The Curious Case of William and Harold

Recently, I’ve posted two articles on how certain aspects of our History need to be rectified. Firstly, I spoke of the British Regnal Numbering System and how it’s so fantastically screwed up that we really need to drop it. (Find here) And secondly, I spoke of the way in which we seem to be clinging onto some mythological Victorian idyll when we really shouldn’t be (Find here). For my third (and at the present moment in time… final) article on how messed up history is, I would like to talk about how what we know of as history is actually full of intriguing curiosities if you only look hard enough and what may be the truth could in fact be a downright lie…

Someone once said that History is written by the victors. I don’t know who said it and the internet doesn’t seem to know either so let’s just put it down to Leopold Von Ranke (Because let’s face it… None of us are going to bother to trawl through that garbage to find the quote anyway) and have done with it. Of course, there’s one part of history where this is evident more than any other: 1066 and the Norman Conquest of England.

Every English school child is taught the story:

In 1066 Edward the Confessor died without an heir so his brother in law, Harold Godwinson, took the throne. At the same time Halleys Comet appeared in the sky and the people took this as an ill omen. Then Harold’s brother Tostig and a Viking called Harald Hardrada landed on the north coas,t so Harold marched north and beat them at the battle of Stamford Bridge. Then William of Normandy comes over from France, Harold marches south and gets an arrow in the eye at the Battle of Hastings. William is crowned king on Christmas day 1066 and the whole thing is celebrated in a massive tapestry which is currently in Bayeux…

This is a very simplified view and over reliant on the Bayeux Tapestry as a source. The Bayeux Tapestry is without a doubt the biggest piece of self-indulgent propaganda in history and it was knitted (embroidered, actually) for the sole purpose of glorifying the Norman Conquest. There are other sources out there: Orderic Vitalis who was English (with Norman Descent) and a lot of other Norman chroniclers like William of Poitiers and Guy of Amiens. There’s the Anglo Saxon Chronicle which really doesn’t tell us much for 1066.

From history books you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Anglo Saxon Chronicle was one document. It isn’t. It’s several, all of varying dates and some of which contradict each other. One of the manuscripts stops in the middle of the Battle Of Stamford Bridge, some don’t go as far as that, and the ones that do aren’t exactly contemporary. There is one manuscript that goes to about 1154 but I’ll explain why this a duff a bit later. Besides this, it’s quite vague and brief, particularly on the subject of the Battle of Hastings.  All that it says is:

There was slain King Harold, and Leofwin his brother, and Earl Girth his brother, with many good men: and the Frenchmen gained the field of battle, as God granted them for the sins of the nation.

Does that look to you a little… biased? It seems to be claiming that the Normans won at Hastings through some sort of divine intervention and the will of God. If you know your background detail to the whole Norman Conquest you’ll be aware that the Normans seemed to think God was on their side. The whole Norman campaign was even blessed by the pope and declared as a crusade against the heathen English. Unsurprisingly before this William only had a few supporters but after the declaration the numbers in his army rocketed. Could it be that the whole Crusade idea was a ploy on William’s part to enlarge his army?) If there is one way to get a medieval peasant to do what you want them to it is to simply tell them the task will absolve them of their sins and they’ll get into heaven… Works every time… And most of those soldiers weren’t even from Normandy. They were French and Burgundian and God knows what. Alongside this support and declaration, the pope also excommunicated Harold due to the fact that he had ‘stolen the crown,’ when in actual fact he was elected by the Witenagemot, an early sort of parliament.

All of this sounds eerily familiar to another famous event in English History- The pope declares the monarch to be excommunicated and subsequently endorses an invasion of the British Isles. That is exactly what happened with the Spanish Armada! Only the armada was soundly beaten. So what was the difference? Why did the Normans succeed where the Armada failed? Well… There are six hundred and twenty two years between the two events and in that time there happened a little thing called the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism. Elizabeth I was a protestant and probably just didn’t care what the pope did to her. Meanwhile, six hundred and twenty two years earlier, the pope was supreme head of the one and only Christian Church and whatever he said was law. If he said you were going to Hell then you were going to Hell… Look back to what I said earlier about promising a medieval person passage into heaven and he’ll do whatever you want… If you do the opposite and condemn them to Hell they’ll go to pieces. There’s strong evidence that this might have happened to Harold when he found out THE DAY BEFORE HASTINGS!

