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1066: THE YEAR OF THREE KINGS

“History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days”

(Winston Churchill)

 

“I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.”

(Catherine Morland on ‘history’ – Northanger Abbey)

 

Prologue

In the summer of 1066 William the Bastard, seventh duke of Normandy, prepared to launch and king Harold II to repel an invasion of England. William was coming, or so he said, to take the English throne that was promised to him by the late King Edward and to punish Harold for his perjury for breaking his oath of fealty to the duke. At the same time, the Norwegian king Harald Sigurdsson (Hadradi–‘the ruthless’) was also planning to invade England with the same intention of seizing the English crown, which he claimed was his by right of a promise made by king Harthacnut to the king of Norway. Meanwhile, King Harold assembled the largest army England had ever known to defend the south coast opposite Normandy against the invasion he expected to come from across the English Channel. As summer gave way to autumn and William had still not come, the concentration of English land and naval forces became problematic since they could no longer be victualed and their temper was uncertain. The fleet, which was stationed off the Isle of Wight, was therefore ordered to sail for London and the army stood down. It was undoubtedly a setback for King Harold, which was made worse by the surprise news of an invasion in the north: not by Normans but by Northmen.

 

In early September, the contrary wind that had kept William’s ships in port, swept Harald Hadradi’s fleet across the North Sea to land on the northeast coast of England. Hadradi came with between six and eight thousand Viking warriors in three hundred ships. Reinforced from Scotland by Harold’s estranged younger brother Tostig, the Vikings met and defeated a Northumbrian army at Fulford, and captured York.[1] Harold, having hastily reassembled his army, forced-marched them north as soon as possible; on the 25 September at Stamford Bridge near York he surprised and defeated the Norse invaders. At the end of a vicious no-quarter battle the gigantic frame of Harald Hadradi, the most fearsome warrior in Christendom, lay dead in the field together with Tostig and ninety per cent of the Viking force. The survivors were so few they were allowed to sail back to Norway in twenty-four ships.[2] The battle of Stamford Bridge marked the end of Viking power in the North Sea and two centuries of conflict with the English. It also bought honour and disaster in equal measure to the last of the old English kings. Four days later, the Norman army landed unopposed at Pevensey Bay, Sussex.

 

Harold was probably at York on the 1 October when he heard the news of William’s landing. In what was by any standard an impressive military achievement, he had resettled the north, re-organised his army and force-marched them 200 miles to London by the 6 October; once there he ordered the Fyrd to assemble for a battle against William. Two days after leaving London, Harold was approaching the battlefield near Hastings. Next day the 14 October 1066 the two sides met in perhaps the most decisive battle fought on British soil. The battle of Hastings is generally depicted as a classic English infantry battle. The men standing stoically behind their shield wall repelling repeated assaults by Breton infantry and Norman cavalry. It was a bitter fight, which lasted all day; but eventually, the English were undone by indirect fire. A chance arrow fired over the shield wall found its mark in king Harold. Whether it killed the king instantly or disabled him is immaterial since he was very quickly hacked to pieces where he lay. Soon after, the English shield wall, being much reduced, was overwhelmed[3]. Within two months, William was crowned King William I of England. The Norman Conquest was a defining moment in history. It bought an end to the old Anglo-Danish kingdom of England and changed the history of Christendom. Henceforth, English attention was focused south towards the Latin world and not north to the Nordic one.

 

The period between 1042 and 1066 is veiled in a mist of legend and half-truths in which fact has become almost indistinguishable from fiction. Penetrating this mist to learn the truth about the years leading up to the Conquest is no easy matter for three good reasons: first, the passage of time, second the nature and relative scarcity of contemporary chronicles, and third because I am conscious of Miss Morland’s stricture that much of what we call history is invention. Nor should I ignore Winston Churchill’s memorable description of the historians’ burden, from a speech given in 1940 when Britain faced a greater existential threat from across the Channel. Later scholars have echoed Churchill’s meaning, albeit with less eloquence. Professor Frank Barlow makes the point rather better than most: “To write a history of Edward (the Confessor) and his reign (1042-66), we have to scrape the barrel with care; every scrap of information is precious… Any historical reconstruction must be a personal creation, and the scarcer and more untrustworthy the evidence the greater the artifice. The facts simply do not speak for themselves. Nor can facts and the historian’s contribution be separated. A history is not made of bricks and mortar. The historian does his best and writes in good faith. He meets uncertainty at every turn and offers his solution. Sometimes, the only course that he can honestly follow is to offer several equally plausible possibilities between which he cannot decide. He has to steer between bland assurances for which he has no warrant, and complete scepticism, which denies his craft.”[4]

 

More recently, Dr Michael Lawson has focused on the practicability of extracting the truth from the available material, which he likens to a jigsaw with pieces missing and without a picture as a guide. The problem is further aggravated by the fact that (to continue Lawson’s metaphor) we are dealing with puzzle pieces from different jigsaws. What students of the Norman Conquest have to work with are two incompatible versions of history: the Norman narrative and the English narrative, neither of which prove anything.[5]

 

According to the Norman narrative, William never did a bad thing or fought an unjust war. He was promised the English throne by a grateful King Edward and denied it by the treacherous Harold. However virtuous the Normans may have thought William was and regardless of whether they actually believed he was promised the English crown, the reality is that the duke of Normandy made no impression on the English chroniclers. His activities obviously did not affect them and there is absolutely no suggestion in the contemporary English sources that Edward ever considered duke William, or any foreigner, as heir to his throne. Insofar as king Edward nominated a successor, he only ever considered Englishmen.

 

Historians have been trying since the early twelfth century to interpret the Norman Conquest in the context of these contrasting historical narratives. Their general opinion is that the Norman sources can be accepted despite their faults for want of anything to disprove them. The passage of time has seen the emergence of a number of different theories, which for the most part are little more than variations of the traditional narratives. William may be presented as a little less virtuous and Harold as a little more so, but the pro-Norman opinion is broadly intact. Lately, however, a school of thought has emerged that challenges the traditional Norman narrative. Modern historians seem more disposed to criticise Norman sources for being partial, and spreading propaganda intended to justify the Norman Conquest and to placate a critical Pope. There is even a modern insinuation that the whole thing was a monumental misunderstanding, which was caused by a renegade Norman cleric called Robert Champart former abbot of Jumiéges, who misled William into thinking that King Edward had bequeathed the English crown to him. It was untrue, of course, but the duke believed it implicitly.

 

To an objective observer, none of these theories is convincing or complete, since none explain the inter-relationships between England’s three kings in 1066: Edward the Confessor, Harold II and William I. Their inter-personal relations are the ‘hidden history’ that traverses this period; that, between Edward and William being of singular importance: “With both Edward and William, so much was taking place within their minds and the minds of others that the roots of the drama are ultimately unknowable. The thread that runs through everything is Edward and William’s personal relationship, a story during which nothing discernable happened for years on end, yet, which was constantly ongoing. That they met only once between 1041 and 1066 should give pause for thought.”[6]

 

It is regrettable that efforts to resolve this evidential conundrum have divided historical opinion and unwittingly diverted the historiography of the Conquest from its proper course. Instead of enlightening us, it has become in professor Bates words a ‘barrier to the truth’.[7] It seems, therefore, that to understand the Norman Conquest one first has to understand the history of its historiography. Since it is ridiculous to think that I can solve mysteries that have puzzled scholars for centuries, I will not try to do so. In this article, I am focused on what I believe are the important issues: the relationship between the three kings, Edward’s ‘promise’ and Harold’s ‘oath’. These are the elements that I believe form the basis of William’s claim to the English crown and his justification for the Conquest. But first things first: I need to start with a brief explanation of the sources I have used.

 

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle et al

The main contemporary English source is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC).[8] Written in English, the ASC is a series of seven separate manuscript annals of English history from the late ninth to the mid twelfth centuries. They were probably copied from a common source (now lost) and completed at different monasteries each with its local interest, priorities and political bias. Historians have always treated the seven manuscripts as one chronicle; though for convenience, each is designated by a letter: Ã, A, B, C, D, E and F. My interest is in manuscripts C, D and E, which cover this period of the eleventh century. In view of the number of manuscripts and the regional variations, the ASC contains errors of fact and chronology.[9] Nevertheless, these faults notwithstanding, it has great historical value as the relevant parts were written contemporaneously, without the benefit of hindsight or the necessity to explain the Norman Conquest.

 

My other primary English source is the Vita Edwardi Regis (the ‘Vita’), which was written in about 1066 by an anonymous Flemish monk for king Edward’s queen Edith. Its express purpose is to glorify her father earl Godwin of Wessex, and her siblings Harold and Tostig. Consequently, the Vita is prone to exaggerate their role and importance during the period concerned. Broadly, the Vita’s message is that king Edward and his kingdom prospered whilst he was being advised and mentored by earl Godwin and his sons.. The Vita makes use of a lost original of manuscript E and provides a few facts not in the ASC. However, its bias and the author’s relative ignorance of English history, reduces its evidential value. It should be used cautiously, even though it is a useful balance to hostile Norman accounts.[10] There are also references to twelfth century historians in my text. I have used these selectively where I believe they add value to this piece. Anglo-Norman chroniclers such as Florence of Worcester (also called John of Worcester), William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon, Orderic Vitalis and the Saxon monk Eadmer, wrote their histories within a hundred years of the conquest. They relied principally on the remnants of an oral tradition and the written sources, some of which are no longer extant. Naturally, they should be used cautiously since they are not contemporaneous and authors were writing under Norman hegemony. Nonetheless, it would be foolish to disregard them altogether since, as Professor Frank Barlow points out, ‘they may help’.

 

The Normans writers – William of Poitiers and William of Jumiéges

The Norman written narrative is contained in the works of William of Poitiers and William of Jumiéges. Poitiers (1020-1080) was a Norman knight turned cleric who served as duke William’s chaplain and accompanied him on campaign. He wrote ‘The Life of William Duke of Normandy and King of England’ (Gesta Willelmi ducis Normannorum et Regis Anglorum). It is by his own admission a long and detailed panegyrical account of the duke’s achievements. Poitiers missed no opportunity to exaggerate William’s virtues and Harold’s vices. Jumiéges (b 1000) was a Norman monk who wrote ‘The Life of the Duke of Normandy’ (Gesta Normannorum Ducum). It is a plain tale of the Norman victory over the ‘perfidious’ English. It lacks Poitiers’ embellishments and is generally regarded as the more reliable of the two sources. The fundamental weakness in the Norman narrative is that it did not emerge in written form until after the Conquest. Inevitably therefore, it has drawn criticism from suspicious scholars who regard it is as propaganda, concocted with the benefit of hindsight after the event to justify the Norman Conquest.

 

The Bayeux Tapestry

In his monumental six-volume history of the Norman Conquest, Edward Freeman held the Bayeux Tapestry to be the highest of the Norman authorities. His belief was founded on the way the Tapestry’s narrative unfolds. It is told from the Norman perspective but ” …with hardly any of the invention, exaggeration, or insinuation of the other Norman authorities.” [11] The Tapestry is without doubt a masterpiece of medieval narrative art and an important historical document. It records in pictorial form a course of events in England and Normandy between 1064 and 1066, and it has moulded our perception of the Norman Conquest in much the same way as a Shakespearean melodrama has for the life and reign of Richard III. So much has been written about the Tapestry since it was rediscovered in the early eighteenth century that it is impossible for me to do it justice in a paragraph or two. I will, therefore, confine myself to a couple of general but important observations. First, notwithstanding its artistic merit, the Tapestry is not art for art’s sake. Although its antecedents are uncertain, the bulk of modern scholarly opinion is that William’s half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, commissioned it between 1077 and 1082 as a public testament to William’s conquest of England but more particularly to glorify bishop Odo’s part therein. Traditionally it is regarded as a pro-Norman story of English oath breaking.[12]

 

My second point is that the storyline is not as simple as first thought; modern re-interpretations of the Tapestry bear witness to its complexity. One of the main problems is that observers can only interpret the tapestry from what they see. The images are not accompanied by adequate textual explanation or dialogue; furthermore, the text is confusing and possibly even misleading. There is, therefor, a natural tendency to interpret the Tapestry’s story by reference to the written works of Poitiers and Jumiéges, which results in its pro-Norman treatment. In the last fifty years, however, a different interpretation has emerged, as Professor Bates explains: “ Over recent decades, its allusive captions, often ambiguous imagery, and likely audience, its treatment less often as a source that tells the story of William’s triumph and more frequently as one that in significant respects echoes Eadmer and the Vita Edwardi Regis, together mean it is taken as a moral tale relevant to all the participants in the story.[13]

 

Dramatis personae

Edward Æthelredesson, the eldest son of the Saxon king Æthelrede and his second wife Emma of Normandy, was born at a time of great tribulation for the king his father and the Saxon people. The golden age of Anglo-Saxon England had long waned. The last decade of the tenth century and the first, of the eleventh saw a new wave of Viking raids from across the North Sea. King Æthelrede, who was not called the ‘unraede’ (ill-advised) for nothing, adopted a policy of appeasement. He paid the Norsemen to go away. It was a futile policy, which imposed an unpopular tax on the Saxon population without stopping the raids. Sensing Æthelrede’s weakness, Viking ambition turned from plunder to conquest. The Danish king Cnut invaded England in early 1016 bent on seizing the English throne; before the year’s end he had destroyed the royal Saxon house and was acknowledged king of all England by the Saxon thegns. Æthelrede was dead and his widow Emma fled to her native Normandy with their two sons Edward and Alfred. Although we know little of Edward’s life in Normandy the experience affected him profoundly in later life. He left England as a child and returned in his middle age. It will be necessary to deal with his treatment in the duchy in more detail later; for now, however, I wish only to draw attention to two contextual points.

