Wednesday 4 July 2012

The Historical Character I Love Best - by Katherine Langrish

Harold Godwinson, Bayeux Tapestry
Or perhaps it’s fairer to say, since he’s not an obviously lovable character, that Harold Godwinson – King Harold II of England – is the historical character who most intrigues me. Everyone knows the date of the Battle of Hastings, the last time England was successfully invaded: as Sellars and Yeatman point out in their classic comic history, ‘1066 and All That’, it’s one of the only two Memorable Dates in English history (the other being 55BC when Julius Caesar first arrived here): and thanks to the Bayeux Tapestry, everyone knows that Harold died at that battle after being shot in the eye by an arrow. (There’s been a lot of argument about this, but it looks to be substantially true.)

The Anglo-Saxon throne was not inherited, neither was it in the gift of the reigning monarch. When a king died, his council, including earls, thegns and clergy, would assemble to choose a successor. This was a sensible practice which meant a reigning king would always be a capable adult – and also helped limit his power.

When King Edward the Confessor died in early January 1066, the council’s choice fell, predictably, upon Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex. The Godwins were an ambitious and powerful family who had established control over much of England, and Harold and his brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, had been in joint charge of the English armies fighting the Welsh princes. In 1065 the brothers fell out, fatefully, when Tostig doubled the taxes on his Northumbrian thegns and they revolted. Harold refused to support his brother and replaced him with Earl Morcar, brother of Edwin of Mercia. Tostig was banished and took refuge with the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada (‘the Hard Ruler’). Shortly afterwards Edward the Confessor died, and Harold was crowned King on the same day as the Edward's burial in Westminster Abbey.

The 'oath' scene, Bayeux tapestry
But Edward, though he had no right to do so, had on one previous occasion somehow vaguely promised the throne to William of Normandy.  And in 1064 Harold himself had been shipwrecked in the Normandy coast, taken hostage by William, and had – according to Norman sources – sworn an oath on sacred relics to support William’s claim to the English throne.

William therefore prepared to invade, and Harold mustered his troops on the Isle of Wight, but the winds were unfavourable for seven months, and William’s invasion fleet of 700 ships stayed in port. On the 8th September 1066, Harald disbanded his own army, which was running short of food, and returned to London. On the very same day, Harald Hardada of Norway and Harold’s own brother Tostig invaded England from the north, landing his fleet of longships at Tynemouth.

From now on, things moved fast. The earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria marched to meet Hardrada and Tostig, only to be defeated at the Battle of Fulford on 20th September. Meanwhile, news of the invasion reached London. Harold Godwinson acted with lighting speed. He collected an army, and marched them north, over 200 miles in only four days, arriving at Stamford Bridge near York on the 25th of September.

The Norse ‘Saga of Harald Hardrada’ has a long description of this battle. The Norwegians were not expecting to meet the King’s troops: they were expecting to be able to march unopposed into York.

“There was very good weather and the sun was hot. The men left their brynies [mailshirts] behind and went up with their shields, helmets and spears, and with swords girded; many had bows and arrows also, and they were very merry. But when they came near the town, a great army rode out against them; they saw the smoke from the horses, and fair shields, and white brynies. The king [Harald Hardrada] called Tosti the jarl [Earl Tostig] to him and asked what army that might be.”

Knight carrying raven pennon, Bayeux Tapestry
It was soon obvious. Harald Hardrada then set up his dreaded raven banner, the Land-Waster (said to bring victory to those who followed it but death to him who carried it, in this case a man called Fridrik) and prepared for battle. First, however, ‘twenty riders rode forth’ from the English lines with a message from King Harold Godwinson, offering Tostig his earldom back if he would change sides. Tostig asked what his brother would offer to Harald Hardrada, and was given the famous reply, “Seven feet of ground – as he’s taller than other men.” Tostig refused to betray Hardrada, and as the messengers rode back, Hardrada asked, “Who was that well-spoken man?” Tostig replied, “That was King Harald Godwinson.”

The story is sometimes doubted, but it’s the sort of thing that might well have happened in those days of personalised warfare: and a direct plea from brother to brother seems not unlikely to me. And the quip is the sort of dark humour which was highly appreciated by all sides. Tostig and Hardrada seem to have known there was little hope. The saga says that Hardrada made this verse:

Forth we go / In our lines
Without our brynies / Against blue edges
The helmets shine / I have no brynie
Our shrouds now lie / Down on those ships.