Now doesn’t that strike you as odd? Harold only finds out about the excommunication from one of William’s messengers. Surely the pope would have dispatched someone to say ‘OY Harold… You’re damned!’ And it happens right before the battle to decide everything? At the most critical time? Never ignore a coincidence. William may have been a bastard but he wasn’t stupid. He knew that tipping Harold into a philosophical crisis at a crucial juncture could turn the battle in his favour. Perhaps he had planned this all along? Which brings me in a roundabout way to another point.

It is commonly accepted that the Viking raiding season usually lasted from around May to September each year when the seas would be at their calmest. So why oh why did Hardrada and Tostig wait until LATE SEPTEMBER before starting their invasion? Invading a country in September is madness. It’s harvest time for a start and you don’t want to be campaigning over winter when food is likely to be scarce. It’s cold, windy and you’ll probably end up dying of dysentery or some other disease.  So why oh why, Hardrada and Tostig? Why?

After a bit of searching I found the answer lurking amongst the pages of David Starkey’s Monarchy:

Tostig made the first moves, raiding from the Isle of Wight to Sandwich and thence to Lincolnshire. He fled from Sandwich with the approach of Harold, who had assembled ‘so large a force, naval and military, as no king collected before in this land.’ And he was driven out of Lincolnshire by the brother earls, Edwin and Morkere. He then took refuge with his bosom friend, Malcolm III, in Scotland.

Starkey D. ‘The Monarchy of England Vol 1: The Beginnings’ (Bath Press, 2004) P121

So sometime around the summer of 1066, Tostig was floating around in the English Channel. Off the Isle of Wight no less. Do you know how far that is from Normandy? Only 60 miles at the shortest point. There aren’t many places in between England and France to rest at so either they were A: Continuously Raiding (Tiring) B: Sheltering with the locals (Dangerous) C: Floating in the middle of the sea for a bit (Unlikely) or D: Zipping across the channel to Normandy…

This lends itself to an intriguing possibility, especially if we return to the whole timing scenario. One army attacking at the impending onset of winter is curiously suicidal but two? It’s possible that William waited until harvest time because he knew the English army would be depleted and therefore weakened. He knew also that his ‘crusaders’ would follow him at anytime… But Hardrada and Tostig didn’t have this advantage and they were attacking from the north, which makes it much harder to actually take the country. So why did they both attack at a stupid time of year just a few weeks apart?

It turns out that Tostig WAS in Normandy sometime around the point Harold became King AND he tried to make an alliance with William. (Not sure of the source I’m afraid.) Many historians will probably just tell you that the alliance failed and there’s no evidence to prove it succeeded. There may be no physical evidence, true, but there is the evidence of logic and the fact that two armies were attacking England from opposite ends at near enough the same time in a classic pincer movement that would have crumpled the country like paper. That may not be acceptable for academic historians but they cannot deny that William would have used any means at his disposal to conquer England and usually Harold’s brother would have been the perfect. William might have promised Tostig land, power and wealth in return for allegiance and help. It may also have been at this point that they formulated the plan to attack in late September in some sort of pincer movement.

I do wonder, however, where that leaves Hardrada? An unwitting pawn in the machinations of Duke William or Tostig perhaps? Another member of the Anti-Harold Godwinson Alliance? Impossible to say. All we know is that Tostig promised Hardrada the north of England (presumably the old Danelaw) in return for support, which suggests to me that Hardrada was nothing more than a pawn. It may also be of note that Tostig also appealed to King Sweyn of Denmark for help, though he failed in that regard. Perhaps he went on William’s orders, as we know that the Danes were heavily allied with the Normans at this point.

Of course, it could just be a coincidence that they attacked at nearly the same time. Or William may have just seized the opportunity upon hearing that Harold had gone north to fight Tostig and Hardrada. But nowhere in any source does it say that William attacked at that point for that reason. The chroniclers all state that William was waiting for ‘a southerly wind.’ Do you want to know something about wind in England? 75% of the time it blows in from the south or South West. Are you telling me that during the entire spring/summer of 1066 that the wind didn’t blow across the channel from the south west? And couldn’t they just, I don’t know, row it? It strikes me that the whole ‘waiting for a southerly breeze’ thing is just an excuse to use both the divine intervention thing William had going on and to possibly disguise the whole ‘two attacking armies in September’ coincidence.