 

First: even though England’s and Normandy had a close alliance at the turn of the eleventh century, it was not a love match but an alliance driven by force of circumstance and ballasted by Æthelrede’s marriage to Emma of Normandy in 1002.[14] Both sides were adversely affected by the resumption of Viking raiding and fearful of Scandinavian territorial ambition. From duke Richard’s perspective, Emma’s marriage secured a useful alliance that gave the duke some influence at the English court. Æthelrede’s death and Cnut’s succession did not affect this arrangement since almost immediately the duke offered Emma as a bride for her late husband’s antagonist. Emma married Cnut in 1017. She bore him one son, Harthacnut, who displaced Edward and Alfred from the English succession. The secure possession of the two English Æthelings (princes of the royal blood) was of great political and diplomatic importance to successive Norman dukes as pawns in their relations with England’s de facto Danish king. The alacrity, with which uncle Richard and their mother discarded the Æthelings’ cause in order to secure an alliance with Cnut, indicates that their value as political levers outweighed family sentiment. [15]

 

Second: there is no evidence other than what the Normans tell us that Edward felt any filial connection with his maternal relatives. It is true that he was treated honourably as a member of the ducal household; yet, he was kept in the background and his cause as the senior English Ætheling was not taken seriously until the Anglo-Norman alliance began to break down in the 1030’s; at which time, it suited the duke to use the threat posed by Edward’s Ætheling status as another control mechanism against Cnut

 

William the seventh duke of Normandy was the bastard son of duke Robert and his concubine Herleve. He inherited his ducal title at the age of seven in 1035 together with his birthright: “relations with England were…conditioned by an interconnection between the Duchy and the Kingdom, which had been formed before his birth.”[16] Of course, by 1035 that relationship had changed dramatically. The alliance with Cnut was worthless and duke Robert became increasingly involved in English affairs on the side of Edward and his younger brother Alfred. Theoretically, that policy continued after William became duke; in practice, however, there was very little that he could do to support his English cousins. As a bastard son, his minority was a tumultuous time for Normandy. The ducal court was a shambles, William’s guardians were nearly all murdered and he himself was frequently moved from place to place at night to escape his enemies. Elsewhere, the Norman nobles pursued their own private wars and vendettas. It was a time of lawlessness, which William survived only because of the inherited authority invested in his ducal office. Despite the unrest and the violence, ducal revenues continued to be collected and the church remained supportive of him.

 

David Douglas described William’s character as paradoxical. There is little doubt that the general impression of William that emerges from the pages of history is repellent (to use Douglas’ words): though not, of course, to everyone. A Norman monk, writing after William’s death, described him as the wisest prince in Christendom of his generation; he possessed ‘the largest soul’, was brave, intelligent, determined, articulate and temperate, and a good Christian. Others thought differently: an Englishman who met William and lived at his court agreed that he was a wise and powerful king, possibly the most powerful yet known to English history. He was, however, also a ‘harsh oppressor’, brutal, avaricious and above all cruel. Whilst these characteristics were not uncommon among secular leaders of the time, William was considered to have been exceptionally wanton in his disregard for human suffering. Examples of his tyranny abound in Norman and English history; suffice to say that William had an unattractive personality. Despite that, Douglas tries hard to defend him from the accusation that he was nothing more than a ruffian, a brute. He was a clever and able man, and an effective war leader. Despite his rough justice and harshness William restored the rule of law to Normandy. As king, he enforced English laws strictly; so much so, that It was said that any innocent man could wander the realm without fear of bandits or cut purses. He was also abstentious and pious. No doubt his childhood experiences had much to do with his savagery in war; but as Douglas points out it was not mindless savagery. For example, his sack of Romney in 1066 allowed for the bloodless occupation of Dover. The devastation of London and its surrounds in 1066 was a strategic necessity, which crushed defiance in the south. And his brutality in the north was successful in finally quelling resistance to his rule.[17]

 

Poitiers writes that Edward loved duke William ‘like a brother or son’; if so, such a close relationship can only have developed while Edward was in Normandy, since if they ever met afterwards (and that’s a big ‘if’), it was not more than once. It is not impossible that William, who lost his own father in 1034, regarded Edward as a father figure or perhaps as an elder brother, but it is unlikely to have occurred before duke Robert’s death. It is possible that as the Æthelings’ stock rose, Edward was admitted into the duke’s inner circle as a confidante to the boy duke; he may even have bonded with William on an emotional level. The fact remains however, that as the duke got older he became increasingly adept at separating his emotions from his political sense. Neither was Edward so foolish nor so saintly that he did not understand the political imperative of not allowing emotion to govern state policy, especially when was a king.

 

Harold Godwinson was the second son of Godwin earl of Wessex and his Danish wife Gytha. He was born sometime between the years 1020 and 1023. His father, even then, was the most famous and the most influential of king Cnut’s English earls, and the king’s principal enforcer. Earl Godwin was the son of Wulfnoth a minor Saxon thegn and a pirate; his rise under a Danish monarch is remarkable, since he was a staunch supporter of king Æthelrede during the Danish invasion. Indeed, his efforts on behalf of the doomed king so impressed Cnut that Godwin was quickly recruited as one of the ‘new men’ with whom the Danish king intended to rule his new kingdom. Godwin’s subsequent rise to the summit of the Anglo-Danish nobility was due to his achievements in royal service at a time when the king was struggling to control his dual kingdoms of England and Denmark. We cannot be certain whether Godwin led an elite force of English soldiers on Cnut’s Danish campaign or whether, more importantly, he held England as Regent for the king during his frequent absences on campaign. What is certain, however, is that by the time young Harold reached puberty his father was the established power behind the throne. Moreover, his prestige and influence continued after Cnut’s death. Earl Godwin survived the uncertain and dangerous reigns of Harold I and Harthacnut, and prospered during the reign of king Edward. It was during these years that Harold established himself as his father’s most loyal and effective lieutenant: his ‘eldest and wisest son’ and earl of East Anglia in his own right.

 

Earl Godwin’s unexpected death bought Harold to the fore in 1053.[18] He succeeded to the earldom of Wessex and to his father’s place at King Edward’s side. His role as the chief administrator of the king’s household and government (‘Mayor of the Palace’) is acknowledged by modern historians; though, there is no consensus on the nature of his influence over Edward: was it benign or malign? The ASC for all its faults has a singular advantage over other sources; it was compiled from annals written before Edward’s death. Its matter-of-fact reporting of historic events between 1053 and 1066, including war with the Scots and with the Welsh, and the steps taken to ensure an English succession does not suggest any cause for concern about the king’s relationship with Harold. Manuscripts C and D capture the prevailing contemporary English opinion of Harold as “The noble earl who ever faithfully obeyed his noble lord an words and deeds, neglecting nothing whereof the national king stood in need.[19] Predictably, the Vita Edwardi gives an even more impressive report of Harold’s service: “He wielded his father’s power even more actively and walked his ways, that is in patience and mercy, and with kindness to men of good will. But disturbers of the peace, thieves and robbers this champion of the law threatened with the face of a lion.”[20] The Vita also describes Harold as being (I paraphrase): ‘distinctly handsome, graceful, and brave. He possessed great stamina and strength, being able to go without sleep of food, which was coupled with a mildness of temper and a ready understanding. He took contradiction in good part without retaliating even once where Englishmen of compatriots were concerned. He was not rash or flippant. He was also good at concealing or disguising his intentions, so that someone who did not know him was in doubt what to think. Alas, he was also rather too generous with oaths’.[21]

 

This assessment of Harold is born out by entries in the Waltham Chronicle, which Harold’s twenty-first century biographer summarises: “The [Waltham] Chronicle too saw Harold as a fine soldier, tall in stature and incredibly strong’ more handsome than all the leading men of the land’. He was skilled in the military arts, knowledgeable, astute, vigorous, prudent, with all knightly prowess and wisdom, and well conversant with the laws of the land. Yet he could be headstrong and prone to trust too much to his own courage.” [22] We also have what is said to be a copy of Harold’s epitaph written on his tomb at Waltham (now destroyed): ” [he was the]…blessed father of our country…brave…renowned among men, a man of character and authority.[23] If these English sources are agreed on Harold’s virtues, the Norman’s are equally agreed on his vices. Though they accept he was wise and brave (thus, making William’s victory all the greater), the Normans regarded Harold as a treacherous perjurer who usurper the English throne and met a just end.

 

His contemporary reputation notwithstanding, it is difficult to make an objective judgement of Harold’s life and reign without taking account of his ambition. Due to the efforts of earl Godwin, his family were already immensely rich and powerful before his death. They were, however, politically isolated and unable to overcome opposition to their own foreign policy proposals or to resist the machinations of Robert Champart who seems to have been pushing the king towards a pro-Norman policy. Harold was every bit as ambitious as his father and even cleverer. He quickly built on the late earl’s legacy by building a pro-Godwin consensus among the English nobility. He achieved this by the force of his personality and , more importantly, by ensuring that as far as possible the key government offices and titles were filled by members of his family or their proxies. Consequently, on important issues, such as the succession he carried the weight of opinion in the Witan. Furthermore, he assiduously increased Godwin wealth, power and prestige by the acquisition of significant land holdings in the south. The Doomsday Book provides ample evidence of the massive increase in the House of Godwin’s estates during Harold’s tenure as earl. It has even been said that he was richer than the king. Such ambition raises the inference that Harold might well have considered himself to be the next king of England in the absence of a suitable English prince of royal blood. It is also a reasonable inference in these circumstances that King Edward might have felt threatened by Harold’s power. In which case, he might well look to his second cousin William as an ally against the over-mighty Godwins.

 

The English succession in 1042

Medieval English monarchs reigned with the consent of their subjects; that much is implicit in the coronation oath, which has been sworn by every English (later British) monarch since 973. By their oath English kings swore to uphold the law of the land, to protect the English church, and to be merciful and just in their governance. In return, they were crowned and anointed, which is a process that transformed their status from human to divine. As God’s representative on earth, kings could not be judged or chastised by mortal man. Indeed, the history of the British Isles gives many examples of how difficult it is to remove a bad king once he is crowned and anointed. Nevertheless, there were no hard and fast rules governing the royal succession in pre-conquest England; the guiding principle was political pragmatism, rather than hereditary right or precedent. The Anglo-Saxon Witan considered the royal succession to be far too important to be decided by the lottery of birth and they introduced a strong (occasionally decisive) element of election into the process. It is axiomatic, therefore, that nobody no matter how high born they were, nobody could expect to succeed to the throne unless they possessed the necessary qualities to rule according to their oath. It was important but not critical that any contender was of royal blood, though not necessarily the late king’s heir. A good example of this constitutional flexibility can be seen in the accession of Harold Harefoot in 1035. He was Cnut’s eldest son but not his appointed heir. Yet, he seized the throne, disinherited his half-brother Harthacnut and reigned for five years until his death in 1040. His success was due principally to the support he received from the English nobility who preferred the ‘English’ Harold to the ‘Danish’ Harthacnut.

 

In the absence of a suitable royal candidate, the throne might pass to an acceptable commoner, which is precisely what happened in 1066. The Ætheling Edgar was passed over because he was considered too young to reign; instead, Harold, a commoner was nominated by the late king and recognised by the Witan as king. It was always useful to have the late king’s nomination, which raised a presumption of competence. However, the deceased king’s wishes were not paramount, they could be, and sometimes were, ignored. For example, Cnut’s nomination of Harthacnut was ignored by the bulk of the English nobles in 1035.

 

Edward’s returned to England only twice between 1016 and 1042. His first visit, in 1035, was a foolish attempt to assert his title as Ætheling. However, he lacked English support and his mission was unsuccessful. Alfred’s later visit in the same year was equally foolish since it resulted in his capture and death in circumstances that were to blight Edward’s later relationship with earl Godwin.[24] Edward’s second visit in 1041 was presumably at the king Harthacnut’s invitation, since he still lacked support in England. Harthacnut’s reason for inviting his half brother to England is obscure; it is, nevertheless, evident that Edward was ‘associated’ with the crown from the beginning and was nominated by Harthacnut as his successor. This was doubly significant since it put Edward in a strong position to compete for the crown ahead of other claimants and it bought Edward and Godwin earl of Wessex into an association that was to prove important in the future. For the present, however, Harthacnut’s sudden and unexpected death in 1042 placed the sovereignty of England in jeopardy.

 

Edward was well qualified to wear the crown. He was the son of a king, he was Harthacnut’s nominated successor and he was born in England of mixed Saxon and Nordic blood; yet his succession was uncertain. The Scandinavians Swein Estrithson and Magnus the Good (king of Norway) also had claims to the English throne. Swein Estrithson was the grandson of Swein Forkbeard and the best Danish bloodline candidate. Magnus’ title was based on the terms of his peace settlement between with Harthacnut, in which — he claimed — Harthacnut had promised him the English throne should he (Harthacnut) die first. There was by now a well of support for Edward among the English laity but it was not limitless. Some key players maintained cautious neutrality in the beginning. Edward had to make a positive case for his succession. Ultimately, Edward’s descent from the West Saxon line of Cerdic ensured his succession in preference to the Scandinavian claimants. Swein Estrithson accepted f Edward’s succession but Magnus continued to assert his prior claim until he died. Although, Norman knights accompanied Edward on his return to England, they were an honour guard rather than a fighting force with which he could enforce his claim. If Edward owed his throne to anyone other than his parents then according to English sources that man was earl Godwin. In the English narrative, there is no doubt that it was Godwin’s status and influence that persuaded the doubtful Witan to acknowledge Edward as their liege lord.[25]

 

It is tempting to look back on Edward’s life as the story of his path to sainthood and his reign as merely the prelude to the battle of Hastings, during which time the Norman threat was ever present. However, we must resist that temptation, since that was not how it was, or even how it seemed to people at the time. Edward canonization in 1161 had more to do with twelfth century politics than with events prior to 1066. His enrolment into the ranks of the ‘Holy Confessors’ (hence his title) has influenced some modern interpretations of his kingship; however, its connection with the Conquest is so tenuous that I need say no more about it.

