Did Edward the Confessor give the crown to Duke William?

William pays court to the English leaders by James William Edmund Doyle from Wikipedia

In my mind, this is one of the most provocative questions of the Middle Ages. In 1066, Duke William acted with the surety of someone who believed in what he was doing. To take such a big risk, he must have had good reason. William did not have a drop of royal blood in him, and his relationship to King Edward was a bit convoluted; Queen Emma, Edward’s mother, was his great-aunt.  There were closer blood-ties to the English throne than his. So his claim must have relied on Edward’s alleged promise. Interestingly, this claim comes almost exclusively from the Norman chron-iclers; the English chroniclers are silent on the subject. That in itself is enough to raise some eyebrows. Or is it?

Much of the argument is based on whether Duke William crossed the Channel and visited King Edward while the Godwine clan was in exile. Florence of Worcester, writing a half century later, states that he did. Modern historians seem to conclude that this was unlikely, as William was still probably fighting to secure his own throne. Of course, this visit or non-visit would determine whether William’s claim was first-hand or second-hand. Did Edward personally declare William his heir, or did the announcement come through Archbishop Robert of Jumièges?

There is a reference that a grateful Edward, still in exile, promised William the crown in their younger days. I think we can safely discard this one, since Edward was about 25 years older than William. It has been suggested that Edward was throwing around promises of succession (kind of like Elizabeth I and promises of marriages). If Duke William did visit England in 1052, it is possible that Edward, cocky after having rid himself of the troublesome Godwines, was asserting his will. Maybe he meant it, maybe he didn’t. Surely Edward knew he didn’t have the right to give away his crown; that decision was made by the Witan.

If we accept the theory that William did not visit Edward in England, then the big promise was probably delivered by Archbishop Robert, presumably after his outlawry on the heels of Godwine’s return in 1052. There seems to be little doubt that Robert kidnapped the hostages Wulfnoth and Hakon when he unceremoniously fled from London. Whether or not this was with Edward’s connivance is uncertain, though it must have reflected unfavorably on the King since they were Edward’s hostages. If Robert did forcibly abduct the boys, this could explain why his exit was so violently resisted; perhaps there was a last-ditch effort to save Godwin’s son and grandson.

What did Robert do with the hostages? Ultimately he turned them over to Duke William. It has been suggested he told the Duke that King Edward declared William his heir with the approval of the Great Earls, and was sending the two hostages as surety. In all likelihood, William was inclined to accept this offer; why not? It all looked pretty convincing on the surface. This is the version I favored in THE SONS OF GODWINE.

Shrine of Edward the Confessor from Matthew Paris, Cambridge Univ Library (Ms Ee 359)

This leads us to Harold Godwineson’s fateful visit in 1064, which opens up another slew of questions. The Norman chroniclers asserted that he came on King Edward’s orders to affirm the promise of the crown to William. Or did he come to negotiate the release of the hostages? Or was he merely blown across the Channel by a storm? Regardless, he became an unwilling pawn in William’s grand plan. It appears that the Duke had already made up his mind to go for it! Harold wasn’t permitted to leave until he swore to support William’s claim for the English throne. Although he swore the oath under duress, breaking his vow in 1066 was destined to follow Harold until the end, and probably encouraged the Pope to throw his support behind the Norman Duke—not an insignificant factor.

Could it be that Archbishop Robert made up the whole Edward story, as a personal revenge on Godwine and England for having treated him so shabbily? If he did fabricate the whole thing, it was a revenge served up cold, because Robert died a couple of years later and never saw how far Duke William was willing to go.


Review of “The House of Godwine” by Emma Mason

The House of Godwine: The History of a DynastyThe House of Godwine: The History of a Dynasty by Emma Mason

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book some months ago, and today, as I was looking up a detail for more clarification, I realized that this volume was full of paper slips marking important passages. Then I realized I never reviewed this book which I keep on hand while working on my historical fiction projects. Well, I suppose this is a classic case of taking a book for granted, since I’m still actively using it.

I find “The House of Godwine” to be a clear, detailed and useful history that goes farther than merely recording pertinent details. Emma Mason skillfully puts “two and two” together and ventures to explain how certain events occurred or why people did what they did. For instance, when Harold launched his lightning attack on the court of Gruffydd ap Llewelyn in 1062: “It has been suggested that Aelfgar died in the Christmas season, possibly while attending court, and that this opportunity was seized to attack his ally Gruffydd ap Llewelyn before he learned of the earl’s death and could reinforce his own position.” Now, I knew about the Christmas campaign for years but never thought to associate it with Aelfgar’s death. This may or may not have happened as suggested, but the explanation is compelling.

