On January 5/6th of 1066 the King, Edward died - leaving the throne of England open to dispute. The rightful King was Edgar, son of Edward the Exile, grandson of Edmund Ironside, great grandson of Æthelred (the Unready). But Edgar was still a boy, probably only a young teenager. England knew there would be a dispute for the crown - primarily from Duke William of Normandy, and Harold Godwinsson, Earl of Wessex knew first hand of William's ruthless abilities.
Only a capable, experienced man could be placed at the helm - so the Council chose Harold.
The Normans made an outcry, of course, citing that Edward had promised the throne to William (even if he had, such a private promise would have no legal status in England) and that Harold had pledged an oath, before God, to support William in his claim.
I find it unbelievable that a man such as Harold, in his position of power, would willing agree to put William on the throne of England, yet the taking of the oath is documented fact - it is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.
It is known that Harold went to Normandy, though the reason is not certain; more than likely he went to retrieve his brother Wulfnoth and nephew Hakon who had been held as hostage for many years - he did indeed come home with Hakon. (Wulfnoth was never to see his freedom). Harold went on campaign with William while in Normandy and was honoured for bravery - to my mind it seems logical that William would have tried various ways of securing Harold to his side, one of which was probably by offering a marriage of alliance.
So in my novel, Harold the King (the US title is I am the Chosen King) I follow this line of thought - and explain the scene where Harold is forced, against his will to make that oath.
So in my novel, Harold the King (the US title is I am the Chosen King) I follow this line of thought - and explain the scene where Harold is forced, against his will to make that oath.
Enjoy the two excerpts below:
Part Two ~ Chapter 27 ~ Bayeux 1064
Agatha sat completely miserable, in a corner of her father’s great Hall, as far from the glare of watching eyes as she could. She would have preferred to remain in her bedchamber, but her mother had not allowed it. The exchange of heated words between them this morning had been almost as red-hot as the blaze of the Yule log in the central hearth fire. She did not want to marry, could her parents not see that? She had a calling, her desire was to serve God. That was her duty, not the giving of her body to a man in marriage. Not that she disliked Earl Harold, he was kind and he made her laugh, but then, so did William de Warenne and Ralph de Tosny…many other men. And to go to England? Oh, she could not, could not! It was a country of heretics and pagans, where men worshipped beneath oak trees and took oath in the name of the gods, like Odin and Thunor. Where the women were all whores and their husbands adulterers…how could her father contemplate sending her to live in such a dark pit of iniquity?
As Bishop Odo’s raucous laugh boomed across the crowded Hall, Agatha shrank deeper into her holly-green woollen mantle, clasping her fingers tighter together in her anxiety. Her uncle had been there this morning. Confronted by uncle, mother and father together, what chance had she, a ten-year-old girl, of making her voice heard? If she was frightened of her father, she feared Uncle Odo’s chastisement more, for he brought the added wrath of God’s word to his reproof. Agatha knew she could withstand any punishment, any beating, but not the condemnation of God. Surprising even herself, she had shouted and clenched her fists, declaring that she would not, would not, become betrothed to Earl Harold – and her uncle had slapped her, right there in front of her mother and father. Slapped her so hard that the bruise would blacken her cheek for many days to come, in the name of God’s displeasure at her discourtesy and refusal to accept her place as a woman and wife.
A tear dribbled down her cheek. Never before could she remember enduring such misery.
“Why the tears little mistress? What ails you?”
A man’s shadow fell tall and broad across her. Her downward gaze saw only his boots. Doe hide, dyed blue. Earl Harold’s boots.
He sat beside her on the bench, near enough to exchange private talk, distant enough not to compromise her honour. “I think we are all disenchanted this day,” he said. “The rain and biting cold does sour our humour.” He tried a small jest: “They say when this rain eases, that it will turn cold enough to freeze the feathers off a gander’s backside.”
No smile touched her mouth. Another tear dribbled; she brushed it aside.
Harold decided to try the direct approach. “Your father tells me that you have been informed of our intended betrothal.” Still no response. He leant forward, cupped her chin with his hand and tilted her face upwards to look into his own.