 

It is true that the question of the succession occupied English minds for much of Edward’s reign; however, it only became a problem once it was realised the he was not going to sire an Ætheling. The lack of a royal birth left the way open for Magnus to press his claim. Indeed, he was only prevented from doing so in 1045 by the distraction of his continuing war with Swein Estrithson. In the event, Magnus’ sudden death in 1047 probably saved Edward from disaster; it did not, however, end the Norse threat, since Harald Hadradi inherited Magnus’ claim and posed a formidable threat to Edward’s crown. Consequently, it was the risk of invasion from Scandinavia that continued to drive English foreign policy.

 

The Promise

William’s justification for the conquest of England and the validity of his title to the throne is devastatingly simple. Poitiers conveniently summarises it in the form of a message from the duke to Harold before the battle of Hastings: “The duke instructed a monk from Fecamp to carry a message to Harold. ‘It is neither boldness not injustice but mature reflection and the quest for justice, which have led me to cross to this land, of which King Edward, my lord and relative, made me the heir, as Harold himself admits, because of the high honours and benefices which I and my ancestors conferred on him and his brother, as well as their men, and because all the men of his race, he believed me to be the most worthy and capable of supporting him in his lifetime, and of governing the kingdom after his death. He would not have done this without the agreement of his magnates, by the advice of archbishop Stiggard, earl Godwin, earl Leofric and earl Siward: all of them subscribed under oath that they would receive me as lord after the death of Edward and would never in his lifetime attempt to seize the kingdom by plotting against me. He gave as hostages Godwin’s son and grandson. Finally, he sent Harold himself to Normandy, so that he and I, both being present, he would swear what his father and other men already named had sworn in my absence. But in this voyage towards me, he was in danger of being taken prisoner and I rescued him by strength and wisdom. Harold made himself my vassal by doing homage and gave me surety in writing for my claim for the kingdom of England.[26]

 

Jumiéges’ version of events is simpler: “Edward, king of the English, being according to the dispensation of God, without an heir, sent Robert [Champart], archbishop of Canterbury to the duke with a message appointing the duke as heir to the kingdom which God had entrusted to him. He also at a later time sent to the duke, Harold the greatest of all the counts in his kingdom alike in riches and honour and power. This he did in order that Harold might guarantee the crown to the duke by his fealty and confirm the same with an oath according to Christian usage…Harold thereupon…performed fealty to him in respect of the kingdom with many oaths.”[27]

 

These two sources lie at the heart of our understanding of the Norman Conquest. For centuries, historians have disregarded their deficiencies because they believed that the authors were honest reporters and duke William’s claim was essentially just. Take, for example, the following comment by Sir Frank Stenton: “William of Normandy had a direct claim to Edward’s interest as the son of the man who protected him in exile. That he carried his interest to the point of recognizing William as his heir is placed beyond reasonable doubt by the reiterated assertions of the Norman writers that there was on occasion when he promised the kingdom to William. They do not agree about the date of the promise…but there is much to suggest that some recognition of the kind was an incident … in the English revolution of 1051.[28] Sir Frank Stenton is such a distinguished historian that it is difficult to accept that he believed its repetition was sufficient to prove the Norman claim ‘beyond serious doubt’. Proof to that high standard requires independent corroboration or unimpeachable documentary evidence, neither of which is present for this claim. It is an example of the tendency of some historians to accept the Norman account without any genuine critical analysis. Dr Michael Lawson makes an even stranger assertion about the credibility of the Norman narrative as evidence: “Even though they (Poitiers and Jumiéges) had every reason to be biased on the issue, and say some things that are difficult to believe, much of what followed becomes intelligible if this an other statements by William of Jumiéges and his fellow Norman writer William of Poitiers…are accepted.[29]

 

Inevitably, some historians dismiss the Norman narrative as propaganda on the several grounds that it is biased, unsubstantiated and incredible.[30] Professor Frank Barlow baulked at describing it as ‘wholly fictitious’ but he did think it was ‘ex parte’ (one-sided) and ‘ex post facto’ (after the fact).[31] The accusation of bias, though undoubtedly true, goes only to its evidential value; it is not proof of its falseness. Similarly, the lack of corroboration by an independent source goes to the weight to be attributed to the Norman texts as evidence; it does not disprove them. Indeed, in the context of eleventh century diplomacy and international politics, it is questionable whether an independent witness actually existed: they all had an axe to grind. The force of the sceptics’ argument lies in the cumulative effect of all three grounds advanced, especially the last. The assertion that the Norman tradition is far-fetched provides disbelieving scholars with the means to probe for and to exploit the flaws of commission and omission contained in it.

 

The contention that Edward bequeathed his throne to William out of gratitude does not bear close examination.[32] Whilst in exile, Edward never abandoned his Ætheling status or allowed people to forget his noble lineage. His actions after he left Normandy in 1041 certainly support the view that his thoughts about exile were not particularly kindly or forgiving. Indeed, such was his bitterness towards Emma, the mother who abandoned him, that in 1043 he reduced her to penury and kept her in close, though not uncomfortable, confinement. William of Malmesbury also relates how earl Godwin convinced Edward that the ‘miseries and poverty’ he endured in exile would discipline him to be a just king.[33] Neither is there any evidence that the Normans did much to promote his succession. Malmesbury wrote this about Edward and Alfred’s situation in 1017: “I find that their uncle Richard took no steps to restore them to their country: on the contrary, he married his sister Emma to the enemy and invader; it may be difficult to say whether, to the greater ignominy of him who bestowed her, or of the woman who consented to share the nuptial couch of that man who had cruelly molested her husband and driven her children into exile”[34] It’s true, as Malmesbury states, that duke Robert considered restoring Edward to his inheritance in the 1030’s after he and Cnut became alienated, but that came to nothing. When Harthacnut died in 1042, William was still struggling to establish his own hegemony in Normandy and anyhow Norman help was unnecessary since “ …the whole nation then received Edward as king, as was his right by birth”. [35]   In fact, he seems to have been ‘elected’ even before Harthacnut’s funeral

 

Neither is it true that Edward deliberately packed his court and the Church with influential Normans, in preparation for an eventual Norman succession. Of the five nobles he created, none were Norman; of his twenty-nine ecclesiastical appointments, seven were foreigners and three of those were Norman.[36] Most of the men who accompanied Edward to England were friends and acquaintances from his time in exile; few, were men of substance in their homeland. They came to England to make their fortune. Edward actually promoted more Lotharingians than Normans. Robert Champart the former Norman abbot of Jumiéges, was the only Norman chosen for high ecclesiastical office and that was a disastrous appointment.

 

Sceptical historians also assert that regardless of what Edward may or may not have wanted, William was barred from the English succession because he was a bastard. The ancient Synod of Chelsea (787) proclaimed that only legitimate kings were to be chosen ‘none resulting from adulterous or incestuous relationships.’ The weakness of this argument is that although it represented the considered policy of the English church and English custom, it was not representative of Scandinavian or Norman culture at the time.[37] Bastardy was not the stigma on the continent that it was in England. That said, it is inconceivable that the English nobility would have considered it an honour to have a foreign bastard on the throne. This is an important point because it highlights the cultural and constitutional difference between England and Normandy, where inheritance was by primogeniture (the inheritance of the first born son). I think this point further militates against the view that Edward’s promise, if he made it, was valid or even that he meant it to be taken seriously.

 

It is a curious feature of the English narrative that it is not based on what is written in the ASC or the Vita Edwardi, but on what is omitted therefrom. Neither text contains any reference to Edward’s bequest. There are two references to the English succession in the ASC. The D and the E manuscripts each refer to the fact that in 1057, king Edward recalled his nephew Edward the Exile from banishment in Hungary. William of Malmesbury adds that the king specified that Edward the Exile was to be accompanied by all his family, since it was the king’s intention “ as he declared that either he or his sons should succeed to the hereditary kingdom of England ”, Florence of Worcester concurring. [38] Unfortunately nothing came of this, as Edward the Exile died en route to England, leaving his infant son Edgar as the remaining English Ætheling. The other reference to the succession is for the year 1066, when king Edward was on his deathbed: “ yet did the wise king entrust his kingdom to a man of high rank, to Harold himself, the noble earl who ever faithfully obeyed his noble lord in words and deeds neglecting nothing, whereof the national king stood in need.” [39] This leads me to an argument raised by the late Peter Rex; he argues that whatever Edward may or may not have promised to William, he changed his mind twice; first in 1057 and again in 1066. According to Rex Edward was entitled to do this under English civil inheritance law, which held that each new bequest superseded the previous one. Consequently, any bequest he might have made to William was cancelled in any event. While this is an attractive argument, it fails because it is based on the premise that English ‘kingship’ (i.e. the ‘Crown’ as a concept) is the heritable property of the royal family, which is wrong. The office of king (the crown) is not royal property to be bequeathed as though it was land or jewellery or money. The analogy with civil law is inappropriate because, as I have already said elsewhere, the succession is a political process and not a legal one. The reality is that Edward could not promise, bequeath or grant the throne to anybody, since that person would only ascend the throne if he had the support of the Witan. King’s could and often did make their preference known, which may or may not be accepted by the English nobility.[40]

 

The only reference to duke William in the ASC, is the following entry in manuscript D for the year 1051/52: “Then soon came duke William from beyond the sea with a great retinue of Frenchmen, and the king received him and as many of his companions as it pleased him, and let him go again.”[41] It is odd that this entry is unsupported by other contemporary English sources, especially in view of the tense political and diplomatic situation at the time. It raises two possibilities: i) that there was no contact or diplomatic arrangement between England and Normandy, or ii) it was of no consequence to the English chroniclers. Though this silence cannot be ignored or dismissed, it doesn’t actually prove anything. There are many reasons why Edward’s bequest was not recorded by the English; for example: it never happened, it was not newsworthy or perhaps they did not realise they needed to refute a hypothetical future claim of Norman legitimacy.

 

The combination of Norman ambiguity and English reticence has forced historians to speculate about if, when and how Edward might have bequeathed the throne to William. The general opinion is that, if it happened at all, it probably happened during or soon after a conflict between the King and Earl Godwin that erupted in 1051. Edward had not forgiven earl Godwin for his part in the death of Alfred the Ætheling and, stirred-up by Robert Champart the archbishop of Canterbury, wanted to bring Godwin down a peg or two. Godwin, for his part, resented his loss of influence at court caused by Champart’s machinations. The tension between king and earl came to a head in the summer of 1051. A violent clash in Dover between the townsfolk and the retinue of Count Eustace of Boulogne proved to be the catalyst for rebellion. Many people were killed in the affray and Eustace complained to Edward about the violence done to his men. The king therefore commanded Godwin to sack Dover as punishment for the brawl. The earl refused to do so on the grounds that the town lay within his estates and he did not wish to impose such a crushing punishment on his own vassals; especially if, as he believed, the king had acted hastily without knowing all the facts. Thus, it was that Godwin and his sons assembled a ‘great army’ and marched to within fifteen miles of where the king held court at Gloucester.[42]

 

The ASC (D) reports that the rebels were resolved to fight the king, unless count Eustace was handed over to them. However, the more sympathetic (to Godwin) E manuscript reports that they merely wanted to get the king’s and his council’s advice on how they might redress the wrongs done to them. It doesn’t really matter which of these two versions we believe since despite his wealth and power, Godwin was in this instance politically isolated. Loyalists’ flocked to Edward’s cause with their retinues and Godwin was soon outmuscled. Both sides withdrew from armed conflict to consider their positions. The king, now further reinforced, demanded that Godwin and his sons should appear before the Witan to explain their conduct. Unfortunately, the breach of trust was too serious for Godwin and his sons to place themselves at the king’s mercy. They refused to appear and were forced to flee the country. Earl Godwin went to Flanders with three of his sons; Harold went to Ireland with his youngest brother.

 

One of the significant features of the rebellion was the king’s repudiation of his wife Edith, which may have been at the behest of Robert Champart. In David Douglas’ opinion, the importance of this whole episode is that it bought the king’s childlessness and the problem of the succession to the fore at a time when earl Godwin’s influence at court had been removed. It is about this time, ‘before the end of 1051’ as Douglas writes, that Edward nominated William of Normandy as his heir.[43]The rebellion of the earl of Wessex may even have been caused by knowledge of this transaction and the affair at Dover would in that case have been regarded as a secondary cause of the upheaval that followed.”[44] In any event, and this is the point, Edward was now free to establish closer ties with Normandy. it has been suggested that William came to England personally to receive Edward’s promise. The authority for this proposition is the single entry in manuscript D of the ASC to which I have already referred. Florence of Worcester’s repetition of this entry may have led some historians to link William’s visit to Edward’s royal promise. Others doubt the visit ever took place.[45] Fortunately, we do not need to decide between the different opinions, since even if the visit did take place, there is nothing in manuscript D or in Florence of Worcester’s account or even in the Norman texts to suggest it was concerned with the English succession. Neither William of Poitiers nor William of Jumiéges ever assert that William received his promise directly from Edward, which they surely would have done had they known about it; it would have strengthened William’s claim immeasurably.[46] In fact, they do not mention the visit at all.

