On 14th October 1066 Harold Godwineson, Harold II, our last English King, died in battle attempting to protect his kingdom and his people from foreign invasion. Subsequent history, written by the conquering Normans, scratched his short - and legitimate - reign from official records or returned entries to his previous title of Earl of Wessex. Kings became numbered from William I, ignoring all previous Saxon names.
For me, Harold II is a hero. He died fighting for freedom, and I honoured him by writing, to the best of my ability, a novel that reflected the people and events that led to the Battle of Hastings.
In memory of Harold II's efforts, I will be posting some excerpts over the next few days.
§ Waltham Abbey
Edyth Swanneck, Harold's common-law wife of over twenty years had been politically set aside for Harold to make an official alliance with the Northern Earls, and a Christian-blessed wife. For Edyth and her children by Harold, life went on...
Algytha had ordered the trestle tables brought outside for a good scrubbing while the weather held so fine. She paused, puffing with exertion; why did men make such a mess with their ale and meat? Could they not keep at least some of it within the tankard and in the bowl? A horse’s neigh attracted her attention and she glanced across the courtyard, expecting to see one of the farm folk, or someone from the village. It was too soon for it to be one of the boys home and her father would not have the opportunity to leave London. Not with this latest news of William.
Edyth heard it also. Her cheeks red from the effort of beating dust from a tapestry, she rested her fist on her hip and, breathing hard, watched the gateway for the visitor to arrive. She too doubted it would be Harold… even if he were not so busy with the Norman landing, why would he come here? Westminster, Winchester, wherever his court resided was now his home, not the manor. She wished someone would come from the palace, though, for she was anxious to hear how her two eldest sons fared - they had been wounded but would live, that she knew. Anxious, too, to hear what was happening in Sussex; how Harold was and what he intended to do.
Her smile of pleasure was exaggerated by the surprise of her wish being granted, for she recognised that distinctive bay - it was ridden by one of Harold’s most trusted captains. Laying down the beating broom, Edyth made to walk forward to greet the newcomer, but stopped short, her expression crumbling into horrified dismay. Harold was come - but he was not alone. He rode beside an open-sided litter; inside lay a heavily pregnant woman. The Queen, Alditha.
Edyth had seen her briefly at court, during those months when she had first been brought out of Wales, but had never spoken to her. Seeing her again, she was reminded of how pretty she was.
Harold dismounted, hugged Algytha who had run to greet him, then handed the woman from the litter and led her towards Edyth, who stood, conscious of her musty, old and very patched working gown and the kerchief covering her hair. Why, of all days, had he chosen this one to bring her here? On the very day Edyth, for want of something to occupy her mind, had decided to clean out the Hall thoroughly before winter? Everywhere was chaos and confusion. Oh, why today?
Edyth dipped a curtsey to the Queen and bade her welcome to the manor, then flashed Harold a glare of anger. “My apologies that we are in disarray, my Lady. You are welcome to the privacy of my own chamber, which is not so disordered.”
Harold, she noted, wore the marks of tiredness. Was it any wonder?
Looking about her with interest, Alditha followed Edyth within doors and up a short flight of timber steps to the spacious room above the southern end of the Hall. The room was light and airy, with south- and west-facing window shutters thrown wide to allow in the sunlight. Tapestries of hunting scenes decorated the lime-washed walls, a bright patch-worked cover lay over the wooden box bed in one corner, its red-dyed curtaining swathed back with embroidered ties. There were comfortable chairs; several carved chests for clothing, linen and such; glass goblets; silver platters. A vase of autumn flowers stood in the centre of a table, at which a boy sat, legs dangling from a high-legged stool, a book lying open before him. He looked up as they entered, yelled with delight as he saw his father and ran to him, arms outstretched.
“My youngest son,” Harold explained to Alditha as the lad jumped into his father’s embrace, legs and arms clinging around his waist and neck. “This is Ulf, who at twelve years of age is becoming too big for leaping on me as if I were a pony!” With fond love, Harold ruffled the lad’s hair then pointed to the book. “What are you reading, boy?”
“’Tis one of your falconry books, Papa. Thorkeld says I may help him in your mews, if I am prepared to learn all I can.”
“Learn from Thorkeld also, there is little he does not know of hawking. You may tell him, when he thinks you have learned enough to take care of her, that you may have Freya. She is one of my best goshawks. Fly her well, lad.”
Ulf whooped his pleasure.
“Do you not already have a hawk of your own?” Alditha asked politely of the lad. He was a good-looking boy, with the features and mannerisms of his father.
“Aye, Lady, I have a merlin, I call her Beauty. Papa gave her to me on my tenth birthing day - but a merlin cannot be compared to a goshawk.”
“It most certainly cannot! I had a merlin when I lived in Wales. She was so fast when she flew that it was difficult to keep your eye on her, and when the sun dazzled on her feathers I thought her the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Your choice of name is a good one.”
Pleased that his wife was attempting to make friends with the lad - it was no easy thing for her to come here - Harold was reluctant to intervene, but there was so little time and so many things that required attention.
“Ulf, put the book away where it belongs and get you gone to tell Thorkeld your news. I would speak with your mother.” As the boy ran from the room, his tread loud on the stairs - with the unmistakable thud as he jumped the last four - Harold thought bitterly that his son’s love of hawking might, for a while, be disrupted.