Then again, why would the Normans try to hide the fact that they tried out a devious two pronged assault with Tostig and Hardrada coming from the north and William coming up from behind? Could be they were keeping their tactics secret so nobody else would use them? Could it be that William intended to stab Hardrada and Tostig in the back because he was a vicious bastard like that and he didn’t want to look bad? Highly unlikely, but you’ll admit that in the face of logic, reason and an extraordinary coincidence we have an interesting conundrum on our hands.

Undoubtedly however, whatever did or didn’t happen between Tostig, William, Hardrada and the pope, William won out at Hastings, enslaved the country in feudalism and replaced the nobility with Normans. We know all of this because of the sources, which as we have seen are overwhelmingly pro Norman. If I may, briefly, return to our quote from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle earlier which seemed biased, it merely mentions that Harold was ‘slain’ at Hastings. It’s all done in passing like it was no big deal and all the evidence suggests that this part of the chronicle was added at a much later date after the Norman version of events became solid fact. The official story (based on these pro Norman sources) is that he was shot with an arrow in the eye and then hacked into little pieces. Afterwards, his mistress identified his body based on markings that were known only to her and afterwards Harold was buried either on the coast/ in Waltham abbey/ or cremated ‘Viking style.’  The two sources for this are William of Poitiers and Bishop Guy of Amiens, both of whom are Normans.  But there is another source that isn’t pro Norman, that has been more or less forgotten, and deals with the life of Harold Godwinson.

It is a peculiar source in that it contradicts the overwhelmingly Norman stance of other sources, but also that the author states where they got their information from, which in a medieval manuscript is remarkable. It goes by the name of the Vita Haroldi and is essentially a biography of King Harold. It was written by the monks of Waltham Abbey (Of which Harold was patron) and the manuscript that survives is a copy of an original that is dated to about 1205 (Which at only 139 years after the fact isn’t bad for a medieval source.)

Now I want you to believe me when I say that this thing actually exists and is kept somewhere in the British Museum… it exists. Some of you may see it as an alternative, possible version of events… Others may believe it to be undoubtedly true. Personally, I think it was written to undermine Henry II, and is therefore rubbish. Whatever you believe, I shall tell you anyway.

You would expect, based on the other sources, for the Vita Haroldi to end at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when Harold is killed. But it continues… HAROLD SURVIVES HASTINGS… According to the source:

Harold is discovered on the battlefield, badly injured and dying and he was taken away, unbeknownst to the people who had found him, to be healed. Later on they discovered his identity and had him spirited away to Winchester where over time he was treated a by a ‘Saracen Woman’ of great skill. Harold took time to heal and when he did, he left England to gather support for a rebellion against William. He never succeeded and wandered Europe and the Holy Land for a while before he returned to Britain, where he lived for a time in Wales, under a veil to hide his disfigurement and identity. He then proceeded to Chester where he lived out his days as a hermit just outside the church of St John the Baptist only confessing his true identity to a priest upon his death.

To its credit the source seems to cover its bases on the whole burial of Harold and discovery of the body by the mistress. It reckons they got the wrong body and nobody could tell the difference because it was so mutilated and decomposed. And so the Normans believe Harold to be dead. Or if they knew he survived they certainly wanted to make sure people thought he was dead… Once you’ve taken over a country you don’t want people rallying back to your enemy and overthrowing you. It seems unlikely, however, that if the Normans did know Harold was alive that it wouldn’t have slipped out somewhere along the lines… So even if Harold was alive the Normans would have been blissfully unaware. They’d have tried to kill him if they knew, so as to prevent any sort of rebellion.

Whatever you think of the story, it certainly seems that the source is  incredibly well-informed, perhaps more so than any other sources for this period. A lot of the places mentioned in sources such as this are virtually none existent these days but the church specifically mentioned actually exists and is definitely of the right date… And would a bunch of monks in Essex really be able to exactly pin point a single random church in Chester? Not likely… However at one point in the early 1100’s it was a cathedral so that could provide an answer to that conundrum.

Either way, the story contained in the Vita Haroldi isn’t the established version of events. The established version of events was written by the Normans and told in their massive propaganda piece known as the Bayeux Tapestry. Like I said at the beginning, history is written by the victor… If ever Harold did survive Hastings we’ll never know for certain. Likewise if there was an agreement between Tostig and William. There’s little evidence to prove this besides logic and speculation. As for William? He may have planned the whole thing to give him a psychological advantage over Harold but again, we’ll never know what he was thinking.


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