Harold the King / I Am The Chosen King
Edyth Swanneck, Harold Godwineson's mistress/common-law wife,
is arriving in London for the first time in her life.
The year is 1044
London, Edyth realised, was larger, busier and noisier than ever she could have imagined. It also stank.
She had ridden the dozen or so miles from Nazeing in a state of bubbling euphoria. Her father had allowed her to borrow one of the farm’s mares; Harold himself had presented her with a new saddle of exceptional quality, sent for some weeks previously as a thank-you gift and purchased, he told her, from the most skilled harness-maker in all London. “Soon, you will see where such things are made for yourself. And more besides.”
They had left an hour after sunrise, thankful that the drizzling rain of the previous day had dried into a cloud-covered but pleasantly warm morning. Edyth wore a spring-green cloak, new-made riding apparel and a smile that Harold said was wider than the River Thames itself. She was also nervous, for she had never travelled so far from home, but Harold stayed always at her side making conversation to put her at ease, although his enthusiasm for the journey was not as buoyant as he pretended.
The weeks at Nazeing had, once his illness began to abate, been a time of pleasure – not merely because of Edyth. Days of blissful abstention from responsibility; an opportunity to sit beside the river, quietly to observe the hypnotic current as it rippled and eddied. A rare chance to enjoy the spring flowers blooming, watch the wind scurry through the trees or the rain moving across the sky in banks of shape-changing cloud. He had rediscovered things from childhood that he had forgotten – fishing, riding for the pleasure of it, the marvel of new life on a farm: lambs, calves, chicks and piglets. The pace of a freeborn farmer directed by the cycle of nature had suddenly appealed, although Harold was aware that without adequate gold, such a living could be harsh. There was always work to be done – hard work – on the land, from dawn till dusk, through all weathers, all seasons. A peasant relied on a small patch of land, one pig, one goat, to provide his meagre existence; had no servant, no well-stocked barn or comfortable Hall. No fur-lined boots or cloak to keep out the cold of mid-winter. Harold knew all that, knew that the life he had been born to, of politics, leadership, warfare and government, to outwit an opponent, was the only one that he could follow. This pessimism that he was trying to hide from Edyth arose from a reluctance to return to the banal bickering of court and the tedium of pointless bureaucracy.
The office of earl was a demanding role, and there would be much for him to catch up with: legal matters to make judgement on, charters to witness and sign. He had reliable clerical secretaries who had kept him informed of the more important matters, but the first few days back in London would inevitably revolve around endless meetings, discussions and decision-making. Edward would expect his full attention too; would have much to discuss. Harold only hoped that most of it would be important, not a surfeit of information about church building or hunting. Though Harold was always willing to listen to a recounting of a good chase, Edward had a tedious habit of repeating particular anecdotes. And then there were his numerous Norman friends to be tolerated.
Naturally, Edward had brought his favoured companions with him when he returned to England and, naturally, some of them he had wanted to reward, but there were limits to the degree of honours presented to outsiders. Men like Robert Champart for example.
No doubt the matter of Queen Emma’s removal would be high on the agenda also – his father’s letters had seen Harold informed of that particular sour turn of events. He agreed with Godwine that to humiliate the Queen had been a mistake – all rumour of her involvement with Magnus had proven unfounded – but equally Harold had conceded his father’s difficulty. If Swegn, damn him, had not been so foolishly implicated, then perhaps Godwine could have prevented the whole unfortunate business. Ah, but repercussions were bound to be swirling around court still…At least he had Edyth with him. She would be waiting for him at the end of the long days, with her happy smile and soft young body.
The road they followed was level and well gravelled, with only the occasional pothole. Behind them it ran northwards up into the ancient Saxon lands of the North and South Folk and the lonely windswept swathes of the East Anglian fenlands. Ahead, the distant smoke haze that hung in a ragged fug over the city of London was visible for most of their journey. Much of the land to the northeast of London, now that they had ridden away from the forested ridges above the Lea and Roding valleys, was flat marshland divided by rivers and streams, the reed beds and isolated clumps of alder or crack willow occupied by waders and waterfowl. They had passed through hamlets such as Walhamstowe, Leaton and Stokæ, where women and children had come from their houses to wave and cheer; those working in the fields had halted their plough teams to watch the cavalcade pass by.
The first thing that struck Edyth as they approached London itself was the height of its walls. The Roman giants, Harold told her, had built them to defend England’s most important town from harm. “No one can attack London,” he informed her with pride. “Not without the prospect of a long siege and much discomfort. London can only fall from within. When – if – the people decide to surrender.”
And that, Edyth thought to herself, they will surely never do!
They followed the banks of the sluggish Walbrook River as it trundled towards the Thames – and then they were at the Bishop’s Gate, riding beneath its echoing stone archway. Their escort, Harold’s housecarls and servants, bunched closer, their horses’ shod hooves clattering on the road that was suddenly no longer rough gravel but cobbled. The noise of the city was not immediately apparent, for they rode down through the Corn Hill, where not so many years past the wheat had been more dominant than the new-settled inhabitants. The hovels were beginning to encroach further out on to the few acres of open land, especially in the vicinity of All Hallows with its high-gabled, resplendently thatched-reed roof. The Londoners affectionately called it Grass Church, visitors and foreigners, mistaking the common-used accent, knowing it as Grace Church. The building squatted, serene, in the last oasis of peace before the bustle of the market streets of East Cheap.
