And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

fredag 8. november 2013

Harold Godwinson's Posthumous Reputation, 1066-c.1160

The following is based on a lecture I gave to the student organisation for history students at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology earlier this autumn. The translations of passages are all from the editors of the works cited, and the pictures are all from wikimedia.


When William Bastard, duke of Normandy, invaded England in 1066 he was very concerned that this would have the bearings of an enterprise that was legitimate according to contemporary norms. After William had been crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Eve that same year, he made severe efforts to persuade the surviving high-born members of Anglo-Saxon society that he truly was the king of England, and that he was the true deserving subject of their loyalty. As a part in this campaign the writing of history was an important tool, and various Norman and Anglo-Norman chronicles were to argue that William's invasion was not a usurpation, but, quite the contrary, an expedition to rid England of the usurper Harold Godwinson. This text will show in which ways Harold's posthumous reputation was constructed to cement the Norman claim to legitimacy and how this legacy lasted well beyond William the Conqueror's death.

Harold Godwinson in the Bayeux Tapestry
Note the moustaches

Background - Harold Godwinson

Harold Godwinson was born early in the 1020s. His father was one of the most powerful nobles of the Danish empire, and his mother belonged to another Danish house of nobles. During the reign of King Edward the Confessor, the house of Godwin was among the greatest political dynasties in Anglo-Saxon England, and Godwin gave his daughter Edith as the king's wife.

In 1051 England was heading towards a civil war beteween the forces of the Godwin family on one side and those of King Edward on the other. One of the key reasons for this was that King Edward had brought bishops and nobles from the continent, presumably owing to his childhood exile in Fécamp in Normandy. This was met with protestations from the native nobles, and it was a particularly grave matter that the Norman Robert of Jumièges was appointed to the See of Canterbury. Robert had already served as bishop of London and during his rule he had established a hostile relationship with the Godwin family. In the early days of the unrest Robert set out a rumour that Godwin had authored the death of King Edward's brother, Alfred, several years earlier. This made matters worse for the Godwin family and they had to flee into exile. They returned, however, already in 1052 and made peace with the king. The following year Godwin himself died from a stroke during the Easter meal of the royal celebration at Windsor, and this was to have great ramifications of Harold Godwinson's posthumous reputation, as we shall see.

When his father died, Earl Harold was the most powerful noble of the kingdom, and his landed revenue even exceeded that of the king. It is therefore no wonder that the childless King Edward were to appoint Harold Godwinson has his successor on his deathbed in January 1066. Harold's own reign lasted only 10 months, and in October that same year he died at the Battle of Hastings, allegedly by an arrow through the eye.

Contemporary likeness of Harold the King

Norman historiography

William of Jumièges

Christmas Eve 1066 Duke William became king of a country he had no family bonds to, and he was well aware of the necessity in establishing his legitimate right as rule of the English. The key to this problem was King Edward. In his youth, Edward has been in exile in Normandy and in the new reign of William it was now purported that Edward, in gratitude for his Norman lodgings, had promised the throne of England to the family of Duke William. This claim was first put forth by the Norman chronicler William of Jumièges in his Gesta Normannorum Ducum, which was completed around 1070.

According to William's chronicle, King Edward had sent the archbishop of Canterbury, the anti-Godwinist Robert, to William Bastard with the purpose of appointing him as Edward's heir (1). This claim was also put forth in the poem Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, and the poet even exceeds the chronicler. In the poet it is stated that not only had King Edward appointed William, but he had done so with the support of the entire English people. Furthermore, in the poem Edward - with Robert as his vessel - hands William his ring and his sword, an investiture episode whose symbolic strength and importance can not be overestimated (2).

However, it was an indisputable fact that King Edward had also appointed Earl Harold as his successor, as testified by a number of contemporary witnesses, William of Jumièges solved the problem accordingly: Edward, we are told, asked Harold to swear fealty to William as his next lord and king. Harold promises to do so and leaves for Normandy to perform the oath before William the Bastard. On the way he is captured by a local count, but he is later released from captivity by Duke William. In other words, not only is Duke William the man appointed as Harold's future king, he is also his saviour (3). Consequently, it becomes an even graver matter when Harold later seizes the throne upon Edward's death. He is both an oath-breaker and a usurper, and this is why Harold is depicted as dying from an arrow piercing his eye, for according to contemporary ideas, this was how oath-breakers died (4). Despite this, however, it is interesting to note that Harold is in fact labelled as rex in the Bayeux tapestry.

