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 Jumièges, 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 Jumièges. 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.


  1. I'm reading about the Norman Conquest in one of my classes. I'd like to useyour precious materials and interesting discussion. When's second instalment out?

  2. Excellent examination of the sources Rosanne. I am hoping that the next installment will include Eadmer's account which appears to match the Bayeux Tapestry!As oyu know this is a particular interest of mine!

    Many Thanks

    1. Yes, Eadmer will get a paragraph in tomorrow's post. Cheers! :-)

  3. Very interesting. I believed that arold was ship-wrecked in Normandy and was obliged to swear an oath after William rescued/sheltered him but presumably that isn't so. Two questions I have, what motive might Edward have for giving the crown to William and would this have been a 'reasonable' or acceptable thing for him to do. Obviously our modern concept of the relationship between king and nation is very different from that in 1066, but one wonders whether peopple like Godwin, never mind the rest of the nobles would have just accepted William even had Edward made his wishes explicit.

    1. Why would Edward give the crown to William? Great question! Maybe that should be the topic of my blog post for next month....

      Edward was actually related to William. Edward's mother, Emma of Normandy, was the sister of William's...grandfather (??, I would need to locate the genealogy to make sure that's the right relationship). Also, when the Danish king Cnut took over England during the early years of Edward's life, Edward spent a good deal of time in exile (mainly in Normandy). He may have developed an affinity for his mother's Norman culture and even known his distant relative William as a small boy.

      I'm not entirely sure which methods of king-choosing were acceptable ones. We know that Anglo-Saxon kings named their successors--trouble is, they were almost always their eldest son, so would the selection have been contested if it was someone else? We know that the Witan (the council of nobles) also confirmed/chose the heir to the throne, but I haven't seen any situation where they confirmed/chose someone other than the man who was the king's choice. Does anyone know whether this anomaly ever occurred?

      The Anglo-Saxon period of having a high king over all of England was actually a fairly brief period in history. Alfred (r. 871-899) is considered by many as the first king of all England. (Before that there were seven separate kingdoms.) His line continued until Aethelred the Unready. Aethelred's reign ended in 1016 when the Danish king Cnut seized the throne. Cnut and his son Harold Harefoot held the throne from 1016-1040, at which point the throne transferred to Edward the Confessor. So we don't have an extremely long period to examine what was "usual" in the succession of the high kingship of England. And a further complication was the Danish invasion which occurred right before Edward the Confessor's reign, disrupting what was "normal."

  4. I'm going to contest your starting thesis in that I'm not sure that many historians do draw conclusions which they present as incontrovertible unless of course they are on TV in which case they nearly always do! It's pretty bad practice to do so anyway.
    On this specific issue - which is one I looked at in some depth a while ago [though not the 11th century!] - I've always taken the view that the evidence is pretty ambiguous on the oath but clear that Edward did promise William the throne.
    It seems to me that the arguments over the oath quickly become irrelevant. Once Harold became king he didn't care much either way. His task was clear: he had to defend England against Harald Hardrada in any case. Having done so he must have thought he had a pretty good chance against William.
    For his part William would have invaded whether Harold had sworn an oath or not as he believed he was Edward's heir. The reality of the period is that might is right and the legal justifications can be tidied up afterwards. I'm sure both Harold and William would have assumed this.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Derek! I agree with you, that the best historians will "show their work" when they are coming to a conclusion, and also offer dissenting opinions. I'm coming from a high school teaching background where history books are of a more "popular history" nature, and historians simply feel free to dictate the way things were.

      I would disagree with you that it is clear Edward promised William the throne. I won't spoil tomorrow's follow-up post, but William of Malmesbury has an interesting theory that shows how the English silence on the oath and the Norman hubbub can be reconciled...without Edward having sent Harold. I think William would have invaded whether or not Edward named his as heir, because that's the kind of person he was! Greedy, acquisitive, etc.

      People frequently cite the "might makes right" axiom about this period, but is that really any different than the way things work today? In any case, the historians portray both William and Harold as remarkably concerned to justify their actions. William has the oath to back him up, ==. When taking the crown, Harold has the reasons the oath is invalid, plus the fact that Edward and the Witan named him heir.... But more on that tomorrow. :-)

    2. I knew Edward spent some time in Normandy, but not that he was related to William. Perhaps he saw William as better able to protect England from the Danes.
      I suspect that my view that if we must have a monarch then they should be a figurehead of the nation, is both quaint and rather modern. My chief objection to William as the English monarch is that he was not English, which is a bit silly when I recall that we had actually chose a Scot in James I, a Hollander in William III, and a Hanoverian German in George I, over English bred candidates.

      What might have happened had William failed is part of the background history to my novel Acts of the Servant.

    3. Ah! A true "alternate history". Sounds very interesting!

    4. Personally, had i lived then, I would have preferred someone who spoke my language ruling over me, without the intervention of interpreters. I would have preferred someonewho knew what it was to live in the land where I lived, would be able to understand the ways and customs of my people, knew its laws and would implement them in the manner that we were accustomed too. Harold was da man!