 

If we accept that William’s visit did take place, it is inconceivable that he would have come uninvited. So, why would he come? It was not for his aunt Emma’s funeral, which he never attended. If William came to see Edward at all, it is probable he came as a petitioner to seal a treaty of friendship between Normandy and England. Pete Rex thinks that is a possibility based on his interpretation of the single entry in the ASC (D): “ When king Edward accepted William and some (not all of) his men, he accepted them as vassals…William had done homage and fealty to Edward, probably to seal a treaty of friendship or alliance between them.” [47] On this interpretation, William’s visit had ‘no connotations’ of making him king of England. If William came as a petitioner, it might explain why the Norman writers do not mention the visit. They could never bring themselves to represent William as a petitioner seeking a favour of Edward. Equally, William may have come to support his cousin against the English rebels, or even to size-up his chances of claiming the English throne. In view of this last possibility, Sir Frank Stenton’s speculation that William might have had ‘designs’ on the English crown from as early as 1047 has implications he might not have intended. It implies that William’s aspiration for the English crown may have stemmed from imperial ambition rather than the recovery of his inheritance.[48]

 

The Norman sources are, however, explicit. It was Robert of Jumiéges who conveyed Edward’s promise to duke William. Unfortunately, they do not date Robert’s visit, which has given rise to some intense speculation about when it might have taken place. If, as some scholars suggest, it was in 1051, during Robert’s visit to Rome for his pallium as archbishop of Canterbury, one wonders why no mention of it is made in the ASC or in the Vita in the context of earl Godwin’s rebellion, which they report in great detail. The difficulty is that Poitiers asserts that the three great English earls and archbishop Stigand agreed with Edward’s promise. If that is true, it dates the promise to 1052, after Godwin had recovered his authority with the king. In which case, Robert of Jumiéges could hardly have been the messenger since he had fled the country by then.[49] There is no right answer to this conundrum; the ‘evidence ‘ is just not there to do other than theorise.

 

The Oath

Harold’s visit to Normandy provides different challenges. It is possibly the most important episode in the pre-conquest story since it goes to the core of the William’s claim. Harold’s perjury was his raison d’etre for invading England. The whole episode as it is described stems from the pens of the Norman writers. They assert king Edward sent his greatest lord, Harold Godwinson, to Normandy to guarantee Williams succession on oath. On his way to Normandy, Harold was captured and imprisoned at Ponthieu by Count Guy of Abbeville. Harold was released following the duke’s personal intervention and taken to Normandy where he ‘sojourned’ as the duke’s ‘guest’ for a while. Whilst in Normandy, he swore an oath of allegiance to the duke ‘according to Christian usage’ and as he had been commanded to do by king Edward.

 

The challenge for those writing about this affair now is that the truth cannot be established. The evidence is too unreliable. For instance, there is obvious confusion about the venue for Harold’s oath swearing: Poitiers puts it at Bonneville, the Bayeux Tapestry shows Bayeux, Orderic Vitalis suggests Rouen and William of Jumiéges says nothing. What are we supposed to think? We also have to take into account Poitiers’ tendency to exaggerate, which is apparent in the passage where he suggests that Harold’s embassage was meant to increase Edward’s honour; presumably, by the acquisition of such a distinguished heir. That is nonsense, since it is patently obvious that it was the king who honoured the duke if he named him as heir.[50] Despite his position in the duke’s household and despite his glorification of William’s character and achievements, Poitiers is evidently not an eyewitness to the events he describes.  It is most likely that he was using information contained from a complex and sophisticated legal case, which William had submitted to his fellow Christian Princes and to the Pope, in support of his title to the English crown and to reassure them about his intentions.[51]

 

Finally, on the issue of Norman credibility, I refer to Poitier’s statement that Harold gave his oath willingly as a quid pro quo for retaining his titles and estates after William’s accession. This version of events is too improbable to accept. Harold was the king’s wealthiest, most powerful and most important subject. He was England’s most redoubtable warrior, an excellent diplomat and a wise administrator. As head of the king’s household and his principal advisor, Harold took on the burden of the governance and administration of the realm while the king concentrated on his own priorities: religious devotion and hunting. The political reality is that Harold was easily the best person to succeed Edward after his death.[52] The idea that Harold would willingly give this up merely to maintain his status quo as an earl in William’s court is absurd. Paul Hill regards this whole thing as akin to a negotiation in which Harold was bargaining for his own demands.[53] Even if we accept Hill’s analogy, it is impossible to think that Harold would accept so little in exchange for so much unless, of course, he had no choice.

 

Even though the truth of Harold’s visit can never be known, there are some agreed facts that need not trouble us. First, it is indisputable that Harold visited the Continent probably in 1064. Second, it is accepted that, whether by design or misadventure, Harold fell into the hands of duke William and spent time in Normandy as the duke’s guest. Third, we can be sure that whether under duress or voluntarily Harold swore an oath to William of some sort. What remain in dispute are: (i) the purpose of Harold’s visit, (ii) the type and meaning of his oath and (iii) whether the oath was given as a result of deception and/or under duress.

 

The Tapestry’s treatment of this episode is revealing. As Freeman recognised and others have argued, it owes more to Eadmer’s Saxon tradition than Poitiers’ or Jumiéges’ Norman one.[54] According to Eadmer, Harold persuaded a reluctant king to allow him to travel to Normandy to bring back his brother and his nephew who were hostages there. The king did not trust William; he believed he would seek to gain ” some great advantage to himself. ” Despite his fear that the trip would end badly for Harold and for the kingdom, the king did not veto it. Harold sailed for Normandy but was shipwrecked in a great storm, captured by the Lord of Ponthieu and imprisoned. He managed to bribe a guard with the promise of reward and the duke of Normandy was told what had happened. The duke secured Harold’s release and took him to Normandy ‘for a few days’. William agreed to release the hostages on condition that Harold supported his claim to the English crown, which, he said, was promised to him by Edward when he was in Normandy and “when they were both young.”   Perceiving the danger, Harold agreed to William’s condition; whereupon, he was made to swear an oath on holy relics. Harold returned to England with his nephew (his brother remaining as surety for Harold’s help). “When, on being questioned by the king he told him what had happened and what he had done, the king exclaimed: ‘Did I not tell you that I knew William and that your going might bring untold calamity on this kingdom!’ Shortly after this Edward died.” [55]

 

The Tapestry gives no hint as to the purpose of Harold’s visit and to understand the Saxon interpretation we must begin at the end, with the scene showing Harold’s return and his meeting with the king: “It captures the scene of Harold’s return to Edward brilliantly. Harold is shown in an astonishingly but deliberately contorted stance; his head is bent low, his neck stretched out, his shoulders remarkably hunched, his hands raised in a vain attempt at explanation.”[56] It is plain to see that Harold is no longer considered to be a knight above reproach; indeed, “he is an outcast devoid of honour, his hunched and twisted figure announces his moral depravity much as does Shakespeare’s that of Richard III.” [57]

 

  1. The Bayeux Tapestry: Harold reporting the outcome of his journey to Edward Bayeux Tapestry 02.jpg

 

The artist’s skill is in the fact that a Norman audience (for whom this was intended) would see exactly what they expected to see: perfidious Harold. Whereas, on a more thoughtful appreciation, we can see that this scene does not depict Harold returning from a successful mission upon which the king had sent him (and as the Norman case requires). Edward’s admonishing finger pointed at the earl only makes sense in the context of Eadmer’s account that the king disapproved of the trip and even more of the outcome. This interpretation might explain the ambiguity of the opening scene of the Tapestry; wherein, the king and the earl are portrayed in a master-servant relationship.

 

  1. Edward and Harold ‘discuss’ the earls planned journey to NormandyBayeux Tapestry 01.jpg

The Norman lord who commissioned the tapestry and Norman the audiences would have little difficulty in perceiving this as Edward commanding Harold to go to Normandy to confirm William’s designation as heir to the throne; though, significantly that is not at all obvious from the accompanying textual inscription. The reason for the visit is not made clear from the text, as it very easily could have been. This ambiguity may have been deliberate so as to make a dual interpretation possible without it being obvious to the Normans. Furthermore, in the context of the final scene, Edward’s finger pointed at Harold’s chest coupled with the king’s facial expression and the manner in which he leans towards Harold suggests that he could very easily having been making the point forcefully that Harold’s proposed journey was a bad idea.

If Harold was not sent by Edward to guarantee Williams succession, then why did he go to Normandy? It could have been, as Eadmer states, to recover hostages. We know that William held two English hostages, one of whom returned to England with Harold.[58] That said, the question of hostages is a matter of some controversy among scholars. Poitiers declared that in order to confirm his grant of the succession Edward surrendered Godwin’s unnamed son and nephew as hostages to the duke. Eadmer not only names the hostages as Godwin’s son Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon but he also links their presence in Normandy to the reconciliation of the king and earl Godwin in 1052. According to Eadmer, Edward demanded hostages as sureties for Goodwin’s loyalty. Eadmer implies that Robert Champart, archbishop of Canterbury, conveyed the hostages to Normandy at the same time as he fled there to avoid Godwin’s vengeance.[59] The ASC (E) supports Eadmer’s account. According to it, bishop Stigand and the ‘wise men both inside and outside the city’ intervened with God’s help in what was a standoff between the king and the earl “…and advised that hostages should be given as surety on either side, and so it was done.” Barlow is inclined to regard this as ‘unconvincing’ support for Eadmer; he quibbles about whether hostages were actually exchanged. The fact the ASC says explicitly ‘this was done’ is convincing enough for me.

 

Harold may have been trying to arrange a dynastic marriage between the duke’s family and his own. The author of ‘King Harald’s Saga’ certainly thinks that the problem between the two men was caused by a broken marriage promise; it seems, that much of Christendom thought the same.[60] According to Peter Rex: ” Most accounts of the matter, outside Normandy, state that Harold had agreed to marry a daughter of the duke and that the quarrel between was because he broke his word to do so. It was that and not an oath about the English succession that was widely known throughout Western Europe.”[61] William of Malmesbury is not sure what to believe. He half-heartedly rejects the claim that Edward sent Harold to Normandy to confirm William’s succession, on grounds that “he imagined (that) device to extricate himself…(from the clutches of Guy of Abbeville).”[62] In Malmesbury’s view, it is ‘nearest the truth’ to say that Harold went sea fishing and was blown onto the shore at Ponthieu by a tempest, and seized by Guy’s men, who imprisoned him. Subsequently, he was liberated at William’s command and taken personally to Normandy by Guy. There he ingratiated himself to the Normans by his courage and ability: “Of his own accord (he) confirmed to (William) by oath the castle of Dover, which was under his jurisdiction and the kingdom of England, after the death of Edward.[63] It is at this point that Harold is supposed to have been betrothed to William’s daughter.

 

Peter Rex offers what he considers to be the natural explanation for Harold’s journey; namely, that he was scrutinizing the possible opposition.[64] The Vita Edwardi describes Harold’s fondness for using foreign trips to spy out the land, and to familiarise himself with the character, policy and strength of the princes of Gaul. This is espionage, which Harold carried out “…personally and adroitly…and by God’s grace, he came home passing with watchful mockery through all ambushes as was his way.[65] The simplest explanation of a mystery is often the correct one and it may be so here: who knows? Rex is surely right, though, to conclude that none of these conflicting accounts are watertight or compelling. What they do tell us, however, is that the Norman narrative was not universally accepted outside the duchy.

 

I turn now to the third question. The belief that Harold was an oath breaker was widespread Europe after of the Conquest. The Norman sources are partial and they have embellished the circumstances of the oath; nevertheless, they are unlikely to have fabricated it. Given what we are told of his character, the idea that Harold was tricked is preposterous. The relevant question is whether he swore an oath readily rather than willingly to escape the danger he perceived. It would be the rational thing to do and in keeping with his apparent fondness for oath taking. By all accounts, Harold was a savvy politician, diplomat and soldier. He was well able to conceal his feelings and his intentions, and to dissemble if necessary. It is inconceivable that he was not aware of the posturing taking place in Normandy. He surely realised that, in the absence of a suitable prince of the royal blood, he was the best English candidate to succeed Edward. And he must also have realised, if not before then certainly during his sojourn in Normandy, that William was a rival for the throne. There were other rivals, he knew, but William was the most dangerous. I don’t think Harold had any intention of curtailing his own regal ambition by supporting William’s claim, or of marrying the duke’s daughter. Yet, discretion being the better part of valour, he probably thought there was less risk in pretending he might.

 

Eadmer’s ‘History’ supports the above interpretation. Even though he is not an eyewitness and his account is unique, Eadmer is probably reporting a Saxon tradition current in England after the Conquest. Indeed, we can infer as much from the Bayeux Tapestry, to which I have already referred. The importance of this is that it confirms that even the Saxons believed Harold swore an oath of some sort about the English succession. Eadmer describes how William wrote to the newly crowned Harold, demanding that he send his sister to Normandy as he promised and reproaching Harold for violating his other promises, given on oath. Harold’s reply as described by Eadmer is a potent mixture of sarcasm and contempt, which indicates that Harold was not inclined to appease the duke: ” My sister, whom according to our pact you ask for, is dead. If the duke wishes her body, such as it now is, I will send it, that I may not be held to have violated my oath. As to the stronghold at Dover and the well of water in it, I have completed that according to our agreement, although for whose use I cannot say. As for the kingdom, which was not then mine, by what right could I give or promise it? If it is about his daughter he is concerned, whom I ought, as he asserts, take to be my wife, he must know that I have no right to set any foreign woman upon the throne of England without having first consulted the princes. Indeed, I could not do so without committing a great wrong.”[66] Harold’s scornful attitude is even clearer as the continuing ‘correspondence’. William, now incensed, replies that unless Harold keeps his promise to marry his daughter, he will enforce his right to the English succession by force of arms; to which, Harold replies: “I will not do the one and I do not fear the other.” [67]

 

The point that Harold had no authority to promise the throne to William is certainly true, as both men well knew. It is, however, beside the point since that is not accusation made against Harold. He is alleged to have pledged his support for the duke’s succession. The reply that Eadmer attributes to Harold avoids the issue, possibly because the accusation cannot be denied. The possibility remains that Harold was confident he could wriggle out of an oath obtained under duress and, furthermore he didn’t fancy the duke’s chances of enforcing it. This is pure speculation of course, since we cannot know the absolute objective truth after the passage of nine hundred and fifty years.

