‘a narrative from the mind of a practiced storyteller’ Continue reading “Book Review: Mercia by Annie Whitehead.”
The men who would be King.
In different places and at different times the great players in the 1066 drama heard of or saw the great long haired star that streaked across the heavens in April, each would have assigned different interpretations to it. Before the year was out three men would have changed the fate of England. The new King Harold, the defender of the realm and people’s champion, torn between his duty and his conscience that tracks to an oath sworn over holy relics to make another man King, and the repercussions his coronation would have. Duke William, the man behind the Norman succession, a paranoid, but talented warrior with wily political mind and a heart of iron and ice. Then comes the Viking, Harald Sigurdsen or Hardraada, usually seen just as a boor, the stereotypical Scandinavian giant inured to bloodshed and killing, but in reality a far more complex, cultured almost Renaissance, man who probably had more experience in statesmanship than Harold and just as much military experience as William.
Harold Godwinson was born into a family deeply invested in the deadly back room power struggles of Edward the Confessor’s court. His father Earl Godwine, had for a long time been the power behind the throne, a fact Edward resented and it is supposedly due to his unwanted interference that the sainted confessor remained celibate and never had a child with Godwine’s daughter. Sometimes in charge, sometimes living in exile, Harold eventually succeeded his father to the earldom of Wessex, with a thorough education in Saxon court politics. After campaigning in Wales had proven himself the most popular and most powerful Lord in England. It was in this role he was sent by Edward to promise the throne to the King’s cousin, Duke William of Normandy. Edward being strongly pro Norman as a sort of reaction towards the power of the Godwins. The legalities of this little jaunt amount roughly to this. By the accepted law of the land Edward could appoint his successor, but the Lords of the land were under no obligation to accept the choice after his death. Anglo Saxon succession required the backing of the nobility, and so when Harold swore (wether he intended to or not) to uphold William’s claim in England, he was promising to plead his case to the Earls, but he made no promise that they would listen to him. And they didn’t, this giving Harold the benefit of the doubt that he brought up Edward’s Norman succession idea. The nobles chose Harold, this was a traditionally acceptable means of candidacy and being the son of his father, Harold, was popular enough and strong enough to take it, and smart enough to call up his army in preparation for the Norman reaction.
William was an intelligent, ruthless, personally brave and utterly humourless. Brought up in a much more uncertain world. In that although the Normans didn’t tend to assassinate people as much as the Saxons did, they were quite happy to try and kidnap the young heir to the powerful Duchy and murder those who tried to protect him. Due to some debate on the matter of his parentage (his non de plum before the conquest was the bastard), when his father died, factions strove to gain control of the boy duke. However he survived, strong and paranoid into adulthood. He proved adept in politics, forging alliances with Saxon England, while crushing rebels and enemies in Brittany and France. As he read the playbook the English throne was his because he was a cousin of Edward the Confessor. A claim Edward had happy to foster due to his fear and hatred of Earl Godwin and his powerful sons. Having rescued and detained Harold during his mission to confirm the appointment, he further wrested a promise from Godwinson that had dramatic consequences when the old king died. Harold’s coronation could only be taken by William as a declaration of war. Every step of the way William had been careful to construct failsafes that would allow him to legally claim the throne. Harold’s bold move gave him all the ammunition he needed to brand Godwinson as an oath breaker to Europe and declare war.
To the Normans, Harold had committed a sin by breaking his oath and assuming the throne. William knew well enough about the customs in England, but he had thought Harold was in his camp, yet despite their Scandinavian roots, the Normans had forgotten their lineage and now did not wish to understand Harold’s motives.
Someone who understood perfectly however was at that moment already enthroned across the North Sea in Norway, Harald Sigurdsson, or Hardrada. Like Godwinson, Harald owed his position to the support of his nobles and landed warriors and by that token understood that if such loyalties could be redirected, a throne could be forfeit to a man willing to draw a sword to gain it. Nevertheless King Harald was not just the archetypal Viking, brooding in a smokey long house wearing a chunky fur trimmed cloak, thinking up plans for conquest. He was something of a professional soldier, and one whose talent had seen him travel widely. One does not just become commander of the Byzantine emperor’s Varangian Guard just because you are tall and strong. More than that Harald was most likely able to speak Greek, he composed verse in his native tongue, he ruled over a diverse country of both pagan and Christian religions and was fairly even handed about which he himself adopted at any given time.
For some time now he had been warring with his neighbours and was now looking towards England. However as a foreigner he did not enjoy the favour of the English people, nor did he have William’s blood link to Edward the confessor. He had a technical claim that ran back to Cnut the Great. He was certainly no friend of Godwinson and had supported his Welsh enemies, but by that token he needed someone to open a door. Then Godwinson’s brother Tostig arrived.
