In the Days After Hastings

The Body of Harold brought before William the Conqueror by Ford Madox Brown, Manchester Art Gallery

It was said that after the great Battle, William the Conqueror retired to Hastings and awaited the submission of the English people. None was forthcoming. Was he surprised, I wonder? After all, England had been subjected to Danish invasions the last couple of centuries, winning and losing battle after battle. Of course, they had not lost their king during one of those battles, but electing another king was only a matter of time. Apparently—at least initially—no one had any intention of recognizing the usurper. Of course, this was destined to change.

But not yet. With a few days after Harold’s death (I can’t find an exact date), a hastily-assembled Witan elected Eadgar Aetheling as king; he was the last surviving heir of the Royal house of Cedric of Wessex though still in his early teens. Eadgar was not crowned, presumably because this event always coincided with a high religious holiday and the next appropriate date would not occur until Christmas. Historian Edward A. Freeman suggested that Edwin and Morcar put themselves forward as likely candidates but received no support. They duly consented to Eadgar’s election, then went back home with their levies, “and left Eadgar and England to their fate”. Freeman’s judgment was harsh: “The patriotic zeal of the men of London was thwarted by the base secession of the Northern traitors. By their act all was lost.” Divided, England could not stand up to the might of the Norman invader.

William waited at Hastings for five days then resolved to secure the southeast portion of England before advancing on London. He marched along the coast, plundering his way to strike terror in his conquered people. He took especial revenge on Romney who had the audacity to attack some of his men before the great Battle. William then advanced to Dover which surrendered without a blow. Had the garrison already been killed at Hastings? It is said that William intended to spare the city because of its submission but that some of his unruly soldiers plundered anyway, setting fire to many houses. William brought his men under control and even compensated the homeowners for their losses. He spent eight days at Dover and left his wounded there to recover.

The Conqueror’s violence to the resistors and leniency to towns surrendering along the way served its purpose in Kent; even the city of Canterbury met the Duke on the road with hostages and tribute. This was on October 29. Interestingly, two days later, he pitched camp nearby in a neighborhood called the Broken Tower and stayed there for a month, for he was stricken down with a serious illness. This didn’t stop him from sending messengers to Winchester where Queen Editha had taken refuge, offering to leave them alone as long as they submitted to his rule (along with tribute, of course). Editha consulted with the city fathers and together they agreed to William’s terms. For all intents and purposes, the south was in William’s hands.

William enters London, hand-colored woodcut

He now turned his attention to London; the last vestiges of resistance were strong there. Initially he sent forward a small contingent of 500 knights, who were met south of the Thames by a stout company of Londoners. A skirmish took place that sent the citizens retreating back inside the walls of the city; at this, the soldiers set fire to Southwark. But William was not minded to attack London yet; rather, he struck west along the southern bank of the Thames, harrying Surrey, Hampshire, and Berkshire until he reached Wallingford, which offered a bridge and a ford across the river. Unchallenged, William crossed and continued north, intent on creating a circle of desolation around London. Although this was not a formal siege, it was beginning to have the trappings of one.

By the time William reached Berkhampstead, apparently the English were demoralized. An embassy led by none other than Eadgar Aetheling himself, accompanied by Archbishops Ealdred and probably Stigand (as well as many of the chiefest men from London and southern England) came and did homage to William. Prepared to be merciful, the Conqueror received them graciously and gave Eadgar the kiss of peace. As Freeman reminds us: “It was the chance shot of an arrow which had overcome the English King, but it was William’s own policy which had overcome the English people.” And so it began.

 

Who Promised Duke William the Crown?

Harold Swears an Oath to William. Source: Wikimedia
Harold Swears an Oath to William. Source: Wikimedia

That is one of the most debated questions in Pre-Conquest history, with no answer in sight. Was William’s claim to the English throne the result of wishful thinking? Was he promised the crown directly by King Edward, or was the offer presented by a third party? Did Harold Godwineson even know about William’s designs on the throne when he made his fateful visit to Normandy in 1064?

Let’s start with William’s pedigree. Richard I, Duke of Normandy was Queen Emma’s father; this made him the grandfather of Edward the Confessor. Richard I was also the great-grandfather of Duke William. So there was a distant kinship between Edward and William, though one generation apart.

When Edward the Confessor left Normandy in 1041, William was only 13 years old and Edward was 38. With that age gap, it seems unlikely that the two of them would have developed a close relationship, so any alleged gratitude Edward might have owed probably belonged to William’s father Robert, dead by 1035.

