Thursday, November 29, 2012

Christmas 1065

by Carol McGrath

Christmas 1065 was one of the most significant Christmases in England's history. Thanes and their families, bishops and two Archbishops gathered in Westminster for the king's Christmas feast and for the consecration of newly built Cathedral Church of St Peter (Westminster), close to the king's palace on Thorny Island. However, during the twelve days of Christmas the childless King Edward died thus setting in motion a not unexpected succession crisis.

The day after King Edward's death Harold Godwin was crowned king thus leading to invasions of England from two usurped contenders, William of Normandy and Harold Harthrada of Norway. The story of that Christmas is recorded in both Norman and English writing from the period. William of Poitiers, a Norman historian, refers to Harold Godwin as 'a mad Englishman who seized the throne of England while his people were in mourning for Edward the Confessor.' This is, of course, opinionated. Such comments as that of Poitiers is part of the Norman perceived justification for the invasion of England. Whilst Historians may not invent incidents they do not necessarily tell the truth but rather a version of it.

images of King Edward

Yet the story of King Edward's death varies little within the main contemporary sources. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains a poem that speaks of the dying king's visions. He envisioned a green tree, with the prophesy that within a year and a day of his death God would punish the kingdom for its sins by delivering it into the hands of its enemy, that devils would go through the land with fire and sword and the chaos of war. The vision is repeated in another contemporary source, The Vita Edwardii, commissioned by the royal widow, Queen Edith. 

The ecconiast reports Edward's last words to those around him. The king said to Edith, his wife and Harold's sister, 'May God be gracious to this wife for the zealous solicitude of her service; for certainly she has served me devotedly and always stood by my side like a loving daughter.' He commended her into Harold's protection and also commended to Harold all his servants. It is not a straightforward nomination by Edward of Harold as his heir because it really concerns his direct court of Edith and those close to the king.

Westminster Abbey

The Bayeux Tapestry seems to illustrate the Vita's text. In the presence of  an Archbishop, a second man helps the king to sit up in bed and a woman is weeping at his feet. Edward appears to stretch out his right hand so as to touch a third man's right hand. Fingers are fully extended but only the tips of the fingers are in contact. They do not clasp hands.  The meaning is ambiguous. However, at that time, a dying king's wish was sacrosanct.

This is the first central scene in a long view. The second is Harold's coronation.

The death of King Edward is the pivotal scene in the Tapestry. In the eleventh century artists, historians and writers used  older traditions to tell events. The poetically beautiful Song of the Battle of Hastings 1068, written for Queen Matilda's coronation, harks back to Carolingian praise poetry. William of Poitiers is deeply influenced by classical literature and depicts Duke William as a latter-day Julius Caesar. The visual context for the Bayeux Tapestry existed somewhere between liturgical drama of the eleventh century performed in minsters and vernacular plays of the twelfth century performed at court.

Eleventh century religious plays contained a strong sense of procession. At various points in the drama static scenes occurred in open places in the church, by altars and sepulchres. Often a two-tiered structure was used to bring the story alive.

Plays were like informative picture books. They were layered with symbolism. For instance the actors were able to show visually the medieval notions of hierarchy. The actors used hand gestures and facial expressions to relay emotion and the story's progress. There would have been a narrator.

The two-tiered structure also provided symbolic opportunity. In the earthly space below an angel or a devil might wander out amongst the audience. Often the notion of paradise was portrayed above this earthly space. In the Tapestry, in a procession, the events of 1065-6 also move through staged pieces. The influence of drama is clear and it is not impossible that it actually initially accompanied performance of some of its scenes. King Edward's death is a pertinent example. The two storey structure of Edward's death scene shows figures on the upper level cropped at the waist. King Edward is about to ascend into heavenly paradise. Below is associated with more earthly activity.

Even in this depiction the devil is to the viewer's right
In performance art of the period Heaven appears on the viewer's left and Hell to the viewer's right which can also indicate Christ's sinister side. Take now the long view of Edward's death scene. To the left Edward is enthroned in his palace where Harold is addressing him. Edward looks displeased. The long view is completed with Harold enthroned over ghost ships. This is to the right of the central scenes concerning Edward's death and Harold's coronation. The funeral procession is also interestingly to the left of the death itself. This too can be interpreted symbolically. Seen this way, Edward is placed in the privileged position but it is the folly of Harold's claim and his illegal coronation that the viewer sees to the right.  The central scenes correspond to the acting space of a two-tiered stage depicting symbolically and in fact King Edward's death and Harold's coronation.

Harold's Crowning and next right shows the ghostly ships
Facial expressions and hand gestures guide the viewer through the drama of the Tapestry as do props for a play with doors, steps and gateways of buildings, palaces, castles and a cathedral providing portals, entrances and exits from one vignette into the next. This is not unique to this event but follows on throughout the tapestry. The Latin inscriptions correspond to the Norman French words and could even be prompts spoken by a scene's narrator.

The most interesting narratives concerning the events of Christmas 1065 are to be discovered in the exquisite language of the poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the thrilling beautiful Song of Hastings, the pompous account of William of Poitiers and most of all in the dramatic depiction of King Edward's death on the Bayeux Tapestry. Yet all these accounts contrive to help the fiction writer recreate the atmosphere of King Edward's death during the days of Christmas 1065-66.

The next scene in the long view closes it. Note the ships below.
 Carol McGrath

The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath, will be published by Accent Press in 2013. This is the story of King Harold's wife, Edith Swanneck.


  1. An interesting and informative discussion, Carol. Thank you for it.

  2. I loved learning about these cultural practices that are full of so much meaning!

  3. Carol, thank you for a wonderful glimpse at this tumultuous time in England's history. Can you recommend a good book on the Bayeux Tapestry? I'd love to know of one you consider worthy.


  4. A good book on the Tapestry is The Bayeux Tapestry New Approaches edited by Michael j. Lewis, Gale R.Owen Crocker and Dan Terkla. It is produced by the British Museum. I went to the conference that this came out of. Otherwise look at Andrew Bridgeford 1066 The Hidden Secrets of the Bayeux Tapestry. It is a paperback and very inspiring. It threads through the novel I wrote that will be published in 2013. The Handfasted Wife. Carol McGrath.

  5. This is fascinating, Carol. I hadn't thought about each panel of the Tapestry as different layers of the story but this makes good sense. I found your analogy with performance a real insight. And just think, graphic novels are popular today.

    It raises the question, what was the Tapestry for and who was it for?

    Love the picture of the bishop and the devil by the way.

    Martin Lake

  6. I think it may have been for Odo and I think it was designed in Canterbury and made in several places including Wilton. I think it may have been accompanied by oral performance or a narrator.

  7. Hard to imagine what happened in this time of history. The meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry is very interesting. Thank you for the blog.


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