Stories from English History: I - Alfred J. Church

Harold the Earl

Godwin, son of Wulfnoth, was a great man in the days of King Canute and of King Edward. Six sons he had, and a daughter that was married to King Edward, and of these sons the second in age was Harold. This Harold was made Earl of East Anglia when he was twenty-four years of age; his brothers also had Earldoms, so that Godwin and his sons between them ruled three-fourth-parts of the realm of England. But after six years they fell under the displeasure of King Edward, for they were against the Normans, for whom the King had a great favour. As for Harold, he fled to Ireland with his brother Leofwine. Thence he came in the year after with a fleet, and landing at Porlock, which is in the county of Somerset, fought and won a battle with the people of the country. Thirty thanes, for so they called knights in those days, were slain, and a multitude of common men. Thence Harold, with whom went Leofwine, sailed to the Isle of Wight, where he found Earl Godwin, his father. Thence the three sailed eastward to Kent, and from Kent up the Thames to London. They lay with their ships on the south side of the river, and on the north side were King Edward's men. Earl Godwin sent an embassy to ask that he and his sons should be suffered to return. For a while the King said No, the Normans about him so advising, but when it was manifest that the people would have the Earl and his sons come back, he yielded, and the Normans fled for their lives.

Thus Harold got his Earldom again, and in the year after, his father dying suddenly, the Earldom of Wessex. So he grew in power and in favour with the King and people. A great warrior he was, and tall and strong, a comely person, and of gentle manners.

But, after a while, he had an unlucky adventure which brought him in the end great trouble. He took sail with certain companions, being minded, it would seem—for he had his dogs and hawks with him—to have some sport in hunting. When he had been a short time at sea—it was from some port in the English Channel that he had sailed—a storm began to blow, and cast his ship on the coast of France, near to the castle of a certain Count Guy. One of the fishermen of the place chanced to know him. This man went to the Count Guy, and said to him, "Give me twenty pounds, and I will show you a prisoner who will pay you willingly twenty pounds for his ransom." Thereupon the Count rode with all haste to the coast, and caused Harold and his companions to be seized and carried to a castle that he had some miles distant from the sea. But one of the men that waited on Harold escaped, and flying to William, Duke of Normandy, told him the whole matter, which William, for certain reasons of his own, was right glad to hear.

William, as will be seen from what is said of him in another place, was set on winning the kingdom of England for himself, and he thought it a most fortunate thing that chance should have put the Earl Harold within his reach, for there was not a man more likely to be chosen King than he. He sent, therefore, with all haste to the Count, commanding him to bring the English prisoner that he had taken. This the Count, who was not a little afraid of Duke William, did without delay, and receiving as much as he had hoped to get by way of ransom, was well content. As for Harold, it was a bad exchange for him, for, as will be seen, he was likely to pay more for his liberty than he would have paid to Count Guy. The Duke indeed showed much hospitality to him, taking him as his companion when he went a-hunting, and on an expedition that he made about this time against the people of Brittany. There was no better entertainment that one man could give to another in those days than to give him a part in some fighting. But when Harold was wishful to go home, then Duke William showed what was in his mind. "I shall not let you go," he said, " till you have sworn to be my man, to help me to the best of your power so long as King Edward shall live, and to acknowledge me as King of England when King Edward shall die." This and other things Harold promised, not seeing in what other way he could get his liberty, and judging doubtless that a promise made under compulsion does not bind him that makes it. But the Duke, not forgetting that Harold might so excuse himself, required that he should confirm his promise by an oath. This Harold did not refuse to do. He laid his hand upon a book of the Gospels that had been set on what seemed to be a table, and swore that he would abide faithfully by his word. But when he had so sworn, the Duke uncovered that on which the book had lain, and lo! it was a chest full of the bones of saints and such-like things. Then Harold, it is said, turned pale and trembled, seeing what he had done without knowing.

Not many months after this Harold had another great trouble, this time with one of his own house. Tostig, the brother that was next to him in age, had for some ten years or more been Earl of Northumbria. But he had abused his authority both foolishly and harshly. Had he been the wisest of men, his task had not been easy, for he was an Englishman, and his people, for the most part, Danes. But he was hasty and violent, and would have his own will, whether it was just or not. Often too he would leave his Earldom to live at Court, where King Edward held him in great favour. At last, in the year 1065, Tostig having caused two nobles of Northumbria to be put to death, the people rebelled against him and drove him out. At first the King, who loved him well, was minded to bring him back, even by force. But Harold, having conferred with the leaders of the insurrection, and heard the accusations that were brought against Tostig, judged otherwise. So his Earldom was taken from Tostig, and he himself banished.

Edward the Confessor


And now Edward, whom men called the Confessor for his piety and goodness, was like to die. He had caused to be built a great church at Westminster, spending on it, so men said, a tenth part of the whole wealth of the kingdom. This having been finished, was consecrated on Innocents' Day (Dec. 28, 1065). The King was hindered from being present by his weakness, but he was well content to die when he knew that the work was done. Eight days afterwards he was very near to his end. There were in the chamber with him his wife, the Queen, Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, the Keeper of the palace, and Harold. The Archbishop asked him, "To whom do you leave your kingdom of England?" Then the King stretched out his hand to Harold, and said, "I commend her" (meaning the Queen) "and the whole nation to thy protection." Having said so much, and received the Holy Communion, he passed away.

The next day King Edward was buried in his new church (where his bones remain to this day), and Harold was crowned King of England in this same place. When the Archbishop (not Stigand, as it should be noted, but Ealdred of York) put the crown upon his head, he asked of the people assembled, "Do you choose Earl Harold, son of Godwin, for your King?" All answered with a great shout, "We choose him." Thereupon the Archbishop duly anointed him, put the crown upon his head, and the sword in his hand, he having first sworn that he would observe the laws of the kingdom. So Harold, son of Godwin, was made King, and had the honour for "forty weeks and one day" (Jan. 6-Oct. 14.).