Monday, July 30, 2012

Two Men, One Crown

by Paula Lofting

On a cold January day in 1066, King Edward lay dying in his chamber, surrounded by his closest advisors, Earl Harold, his kinsman, Robert FitzWymarch and Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury. His dutiful wife, Edith Godwinsdottor sat at the bottom of his bed, warming his feet as was her wont throughout most of their married life.  They were waiting with baited breath, as those who were gathered in the Great Hall of the palace of Westminster no doubt were, to hear who their dying sovereign would finally appoint as his successor. They had been waiting for many years for Edward to confer upon them who he would nominate. He had been dangling the crown in front of various faces for roughly 16 years, first Swein of Denmark, although he was no relation to Edward but a nephew of Cnut, then William of Normandy, perhaps his favourite Tostig, and also his great nephew Edgar, the last of surviving line of Edmund Ironside, the only one amongst them who was ever referred to as the Atheling.  Edward, it seemed, had a penchant for using his need for an heir in order to gain men’s support.

By the time his uncle was laying close to death in his newly built palace next to his life’s work, the new minster of St Peter, Edgar was still only a young lad of roughly 14 or 15, not too young to wear a crown, however he was not heavily supported by any earldoms or lands and lacked the leadership experience one would have looked for in a potential king. He may have been undergoing some military and administrative grooming perhaps, being educated at court with his mother Agatha and two sisters, Christina and Margaret, but his vulnerability and lack of resources would not have made him a favourable choice from the nobles’ point of view. He had the best claim through lineage but most likely it wasn’t enough for Edgar to secure their support.

Seeing that there were others hoping to gain the crown for themselves, men like William of Normandy and Harald Hardrada, it stands to reason that the English would have preferred a strong man like Earl Harold Godwinson of Wessex to lead them against these enemies. To most of the English, Harold was the man. Harold was crowned with unseeming haste, the next day in Westminster. Looks likely that the Witan had already decided that he would take the crown, Edward’s permission had just been a formality, it would appear, for in those times, in the days of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’* the king’s nominee would have to be approved by the Witan. Kings in pre-Conquest England were elected, in theory.

Across the Channel in the old Viking enclave of Normandy, William was told of the news that Harold had ‘usurped’ his throne when he was out hunting. He was said to have gone stony cold and remained silent for some time before he would speak again. When he did speak again he was to rage that Harold had promised to support his claim to the crown that Edward had offered to him years ago during a visit to England in the early 1050’s. How dare he betray his lord and ‘King’ in this way, breaking the oath that he had sworn to him in Normandy when the Duke had saved him from Guy de Ponthieu dungeons and treated him as an honoured guest in his palace with all the luxuries befitting a great noble. William was not a man to dismiss such a crime against his person. William plotted his retaliation. A full scale invasion to retrieve what was his was the only option. Harold Godwinson was a liar and an oathbreaker, a stealer of crowns. William vowed that he would wrest the crown from the usurper. He called a council and according to Poitiers there was a great debate as to whether or not an invasion was viable, given the extraordinary lengths to which he would have to go to organise such a feat. Boats would have to be built, bought or commandeered; horses gathered, men conscripted and trained; provisions stocked and plans agreed amongst the commanders of such an undertaking. Then there was the task of auctioning such a plan, waiting for a good wind for the ships to sail, the cost and practicalities of keeping a large force fed and content to sit the wait out. Would the men whose skills and support he was trying to harness be willing to risk their lives, their fortunes and their equipment for an expedition that might not work? What if it didn’t? There were many things that could go wrong. The boats might be wrecked in a storm. There might be a landing party waiting for them when they arrived, to slaughter them. What if they were defeated in some great battle, taken as prisoner and blinded as Harold’s father had done so to Prince Alfred, King Edward’s younger brother. There must have been many doubtful men attending the council that day. Still they agreed to follow him, landless knights, the youngest sons of fathers whose wealth might only extend to the first sons, lured by promises of land and wealth. William was going to conquer a far greater land than their little corner of France. There would be plenty for all those who would follow him and fight loyally by his side. Of course there would be those who already had their own baronies. Guy of Ponthieu, Odo, his brother, with the wealth of Bayeux, William Fitz Osborne, his closest advisor and a younger brother Robert, Count of Mortain and many more, their hearts full of desire for more wealth to add to their own. English lands, lush and prosperous, yielding a good and relatively safe living, away from the threats of the French King and the Angevins and the Bretons who closed in on them like vices, squeezing them inwards. And William, it was said, was received by the Pope and endowed with blessings and a Papal Banner. Divine right was on his side. What more could they ask for than approval from God’s advocate on earth? That’s if the story of him receiving a papal banner and the Pope’s approval was indeed true. Later the Pope would bestow penance upon those who fought at Hastings so maybe the approval came later when the Pope received Harold’s personal banner of the fighting man. There are some differing opinions on this.

And so, it began, William’s preparations for the invasion of England. If we study the scenes in the Bayeux Tapestry, we will see that ships were built, weapons honed and armour made for those who were to accompany him on his mission to win the crown, rightfully his, that the man he had once thought his friend had stolen from him.