Harold dies early in the Battle of Hastings, according to William of Jumiéges, and many Englishmen were also slaughtered. This was considered God's punishment for the murder on Alfred, King Edward's brother. William does indeed go so far as to call Harold "a traitor like Judas" (5).

Harold swears his oath to William

William of Poitiers

The next historiography to be written in the aftermath of the conquest was the Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitier, also composed around 1070. The narrative follows the pattern presented in Gesta Normannorum Ducum, but William of Poitiers adds a few more details. In his version, Harold admits to swearing fealty to Duke WIlliam, but that King Edward passed the lordship of England over to him on Edward's deathbed, and that Duke William's claim is against English custom. Duke William is of course offended by this, but he says that he will let the English people decide, not wishing the English to die as enemies on account of this disagreement (6). Earl Harold, on the other hand, ignores this peace offer and leads his army towards Hastings. Thus, Harold's betrayal becomes even more severe and it is he who is responsible for sending the English into their death.

It is nonetheless interesting to note that William of Poitiers treats Harold with a certain amount of respect. He compares Harold's prowess in battle with heroes from classical poetry - which in turn serves to elevate Duke William's own prowess and courage - and the chronicler states that "we do not revile you, Harold; but we grieve and mourn for you with the pious victor who weeps over your ruin. You have reaped the reward that you deserved, and have fallen bathed in your own blood; you lie in a tumulus on the seashore and will be an abomintion to future generations of English no less than Normans" (7). Harold is placed in a tumulus, a grave for the common folk, in the manner of Pompey as described in Statius' Thebaid. Harold thus becomes an epic antagonist who leads his people into destruction and therefore gets his deserved revenge.

This was the first stage of the history writing which established Harold Godwinson's reputation as the great historical antagonist in the game of England. How many of the English who actually believed in these historigraphical constructions is impossible to ascertain, but due to the contemporary understanding of history - where mankind was subject to the assaults of the Devil in a grand narrative presided over by God - it was necessary to find an antagonist who could bear the blame in order to make sense of the punishments meted out by the Divine on account of the evils of kings and clergy. For instance, in the text Vita Ædwardi, King Edward's first biography, it was the clergy and particularly Archbishop Stigand, who bore the blame for the troubles wrought upon the English, while the Norman sources move the blame over to Harold.

Later generations of historiographers also used Harold as the grand antagonist in the scheme of English history, and if nothing else, Harold was at least an expedient figure for this matter. Regardless what the individual chroniclers themselves believed, it was necessary to explain why God had allowed Duke William - whom many probably considered a wicked tyrant - to invade and conquer the English. King Edward's reign was lauded as a golden age of peace contrasted with the harsh rule of William, and Edward was honoured by both English and Norman historiographers. Harold, on the other hand, suited both sides as a historical villain, as shall be seen, both those who saw things from the Norman perspective and those of the other side.
English historiography

Eadmer of Canterbury

One of the voices from the other side was the historian Eadmer of Canterbury, born shortly after the battle of Hastings and strongly nostalgic towards the English. In his Historia Novorum in Anglia he presents a new twist to the Norman historical fiction. In Eadmer's rendition Harold is forced by William to yield his lordship by Duke William during Harold's stay in Normandy, and King Edward later scolds Harold for thus having brought England into disaster. Eadmer adds that the Normans claim Harold died because of this broken oath (8).

The next important historiographer is William of Malmesbury, who wrote his Gesta Regum Anglorum in the 1120s. He occupies a special place in the historiographical landscape since he was himself of both Norman and English heritage. Nonetheless, he unquestionably belongs to the English historians since he exhibits clear sympathies for the English and laments that the English culture is losing ground to the culture of the Normans. William is also interesting because he has a more nuanced view of King Edward than found in the works of earlier historians.

William points out that there are various view on how Harold acceded to the English throne. In his own opus, William seized the crown and uses here the verb arripere which may have connotations to thievery or otherwise illegal action (9). The English, William states, claims that Harold was given the crown from King Edward, and it is possible that William here also includes Eadmer of Canterbury, whom he refers to in his introduction. Despite uncertainty regarding the details, William, too, states that Harold had promised to give the crown to Duke William and that he thereby was guilty of oath-breaking. In his summary of the Battle of Hastings, William points out that Harold deserved his death because of his faithlessness.