“Am I, then, so terrible a prospect? I am not so bad to look upon and at least my breath does not smell like that of your father’s toothless old wolfhound. Nor do I scratch at fleas with my foot.”
At last Agatha attempted a smile at his absurdity, then answered him with a choking stammer: “It is England I fear, not you.”
Harold chuckled. “There is nothing especial to fear about England, sweet one. It is just as damned cold in winter as it is here in Normandy, just as wind-blustered by the northern breezes and flatulent men. Many of us in England are descended from the Viking race, as you are, and we all have as much passion for climbing the ladder of power, by whatever means, legal or murderous, as your father’s fellow countrymen. The one difference between Normandy and England, Lady Agatha, is that we live in houses built of timber, not stone, and we prefer talking about fighting rather than risk smearing blood over our long hair and our trailing moustaches.”
Agatha fiddled with her kerchief, drawing it fearfully backwards and forwards through her fingers. Whispered, “But I would know no one in England, I should be the only Norman.”
Setting his large hand over the smallness of hers, Harold shook his head. “There are more than a few of Norman birth in England, child. Our King Edward, for one, is more Norman than English.”
“But he is old and will soon die!”
“Aye, and then your father will try to enforce taking the English crown for his own. There’ll be more than a few Normans attempting to come into England when that day occurs, I’m thinking!”
The girl’s mouth had dropped open. “How did you know? Father has forbidden anyone to talk of his ambition for England!” Her mind raced. Had she inadvertently let it slip? God help her hide if she had!
Harold gently squeezed her fingers in reassurance. “You father, for all the love you rightfully bear him, is not as clever as he thinks. I have known all along. I am an important man in England; my word will carry much weight when the time comes to elect our next king. Your father has been courting me with as much energy as it seems I may need to employ should I make up my mind to take you as wife.”
Agatha seized on those last words. He had not, then, yet agreed to have her? Oh, thank God! Mayhap he would not want her and she would be free of this. He seemed so unconcerned about being used by her father as a stepping-stone to what nearly all men in Normandy privately said was an impossibility. Robert, her eldest brother, had said openly that their father was a fool if he thought he could ever persuade the English to accept him as their king. “Half of Normandy does not want him because of his tyranny and foul temper,” he had told her not so long ago. “Why he thinks England would open her arms and joyfully welcome him, I know not. Not unless that country is indeed as moon-mad as our father often credits it to be.”
Agatha had not been shocked by her brother’s discourtesy; Robert detested their father with a vehemence that was becoming close to the hatred that existed between opposing armies. That was another whisper rustling quietly through the shadows of court: one day, when he eventually came into his own strength, Robert would be pushed too far by William’s constant ridiculing and would retaliate by overthrowing his father. Except even Agatha could see that Robert, with his mood swings between spiteful bullying and effeminate parading, was not half the man her father was.
To Harold, she said, “Do you not mind that my father has been befriending you for purposes of his own? I should be most grieved to learn that I was only wanted as a friend because of my position, not because of who I am.”
Harold suppressed another laugh. She was so young and naïve. How could he take her away from Normandy and subject her to the lonely life of an unwanted, unloved wife? Yet that was what probably awaited the poor lass anyway, whomsoever she might eventually marry. At least with him she would be getting a man who cared for her welfare. There were plenty of men – men four and five times her age – who would covet the pleasure of taking such a young maid to their bed and nothing else.
“Do I mind? Non, mademoiselle, not as long as the tactics your father is using suit my purpose also. I am willing to play the blind-eyed fool to his scheming if, at the end of the day, I can return home to England with my brother and nephew.” At the seriousness of her expression, he added with an eye-wrinkling smile. “And warmed with the knowledge that I have had the honour of meeting the prettiest young lady in the whole of Normandy.”
Agatha blushed. She envied her brothers. They would have some degree of choice in whom they married. It was so hard being born a girl. All the harder, she supposed, once the girl became a woman grown. “If I were to come to England,” she said slowly, “there is the possibility that my father will become king and my mother queen. As your wife I would be at court often, would I not?”
