The following is my counter blast to the Norman propaganda machine, based upon the research for my novel Harold The King, re-published by CallioPress UK & by Sourcebooks Inc USA as I Am The Chosen King (March 2011)
1066, the most famous date in English history. The Battle of Hastings. To be precise, the 14th of October, 1066, the day when William, Duke of Normandy, led his conquering army against King Harold II of England.
Today, more than 940 years later, one could be forgiven for thinking that politicians had invented spin doctoring, but media manipulation is nothing new. By 1077 Duke William's half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, had commissioned an embroidery - now called the Bayeux Tapestry - to depict the victorious events; William of Poitiers and William of Jumièges had both written a detailed version of the Conquest. William himself had ordered the building of a splendid abbey on the battle site, the altar being placed at the spot where Harold fell. Supposedly killed by an arrow in the eye.
However, the Norman versions are heavily biased, their explicit purpose: to prove to a Papal inquiry, concerned at the level of brutality and aggression meted on the English, that William's conquest had been justified.
I smell a rat.
Strip away the Norman gilding, and what do you get? Twisted truths and blatant lies. Start with the fact that William had no right whatsoever to claim the English throne.
He was the result of Duke Robert's liaison with Herleve, the daughter of a tanner. No one in Normandy expected Robert to die before he took a wife and had a legitimate heir. In fairness to the boy, who grew up to be little more than a sadistic, psychopathic tyrant (well I am a Harold supporter) he did suffer a traumatic childhood. The Norman nobles were not happy bunnies, they did not want an eight year old by-blow as their next Duke. As a child, William had to flee for his life more than once; saw his trusted servant murdered before his eyes. What a pity there was not a Norman equivalent of child counselling. Had there been, perhaps England would have been left in peace and William would have kept his land and wealth-grubbing hands off.
William's claim, in 1066, was that his great-aunt, Emma, had been Queen of England - the only woman to have been queen to two different kings. Æthelred, better known as the Unready, and Cnut - that's the correct spelling of Canute - the King famous for attempting to holding back the tide. Her firstborn son was Edward, later canonised and called the Confessor. Blame the Conquest on him. He was sent into exile when, with Æthelred dead and England falling to the conquest of the Dane, Cnut, Emma decided to remain queen by marrying him. For more than thirty years Edward languished in Normandy. He was in his early teens when he left, a man approaching middle years when he came back, recalled to be crowned King of England. He was a man indoctrinated with the Norman way of life, and probably, would have preferred to take Holy Orders. He may have declared a vow of chastity, or he may have been gay. There are indications to infer he was. Prime among them, his wife, Edith, bore him no children. In this period of history barrenness was always the woman's fault. Edith was never blamed. Edward even took her back as wife after a nasty incident when her father was accused of turning traitor and forced into exile. Edith was sent to a nunnery, always a woman's fate, but after a year, with Godwine forgiven and re-instated as Earl, she too was recalled.
Oh, and by the way, the Normans were not French, although William's great-grandfather had embraced Christianity and the French, civilised, way of life. The Normans were re-located North Men. They were Vikings.
According to William's "biographers", King Edward had appointed him his heir, and despite swearing an oath to support his claim, Harold had seized the throne and in indecent haste and had himself crowned on the same day as the old king's funeral, January 6th 1066. Outraged, William immediately ordered an invasion of England and while Halley's Comet blazed in the sky a fleet was assembled. In September, he crossed the English Channel without mishap. In the meantime, Harold's brother, Tostig had invaded Yorkshire. Moving swiftly, Harold marched to Stamford Bridge near York and won a victory, but when he heard of William's landing he had to return, hot foot, south.
Medieval spin doctors would have us believe that Harold was a poor commander who fought with a tired and depleted army against the elite supremacy of Norman cavalry. Victorious, William marched on London and on Christmas Day was the first king to be crowned in all splendour in Westminster Abbey. Personally, I think his title of bastard is for the other use of the word, and has nothing to do with his lack of legitimacy.
So how had Harold become King? His father, Godwine, was the most powerful man beneath Edward. He had risen to power under Emma and Cnut. Five of his six sons became earls and his daughter, Edith was Edward's childless queen. When Godwine died Harold stepped into his shoes as Earl of Wessex. Harold proved, several times, that he was an able and capable soldier. He conquered Wales, not Edward I in the thirteenth century. Harold became King of England because he was chosen as King; he was the most suitable man for the job. Edward could not have appointed William as heir, things did not work like that in Anglo-Saxon England. When a successor had to be found the most suitable man was chosen by the Council, the Witan. William might have been considered, but against Harold? No contest.
The coronation took place on the day of the funeral because, knowing the king was dying, everyone of importance had been summoned to the Christmas Court. By early January they needed to return home and England could not be left vulnerable until the next calling of Council at Easter. There was nothing untoward about accomplishing such important issues on the same day.