Attack on Dover, llustration by Edouard Zier from a History of England, 1903

By 1052, when William supposedly traveled to England while Earl Godwine was in exile, Edward’s alleged gratitude may have cooled somewhat. It’s hard to say. William’s visit to England is by no means certain; some historians thought he would have been too busy putting down rebellions to leave his country even for a short time. If he did visit England, it is claimed that Edward offered him the crown at this point. Still, given the king’s knowledge that it was up to the Witan to decide the succession, it’s curious why he would have done so. However, considering his antagonism toward the Godwines (he put the queen in a nunnery while Godwine was in exile), perhaps he did it out of spite. Perhaps he knew there would never be children from his own marriage (was Edward celibate? Another unanswered question).

There is another scenario concerning Robert of Jumièges, former Archbishop of Canterbury and arch-enemy of Earl Godwine. Robert is one of the Normans who fled from London once it was clear that Godwine was back in control. It is probable that he kidnapped the hostages, Godwine’s son Wulfnoth and grandson Hakon, and brought them to Normandy. In this interpretation, Jumièges might have been acting on his own when he told William that Edward was declaring him heir to the English throne, and here are the hostages to guarantee his promise—hostages agreed to by Godwine and the other great earls. I don’t see how Godwine would have agreed to this, since he didn’t even know about it! So my interpretation is that Archbishop Robert concocted this pledge as an effective revenge on Godwine and all of England for kicking him out. And this is the scenario I develop in THE SONS OF GODWINE.

If this is the case, it’s very possible that Harold Godwineson had no idea William was harboring thoughts for the crown when he visited Normandy in 1064. Again, historians don’t even agree to his motives for going. Some believe—and the Normans contend—that Edward sent Harold across the Channel to confirm his pledge of the crown. Personally, I think Harold would have been unwilling to discharge this errand (depending on whether or not he harbored his own designs on the crown). If Harold had gone to Normandy to reaffirm Edward’s promise, why would William feel the need to make him swear an oath?

Some say that Harold was on a fishing trip and got blown across the Channel by a storm. This is possible, but the theory doesn’t find much favor. I read a suggestion that Harold went to Normandy to scope out possible support concerning his own bid for the throne. But I think this might have been a little premature; after all, Edward was in perfectly good health and Eadgar Aetheling, though young, was a direct descendant of Edmund Ironside. Another reason Harold might have crossed to Normandy would be an attempt to free his little brother who had been hostage for 12 years by then. If Robert of Jumièges made the whole succession promise up, it’s possible that Harold unwittingly put himself at William’s mercy. I doubt whether he would have gone if he had known about William’s aspirations. But at least he was forewarned when the time came!

 

The Fall of Edwin and Morcar, Ill-fated Earls

Duke Robert Curthose with his army by Joseph Martin Kronheim, 1868 Source: Wikipedia

One can only imagine the chaos at the end of October, 1066. But it’s apparent the English weren’t ready to accept William as their king just because he won the Battle of Hastings. As soon as word spread of the terrible battle, men started gathering at London—so many men that an assembly was called to elect a new king. It was said that Edwin and Morcar, heirs to Leofric of Mercia, immediately put themselves forward—one or the other—as candidates. However, they could not muster any support, so instead they agreed to endorse Eadgar Aetheling, the last direct descendant of a reigning English king.

As everyone knew, poor Eadgar had no experience in government and little influence due to his youth and foreignness; he had grown up in Hungary. He needed some leadership to prop him up, but it seems that Edwin and Morcar had a change of  heart, for it is said they withdrew with their troops back to Northumbria. When William approached London, ravaging the country as he passed, all resistance collapsed and Eadgar was dropped like a proverbial “hot potato”.

Edwin and Morcar were not present at William’s coronation, but they soon presented themselves to the new king at Barking, just outside the city, along with other missing chieftains. William received their submission, and for the moment Northumbria was left undisturbed. Edwin and Morcar accompanied the king on his visit back to Normandy in 1067, presumably as hostages along with earl Waltheof (son of Earl Siward), Eadgar Aetheling, Archbishop Stigand, and other Englishmen who could be considered dangerous if left to their own devices. Well over a year passed thus, with the northern earls held in uneasy captivity while the Northumbrians collaborated back at home, content under their native chieftains. Apparently Edwin won the favor of William, who is said to have offered one of his daughters to the earl in marriage (it may have been a love match), though the king never delivered on his promise. At the same time, William was partitioning off pieces of Mercia for his own followers. These slights antagonized Edwin, and in short order the brothers rose in rebellion, joined by Eadgar Aetheling. They had been present at Matilda’s coronation at Westminster on Easter, 1068, so presumably they must have bolted at the first opportunity.

