Chapter 6

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom

England was a ripe fruit waiting to be plucked. King Edward the Confessor, now in his early sixties and in poor health, had no children of his own, and wasn’t expected to last much longer. Even better for William, the old king clearly had Norman sympathies and had surrounded himself whenever he could with Norman advisors, appointing Frenchmen to at least three bishoprics and an earldom. Although twenty years older than the duke, Edward was William’s first cousin and had spent a long exile in Normandy establishing close ties with the ducal family. The two men were probably reasonably close, and Edward may even have held out the suggestion that William should be his heir.19 The duke of Normandy, however, was not the only claimant to the English throne in 1066.  

Real power in England had been held for a long time not by the king, but by the family of a remarkable figure named Godwin. His origins are unknown he seems to have deliberately kept them vague and he first appeared during the crisis that occurred when Edward the Confessor’s father Ethelred the Unready was expelled from England. The Viking king, Cnut, invaded, and in the ensuing struggle Godwin chose to back the Anglo-Saxon resistance. This should have spelled the end of his career, but the wily Englishman won over Cnut by arguing that his stubborn opposition really proved his loyalty. After all, the prominent men of England had sworn an oath to be faithful to their native king and yet most of them had deserted to Cnut at the first sign of trouble. Who was to say that they wouldn't do the same to their new king? Godwin, on the other hand, stuck by the oaths he gave.  

Impressed either by the reasoning or by the man, Cnut made Godwin the Earl of Wessex and kept him as an advisor, even taking him on trips back to Denmark. When Cnut died in 1035, Godwin, now one of the most powerful men of the kingdom, remained in place, advising both of Cnut’s sons as they reigned in succession. It was during this period, that he first became involved with Edward the Confessor.  

Edward and his brother Alfred were living in Normandy, as they had been since their father’s exile and the fact that two possible rivals for the throne were alive and well across the Channel annoyed Cnut’s son Harold Harefoot. A letter was dispatched inviting the exiled princes back to England, hinting that some accommodation might be made to share power. Edward seems to have run into trouble raising a suitable escort, but Alfred immediately went to England where he was promptly arrested by some of Godwin’s men. Godwin was in the delicate position of having the fate of the rebellion in his hands. If he chose to back Alfred's bid, he would probably be handsomely rewarded by the new administration. On the other hand, he already enjoyed significant power and prestige and it made little sense to risk it all in favor of a naïve, unseasoned exile. So Godwin dutifully turned Alfred over to the authorities where he was blinded so viciously that he died.  

It may have been the correct political move, but the murder outraged popular opinion and stained Godwin's reputation for the rest of his life. He protested his innocence in the affair, pointing out rather disingenuously that he hadn't carried out the deed himself, but was never able to clear his name. This emerged as a significant problem, because Viking rule of England proved unexpectedly short. Harold Harefoot died of disease within five years of taking the throne and his brother expired somewhat more memorably as he was rising to toast the bride and groom at a wedding feast.  

This left the king of Denmark as the closest male heir, but the English had grown tired of Viking rule and began to look for a return of the native dynasty. Godwin, ever the political survivor, threw his support to the unlikely Edward, still exiled in Normandy. It was a shrewd move. The new king was in his late thirties, with a weak personality that was easily dominated, and the ambitious Godwin had big plans. There were six great Earldoms in England and he had six sons that he intended to make Earls. Even more promising was the fact that Edward was still a bachelor, and Godwin happened to have an available daughter. If he couldn’t gain the throne himself, he could at least co-found a dynasty.  

For the first few years everything went according to plan. His daughter became queen, two-thirds of the land in England fell into his family’s control, and two of his sons were made powerful Earls. What he hadn’t counted on was the king’s smoldering hatred of an overbearing counselor especially one who had had a very public hand in the death of a close family member.  

Edward also had other reasons to resent Godwin. Wherever he looked, he found a member of the detested family. They were hanging around his palaces, in his council rooms, even in his bed. He was too weak to rule without them, but he struck back where he could. When Godwin’s eldest son Svein, the black sheep of the family, kidnapped and raped a nun, Edward seized the chance to openly criticize his powerful advisor. When the disgraced Svein ignored the censure and murdered his own cousin, the king exiled the young noble, despite Godwin's formal protests. Things got even worse for the earl the following year. One of the king’s Norman advisors was involved in an incident in Dover that claimed the lives of several townsmen. Since Dover was in Godwin’s territory, the king cleverly ordered him to punish the town. Realizing that they had been provoked, and sensing public sentiment running against Edward's foreign advisors, Godwin refused and gathered his army.  