We covered a sequel to Hastings here

[1] Tostig Godwinsson was the former earl of Northumberland. In 1065, the Northumbrians rebelled against him and rejected him as their ldeao Stephen Morillo (Ed) – The battle of Hastings (Boydell 1996) rd. He fled to Flanders where his wife’s kin were. He was resentful of Harold for not coming to his aid and threw in his lot with the Norwegians in 1066. Harald Sigurdsson said he had inherited King Magnus of Norway’s title, which was derived from a treaty with the late king Harthacnut of England. Tostig had attempted his own invasion in May but was driven northwards where he harried the English coast until he sailed for Norway. Harold perceived Tostig’s raiding as a precursor to William’s planned invasion. The actual number of warriors involved on both sides is unknown but best estimates suggest between 5-6000 men on each side at Fulford and probably similar numbers at Stamford Bridge. However, the English losses at Fulford were heavy in their best troops, who could not be replaced in time to face the Normans in the south. These northern troops were sorely missed at Hastings. It is probable that Harold would have defeated the Norman invaders, were it not for the distraction of the Norwegian invasion. This is all I propose to say about the Norwegian invasion and the role of Tostig in English politics since they are not strictly germane to my main article.

[2] Magnus Magnusson and Herman Pálsson (Trans) – King Harald’s Saga from Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (Penguin Classics 1966) pp.140-155; this is the most detailed Scandinavian source for the Norwegian invasion of 1066. It cannot, however, be taken literally since it was not written contemporaneously with events and Snorri was an inveterate storyteller with a tendency to embellish the facts.

[3] The battle of Hastings is itself the subject of a controversy that raises issue I cannot deal with in this article. The traditional depiction of the fighting and the course of the battle have been contradicted by military experts, as has its location. See, for example, Stephen Morillo (Ed) – The battle of Hastings (Boydell 1996); MK Lawson   – The Battle of Hastings 1066 (The History Press 2016 edition); John Grehan and Martin Mace – The Battle of Hastings 1066: the uncomfortable truth (Pen & Sword Books 2012).

[4] Frank Barlow – Edward the Confessor (Yale 1997 edition) p.xxix

[5] Lawson, p.17

[6] David Bates – William the Conqueror (Yale 2016) p.7

[7] Bates, ibid

[8] GN Garmonsway (ed and trans) – The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (JM Dent, Everyman edition 1972)

[9] Ian Walker – Harold: the last Anglo-Saxon king (Sutton 1997) p.xx

[10] Frank Barlow (ed and trans) – Vita Edwardi Regis (The Life of King Edward) (Nelson Medieval Texts 1962) pp.9-10; Thomas Forester (trans) – The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester with two continuations (London 1854) passim; see also Barlow (Edward) passim: esp Appendix A, pp.291-300.

[11] E A Freeman – The Authority of the Bayeux Tapestry [published in ‘The Study of the Bayeux Tapestry’ [Richard Gameson (Ed)] (Boydell 1997) pp.7-15]; this essay was reproduced from Freeman’s ‘The Norman Conquest of England: its causes and results (Oxford 1875) pp.563-575

[12] Lawson pp.77-85 for example; Dr Lawson’s interpretation of Tapestry is a typical example of the general opinion that its storyline has a theme of English oath breaking.

[13] Bates p.194; Peter Rex – Harold II: the doomed Saxon king (Tempus 2005) passim, but esp pp.157-178; NP Brooks and HE Walker – The authority and interpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry: published in Richard Gameson (Ed) – The Study of the Bayeux Tapestry (Boydell Press 1997) pp. 63-92; this is a seminal article on modern thinking about the Tapestry; see also Andrew Bridgeford -1066: the hidden history of the Bayeux Tapestry (Walker & Co 2006) et passim; see also Carola Hicks – The Bayeux Tapestry: the story of a modern masterpiece (Vintage 2008) Chp 1 passim.

[14] Emma was the half-Viking sister to Richard I duke of Normandy (942-996). Her nephew, Richard II (996-1027) was Edward’s first cousin. As the (illegitimate) son of duke Richard’s younger brother Robert (1027-1035), William the Bastard was Edward’s second cousin

[15] Mk Lawson – Cnut: England’s Viking king (The History Press 2011 edition) pp.104-107. Dr Lawson raises the possibility that Cnut offered to share the of England kingdom with Æthelrede’s sons; however, duke Robert death in 1034 and Cnut’s death soon after prevented this proposal being taken forward.

[16] David Douglas – William the Conqueror (Yale1999 edition) pp.160-67 (esp161)

[17] Douglas pp.364-376. I make no apology for extrapolating this paragraph from Douglas’ biography; Bates pp.513-528 offers a different approach. He rejects Douglas’ straightforward ‘paradoxical’ interpretation of William’s character in favour of a more subtle judgement, which frankly was too elusive for my taste.

[18] Vita p.30; Swein Godwinsson was the eldest of Godwin’s sons; however, he died in 1052.

[19] Garmonsway pp.194-195

[20] Vita; ibid

[21] Rex (Harold) pp.86 and 87; Vita p.30

[22] Rex (Harold) ibid, citing L Watkins and M Chibnal (Eds) – The Waltham Chronicle (Oxford Medieval Texts 1994). the author of the Waltham Chronicle claimed that his information came from Turkill the Sacristan, an old man who was a contemporary of Harold.

[23] Rex (Harold) p.87 citing: Harleian MS3776. Fol. 62n & 62v.

[24] Alfred was captured on his way to London by earl Godwin and his men, and handed over to king Harold I’s men who killed him in particularly gruesome circumstances; whether this was through negligence or by design is not known. Edward never forgave Godwin for his part in the death of his brother.

[25] Frank Stenton – Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 1971 3rd edition) p.560

[26] Morillo, p.11; this is a useful text book because it contains extracts from the Norman and English sources, from which my quote is taken

[27] Morillo p.18

[28] Stenton p.561;

[29] Lawson pp.23 and 97; even though Dr Lawson acknowledges the difficulties of the Norman accounts (see also my note 3 above) he chooses to either reject or ignore his own concerns.

[30] Barlow (Edward) passim; Rex (Edward) chapter 13 et passim; Peter Rex – Harold II; the doomed Saxon king (Tempus 2005) Chapter 8 et passim. All these authors challenge the Norman tradition in detail that is impossible to repeat in this article.

[31] Barlow (Edward) p.107

[32] Barlow (Edward) ibid: citing Poitiers pp. 30-32,158,168 and 174-176, and Jumiéges p.132.

[33] William of Malmesbury p. 217

[34] William of Malmesbury p 198

[35] Garmonsway pp.162-163 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle record of Edward’s succession with its accustomed brevity

[36] Rex (Harold) p.35; Walker p.25

[37] Rex (Edward) p.173; of course, bastardy was treated differently in Norman culture, which was Scandinavian in origin. See also Bates pp. 513-528

[38] William of Malmesbury p.253 and Florence of Worcester p.159; Malmesbury and Florence were writing in the twelfth century, by which time England was a hereditary kingdom. It was the Normans who introduced the continental practice of succession by strict inheritance and primo geniture. Although that was not the case in England during the Saxon dynasty, the Anglo-Norman chroniclers may have simply reflected 12th century pro-Norman opinion as they were given to understand it.

[39] Garmonsway p.195

[40] Rex (Edward) pp.176-179; this sets out Rex’s argument and his reasoning

[41] Garmonsway p.176; see also Florence of Worcester p.152. Florence mentions the duke’s visit with a retinue, adding that “on their return (Edward) made them many valuable presents”

[42] Stenton p.563

[43] Douglas p.169

[44] Douglas ibid

[45] Lawson p.24, believes that William visited England “presumably to thank king Edward for the offer of the throne and to accept it ”; see also Paul Hill – The Road to Hastings: the politics of power in Anglo-Saxon England (Tempus 2005) pp.108-110. Hill treats the visit and Edward’s promise as established facts. For a different opinion see Douglas at P.169; he thinks the visit is unlikely to have taken place, as William was too busy campaigning against his enemies in Normandy.

[46] Rex (Edward) pp.113-114 contains a helpful discussion on this topic

[47] Rex (Edward) ibid; Rex’s point is legalistic since it depends on the construction and context of the language used in the text to describe the visit. Put simply, Rex argues that the words used imply that Edward was the ‘lord’ and William was the ‘vassal’ in their relationship, and that William did fealty to Edward. Given the obvious disparity in their status, it is reasonable to consider the king superior to the duke.

[48] Frank Stenton – Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 1971 3rd edition) p.560

[49] Rex (Harold) pp.148-149; Rex is merely exploring the possibilities

[50] Barlow (Edward) p.225

[51] Barlow (Edward) pp.223; Bates p.193; Poitiers account is described as ‘the exposition of a legal case”

[52] Rex (Harold) pp.150-151

[53] Hill p.135

[54] Geoffrey Bosanquet (Trans) – Eadmer’s History of Recent Events in England [Historia Novorum in Anglia] (London 1964) pp.6-8; Eadmer (1060-1127) was a Saxon monk from Canterbury who was born before the battle of Hastings. His Historia Novorum in Anglia is primarily a history of the public life of Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury and Eadmer’s hero. Eadmer has a good reputation among scholars for his prose and his objectivity. He had what Malmesbury called ‘a chastened elegance of style’. He anticipated modern historians by concentrating his history on a specific subject and provides useful insight into the reigns of the Norman kings. His account of events before he was born probably reflects an Anglo-Saxon oral tradition.

[55] Eadmer ibid

[56] Brooks and Walker p.73

[57] MEJ Cowdrey – Towards an interpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry: published in Richard Gameson (Ed) – The Study of the Bayeux Tapestry (Boydell Press 1997) p.101

[58] Barlow (Edward) pp. 124 and 301 citing Poitiers at pp100 & 114

[59] There is a school of thought that argues the possibility that it was at this point that Robert Champart misled the duke into believing he (William) was Edward’s nominated heir. Robert may even have suggested that the ‘hostages’ were Edward’s surety for that bequest. This is pure speculation, which only makes sense if we accept the fact that Robert abducted Wulfnoth and Hakon, and forcibly and illegally removed them from Edward’s power. Otherwise, it is inconceivable that Edward, a crowned and anointed monarch would offer surety to mere a duke for a promise that he had no need to make and could not be enforced after his death.

[60] Magnus Magnusson and Herman Pálsson (Trans) – King Harald’s Saga from Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (Penguin Classics 1966) pp.131-133: of all the accounts of this visit, this Scandinavian one is the most entertaining. Intriguingly Snorri records William’s jealousy and his suspicion that his wife Matilda was flirting with Harold.

[61] Rex (Edward) p.175 citing a number of obscure references, including ‘an anonymous writer of Cambrai’ and De Inviventione S Crucis: see also Rex (Harold) pp.157-178 for a useful discussion with references, concerning Christendom’s perception of Harold’s visit and his agreement with William. However, Rex is mistaken to write that Harold was supposed to have agreed to be William’s vicar, from the word ‘vicarius’. A ‘vicar’ is specifically God’s representative on earth (SOED). Vicarious in this context means no more than representative or proxy.

[62] Malmesbury pp.254-255

[63] Malmesbury ibid

[64] Rex (Edward) p.174; Vita Edwardi p.33

[65] Vita Edwardi ibid

[66] Eadmer p.8

[67] Eadmer p.9

Edgar the Aetheling: Failure or Survivor?

Giaconda's Blog

edgar-the-aetheling-1

You could argue that Edgar was set up to fail from the start. As the last male heir of the ancient royal House of Cerdic of Wessex; Edgar had the bloodline but little else to support his claim to the English throne when his great uncle, Edward the Confessor, died in January 1066.

edgar-2 Edgar’s father, Edward the Exile who raised his children in Hungary for some time

His father, Edward the Exile, had mysteriously died shortly after being recalled to court by Edward the Confessor, to be his heir thus leaving Edgar’s claim unprotected by a strong male relative at the tender age of 6. His mother, Agatha, may have been related to the German Emperor but was far from assistance and before long would be surrounded by powerful men who were all set to devour each other in a violent contest of military strength in order to lay hands…

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The Success of the Usurper by Barbara Gaskell Denvil

For some years I have set my novels in the last years of Plantagenet reign, or the first years of the Tudor dynasty.

 UsurperWilliam
William the Conqueror

Many authors of historical fiction prefer to set their books in the Georgian or Regency periods, but tor me the Plantagenet dynasty was one of the most interesting and longest lasting that has ever ruled in England. Both Plantagenet and Tudor dynasties included amazing figures of mystery, fear and tyranny. Indeed, both dynasties were founded on blatant usurpation. William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, invaded England and won the throne in 1066. Thus the Plantagenet dynasty was born in murder and brutality.