In case you are wondering, yes, Emma uses extensive Notes to support her work. In fact, out of 281 pages, the Notes and Index start on page 203. As far as I can tell, she used her sources to best describe an event (such as the Battle of Hastings), then gave references every step of the way. So at Hastings, for instance, she gave us a depiction of the battle with notes every few sentences referencing many different sources. All total the battle description was thorough and it made a lot of sense. The same technique is used throughout the book.

I would say The House of Godwine is not an ideal history for beginners. It is not light reading, but for someone versed in the basics, the details here are welcome and useful. I picked up many things I hadn’t run across before. Another for-instance: “Harold knew that Norman plans for invasion of England were now well under way. William of Poitiers wrote that he sent spies to report back with more detailed information. One of these men was captured and his cover story was blown. He was taken before the duke, but instead of condemning him William seized the opportunity to send a message intended to demoralize his rival…” That’s the kind of detail I just gobble up!

The book starts with a good overview of England’s culture and politics before and during Aethelred’s reign, and ends with how the survivors after Hastings dealt with the new regime. This is where I discovered that Count Alain le Rouge, who led the Breton contingent at Hastings, carried off Edith Swanneck’s daughter Gunhild from her exile at Wilton abbey. Since Alain held much of the land previously owned by Gunhild’s mother, the daughter’s presence presumably calmed his Anglo-Danish tenants. She stayed with him until he died then became his brother’s partner in turn. I learned this tidbit just in time to incorporate it into my debut novel. Needless to say, I was thrilled. This is one book I will have to read more than once.

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Where is Harold Godwineson Buried?

Despite all the brouhaha back in 2014 about scanning the grounds of Waltham Abbey for the body of Harold, some prefer the more recent theory that he lies in one of four tombs under St Michael’s Church in Bishop’s Stortford, Herts. Or, if you like, there’s the fanciful conjecture that he survived the battle and lived in obscurity. I wonder if we might be looking in the wrong place altogether. Is it really possible that archaeologists  can reproduce the unlikely discovery of yet another famous King killed in battle? It’s impossible to describe the miracle of discovering Richard III in a parking lot—to the uninitiated—without sounding completely ridiculous. I know; I tried it. And so far I haven’t heard of any likely Godwineson DNA descendant stepping forward to prove the case, even if they found a body.

The theory that Harold survived the battle and became a pilgrim comes from “novelist and amateur historian Peter Burke” according to BBC News, who found this reference in the 12th century Vita Harold. I located an 1885 copy and translation of this work on the (very useful) ForgottenBooks.com website and discovered the full title was “Vita Harold The Romance of the Life of Harold King of England.” Well, that says a lot, doesn’t it? After reading the first few pages of this manuscript, where King Knut, feeling threatened by Earl Godwine, sends him on a mission to Denmark with letters instructing the recipients to chop off his head, I got suspicious. Oh, and Godwine substituted that letter with one of his own, instructing the recipients to receive him with honor and give him Knut’s sister in marriage. To say the least, I concluded that this manuscript was not very reliable. And here’s another nail in that coffin: according to Emma Mason in her “The House of Godwine” history, by the time of Henry II, Waltham Abbey had converted to Augustinian canons who found the tomb-cult of Harold Godwineson distasteful. So they commissioned a cleric to write the Life of Harold to draw attention elsewhere. Hmmm.

On firmer ground, the association between Harold and Waltham abbey makes good sense. He is said to have been miraculously cured there as a child and rebuilt the abbey in 1060. There’s another reference to the Holy Cross at Waltham: the Christ figure on the cross allegedly bowed its head as Harold stopped there to pray before the Battle of Hastings. According to William of Malmesbury, William the Conqueror sent Harold’s body to his mother Gytha who had it buried at Waltham. According to the Waltham Chronicle, two canons from the Abbey begged William for Harold’s body and he consented; after enlisting the aid of Edith Swanneck they located the body and carried it back. Apparently there was a sepulcher erected to Harold after his death which attracted a cult following; the grave was relocated a few times, whenever the church was town down and rebuilt.