However, William was at the top of his form and he was soon marching north with a large army, building castles as he went. By the time he got to Warwick, Edwin and Morcar were ready to surrender and York quickly followed, offering William the keys to the city and submitting to a new castle right in their midst. Apparently the two earls remained as William’s “hangers-on” during the next Northumbrian rebellion (after which William built a second castle in York) and the last great revolt (with Eadgar Aetheling and the Danes), for they took no part in the uprisings. For all intents and purposes, their influence in the north was at an end, even though they retained their titles. Did they accompany William during the Harrying of the North? History is silent on this question.

Hereward fighting Normans, illustration from Cassell’s History of England (1865)

Finally, in 1071, Edwin and Morcar apparently mustered a last bit of courage (or desperation), for somewhere around April they escaped from William’s court and attempted to raise another rebellion. Historian Marc Morris tells us: “It soon became apparent, however, just how far their fortunes had sunk, for it seems that no one rallied to their cause.” (The Norman Conquest). They wandered around for a while before parting company. Edwin supposedly headed for Scotland, hoping to take refuge with other displaced Englishmen. He never made it; the Norman account tells us that he was betrayed by three of his own men, who turned on him and killed him as he valiantly defended himself against a party of Normans. Another account says he accompanied Morcar to Ely before they parted, but either way it is clear that Edwin met with a violent death. It is said he was mourned by the English and Normans alike, and even William himself cried over Edwin’s severed head, for he was very handsome and courtly and knew how to ingratiate himself.

Morcar, on the other hand, went on to participate in the last uprising of the Fens, led by the valiant Hereward in defense of the Island of Ely. Morcar resisted until the end and escaped with all his limbs intact, but he was William’s prisoner for the rest of the king’s life. When William the Conqueror died in 1087, he released all his prisoners on condition they took an oath not to disturb the peace. But unfortunately for Morcar, William Rufus immediately took him back into confinement—along with Wulfnoth Godwineson. It is thought that Morcar was put into prison, for nothing more is heard of him, and he probably died alone and abandoned.

Many historians along the way have called Edwin and Morcar traitors, and only recent scholarship might have rescued them from this ignominy. The absolute truth, needless to say, is lost in time.

My Review of The Norman Conquest of the North: The Region and Its Transformation, 1000-1135

northI had to order this book direct from England, but the title fell right into the middle of my research and I am so glad I stumbled across it. It’s hard for me to believe someone went to so much trouble to document every smidgen of information about this period, but it seems that William Kapelle left no stone unturned. Overall, I concluded that if he didn’t mention an item, then it was not to found anywhere. He has done such a good job connecting the dots, I was finally able to somewhat untangle the complicated shapshot of pre-conquest Northumbria, which was my focus.

For instance, in the first chapter he gave us three maps of Northumbria: Political Divisions (what I would call counties) in 1000; Northern Geographic Names (such as vales, dales, mountain gaps, and rivers) and a Terrain Sketch map. I found myself referring to these maps all the way through the book, for they helped explain important boundaries and invasion routes. Especially in the west, it seems that the same territory is known by different names depending on the decade. Is it Strathclyde, Cumbria or Cumberland? His Genealogical Tables were equally important to me, because the relationships between people (and recurring names) can be mind-numbing. For instance, there are two Cospatrics I’m concerned with; the tables finally helped me figure out that one was an uncle-by-marriage to the other, and from which branch of the family each was descended.

But the book goes way beyond identification. We get a very good feel for what Siward’s Northumbria felt like when doomed Tostig took over. Why did Siward put together an invasion to place Malcolm on the throne of Scotland? We discover that this wasn’t the first attempt at controlling his borders by placing a friendly King on the Scottish throne. In the mid-1040s, Siward led an army over the border in an attempt to replace Macbeth with Malcolm’s paternal uncle Maldred; this invasion ultimately failed and he tried again when young Malcolm was old enough to reign. Siward’s secondary aim was to control the most likely invasion routes from the west (through the mountains) by annexing Cumberland, which Malcolm was later to recapture for the Scots, much to the discomfiture of Tostig. There were many loose ends Kapelle addressed, and once again I have filled my pages with bookmarks.