William’s claims were never valid. Whether or not his story of promises were true, at that time the English throne was never given by right to the man arbitrarily named by the previous king. The English had a different system and chose the man of noble blood whom they considered best suited. Therefore the Plantagenet dynasty had no initial right to rule England, but of course William claimed that by right of conquest. And so William I was followed by many kings of murderous ambition, great renown, courage, responsibility, honest endeavour, and violent determination.

 UsurperHenry
Henry Tudor

The same occurred with the Tudors. Henry VII had no right whatsoever to the English throne. He had barely a single drop of English royal blood. It has sometimes been claimed that he was the true claimant of the Lancaster line (begun earlier by Henry IV, including Henry V, and Henry VI before the Yorkists once again claimed the crown) but even that is inaccurate. Henry VII was descended from a bastard line and barred from the royal inheritance, but even if that major difficulty was ignored, his claim was still only about the 15th in the Lancastrian line of descent.

Just like William the Bastard, Henry Tudor invaded England with a largely foreign army, and won the English throne by right of conquest. A usurper indeed, but he founded a dynasty of renown including some of the most interesting and fearful of sovereigns. For lovers of English history, it is often the Tudor period that fascinates the most. In those years of the Tudor family monarchy came the first two queens who ever ruled in their own right. A distinct lack of offspring brought the dynasty to an abrupt close, but not until they had sealed their names in history – written in blood.

Amongst the Plantagenets, many kings have gained a terrible and fearsome reputation. However, some of those reputations seem rather suspect when carefully examined. Indeed, there were different expectations in those times and a king had to be a great warrior, do great deeds and win the awe and admiration of his people. Brutality was common, executions were rife and poverty was the common order. It is hard to judge past actions and characters by modern standards.

Most of my historical novels are set during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III. This was a controversial time, and has become even more controversial since experts argue over the rights and wrongs of York against Lancaster, the Wars of the Roses, and in particular regarding the guilt or innocence of the last Plantagenet king, Richard III. After many years of studious and careful research, I consider Richard III an interesting figure who had too little time to prove himself. I believe that he was no usurper, and was probably innocent of most other accusations hurled against him. But that is the fascination of history for we cannot be positive. Contemporary evidence is scarce, and propaganda was rife.

But my new book, Fair Weather, is set during the reign of King John in the early 13th century. This was another king plastered with a terrible reputation, and many claim this to be unjust. But he is not a main character in my novel – which has a time-slip plot with an element of the paranormal. I adored writing this book for it combines the freedom and wild exciting escapism of time-travel – the dark threat of murder and alchemy – and the significant atmosphere of the early Plantagenet time period. I love wandering those dark narrow cobbled lanes in my dreams – exploring the markets – the taverns – and the villages. I follow the ordinary folk and I share their lives. So different to my own. London Bridge had only recently been built – one of the greatest stone bridges of the world at that time. And it plays a large part in my story. That’s where I shall go first when my new time-machine is delivered by Amazon right to my front door. In the meantime my novel Fair Weather is almost a time-machine in itself.

Old England and its Saxon traditions was obliterated by the brutality of the Norman invasion and the usurpation of William the Bastard. But then that same Plantagenet dynasty was finally brought to an end by the next act of usurpation, when invasion brought the Tudor dynasty to power. So whether you love or hate these old royal houses, it cannot be denied that they fashioned England until the early 1600s, and were families of charisma, colour – and threat.

 

The Problem with ‘Usurpation’ (re-blogged from http://www.annettecarson.co.uk/357052370)

With my long-standing interest in treason and usurpation, I was fascinated to see the video of the mock trial of the Magna Carta barons staged in the wonderful surroundings of Westminster Hall on 31 July 2015.* I use the term ‘Magna Carta barons’ loosely, and indeed the trial itself could address only one arbitrary, early point in the long journey of the development of that charter which eventually gained its famous title. This was the moment in time at which King John had, after much ducking and diving, sealed the charter in June 1215 and immediately reneged by getting Pope Innocent III to repudiate it.

Though doubtless there will be historians who disagree, I take it – as did the script of the trial – that King John had hitherto behaved in a manner so thoroughly unacceptable as to be termed tyrannical. In giving his judgement, The Hon. Stephen Breyer from the USA cited John Locke’s (albeit anachronistic) assessment that for his subjects to have the right to rebel, a king should be seen to have systematically refused to adhere to the law of the land. Of course no method of testing a king’s behaviour in a court of law existed in 1215, but for his rule to be considered truly tyrannical I think this criterion would be taken as read.

Legal frameworks of the time would have been governed by the weight of precedent, and certainly the judges at our mock trial took the view that John himself had been ‘made king’ by a legal process. This process included religious ceremonial with sacred oath-taking, not only oaths of allegiance but also the coronation oath sworn by the king himself. In consequence of King John’s breaching of the latter, the rebellious barons invoked a long-standing custom and – therefore – legal right known as diffidatio, i.e. they exercised the right of a free man to repudiate his oath of loyalty to his overlord for a justifiable reason. Underpinning this right of diffidatio was the recognition that fealty was a two-way street: that for a subject to keep his oath, the king must do the same.

In our modern age, when promises made are routinely broken, and ‘God-fearing’ is no longer a term to be taken literally, the significance of an oath sworn while invoking the presence of God is scarcely understood and seldom respected: consider the context of judicial process, which is one of the few surviving circumstances when such oaths are still routinely encountered (and routinely flouted). Yet in the Middle Ages, as I have tried to indicate in writings such as my Small Guide to the Great Debate, the process of oath-swearing was one of the pillars of mediaeval society. It was a crucial matter if either party abandoned their solemn oath.

The bonds of this mutual compact defined the relationship between king and subject, already long-established by the 13th century, and gradually developing throughout the ages. It is this promise on the part of the king that is most often forgotten in the cries of ‘usurper!’ that are so widely bandied about in relation to certain monarchs; and it is key to my repeatedly asserted argument that most often the term ‘usurpation’ is a misnomer that merely reflects the prejudices of the person using it.

In pre-Conquest England there was in place a history of election of kings by the Saxon equivalent of Parliament (the Witangemot), based on the fundamental requirement of the office to perform a mutually understood function: the defence of the realm and its people. This was gradually extended to include wider responsibilities, notably for the proper administration of justice. In return, the king was entitled to call upon his people to perform whatever was understood to be due to enable him to fulfil such responsibilities. The principle that the king had a duty to perform a job of work continued to be understood for many centuries, and it was only by analogy with succession from father to son in other areas of life that a similar expectation developed in relation to the throne. Although kings often tried to influence who succeeded them, there was never any ‘law of succession’.

Requirements such as embodying the fount of justice as well as the office of leader and commander throw a clear light on crises of succession like the deposition of Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI who fell short of expectations. An even more relevant case is that of the conflict between Stephen and Matilda. Matilda might be the only surviving legitimate issue of Henry I, but his decision to make her his heir was self-serving and ultimately catastrophic: she was not born into an age when a woman could don harness and lead an army in the field. Returning to the mock trial of the barons, a question raised by the presiding judge exemplifies an abiding misapprehension on this point. Why, asked the judge, did the barons in 1215 not choose to replace John with his son, Henry (later Henry III), then aged seven? The question answers itself when you are not blinded by the assumption that the crown was governed by some imagined law of father-to-son succession: in a time of turmoil and civil strife, when the very rule of the land needed to be taken into strong hands, what fool was going to opt for rule by a seven-year-old? That he was later able to succeed upon his father’s death (now aged nine) was principally a function of the abilities and virtues of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, his champion and Regent of England.

In 1399 a new dimension entered into the matter of the succession when Henry IV challenged Richard II for the crown and the latter abdicated, rather than defending his right to the death as would have been appropriate to the tradition of the warrior-king. Parliament was drawn into the front line in the disposition of the crown, going through the formal procedure of acknowledging the abdication of Richard and the succession of Henry. The new king is said to have publicly exhibited proof of his genealogy, but the record of the Rolls of Parliament is remarkably non-committal in regard to his descent, and much more specific as to the rewards of his victory over the ruinous former king:

‘In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, I, Henry of Lancaster, claim this realm of England, and the crown with all its members and its appurtenances, inasmuch as I am descended by right line of the blood from the good lord King Henry the third, and through that right that God in his grace has sent me, with the help of my kin and of my friends in recovering it, which realm was at the point of ruin for lack of governance and destruction of the good laws.’ [Parliamentary Rolls of Mediaeval England, 1399 Part 1, vol. iii, pp.422-3.]

Here we have an echo of that same accusation as used by the barons against King John; and despite the fascinating arguments concerning precisely which line of royal descent Henry IV might have claimed, the salient point of this remarkable statement, as accepted and recorded by Parliament, was that God had favoured him in stepping in to avert the ruin of the realm. Had there existed a law of succession which stipulated primogeniture, there was in fact a royal descendant whose claim would have been superior to Henry’s: this was the young Mortimer heir Edmund, Earl of March, then the same age as the son of King John whom we encountered above. Clearly, when the option of the valorous and successful adult Henry was available, there was no support for the claims of a seven-year-old, however senior his line of descent. A child of that age, and one who lacked the support of a strong figure as Regent, ipso facto failed the basic qualification as warlord-cum-lawgiver.

It is also noteworthy that the childless Richard II, knowing that the succession to the crown was being eyed by his several uncles, had kept them guessing by naming alternative heirs at different times: another indication that primogeniture was not regarded as the primary criterion. Henry IV, once on the throne, tried to secure the succession to his line by statutory enactment in Parliament, but the view of Stanley Chrimes (in English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century, p.24) is that this was merely declaratory and did not determine the line of succession: it recognized but ‘did not create’ Henry’s title. By the same token, it made no general provision for a public law of succession.

Only in 1460, when Richard, Duke of York came to press his claim to the throne in opposition to Henry VI, was the emphasis on primogeniture brought to the fore. York’s claim depended on it wholly – it rested on his sharing the same senior line of descent as the Mortimer heir disenfranchised by Henry of Lancaster sixty years earlier. And although Parliament made several attempts to avoid passing judgement on the matter, when forced to reach a conclusion they decided in York’s favour. There were, of course, excellent reasons for striking the bargain that reduced Henry VI to a cipher, since his inept and compliant rule had bankrupted the crown and allowed England to degenerate into a smouldering civil war.

In the case of Henry IV, could the word ‘usurpation’ be applied? The historically literate answer is no. In 1399 Richard II had abdicated rather than defend his crown to the death, effectively abandoning the throne to the judgement of Parliament which accepted Henry of Lancaster’s argument that God had helped him rescue the realm from misgovernment and lawlessness. This echoed the complaints of the Magna Carta barons, namely that the king had resiled from his sacred oath to fulfil his responsibilities to his subjects. So by these standards, and as accepted by Parliament, Henry IV cannot be named a usurper in terms of the legal structure of the day.

It was only in 1460 that Richard, Duke of York secured a decision by Parliament which established primogeniture as an acknowledged criterion for the succession. How this criterion was applied in hindsight to the Lancastrian succession raises a thicket of legal questions, the untangling of which would take someone more expert in jurisprudence than me. Clearly York’s argument was that the first Lancastrian king was a usurper, and his statement to Parliament went into extensive genealogical detail to disprove Henry’s fanciful tale that his mother’s line of descent from Henry III was senior to the line of Edward III and Richard II. However, to this inexpert observer it seems that the Parliament of 1460 stopped short of disallowing the legitimacy of the Lancastrian dynasty, which fits with their desire to reach a compromise with Henry VI. It would have been simpler, and in hindsight would have prevented much unrest and loss of life, if they had declared him a scion of a usurping line, but that would have meant deposing him. Perhaps their legal advisers balked at the idea of retrospective legislation. And York himself had always vowed himself Henry’s true subject. Whatever their reasoning, an accommodation was cobbled together which permitted Henry to keep his crown on condition that York was acknowledged as his heir apparent. I am tempted to suppose that the Lords in Parliament recognized that Henry’s mental capacity was dubious, and that it would be unrealistic to hold him to oaths he had sworn as a child which he probably no longer remembered or comprehended. Whichever way you look at it, although York’s claim of primogeniture was accepted, the deal of 1460 was unique to the prevailing circumstances; it could scarcely be regarded as a precedent, and indeed it permitted the line of Lancaster to cling to the view that theirs remained the rightful royal house of England.

Thus Parliament had signally failed to grasp the opportunity to codify any law that stipulated primogeniture (or anything else) as a qualification for the succession. As Stanley Chrimes commented, ‘It does indeed seem that no such public law existed. In the absence of a direct and competent heir, politics, not law determined the succession. Hence both judges and commons avoided the topic.’ [Op. cit. p.22.]

The effect was that however the royal family’s internal issues were decided, whether by themselves or by any outside agency, the situation remained as it was in 1215: that he who took on the sworn obligations of kingship would be held to account for how he performed them. And if he should be adjudged deficient, it was not usurpation but a necessary service to the kingdom to remove and replace him.

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MU7tK6HM3Q. For those of us who have crossed swords in the past with James Eadie, QC, there was a particular piquancy to his defeat on this occasion.

What makes a good medieval king?

Introduction

Why is Edward 1 considered a great king? That is a question that has haunted me ever since I fluffed it in an O level’ exam more than fifty summers ago. My answer proved that a good memory is better than thinking it would be all right on the day. By chance, I recently came across this question again in a book of O Level questions from the middle of the last century. It was a providential find for two reasons. First, it gave me an opportunity to answer the question properly. Second, and more important, it gave me a clue as to approach the question posed in this article: what make a good medieval king?

