Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Alternate Histories of the Norman Conquest, Part 1

By Rosanne E. Lortz

One disservice that many historians do to readers is to weigh two sides of a disputed issue, form a judgment on what they think happened, and then present their judgment as if it is incontrovertible fact. The events leading up to the Norman Conquest are one such issue. School children everywhere learn that prior to Edward the Confessor’s death, Harold Godwinson, the most powerful earl in England, made a trip to Normandy and swore to support Duke William’s claim to the crown. After Edward’s death, Harold reneged on his oath, precipitating the Norman Conquest and his own death at the Battle of Hastings.

It is interesting to note, however, that most of the primary sources of the period have fairly different versions of this tale. Things are not as cut and dried as the historians would have us imagine. Did Harold actually make a journey to Normandy? And if so, did King Edward send him? Was his purpose in going to swear an oath of support to William? Or was the oath exacted under compulsion? Did Edward the Confessor, upon his deathbed, name Harold as his successor? If so, was this a change from having previously named William? 

A brief look at the primary sources of this period will show us that there are no easy answers to these questions. To tell only one version of the story is glib, at best, or deceptive, at worst. 


The first sources that we will examine are from the English side of the Channel. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, (a source written at a monastery and regularly updated by the record-keepers) makes no mention of Harold’s visit to Normandy. At King Edward’s death, it includes an epitaph that commends Harold as Edward’s choice for successor:
Yet did the wise king entrust his kingdom
To a man of high rank, to Harold himself,
The noble earl, who ever
Faithfully obeyed his noble lord
In words and deeds, neglecting nothing
Whereof the national king stood in need.
An argument from silence is not a strong one. It is possible that Harold’s visit to Normandy was a secret one and not common knowledge to the people of England. This source does indicate, however, that King Edward gave the crown to Harold upon his deathbed.


Another chronicle, the eleventh-century Chronicon ex Chronicis from Worcester Abbey also makes no mention of Harold’s journey to Normandy. As in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, we see the claim that Edward chose Harold to succeed.
When [Edward] was entombed, the underking (subregulus), Harold, son of Earl Godwine, whom the king had chosen before his demise as successor to the kingdom, was elected by the primates of all England to the dignity of kingship, and was consecrated king with due ceremony by Ealdred, archbishop of York, on the same day.
This source also gives us another important detail, that Harold “was elected by the primates of all England to the dignity of kingship.” During the later Anglo-Saxon period, the king’s heir was usually elected by a group of nobles called the Witan, adding a bit of oligarchic democracy into the monarchical succession. 


A third English source worth looking at is the Vita Aedwardi Regis (The Life of King Edward), a hagiographic work that King Edward’s wife commissioned immediately following his death. Edward’s wife Edith was the sister of Harold Godwinson—meaning she was probably very much in favor of her brother being the chosen heir to the kingdom. 

The Vita Aedwardi says that there were three people present at the deathbed of the king: Edith, Harold, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. According to this source, the dying Edward looked at Harold and said: “I entrust this woman and all the kingdom to your protection.”

Some historians have wondered about the veracity of this account. If Edward really had chosen William earlier (as we will find the Norman accounts attest), why did he change his mind at the last minute? Wouldn’t it have been very easy for Edith and Harold to fabricate a story about Edward’s last words? The only person they would have to suborn would be Archbishop Stigand, who from other sources, seems to have been quite friendly with the house of Godwin. 

But although this theory is an interesting one, it is both impossible to prove and a conspiracy theory that none of Edward’s contemporaries ever considered. The two preceding sources confirm that the entire country of England believed Edward to have bestowed the crown on Harold. 