Then he goes on to the Conqueror and the Harrying of the North. This section was written logically and without the usual outrage; there were many steps that led to William’s unfortunate solution, and perhaps he wasn’t quite the monster he is usually made out to be. His horrific campaign was more a matter of failed policy rather than pure maliciousness. He imposed new taxes to pay for his occupation, he bungled appointments in the north—first with Copsig (Tostig’s old agent), then with Cospatric, who helped lead the 1068 rebellion. “The revolt of 1068 had resulted from William’s failure to govern the North through its native leaders, who had, in fact, led the resistance to the king. He was thus left with no realistic alternative but to replace them with Normans.” William had learned about the tactics of the northerners, who retreated into the mountains and waited for him to go away, “and he now adopted a plan that would make it impossible for the North to revolt after his departure.”

But William’s problems with the North did not end with the harrying. Although most of the devastation was in Yorkshire and a little bit into Durham, “Norman rule was restricted to the east coast plain and to the western plain as a result of the harrying. Between there was brigandage.” For the rest of his reign and beyond, William was faced with a myriad of problems that he was neither willing nor able to control. In the Domesday book, Kapelle hypothesizes that much of Northern shires seemed empty, not because they were uninhabited, but “The Normans did not actually survey many of the Pennine villages and all of northern Lancashire, probably because they did not control these areas.”

It’s a lot to take in. But there is much more, and I suspect that only a dedicated Northumbrian scholar can absorb the plethora of information. We learn how the Normans eventually repopulated the vacant farms with their own manors. We get a lot of details about manorial estates, agriculture, and functioning churches. By the reign of Henry I, the Normans ultimately founded a new aristocracy in the north. Nonetheless, the native Anglo-Saxons eventually creeped back into prominence, as Henry I realized that local men still made the best governors.

It’s possible that Kapelle did a bit of extrapolation in the early part of the eleventh century, but his statements and hypotheses were well documented with over 50 pages of notes and 18 pages of Bibliography. Every time I reread a chapter I discover something new.

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Did Edward the Confessor give the crown to Duke William?

William pays court to the English leaders by James William Edmund Doyle from Wikipedia

In my mind, this is one of the most provocative questions of the Middle Ages. In 1066, Duke William acted with the surety of someone who believed in what he was doing. To take such a big risk, he must have had good reason. William did not have a drop of royal blood in him, and his relationship to King Edward was a bit convoluted; Queen Emma, Edward’s mother, was his great-aunt.  There were closer blood-ties to the English throne than his. So his claim must have relied on Edward’s alleged promise. Interestingly, this claim comes almost exclusively from the Norman chron-iclers; the English chroniclers are silent on the subject. That in itself is enough to raise some eyebrows. Or is it?

Much of the argument is based on whether Duke William crossed the Channel and visited King Edward while the Godwine clan was in exile. Florence of Worcester, writing a half century later, states that he did. Modern historians seem to conclude that this was unlikely, as William was still probably fighting to secure his own throne. Of course, this visit or non-visit would determine whether William’s claim was first-hand or second-hand. Did Edward personally declare William his heir, or did the announcement come through Archbishop Robert of Jumièges?

There is a reference that a grateful Edward, still in exile, promised William the crown in their younger days. I think we can safely discard this one, since Edward was about 25 years older than William. It has been suggested that Edward was throwing around promises of succession (kind of like Elizabeth I and promises of marriages). If Duke William did visit England in 1052, it is possible that Edward, cocky after having rid himself of the troublesome Godwines, was asserting his will. Maybe he meant it, maybe he didn’t. Surely Edward knew he didn’t have the right to give away his crown; that decision was made by the Witan.

If we accept the theory that William did not visit Edward in England, then the big promise was probably delivered by Archbishop Robert, presumably after his outlawry on the heels of Godwine’s return in 1052. There seems to be little doubt that Robert kidnapped the hostages Wulfnoth and Hakon when he unceremoniously fled from London. Whether or not this was with Edward’s connivance is uncertain, though it must have reflected unfavorably on the King since they were Edward’s hostages. If Robert did forcibly abduct the boys, this could explain why his exit was so violently resisted; perhaps there was a last-ditch effort to save Godwin’s son and grandson.

What did Robert do with the hostages? Ultimately he turned them over to Duke William. It has been suggested he told the Duke that King Edward declared William his heir with the approval of the Great Earls, and was sending the two hostages as surety. In all likelihood, William was inclined to accept this offer; why not? It all looked pretty convincing on the surface. This is the version I favored in THE SONS OF GODWINE.