It is a hypothetical question, which can only be answered hypothetically; not very satisfactory you might think. Also, the word ‘good’ is a subjective and a relative adjective. That means that any answer I do give is only my personal opinion based on the circumstances of time, place and context. Our conception of good (and bad) varies not only between nations and cultures, but also between individuals.  It also changes over time as human political, cultural, social and religious values develop. Kathryn Warner in the introduction to her excellent biography of Edward II captures my point precisely “ Many of the character traits and behaviour that made him such a disastrous king, and were incomprehensible and even shocking to his contemporaries would be judged differently today

The solution to my dilemma, so fortuitously suggested by the book, is not to answer a hypothetical question for which there is no single answer, but to invite each reader to answer it in his or her own fashion. The purpose of this narrative being merely to provide a few examples of what others have thought to be the qualities of a good king (and the faults of a bad king). This is not a scholarly analysis but some layman’s ideas based three historical case studies.

 

The theory of kingship

Context is especially important when making judgments about historical characters. I am therefore prefacing my comments with a few salient points about the political environment in which medieval kings operated.

The last years of the old English state before the Conquest were noted for the efficiency and effectiveness of the government.   England had all the appearance of a constitutional monarchy, with the King and the Witenagemot (The King’s Council) taking joint responsibility for decisions. There was a strong elective element in the succession also involving the Witan, which frequently took the initiative. The selection of a king was considered to be far too important to be left to the royal family alone. Membership of the royal stock was an essential pre-requisite for any candidate but generally the crown went to the person who was thought best able to carry out the duties of a king. Although conventional Church doctrine suggested that the king was chosen through the Grace of God, personal rule was less prevalent in England than on the continent. The Witan were regularly consulted on affairs of state and, more significantly, they expected to be consulted. The governance of England at this time was superior to that in Normandy and probably also superior to that in France.

A king’s obligation to rule properly in the common interest is enshrined in the Coronation Oath, which is still used today. It was first devised in 973 at the coronation of the Saxon king Edgar and has remained virtually unchanged. It has three broad elements: to preserve the Church and religion, to preserve his subject’s peace and to be just and merciful in his actions.

It was this Saxon law that William the Conqueror inherited in 1066. Surprisingly, he made little or no changes to it. In fact, his son Henry 1 issued a proclamation in 1100 strengthening the king’s legal obligations to rule wisely and justly in the common interest.  It was called the Charter of Liberties and is a considered to be a landmark document, a forerunner to Magna Carta.

However by the start of the thirteenth century, the nature of monarchy was changing; it was becoming autocratic. King’s did not just reign, they governed and good government depended almost entirely on the king’s vigour and personality. He conducted his own foreign policy, led the army, declared war, had his own income derived from Crown Lands and feudal dues, and conducted the affairs of state.

John of Salisbury the English scholar, diplomat and Bishop of Chartres wrote ‘Policraticus’ in 1159. It was the first medieval English treatise on political and ethical philosophy. He argued for the ‘divine right of kings’, a concept common in Europe, but alien to the English polity. This is part of what he wrote:

“ The prince stands on a pinnacle which is exalted and made splendid with all the great and high privileges which he deems necessary for himself. And rightly so, because nothing is more advantageous to the people than that the needs of the prince should be fully satisfied; since it is impossible that his will should be found opposed to justice. Therefore, according to the usual definition, the prince is the public power, and a kind of likeness on earth of the divine majesty. Beyond doubt a large share of the divine power is shown to be in princes by the fact that at their nod men bow their necks and for the most part offer up their heads to the axe to be struck off, and, as by a divine impulse, the prince is feared by each of those over whom he is set as an object of fear. And this I do not think could be, except as a result of the will of God. For all power is from the Lord God, and has been with Him always, and is from everlasting.”

Policraticus emphasizes the king’s responsibility to venerate God, love his subjects, be self-disciplined and instruct his ministers. A king should punish lése majesté strictly but otherwise exercise mercy and restraint. In John of Salisbury’s opinion a tyrant sets a bad example and it was acceptable for a subject to assassinate him (Tyrannicide).

It was Henry II, who introduced the principle of primogeniture into the English succession. It replaced the sensible arrangement of choosing the king on merit with an arbitrary system based solely on paternity. This was a subtle change to the ‘divine right of kings’. Not only was the institution of kingship divine but so also was the right to succeed through inheritance. As Ian Mortimer has pointed out ‘it was a recipe for disaster’.

The signing of Magna Carta was a momentous event in English history. According A. L. Poole “The Great Charter was… a practical assertion of existing law and custom, and it imposed limitations on the arbitrary power of the crown. The king could no longer override the law. If he did so the twenty-five entrusted with the execution of the Charter were empowered together with the community of the whole land to ‘distrain him and distress him in every possible way’”. In other words if the king broke his agreement the people had a legal right to resist him. Nevertheless, the Great Charter made no difference to John’s reign; it’s significance lay in the future, over the next two to three hundred years, during which time it was re-issued and ratified, and grew in importance.

A perfect king?

By the turn of the fourteenth century there was a tension between absolute monarchs intent on maintaining their personal rule in the light of a supposed divinity, and their subjects who were increasingly seeking a more constitutional model of government in the wake of Magna Carta. The period between 1300 and 1400 was a watershed century in English history for many reasons. It saw the deposition of two kings, the Black Death, the Hundred Years war, the death of old style feudalism, the birth of bastard feudalism and the rise of common law (the law made by judges as opposed to law made by the king and parliament). It was also a period that saw the increasing power and influence of Parliament in affairs of state, including the succession.

In 1327 something happened that had never happened before: an English king was deposed. The deposition of Edward II is important because it was the first, and it was a warning to future kings. The English people would remove a king deemed unfit to rule. Kathryn Warner captures the broad reasons for Edward’s deposition expertly: “ He was incompetent to govern and allowed evil counselors too rule for him, he had lost Scotland and lands in France and Ireland, he had imprisoned, exiled, killed and disinherited many noblemen and churchmen, he neglected the business of his kingdom and pursued worthless hobbies fit only for peasants.” It is notable also as being an early example of Parliament’s involvement in serious affairs of state by ratifying the sacking of a king.

Edward III succeeded to the throne. He was in every way as unlike his father as it is possible to be (Rest assured: Mel Gibson was not his father.). According to Joshua Barnes, Edward was: “ Fortunate beyond measure, wise and provident in counsel, well learned in law, humanity and divinity. He understood Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, and High and Low Dutch, besides his native language. He was of quick apprehension, judicious and skillful in nature, elegant in speech, sweet, familiar and affable, in behaviour; stern to the obstinate, but calm and meek to the humble. Magnanimous and courageous above all princes of his days; apt for war but a lover of peace; never puffed up with prosperity nor dismayed at adversity. He was of an exalted, glorious, and truly royal spirit, which never entertained anything vulgar or trivial as appears by the most excellent laws, which he made, by those two famous jubilees he kept, and by the most honourable Order of the Garter, which he first devised and founded. His recreations were hawking, hunting and fishing, but chiefly he loved the martial exercise of jousts and tournaments. In his buildings he was curious, splendid and magnificent, in bestowing graces and donations, free and frequent; and to the ingenious and deserving always kind and liberal; devout to God, bountiful to the clergy, gracious to his people, merciful to the poor, true to his word, loving to his friends, terrible to his enemies. In short he had the most virtues and the fewest vices of any prince that I ever read of. He was valiant, just, merciful, temperate and wise; the best lawgiver, the best friend, the best father and the best husband in his days”

Barnes wrote these words in 1688. The point is though, that they also reflected the views of Edward’s English contemporaries who lauded him to excess in his own lifetime. More recent opinions of Edward see things differently and his reputation has been under a sustained attack from politically conscious nineteenth and twentieth century historians more interested in highlighting social deprivation and the excesses of the ruling class, than in extolling deeds of chivalry. Most take the view that he was not a statesman, that he was ambitious, extravagant, ostentatious and unscrupulous. His military reputation is tarnished by insinuations that it was due more to luck than judgment; it is even said that he did not take his obligations as king seriously. In short, he was not a perfect king.

May McKistay is at a loss to understand this attitude. In a wonderfully observant and descriptive passage she points out the undeniable truth that: “Edward III succeeded, where nearly all his predecessors had failed in winning and holding the loyalty of his people and the affection of his magnates, even in the years of his decline. He accepted the chivalric and military ambitions of his age and used them, as he used the devotion of his wife and sons in the service of his dynasty. He raised that dynasty from unexampled depths of degradation to a place of high renown in western Christendom. His armies won for him and for themselves a military reputation seldom equaled and never surpassed at any period of English history before or since…”

The reality is that Edward III had a vision for his kingdom based on the romantic, chivalric model of king Arthur’s Camelot. He wanted to raise England to the level of prestige and power it enjoyed in the Arthurian Romances. The creation of the Order of the Garter, the manufacture of a Round Table at Winchester (Camelot?) and the importance of jousting to the king, and to his knights, are testament to his chivalric ideals. Even his personal challenge to fight the French king alone or with a select group of one hundred knights each is Arthurian in concept. Nor should it be taken as mere bravado; Edward meant what he said and Phillip VI’s refusal to fight him, whilst sensible and pragmatic, simply raised Edward’s stature as a the saviour of his nation. His vision also embraced the self-evident good governance and order that characterized Arthur’s court. Although, Edward was an autocrat by inclination and training, and although his was a personal rule, he knew enough to realise that unless he wanted to go the way of his father he had to get his people to accept his vision. He did this the only way he could, by example and a ‘follow me’ style of leadership, which rarely fails to motivate the British. He also astutely built a network of loyal and influential royal servants who could project his royal authority at a local level.

Edward’s countrymen shared his dream for England and endured much because of it. The king made many demands on them in terms of waging a bloody and expensive campaign in France, of levying taxes to pay for it and the inevitable restraint of trade that ensued. Moreover, his reign coincided, with the onset of the Black Death, which changed the social and economic fabric of the nation. It was no bed of roses in the middle years of the fourteenth century for the English or for their king; but they stuck together in what was essentially a joint enterprise. May McKistay sums-up the situation eloquently: “…Edward’s subjects, for the most part, acquiesced in the necessity: they saw him as the pattern of chivalry and the maker of England’s fame and when he lay on his death-bed they mourned the passing of a great English king. It is not altogether easy to share Stubbs’ confidence that they were wrong” (William Stubbs was a nineteenth century historian and Edward’s severest critic.). This harmony between king and subject was absent during the reigns of the deposed monarchs Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI. They were removed precisely because of the disjunction between their individual vision of kingship and their subjects’ expectations.

Finally, for those people who like lists, I have extracted a number of identifiable strength, qualities and skills possessed by Edward. It is not exhaustive but includes: courage in battle, good military leader, visionary, legislative reformer, hardworking, generous patron, arbiter of taste, appointed men based on ability, did not show favouritism, principled, idealistic, ‘he knew his business and did it’, forgiveness, magnanimity, good administrator. Ian Mortimer in his biography calls Edward III the ‘perfect king’, not because he was perfect, but because “he tried to be”. You cannot ask for more.

“We were not born to sue but to command!”

Richard II is an enigma; obviously intelligent, cultured and artistic, he was a generous patron of the arts. By supporting the creativity of English painters, sculptors and architects he encouraged them to reach new heights of creativity. His court was cultured and sophisticated, its stylishness being the envy of even the French. The paintings and illuminations done for him were exquisite. The magnificence of Westminster Hall, and the naves at Westminster and Canterbury cathedrals are tributes to the creativity and skill of English architects. One biographer (Anthony Steel) even went so far as to assert that Richard invented the handkerchief. It was, he said “…the chef d’œuvre of the dilettante genius.” Another historian (John Harvey) thought that in his search for the cultural avant-garde Richard bore comparison with Alexander the Great and the Roman Emperor Julian: “All alike shared the impossibly high ideals, the meteoric brilliance, the brittle glory. Not that there were many points of resemblance in their careers; but all three were conscious exponents of the highest type of monarchy: Alexander so nearly restored the world empire of remote antiquity; Julian in lonely isolation all but preserved the noble flame of paganism in a dying era; Richard made the most nearly successful attempt to combine the highest cultural aims with the welfare of the common man”. Richard had other good personal qualities. He was brave, loyal to his friends, a faithful husband and he was devout. He was also a man of peace, and struggled long and hard to get a treaty with France. And yet in 1399 in Parliament he was pronounced ‘useless, unfit and insufficient for the government of the realm, and deposed: what went wrong?

The above quote from Shakespeare’s ‘Richard II’ sums-up his problem completely. Richard’s was a dictator. He was unlucky to succeed to the throne as a child and at a time when English fortunes at home and in France were declining. By the time he was old enough to understand the die was cast and he was under the control of a regency government. As a high-spirited youth like his father (the Black Prince) and grandfather, he chaffed under the constraints placed on him by his royal uncles, John duke of Lancaster and Thomas duke of Gloucester and his Council. He longed to exercise his personal rule; but such were the concerns about his fitness to rule that he did not come into his majority until he had reigned for twenty-two years, and then only on his own volition. In fact two years prior to that in 1387, a group of powerful nobles calling themselves the Lords Appellant gave serious consideration to his deposition on the grounds he was unfit to rule. He survived that challenge but had to endure rebukes and humiliation for his waywardness, which vexed him. Although he gave the impression of burying the hatchet he never forgot in whom he had (metaphorically) buried it.