And so it proved. King Harold Godwinson won a decisive victory and both Tostig and Hardrada were killed, along with great numbers from both sides; the chronicler Ordericus Vitalis, writing some time around 1130, remarks that it’s easy to spot the site of the battlefield because ‘great heaps of bones of the slain lie there to this day’. But only two days later, William of Normandy landed 7000 men on the English coast at Pevensey, and Harold again had to force-march his victorious but surely exhausted army 240 miles south to face this new threat. On the 14th October, only 19 days after the Battle of Stamford Bridge, William and Harold’s armies met at Hastings, where, after nine hours of hard fighting, Harold was killed.

Death of Harold, Bayeux tapestry

Harold’s defeat poses one of the biggest ‘what-ifs’ in history. The Norman Conquest changed England for ever. The entire political structure was demolished and rebuilt, castles sprang up everywhere, the native population was repressed for over two centuries, and – not least – an enormous amount of French words entered the English language, which shed most of its inflections and evolved into the flexible language of Shakespeare, dependent on word order, rich in synonyms and near-synonyms, and with such bizarrely non-phonetic spelling that it should be an obvious lost cause to try to teach children to read by phonetics alone.

If Harold had won at Hastings – and he nearly did – all this might never have happened. We could still be speaking something akin to Danish or German. Our monarchs might be bicycle-riding populists, elected, possibly, by the people.

Harold was clearly a highly intelligent man and an excellent soldier and strategist. His grasp of politics was pragmatic rather than clannish: he averted a civil war by refusing to support his brother Tostig over the Northumbria rebellion; it was the right thing to do. Sadly for Harald, it was also ultimately the wrong thing, because dealing with his brother and the Norwegians placed him almost 250 miles away when William’s ships first beached on the English south coast.

History is written by the victors. The Anglo-French Orderic Vitalis wrote of Harold:

“This Englishman was very tall and handsome, remarkable for his physical strength, his courage and eloquence, his ready jests and valour. But what were these gifts to him without honour, which is the root of all good?”

But his epitaph may be better found in the Norse history, which quotes this verse attributed to one Thorkel Skallason of the English army:

True is it that man-slaying in England
Will be a long time ending.
Doughty and swift was my lord.
Braver prince does not live.


H.M. Castor said...

What a fascinating post. So much might have been different in subsequent centuries if the monarchy had remained 'elected'... And, by the way, such a good - and vitally important - point about teaching reading solely by phonetics!

Laurie Graham said...

Good stuff. I'm sure they don't teach this part of our history in schools any more. And I hope some day you'll tell us more about the arrow in the eye legend.

Penny Dolan said...

Harold is a good choice of hero!

I find what's left out of accounts and what's perhaps added in is interesting. I hadn't realised that Earl Tostig was Harold's brother. However, I also thought that the box of holy relics was hidden under a cloth by treacherous William so Harold did not know how binding his words were until afterwards - although that does sound neat enough to be a moment of fiction.

Susan Price said...

I loved this, Kath: thanks. Harald is one of my favourites too - he's the last English ruler to whom I feel any respect or loyalty.
I did a lot of research for a book based around the battle of Stamford Bridge, and made a detailed outline - and couldn't find a publisher. Maybe I'll turn it into an ebook.

Ann Turnbull said...

This is a really interesting post, Kath. I've always been fascinated by King Harold, but I hadn't realised English kings were elected. Sue, there was an excellent TV programme not long ago about the battle of Stamford Bridge, with lots of gruesome detail! I think you should write that book.

Sue Purkiss said...

I didn't know Tostig was Harold's brother either - what an interesting confrontation. I've always been fascinated by the idea of that forced march south - how did they DO it? Perhaps we should have a re-enactment by the History Girls...

Leslie Wilson said...

I have no desire to enact a forced march south, thanks!

I am so pleased to read about the electoral nature of Saxon monarchy - there seems to be a general presumption that an unelected monarchy is somehow ;natural' and grounded in history, which is clearly not the case! Thanks for a brilliant post, Kath.

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed reading this article. The era leading up to 1066 and the Battle of Hastings is, for me at least, the most fascinating period in English history. I've had endless discussions about what might have happened, not just in England but also the world, had Harold won.