  5. I have been fascinated by the story of the Norman conquest since reading Georgette Heyer's THE CONQUEROR many years ago. Viewing the Bayeux Tapestry increased my curiosity. (My husband and his buddy who went with me loved it-it was a war cartoon to them, and they were fascinated.) I can't wait to read the next installment!

    1. Thanks, Lauren! I know, this period is such great fun, isn't it? :-)

  6. Interesting post. As authors, we must always consider many sources of history.

  7. There is something equally strange. One person had the best claim to the Kingship, the grandson of Edmund Ironside and, therefore, of the blood line of Alfred the Great. Edgar was named Aetheling, (throne-worthy) by his great-uncle Edward several years before 1066. Because of his youth he was passed over and the throne given to Harold. However, Edgar was proclaimed King by the Witan shortly after the Battle of Hastings. Of royal blood, favoured by the old King and proclaimed by the Witan, Edgar was clearly the last native King of England. He was erased from the histories. Check my series of novels, The Lost King: Resistance and Wasteland if you want to know about the rest of his amazing life. Martin Lake

    1. Thanks for the extra info, Martin! Edgar is an interesting character, traveling very widely after losing the kingdom of England and making friends and enemies all over Europe. He runs into the First Crusaders while he is in the Middle East (although the time and place is disputed), and I'm still trying to decide whether I should write him in as a minor character in my First Crusade trilogy, the Chronicles of Tancred. :-)

  8. It is still the case that pre conquest kings are ignored when it comes to regnal numbers. There were no less than three English kings named Edward prior to 1066.

    1. Yes, that is one curious quirk about English history. Do you think it is because historians don't see pre-Conquest England as being the same national entity, almost a different country entirely than post-Conquest England?

  9. I don't think the historians had much of a say in it. Edward I (17 June 1239 – 7 July 1307)(yes, I wikied that) wasn't so long after 1066 and I suspect they just chose to ignore anything pre conquest and treat 1066 as a sort of 'year zero'.
    Wiki, again. (I do do proper research for writing, but wiki is easy to find!)
    "It is common to start counting either since the beginning of the monarchy, or since the beginning of a particular line of dynastic succession. For example, Boris III of Bulgaria and his son Simeon II were given their regnal numbers because the medieval rulers of the First and Second Bulgarian Empire were counted as well even if the Saxe-Coburg dynasty dated only back to 1887 and were only distantly related to the previous monarchies.[citation needed] On the other hand, the kings of England were counted starting with the Norman Conquest. That is why the son of Henry III of England is counted as Edward I even if there were three Edwards before the Conquest."
    I would assume that the Norman Conquest was a dynastic change of a different order from those that happened later and so regnal numbers started afresh (albeit, the Saxon kings seem not to have used regnals at all but added an epithet( which I ought to do in my novel, now I think of it!).) Had we started new regnal numbers with every dynastic line then British history would be even more confusing than it is.
    That said, if there was a campaign to acknowledge the Saxon kings in the regnal numbers I'd support it, but there seems to be no such thing. Perhaps it's just me still bearing the Norman Yoke.

  10. Roseanne, thanks for the great post!

    My favorite historical romance on this subject is PRINCESS OF FIRE by Shannon Drake (aka Heather Graham), She takes the position that Harold did go to Normandy and was captured and "rescued" by William, only to be forced to give his oath to be allowed to return to England. She also has Edward giving Harold the throne at his death when Harold didn't seek it. And it was very believable. A superb romance and one of my top 10 favorites.

    1. Sounds like a great book! I'll have to look out for it.

  11. Frank Barlow and other historians did promulgate the evidence that The Godwinsons were able to trace their geneology back to Alfred's father Aethelwulf. They dont seem to have been aware but it could be that Harold was as much entiteld to the crown as Edgar

    1. Interesting! Yes, it doesn't seem like that claim is ever made by Harold or any of the historians. I wonder why not?

  12. Hi Rosanne,

    I've just published a new ebook translation of the Carmen which may be of interest: The Carmen and the Conquest
    . It confirms the account you give here of Harold's oath, but adds that Harold himself had assented to William's succession and had delivered a ring and sword as agent of Edward in 1064. It also suggests through calling Harold "adulterer" that he was engaged or married to William's young daughter Agatha in Normandy in 1064 and betrayed her by marrying Edith in 1066. Normans often married their daughters young, keeping them at home until old enough to join their husbands.

    Perhaps most important, my research on the Carmen shows Hastings and Pevensey as causus belli rather than landscape features. Both ports had been held by French clerics for more than 250 years until seized by Godwin as part of his anti-Norman ethnic cleansing. Pevensey was taken in 1042 and Hastings seized in 1052. As long as William remained Edward's successor, the French clerics could look forward to having their ports back. When Harold takes the crown in 1066, the Pope aligns with William to invade England and take back the ports by force.

    Nice blog! Kathleen


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