Tensions may have been high against the Normans at court, but for once the earl had badly misjudged the situation. Despite the mutual animosity, the practical English were not willing to risk civil war over a few unpopular Frenchmen, and when the king showed up with an army, Godwin’s forces started to melt away. Shaken by his eroding support, the earl asked the king what he needed to do to restore the peace. Edward’s answer must have terrified him. “Give me my brother Alfred back,” he reportedly said.  

Godwin took the only course available to him and fled the country with most of his wealth which by this time nearly rivaled that of the king. Despite this setback, the earl had a number of things working in his favor. The king may have had momentum on his side but that couldn’t last forever, and Godwin had powerful allies in the country working for reconciliation.  

The most important factor, however, was the king himself. Edward wasn't built for confrontation. He would often fly into a rage, but when it passed he would subside into meekness and more often than not pardon everyone. He was far too weak to hold his ground; sooner or later Godwin would be back. 

As it turned out, the exile only lasted a year. While Godwin took refuge in Flanders, his capable son Harold traveled to the family estates in Ireland to raise additional support. The two of them then jointly sailed the England where they were greeted as heroes as they landed on the coast. Public resentment against Norman influence at court had risen again, and men flocked to Godwin’s banner. Once again the two sides armed themselves with Godwin loudly protesting his innocence but this time momentum was against the king. His summons to gather his forces were largely ignored, and it became obvious that he would have to come to terms with the earl. 

Godwin handed over two hostages a son and a grandson and again swore that he was innocent of Alfred’s murder. In return, the king begrudgingly announced that he was restored to full favor. The only thing that marred Godwin’s triumph was the fate of the hostages. They were given to a Norman archbishop for safekeeping, but due to the anti-French mood prevalent at court, he fled to Normandy taking the boys with him. There they were seized by Duke William who immediately announced that they had been given to him to support his claim to the throne. At that moment, however, that appeared to be a remote threat and he was largely ignored.  

The stress of this latest campaign took its toll on Godwin, and his health began to rapidly decline. At the Easter court the next year he suffered a stroke and, after a short period of incapacity, the sixty-year-old Earl died.20 

Fortunately for the family, there were still four sons of Godwin in the country, the eldest of which Harold easily stepped into his father’s shoes. Under his smooth handling, tensions at court subsided. The new Earl was in his early forties, tall, handsome, and most importantly, too young to be implicated in Alfred’s murder. His main character trait seems to have been an easy-going bonhomie and an ability to put people at ease. According to a biography written in his lifetime, he “could bear contradiction well and never retaliated for it” a quality rare in men of power at any age.  

Harold was too subtle to roughly dominate the king the way Godwin had. Instead he seems to have used his considerable charisma to apologize for Edward’s frequent outbursts, placating offended nobles or neighbors, and soothing the king’s ruffled ego. Highly educated by eleventh-century standards, he owned a collection of books on falconry, probably knew French, Norse, Flemish, English, and some Latin, and founded and endowed a secular college at Waltham. He traveled widely and even made a pilgrimage to Rome, ‘passing’ as one contemporary wrote ‘with watchful mockery through all ambushes as was his way’.  

As Edward aged, he turned the daily running of the government over to Harold so he could concentrate on the great building project of his reign Westminster Abbey. Harold’s role in controlling the affairs of state was widely recognized by the population. He was commonly known as ‘subregulus’, literally ‘under-king’ or even ‘Dei Gratia Dux’ (Duke by the Grace of God), an appellation usually reserved for royalty. He proved to be a careful steward, far more vigorous in foreign affairs than Edward ever was, largely because he led with a firm hand. Unlike the king he was also an accomplished warrior who was willing to fight when he had to. He cut his teeth on the formidable Welsh Marches21 and was rewarded for his prowess by the gift of the head of his most fearsome enemy as an offer of peace. Like any capable ruler, however, he knew the limitations of brute force. If possible he always preferred to come to terms without bloodshed. No less than three rebellions were settled by Harold without fighting; a tribute to his diplomatic finesse.  

By 1057 it had become quite clear that Edward the Confessor would never have children. Either because of a personal inclination or a physical impairment, the king probably never consummated the marriage to Godwin’s daughter. It’s been suggested that this was Edward’s small attempt to defy Godwin by repudiating his daughter in this way, but the practical result was that the search for an heir had to begin. A surviving male relative of the royal family was found living in Hungary and a delegation was sent to retrieve him, but he died shortly after reaching England leaving only a five-year-old son named Edgar. The boy was clearly too young to inherit the kingdom, but the crisis seemed to have been averted. Edward only had to survive long enough for Edgar to become an adult.  

