Monday, January 21, 2013

The Alternate Histories of the Norman Conquest, Part 2

By Rosanne E. Lortz

Yesterday we considered seven different primary sources relating to the Norman Conquest, trying to discover the true story of what happened with the English succession. Three Anglo-Saxon sources told us that Edward the Confessor, on his deathbed, gave the crown to Harold, but they made no mention of Harold taking an earlier trip to Normandy to pledge the crown to William. Four Norman sources placed great emphasis on this trip and on Harold’s oath, although some of them, like the Bayeux Tapestry, were not clear on what the actual terms of the oath were.

Today we will consider some sources written a little bit after the fact—fifty to a hundred years after the Norman Conquest. 


William of Jumièges’ work, one of the Norman sources that we looked at yesterday, was revised in the early twelfth century by Orderic Vitalis. In the passage discussing Harold’s trip to Normandy, Orderic Vitalis adds these interesting details: (1) After Harold swore fealty to William, William “promised he would give him his daughter Adeliza with half the kingdom of England,” and (2) after these transactions, William sent Harold “back to the king with many gifts but kept as hostage his handsome brother Wulfnoth.”

These additions by Orderic Vitalis indicate that the oath Harold swore was more of a treaty, an agreement between two men, each who had something to gain. In exchange for Harold’s support, William would make Harold his Number Two Man, and he would seal the deal with his daughter’s hand. William keeping Harold’s brother Wulfnoth as a hostage was a standard way for lords of this time to guarantee a treaty.

These additions also make us question: where did Orderic Vitalis get his information? The detail of the daughter is not mentioned in any of the earliest sources. How did Orderic come by this evidence? And how much weight should be given to these sources that were written a generation or two after the fact? Are they less reliable? More?


Like Orderic Vitalis’ additions, the rest of the sources telling us about the Norman Conquest come late to the game. In the Historia Novorum in Anglia, penned sometime between 1095 and 1123, Eadmer wrote that Harold intended to see William on his journey, but for the purpose of retrieving hostages, not to swear an oath. Significantly, Eadmer says that Harold did swear an oath to William, but he did so under compulsion. 

Another writer, Wace, wrote his Roman de Rou in the first half of Henry II’s reign (1155-1170). He includes a fantastic story of Harold swearing an oath to Duke William, then being surprised to discover that William had hidden relics below his hands, which made the oath sacred and inviolable. This story is often repeated in history books, although the earliest sources have no mention of such a dramatic surprise. 


The last source for this discussion is, in my opinion, the most interesting of them all. William of Malmesbury wrote the Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings) around 1120. He had a Norman father and an English mother and spent his whole life in England. To the degree that it is possible for a historian to be without national bias, William of Malmesbury seems to be.

His explanation of why Harold took that fateful voyage to Normandy is a unique one.
Some say that Harold himself was sent to Normandy for this purpose by the king; others, more familiar with his secret intentions, maintain that he was driven there against his will by the violence of the wind, and to protect himself invented a story which, since it looks very close to the truth, I will now tell. Harold had gone to an estate of his at Bosham, and there, by way of pastime, he boarded a fishing-boat and for a time, pressing his entertainment rather far, proceeded out to sea; but a storm blew up suddenly from the wrong quarter, and he and his companions were driven to the country of Ponthieu. The men of that country, as is their national habit, flocked together suddenly from all directions, and the party, being few and unarmed, were easily overwhelmed by a larger force of armed men; their hands were bound and feet shackled. Harold, pondering with all his ingenuity how to mend the situation, suborned a man with large promises and sent him to William. He had been sent to Normandy by the king, he said, as the best man to confirm by his presence the message haltingly conveyed to lesser envoys; he was being held in chains by Guy count of Ponthieu, to prevent him carrying out his mission. So Harold was freed on William’s orders, and taken personally to Normandy by Guy.
According to William of Malmesbury, Edward the Confessor did not send Harold to promise the crown to William. But when Harold ended up in a tight pinch, captured by Guy of Ponthieu, he invented that story to save himself from duress. If this version of events is true, it would make sense why the English sources record no such embassy and why the Norman sources are adamant that Edward sent Harold. 

William of Malmesbury’s version of Edward’s deathbed bequeathal conflicts slightly with the early English sources:
When king Edward died, England, fluctuating with doubtful favour, was uncertain to which ruler she should commit herself; to Harold, William, or Edgar [the young grandson of Edward’s half-brother]; for the king had recommended him also to the nobility, as nearest to the sovereignty in point of birth; concealing his better judgment from the tenderness of his disposition.
Here it seems as if the dying Edward offered no clear choice of successor, and perhaps even leaned toward preferring Edgar who was closest to him in blood.