Shrine of Edward the Confessor from Matthew Paris, Cambridge Univ Library (Ms Ee 359)

This leads us to Harold Godwineson’s fateful visit in 1064, which opens up another slew of questions. The Norman chroniclers asserted that he came on King Edward’s orders to affirm the promise of the crown to William. Or did he come to negotiate the release of the hostages? Or was he merely blown across the Channel by a storm? Regardless, he became an unwilling pawn in William’s grand plan. It appears that the Duke had already made up his mind to go for it! Harold wasn’t permitted to leave until he swore to support William’s claim for the English throne. Although he swore the oath under duress, breaking his vow in 1066 was destined to follow Harold until the end, and probably encouraged the Pope to throw his support behind the Norman Duke—not an insignificant factor.

Could it be that Archbishop Robert made up the whole Edward story, as a personal revenge on Godwine and England for having treated him so shabbily? If he did fabricate the whole thing, it was a revenge served up cold, because Robert died a couple of years later and never saw how far Duke William was willing to go.

 

William the Conqueror’s Landing, 1066

The Landing of William the Conqueror at Hastings by Charles Edward Dixon 1910 (sourced from Christies.com)

I remember my first trip to England somewhere around 1990 or so.  I headed directly south to Hastings, for I had been studying about the great event and wanted to see the battlefield for myself.  Of course, travel itineraries were much harder to plan in those days, but I saw no reason to doubt that I would find what I was looking for as long as I had a good map. Well, I was certainly in for a surprise!

As I recall, Hastings was a sleepy little city.  Yes, there are castle ruins there, but no battlefield.  As I was soon to discover, much to my embarrassment, the battle was fought about 7 miles north of Hastings at a place called Battle (no wonder!).  Nor did William the Conqueror land at Hastings; his ships touched land about 10 miles to the west at a spot known to history as Pevensey and to locals as Normans Bay (there’s even a train stop).

William had quickly assembled a great fleet, since he only started planning the invasion that very year.  Mostly built for transport (unlike the great warships of the Vikings),  they were single masted open boats with a sail and many were attached to smaller boats.  Wace numbers the fleet at 696, though others state he brought over 3000; the larger number possibly included all sized crafts.  Sir Charles Oman estimated that the Norman force numbered 12,000-14,000, though others estimated as many as 60,000.  It’s probably safer to stay with the lower number, considering the size of the battlefield.

William had planned to invade England months earlier; in August of that year, the Norman ships had gathered at the mouth of the river Dive.  If he had succeeded in crossing the Channel when he wanted to, Harold would have been on hand to contest his landing, for the King was diligently guarding the southern coast with his Saxon levies.  But the winds were against the invaders and William was delayed a month at Dive, then after an aborted attempt to cross, he spent another couple of weeks up the coast at Saint Valery.

Finally, on the 27th of September, the winds changed and the Normans raced to their ships, although it took all day to load supplies and horses.  Edward A. Freeman paints a picture of celebration while they were preparing: “The ships resounded with music; the pipe, the zittern, the drum, the cymbals, all were heard, and the voice of the trumpet sounded proudly over all.” (Vol. 3, p. 399). When William boarded it was already dark, so he ordered all the ships to put a light on their mast and he placed a huge lantern atop his own Mora to be the guiding star of the fleet.

William’s was one of the few ships that did not carry horses, and this is probably the reason he outstripped the rest of the fleet while crossing the Channel.  When the sun arose the next day, he was stunned to see himself all alone; not another ship was to be seen.  Undaunted, the Duke ordered that they drop anchor and he cheerfully sat down to breakfast, though he encouraged his sailor to climb back up to the mast head and keep watch.  Before long the sailor saw four ships, and soon, “he saw such a multitude that their masts looked like a forest upon the waves.”

William’s luck was with them.  Not only was the crossing almost without incident (two ships were lost, including one that carried a soothsayer who prophesied that England would fall without a blow), they were astounded to discover the long beach deserted.  No Saxon host stood ready to repel the invaders because unbeknownst to William, King Harold had hastened north to defend his country against a totally different threat: the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada.

The battlefield at Battle Abbey (my photo)

As the story goes, Duke William was the first warrior to set foot on land — though his foot slipped out from under him and he fell forward on both hands.  Horrors!  A loud cry went up around him, for his men saw this accident as a terrible omen.  But William kept his wits about him.  Grabbing two fistfuls of sand, he cried out, “By the splendor of God I have taken seizen of my kingdom; the earth of England is in my two hands,” thus transforming bad luck into good fortune and saving the day.

