Monday, February 3, 2020

The Man Who Broke King Harold

by Helen Johnson

The invasion, occupation and conquest of England by William of Normandy's troops in the 1060s created trauma that echoes through the centuries.

Famously, the Conquest began at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when King Harold of England was killed.  But Normandy was a small duchy.  England was one of the wealthiest and best organised countries in Europe.  How could Duke William beat king Harold?

I believe that Harold was broken before he ever faced William - broken by his own brother, Tostig.

Tostig and Harold's father was Godwin, Earl of Wessex, who married King Cnut's kinswoman, Gytha.  In 1042, Cnut's succession failed and Edward, son of defeated King Aethelred 'the Unready', was invited to return from exile in Normandy.

Tostig's king and brother-in-law, King Edward the Confessor,
depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. Image Credit

Under Edward, Earl Godwin rose to power.  His sons gained earldoms, and he married his daughter, Edith, to the King.

Tostig's sister Edith of Wessex,
wife of King Edward Image credit
The 'The Life of King Edward', written not long after the Conquest, describes two of Godwin's six sons, Tostig and Harold.  Both, we are told, were 'handsome and graceful persons.'  They were similarly 'strong' and 'brave'.

Harold was practiced in 'endless fatigues'.  He was mild tempered and 'of ready understanding'.  He 'could bear contradiction well'....'not readily... retaliating.'  If he thought someone loyal, he would share his plans.

It's a portrait of a self-controlled, thoughtful man, prepared to communicate and to listen to others.

Tostig, by comparison, 'occasionally was a little over-zealous in attacking evil.'  He was of 'bold and inflexible constancy of mind.'   He would 'ponder much and by himself the plans in his mind'.... 'In his word, deed or promise he was distinguished by adamantine steadfastness.'

And, in a comment that possibly tells us more about other men than of Tostig, 'He renounced desire for all women except his wife...'

Tostig's portrait is of a secretive, stubborn man, who might sometimes break into extreme behaviour.

However, Tostig was admired for his military prowess and firmness of mind, and became a  trusted servant of the King.

In 1051, King Edward's brother-in-law, Eustace of Boulogne, visited Dover. Unfortunately, his men ran amok. Townsfolk resisted, and around forty people were killed.

King Edward considered his brother-in-law to be in the right, and ordered Earl Godwin to punish the people of Dover. Godwin, believing the townsfolk to be in the right, refused.

Edward was furious.  He exiled Godwin's family, repudiated his wife, Godwin's daughter, and sent Godwin's youngest son, Wulfnoth, to Normandy as a hostage.

The incident was a flare for the Norman/English power play that simmered in England. Edward grew up in exile with his mother's people in Normandy after Danish Cnut took the throne. When Edward returned to England, he brought friends and habits gained in Normandy. But the Anglo-Scandinavian English aristocracy, including Godwin, did not like the Frenchified ways of the Normans.

A year after being exiled, Godwin returned, and supporters flocked to him. Edward was compelled to restore Godwin – and his sons and daughter.

Godwin subsequently appears to have been king in all but name.  Edward spent his time either in Church or at the hunt while his wife 'preserved the secret of the King's chastity.'  Edward developed his reputation for saintliness, while Godwin ran the kingdom.

When Godwin died in 1053, his son Harold moved into his place both as Earl of Wessex and as the King's 'Number Two.'

The Godwin plan was always for the whole family and in 1055 when Earl Siward of Northumbria died, Tostig was swiftly installed as Earl. The younger Godwins, Gyrth and Leofwine, became Earls of East Anglia and Kent.

Tostig's star was rising. He had, of all the brothers, the most illustrious wife: Judith of Flanders, half sister of Count Baldwin V of Flanders, granddaughter of Duke Richard II of Normandy, and cousin to King Edward.

A valuable gospel book, owned by Tostig's wife Judith
 and taken with her when the couple were expelled
from Northumbria Image Credit

Tostig was a favourite of King Edward, and they hunted together. Tostig was Queen Edith's favourite brother. He had a palace in York, from which to govern Northumbria.  He was wealthy, and made lavish gifts to Northumbria's patron saint, Cuthbert.

Project Godwin was going swimmingly: only one region of England, Mercia, was not ruled by a Godwin.

But in October 1065, while Tostig hunted with King Edward in Wiltshire, the Northumbrians attacked his palace in York. They slew his retainers and broke into the treasury.

The rebels rampaged south, stopping along the way to meet their allies: Edwin, Earl of Mercia, the Welsh, and their armies.

To show the King the strength of their feelings, the Northumbrians harried Northampton. Pity the unfortunate civilians of Northampton. Harrying, a standard military tactic of the time, meant burning houses and stealing cattle.

The rebels marched on to Oxford.

What had gone wrong?

Tostig's role as Earl of Northumbria was to govern, on behalf of the King, the whole of northern England. However, until 954, Northumbria was an independent kingdom, and in 1065 the Wessex-based King's power was limited to what historian W. E. Kapelle describes as 'essentially an overlord'.

