William the Conqueror - Jacob Abbott

King Harold

Harold, the son of the Earl Godwin, who was maneuvering to gain possession of the English throne, and William of Normandy, though they lived on opposite sides of the English Channel, the one in France and the other in England, were still personally known to each other; for not only had William, as was stated in the last chapter, paid a visit to England, but Harold himself, on one occasion, made an excursion to Normandy. The circumstances of this expedition were, in some respects, quite extraordinary, and illustrate in a striking manner some of the peculiar ideas and customs of the times. They were as follows:

During the life of Harold's father Godwin, there was a very serious quarrel between him, that is, Godwin, and King Edward, in which both the king and his rebellious subject marshaled their forces, and for a time waged against each other an open and sanguinary war. In this contest the power of Godwin had proved so formidable, and the military forces which he succeeded in marshaling under his banners were so great, that Edward's government was unable effectually to put him down. At length, after a long and terrible struggle, which involved a large part of the country in the horrors of a civil war, the belligerents made a treaty with each other, which settled their quarrel by a sort of compromise. Godwin was to retain his high position and rank as a subject, and to continue in the government of certain portions of the island which had long been under his jurisdiction; he, on his part, promising to dismiss his armies, and to make war upon the king no more. He bound himself to the faithful performance of these covenants by giving the king hostages.

The hostages given up on such occasions were always near and dear relatives and friends, and the understanding was, that if the party giving them failed in fulfilling his obligations, the innocent and helpless hostages were to be entirely at the mercy of the other party into whose custody they had been given. The latter would, in such cases, imprison them, torture them, or put them to death, with a greater or less degree of severity in respect to the infliction of pain, according to the degree of exasperation which the real or fancied injury which he had received awakened in his mind.

This cruel method of binding fierce and unprincipled men to the performance of their promises has been universally abandoned in modern times, though in the rude and early stages of civilization it has been practiced among all nations, ancient and modern. The hostages chosen were often of young and tender years, and were always such as to render the separation which took place when they were torn from their friends most painful, as it was the very object of the selection to obtain those who were most beloved. They were delivered into the hands of those whom they had always regarded as their bitterest enemies, and who, of course, were objects of aversion and terror. They were sent away into places of confinement and seclusion, and kept in the custody of strangers, where they lived in perpetual fear that some new outbreak between the contending parties would occur, and consign them to torture or death. The cruelties sometimes inflicted, in such cases, on the innocent hostages, were awful. At one time, during the contentions between Ethelred and Canute, Canute, being driven across the country to the sea-coast, and there compelled to embark on board his ships to make his escape, was cruel enough to cut off the hands and the feet of some hostages which Ethelred had previously given him, and leave them writhing in agony on the sands of the shore.

The hostages which are particularly named by historians as given by Godwin to King Edward were his son and his grandson. Their names were Ulnoth and Hacune. Ulnoth, of course, was Harold's brother, and Hacune his nephew. Edward, thinking that Godwin would contrive some means of getting these securities back into his possession again if he attempted to keep them in England, decided to, send them to Normandy, and to put them under the charge of William the duke for safe keeping. When Godwin died, Harold applied to Edward to give up the hostages, since, as he alleged, there was no longer any reason for detaining them. They had been given as security for Godwin's  good behavior, and now Godwin was no more.

Edward could not well refuse to surrender them, and yet, as Harold succeeded to the power, and evidently possessed all the ambition of his father, it seemed to be, politically, as necessary to retain the hostages now as it had been before. Edward, therefore, without absolutely refusing to surrender them, postponed and evaded compliance with Harold's demand, on the ground that the hostages were in Normandy. He was going, he said, to send for them as soon as he could make the necessary arrangements for bringing them home in safety.

Under these circumstances, Harold determined to go and bring them himself. He proposed this plan to Edward. Edward would not absolutely refuse his consent, but he did all in his power to discourage such an expedition. He told Harold that William of Normandy was a crafty and powerful man; that by going into his dominions he would put himself entirely into his power, and would be certain to involve himself in some serious difficulty. This interview between Harold and the king is commemorated on the Bayeux tapestry by the opposite uncouth design.

What effect Edward's disapproval of the project produced upon Harold's mind is not certainly known. It is true that he went across the Channel, but the accounts of the crossing are confused and contradictory, some of them stating that, while sailing for pleasure with a party of attendants and companions on the coast, he was blown off from the shore and driven across to France by a storm. The probability, however, is, that this story was only a pretense. He was determined to go, but not wishing to act openly in defiance of the king's wishes, he contrived to be blown off, in order to make it seem that he went against his will.