Encouraged, the Normans disembarked in good order, still expecting resistance from the English.  But none was forthcoming and the invaders most likely drew their ships onto the beach.  It is thought a small garrison was left to guard the ships, utilizing the ruins of a Roman fort on the site.  It is possible that the Normans build one of their portable wooden fortresses there, but this is debated. They did not bring many provisions with them, and Pevensey was not the ideal site for foraging.  The Normans probably only spent one day there before moving their force east to Hastings, which was set as William’s permanent camp.  They dug a trench, formed an earthen mound and erected a wooden fortress at their new location.  It was now September 29 and William had plenty of time to set about terrorizing the locals in earnest so as to draw King Harold back to meet him in fateful battle.

Robert Curthose, son of William the Conqueror

Tomb of Robert Curthose from Gloucester Cathedral

When we study the succession of post-conquest English kings, we often forget that England might not be their primary interest.  This may be the reason that William the Conqueror groomed his eldest son to inherit the Dukedom of Normandy and gave the English crown to a younger brother. Or was it because Robert, surnamed Curthose was a bit of a wastrel and couldn’t be depended on to manage his tempestuous new conquest?

Robert does not present a very appealing picture. He is described as short and fat with a heavy face, but at the same time it is said he was a powerful warrior, generous and bold and likeable. However, as in the case of Henry II and his eldest son Henry the Young King, poor Robert was given Normandy as his inheritance, but not allowed to rule or even receive any revenue with which to pay his followers.  Nor did William share any of the spoils of his new kingdom of England with his eldest son. William expected him to be content with an empty title and bide his time until William was ready to die.

Robert had other ideas and bitterly reproached his father, to no avail. Finally, frustrated, impoverished, he surrounded himself with his friends who were also sons of nobles and wandered hither and yon; he invoked aid from William’s tempestuous underlords and waged rebellion against his father. There is no doubt that he was also helped by the King of France, who was always ready to wreak havoc with William.  Finally, the French King permitted Robert to occupy the castle of Gerberol on the borders of Normandy and France, and William had to take a firm stand against his errant son. Laying siege to the castle in 1079, William received his first ever wound, unluckily by the hand of his own son.  At the same moment, an arrow killed William’s horse and he fell to the ground, expecting to receive the final death blow; lucky for him William was saved by a loyal Englishman who gave up his own life. In the fighting that followed, even William Rufus was wounded defending his father, and the Conqueror retreated, leaving the victory to his rebellious son.

Robert Curthose asking his father for Forgiveness, drawing from Cassell’s History of England

Humiliated, William retreated to Rouen and the rebellious Robert, perhaps in remorse, took his followers and passed over to Flanders. Although William was incensed, he listened to the arguments of the nobles in Normandy, many of whom were fathers of Robert’s companions. They urged him to reconcile and he eventually agreed, receiving his son and friends and renewing the succession, as before.

When William the Conqueror died in 1087, Robert and William II made an agreement to be each other’s heir, but this arrangement was short-lived and the wily Norman barons sought to get rid of the stronger brother (the King of England) in favor of the weaker brother they thought they could control.  In the following year, the rebel Barons fortified their castles in England. Led by William the Conqueror’s elder half-brothers Odo of Bayeux and Robert Count of Mortain, they marched against William Rufus in the expectation that Robert would bring supporters from Normandy and join their forces.  Alas for them, bad weather forced Robert back across the channel and the rebellion collapsed.

In 1096, Robert went on Crusade, not to return until five years later – too late to stop his younger brother Henry from taking the crown of England on the death of William II.  He led an invasion that came to nothing, and eventually annoyed Henry so much that the new King of England invaded Normandy instead, capturing Robert in 1106 and imprisoning him for the rest of his life.  Robert lived in captivity another 28 years and died in  his early 80s.

 

Death of William the Conqueror

‘William receives a fatal hurt at Mantes’ by James William Edmund Doyle in “A Chronicle of England: B.C. 55 – A.D. 1485”

William the Conqueror was not likely to be a person who mellowed-out in his final days.  His temper was still quick to anger and he did not hesitate to lay waste to his enemies’ lands at the slightest provocation.  He had become excessively fat, and it was said that his antagonist King Philip of France made an insulting comment about William’s bulk that enraged the Norman, who swore to take revenge.  And he did.

In England, the year 1087 was full of famine, pestilence and fire.  On the continent, William added his own devastation to the Vexin (the border between France and Normandy) and took especial aim at the town of Mantes, which he destroyed totally. On August 15, as he was encouraging his men to throw more wood on the flames, his horse stumbled, throwing William hard against his saddle pommel.