After the Dissolution of the monasteries, a manor house was erected from the rubble of the Abbey. Another story states that a “famous Bumper Squire Jones” was enlarging the cellar of said manor house when he discovered the coffin of Harold under a lid inscribed with Haroldus Rex. He kept the coffin in the cellar and showed it to his friends whenever he had a party. The house burned down not too long after and was demolished in 1770, presumably along with the coffin.

A persistent story from William of Poitiers states that William the Conqueror gave Harold’s body to his companion William Malet to bury under a pile of rocks on the Sussex coast, quipping that “he who guarded the coast with such insensate zeal should be buried by the seashore”.  Our eminent historian Edward A. Freeman concluded that first they may have buried Harold under a cairn, only to remove him a few years later to a more proper grave at Waltham.

However, there is another possible explanation to the grave beside the sea. In 1954 during routine maintenance at Holy Trinity Church in Bosham, workers discovered a coffin under the paving stones near the chancel steps, just three feet from the second coffin already believed to contain the remains of Canute’s daughter. According to Geoffrey Marwood, local historian, “The large coffin was made of Horsham stone, magnificently furnished and contained the thigh and pelvic bones of a powerfully built man about 5 ft. 6 ins. in height aged over 60 years with traces of arthritis. Whoever was buried here must have been a person of great importance to have been placed in such a prominent position in the church…” This may be slim evidence except for the fact that Bosham was Harold’s home town and birthplace. Although Harold was 44 when he died, forensic evidence in the 1950s was not exacting; but they did determine that the bones showed fractures that did not have time to heal. The missing head and lower leg could argue for a body already dismembered in the way Harold was.

from the booklet “Harold: Rex, Is Harold II buried in Bosham Church?” by John Pollock

Bosham was the only estate in Sussex that King William took into his personal possession.  It is unlikely that anyone could have been buried there without his knowledge, and the depth of the coffin under the floor implied that the gravediggers knowingly placed it at the same level as Canute’s daughter. It is possible that William consented to give Harold his place by the sea in the harbor town of Bosham; he didn’t want a local shrine to the fallen king, but he may have given him a proper burial in secret. Locals certainly choose to believe so.


William the Conqueror’s Landing, 1066

The Landing of William the Conqueror at Hastings by Charles Edward Dixon 1910 (sourced from Christies.com)

I remember my first trip to England somewhere around 1990 or so.  I headed directly south to Hastings, for I had been studying about the great event and wanted to see the battlefield for myself.  Of course, travel itineraries were much harder to plan in those days, but I saw no reason to doubt that I would find what I was looking for as long as I had a good map. Well, I was certainly in for a surprise!

As I recall, Hastings was a sleepy little city.  Yes, there are castle ruins there, but no battlefield.  As I was soon to discover, much to my embarrassment, the battle was fought about 7 miles north of Hastings at a place called Battle (no wonder!).  Nor did William the Conqueror land at Hastings; his ships touched land about 10 miles to the west at a spot known to history as Pevensey and to locals as Normans Bay (there’s even a train stop).

William had quickly assembled a great fleet, since he only started planning the invasion that very year.  Mostly built for transport (unlike the great warships of the Vikings),  they were single masted open boats with a sail and many were attached to smaller boats.  Wace numbers the fleet at 696, though others state he brought over 3000; the larger number possibly included all sized crafts.  Sir Charles Oman estimated that the Norman force numbered 12,000-14,000, though others estimated as many as 60,000.  It’s probably safer to stay with the lower number, considering the size of the battlefield.

William had planned to invade England months earlier; in August of that year, the Norman ships had gathered at the mouth of the river Dive.  If he had succeeded in crossing the Channel when he wanted to, Harold would have been on hand to contest his landing, for the King was diligently guarding the southern coast with his Saxon levies.  But the winds were against the invaders and William was delayed a month at Dive, then after an aborted attempt to cross, he spent another couple of weeks up the coast at Saint Valery.

Finally, on the 27th of September, the winds changed and the Normans raced to their ships, although it took all day to load supplies and horses.  Edward A. Freeman paints a picture of celebration while they were preparing: “The ships resounded with music; the pipe, the zittern, the drum, the cymbals, all were heard, and the voice of the trumpet sounded proudly over all.” (Vol. 3, p. 399). When William boarded it was already dark, so he ordered all the ships to put a light on their mast and he placed a huge lantern atop his own Mora to be the guiding star of the fleet.

