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Harold II - 1066 (Jan-Oct)

On Edward's death, the King's Council (the Witenagemot) confirmed Edward's brother-in-law Harold, Earl of Wessex, as King. With no royal blood, and fearing rival claims from William Duke of Normandy and the King of Norway, Harold had himself crowned in Westminster Abbey on 6 January 1066, the day after Edward's death. During his brief reign, Harold showed he was an outstanding commander. He is described as tall, handsome, brave, forceful and strong, with a bold, attractive personality.

In fact, Harold had no real claim to the throne, except that he was the Confessor's brother-in-law: there were at least three other claimants. There was Edgar the Atheling, for example, descendant of Ethelred the Unready; but then, he was only a boy and an easy push-over. Also claiming the throne was Hardrada, King of Norway; but he was miles away, and though he was likely to cause trouble, Harold guessed that it would be at least a month or two before Hardrada could press his claim. And finally, of course, there was Duke William of Normandy.

William's claim was rather more embarrassing, for it was generally believed that Edward the Confessor had made some sort of promise to his nephew William to make him his heir. But there was another promise that was even more difficult to forget: it was well known that Harold himself had personally and publicly promised William that he would support his claim to the English throne. And a promise is a promise. The occasion when Harold made that promise is depicted for all to see on the Bayeux Tapestry. The Normans naturally wanted to give it as much publicity as possible, for it legitimised their conquest.

What had happened was that Harold, high-born and in command of the Saxon armies under the 'lamb-like' Edward the Confessor, had been unfortunate enough to be shipwrecked on the shores of Normandy. It was inevitable that Harold should be given hospitality by William, but both men knew they were rivals, and Harold was in William's power. It was a tense situation. After maintaining civilities for a few days, William demanded a public oath of loyalty from Harold. Obviously, in the circumstances Harold simply had to comply.

No one who was present at that oath-ceremony was likely to forget it. William sat on his throne as Duke, while all around him stood his barons, knights, churchmen and priests. In the centre of the room was a holy book, a missal, resting on an old chest which was covered by a rich piece of cloth. Watched by everybody, Harold moved forward, put his hand on the chest and swore a solemn oath of loyalty to William as heir to the throne of England.

'So help me God,' he declared. It was William who then moved forward and with a fine sense of drama pulled away the concealing cloth to reveal a precious casket filled with holy relics of Norman saints - a spine-chilling collection of sacred bones, a skull, a grisly dried finger. Instantly, Harold realised how he had been tricked, for his oath had been made in the holiest and most binding circumstances possible. He would be a traitor before God if ever he went back on his solemn words. William let Harold go. Within weeks King Edward the Confessor had died and the throne of England was vacant. And, despite his oath, Harold moved with unholy speed to have himself elected and crowned king. This then, was the situation at the beginning of the year 1066.

Of course, it is possible to excuse Harold for breaking his promise because he gave it under duress. And as for taking the throne, it was clearly as the result of a free election among his Saxon peers. After all, Harold was well respected, he had been in charge of the army for thirteen years and had performed excellent service. He was officially known as 'Subregulus' or 'Under-king'. Nevertheless, the speed with which he was crowned and the solemn oath he had sworn before God gave considerable cause for alarm.

When Easter came Harold wore his crown in public. What would God do? Surely some sign of the Almighty's anger would be seen. An oath had been made in His name. People waited anxiously. . . . And they did not wait in vain. Just a few weeks afterwards a horrible portent appeared: a huge streak of fire resembling a flaming sword hung in the clear night skies. Seven nights it showed itself. God had spoken. Not realising that it was one of the periodic visits of Halley's comet, priests hastened to their churches and offered special prayers for safety, and monks and prophets foretold doom and disaster.

It was in this context that Harold began to receive news that both William in the south and Hardrada in the north were plotting independently to invade England and defeat him. Even worse, his own younger brother, Tostig, was planning to join forces with Hardrada. The problem was acute: who would strike first - William or Hardrada?

In the event, it was Hardrada. Quickly, Harold assembled his army and force-marched them northwards at speed. It took him just a few days to reach York on a hot September day, where he learned that Tostig and Hardrada had assembled their men about 8 miles to the east, at Stamford Bridge. Before dawn on Wednesday 25 September, Harold moved out of York to join battle with his enemies. Briefly, Harold met his brother just before the fighting began, and offered him a third of his kingdom if he would desert Hardrada. 'And what will you give to Hardrada?' asked Tostig. Harold's reply is memorable: 'I'll give him six feet of English earth,' he said, 'or as he's taller than most, I'll give him seven feet, for his grave.' The brothers parted, and on 25 September the bloody Battle of Stamford Bridge was fought. Hardrada and Tostig were both killed, and their whole army was butchered to death, or else taken prisoner and then burnt.

It was while Harold was celebrating his victory back in York that he heard the devastating news that William of Normandy had already landed on the south coast. Remember, Harold had just marched 200 miles from London to fight and win a battle. Now he had to march the same distance back again, and he did it in just four days. Having arrived, and after making this supreme physical effort, he had to organise his troops quickly for yet another march, a mere 60 miles further, down to the coast to meet William.

The Battle of Hastings, a few days later, was the turning-point in English history, and everyone knows its outcome. It is pictured in graphic detail in the Bayeux Tapestry. The artist did not forget to add the fatal comet either. Harold died fighting. Not only was he struck in the eye by an arrow, but he was also run through by two lances and struck on the head by a sword. A group of Norman knights surrounded him and one of them, Ivo of Ponthieu, tried his best to hack off his leg - a needless mutilation. When he heard of it, William ordered Ivo to be stripped of his knighthood.

William was now indeed the Conqueror. In his eyes Harold had been merely a usurper, so did not deserve a royal burial. He was simply placed under a cairn of stones on the cliff-top near the spot where he fell. Thus ended the Saxon kings.

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