But what of the claim that Harold had pledged an oath to aid William? In 1064 Harold went to Normandy, his voyage duly recorded on the Bayeux Tapestry. Norman sources declare he went to offer William the crown; more likely he was hoping to achieve the release of his brother Wulfnoth and nephew Hakon, held hostage by William since that temporary disgrace of Earl Godwine back in 1052. (I'll not go into detail, suffice to say the exile was caused by some Normans stirring trouble in Dover. Godwine refused to take their side, hence his falling out with the King. For some reason, when the Normans went home they took the two boys with them.) Harold did return to England with Hakon, but Wulfnoth never saw his freedom again.
While William's guest, Harold went on campaign with the Duke earning himself honours by rescuing two men from drowning near Mont St. Michel (again depicted in the tapestry). Riding with William, Harold would have discovered what sort of man he was. Dedicated to his cause. Single-minded. Ruthless. At the siege of Alencon, William had men skinned alive for daring to taunt him about the nature of his mother's background. William was the one who invented death by incarceration in a dungeon. He was quite capable of slaughtering innocent women and children.
At William's Court, Harold was forced to swear, on holy relics, an oath to agree to support the Duke's claim to the English throne. Did he have any choice? What would have been the consequences for Harold and his men if he had refused? William, as his own vassals knew and Harold had discovered, was not a man you said non to. If you knew you would be locked away for the rest of your life and your men butchered, wouldn't you have risked perjury?
For a Saxon nobleman it was a matter of honour to protect those you command. To place his men in danger by refusing Harold would have brought a greater dishonour on himself. Only those Norman spin doctors claimed an oath made under circumstances of coercion was binding.
As for Harold's command at Hastings - he showed aptitude and courage, dignity and ability. Norman propaganda states that he fought with tired men, with only half the fyrd - the army - and without the support of the North.
In mid-September, Harold had marched from London to York in five days to confront his jealous, traitorous brother, Tostig, who had allied with Harald Hardrada of Norway. The southern fyrd, on alert all summer, had been stood down. He took only his housecarls - his permanent army - north, gathering the men of the midlands to him as he marched. Undoubtedly, the housecarls were mounted for no infantry could cover that distance so quickly. Already the fyrds of the north had fought and lost a great battle at Gate Fulford, outside York. Under Harold, they fought again - this time to win - at Stamford Bridge.
It was not that the nobility and the men of the fyrd did not want to support Harold at Hastings; they could not, for their numbers were savagely depleted, many of the survivors wounded and exhausted after fighting two battles. It would have been impossible for them to have marched south when news came that William had landed. The northern earls did in fact follow Harold as soon as they could but, of course, by then it was too late.
The battle that took place seven miles inland from Hastings is almost unique for this period. Fighting was usually over within the hour, two at most. This battle lasted all day. The English, for the most part, stood firm along the ridge that straddled the road out into the Weald, stood shield locked against shield, William's men toiling again and again up that hill. This was deliberate strategy on Harold's part. He and his men had marched to York and back, fought a battle in between. Doesn't it make good sense to make the opponent do all the hard work? Yes, perhaps Harold would rather have waited before committing his men to fight, but he had no choice in the decision: once out into the Weald it would have been difficult to stop William. Within the Hastings peninsula, he and the extensive, deliberate, damage he was doing to people and property were firmly contained. Harold had to keep him there, therefore Harold had to fight.
He stood his men, firm, along the ridge, forming the shield wall. Side by side (to coin an over-used phrase, "shoulder to shoulder") Shouting their contempt, clashing spear and axe against their shields, hurling abuse down that steep, grass hill that so rapidly became a morass of mud and blood:
"Ut! Ut! Ut! - Out! Out! Out!"
Three times William was unhorsed. Three times the Normans retreated; only the fear of William's wrath held them together, although the Norman writers naturally portrayed their blind panic as strategic withdrawal. Only once did Harold's men let him down. The right flank broke - assuming William's men were beaten they tore down the hill after them, Being cavalry, the Normans were able to re-group. The result was outright slaughter, every Saxon was killed.
Nor was William's crossing of the Channel as straightforward as his spin-doctors suggested. He had sailed earlier in the summer, but was turned back. Bodies and wreckage on the Normandy beaches were buried in secret. Why? If bad weather was the cause, why the need for a media black-out? A mass cover-up? It is more likely that he met and was repelled by the superiority of the English Navy, a disaster that subsequent propaganda would most definitely suppress. And yes, England did have a navy!
And so to Harold's death. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts a man wounded by an arrow in his eye, and another being felled by a sword, the words 'Here Harold is killed' above both. Which one is Harold? Well, it is not the one with the arrow. Arrows travel in a trajectory. They go up, form an arc, come down. Can you honestly believe that there stood Harold, an experienced soldier, looking upward as arrows came over?
King Harold II of England died at the hands of four of William's ignoble noblemen. They dismembered and decapitated him.
The truth of Hastings? Our last English king died slowly and bloodily. He was savagely hacked to pieces on the battlefield that later became known as Hastings. Ðœt wœs göd cyning. Harold was a good king. He gave his life defending England from foreign invasion, and has paid the penalty of deliberately twisted truth ever since.
Earl Godwin - the man behind the name
( Article on separate page)