. It could have been any number of their mutual kin, perhaps, and there are a number of scenarios we can imagine. It could have had something to do with those French and Norman advisers Edward was so fond of, and Count Eustace of Boulogne may well have had a hand in the plot. Some say the duke was too tied up with troubles in Normandy to have come. But whatever the circumstance, William had the idea in his head, and it was to stay there for another 15 years or so. When the Godwins fought their way back home months later and were re-established in their lands and offices once more, some of Edward’s foreigners were exiled for treasonous counselling of the king, including Robert de Jumièges.
Three years later when it was decided to send a mission to Europe to search for an heir with the blood of English kings, Edward’s promise to William seems to have been either pushed aside, swept under the rush mats, or forgotten like whispers in the wind. The focus was now to find the ‘atheling’ which eventually was to become the young Edgar. Edgar was given this title which meant ‘throneworthy’ – a title that was never bestowed upon William – ever. If Edward had meant to leave the throne of England to his younger cousin, why then did he allow the mission to find Edgar’s father, going to all the expense of sending an ambassadorial entourage to Europe. As an author and amateur historian, I have license to interpret history as I see fit, but I try to do so with as much integrity as I can and personally, this is what I feel may have happened:
Edward’s plan to be rid of the Godwinsons had gone awry. He knew he had gotten himself into a predicament with William, whom he had only agreed to ‘consider’ as heir, knowing he had not right to do so without the agreement of the Witan. Having lost most of his Norman companions, Edward no longer had the support of his fellow compatriots. Robert had gone, and so had two of his bishops and a lot more. And with Robert had gone the Godwin boy hostages. Robert had taken them as he fled from Godwin’s wrath, for Godwin blamed him for his exiling. Edward knew his friend would be on his way to inform William that the hostages would be surety for Edward’s word. But the Norman plot had failed, and as time went on, any intentions of passing on his crown to William was off the agenda. He agreed with the witan that they must find his brother’s son, Edward, rumoured to be in Hungary, bring him back and make him atheling, but Edward the exile having died, his boy son Edgar took his place.
When 1065 came, no one in England, it seemed, imagined that Edward, even at his great age (he was around 61 at the time of his death) would die. He was still robust, well enough to go hunting that autumn with Harold, and showing no signs of illness. But when illness did come, it was not long before he was so ill, he could not even attend the consecration of his church. That Harold was already elected before Edward’s dying breath, I am sure. No doubt it was customary to have the deathbed decree as a rubber stamp.
As I said before, England needed a king, and not a boy. Although the enterprise ended badly for the English, I still think the right man was chosen, and it ended as the gods wished it. Fate is inexorable, as they say, but not necessarily right.
Sons of the Wolf
By Paula Lofting
"Bloody. Brutal. Brilliant." - Mary Anne Yarde author of the Du Lac Chronicles founder of the Coffee Pot Book awards.
On the battlefield, Wulfhere fights for his life but elsewhere the enemy is closer to home, sinister and shadowy and far more dangerous than any war.
A forbidden love affair rekindles a dangerous ancient bloodfeud and when Lord Harold, Earl of Wessex, demands that Wulfhere, thegn of Horstede, wed his daughter to his sworn enemy, Wulfhere must find a way to save his daughter from a life of certain misery at the hands of the cruel and resentful Helghi without compromising his honour and loyalty to his lord, Harold.
A tale of Battles & Bloodfeud in the years leading up to the Norman Invasion.
"Paula Lofting has woven an excellent story around the sparse records of historical events that are available from the opening years of the second millennium."
Winner of Chill with a Book Award and BRAG Medallion Award.
It is 1054 and King Edward sits on the throne of England.
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Sons of Wolf
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Sons of the Wolf Book 2
By Paula Lofting
WAR AND BLOODFEUD
"Best battle description ever!"
"Best battle description ever!"
1056...England lurches towards war as the rebellious Lord Alfgar plots against the indolent King Edward. Sussex thegn, Wulfhere, must defy both his lord, Harold Godwinson, and his bitter enemy, Helghi, to protect his beloved daughter.
As the shadow of war stretches across the land, a more personal battle rages at home, and when it follows him into battle, he knows he must keep his wits about him more than ever, and COURAGE AND FEAR MUST BECOME HIS ARMOUR…
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Paula Lofting is the author of two published books in her series set in the Eleventh century: Sons of the Wolf, and The Wolf Banner. She is currently working on the third book, Wolf’s Bane. A psychiatric nurse by day, she writes in her spare time and also blogs at 1066: The Road to Hastings and Other Stories.
Thank you so much for having me, Mary Anne. Really enjoyed writi this piece for you.ReplyDelete
Always a pleasure, Paula!Delete
These sound very intense.ReplyDelete
Many people just remember Harold as the man that lost at Hastings, and don't know about all the political intrigue that came before that. Great Post, Paula.ReplyDelete