[Illustration] from William the Conqueror by Jacob Abbott


At all events, the storm  was real, whether his being compelled to leave the English shores by the power of it was real or pretended. It carried him, too, out of his course, driving him up the Channel to the eastward of Normandy, where he had intended to land, and at length throwing his galley, a wreck, on the shore, not far from the mouth of the Somme. The galley itself was broken tip, but Harold and his company escaped to land. They found that they were in the dominions of a certain prince who held possessions on that coast, whose style and title was Guy, count of Ponthieu.

The law in those days was, that wrecks became the property of the lord of the territory on the shores of which they occurred; and not only were the ships and the goods which they contained thus confiscated in case of such a disaster, but the owners themselves became liable to be seized and held captive for a ransom. Harold, knowing his danger, was attempting to secrete himself on the coast till he could get to Normandy, when a fisherman who saw him, and knew by his dress and appearance, and by the deference with which he was treated by the rest of the company, that he was a man of great consequence in his native land, went to the count, and said that for ten crowns he would show him where there was a man who would be worth a thousand to him. The count came down with his retinue to the coast, seized the unfortunate adventurers, took possession of all the goods and baggage that the waves had spared, and shut the men themselves up in his castle at Abbeville till they could pay their ransom.

Harold remonstrated against this treatment. He said that he was on his way to Normandy on business of great importance with the duke, from the King of England, and that he could not be detained. But the count was very decided in refusing to let him go without his ransom. Harold then sent word to William, acquainting him with his situation, and asking him to effect his release. William sent to the count, demanding that he should give his prisoner up. All these things, however, only tended to elevate and enlarge the count's ideas of the value and importance of the prize which he had been so fortunate to secure. He persisted in refusing to give him up without ransom. Finally William paid the ransom, in the shape of a large sum of money, and the cession, in addition, of a considerable territory. Harold and his companions in bondage were then delivered to William's messengers, and conducted by them in safety to Rouen, where William was then residing.

William received his distinguished guest with every possible mark of the most honorable consideration. He was escorted with great parade and ceremony into the palace, lodged in the most sumptuous manner, provided with every necessary supply, and games, and military spectacles, and feasts and entertainments without number, were arranged to celebrate his visit. William informed him that he was at liberty to return to England whenever he pleased, and that his brother and his nephew, the hostages that he had come to seek, were at his disposal. He, however, urged him not to return immediately, but to remain a short time in Normandy with his companions. Harold accepted the invitation.

All this exuberance of hospitality had its origin, as the reader will readily divine, in the duke's joy in finding the only important rival likely to appear to contest his claims to the English crown so fully in his power, and in the hope which he entertained of so managing affairs at this visit as to divert Harold's mind from the idea of becoming the King of England himself, and to induce him to pledge himself to act in his, that is, William's favor. He took, therefore, all possible pains to make him enjoy his visit in Normandy; he exhibited to him the wealth and the resources of the country—conducting him from place to place to visit the castles, the abbeys, and the towns—and, finally, he proposed that he should accompany him on a military expedition into Brittany.

Harold, pleased with the honors conferred upon him, and with the novelty and magnificence of the scenes to which he was introduced, entered heartily into all these plans, and his companions and attendants were no less pleased than he. William knighted many of these followers of Harold, and made them costly presents of horses, and banners, and suits of armor, and other such gifts as were calculated to captivate the hearts of martial adventurers such as they. William soon gained an entire ascendency over their minds, and when he invited them to accompany him on his expedition into Brittany, they were all eager to go.

Brittany was west of Normandy, and on the frontiers of it, so that the expedition was not a distant one. Nor was it long protracted. It was, in fact, a sort of pleasure excursion, William taking his guest across the frontier into his neighbor's territory, on a marauding party, just as a nobleman, in modern times, would take a party into a forest to hunt. William and Harold were on the most intimate and friendly terms possible during the continuance of this campaign. They occupied the same tent, and ate at the same table. Harold evinced great military talents and much bravery in the various adventures which they met with in Brittany, and William felt more than ever the desirableness of securing his influence on his, that is, William's side, or, at least, of preventing his becoming an open rival and enemy. On their return from Brittany into Normandy, he judged that the time had arrived for taking his measures. He accordingly resolved to come to an open understanding with Harold in respect to his plans, and to seek his co-operation.