Harold crowned as king. Note the vilified Stigand on his left

Henry Huntingdon

The final historiographer in this overview is Henry Huntingdon, who completed his Historia Anglorum in the 1150s. Henry is perhaps that historiographer who passes the most severe judgement on Harold Godwinsson, and this suggests that his sources - including his English material - carries a strongly anti-Godwinist tone.

In his description of Harold's accession to the throne, Henry applies the word inuadere, which points to an aggressive, though not necessarily violent, action (10). The meaning is nonetheless clear: Harold was a usurper who came to the throne by means of force rather than law, and this was one of three reasons Duke William invaded England. The other two reasons also pertained to the Godwin family.
Henry's antipathy towards the Godwin family is not, however, most clearly expressed in his depiction of Harold, but the portrayal of Harold's father, Godwin. As stated in the introduction, Godwin died from a stroke during the Easter celebration at Windsor in 1053, and Henry fused this tradition with William of Jumièges' description of Godwin as a Judas in a powerful condemnation of Godwin and his family. Henry was not the first to do this, but it shows how powerful this legacy was even about a century following Godwin's death.

Henry tells us that Godwin was anxious to persuade King Edward that he had nothing to do with the murder of his brother Alfred. During the Easter meal in 1053, therefore, Godwin says to King Edward that "if the God of heaven is true and just, may He grant that this little pice of bread shall not pass my throat if I have ever thought of betraying you". Henry furthermore states that God heard Godwin's false words and shortly afterwards Godwin chokes on the piece of bread and thus "tasted endless death" (11).

This episode is heavy with symbolism. It is set at Easter, the holiest time of the Christian year, it takes the form as a Last Supper scene and Godwin furthermore swears an oath despite Christ's commandment not to swear. Godwin is thus expressly portrayed as a Judas, and Harold Godwinson is thereby the son of a Judas which adds further shame to his own broken oath roughly 13 years later.

The death of Harold


Harold Godwinson's posthumous reputation was one of the historiographical legacies of the Norman invasion of 1066 and maintained a strong position long into later centuries. Harold becomes an antagonist in a cosmic game which caused the English to be subjected to the Norman yoke. This is a testamtent to the duration and longevity of literary legacies and a testamtent to the force of medieval historiography.

1) Van Houts 2003: vol. II, 158-59

2) Barlow 1999: 18. Traditionally, this poem has been attributed to Bishop Guy de Amiens and dated to c.1067, but later research suggests it may have been composed as late as c.1125. See Riggs 2006: 16-17.

3) Van Houts 2003: vol. II, 160-61

4) Fleming 2004

5) Van Houts 2003: vol. II, 106-07

6) Davis and Chibnall 1998: 122-23

7) Davis and Chibnall 1998: 140-41

8) Bosanquet 1964: 6-9

9) Mynors 1998: 416-17

10) Greenway 2007: 384-85

11) Greenway 2007: 378-79. Interestingly, Wace's Roman de Rou comes closest to ascribing Edward any direct agency. In Godwin's trial by morsel Edward makes the sign of the cross over it, thus in effect bringing about Godwin's death (Burgess 2004: line 5456)


Barlow, Frank (ed. and transl.), The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio of Guy Bishop of Amiens, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1999

Bosanquet, Geoffrey (ed. and transl.), Eadmer's History of Recent Events in England, The Cresset Press, London, 1964

Burgess, Glyn S. (ed. and transl.), The History of the Norman People - Wace's Roman de Rou, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2004

Davis, R. H. C. and Chibnall, Marjorie (eds. and transl.), The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998

Fleming, Robin ‘Harold II (1022/3?–1066)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2010 [, accessed 6 Sept 2013]

Greenway, Diana (ed. and transl.), Henry, Archdeacon of Huntindon - Historia Anglorum, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2007

Mynors, R. A. B., Thomson, R. M., Winterbottom, M., William of Malmesbury: Gesta Regum Anglorum, The History of the English Kings, Clarendon Press, 1998

Van Houts, Elizabeth M. C. (ed.), The Gesta Normannorum Ducum of William of Jumièges, Orderic Vitalis, and Robert of Torigni, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2003

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