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Among the contenders, Harald Hardrada of Norway and Duke William of Normandy, both very powerful men who would need someone equally as powerful to stand up to them - which is why Harold was chosen. He alone had a chance of beating them aside. He did, of course, win the battle against Hardrada at Stamford Bridge in September 1066, but lost the fight against William at Hastings in the October. Two men, equal in strength, the victor, William, to win by sheer luck. Had it rained, had dusk been another half hour, had Harold been able to defend his realm for just that little bit longer... but such is the way of things...
The following is an extract (abbreviated and pre-editing) from my novel Harold the King (UK title) / I Am The Chosen King (US Title)
We skip forward a few days, to Rouen in Normandy:
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The messenger refused to hand the letter sent from England to the Duke personally. Instead, he sought fitz Osbern.
“But this is for Duke William. Why have you brought it to me, man?” Fitz Osbern was irritated. Naught had gone right this day - before leaving his bed he had quarrelled with his wife, then he had discovered his favourite hound had been in a fight during the night, sustaining a torn ear and tooth-gouged neck. Added to that, indigestion was burning in his chest and now this fool was standing there hopping from foot to foot, proffering a parchment that was meant for the Duke. As if he did not have enough of his own correspondence to see to this day!
At least the messenger was honest in his reply. “Sir, I bring it to you because it contains bad news. I have no intention of being on the receiving end of his temper.”
William fitz Osbern sat at his table, maps and letters spread before him, a quill pen leaning from the inkwell, shavings from other trimmed quills brushed into a neat pile. He had stared at the scrolled parchment in his hand. It was from the Bishop of London. He sighed. There was so much to do and so little time in which to accomplish it. Norman administration would be easier were the Duke able to attend to the reading of charters and letters himself, and if the whole system were not so complicated. The recording of taxable land in England, for example, was much more organised, with everything meticulously written down and recorded in one set book within each shire.
“If it is about King Edward’s health, then we are already aware that he is failing. The Duke is expecting to hear he is dead.” Will handed the scroll back to the messenger. “You have my assurance that he will not bark at you for that.” Mint leaves would be good for his bubbling stomach. Perhaps he ought to send a servant to fetch some?
The messenger took a step backwards, emphatically refusing to take the document. “’Tis not the bark that concerns me, my Lord, ’tis the sharp-toothed bite!”
Fitz Osbern suppressed a belch. “For the sake of God, man, you have been paid to deliver a message to Duke William. Do so.” Fitz Osbern tossed the scroll at the man, who made no attempt to catch it.
“Nay, ’tis not my place to disagree with you, but I were commissioned to fetch this to Normandy as soon as might be possible. That, I have done. No one said anything about taking it direct to the Duke himself.”
Exasperated, Will heaved himself from his stool and fumbled for the scroll which lay among the floor rushes. “I assume this great reluctance of yours is connected with the knowing of what is contained in this scroll?”
“Which is…?” Fitz Osbern’s fingers clasped the letter.
The messenger, a bearded, middle-aged man who, Fitz Osbern discerned, was in desperate need of a bath, scratched his nose. Ought he tell? “Which is that, aye, the King of England is dead, and that Earl Harold of Wessex is crowned and anointed in his place.”
Fitz Osbern’s grip tightened rigid around the parchment. Slowly, very slowly, he straightened. “Repeat that.”
The messenger did so.
Fitz Osbern, mouth open, breath stopped, walked back to his stool, feeling as if he were ploughing through knee-deep mud. He could imagine the words written on the scroll burning through. Someone would have to read them aloud to William. His indigestion paled into insignificance as a different kind of sickness rose into his throat. He nodded, once, very slowly at the messenger. “You may go. See my steward for payment.”
Relieved, the man fled.
Duke William sat very still. Only the slow, systematic rubbing of his thumb passing backwards and forwards across the back of his hand and the tight clench of his jaw indicated his fury.
“Read it again,” he snapped.
Fitz Osbern reluctantly complied. Duke William’s lips parted slightly, his nostrils flared. The thumb stopped moving.
The chamber was not crowded, but all within exchanged furtive glances of apprehension. Both servant and knight alike knew to beware of their duke when a rage threatened.
Duchess Mathilda, seated beside her husband, flicked a glance from the pale-faced Will fitz Osbern to her husband and moved to rest her hand on William’s arm. With irritation, he jerked away. The abrupt movement broke the stillness. He lurched to his feet. The Duke was a tall man - in anger, his stature seemingly heightened.
His words however, were low: “I knighted him. Harold Godwinsson swore homage as my vassal.”
“Oui, my Lord.” Fitz Osbern allowed the scroll to roll up on itself.
“He swore to speak for me to convince the English of my claim.”
Again, fitz Osbern answered simply, “Oui.”
William clenched his fists, the nails digging into the palms. “He swore. He took an oath before me.” The words were becoming slurred, spoken through that rigid jaw. He turned his head with a jerk, gazed at fitz Osbern. “He made no effort on my behalf? No attempt to speak for me?”
“It seems not, my Lord. Bishop William of London has always proved to be reliable and accurate in his information.”
Mathilda rose and put her hand over her husband’s fist, persuading the fingers to relax. Was surprised to find his hand was shaking.
She too could not believe that what was written in that letter was the truth. Harold, when he had been here in Normandy, had seemed such a pleasant man, so benign - so honourable. She felt a blush tingle her face as she remembered him close to her, his laugh, those startling, vivacious blue eyes…. Ashamed at that flurried erotic memory, Mathilda stifled the lurch that had knotted her stomach and peered up at her husband. “My Lord, you are a greater man than ever Harold will be - and is it not as well that we have discovered his true nature before committing our daughter in marriage and further into his care?”
Had William heard? He made no sign that he had. His anger was swamping him, penetrating his senses, thundering in his brain. He had been betrayed before. Other men had sworn allegiance and reneged upon their oath. And other men had paid the price of their duplicity.
“So. This is how England repays my kindness?” Resentment spewed from William’s mouth. “I could have left him to rot in Ponthieu when he was captured, could have taken him for ransom for myself, but no! I welcomed him as a guest, I treated him as if he were one of my allies, offered him my confidence and my friendship - God’s breath…” William marched ten paces, turned and glared at the silent group of men and women. “I offered him the honour of becoming my son by marriage!” He lunged forward, scattering goblets, jugs and food bowls from a table, tipped the table itself. Struck out at a servant, clawed at a tapestry and ripped it from the wall. A few of the women screamed, men drew back, several dogs in the Hall began to bark.
Knowing no one else would attempt to calm him, Mathilda intervened, her hands grasping his flailing arms. She was so small against him, her head barely reached his chest. She gripped tighter, shaking him. There were more than a few in that Hall who secretly admired the woman’s bravery. “It is done. The thing is finished. Forget him, forget England.”
William stared down at his wife, his expression a vice of hatred.
“Forget him? Forget England?” he said ominously. “On the day I wed you, I promised you would not think of me as an illiterate barbarian, I promised I would prove to you my worth and my strength, that I would give you a crown.”
Interrupting him, Mathilda declared, “There is no need to prove anything to me, I have all I could wish for. A husband who is loyal to me, who has given me handsome sons and beautiful daughters.”
Her words did not penetrate his mind.
“I vowed that I would make you my queen. And queen, Madam, you will be.”
William pulled away from her, swung towards fitz Osbern. “So, this English whoreson wishes to challenge my claim to England, does he? Then let it be so. We shall see who is more determined, I will not be made to look the fool. I want England and I shall have it.”
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photo: Alison King
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5th January 1066
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