He introduced the subject, the historians say, one day as they were riding along homeward from their excursion, and had been for some time talking familiarly on the way, relating tales to one another of wars, battles, sieges, and hair-breadth escapes, and other such adventures as formed, generally, the subjects of narrative conversation in those days. At length William, finding Harold, as he judged, in a favorable mood for such a communication, introduced the subject of the English realm and the approaching demise of the crown. He told him, confidentially, that there had been an arrangement between him, William, and King Edward, for some time, that Edward was to adopt  him as his successor. William told Harold, moreover, that he should rely a great deal on his co-operation and assistance in getting peaceable possession of the kingdom, and promised to bestow upon him the very highest rewards and honors in return if he would give him his aid. The only rival claimant, William said, was the young child Edgar, and he had no friends, no party, no military forces, and no means whatever for maintaining his pretensions. On the other hand, he, William, and Harold, had obviously all the power in their own hands, and if they could only co-operate together on a common understanding, they would be sure to have the power and the honors of the English realm entirely at their disposal.

Harold listened to all these suggestions, and pretended to be interested and pleased. He was, in reality, interested, but he was not pleased. He wished to secure the kingdom for himself, not merely to obtain a share, however large, of its power and its honors as the subject of another. He was, however, too wary to evince his displeasure. On the contrary, he assented to the plan, professed to enter into it with all his heart, and expressed his readiness to commence, immediately, the necessary preliminary measures for carrying it into execution. William was much gratified with the successful result of his negotiation, and the two chieftains rode home to William's palace in Normandy, banded together, apparently, by very strong ties. In secret, however, Harold was resolving to effect his departure from Normandy as soon as possible, and to make immediate and most effectual measures for securing the kingdom of England to himself, without any regard to the promises that he had made to William.

Nor must it be supposed that William himself placed any positive reliance on mere promises from Harold. He immediately began to form plans for binding him to the performance of his stipulations, by the modes then commonly employed for securing the fulfillment of covenants made among princes. These methods were three—intermarriages, the giving of hostages, and solemn oaths.

William proposed two marriages as means of strengthening the alliance between himself and Harold. Harold was to give to William one of his daughters, that William might marry her to one of his Norman chieftains. This would be, of course, placing her in William's power, and making her a hostage all but in name. Harold, however, consented. The second marriage proposed was between William's daughter and Harold himself; but as his daughter was a child of only seven years of age, it could only be a betrothment that could take place at that time. Harold acceded to this proposal too, and arrangements were made for having the faith of the parties pledged to one another in the most solemn manner. A great assembly of all the knights, nobles, and ladies of the court was convened, and the ceremony of pledging the troth between the fierce warrior and the gentle and wondering child was performed with as much pomp and parade as if it had been an actual wedding. The name of the girl was Adela.

In respect to hostages, William determined to detain one of those whom Harold, as will be recollected, had come into Normandy to recover. He told him, therefore, that he might take with him his nephew Hacune, but that Ulnoth, his brother, should remain, and William would bring him over himself when he came to take possession of the kingdom. Harold was extremely unwilling to leave his brother thus in William's power; but as he knew very well that his being allowed to return to England himself would depend upon his not evincing any reluctance to giving William security, or manifesting any other indication that he was not intending to keep his plighted faith, he readily consented, and it was thus settled that Ulnoth should remain.

Finally, in order to hold Harold to the fulfillment of his promises by every possible form of obligation, William proposed that he should take a public and solemn oath, in the presence of a large assembly of all the great potentates and chieftains of the realm, by which he should bind himself, under the most awful sanctions, to keep his word. Harold made no objection to this either. He considered himself as, in fact, in duress, and his actions as not free. He was in Williams power, and was influenced in all he did by a desire to escape from Normandy, and once more recover his liberty. He accordingly decided, in his own mind, that whatever oaths he might take he should afterward consider as forced upon him, and consequently as null and void, and was ready, therefore, to take any that William might propose.

The great assembly was accordingly convened. In the middle of the council hall there was placed a great chair of state, which was covered with a cloth of gold. Upon this cloth, and raised considerably above the seat, was the missal, that is, the book of service of the Catholic Church, written on parchment and splendidly illuminated. The book was open at a passage from one of the Evangelists—the Evangelists being a portion of the Holy Scriptures which was, in those days, supposed to invest an oath with the most solemn sanctions.

Harold felt some slight misgivings as he advanced in the midst of such an imposing scene as the great assembly of knights and ladies presented in the council hall, to repeat his promises in the very presence of God, and to imprecate the retributive curses of the Almighty on the violation of them, which he was deliberately and fully determined to incur. He had, however, gone too far to retreat now. He advanced, therefore, to the open missal, laid his hand upon the book, and, repeating the words which William dictated to him from his throne, he took the threefold oath required, namely, to aid William to the utmost of his power in his attempt to secure the succession to the English crown, to marry William's daughter Adela as soon as she should arrive at a suitable age, and to send over forthwith from England his own daughter, that she might be espoused to one of William's nobles.