“Oui, certainement.” What else could Harold reply? She would soon realise, as would her father, that Harold had no intention of promoting William’s hopes before the English Council. Propose a bastard-born Norman for the throne of England? Had Harold heard William’s eldest son’s scorn, he would have cheered at his good sense!
Harold, glancing across the crowded Hall, saw William fitz Osbern frantically beckoning him. Now what did Duke William’s attendant arse wiper want?
“Excuse me, mademoiselle.” Harold stood. “I am being hailed and must go.” He raised her hand to his lips. “I would ask that you keep our conversation private, for the reason that you may, one day soon, be my wife.” He raised an eyebrow and stared his meaning fully at her for a long moment.
She nodded, the kerchief again threading in agitation through her fingers. He was telling her that if she betrayed his confidence she would regret the tale-telling as soon as he had her in England. “I shall say nothing. I expect Papa wishes you to witness the oath-taking of his lords and nobles. He always insists that all take some part in the ceremony.”
Harold bowed to Agatha, then walked forward to meet an agitated fitz Osbern, who escorted him towards the raised dais to the east end of the Hall. There Mathilda sat, lavishly gowned, beside her husband; the eldest boy, Robert, scowled his displeasure from the front ranks of waiting noblemen. A few more years and he would be the first required to mount the dais, kneel before the Duke and pledge the annually renewed vow of fealty. If father and son had not succeeded in slitting each other’s throats by then.
Harold found the prospect of this ceremony distasteful. In England a housecarl pledged loyalty to his lord out of respect and love for that man. They chose which lord they would serve and their faith maintained that lord’s exalted position. If he did not keep faith with their loyalty in return then a lord would fall as swift as a mouldering fruit is plucked from the store barrel and flung to rot on the midden heap. These oaths of allegiance being sworn, monotonously repetitive as, one by one, William’s knights came to kneel and kiss his ring, did not come from the heart. There was no pride in the step of each man who came forward, no sincerity in their muttered words. This oath was made under duress: serve me, be loyal to me, or lose all you have. That was the only choice available to these harnessed mules. Eustace, Comte de Boulogne, came forward; Robert de Maine; le Comte d’Evreux; le Comte de Mortagne. Aimeri, Vicomte de Thouars. Walter Gifford. Ralph de Tosny; Hugh de Montfort and Hugh de Grandmesnil. William de Warenne. William Malet. Roger, son of Turold; Turstein fitz Rollo; Richard fitz Gilbert. Alan Fergant de Bretagne, vassal of Normandy… so many more. Harold stiffened as a man he had no desire ever to meet again knelt before Duke William. Guy, Comte de Ponthieu. He caught Harold’s displeased glower and returned it with a none too discreet gesture of lewdness.
And then eyes and bodies were swivelling towards Harold.
“My Lord Earl? Will you not also grant me the honour of declaring your intention of prospective kinship?”
The Hall had fallen almost silent. Harold stood, bewildered. William sat forward on his throne, one elbow resting on the naked sword blade that lay across his knee. His mouth smiled, but there was a glint of something else in his eyes. “Sir?” he repeated. “You are my knighted comrade. I myself put the armour about your shoulders, placed the sword in your hand, my kiss upon your cheek. You are, are you not, my declared vassal? Will soon, perhaps, become my son by marriage? I think it right you do swear the oath to me also. Do you not agree?”
This, Harold had not expected. The anger shuddered through him with the force of the bore tide that surged up the estuary of the Severn river. He licked his lips, trying to think what best to do, glanced at the watching faces hoping to spy a hint of help. No one met his eyes. Not one of William’s whore-poxed lick-spits dared face him. How many had known of this trap? How many had privately laughed at the stupidity of this damned bloody fool of an Englishman? Some? All?
And then Harold saw Hakon standing at the back, his face drained of colour, the fear on it easy to read. Behind him stood two of William’s guards, apparently positioned there by chance, but Harold could see their fingers hovering over their swords, their gazes firm-fixed on Hakon’s back. Knew as well as the lad that were he to refuse to swear then both of them would be seeing the darker side of Duke William’s damp and foul-smelling dungeon. And would be kept there until they died.
“You promised that you would take me from here!” The words leapt from Hakon’s expressive, desperate eyes. “You promised!”