Tostig was the first southerner ever appointed to rule there, and it appears either that he did not understand Northumbria, or that he aimed to govern in the same way as Wessex. However, Northumbria's laws were different to Wessex's. Northumbria had the 'Danelaw' – the laws of the Scandinavian immigrants who were the majority population in the area. Its territory and laws were defined by King Alfred in 879, and affirmed by subsequent kings including Cnut (reigned 1016 – 1035).

Many things were different in the Danelaw, but the universal complaint was that Tostig taxed too heavily. Taxes were significantly lower in the Danelaw. Did Tostig attempt to tax at southern levels?

Tostig was also accused of corruption. And there were murders – all men connected to the dynasty of hereditary Northumbrian earls, who were overlooked when Tostig got the Earldom. Might they have been a focus for rebellion?

Certainly, Tostig upset enough northerners that large numbers rebelled. They organised well. They allied with Edwin of Mercia, the only English Earl not a Godwin, keen to curb Godwin power.  Edwin allied with the Welsh, who Tostig and Harold had attacked in 1063.

The allies demanded that the king remove Tostig, renew the 'laws of Cnut' (i.e. Danelaw tax levels), and install Earl Edwin's brother, Morcar, as Earl of Northumbria.

King Edward sent Harold, his familiar 'number two', to negotiate.  Edward's orders were, essentially, to tell the Northumbrians to shut up and go home.

But when Harold saw that he had fewer soldiers than the massed Northumbrians, Mercians and Welsh, he knew that was impossible.

When Harold reported to Edward that there would be civil war unless Tostig was dismissed, Edward suffered a seizure.

Harold gave the Northumbrians all they demanded.  He averted civil war – but at cost of banishing his own brother.

Tostig went into exile in Flanders. Morcar became Earl of Northumbria. Peace settled.

Ships in the Bayeux Tapestry: Tostig travelled in ships like this,
to Flanders, Denmark and Norway.  And maybe to Normandy.
Image Credit

From this moment, King Edward descended into terminal decline. Some commentators have suggested that Edward and Tostig were homosexual lovers. From this distance, that is impossible to know. But they were certainly close companions. Edward's marriage was 'chaste'.  Tostig 'renounced desire for all women except his wife', although she did bear children.

Whatever the reasons, Edward died, childless, on 5 Jan 1066. The Witan, the country's council of wise men, overlooked Edward's teenage great-nephew, Edgar, and chose Harold to become King.

It appeared a prudent choice. The custom at the time was that the Witan chose the best candidate, and mature brothers or nephews were often chosen over younger contenders. Harold was brother-in-law to the deceased king, and had, in practice, been doing the job for years.

The news infuriated Tostig. As the king's favourite brother-in-law, and with a royal wife, I believe that Tostig had expected to become king. Instead, he was exiled, and Harold slipped into the throne.

In exile, Tostig's brother-in-law, Count Baldwin of Flanders, provided him with a home, an estate, and income of the town of St Omer. But Tostig was not satisfied: he wanted vengeance.  His 'adamantine steadfastness' cut in. Harold must pay for his betrayal.

Tostig sought support. Baldwin did not want a military adventure. Tostig surely went next to neighbouring William of Normandy, husband of Tostig's wife's niece. But I have found only writer – Peter Rex - who confirms that. Several historians record that Tostig went to his mother's cousin, King Swein of Denmark. Swein, like Baldwin and William, refused him. Tostig moved on, to Harald 'Hardrada', king of Norway.

Tostig reminded Hardrada of a treaty made in the late 1030s between Cnut's son Harthacnut and King Magnus of Norway, and persuaded Hardrada that he had a claim to England. Tostig, presumably recalling his father's return after exile, claimed that he had many supporters in England.

Hardrada was persuaded.  They raised troops, and in September 1066, they marched on York.

Was Tostig deluded when he promised Hardrada that supporters would flock to them? Or was he simply lying?

In the event, the Northumbrians defended York.  They met Tostig and the Norse at Fulford, a swampy place a couple of miles south of York.  The new Earl, Morcar, was young, not tested in battle.  Hardrada had a lifetime's military experience. The Northumbrians didn't have a chance.

After the slaughter, the Northumbrians surrendered. As usual, hostages were given as security.  Tostig began his vengeance by selecting those hostages. Promises were extracted from the Northumbrians to march with the invaders to depose King Harold – Tostig's primary aim.

Unbeknown to the invaders, however, King Harold was racing north.  Too late to save the Northumbrians, he went straight to attack the invaders.

Harold called out Tostig and offered him peace. He even offered him his place back as Earl of Northumbria – 'one third of the kingdom'.

Tostig refused – that 'adamantine steadfastness'.

So, at Stamford Bridge, on 25th September 1066, Harold's army wiped out the Norse, King Harald Hardrada, and Harold's brother, Tostig. Shortly afterwards, William of Normandy landed on the south coast.

As Harold rushed his troops back south, he paused to pray at Waltham Abbey.

A year previously, Harold and Tostig were the golden boys of England, King Edward's senior Earls.  Now, Tostig lay dead, killed if not by Harold's own hand, then certainly by his actions. What would he tell their mother?