William’s was one of the few ships that did not carry horses, and this is probably the reason he outstripped the rest of the fleet while crossing the Channel.  When the sun arose the next day, he was stunned to see himself all alone; not another ship was to be seen.  Undaunted, the Duke ordered that they drop anchor and he cheerfully sat down to breakfast, though he encouraged his sailor to climb back up to the mast head and keep watch.  Before long the sailor saw four ships, and soon, “he saw such a multitude that their masts looked like a forest upon the waves.”

William’s luck was with them.  Not only was the crossing almost without incident (two ships were lost, including one that carried a soothsayer who prophesied that England would fall without a blow), they were astounded to discover the long beach deserted.  No Saxon host stood ready to repel the invaders because unbeknownst to William, King Harold had hastened north to defend his country against a totally different threat: the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada.

The battlefield at Battle Abbey (my photo)

As the story goes, Duke William was the first warrior to set foot on land — though his foot slipped out from under him and he fell forward on both hands.  Horrors!  A loud cry went up around him, for his men saw this accident as a terrible omen.  But William kept his wits about him.  Grabbing two fistfuls of sand, he cried out, “By the splendor of God I have taken seizen of my kingdom; the earth of England is in my two hands,” thus transforming bad luck into good fortune and saving the day.

Encouraged, the Normans disembarked in good order, still expecting resistance from the English.  But none was forthcoming and the invaders most likely drew their ships onto the beach.  It is thought a small garrison was left to guard the ships, utilizing the ruins of a Roman fort on the site.  It is possible that the Normans build one of their portable wooden fortresses there, but this is debated. They did not bring many provisions with them, and Pevensey was not the ideal site for foraging.  The Normans probably only spent one day there before moving their force east to Hastings, which was set as William’s permanent camp.  They dug a trench, formed an earthen mound and erected a wooden fortress at their new location.  It was now September 29 and William had plenty of time to set about terrorizing the locals in earnest so as to draw King Harold back to meet him in fateful battle.

Swegn Godwineson, Evil or Tragic?

Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, II, fol. 52r (56r)

Swegn was the eldest son of a prolific family.  His father, Godwine of Wessex, worked his way up from relative obscurity to the most powerful Earl in the country. Swegn’s future could have been assured if only he had behaved himself and not acted like a rogue and an outlaw. He was the only one of his brood who seemed totally evil from the first. What happened?

We know very little aside from the basic events which look very bad indeed.  Initially Swegn held an important earldom which included Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, and Somerset. In 1046, as he was returning from a successful expedition into Wales, he is said to have abducted the abbess of Leominster, had his way with her then sent her back in disgrace. For this deed he was exiled and lost his earldom.

Swegn eventually submitted to the King and asked to be restored his lands. At first Edward agreed, but Harold and cousin Beorn, who were given parts of Swegn’s divided earldom, refused to turn over their possessions.  King Edward decided to accept their refusal and gave Swegn four days safe conduct back to his ships, anchored at Bosham.

At the same time, England was threatened by a Danish fleet; there was a lot of back and forth as Godwine and sons moved their ships to defend the Kentish coast. Threatened by severe weather, Godwine anchored off Pevensey and Beorn apparently searched him out there (to defend his actions?). Swegn did as well, and I assume there was some heated discussion before Beorn agreed to accompany his cousin back to the king and make amends. Reluctant to leave his own ships unsupervised any longer, Swegn persuaded Beorn to return to his home base at Bosham, from whence they would continue to King Edward at Sandwich.

Poor Beorn never made it to Sandwich. Once at Bosham, he was allegedly seized, bound, and thrown into a ship, where he was murdered by Swegn and his body dumped off at Dartmouth. Or possibly, Beorn and Swegn quarreled before the killing, which undoubtedly happened no matter what the cause. This time, Swegn had gone too far. Declared nithing (or worthless) by king and countrymen, Swegn was deserted by his own men and took refuge in Flanders.

King Edward enthroned from Bayeux Tapestry. Source: Wikipedia

Amazingly, the next year he was reinstated in his old earldom with the help of Bishop Ealdred, known as the peacemaker. But trouble was on the horizon (nothing to do with Swegn this time). In 1051 Eustace of Bologne created a huge ruckus in Dover then fled to the king complaining that he lost 21 men to the vicious townspeople. Taking advantage of the opportunity to assert himself, King Edward ordered Godwine to punish the offenders. The earl refused, putting himself on the wrong side of the law. The crisis escalated into an armed confrontation, with Godwine and Swegn cast as rebels. But no one wanted civil war, so Godwine backed down and was eventually driven into exile along with his family. Swegn accompanied his father to Flanders once again, but, overcome with remorse, continued to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage from which he never returned.