In these few short days Harold had come to know Hakon as a trusted and trusting friend. Something that ran deeper than the tie of kinship had sparked between them and the years of enforced separation had dwindled into nothing but a memory.
How binding was a promise? Ah, that depended on the nature of the oath and the amount of honour within the man. When a man offered his sword to his chosen lord he was bound to keep his word or lose his honour; the promise to set an afeared youth free of his shackles was equally binding. An English lord paid homage and loyalty by undertaking to do his best by the men who served him. To rule fairly, to protect the children and womenfolk, to lead bravely in battle. To take upon his shoulders the responsibility of caring for those men who had promised to serve without question. And in the Saxon tradition, above all else, a man could knowingly declare false oath and not be perjured for that swearing, if the safety or honour of another depended on it.
They were waiting expectantly, most of them hoping Earl Harold of England would show himself the greater fool by refusing outright the Duke’s command. Harold must surely oblige them, for William had no right to demand he speak the word of faith and fidelity. It would be an oath taken against his will and better judgement. Yet had not most of the men here this day proclaimed their troth under the same harsh conditions? Swear, or lose your land and freedom. Or your life.
Duke William was holding his be-ringed hand out to Harold, the gloating smile broadening into triumph.
“We are allies, are we not?” he coaxed, his voice smooth with practised charm. “Soon, alas, we must set you on your way home to England, accompanied, no doubt, by your nephew. Soon, also, your brother – Wulfnoth be his name? Wulfnoth will honour me by escorting my eldest-born daughter to you. In return for the patronage of my kinship you will agree to represent my care and concern for the future of England’s throne. You will remind King Edward that he did favour my claim. I shall expect him to honour that favour in the making of his will, and from you also, as my sworn vassal.”
The fury choked in Harold’s throat. Vomit rose in his gullet. So this was why he had been kept in Normandy, why he had been played for the simpleton! Once the annual day of oath-taking was past, once he had pledged this foul promise, he would be free to return to England. Aye, free, but bribed with the lure of the daughter of the duchy as wife, threatened with harm to his brother if he refused. Yet for the good of another an oath might be made and broken without loss of honour. For the good of Hakon, and more, for the safety of England…They were only words, after all.
Harold stepped forward, his throat and lips dry, his fists clenched. He stared with a hard dislike at William, then knelt, touched the sword and set his lips to the Duke’s ring.
William nodded his acceptance, but before Harold could repeat the oath said quickly and with menace, “I think I may need some further assurance from you, my Lord Harold. Being that you do not reside here in Normandy.” He clicked his fingers; two servants brought in two wooden caskets. “These contain the holy relics of Normandy’s most precious saints. Swear your oath on them, Earl Harold, make your words truly binding.”
Harold’s rage almost boiled over the edge of restraint. It was one thing knowingly to break an oath made to a man, another to do so against God. Yet was not God, too, just and honourable in His wisdom? Did He not respect the time-cherished ways of the Saxon kind? Not bothering to mask the rage that was churning in his mind and stomach, Harold laid a finger on each casket, repeating aloud the words of fealty that Bishop Odo dictated to him: “I pledge to my Lord Duke William, son of Robert of Normandy, my fealty and my loyalty. Do offer my duty as Earl of England to your honour. To speak your words, as if spoken from your mouth, to the noblemen of England’s realm. To provide for you, when Edward is at the end of his noble life and called unto God, the crown, the sceptre and the throne of England, so that you may rule in the way of Edward’s wisdom.” It was done. With gorge in his mouth, but done.
Duke William nodded, satisfied. He took and held Harold’s hand between his own palms a moment. Met, as he rose to his feet, Harold’s blazing eyes.
In them there was no calm of spirit, no come-what-may frivolity. Nor was there any hint whatsoever of fear. In that one brief passing instant William realised he had made a vast error of judgement. All these long months observing Harold, assessing him, deciding his worth, moving each piece of the game, square by square, slowly, surely; calculating the ultimate goal. Again and again William had won his private tournament against this English Earl Harold.
