14/10/2012 by noonobservation
The mention of 1066 used to make my eyes glaze over with the anticipation of another look at that damned tapestry (which was created for the sole purpose of torturing historians by providing inconclusive evidence for absolutely any theory). Since I went to Battle in the summer however, I have learned to stop worrying and love The Conquest.
As is well known, history is written by the winners, thus Harold’s reputation has been made to suffer the slings, and yes, arrows of outrageous Normans, with their endless books, tapestry, carvings, tea towels, mugs etc., showing their magnificent victory over those ungodly, oath-breaking Anglo-Saxons. In an attempt to redress the balance, here is a Harold-centric account of the Conquest.
In the true spirit of a medieval chronicler, I have constructed this narrative out of old secondary sources, hearsay, conjecture, LotR action figures and dry pasta. Names shall be spelled with traditional inconsistency.
The Chronicle of Harold Godwineson: King, Hero and Martyr
The noble Harold Godwineson (1022-1066) was son of Godwine, Earl of Wessex and Gytha Thorkelsdottir. Harold’s father was England’s best earl, with the most land, fattest monks, shiniest gold, etc.
Harold was (probably) the third of around ten siblings. His older sister Edith was married to King Edward, and his older brother Svein was a psychopath who got exiled for kidnapping the Abbess of Leominster, murdering his cousin, and generally being a Swein. (He was exiled from Denmark too, even the Vikings finding him unacceptably psychotic.) With Edith being a girl and Sweyn being killed in 1052, it was Harold who inherited Wessex on his father’s death in 1053.
Harold was (apparently) handsome, graceful and strong, taller than his brother Tosti and skilled with weapons. His splendid warrior-like moustache galloped proudly across his noble features like a great blonde war-slug; its mane caught by the east wind.
His strength was legendary. Look at him here, rescuing these poor benighted Frenchmen from their treacherous Norman quicksand.
Harold was a fearsome fighter, fearsomely defeating the Welsh king, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn in 1063, capturing both his head and his wife, Edith (or Ealdgyth). Harold married Edith, who was the sister of earls Edwine and Morcar, and put aside his not-entirely-church-approved wife of twenty years, Edith, with whom he had previously had five or six children.
(NB: All women in Saxon England were called Edith – any other names which appear are merely alternative spellings.)
Harold was very godly, travelling as far as Rome to collect sacred saintly appendages and other fabulously expensive religious equipment for his church at Waltham. He was also (apparently) eloquent and witty. (Why did William drill a hole through each of his knights and tie them to ropes?* was one of his best.) Harold owned books on falconry and might even have been able to read them.
Harold is made to swear
In 1064, Harold was heroically shipwrecked on the coast of France and fell into the hands of the wicked Duke William of Normandy. After forcing Harold to help him in his war against Conan the Barbarian (of Brittany) and eat French things he didn’t really like, William presented our hero with a stark choice: either he must stay in France forever and learn to like boules, existential philosophy and smelly cheese, or else swear an oath to help William seize the throne of England.
Harold was a strong man, but a 12-year-old Camembert and Tricolor: Bleu on repeat, were his undoing. Whether an oath given under such duress could be considered binding however, is doubtful.
King Harold II
In 1065, Edward the Confessor selfishly fell into a coma without having produced an heir. Regaining consciousness briefly, Edward tried ineffectually to clear up the mess by whispering to Harold: “I commend this woman [Edith] and all the kingdom to your protection”.
Some people argue that this just meant, “could you water the plants till William gets here?” but frankly, who would choose a smooth-upper-lipped garlic-breathed bastard over the handsome, rich, powerful, strong, noble and handsome Harold Godwineson? The Witenagemot were not so stupid, and Harold was crowned on January 6th 1066.
Actually the only person with a real claim to the throne was Edgar the Ætheling, grandson of King Edward’s half-brother, but he was too busy dealing with his acne and trying to learn the bass lute.
Expecting an invasion, Harold called out the fyrd and set them to defending the coast. After four months of playing Hnefatafl and Angry Birds, while William was stuck in Saint-Valery-sur-Somme with bad wind, he was forced to disband them.
Just at that moment, Harold’s wicked brother Tostig invaded Northumbria with his new Norwegian friend Harald “Hardrada” Sigurdsson. They defeated Eadwyne and Morkere at the Battle of Fulford and smashed up York a bit. However, while they were chillaxing and admiring their new collection of enemy heads, Harold surprised them at Stamford Bridge, smiting them manfully with his mighty war moustache and killing Hardrada, Tosti and around 92% of their men.
It was at about this point, in the middle of the storm season, that William’s bad wind abated, and he was able to catch a ferry to Pevensey.
Harold headed south, completing the 300ish miles to Hastings in about 11 days (with a three-night mini-break in London). He drew his army up on Senlac Hill on the morning of October 14th, a little bit tired and sweaty (but in a manly and not unattractive way).
The Battle of Hastings
The battle started at about 9am, giving everyone time for a cup of tea at the visitors’ centre and look round the gift shop first.
The English formed a tightly packed infantry body, interlocking their moustaches to form a solid shield wall. This tactic proved effective in repelling the Norman arrows, foot soldiers and cavalry that were launched up the hill. Though horsed, and with more archers, the Normans lacked the facial hair necessary to achieve really tight foot formations.
All went well until the Normans cowardly ran away, tempting the fyrdmen and two of Harold’s brothers to run after them. Turning, the wicked Norman cavalry cut them down, including Leofwine and Gyrth.
With the shield wall holding and the battle still in the balance, a sad little unheroic arrow managed to insert itself into Harold’s eye/face area, and he fell gracefully to the ground, protesting, “it is but a scratch, don’t mind me”. Fearing for their leader however, the English fyrdmen ran off to find a first aid kit, leaving the huscarls to put Harold in the recovery position and call 999. While they were doing this, the Normans killed them all and hacked Harold’s body up so that he could only later be identified by one of his wives (called Edith) by “certain marks upon his body”.
Though his mother, Githa (read Edith) offered his weight in gold for the return of the body, William had Harold buried “by the sea”, probably at Bosham, making sure future historians could not discover precisely where.
Just because Harold is famous for losing, doesn’t make him a loser. As well as being an all-round great guy and best earl, Harold did remarkably well to consolidate his authority over 1065-6 and rally the realm to his cause. It is telling that the English army fell apart as soon as he was killed – they were fighting for him.
He also managed to take down Harald Hardrada, an ex-commander of the Byzantine Varangian Guard and sacker of eighty Arab towns. (Harald was also supposedly skilled in brewing, horse riding, swimming, skiing, shooting, rowing, poetry and playing the harp – i.e. just like me, only hairier.)
So, how does Harold Godwineson measure up on the memorability spectrum?
Hotness (red): 196. I’d like to put it higher, but there’s insufficient evidence. He was rumoured to be handsome and at least saw enough bedroom action to amass around 7 children.
Eccentricity (green): 83. Harold was a paragon of Anglo-Saxon noble virtue, excelling in all the conventional manly arts of godliness, violence, diplomacy, hunting and the growing of facial hair.
Violence (blue): 204. Utterly capable of kicking the shit out of anyone when not impaled on an arrow, but also signed quite a few peace treaties and was kind to animals, children and defeated enemies.
*So he could use them for conkering.