It’s easy to dismiss Swegn as the black sheep of the family.  But perhaps his story goes a little deeper than that. First of all, consider the circumstances of Godwine and Gytha’s marriage. King Canute gave Godwine—a commoner—in marriage to this high-ranking Danish woman whose brother had recently been killed by Canute’s orders.  This doesn’t sound like an auspicious beginning, and I wonder if the early years of their marriage weren’t a bit tempestuous. Perhaps their first son was born in the midst of bitter recriminations? This might explain Godwine’s stubborn defense of his wayward son in face of almost universal disapproval. It was reported that during his second banishment, Swegn put it about that King Canute was his real father, which caused Gytha to strenuously and very publicly object. What was the motivation behind this outrage?

The abbess of Leominster story has a possible explanation. There is circumstantial evidence Eadgifu may have been related to the late Earl Hakon, nephew of King Canute. She may possibly have been childhood friends with Swegn, and perhaps more; it doesn’t make sense for him to have kidnapped a high-profile total stranger. The Worcester tradition states that he kept her for one year and wanted to marry her, but was forbidden by the church and commanded to return her to Leominster, which caused him to leave the country.

As for Beorn, there seems little defense. It has been said that it was Harold rather than Beorn that stubbornly refused to release the territory to Swegn, and this is why Swegn was able to persuade Beorn to accompany him to the king in Sandwich. Perhaps Beorn wanted to please Godwine, his uncle-by-marriage, and agreed to negotiate. Regardless, Beorn must have been the victim of Swegn’s bad temper (at best) or revenge (at worst).  Swegn’s decision to go on pilgrimage seems to have been the last attempt to redeem himself.

It is said that Swegn died on his way back from Jerusalem exactly fourteen days after Godwine’s successful return to England.  By all reports, Swegn was mourned by no one except his father.  No one was to know it yet, but this was the beginning of the end for Earl Godwine; he fell into decline and didn’t last out the year.

You can read more about this in my novel, GODWINE KINGMAKER.


Harold Godwineson in Normandy 1064

Harold Swears an Oath, Colour-printed wood engraving by James Doyle. Source: Wikimedia

Harold’s ill-fated trip to Normandy has sparked much debate among historians. Why did he go? How much damage did it cause? One thing is certain: Harold and William were far from strangers by the time they met on the battlefield of Hastings.

It is thought by some that Harold was on a fishing trip in the English Channel when a sudden rain squall blew his boat all the way to Ponthieu in 1064. Count Guy, as was his right, took Harold hostage and was apparently quite put out when Duke William showed up shortly thereafter and demanded that he give Harold up.  A proverbial case of From the Frying Pan Into The Fire! Once Harold was the unwilling guest of Duke William, he knew he wasn’t going to get out of there without some painful concessions.

Norman chroniclers favor the story that King Edward sent Earl Harold to Normandy to confirm his choice of William as heir to the English throne.  The obvious argument against this legend is that King Edward had no legal right to appoint his successor.  Although the king’s last wishes were always considered, the final decision was with the Witan, the king’s council. I don’t think this alleged promise was common knowledge in England—if it happened at all. It is far from certain that William visited England in 1052 (while Godwine was in exile). If this didn’t happen in 1052 and William’s plans were not common knowledge, there is a possibility that Harold didn’t know about William’s aspirations to the crown until he visited the ducal court.

There are other explanations about Harold’s intentions. It has been theorized that he was sounding the opposition, so to speak, for his own bid to the throne. But in 1064 King Edward was in good health and Edgar Aetheling, the true heir, was being raised at the royal court. The motivation that makes the most sense to me is the possibility that he went to Normandy in an attempt to secure the release of his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon, held hostage since around 1052. Alas, even this attempt failed (only Hakon was released) and ironically Wulfnoth’s isolation probably protected him from the same fate as his brothers.

William the Conqueror, British School c.1618-20, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Source: Wikipedia

Harold’s stay at William’s court was protracted and cordial – at least on the surface.  During this time, Duke William led a punitive expedition against Conan of Brittany, taking Harold with him and fighting side-by-side with the famous Saxon Earl.  The Bayeux Tapestry shows a scene where Harold wades into quicksand to save two Norman soldiers from certain death.  After the siege of Dinan, William gave Harold arms and weapons and knighted him for his valor.