As soon as the oath was thus taken, William caused the missal and the cloth of gold to be removed, and there appeared beneath it, on the chair of state, a chest, containing the sacred relics of the Church, which William had secretly collected from the abbeys and monasteries of his dominions, and placed in this concealment, that, without Harold's being conscious of it, their dreadful sanction might be added to that which the Holy Evangelists imposed. These relics were fragments of bones set in caskets and frames, and portions of blood—relics, as the monks alleged, of apostles or of the Savior—and small pieces of wood, similarly preserved, which had been portions of the cross of Christ or of his thorny crown. These things were treasured up with great solemnity in the monastic establishments and in the churches of these early times, and were regarded with a veneration and awe, of which it is almost beyond our power even to conceive. Harold trembled when he saw what he had unwittingly done. He was terrified to think how much more dreadful was the force of the imprecations that he had uttered than he had imagined while uttering them. But it was too late to undo what he had done. The assembly was finally dismissed. William thought he had the conscience of his new ally firmly secured, and Harold began to prepare for leaving Normandy.

He continued on excellent terms with William until his departure. William accompanied him to the sea-shore when the time of his embarkation arrived, and dismissed him at last with many farewell honors, and a profusion of presents. Harold set sail, and, crossing the Channel in safety, he landed in England.

He commenced immediately an energetic system of measures to strengthen his own cause, and prepare the way for his own accession. He organized his party, collected arms and munitions of war, and did all that he could to ingratiate himself with the most powerful and wealthy nobles. He sought the favor of the king, too, and endeavored to persuade him to discard William. The king was now old and infirm, and was growing more and more inert and gloomy as he advanced in age. His mind was occupied altogether in ecclesiastical rites and observances, or plunged in a torpid and lifeless melancholy, which made him averse to giving any thought to the course which the affairs of his kingdom were to take after he was gone. He did not care whether Harold or William took the crown when he laid it aside, provided they would allow him to die in peace.

He had had, a few years previous to this time, a plan of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but had finally made an arrangement with the pope, allowing him to build a Cathedral church, to be dedicated to St. Peter, a few miles west of London, in lieu of his pilgrimage. There was already a Cathedral church or minster  in the heart of London which was dedicated to St. Paul. The new one was afterward often called, to distinguish it from the other, the west  minster, which designation, Westminster, became afterward its regular name. It was on this spot, where Westminster Abbey now stands, that Edward's church was to be built. It was just completed at the time of which we are speaking, and the king was preparing for the dedication of it. He summoned an assembly of all the prelates and great ecclesiastical dignitaries of the land to convene at London, in order to dedicate the new Cathedral. Before they were ready for the service, the king was taken suddenly sick. They placed him upon his couch in his palace chamber, where he lay, restless, and moaning in pain, and repeating incessantly, half in sleep and half in delirium, the gloomy and threatening texts of Scripture which seemed to haunt his mind. He was eager to have the dedication go on, and they hastened the service in order to gratify him by having it performed before he died. The next day he was obviously failing. Harold and his friends were very earnest to have the departing monarch declare in his  favor before he died, and their coming and going, and their loud discussions, rude soldiers as they were, disturbed his dying hours. He sent them word to choose whom they would for king, duke or earl, it was indifferent to him, and thus expired.

Harold had made his arrangements so well, and had managed so effectually to secure the influence of all the powerful nobles of the kingdom, that they immediately convened and offered him the crown. Edgar was in the court of Edward at the time, but he was too young to make any effort to advance his claims. He was, in fact, a foreigner, though in the English royal line. He had been brought up on the Continent of Europe, and could not even speak the English tongue. He acquiesced, therefore, without complaint, in these proceedings, and was even present as a consenting spectator on the occasion of Harold's coronation, which ceremony was performed with great pomp and parade, at St. Paul's, in London, very soon after King Edward's death. Harold rewarded Edgar for his complaisance and discretion by conferring upon him the honor of knighthood immediately after the coronation, and in the church where the ceremony was performed. He also conferred similar distinctions and honors upon many other aspiring and ambitious men whom he wished to secure to his side. He thus seemed to have secure and settled possession of the throne.

Previously to this time, Harold had married a young lady of England, a sister of two very powerful noblemen, and the richest heiress in the realm. This marriage greatly strengthened his influence in England, and helped to prepare the way for his accession to the supreme power. The tidings of it, however, when they crossed the Channel and reached the ears of William of Normandy, as the act was an open and deliberate violation of one of the covenants which Harold had made with William, convinced the latter that none of these covenants would be kept, and prepared him to expect all that afterward followed.