The Crowning of the Last Anglo-Saxon King of England
Harold II (Godwinson)
- January 6th 1066 -
The military invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066, and the subsequent war of succession of the same year, was triggered by the coronation of Harold II, Godwinson, on January 6th. When William, back in Normandy, heard that Harold had crowned himself King the day after the death of Edward the Confessor, he was said to be beside himself with anger. A group called the Witan – the leading noblemen who under Anglo-Saxon law chose the new King, - had elected Harold as the successor. Harold will have known however that it was one thing being elected it was going to be far more difficult to remain in power. The seeds of that invasion however go further back to the earlier years of that century when the Danes invaded and ruled England.
Edward the Confessor was the 7th son of King Æthelred and the first by his second wife, Emma who was the daughter of the Duke of Normandy. When Sweyn Forkbeard invaded England in 1013 first Emma, and then both Edward and Æthelred, fled back to Normandy. When Sweyn died in 1014 Æthelred was invited back by the thegns to rule and take on the new Danish leader, Cnut. However two years later Æthelred died and was succeeded by Edmund Ironside, an older half brother of Edward the Confessor. When Edmund then died Cnut became the undisputed King of England. Edward spent the next 22 years in exile, most of it in Normandy, when it is said he became very pious and showed little interest in re-taking the throne. However in early 1030s, Robert I, Duke of Normandy and William’s father, tried to help Edward regain the throne but his fleet was blown off course and landed in Jersey.
It wasn’t until the death of Cnut in 1035 that events took another turn. Cnut’s successor, Harthacnut, had problems in establishing himself in Denmark and sent Harold Harefoot to act as his regent in England. Both Edward and his brother Alfred returned to England in 1036. Alfred was captured by Godwin, the Earl of Wessex, and turned over to Harold Harefoot in order to curry favour. As a punishment Alfred was blinded by having a red-hot poker inserted into both his eyes. He died as a result of these wounds and Edward was never to trust the Godwin family fully again. Harefoot now claimed the throne for himself in 1037. Harthacnut prepared to invade and sought the help of Edward, who was still in Normandy. He said he had neither the resources or desire to help, despite his mother urging him to do so. Harefoot was to die in 1040 and Harthacnut invited Edward to reign with him as he knew he had little time to live. He died in 1042. The Godwin family supported Edward’s succession and he was crowned in Winchester in April 1043. Their backing was possibly due to the fact that he had no children, and as he spent most of his waking hours deep in prayer was unlikely to have any. They could see a clear way to the throne as they were the most powerful family in England, especially in the South, and would be needed to prop up the King anyway.
It was during his exile in Normandy that Edward would have grown close to William, who was the illegitimate son of the unmarried Duke, Richard I. William had become Duke at the age of 6 or 7, records are not clear as to his exact date of birth. With the help of others, including the King of France, Henry I, he had to work very hard at keeping his title. There was constant war in the Duchy and William was to learn a great deal about keeping hold of power.
Around the year 1051 Edward the Confessor seems to have chosen William as his successor. One of the versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions a visit by William to Edward in that year. William was the grandson of Edward’s maternal uncle – they were second cousins, once removed. It had been earlier in that year that the Godwin family had been exiled over a dispute over who should be Archbishop of Canterbury. The monks of Canterbury had chosen a relative of Godwin but the King chose Robert of Jumièges. The dispute grew and Robert accused Godwin of plotting to kill the King. There was a stand off but Godwin’s men were not prepared to go against the King and later that year the family were exiled, despite the fact that Edward was married to Edith, Godwin’s daughter. Also Edward would not have forgotten the treatment given to his brother Arthur. The feud did not last long and they returned the following year but the damage was done and it seems that while they were away Edward offered the throne to William.
Fast forwarding to 1064, Edward was growing old. Godwin had died and his son, Harold, had succeeded him making him the most powerful man in England. Edward summoned Harold and sent him to Normandy. Historians disagree about the next events. The Bayeux Tapestry is very clear about what happened, as is William of Poitiers, the main contemporary historian of William. They claim that Harold was blown off course and shipwrecked in Ponthieu where he was taken prisoner by the local lord, Guy. William paid a ransom to release Harold and the two spent time together, with Harold fighting with William as the Duke attacked local troublemakers including Duke Conan. The tapestry shows Harold helping Norman soldiers out of sinking sand, and it is said that he fought so well that William knighted him at the end of the campaign in Dinan. A key scene of the tapestry now shows Harold making a promise to Duke William. William of Poitiers says that this was a sacred oath, made on the bones of holy saints, that Harold would support William as the next King of England, as Edward the Confessor had sent him to do. The words on the tapestry for that scene say “Ubi hAROLD [sic]:SACRAMENTUM FECIT WILLELMO DUCI”. Translated this reads as Harold makes an oath to Duke William. The Saxon chronicler, Eadmer, suggests that whilst the oath was made in Normandy, Harold was forced to make it, rendering it useless.
It is unlikely we will ever know with certainty exactly what happened, or why. What is certain is that when Edward the Confessor died on January 5th 1066, the Witan wasted no time in declaring Harold king and he was crowned in the newly finished Westminster Abbey the following day, the 6th. In the tapestry a comet can clearly be seen in the sky with onlookers staring at it. Chroniclers comment that this was seen as an omen. You can also make out Norman spies watching and about to report the events to William back in Normandy. When he learns what has happened William prepares to invade. Contemporary accounts mention 726 ships and a mixture of cavalry, infantry and archers from all parts of France meeting at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme ready to leave by mid-August. The invasion also had the support of Pope Alexander II. However due to adverse wind conditions they were kept in the bay until late September. It is also possible that William had learnt of the arrival in England of the King of Norway, Harald Hardrada. This invasion in the North of England meant that Harold’s forces had to make the long march up to York where they met the Norweigan forces at Stamford Bridge. Fortunately for Harold the Vikings had just defeated an English contingent at Fulford, and were idling whilst waiting for hostages. Caught unawares, and without much of their armour and weapons, they were beaten by Harold’s Saxons on September 25th. Three days later William had arrived on the beaches of Pevensey Bay in Sussex and were able to land unopposed and prepare for the final battle which took place just 16 days later against an exhausted and depleted Saxon army.
Six miles from Hastings the last Saxon King of England was killed, probably by being hacked down by Norman knights rather than the traditional view of having an arrow in his eye. The Normans had won and marched on London. William was crowned on Christmas Day 1066 and set about consolidating his rule by transforming land ownership, building castles, dominating the population, crushing resistance and putting trusted allies in key positions. When he died, twenty-one years later, William handed over to his son a secure kingdom, and a very different one. Trade with Europe had grown considerably and the Norman aristocracy had a vice-like grip on the country. The rule of both Harold and the Anglo-Saxons seemed a very distant memory.