The injury turned out to be mortal.  Reeling from shock, William was removed to nearby Rouen where he was housed in the priory of Saint Gervase.  There he lingered for several weeks in sickness and pain surrounded by the Bishops and Abbots of the land, and according to Orderic he repented of his evil ways and even admitted that he had wrongly invaded England.  He is said to have especially regretted the Great Harrying of the North.

On a Thursday morning in September, William breathed his last.  Already, his heir William Rufus and younger brother Henry were already gone, on their way to claim their own—William the crown and Henry his 5000 pounds.  As William expired, the remaining prelates and nobles scattered to the four winds, intent on protecting their homes and possessions.  All feared the anarchy that would inevitably settle on the land until law could be reestablished. Once the coast was clear, even William’s servants set about stripping the body and the room of all its trappings, so that the corpse was left practically naked and all alone on the floor of his chamber for a whole day.

Death of William the Conqueror, Engraving By J Gilbert from L’univers Illustre, Published June 1863

Finally, a single rustic knight by the name of Herlwin volunteered to take charge of collecting, washing and preparing the body for its funeral—at his own cost.  As they brought William’s corpse through Rouen and thence to Caen, the funeral cortege was swelled by local prelates and laymen, who brought the body to the Abbey of St. Stephen.  But even then William was not allowed to proceed in peace; just as happened on his coronation day, a fire broke out in a nearby house and many of the attendees ran off to fight the blaze as it spread through the town.

And that was not the end of William’s indignities. When the bier was brought into the church, a local knight rose up and asserted that William had stolen the land from his family to build this church, and he forbid that “the body of the robber be covered with my mould, or that he be buried within the bounds of my inheritance” (Orderic).  His statement raised a great tumult, until finally William’s youngest son Henry and the prelates in attendance agreed to pay the knight 60 shillings for the seven feet of ground to lay the coffin, and furthermore to pledge the purchase-price of the whole estate, which they later paid.

Once the disturbance was over, they proceeded to move the body to the stone coffin, only to discover that the coffin was too small!  There was no recourse except to stuff the awesome bulk into the stone box.  But the process proved too much for the flesh and the body burst apart, filling the cathedral with such a stench that they rushed through the rest of the ceremony.  And so the great king was left to spend his eternity alone and abandoned, but certainly never forgotten.

Waltheof, Last Saxon Earl

From The Book Cassell's History Of England Volume I
From Cassell’s History Of England Volume I

Earl Waltheof’s foray into the history books was unlucky and unhappy. From beginning to end, it seems like he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and never managed to live up to his destiny.

Waltheof was the younger son of Earl Siward, who died when Waltheof was only 10 years old.  His older brother Osbeorn was killed in the battle of Dunsinane, and his father died the following year.  Because of his extreme youth, the earldom was given instead to Tostig Godwineson, and it is possible that Waltheof  received a monastic education in the interim.  It wasn’t until the Northumbrian revolt of 1065 that Waltheof was granted the southern part of the earldom, or Middle Anglia, and he was given the title Earl of Huntingdon.

By all indications, Waltheof was not involved in the Battle of Hastings since he retained his earldom after 1066.  He may have briefly served as a hostage for William the Conqueror; perhaps this is where he met Eadgar Aetheling and chose to champion his cause in the last of four Northumbrian uprisings in 1069.  By then, Eadgar had fled to Malcolm III’s court in Scotland, and together Eadgar, Waltheof and a party of disgruntled thanes met with an invading force of Danes and destroyed the Norman garrison in York.  Waltheof’s exploits in beheading the fleeing Normans with his great axe have been recorded alongside his warlike ancestors.

Alas, the raiding party could not organize a defence against the wrathful King William, who Harried the North in a devastating scorched earth reprisal that scattered his enemies and forced Waltheof to submit to his mercy.  For the moment, Luck was with the earl, for William gave him a second chance and even married him to his own niece Judith (though perhaps Waltheof’s Norman wife was placed to keep an eye on him).  After two years Waltheof was made the first earl of Northumberland (not to be confused with Northumbria which was much larger) and reigned from 1072-1075.

Unfortunately, Waltheof managed to get himself involved with an ill-fated Revolt of the Earls, thought better of it and rushed to confess his role to William.   The Norman King seemed to forgive him in face of his timely confession, and William finished off the other Earls and made short work of the revolt.  However, an untimely appearance of another Danish fleet in the Humber must have given William pause, and he kept Waltheof in close confinement.  Alas for Waltheof, his wife Judith publicly accused him of complicity and after several months he was declared a traitor and sentenced to be beheaded.