While there, Harold received a message. The message told him that William had the Pope's blessing, and carried his banner. The message was that William had God on his side.

From this moment, Harold, the brother-killer, appeared a changed man.

His brother Gyrth volunteered to attack William, while Harold and his troops recuperated. Should Gyrth lose, the King and his troops could fight again. Gyrth also suggested they scorched the earth around William's encampment, contain them, and starve them out. They were all sensible suggestions.

But Harold – the brother-killer - did not listen. He insisted on facing William in battle at once.

Harold led his men to face God's judgement at Hastings on 14th October, 1066.

Harold, Gyrth and Leofwine were all felled by William's troops.

Their mother lost four sons in three weeks.

And England was conquered.

The death of King Harold, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry


The Life of King Edward, anonymous, but believed to have been commissioned by Queen Edith Godwinson, and written by monk/s of St Bertin Abby at St Omer, Flanders.

The Relations between England and Flanders before the Norman Conquest, by Philip Grierson.

The Godwins, by Frank Barlow

The Saga of Harald Hardrada, in Heimskringla by Snorri Sturlesson

Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriet O'Brien

Bloodfeud  by Richard Fletcher

The Norman Conquest of the North by William E Kapelle

William the Conqueror, the Bastard of Normandy, by Peter Rex

Finding Fulford by Charles Jones.

1066 The Year of the Conquest, by David Howarth


Helen Johnson has roved around Yorkshire, England, for twenty years, writing about the history, heritage, landscape and people of the region.

She was inspired to write about the Norman Conquest after learning of William the Conqueror's 'Harrying of the North' – an act which today would qualify as genocide.

Her short story, 'God's own Country', published at Copperfield Review, imagines how two people might have felt about one of William the Conqueror's policies – his plan to blend what he described as the 'two races' of his dominions. Read the story HERE

Helen is working on two novels set in Conquest Yorkshire, one for adults and one for teenagers.

You can discover more of Helen's work and read about William the Conqueror's good intentions at her website, or follow her on Twitter @Yorkshirewriter.


  1. Good summary of Tostig's role in the Norman conquest. History would certainly be different if Harald Hardrada had won at Stamford Bridge.

  2. Good article. Both Tostig and his sister, Queen Edyth were what we would call today 'spoilt children' - wanted their own way and screamed blue murder if they didn't get it. I'd go as far as saying arrogant as well!
    I don't agree that Harold was a broken man though - far from it, he was a very calm, capable commander. What did cause effect was that he could not call on the North to support him against Duke William because they were an exhausted army. Had the North not fought two battles and had been able to come south then William wouldn't have stood a chance.
    Also Harold couldn't risk William breaking out of the Hastings Peninsular - once out in the Weald it would have been difficult to defeat him (think of the problems Alfred had in defeating the Vikings!) So the Normans had to be contained. Harold very nearly won - not a lot of people remember that.
    I also do not believe that the Pope granted support for William before the battle - I'm convinced that this is Norman 'fake news'. England was rich, powerful and Normandy wasn't. I'm certain that the Pope sat on the fence then supported the winner. Had Harold won he would have received the Pope's blessing.
    But yes, Tostig is to blame for the outcome. Wretched little man.

  3. I am Tom Dundee, I cannot get signed in correctly.
    The English Church did not jump as quickly as the Pope would have liked when he spoke. William was to make changes. William promised the Pope some of the wealth of the Saxon churches.
    Tostig did not accept his role as a younger brother. Plus, he was filled with envy and jealously.

  4. Thank you for your comments- I am Helen, the author.

    I read to the effect that England was a little irregular in sending its financial contributions to Rome, and that William promised to improve compliance. I believe they called it 'St Peter's Pence'? If so, this would be ample reason for the Pope to support William.

    I'm interested that Helen Hollick suggest that William's Papal support was 'fake news'. Having read much about William, I think he was a master of PR and propaganda - certainly not above creating his own news. But he was also very religious. Would he have dared to fabricate a fake Papal banner? Or did his Bishop concoct the fakery, and lead William to believe he had the true banner?

    But the thing I find most interesting is that even today, almost a thousand years later, many people still wish that King Harold had not lost at Hastings. That is a very long historical shadow.

    1. Hello Helen J. No, I didn't mean the papal banner was fake - William definitely had it _post_ 1066 - but I doubt he had it at Hastings in Sept/Oct 1066. I very firmly believe that this information was inserted into 'history' AFTER the event. It took months to travel to Rome, the Pope would have wanted to hear Harold's POV so quite a bit of to-and-froing, emissaries, a few bribes, stating the case etc. No way would all that have happened within 8 months maximum (Feb-Sept) I firmly believe that the Pope sat on the fence and awaited the outcome... had Harold won, hey presto England would have had the Pope's backing. Yes William was religious (most people were back then) but so too was Harold - he founded an abbey after all (Waltham Abbey) (OK, so did Bill, at Caen) but England was very rich - much richer than Normandy. Would the Pope have risked alienating Harold/England by siding with a jumped-up nothing of a Duke (as he was pre-1066)? I doubt it.
      Moi? Cynical? You bet! *laugh*


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