Did Harold die from an Arrow in the Eye?

The Bayeux Tapestry gave us an iconic image of Harold pulling an arrow from his eye. It must be Harold: the name is embroidered around his head and spear. And since the Tapestry is created so close in time to the actual event, it is considered one of the major sources of documentation and hence to be trusted. But somehow, even the identification of the wounded hero is questioned by some, and further investigation raises more questions than it answers. Why?

Well, one thread of discussion is the identity of the figure at Harold’s right, falling to the ground in the process of getting his leg cut off. As we learned from the 11th century Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, Harold was hacked up by four attackers (one of them might have been William). From 12th century Wace we learned that Harold was wounded in his eye by an arrow, then felled while still fighting, struck “on the thick of his thigh, down to the bone”. So many historians think the second figure is Harold. A third opinion is that both figures are Harold, since the Tapestry could be read like a long cartoon, where one scene leads to the next.

I recently learned about evidence that gives credence to the third theory, but only a close-up view will enlighten: a row of holes next to the second figure’s eye, that looks suspiciously like stitches that have been removed! An arrow? If so, Harold Arrowholesthen clearly this is the same figure as the other. As historian David Bernstein tells us in a thoroughly investigated “The Blinding of Harold and the Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry”, there are three possible explanations for this row of holes: 1. They are traces of original stitches, which must have indicated an arrow above his eye (not in it). 2. Traces of an arrow sewn in by a later “inspired” restorer, that were subsequently removed by that person or someone else, or 3. Traces of an unrelated repair. Bernstein pretty much discards the third possibility. But what of #2?

from bayeux-tapestry.org.uk

I should have realized that the Bayeux Tapestry was subjected to a few major restorations during its 900+ year-old existence. From what I can gather, it was restored in 1730, 1818, 1842 and most recently in 1982. It is recorded that the Victorian-era restorations are fairly easy to determine because the wool used for the embroidery left stains on the edges of the holes. But how many figures were altered considerably beyond their original form? And does Harold’s death scene count among the alterations? Sketches drawn by Antoine Benoît before the 18th century restoration do not indicate the row of holes next to the prone Harold’s eye, so it is apparent they might have been added later.

Bernstein tantalizingly reassured us in his manuscript that the 1982 restoration was bound to enlighten us through scientific analysis, but so far I haven’t been able to find the results of this event. Meanwhile, he gave us a theory as to why the Tapestry shows an arrow in the eye when not one of the six contemporary accounts mention it at all. He theorized that the arrow represented the hand of God in retribution for Harold’s oath-breaking. After all, the Tapestry was a Norman creation (propaganda tool?) and it is possible that William saw this supernatural intervention as an expression of God’s approval.


Lands belonging to Harold Godwineson and King Edward

Land belonging to Harold and Edward
These maps were taken from Ian Walker’s HAROLD, THE LAST ANGLO-SAXON KING. Because I read that Harold was the wealthiest landowner in England, I was particularly taken with the big difference between what he owned as Earl and Edward the Confessor’s personal wealth. How much would Harold have inherited at Edward’s death?

Walker devotes a whole chapter of his book to Harold’s lands and wealth. According to the author: “There are four principal sources of lands in this period. The first was family land inherited from relatives. The second was ‘bookland’ or land granted by diploma, most often by the king or another lord and in return for loyal service. The third was land attached to an office like that of an earl… The fourth was straightforward purchase.”

We know that Harold inherited a great deal of wealth from his father, who was granted many forfeited estates by Canute. It’s interesting to see how much land Harold owned in East Anglia after having ceded that Earldom to Gyrth. Presumably some of these lands were granted to him by local men to secure his support. Also, his wife Edith Swanneck was wealthy in her own right and many of the estates came with her. We see a heavy concentration of properties in Herefordshire, which probably came from Swegn’s forfeited estates, possibly from the murdered Beorn, and from Earl Ralf, who died in 1057.

The author gave us their relative values, calculated from the Domesday book. In 1066, Harold’s land values were £2846 plus £836 held by his men. The whole Godwine family held lands valued at £5187 plus £1428 for their men, while King Edward’s land was only valued at £3840, plus the value of his men, which was the land of every man in England! I would guess the latter uncalculated value would accrue to Harold once he became king? And what of the rest? It’s pretty mind-boggling to me.

What of Bosham? Perhaps it belonged to his mother? I have more questions than answers, but that’s history for you.


Map of Stamfordbridge Campaign

Click for larger image

Once again I stumbled across a very helpful map in Volume 3 of Freeman’s History of the Norman Conquest. In my mind I had trouble locating the relative locations of these important spots so this is very helpful to me.

The sequence of events:
1) Harald Hardrada lands at Riccall, leaving his fleet there. The small Northumbrian fleet may have withdrawn to Tadcaster.
2) Hardrada and Tostig march to Gate Fulford. Eadwine and Morkere march from York and meet them at Fulford in battle. The English were slaughtered. This happened on a Wednesday; York is said to have surrendered immediately after the battle and formally capitulated on Sunday Sept. 24. Supplies were promised; 150 hostages were given. Hostages from the rest of the shire were also promised, to be delivered at Stamfordbridge. Hardrada returned to Ricall.
3) That same Sunday evening, Harold Godwineson reached Tadcaster by the old Roman Road. He would have had to pass due west of Riccall. Did he know about the fleet?

4) Monday morning Hardrada went to Stamfordbridge with 2/3 of his army, leaving the rest at Riccall. Harold Godwineson marched to York, was greeted enthusiastically, and passed directly through the city toward Stamfordbridge. Apparently Hardrada only reached Stamfordbridge a short time before Godwineson.

I learned that the actual battle was probably fought a little less than 3 miles north of Stamfordbridge and a bit inland at a place called “Battle Flat”.  I’m still working on this confusing scenario!



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.

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, at Stamfordbridge 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 1065 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 would he have had the time to sail to Norway.  King Harald wouldn’t have had enough time to raise an army at that late date, 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.