Sacred relics and broken oaths with three claimants to English throne

It took 600 years to really establish the Saxons as lords and masters of the land now called England. They had driven the original inhabitants into the West and then pushed back the various Nordic invaders into small enclaves.

Edward the Confessor had ruled for a good time but in 1066 he popped his clogs and, as he had no children, died without an heir.

In latter years he had relied heavily on Harold Godwinson, son of the Earl of Wessex, Godwin, and brother to Edward’s wife, Edith.

It was no surprise then that when Edward gasped his last Harold Godwinson claimed Edward had named him his successor before he died. That was enough for the Witan, a group of elders who ruled as to the right of any claimant to the crown, to name him successor to the old man.

Thus on 6 January 1066 Harold became king in what was to be a very busy year for him, and a very short reign (I don’t think you can really call that a spoiler).

He could have expected a fairly peaceful reign, after all Edward had ruled in peace for many years.

Instead he was wary of a challenge from across the channel which divided England from France. Not that France had been any sort of problem to England in the past.

The problem lay with a a land inhabited by descendants of the Vikings who used to harass England before Alfred had succeeded in confining to a small area of England.

Early in the 10th century a band of these Vikings, or Norsemen as they were sometimes called, had settled in the lower valley of the Seine and under the leadership of a Viking called Rollo had taken to brigandry (highway robbery).

The French king at the time employed them initially as mercenaries and later granted Rollo and his men an area of land and Rollo himself was made a duke owing allegiance to the French king.

The Vikings gradually began to be referred to as Normans rather than Norsemen and the duchy became known as Normandy.

Roll on a few generations and Rollo’s descendant Duke Robert was ruling Normandy. He never married but did have a mistress who bore him his one and only son, William, also referred to as William the Bastard.

When little William grew up he claimed to be Edward the Confessor’s rightful successor as Edward had promised him this when the English king was in exile in Normandy.

Now Harold had been elected by the Witan, even if he hadn’t been named Edward’s successor by the Confessor himself.

The problem lay in the fact that Harold Godwinson had once been shipwrecked on the French coast and eventually became a hostage of William and actually fought by his side in certain local skirmishes.

William claimed that at this time, two or three years before Edward the Confessor died, Harold had made an oath that he would support William’s claim to the throne when Edward died. Well, when you’re a hostage you’ll say anything won’t you?

When Edward died Harold reckoned that the Witan’s decision and vote topped any oath he might have given “under duress” so he went ahead and had himself crowned.

William saw it in a completely different way. Oaths in those days were sworn over sacred relics and the Church, nowadays based in Rome, took them very seriously. Under these circumstances William said Harold had broken his oath by having himself crowned instead of supporting the Norman’s claim.

It wasn’t long before Harold heard the news that William was gathering an invasion fleet ready to come to England and take the throne. On top of this William had the support of the Pope.

After barely a month as top dog King Harold had to face the fact that he was not going to have an easy introduction to the role of ruler. He had to gather his own army ready to drive William back across the channel to Rouen.

At that time England did not have a standing army. The king had a personal bodyguard, his housecarls, often quite a large force who were trained fighters equipped with the best arms by the king.

This was fine if dealing with small groups of attackers but if it came to major battles then the all men of fighting age were called up to serve the king. Once the battle or battles ended these men would go back to their lands and get on with their farming.

By February 1066 Harold knew that William was preparing his invasion force and he sent out messengers to call all men to arms and he had a large army ready to face William.

The trouble was William didn’t come.

Sailing ships in those days required a following wind as the sails were basically big squares which gathered the wind coming from behind and any deviation in the wind direction would have taken them too far East or too far West to make landfall at a suitable spot.

Thus William sat on one side of the channel, with all his ships, his men and his horses ready to set forth as soon as the wind changed.

Meanwhile Harold sat on the English side of the channel with his army ready to repel the invaders.

Both forces waited, and waited, and waited . . . . . . . .

Now William’s force consisted of Norman knights and infantry along with mercenaries. It might have cost him a lot to keep the mercenaries paid while waiting but he did not have to worry about the rest of the country not being worked as the peasants were not involved with the invasion force.

The trouble is that Harold’s army mainly consisted of men who should have been working the fields as spring and then summer arrived.

In the end as summer came to an end and there was no sign of the invasion fleet setting out, let alone landing. That was when Harold disbanded the army and sent them back to work the fields.

Having waited for seven months with no action what were the odds that as soon as he sent his army away he would suddenly find himself in need of them.

That is exactly what happened and in September 1066 a claimant to the English throne landed with an army of experienced fighters.

The problem was that this was not William landing on the South coast but Harald Hardrada King of Norway who reckoned he had a claim to the English throne. Urging him on was Harold Godwinson’s brother, Tostig, who had been exiled by Harold earlier that year.

This Viking army had landed up North at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire.

Harold put the William problem on the back burner and set off North with his housecarls, picking up the peasant soldiers on the way.

NEXT TIME: Anglo Saxons 1 Vikings 0 – then back South for the big fixture

Published by Robin

I'm a retired journalist who still has stories to tell. This seems to be a good place to tell them.

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