Offering wine and a seat, Edyth discreetly brushed at her unbecoming gown, patted her loose-braided hair. Alditha, despite her pregnancy, was elegant and well-groomed. Edyth smiled, played the dutiful hostess, but was inwardly seething with a rage directed at Harold. Pointedly, she was ignoring him. How dare he bring this woman here without giving her adequate warning! How dare he humiliate her so!
Algytha entered, bearing a dish of sweetmeats and pastries; her mother noticed that she had found a moment to remove her apron and kerchief and to slip on a clean over-tunic.
“I would have word with you, Edyth,” Harold said, motioning for Algytha to sit. “Will you be kind enough to entertain the Queen a moment, my daughter?” Taking Edyth’s elbow, Harold steered her from the room, not waiting for a reply from either of the women.
Once down the stairs, Edyth exploded, “How could you do this to me, Harold? To bring her here with no word? Look at the place - look at me! What must she be thinking?”
Withstanding the tirade, for he recognised it was justified, Harold let her have her say. Then when she paused, apologised. “I appreciate the inconvenience, but blame it on Duke William, lass, not me. I do not have time for niceties. Edyth, I can but stay the hour, I must be back at Westminster by the afternoon. The call to arms has gone out. The fyrd is to muster on the thirteenth day of October at that old hoar apple tree on Caldbec Hill.”
Edyth bit her lip, ashamed of her churlishness. She knew the tree, had seen it on numerous occasions whenever they stayed at his Sussex manor. An ancient, grey-bearded old man of a tree, of a curious twisting shape, it thrust from the ground like a hand with misshapen fingers, two of them making the distinctive pagan horned sign to ward off evil. An appropriate augury.
“It would be prudent to wait him out, hope for a poor winter to starve him into submission - but how can I abandon those people, my people, who are suffering? Do I abandon them to his mercy until the spring?” Harold could not, of course, which was William’s whole strategy. They, the two men, had studied each other well, knew each other’s limitations. William had no conscience; Harold cared. It was a defect which William considered to be a liability.
As with most of an incredulous southern England, Edyth was struggling to accept the reality that William had landed, to understand the implications. The politics of it did not interest her, all she knew was that Harold eventually would have to fight this Norman duke. And that fighting could lead to pitiable wounds. Or death.
“And your Queen?” she asked. She could not bring herself to use the woman’s given name, that would be too much like accepting her, liking her.
“I am sending Alditha north. She is only here because I am setting her on the road, and…” Harold paused. He did not know how to go on.
They were standing apart. He wanted to hold her, touch her. Dare not, but… he lurched forward, put his hands on her upper arms, gripped them tight, with urgency. “And I want you to go with her. At least follow in a day or two.”
As she started to shake her head, Harold shook her again, lighter but no less determined. “I have sent word ahead that Goddwin is to await her at York. Edmund will not be leaving until his broken leg has healed. Magnus is looking to his needs. I have asked Goddwin to stay with Alditha.”
“He will not like it,” Edyth observed.
Harold released her, and said quietly and with despondent honesty, “Nay, he will not. But it seemed the most convenient way, without offending his pride, of keeping him from straying over-close to William’s clutches should things not go well in Sussex.” Reaching for her hand, he added, “I want you and our children safe also. I had no choice but to lose you as wife, but I can do my utmost to protect your life. If I am not here to -”
“No!” Edyth almost screamed the word then covered her mouth with her hands. Dear Lord God, do not tempt providence! “Do you think I could go north, suffer the agony of waiting all those days to hear what is happening to England, to you? I have had to endure torment these last weeks. I cannot, shall not, suffer the not knowing again!” She pulled her hand free of his hold, folded her arms, stood straight and defiant. How often had he seen that same determination once she had set her mind to something?
“You may send the Queen north, Harold, but you will not send me! The housecarls’ women will be on the heels of the army, to cook the food and tend the wounded. I shall be with them.”
“As would I, Lady Edyth, were I not so heavy with child.”
Both Edyth and Harold spun round, startled.
Alditha was coming down the stairs, her skirts held high to forestall any risk of falling. She stepped down the last and released her garments.
“Your lady, my husband, has the advantage twice over. Duke William will pay her scant attention. To him, she is merely a discarded mistress. Should Normandy see victory, you would do well to play on it, my Lady Edyth, for your own and your daughters’ safety. You are also not heavy with child. Sons, whether legitimate born or no, William will not permit to enjoy their freedom.” She put her hand to the bulge of her stomach. “I cannot risk remaining in the South to bear a son born of an anointed king. Not until we know that king is secure upon his throne.”
Alditha was frightened but hid it well. So recently to have found contentment and happiness, to have stumbled on the edge of what could become a deep and trusting love… and to have it all, perhaps, snatched away by an obdurate Norman madman…. “Until this child is born and is safe from William, I would have Edyth with you, my Lord. You are tired; you will become more so yet, before this thing can be finished. You need one of us with you to ensure you do not fall ill. That one must be Edyth.”
Easy, it was, to suggest something if you only looked at it from the practical side.(unedited excerpt)
4th October - Here
9th October - Here
13th October - Here
Available on Amazon
(UK Title) Harold the King
(US Title) I Am The Chosen King
More on Helen's Website
Previously posted 1066 related articles that may be of interest