Tostig had been ousted by a popular revolt from the earldom Northumbria, pretty much for bad management. Harold wanted a stable country, and therefore essentially sold his brother down the river for peace. Tostig was a hothead and swore revenge. He sailed North, first to Scotland and then to Norway, where he promised to give his support to Harald if he would invade Northumbria.
The star that had flashed ominously through the night sky during the April of 1066 could then have been seen in different lights by the different players. Harold Godwinson perhaps felt a pang of worry, knowing such sights portended change, but who was to say the change was not his own ascension? William, made sure to dress up the importance of the event later, yet in those times we cannot exclude the idea that he too read in the trail of the comet the overthrow of kingdoms, but whose? To whom was the message intended? After Earl Tostig had set things in motion, Hardrada might have wondered if it was his destiny to become the next Scandinavian King of England?
Thanks for Reading and see you again for another adventure in Historyland.
After a delay which I could put down to factors beyond my control, but instead will attribute to seeing something shiny, this video has been unnecessarily delayed but hurrah! At last I have posted by latest 1066 Q&A vid, I’d love for you to like, comment and favourite, I’d love it even more if you subscribed to my channel but no pressure, I’m easy going like that, wether 10 or 10,000 people watch it. (But please, please, please do).
1. Signs in the heavens.
It began in the heavens, when on the 24th of April 1066, before the Kalends of May and on the eve St Mark’s day, a cursed light was seen to creep into the night sky. The next day was a rogations day given over to prayer and fasting known commonly as the “Feast” of Letania Major, and a penitential procession would mark the occasion. For 7 nights this “long haired star” distracted worshipers from pious thoughts and redirected their gaze to its brilliant long trailing flare. It travelled over the dome of the world, so bright that it seemed to extinguish those lesser stars that got in its way. It turned eyes from the message of forgiveness and repentance to introspection and endless discussion of what it might mean. The ravenous object had come at a portentous time for signs and wonders. King Harold had not been on the throne a year yet, nor the sainted king Edward in his grave much longer, before this javelin of white fire slowly glided over in the mystic void above the heads of the watchers below.
At doorways, windows and rooftops, around campfires, and on lonely town ramparts and broad city walls the people of England gazed with quiet horror at this glimmering messenger from a world beyond. It was a haunting sight, disaster comes from the Greek for bad star, these messengers of the cosmos were set in motion to warn mortals of coming calamity and those who saw them never forgot them.
“Thou art come!” Old brother Eilmer of Malmsbury had cried at the spectre, falling to his knees and continuing to call out with almost frantic terror, “A matter of lamentation to many a mother art thou… I have seen thee long since; but I know behold thee much more terrible threatening to hurl destruction on this country”. To men like the venerable Eilmer, this was an evil sign, that had dogged his footsteps since childhood. Something as personal as a shadow and just as hard to describe. Participation with the cosmos was rare and frightening, in that inky realm the universe was at work and affected the doing of mortal humanity, to see one of its heralds in motion was a mighty and fearful thing to behold. It’s indifference to the misery it wrought plain in its remorseless and uncaring path through the stars. This herald took his time, no shooting star was this, a brief flash of transient light, this vain busybody wished to be observed. For why should a messenger care for what he imparts? His only duty is to pass on what he has been told and leave.
King Harold had been at Westminster to celebrate Easter, the great embroidered cloth at Bayeux, shows him at court, being told of the mysterious sign by a servant who whispers the news in his ear. What Harold thought of it is anyone’s guess but he’d have known it would upset the people. The brothers of Malmsbury knew well enough that the scriptures told of wonders in the heavens and signs in the earth below, of blood, fire and columns of smoke. In France it was thought to portend the overthrow of kingdoms. Meanwhile through the dark vigils of the last week of April, the people of England star gazed with unspoken trepidation at the phenomenon. Some watched with wonder, others thumbed rosary beads, while the pagans clutched their totemic neck charms, until slowly the brilliance began to fade and on the 8th night disappeared from the sky as if it had never been there, ending the brief interaction between Earth and the powerful force that guided it. On the “tapestry” ghostly ships begin to collect in the bottom margin. The year of invasions had begun.
Anglo Saxon Chronicle.
Gesta Regium Anglorum. William of Malmsbury.
Campaigns of the Norman Conquest. Matthew Bennett.
Hastings 1066. Christoper Gravett.
Millennium. Tom Holland.
Normand Conquest. Marc Morris.