William of Malmesbury goes on to relate what happened after Edward’s death:
…Harold, once crowned, did not spare a thought for the agreement between himself and William, declaring himself released from his oath because William’s daughter, to whom he had been betrothed, had died before she was old enough to marry…. [Harold] added with regard to the kingdom that it had been presumptuous to promise on oath a succession that was not his, without the general assembly and decision of his council and his folk; and so a foolish oath deserved to be broken. If an oath or vow disposing of her hand taken voluntarily by a maiden in her father’s house without her parents’ knowledge is held to be null and void, how much less weight should be given to the oath by which he had disposed the kingdom, while under the king’s authority, without the knowledge of all England and compelled by circumstances! It was moreover unfair to demand that he should resign the authority conferred upon him with such popular support; this would be unwelcome to his countrymen and perilous for his knights.
Once again, we see the promised marriage alliance that showed up in Orderic Vitalis’ interpolations. Here, however, Harold claims that William’s daughter has died before the marriage could take place, thus terminating the treaty and freeing him from any obligation to William. He also argues that the oath was under compulsion, and that he had promised something that did not actually belong to him. If Edward did not actually send Harold, then how could an earl pledge away the crown of England? And if the Witan was responsible for electing the next king, then how could Harold force them to give the crown to William?


So, what really happened? There are a couple things that we can say with a fair amount of certainty. Harold probably did go on a voyage to Normandy and probably did swear some kind of oath to William. Conspiracy theories aside, Edward probably did bequeath the crown to Harold upon his deathbed. Other matters are very much open for debate. Did Edward send Harold to Normandy? What were the terms of the oath? Was it under compulsion? Was a marriage alliance mentioned? Did William’s daughter die, thus terminating the agreement?

All of these questions are questions still. But of two things I am more than certain—with an issue this complex, a historical novelist may take whatever version of the story she chooses and craft a brilliant novel; and conversely, with so many tangled strands of evidence, no modern historian should give just one version of events and then leave his readers believing that his story is the Gospel truth.


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 blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The majority of these sources and many of these questions were introduced to me in a class I took from Professor Christopher Schlect at New St. Andrews College back in my college days. 


  1. Thanks for your 2 part blog post on this topic Roseanne. I really enjoyed reading all the sources and the differing evidence. As with all history, until they invent the time machine, we will never know the truth of it. All we can do is interpret the evidence in whatever way seems believable. I know what I think, but it is my own fancy that Harold went there with an express purpose, the Bayeux introduction seems to indicate that there was an exchange of something between Edward and Harold relating to the consequent events, therefore I think it highly unlikely he went fishing and got caught in the Norman duke's net. Get caught it seems he indeed did, but not in the way Malmesbury relates.
    Once again, superb post.

    1. Thanks, Paula! I enjoyed reading your blog series on the Bayeux Tapestry. As you say, the best thing to do is to interpret the evidence in whatever way seems believable--which is what makes me so interested in the William of Malmesbury source, because he's trying to do just that. He's trying to reconcile the English denial of the visit with the Norman assertion of it in a way that seems plausible, and though he might have it wrong, I think his attempt is quite credible. :-)

  2. It occurs to me that there are similarities between modern day conspiracy theorists and historical fiction writers.

    The storm does seem peculiar since my relatively primitive knowledge of weather tells me that for a storm to drive a boat from Bosham (nr Chichester) England to Ponthieu (Picardy) the wind would have to be at least WNW.
    Here's the wiki version "Norman conquest of England

    Harold Godwinson of England was shipwrecked at Ponthieu, in 1064 and taken captive by Guy I (or Wido according to the Bayeux Tapestry), the then Count of Ponthieu.[3] It is alleged that William (Duke of Normandy, later William I of England), discovering that Harold had been taken captive, sent messengers ordering Count Guy to hand over his prisoner.[3] William then forced Harold to swear to support his claim to the throne, only revealing after the event that the box on which Harold had made his oath contained holy relics, making the promise especially binding", which clearly demonstrates that I really ought not to use wiki quite so much!

    1. Yes, I think HF authors often like to choose the route most laden with conspiracy--makes for a better plot.

      Interesting comments about the storm. My own knowledge of weather in the English Channel is completely nonexistent, so it's helpful to hear from someone who knows more about that.

      And yes, Wikipedia does have a tendency to steer one down a certain path.... :-)

    2. My knowledge of weather in the channel is also poor, but I do know that the prevailing winds are from the SW. Obviously, the ships of that time were not great at sailing and tended to go were the wind blew, or if the wind was infavourable, they rowed.
      I have storm in my novel but it's William's invasion fleet that gets wrecked.

  3. This is fascinating, and not only (from my point of view) because Wace will appear as a character in a novel I am writing. I especially like your conclusion. Part of the attraction of such characters (I think equally of Cassius Dio here) is that I can sense them looking at the past very much in the way that I as a novelist look at it. Perhaps they are trying to get at the truth, perhaps they are trying to please their patrons, but above all they are concerned to tell a great story. They made free with the stories they inherited (Wace's Roman de Brut even more so than the Roman de Rou), so I feel equally free to use theirs.

    1. Yes, the medieval chroniclers were definitely interested in telling a good story. Have you read King Harald's Saga (about Harald Hardrada) by Snorri Sturluson? It was written about 170 years after the conquest, and that thing is a dramatic goldmine. It has a good story about how Harold and Duke William's wife Matilda used to sit up all night talking (while Harold was on his trip to Normandy), and Duke William was getting suspicious about what was going on between them. So they decided to tell him that what they had been talking about was a marriage alliance between Harold and William's daughter.

    2. Now, wouldn't it be fun if the whole conquest of England happened because Harold couldn't keep his trousers on.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.