The last Saxon earl was executed May 31, 1076 on St. Giles Hill, Winchester.  In an excess of piety and atonement, Waltheof threw himself on his knees and burst into prayer.  It was said that the executioner got tired of waiting for him to finish and struck off his head while in the midst of the last sentence.  Witnesses swear that his severed head finished with “but deliver us from evil. Amen” clearly and distinctly.  It wasn’t long before the unhappy Saxons started to treat him like a Saint.

But all did not end with Waltheof’s execution.  He was survived by a daughter Matilda, who eventually married David, King of Scotland and son of Malcolm III.  From this marriage came the Earls of Huntingdon, as well as her grandsons, Malcolm IV and William I of Scotland.

As for William the Conqueror, it is said that his good fortune ended with the wrongful execution of Earl Waltheof.  From then on, William conquered no more, and the last decade of his life proved to be unhappy and fruitless.

 

 

Harold Godwineson in Normandy 1064

Harold Swears an Oath, Colour-printed wood engraving by James Doyle. Source: Wikimedia

Harold’s ill-fated trip to Normandy has sparked much debate among historians. Why did he go? How much damage did it cause? One thing is certain: Harold and William were far from strangers by the time they met on the battlefield of Hastings.

It is thought by some that Harold was on a fishing trip in the English Channel when a sudden rain squall blew his boat all the way to Ponthieu in 1064. Count Guy, as was his right, took Harold hostage and was apparently quite put out when Duke William showed up shortly thereafter and demanded that he give Harold up.  A proverbial case of From the Frying Pan Into The Fire! Once Harold was the unwilling guest of Duke William, he knew he wasn’t going to get out of there without some painful concessions.

Norman chroniclers favor the story that King Edward sent Earl Harold to Normandy to confirm his choice of William as heir to the English throne.  The obvious argument against this legend is that King Edward had no legal right to appoint his successor.  Although the king’s last wishes were always considered, the final decision was with the Witan, the king’s council. I don’t think this alleged promise was common knowledge in England—if it happened at all. It is far from certain that William visited England in 1052 (while Godwine was in exile). If this didn’t happen in 1052 and William’s plans were not common knowledge, there is a possibility that Harold didn’t know about William’s aspirations to the crown until he visited the ducal court.

There are other explanations about Harold’s intentions. It has been theorized that he was sounding the opposition, so to speak, for his own bid to the throne. But in 1064 King Edward was in good health and Edgar Aetheling, the true heir, was being raised at the royal court. The motivation that makes the most sense to me is the possibility that he went to Normandy in an attempt to secure the release of his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon, held hostage since around 1052. Alas, even this attempt failed (only Hakon was released) and ironically Wulfnoth’s isolation probably protected him from the same fate as his brothers.

William the Conqueror, British School c.1618-20, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Source: Wikipedia

Harold’s stay at William’s court was protracted and cordial – at least on the surface.  During this time, Duke William led a punitive expedition against Conan of Brittany, taking Harold with him and fighting side-by-side with the famous Saxon Earl.  The Bayeux Tapestry shows a scene where Harold wades into quicksand to save two Norman soldiers from certain death.  After the siege of Dinan, William gave Harold arms and weapons and knighted him for his valor.

Nonetheless, once Harold became William’s man—so to speak—it was time for him to return home.  But one final concession had to happen first: the great oath.  In front of all the Norman barons, Harold was obliged to swear an oath to support William’s claim to the English throne (against his own interests, even then), swear to secure the castle of Dover for William (not likely!), to marry one of William’s daughters. Knowing this was his only way out, Harold duly swore the oath knowing that under duress, many an oath was often considered invalid.  However, William was too smart to be outwitted; just to make it stick, he secretly laid the bones of Normandy’s saints beneath a tablecloth on which stood the bible.  Once the pledge was sworn, the tablecloth was whisked off and Harold was aghast that he had just sworn a false oath on holy relics.

The consequences of Harold’s oathbreaking were grim indeed; William used this event to help win the pope’s approbation for his conquest of England.  When the Duke unfurled his banner at the Battle of Hastings, he placed the Pope’s banner alongside for all to see.  The Normans went so far as to declare that God had turned against Harold’s kingdom and shown his favor to the invaders. I would think that Harold still felt a sting of guilt, regardless. Even his brother Gyrth is said to have offered to lead the army at Hastings since he wasn’t bound by any oath, but Harold scornfully rejected the idea.

One thing is for sure; as a consequence of this ill-fated voyage, both Harold and William knew how their future opponent would conduct himself on the battlefield. Harold would have returned to England a much wiser man and better prepared for the future; too bad he couldn’t change the course of his destiny.