Nonetheless, once Harold became William’s man—so to speak—it was time for him to return home.  But one final concession had to happen first: the great oath.  In front of all the Norman barons, Harold was obliged to swear an oath to support William’s claim to the English throne (against his own interests, even then), swear to secure the castle of Dover for William (not likely!), to marry one of William’s daughters. Knowing this was his only way out, Harold duly swore the oath knowing that under duress, many an oath was often considered invalid.  However, William was too smart to be outwitted; just to make it stick, he secretly laid the bones of Normandy’s saints beneath a tablecloth on which stood the bible.  Once the pledge was sworn, the tablecloth was whisked off and Harold was aghast that he had just sworn a false oath on holy relics.

The consequences of Harold’s oathbreaking were grim indeed; William used this event to help win the pope’s approbation for his conquest of England.  When the Duke unfurled his banner at the Battle of Hastings, he placed the Pope’s banner alongside for all to see.  The Normans went so far as to declare that God had turned against Harold’s kingdom and shown his favor to the invaders. I would think that Harold still felt a sting of guilt, regardless. Even his brother Gyrth is said to have offered to lead the army at Hastings since he wasn’t bound by any oath, but Harold scornfully rejected the idea.

One thing is for sure; as a consequence of this ill-fated voyage, both Harold and William knew how their future opponent would conduct himself on the battlefield. Harold would have returned to England a much wiser man and better prepared for the future; too bad he couldn’t change the course of his destiny.


Tostig and Stamfordbridge

by Peter Nicolai Arbo, source, Wikipedia

By many accounts, the blame for Harold Godwineson’s failure to stop William’s invasion can be laid on his brother Tostig’s shoulders.  What might have started as sibling rivalry seems to have evolved into jealousy, then resentment turned into recrimination, and finally a desire for revenge seems to have swept aside all other considerations…even the safety of the country.

By most accounts, Tostig was likeable if headstrong; he knew what he wanted but could be overzealous in enforcing his will.  He ruled the difficult Northumbrians for ten years before things got out of hand, and it is probable that the final uprising was due to his new taxation measures, partially to pay for the Welsh campaign of 1062. Tostig had participated in support of his brother Harold, but the campaign was of no real interest to the Northumbrians who probably resented having to fund it.

The end of his rule was violent and final, and Tostig was horrified that his brother Harold was unwilling to support him. Accusations of treachery were tossed about, and Tostig left the country vowing revenge.  In a previous post I followed his movements for the next year, and by the time they met face-to-face on the battlefield, the brothers were irreparably sundered.

However, I’m not so sure that Tostig is the total bad guy he was portrayed as.  According to Snorri Sturluson in Heimskringla, when Harold Godwineson approached the Danish army (in disguise) to offer his brother all of Northumberland and a third of the kingdom to share, Tostig turned him down.  “That is an offer different from the one of last winter, when I was shown contempt and hostility. If it had been made then, many a man would be alive who is dead now, and the king’s power in England would stand on firmer ground…”  He said that he would not have the Vikings claim that he forsook Hardrada to join his enemies, and that “Rather shall we all resolve to die with honor or else win England and victory.”

Window with portrait of Harald in Lerwick Town Hall, Shetland. SOURCE: Wikipedia

This is also the moment when Harold offered to give Hardrada, in turn, “seven feet of English soil or so much more, as he is taller than other men.”  The Norwegian King apparently did not take offense, because as the messengers were riding away, he asked Tostig “Who was that man who spoke so well?”  When Tostig told him it his was brother Harold the King, Hardrada chided him for not revealing the stranger’s identity when he would be such an easy target.

But Tostig  would not have it so: “I saw that he wished to offer me peace and much power and that I would be the cause of his death if I told who he was. But I would rather that he slay me than I him.” Sounds to me more like a man resigned to his fate rather than a vicious betrayer. Hardrada turned to his men and said, “A little man that was, and proudly he stood in his stirrups.”

Harold Hardrada fell first with an arrow in the throat, and Tostig Godwineson raised the King’s banner over him while both sides reformed their lines. Once more, Harold Godwineson offered a reprieve to Tostig and all Vikings who were still alive, but “the Norwegians all shouted together and said they would rather fall one upon the other than accept quarter from the English…” And that is the last mention Snorri gives of Tostig.

It’s very unpopular to defend Tostig Godwineson, but I keep wondering if he was a bit misunderstood. He always seemed to be in his brother’s shadow, and his misguided attempt to come out on top can be appreciated by many younger siblings who are not the favorite child.