Looking direct into Harold’s eyes, that mid-December afternoon, William belatedly understood, with stomach-churning dread, that Harold, too, had been playing a game. His foolery, his complacence, his mild manners had lulled his opponent with blithe ease into a false appraisal.
Harold said nothing more as he turned without bowing and walked away from the dais. He made his way through the low murmuring of the crowd to the doorway, Hakon following at his heel. He left the Hall and went direct to the quarters where his men lounged.
“We are leaving,” he announced curtly. “Now, as soon as horses may be saddled and our belongings packed.”
He turned away, realised Hakon had followed.
The younger man’s expression was grim, his skin grey and pale. “Now do you believe me about William?” he asked.
“I never doubted you, lad. I only misjudged the depth of how much of a bastard he is.”
Hakon headed straight to the stables. “I have nothing that I care to take with me from this cursed place. I shall await you by the gates.”
Harold made no comment, was barely listening. Over the spilt blood of death would William become King of England, and never with help from Harold’s hand. That was a second, silent oath he had made as he had spoken aloud those obscene words. Never, never, would he allow William on to English soil.
If the need came, if there was no one worthy or suitable to follow Edward, then he, Harold Godwinesson himself, would take up the crown and do his best, unless death prevented it, to protect England from Norman ambition.
and here is the scene where Harold is chosen as King:
Westminster - January 1066
The fifth day of January. For the first occasion in many a week the sky had cleared and brightened from the misery of rain into the vivid blue of clear winter sky. There was a nip of frost to the air. The sun was low, eye-dazzling, glittering through the diamond-bright grass and reeds.
Throughout the short hours of daylight Edward’s breath rattled in his chest, incoherent words flowing from his blue-tinged lips. As the sun set, burning gold over the Thames marshes, the temperature dropped to below freezing. Come morning, there would be a white crust riming the edge of the river, the courtyards would be a film of treacherous ice.
Edith was at his feet, attempting to rub some feeling of heat into them. Earl Harold stood, wrapped in his own thoughts, beside the brazier, absently adding more charcoal. By Edward’s bedside stood the King’s personal priest, Robert fitz Wimarch, the Archbishops Stigand and Ealdred and his doctor, Abbot Baldwin.
“I like not this dishumour,” Baldwin muttered, laying his fingers on his king’s feverish temple and shaking his head in resignation. There was nothing more he could do for the dying man.
Stigand bent over the bed, shaking Edward’s shoulder with anxious temerity. “My Lord King, wake up. My Lord, please rouse yourself!”
Edward’s eyelids fluttered, then, for a long moment, he lay still, quite silent, the breath caught in his throat. Suddenly his eyes flashed open and he recognised Stigand leaning over him. His eyes wide and fevered within a skeleton-like translucent face, Edward stared into the startled face of the Archbishop.
“I am for God,” the King croaked. “I have no fear of meeting Him, I look forward to sitting at His feet. Bury me within my mausoleum, now that it is made ready for my coming.”
Stigand nodded. “There is no need to fear death, for you have served God well and you go to an everlasting life from this transitory one.”
“The succession.” Edith hissed. “Quickly man! While he is lucid, ask him of my brother and the succession!”
Harold, remaining beside the brazier with arms folded, had to admit his sister was resolute.
Either Stigand deliberately misunderstood, or had no intention of mentioning Tostig’s enforced exile from England, a subject that could upset the King mortally. The Archbishop held the monarch’s bone-thin fingers and said, “We are here, my Lord Edward. Your beloved wife Edith and Earl Harold be at your side.”
“No, no. Tostig, remind him of Tostig!” Edith brushed Stigand aside and took her husband’s hand earnestly within her own.
Irritated but unable to retaliate, Stigand curtly beckoned Harold to come to the bedside. With reluctance, Harold complied. It did not seem possible that Edward was actually dying, that so much was going to change from this day forward. As a king he had fallen short of expectation, was, Harold had to admit, almost as useless as Æthelred had been, yet unlike his father, the people loved Edward. For his unstinting care and concern for the well-being of the common folk he could not be faulted. In affection, Harold had never felt anything but amicable indifference - neither liking nor disliking him. There were things he admired about Edward, others he despised, but that was so of any man. None save Christ himself was perfect.