Although Harold’s trip to Normandy is ignored in these early English sources, the Norman chroniclers are extremely eager to highlight it. William of Jumi├Ęges, a Norman monk in a monastry near Rouen, lived through the Norman Conquest and wrote an account of it in the Gesta Normannorum Ducum (Deeds of the Norman Dukes). He writes that King Edward sent Harold to Normandy in order to “swear fealty to the duke concerning his crown and, according to the Christian custom, pledge it with oaths.” After crossing the channel and landing in Ponthieu, Harold fell into the hands of Guy, count of Abbeville, who threw Harold into prison. William sent envoys to Guy to secure Harold’s freedom. Then, “after Harold had stayed with [William] for some time and had sworn fealty to him about the kingdom with many oaths he sent him back to the king with many gifts.” 

Notice the details in the above work. Harold was sent by King Edward to pledge his support to William for the crown. If this is true, and if Edward did indeed bequeath the crown to Harold on his deathbed, then something must have happened in between to change the old king’s mind. The account goes on to say that William rescued Harold from a local baron named Guy. There is no suggestion that William held Harold captive himself, only that he treated him as a guest, loading him down with presents after he swore the requisite fealty.


William of Poitiers, another Norman writing during the Conquest years, confirms the story as told by William of Jumi├Ęges. King Edward sent Harold to Normandy for the express purpose of strengthening Duke William’s right to inherit the English throne. Harold was captured by Guy in Ponthieu, rescued by William, and then….
Harold swore fealty to him according to the holy rite of Christians. And, as the most truthful and distinguished men who were there as witnesses have told, at the crucial point in the oath he clearly and of his own free will pronounced these words that as long as he lived he would be the vicar of Duke William in the court of his lord King Edward; that he would strive to the utmost with his counsel and his wealth to ensure that the English monarchy should be pledged to him after Edward’s death…. For there was no hope that Edward, already sick, could live much longer.

Notice, the emphasis that Harold swore “clearly” and “of his own free will,” indicating that there may have been claims circulating that the oath was under compulsion. While the Anglo-Saxon sources are clear that Edward promised the crown to Harold on his deathbed, the Norman sources are equally clear that Edward sent Harold to promise the crown to William just a short while earlier.


The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio (Song of the Battle of Hastings), an epic poem that was probably composed for William’s coronation, confirms the official Norman view of how events transpired. In the poem, after William lands in England, he responds to a threatening delegation sent by Harold, making clear reference to the earlier oath.
Although he threatens, unjustly, to make war, my men, trusting in the Lord, will not retreat. Is he not aware of the oath made to me and covertly forsworn? Does he not in his heart remember that he was my vassal? If his perjured hand does not yet recoil condemned, it has already been found guilty by the judgement of God. If he seeks peace and wants to confess his crimes, I will be indulgent and promptly overlook his faults. I will grant him the lands which formerly his father held if he is willing to be, as before, my vassal.


The Bayeux Tapestry, a long embroidery documenting the history of the Norman Conquest, is enigmatic in the way that pictures often are. The pictures tell us that Harold went to Normandy, was captured by Guy, and swore an oath to William, but the captions do not tell us why Harold went and what were the terms of the oath he swore. The pictures do indicate that the oath was of a serious nature, for Harold’s hands are placed on two reliquaries.

"Here Harold made an oath to Duke William"
When Harold returns to England, the picture where Edward the Confessor receives him almost looks as if the king is rebuking him—but then pictures like these are hard to use as conclusive evidence. Perhaps Edward did not want Harold to make that oath (whatever the oath was), or perhaps there is some other explanation for Harold’s obsequious posture and King Edward’s admonishing finger.

"Harold returns to Edward the King"


The seven sources we have examined thus far can all be somewhat harmonized. Perhaps the English sources simply omitted Harold’s voyage to Normandy. Perhaps the Norman version of Edward sending Harold to Normandy is correct. They do leave us with one serious gap in knowledge, however. What caused Edward the Confessor to change his mind? Why would he acknowledge William as his heir and then change the plan of succession on his deathbed to Harold?

Tomorrow we will look at more sources, histories written several decades after the event, that throw even more elements of mystery into the mix, showing that there is more than one way to tell the story of how the Norman Conquest came about….



Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.

You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.