Tostig in Exile

Battle of Fulford from The Life of King Edward the Confessor by Matthew Paris Source: Wikimedia

After the rebellion that sent Tostig into exile, the Northumbrians apparently felt that the Tostig issue was resolved.  No such luck!  Tostig was busy running around Europe looking for support to re-establish his claim to the earldom.  His first stop was Flanders, where he  brought his family for refuge to the court of his wife’s brother, Count Baldwin V.  He was treated honorably in Flanders and spent the winter at St.Omer.

As stated in my last post about Tostig, King Edward died shortly after he was forced to leave the country. This means that Harold was already on the throne when Tostig went to Normandy and paid a visit to William the Conqueror.  I can’t image what he could have offered the Duke aside from a small fleet supplied by his father-in-law, but it does seem like the most onerous insult he could have offered Harold.

In May of 1066, Tostig landed on the Isle of Wight with his little fleet, and I wonder if William encouraged him to cross as a kind of forward movement?  By May, William certainly had been well into his preparations to cross the channel.  Did the Norman Duke try to get rid of him?  Tostig gathered supplies on the Isle of Wight and is said to have forced many of the local seamen to join him with ships. He proceeded to plunder eastward around the coast as far as Sandwich.  This means he would have passed his hometown Bosham; I wonder if he paused to say hello to his mother?

Just after Tostig reached Sandwich, Harold approached with naval and land forces to protect the coast (from Tostig, or from William?).  Tostig withdrew, and moved north to ravage parts of East Anglia; some say he unsuccessfully attempted to draw his brother Gyrth (Earl of East Anglia) into his argument. By the time Tostig reached Lindesey in Northumbria with 60 ships, Earls Eadwine and Morcar – his old rivals – drove him away and Tostig was abandoned by most of his followers.

Reduced to 10 small vessels, Tostig took refuge with his good friend and sworn brother Malcolm Canmore of Scotland.  Always happy to cause trouble on his southern border, Malcolm offered Tostig his protection for the whole summer of 1066.

It’s uncertain whether Tostig went in person to consult with Harald Hardrada. The venerable Edward A. Freeman conjectured that this scenario did not give Tostig enough time to sail to Denmark and try to persuade his cousin Swegn to come and claim Canute’s crown (Swegn is said to have offered Tostig a Danish earldom instead). Nor did he have the time to sail to Norway.  King Harald wouldn’t have had enough time to raise an army, so Dr. Freeman felt there was a very good likelihood that Hardrada had planned the invasion on his own many months before, and that he fell in with Tostig after he already made his move. Perhaps they had communicated by messenger while Tostig was in Scotland. I’ve read elsewhere that Tostig visited both Swegn and Hardrada during the winter, which I assume could have been possible if he had taken ship and hugged the coast. Snorri Sturluson gave us a lively account of Tostig persuading Harald to take what is his by right. Regardless, after Hardrada landed in the Orkneys and left his wife there he made his way south and joined Tostig at the mouth of the Tyne.  The stage was set for the battle of Stamfordbridge…almost.

Tostig, Earl of Northumbria

Tostig fighting Harold in front of Edward, Cambridge University Library MS. Ee.iii.59
Tostig fighting Harold in front of Edward, Cambridge University Library MS. Ee.iii.59

When Siward, Earl of Northumbria died in 1055, his only surviving son was still a child, and King Edward awarded the earldom to Harold’s inexperienced brother Tostig.  Although the King was no fan of of the late Earl Godwine, there is evidence that Godwine’s third son was a favorite at court.  Since he was half Danish, Tostig didn’t seem like a bad choice for the region inhabited by Norsemen, and he served as Earl of Northumbria for ten years before he had serious trouble.

Although he was accused of being overzealous in enforcing law and order, tempers did not rise to the boiling point until he imposed a new substantial tax burden – possibly to help pay for the Welsh campaign he had just waged with Harold in 1063.  Suddenly, all the Northumbrian thegns united against him.  On October 3, 1065, while Tostig was hunting with the King, the rebels descended on York and raided the treasury, killing two housecarls and more than 200 officials.  They declared Tostig outlaw and sent for Morcar, younger son of Aelfgar  who represented the most powerful rival of Godwine’s family (Morcar’s elder brother Edwin was already Earl of Mercia).  Then they sent to the King to confirm their decision and rampaged their way south, gaining support along the way.