Edith glowered at Harold, furious that he had not demanded Edward reinstate their brother as earl, or, in protest at the gross insult to the Godwinessons, gone into exile with him. As they had all those years past when their father stood accused of treason.
Harold had tried explaining to her the difference between the charge against Godwine and that against Tostig, but she had adamantly refused to listen to sense and reason, too wrapped in her own fears and disappointment to recognise the truth. Perhaps a more astute king would have made a move against the trouble brewing in the North before it came to the boil, would have urged caution or removed Tostig from office before it had been too late - but Edward was not a wise man. What was woven could not be unravelled.
Harold sighed with regret for what might have been. He supposed there was room inside the hearts of some men for one area of excellence only. For Edward, it had been in his worship of God and the building of so splendid an abbey. He stared at the sunken face beneath the white, silken beard, the blue eyes that sparkled, not with a zest for life, but from the heat of fever, ðæt wæs göd cyning - he was a good king. Harold sighed again. He could not deny Edward that epitaph, though it was not the full truth. It was not of his fault that he had made errors of judgement along his way, that he had been weak where he ought to have been strong. Edward had not wanted the weighty responsibility of a crown. He should have been an abbot, an archbishop; in that sphere he would have warranted ðæt wæs göd.
“There is much I need say!” Edward rasped. “I would have my household around me.” He glanced fretfully at those few occupants of the room. Harold nodded to fitz Wimarch who went immediately to the door.
They were waiting below, the members of the Council and other men of importance who had served the King. Were waiting for a summons or to hear that their king was no more.
In silence, save for the noise of their boots treading upon the stone stair and brushing through the fresh-spread rushes, they filed in one behind the other to encircle the King’s bed. He had asked to sit up and Robert fitz Wimarch stood behind him, tears blurring his eyes, supporting the frail old man.
“I had a dream,” Edward said, his voice clearer than it had been for many a day. “I saw two monks whom I knew well while I was in Normandy and who passed into God’s safe hands many years ago. They told me of the evils of the men around me, of my earls, my bishops and my clerics. They told me in this dream that unless I warned you to repent and bow your heads in shame before God there would come evil to my kingdom, that the land would be ravaged and torn asunder by the wrath of God.”
“That is indeed a vision of warning, my Lord King.” Stigand said with grave concern, making the sign of the cross as he spoke.
Agreeing, Ealdred of York nodded his head. “There is evil intent in all mankind and unless we humble ourselves before God we shall all face His anger.” He glanced meaningfully at Edith. “Men and women must serve God, and the chosen king, as they are commanded.”
Satisfied that his archbishops could be trusted to do their best to save the tormented souls of men, Edward spoke, with a dignified clarity, the words of the verba novissima, the will declared aloud on the deathbed, naming lands and gifts that were to go to those who had served him well. He spoke of the loyalty that his wife had shown him and said that like a daughter had he loved her. He smiled up at her, begging her not to weep. “I go to God. May He bless and protect you.”
In vain, Edith had attempted to sniffle back the flood of tears, but now gave in to her despair. She had not thought that she had felt anything for Edward, had simply endured his presence, his whining and pathetic weaknesses, but suddenly, now that she was to lose him, Edith realised that she looked upon him, this man who was three and twenty years her senior, as a father. Did she love him? She did not know, but she would miss him. She let the tears fall.
Similar tears were pricking in the eyes of them all. Some fell to their knees, others bowed their heads. Nearly all murmured the prayer of the Lord.
“Sir,” Stigand said softly, again leaning nearer to Edward, who had closed his eyes. “We would know your last wish. Would know who it is you would commend to follow you.”
Edward’s eyes opened. He attempted a weak smile at his Archbishop of Canterbury, fluttered his left hand towards Harold, who took it, absently rubbing his thumb over the taut surface of the proud-standing knuckles.
“My Earl of Wessex.” Tiredness was creeping over Edward; his words came with difficulty. He allowed his eyes to droop closed once more, his hand fall limp within Harold’s. “I commend my wife’s protection to you.”