Some authors have romantic illusions about Richard’s reign; they overlook the fact that for much of his reign and certainly in the last three years he was a tyrant. It is questionable whether he was even sane during this period. It seems almost inevitable that an immature young king might prefer the counsel of sycophants and hangers-on, who would tell him what he wanted to hear. Unfortunately, he was repeating the mistakes of his great grandfather Edward II. He preferred the advice of doubtful favourites to that of his sage counselors; he was willful, vindictive. He deprived people of their property unlawfully, he sentenced them to exile without just cause, he tampered with the Parliamentary record so that his enemies could be condemned as traitors, he imposed unjust taxes and he intimidated Parliament and his subject with armed force. In the words of May McKistay: “Whether or not he ever said that the laws were in his own mouth and in his own breast and that the lives and property of his subjects were at his disposal absolutely, it was on this assumption that he acted.

Thomas Walsingham, a contemporary chronicler had this to say about events in 1397 when Richard took his bloody revenge on the Lords Appellant: “ it was at this time, however, through the rashness, cunning and the pride of the young king, the whole kingdom was suddenly and unexpectedly thrown into confusion”. it is clear that Richard was regarded as untrustworthy; he was a man to whom an oath meant nothing. His dealings with parliament at this time show his utter contempt for the rule of law. His coronation oath meant no more to him than any other oath he was prepared to break. This was not how kings were expected to behave. A good king’s reign was seen as a force for justice, a bulwark against injustice and a refuge against oppression. Again, in the words of May McKistay: “ Strong and sagacious monarchs were the greatest need of the age and much might be forgiven of an autocrat like Edward III since under him the forms of law were, on the whole, preserved”

Ultimately, Richard’s deposition was due to his tyranny. The English rejected his vision of personal rule and his use of royal prerogative to enforce his will. He never showed any indication that he realized the limits of his authority: of what, even, a king could not do. It was this lack of judgment that led to his fatal error of disinheriting Henry Bolingbroke, a man very much in the chivalric Edwardian mold. He was a successful soldier, a renowned jouster, charismatic and popular.

Eventually, on the 29 September 1399, Richard was compelled to sign away his crown in the cession and renunciation document: “… I confess, acknowledge, recognise and from my own certain knowledge truly admit that I have been and am entirely inadequate and unequal to the task of ruling and governing the aforesaid kingdoms and dominions and all that pertains to them, and that on account of my notorious insufficiencies I deserve to be deposed from them…”

At Westminster the next day he faced his worst humiliation. Details of thirty-three grievances were read; they spelt out in graphic detail all of his insufficiencies and inadequacies. Despite his artistic and cultural achievements, it was his political failings that cost him his throne and his life. Whilst the manner of his deposition was cruel and shabby, there is little doubt that he had to go

The contrary king

“Richard the Third, of all the English monarchs, bears the greatest contrariety of character… Some few have conferred upon him almost angelic excellence, have clouded his errors, and blazened every virtue that could adorn a man. Others, as if only extremes would prevail, present him in the blackest dye; his thoughts were evil, and that continually, and his actions diabolical; the most degraded mind occupied the most deformed body… But Richard’s character, like every man’s has two sides… though most writers display but one”

These words of William Hutton are written in his book ‘The battle of Bosworth between Richard the Third and Henry earl of Richmond’, which was first printed in 1788. I stumbled upon Hutton when reading Charles Ross’ biography of Richard, and I have never forgotten him. This quote perfectly captures the essential feature of Ricardian literature then and now.

Was Richard III a good king? In the light of Hutton’s opinion, that would be a challenging question for any O level student to answer objectively. Everybody who bothers to write about Richard has an opinion for or against him. This debate sometimes takes on the appearance of a courtroom drama: guilty or not guilty? I do not propose to go down that road. It is not my intention to examine the minutiae of his reign; others have already done that already — and to death. I am only expressing a personal opinion about the general nature of Richard’s reign.

An obvious place to start is the contemporary opinion of Richard. I am ignoring the Tudor sources, as they are not contemporary to Richard. What contemporaneous material we have suggests that until his brother Edward’s death on the 9 April 1483, Richard enjoyed a reputation as a virtuous man. Dominic Mancini in 1483 wrote of him: “He kept himself within his own lands and set out to acquire the loyalty of his people through favours and justice. The good reputation of his private life and public activity powerfully attracted the esteem of strangers. Such was his renown in warfare that whenever a difficult and dangerous policy to be undertaken it would be entrusted to his discretion and generalship. By these arts Richard acquired the favour of the people and avoided the jealousy of the Queen from whom he lived far separated.” Mancini was no friend to Richard. He never met or even saw him.   What he knew of Richard’s reputation he heard from others. Given Mancini’s animus towards Richard, this unsolicited testimonial suggests that there was truth in his good reputation.

There are two other contemporary comments about Richard, which are worth noting since they were made by people who met him. Thomas Langton, Bishop of St David’s writing to a colleague in August 1483 during Richard’s progress: “ …he contents the people wherever he goes… many a poor man…have been relieved and helped by him in his commands in his progress…” And later: “ On my truth I liked never the condition of a prince as well as his. God has sent him to us for the weal of all.” The good Bishop was a brilliant and highly educated man who undoubtedly had known Richard since he was Duke of Gloucester. He was a benevolent, kind and caring man whose view cannot be dismissed as that of a Ricardian time-server. In May 1484 it was the Silesian knight errant and diplomat Nicolas Von Poppelau who met Richard at Pontefract and stayed with him for more than a week, dining with him every day. Von Poppelau said that Richard had a ‘great heart’, by which he meant that he was magnanimous.

The difficulty we have in establishing the reality is that the rumours and criticism of Richard come from southern sources, which were nearly all written after his death. Similarly, the October rebellion was almost exclusively a southern affair; there does not appear to have been a rebellion north of the Watford Gap. Considering the importance attached to this rebellion as an indicator of the popular revulsion at Richard’s supposed crimes, it seems not to have been a widespread national revulsion.   Professor A Pollard’s perceptive and scholarly article in 1981 in the Ricardian highlights the existence of a north-south divide during the latter half of the fifteenth century, which has undoubtedly coloured opinions about Richard. He refers to two contemporary views of Richard; a monstrous metropolitan-southern one and a noble northern one. This antipathy between north and south and its impact on the probity of some of the Tudor sources is often disregarded or sidelined by historians.

It is impossible to make any objective appraisal of Richards reign without at least acknowledging the elephants in the room: the manner in which he succeeded to the throne and the fate of his nephews, the so-called Princes in the Tower. I will try to keep it brief.   On the first point: Richard claimed the throne on the basis of Edward’s bigamy.  The pre-contract with Eleanor Butler pre-dated his clandestine marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. There are solid grounds for believing that the allegation was true, or at least that Richard genuinely believed it to be true. There are also grounds for believing that Richard had a good case in law and politically for assuming the crown.  Moreover, there is a strong elective element in Richard’s succession. He was petitioned by the Three Estates (the Lords Spiritual, Temporal and the Commons) to assume the crown. In fact he is the only medieval monarch with a genuine constitutional title to the throne. By petitioning Richard the Three Estates were consenting to the deposition of Edward V and they were disregarding Edward of Warwick’s prior claim.   Although, young Edward suffered under his father’s (Clarence) attainder, it could easily have been reversed if so desired. I think Richard was petitioned to take the throne because he had the title and he was the best man for the job.  Anyhow, Parliament ratified Richard’s claim by accepting Titulus Regius in 1484.  As to the fate of the Princes, nobody knows. There is no evidence that they even died during Richard’s reign, much less that he killed them. There was a rumour, which even Gairdner thinks was started deliberately to undermine Richard and to aid the Tudor cause. In fact there are better grounds for supposing they survived their uncle. Personally, I think that the attempts by pretenders to claim the Tudor throne — whether they were genuine or not — are per se indicative of the real doubt that existed in peoples’ minds as to whether either or both of the princes were actually dead.

Richard reputation as a capable administrator and brave and efficient soldier went before him. As Lord of the North for eight years he managed to win the support and affection of a predominantly Lancastrian populace. If we judge him by results, that speaks for itself. As teenager he fought in two important battles. His repute as a brave, resourceful and determined soldier was well earned in battle and by the faith his brother reposed in him.  It is because he is self-evidently such an able man that I find his struggle to come to terms with being king so baffling. He certainly aspired to be a good king, in that he wanted his subjects and the realm to prosper under him; and he tried to be a good king. However, ultimately he fell short of his aspiration. There are many reasons for this; some are undoubtedly due to his misjudgments. However, I want to concentrate on two issues, which I think were critical factors in his downfall: his disastrous loss of reputation and his state of mind.

I will deal with his state of mind first because that affected his judgment, his legendary ability to act decisively and his calmness under pressure. The Tudor sources like to portray Richard as a man on top of his game in 1483-1485. We see him as a man not just ready, willing and able to deal with the Tudor invasion, but eager to do so: even looking forward to it. This was still the Richard of Barnet, Tewkesbury and Stony Stratford. But then they would say that wouldn’t they. It was in their interests to exaggerate Richard’s performance to the greater glory of Henry Tudor, who had defeated such a formidable man in battle at God’s command. Personally, I think Richard was way off his a-game almost throughout his reign.   He made inexplicable errors of judgments in foreign affairs, in his provision for the defence of the realm and in his dealing with the men of the south. His morale seemed to have dipped; by this time he is not the man he was.

We have very little indication from Richard of his thoughts and state of mind between June 1483 and August 1485. What little we do have, however suggests a man under extreme stress. The scribbled note in his own hand in a formal letter to his Chancellor describing Buckingham as “ the most untrue creature living” is almost a cry of despair from a man hitherto noted for his coolness under fire. Even more revealing is his choice of personal prayer written in rough hand into his Book of Hours. It is probably Richard’s most personal and private possession, and was in all probability given to him by his wife. He carried it at Bosworth and it reflected his inner persona, the essence of who he was as a man. Although the prayer is traditional, this version was composed for Richard’s private use. The Brochure accompanying the NPG’s biographical exhibition of Richard in 1973 at which his Book of Hours was exhibited contains the following note: “ It reads with the incantation of a litany. The note of oppression and danger is very strong. It can only have been added to the manuscript in Richard’s reign and provides an insight into his private life of almost unparalleled intimacy. He begs to be delivered not from all tribulations, sorrows and anguish in which he might be placed, but in which he is placed (my emphasis). ‘Deign to assuage, turn aside, extinguish and bring to nothing the hatred that they bear against me’ and goes on to supply the great litany of the Old Testament salvations, including ‘…just as you freed Susanna from false testimony…’ He could hardly have put it more strongly. There is no doubt that Richard was a person of serious piety and this is the only place where deceit would have been unthinkable. Either he was a very advanced schizophrenic or he had reason to believe himself innocent of the charges…” We shouldn’t read too much from this, but it does suggest that Richard’s state of mind was fragile to say the least. By no stretch of the imagination could it be said that he was in his best form, and this affected his ability to deal effectively with his problems

The second issue is the loss of his reputation. This is important because it cost him the support of the southern gentry from the autumn of 1483 onwards. They had supported him as Lord Protector against the attempted Woodville coup but not as king: why? The consensus of traditional opinion is that they baulked at his usurpation of the crown. I am not convinced that that conclusion is correct. There was no rebellion against Richard’s rule until the autumn; until that is, a rumour was spread that the Princes had met a violent end. It is possible that Richard’s loss of reputation was due to the manner by which he came to the throne, but I think it is more likely to have been due to that rumour.

Whatever the cause, there is no doubt that the failure of the old Yorkist regime to support Richard was a critical factor in his ultimate fall. Edwards extensive network of royal servants, which Richard inherited and hoped to use to project his own royal authority, were powerful and influential people in their localities. Their support for the king was critical.  The king relied on this network of nobles and lesser gentry to enforce royal commands and charters in local areas. Richard’s problem was that these  southerners were Edward’s men: not his. Edward selected, knew and rewarded the, and they were confident he was acting in their interests. Richard, was from the north; he was an unknown quantity as king. There was no mutual bond of trust or loyalty between them. It was knew it was risky to rely on these men, but he probably felt he had little choice at the time.

Richard’s failure to make a serious effort to win them over is surprising. He rarely showed his face in the disaffected south and spent a disproportionate amount of time on the Great North Road visiting his friends in York, Pontefract and especially Nottingham. This baffling, because Richard clearly knew the importance of royal patronage in oiling the wheels of government; and he had proved his own ability to win the hearts and minds of men in the north. His decision after the October rebellion to replace the southern rebels with his own trusted men from the north, whilst understandable, was bitterly resented in the south. He was, of course, trying to build his own network of royal servants but was not given the time to see this bear fruit.   Although at no time did the administration of government breakdown, the truth was that Richard lacked the bedrock of support in the south, which he needed to consolidate his position. This is more apparent in the indifference of most of the southern nobility towards his call to arms in 1485. One of the notable features of Bosworth is that most of the English nobility did not take part on the either side.

On Harold II and others

I would recommend Mercedes Rochelle’s post here http://mercedesrochelle.com/wordpress/?p=719 : a discussion of Harold II’s possible remains.

Just to emphasise a few points:
1) “forensic evidence in the 1950s was not exacting” – it wasn’t in the 1930s either, as we know.
2) Richard III is unquestionably the template for such cases. First, find your location. Then find a mtDNA or Y-chromosome comparator, preferably one who is still alive (but a mixed line will not do). Then find permission to dig and compare the DNA sample. Consider the height, age, approximate year of death, dietary evidence and wounds.
3) Harold was Richard III’s ancestor, via Russia and France. Both were experienced and successful commanders who had reigned for a short time having been chosen (by the Witangemot or Parliament) after a longer reign by an Edward who had reclaimed the Crown. Harold had won battles in Wales in 1064 just as Richard’s 1482 campaign in Scotland was a success. Both were defeated by French invasions led by challengers with no valid claim.

The best of luck to anyone identifying Harold II, or Alfred, particularly with the DNA comparison.

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