The Rivals: Career

Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and then King of England for only 10 months, was born the second son of Godwin Wulfnothson and his wife Gytha, a woman of noble Scandinavian blood. Godwin, as recent research has turned up, was able to trace his ancestry back to the earlier Kings of Wessex. Contemporary sources have not mentioned this fact and so there may be some doubt about it, however, it seems quite plausible given the evidence. In 1042, Harold and his older brother, the somewhat rebellious Swegn were given earldoms; Swegn was endowed with lands in the West Country and Harold was given charge of East Anglia. In 1051, the whole family was exiled and their sister Queen Edith put into a nunnery.  Within a year they forcibly restored themselves to their former glories. Swegn died in 1052 after a long career of insubordinate behaviour, abducting an Abbess and holding her hostage for a year, murdering his cousin Beorn and accusing his own mother of adultery with Cnut by stating that he was not the son of Godwin, but of the Danish King himself. Harold was thus able to take his place as head of the family when a short while later, Godwin also died, leaving him to step into his father’s shoes in Wessex. This was not necessarily an inherited accession but for practical reasons, these offices often went to the son of the predecessor. By 1058, his younger brothers Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwine were also Earls, making the Godwinsons the most powerful family in England with collective wealth that rivalled the King. In 1062/3, Harold’s actions in Wales brought him military success when the troublesome Welsh leader Gruffydd ap Llewelyn was murdered by his own men and his head brought to him. Harold’s actions had brought the beleaguered Marcher settlements some peace with the death of their greatest enemy, the man the Welsh revered as the Shield of the Britons. In 1064, Harold decides to make a journey to Normandy to seek the release of his kinsmen who had been held as hostages at Duke William’s court for some years. It is not entirely clear how or why the boys went to Normandy, but it is thought that Edward had agreed to them being sent there as a way of controlling Godwin’s behaviour in the years before Godwin’s death. For William, they were his surety, a down payment for the promised Kingdom. By going to Normandy to seek their release, Harold was about to play into William’s hands. Things did not quite go to plan for Harold. He returned with only one of the boys, Hakon, Swegn’s son, Wulfnoth remained, probably to be released when William was King. Harold also returned having being coerced to pledge an oath to support William upon Edward’s death, swearing on holy relics. Did he mean to do this? Many think not. He was simply put in a dangerous position by William who knew that he could not let him go without first vowing his allegiance to him. For Harold, this was probably his only way of going home.

Harold’s career ended with his life on the bloody field of Senlac, butchered by William’s henchmen and possibly even William himself. He was most likely not shot with an arrow in the eye as the BT shows, but what we do know is that he was cut down toward the end of the battle after the Normans had broken through the English shieldwall. He and those that died with him, lost their lives, courageously fighting for their lands and the right to choose their own King.

Duke William of Normandy’s career started when he was around 7 years old. His father was Duke Robert 1 of Normandy and his mother was a low born woman called Herleve, probably from a family who served in the Duke’s household. Being born out of wedlock didn’t necessarily mean that he was initially out of the running for the heirdom of Normandy, for previous dukes had also been illegitimate. In around 1034, Robert made all his followers swear fealty to his son before he left on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from which he never returned, dying on the way back in Nicea. Upon his father’s death, William was thrust into a cutthroat world of a military society where it was ‘dog eat dog’ attitude, not exactly a safe world for a 7 year old boy. Luckily for William, he was given support from his great uncle Robert, Archbishop of Rouen and the King of France, Henry I. Without their support I am sure that William would have encountered problems from relatives also in the descent from the earliest ruler Rollo. However in 1037, the death of his great uncle was to plunge Normandy into anarchy which would last until around 1054. During those years, the young William was given into custody of various guardians who protected him from those trying to gain control over him. Many of those guardians were killed including one who was slain whilst the young adolescent Duke slept in his chamber. His maternal uncle, Walter was supposed to have hidden William in peasant homes to keep him safe. Such a traumatic upbringing would have fashioned William into the man he was to become. One can imagine him vowing to himself that he would never forgive treachery lightly....And he didn’t.

Henry continued to support him and fought with him in his victorious campaign in 1046/7 when they returned triumphant from the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes. However, this was not indeed the end of his troubles and more wars ensued as William struggled to contain his nobles, with continuing crises tapering off until 1060. During this time William fell out with Henry who began to side with William’s enemies. William was struggling to fight pockets of rebellious barons within the Duchy, now, his one time friend and supporter had turned upon him and William found himself facing threats from Geoffrey Martel of Anjou also. It is hard to think of William as being anything but an extraordinary man who survived the worst kind of intimidation on all fronts. In 1057, Geoffrey and Henry led their forces against William when they tried to invade the duchy and were defeated by the Norman forces at Varaville. That was the last time William would have to fight off an invasion of Normandy in his lifetime. By 1060, the deaths of Henry and Martell was to see him stabilised in his duchy and at last William could think about Project England.

In 1064, a chance visit from Harold to Normandy gave William the opportunity to seal a deal with the man who he was sure would be his numero uno man  upon his ascent to the throne. He coerced Harold into allowing himself to be knighted which was a very clever move because as such, Harold, Duke of Wessex was now his vassal. William might have had some nerve doing this, for Harold was his equal, not someone he could make his vassal, but it was a very astute manoeuvre and Harold was now in a difficult position.

In 1066, William was to embark on a mission that would settle things for once and all. The Battle of Hastings victory over the English meant that the Normans were now running England.

This work is in conjunction with research I have done for my novel Sons of the Wolf which can be found here

If readers would like to know more about this very intriguing and exciting period in English history, visit my blogs at and


  1. i just need to correct those links if I may

    Thank you Debbie for this wonderful opportunity

  2. I loved this post. If I could speak to any one person, dead or alive, it would be William. I have such a love for this period in time.


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