Energy drained, his body slumped against the supporting arms of fitz Wimarch, the breath catching with an indrawn choke in his chest. The effort of putting thought and speech together had taken everything from him. “Leave, me,” he gasped. “I would make my confession.”
They left Edward’s chamber, quiet and subdued. Another death was a sober reminder that an end must come, eventually, for all who were born and breathed.
Only the King’s doctor and priest remained, and Edith. She knew the rest would go to the Council chamber to discuss the practicalities of her husband’s death - the funeral, the succession. Tears and breath juddered from her. All of it had been so pointless, so utterly and completely pointless! Oh, if only Tostig had not been so damned stupid. If only Harold had supported him. If only Edward were not to die…if only, if only. Where did those pathetically useless words end? If only Edward had been a husband to her, if only she had borne a child…
The murmur of conversation was low within the Council chamber, flickering in unison with the dance of the candle flames. All but a few of the Witan were present. Nine and thirty men. Two Archbishops: Stigand of Canterbury and Ealdred of York. The bishops of London, Hereford, Exeter, Wells, Lichfield and Durham; among the abbots, the houses of Peterborough, Bath and Evesham. Shire reeves and thegns - Ralf, Esgar, Eadnoth, Bondi, Wigod and Æthelnoth among others; the royal clerics, Osbern, Peter and Robert; Regenbald the King’s chancellor…and the five earls of England: Harold, his brothers Leofwine and Gyrth, and Eadwine and Morkere. They talked of the morrow’s expected weather, the succulence of the meat served for dinner, the ship that had so unexpectedly sunk in mid-river that very morning. Anything and everything unrelated to the difficulties that lay ahead in these next few hours and days.
Archbishop Ealdred exchanged a glance with Stigand, who nodded agreement. He stood and cleared his throat. “My lords, gentlemen, we must, however hard it be for us, discuss what we most fervently would have hoped not yet to have to.”
The light talk faded, grim faces turned to him, men settled themselves on benches or stools, a few remained standing.
“It is doubted that Edward will survive this night. It is our duty, our responsibility, to choose the man who is to take up his crown. I put it to you, the Council of England, to decide our next King.” Then Ealdred folded his robes around him and sat.
Those present were suddenly animated; opinions rose and fell like a stick of wood bobbing about on an incoming tide. Only two names were on their lips: Edgar the boy ætheling, and Harold.
The two in question sat quiet, on opposite sides of the chamber: one still asking himself if this was what he wanted; the other, bewildered and blear-eyed from the lateness of the hour. He had never before been summoned to attend the Council. It was not a thing for a boy, this was the world of men, of warlords and leaders. He was not much impressed by it.
Edgar looked from one to another, listened to snatches of the talk. He had been immersed in a game of taefl with his best friend - had been winning. One more move… and they had come, fetched him away, curse it! Sigurd always won at taefl; it had been Edgar’s big moment, his one chance to get even….
For an hour they debated, the hour-candle burning lower as the discussion ebbed and flowed. Occasionally someone would toss out a sharp question to the boy or Harold, seeking opinions, assurance. Edgar answered as well he could, Harold with patient politeness.
Midnight was approaching; servants had come and replaced the hour candle with a new one. The same words passed around and around.
“As I see things,” Archbishop Stigand said, his voice pitched to drown the rattle of debate, “we have talked of but the two contenders. Edgar?” He beckoned the lad forward. He came hesitantly, not much caring for this direct focus of attention for he was a shy boy.
Stigand continued, not noticing the boy’s reluctance. If Edgar were elected king it would make no difference that the lad did not want the title. To be king was a thing ordained and sanctioned by God, personal preference did not come into it. “He is of the blood, but not of age. Second, Harold of Wessex.” Again the Archbishop paused to motion the man forward. “He has ruled England on Edward’s behalf these past many years and has proven himself a wise and capable man. But there is a third possibility. Duke William may claim the crown through the Lady, Queen Emma, and through some misguided impression that Edward once offered him the title.”
Immediately there were mutterings, shaking of heads, tutting. Uneducated foreigners, especially Norman Dukes, it seemed, were unanimously declared as not understanding the civilised ways of the English.