With things seemingly in order, Harold fatefully left England for Normandy. Why exactly he did so isn't clear the Bayeux Tapestry merely shows him getting into a ship without an explanation as to what he was doing. The Normans later claimed that he had come to confirm William’s claim to the throne, while some English apologists advance the equally improbable scenario that he was on a fishing trip and got blown off course. A more likely motivation was that Harold was trying to secure the release of his brother and nephew who were still in captivity in Rouen. Regardless of the aim, however, the trip was a disaster. Caught in a storm off the Norman coast, Harold’s ship was forced to land in the neighboring county of Ponthieu where he was seized by a local count and thrown into prison.  

William could hardly believe his luck. His main rival for the throne had quite literally fallen into his lap. The duke quickly forced the Count of Ponthieu to hand over Harold, escorted him to Rouen, and feted him in style. Then he personally presented Harold with arms and invited him to join in a campaign against neighboring Brittany. Harold showed his usual flair, impressing his hosts during the maneuvers the Bayeux Tapestry shows him hauling two Norman soldiers out of quicksand but he can have had no illusion about the danger he was in. Despite the attention being lavished on him, he was a prisoner and everyone knew it. The moment they arrived back at Rouen, it became clear what William would demand in return for his release.  

Harold was forced to swear that he would support William’s claim to the throne and do everything in his power to see that William became the next king of England. After the ceremony Harold was released, and although he had to say goodbye to his brother they would never see each other again he could at least console himself with the presence of his nephew whom William had allowed to go free. Nevertheless, it was probably a gloomy trip back to England.  

He arrived to find yet another crisis brewing. His younger brother Tostig had been appointed Earl of Northumbria, but had so mismanaged affairs that his annoyed subjects had broken into his home, stolen everything that wasn’t nailed down and killed those too slow to escape, adding for good measure that if he showed his face in York again they would do the same to him. Tostig, who was hunting with the king at the time, was taken completely by surprise. Edward, who seems to have had a close personal relationship with Tostig, flew into his characteristic rage and immediately called out his army, but got only a lukewarm response. A military campaign clearly wasn’t possible. Since Harold personally knew everyone involved, including the leading men of Northumbria, he was sent as an official emissary to deal with the rebels. There he was faced with a personal dilemma. The rebel leaders made it clear that under no circumstances would they accept Tostig back and wouldn’t lay down their arms unless he was exiled. Harold either had to support his family and plunge the kingdom into civil war, or betray his brother and send him into exile.  

After some deliberation, Harold chose the latter course. Tostig would have to be sacrificed for the good of the country and go into exile. The king was apoplectic, suffering the first of the seizures that would kill him, but there was nothing he could do. Tostig, who never forgave his brother, fled to Scotland22 and tried to raise an army to invade Northumbria.  

The English had no time to think of the disgraced Earl, or worry about a threat from the north. Edward the Confessor was dying and an official successor had to be chosen. The leading men of England the Witan met in December of 1065 and desperately looked to the king for guidance. The trouble was that there was no obvious choice. Harold was the most popular candidate; he had carried the burden of government for the last decade and clearly had the qualities of a good king, but he had no royal blood. The boy Edgar, on the other hand, had the right pedigree, but they could not in good conscience turn over the kingdom to a child in such dangerous times. William of Normandy of course was shouting that he had a claim, but it was fairly weak, and in any case the Normans were terrifyingly alien. No member of the Witan seriously considered him.  

Edward, vacillating to the end, refused to give any direction. He suffered another seizure on Christmas Eve, and although he rallied enough to attend the yearly celebrations, a few days later he was too sick to attend the consecration of his life-long project, Westminster. He slipped into a coma, but revived briefly on January 4th long enough to speak. Taking Harold’s hand he named him as his successor and begged him to look after his queen. The next day he was dead.  

Harold was crowned the same day that Edward was buried, disregarding the scandalized protests of the Normans who branded him an oath-breaker. The English countered that a vow made under duress wasn’t binding, although they admitted that Harold tended to ‘give oaths too easily’.  

The new king tried to defuse the situation by moving immediately to strengthen his position in the North. He issued coins bearing the single Latin word 'PAX', although ironically he would see little peace in his reign. Word arrived almost immediately that William of Normandy was raising a huge army and Harold summoned the ‘fyrd’, a public levy of all free men, to defend the coast.   

As the spring turned into summer, however, no invasion fleet was seen on the horizon. Harold couldn't keep his militia assembled forever, they were only obliged to serve for a limited time, and most had to get back to the more important task of bringing in the harvest. Harold kept them as long as he could, but on September 8th, with provisions running out and men deserting daily, he officially disbanded the army.  

Medieval armies didn’t fight in the winter, and it was now too late in the campaigning season for a serious invasion as autumn storms made the Channel crossing especially treacherous. The king retired to London, but a week and a half later stunning news arrived. England had been invaded, but not from Normandy. Without warning, the terrifying Viking king Harald Hardrada had struck from the North and with him was the traitor Tostig. 


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