Harold Godwineson was chosen to mediate, and met the rebels at Northampton; he had the backing of the King and of Tostig, who had every reason to believe that he would get his earldom back one way or the other.  Alas, Harold was in a big predicament.  He soon learned that Tostig had lost all support in Northumbria; in fact, the only way the Northumbrians could be compelled to accept Tostig back was by force.

Still plundering the area around Northampton, the rebels sent Harold back to the King along with their own envoys, demanding the election of Morcar and outlawry of Tostig.  Harold reluctantly complied, and advised the King against using military force.   Everyone was shocked, and an irate Tostig accused Harold of complicity.

Although Edward initially sought to raise the fyrd against the northerners, his subjects had a horror of civil war – especially for a lost cause – and the King met so much resistance he was soon obliged to accept the rebels’ terms.  He reluctantly sent Harold back with orders to depose Tostig and elect Morcar, pardoning the thegns and reinstituting the laws of Canute.

Swearing vengeance, Tostig went into voluntary exile and Edward’s health slipped into decline the following month, possibly in grief and shock at his loss of authority.  The natural allegiance of Harold and Tostig was broken forever, and the next time they were to meet would be on the battlefield.


What happened to Earl Godwine’s family?

Edward the Confessor accuses Earl Godwin of the murder of his brother, Alfred Aetheling, National Archives, UK

Godwine, Earl of Wessex was one of the most powerful Saxons of his day.  At the height of his career, it looked like he was positioned to found a powerful dynasty.  He had six strapping sons: Swegn, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine, and Wulfnoth, and his daughter Edith was married to the King of England.  It is sad and ironic that by the battle of Hastings, his family was either dead or scattered, and of course all the English Earldoms were dissolved by William the Conqueror, who divided the spoils among his followers.

Godwine’s eldest daughter Edith, Queen and wife to Edward the Confessor, survived until 1075—probably restricted to her Winchester estates—although it is difficult to find any reference to her after the Norman Conquest. King Edward is said to have hated Earl Godwine and resented being obliged to marry Godwine’s daughter; he needed the great earl’s support and may have agreed to wed the girl as one of Godwine’s conditions. Nobody knows for sure, but it is rumored he avoided her bed as much as possible (this adds to his saintly repute), though they seem to have had cordial relations.  She never gave birth to an heir, and hence the field was wide open after Edward died in 1066.

Swegn, the oldest son, was a constant source of trouble to his father.  He eventually committed the crime of abducting a nun, and later murdered his cousin Beorn, which precipitated the Witan’s declaration that he was nithing (wretch, coward; good-for-nothing). By the time of his father’s outlawry, he repented his sins and went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem from which he never returned.

The second son Harold succeeded Edward the Confessor, and was crowned King on Jan. 6, 1066.  His reign only lasted nine months, and he was killed at the Battle of Hastings on Oct. 14 in the same year.  His brothers Gyrth (Earl of East Anglia, Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire) and Leofwine (Earl of Kent, Essex, Middlesex, Hertford, Surrey and probably Buckinghamshire) were also killed at Hastings.

Gyrth and Leofwine’s death at the Battle of Hastings, scene 52 of the Bayeux Tapestry. Source: Wikipedia

Tostig, the third son, was fiery and quick to anger.  When his brother Earl Harold was forced to side with his enemies and persuade King Edward to depose him as Earl of Northumbria, Tostig swore to come back and wreak revenge.  He accomplished this retribution by convincing Harald Hardraada to invade England in September 1066, where both the King of Norway and Tostig Godwineson met their deaths in battle at Stamfordbridge. Ultimately, this brought King Harold Godwineson north, leaving the coast unguarded at the moment William the Bastard crossed the Channel; Harold’s absence proved fatal to his kingship and the Saxon cause.

This left poor Wulfnoth, the only surviving son after the Battle of Hastings.  He had been a hostage in Normandy as long ago as possibly 1052, when the Normans fled England upon Godwine’s return from exile.  After Hastings, King William kept him confined, and on his death William Rufus brought him back to England and detained him at Winchester. It was possible Wulfnoth was permitted to join the monastery there, but regardless he was a comfortable prisoner all the way until his death in 1094.

Earl Godwine and Gytha had three other daughters: Gunhilda of Wessex, a nun who died in 1080, Aelfgifu, and Marigard.  It is probable that Gytha returned to her native Denmark after the Norman Conquest.