Stigand half smiled, said, “I take it, then, that William is excluded from the voting?”
“That he is!”
“Damned impudence, if you ask me.”
“Does he think we would stoop so low as to elect a king who could not sign his own name?”
The clerk at his table to one side was scribbling hastily, attempting to write down as many of the comments as he could; the records would be rewritten later in neat script, the irrelevancies deleted, the gist of the proceedings tailored to fit the Church-kept - and censored - chronicle.
“Duke William cannot be so easily dismissed,” Harold interrupted. He waited for the babble of voices to quieten. “The Duke will not heed anything said in this room. If he has set his mind on wearing a crown then he will come and attempt to take it, I am certain of that. If he is rejected here in this Council, the question, my lords, will not be if or how or can he attack us, but when.”
“But he may be satisfied knowing a grandson of his was to hold England.” The Chancellor, Regenbald, spoke up. “You are to wed his daughter, does that not adequately relieve the situation?”
Aye, they were all agreed, it did. All except Harold.
He stood beside Stigand, saying nothing more. It was not his place to influence Council, but it was difficult to keep his tongue silent with some of these more inane remarks. Duke William looked at things as if through thick-blown glass, his view distorted to match his own expectations. Besides, to placate William with an alliance of marriage presupposed that Harold would be elected king, and they had not, yet, done so.
The door to the chamber opened, heads turned, speech faded. Abbot Baldwin entered. He had no need to say anything, his expression of grief told his message. Archbishop Ealdred murmured a few words of prayer, joined by Stigand and other holy men. “Amen,” he said. Then he looked up, his gaze sweeping across the room.
“We are agreed then? The King commended his wife, our good Lady Edith, into the care of the Earl of Wessex. It is in my mind that by this he intended for Earl Harold to protect and reign over England.”
There came but one murmur of disapproval: from Morkere, new-made Earl of Northumbria.
“It is in my mind that Earl Harold, once crowned, may go back on his word and restore his brother to favour. I have no intention of relinquishing my earldom.” He spoke plainly, but firmly. His brother, Eadwine, close at his side, nodded. Several thegns and nobles from the northern earldoms agreed also. A bishop too, Harold noticed.
Harold stepped forward, offering his hand to Morkere. “My brother has become a jealous fool. I make no secret of the fact that I would rather have him back in England, where I can keep eye on him, but he will never return to Northumbria. You have my sworn word.”
Morkere did not take the proffered hand. “Is your word good, my Lord Earl? Did you not grant your word - your oath - that you would support William of Normandy in his claim for England?”
An uneasy silence. Harold smiled laconically. Morkere showed signs of becoming a good earl, a worthy man to hold Northumbria.
“That oath,” Harold said, “was taken under duress. I am under no obligation to keep it. I was given the choice of losing my honour or my life and freedom, and that of my men. There are oaths, and oaths, my friend.” He nudged his hand further forward, inviting Morkere to take it, still smiling. “I made that vow to William knowing full well that it was more dishonourable for a lord to endanger the lives of others than to pledge an oath with no intention of keeping it. I make this one to you with a view to the opposite.”
Aware he had to give some other insurance to convince this rightfully suspicious young man, he added, “Within our traditional law there is no dishonour in breaking a promise to a man who is himself dishonourable. To those who are worthy ’tis different.” For a third time he offered his hand. “Take my word, Morkere, Tostig will not have Northumbria while I am able to prevent it. I give that unbreakable vow to a man I call worthy to receive it.”
Morkere was tempted to look at his brother, seek his opinion, but did not. He was his own man, earl in his own right, with his own decisions to make - be they right or wrong.
Decisively, with a single, abrupt nod of his head, gazing steadily into Harold’s eyes, he set his broad hand into the other man’s. “I accept your pledge, my Lord of Wessex.” Corrected himself. “My Lord King.”
There was no need for Morkere to add anything further, for Harold understood the look that accompanied that acceptance from steady, unblinking eyes: God protect you, though, should you break it.
Harold the King (UK edition Silverwood Books)
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I am the Chosen King (US edition Sourcebooks Inc)
(also available on Kindle US)