They turned their horses into the busy scramble – Edyth had never heard so much noise, not even at the autumn slaughter. She thought the old bull last year had bellowed loud, but this, this was incredible! Traders yodelled from behind their heaped stalls, men and women bawling out the attractions of their wares, haggling sharply and furiously with buyers, irritable with the slower minded, quick to strike a bargain whenever they could. A barrage of voices, high-pitched, gruff, cursing or laughing. Accents Edyth had not heard before, languages she could not identify. The riders passed stacks of wooden, copper and clay bowls; pewter ware; woven baskets of all shapes, sizes and forms. Stalls bright with colourful bolts of cloth, fruit stalls, meat stalls, wine and ale sellers. Leather and hides. Iron, wool…everything imaginable. She saw a black-haired person with skin as dark as a bay pony’s polished coat, another tall and fair with a bright-bladed axe slotted through his belt. This was the part of London where people headed, where trade flourished, where the gold and silver was made and paid. They came to London from all over the world, the merchants and the traders. From Denmark and Norway, Flanders and France and Normandy. From further away than that: Rome and Greece and the Holy Land. From Africa and Spain!
Women carried bulging packages; men humped rolls of cloth, sacks or crates and barrels. Handcarts blocked the road, while ragged children darted in and out of it all. Barking dogs, squealing mules, lowing oxen. Above the noise rose the smell of unwashed people all crowded together. Muck and filth clogged the road. Debris and animal dung mixed with raw sewage. Yet no one seemed to notice either the raucous din or the appalling stench. It was all a part of what made London what it was – the busiest, almost the most important port in all the world.
Edyth did not know where to look first, what to see, what to hear. Her heart raced and thumped from the thrill of it all, her throat croaking a sudden cry of fear when her horse was thrust aside from Harold and the escort. The crowd closed into the sudden free space; a man, bent beneath heavy sheepskins, pushed in front of her. But instantly Harold reappeared at her side, his mouth grinning reassurance, his hand coming out to take the mare’s reins, to lead her quietly forward.
They were through the press of the crowds and coming out on to Thames Street. More traders had set their stalls along the open embankment, fish sellers, pie makers – every culinary concoction imaginable. The river itself was no less crowded. Small boats and fishing boats. Merchant vessels with their high, swooping prows, flat-keeled boats with their single sails furled, moored against the oak timbers of the wharves or beached upon the clay reinforcement of the low-tide mud banks. Great sea-going beasts out of the water, some at anchor, others with oars out to manoeuvre against the water’s flow before the flood tide should come in upon them.
Ahead towered the wooden structure of London Bridge sweeping across the river. Never had Edyth imagined that a mere bridge could be so wide or so long, nor that it could take the accumulated weight of so many. Surely, any minute it would creak and groan, and fall into the white-foamed water that was rushing beneath?
The mare faltered as her fore hoof touched the timber, but again Harold was there, coaxing her forward. “I can see I will have to buy you a mount more used to these crowds,” he said. “As soon as I can, I will take you to the horse sales down on the Smoothfield market.”
Curses and laughter emanated from the press ahead, a flurry, and a piglet, ears flat, tail bolt upright, ran squealing from between people’s legs, heading for the street beyond the bridge. Several men made to clutch it, one woman tried to toss her shawl over it, but it dodged aside, hurtling between the hooves of Harold’s horse. The animal merely snorted and sidestepped.
“There is every kind of mount imaginable at Smoothfield,” Harold continued, as if nothing had happened. “Mares, geldings, ambling palfreys and high-stepping colts, destriers with quivering ears and proud hearts. Mind, there is many a rogue at the horse market – man and beast – but if you know what you are seeking you can find it, if you’re prepared to haggle the price.”
A boy, a barefoot, ragged-dressed lad of no more than seven years, darted in the piglet’s trail, ripples of teasing and more than a few crude curses following in his wake. He dodged around the horses, leapt the last three strides from the timber bridge and scampered on up the lane to where astonished voices marked the animal’s route.
Edyth had watched with growing horror as the pig narrowly missed her own mare’s trampling hooves – what if she shied? She had gasped as the boy almost collided with her mare’s broad rump, hardly heard Harold’s calm narrative of the horse market.
Staunchly, she concentrated on looking ahead, telling herself not to look down, not to think of that mass of water below. Her relief on reaching the other side was immense, quickly overshadowed by the realisation that they had arrived, were at Earl Godwine’s London estate, his Hall in Southwark.
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January 5th 1066
This infuriated Duke William of Normandy, who believed that he had been promised the Crown. Thus began the final stages that caused the Battle of Hastings in October 1066 and the Norman Conquest of England.
|King Edward's death|
as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry
Westminster - January 1066
The fifth day of January. For the first occasion in many a week the sky had cleared and brightened from the misery of rain into the vivid blue of clear winter sky. There was a nip of frost to the air. The sun was low, eye-dazzling, glittering through the diamond-bright grass and reeds.
Throughout the short hours of daylight Edward’s breath rattled in his chest, incoherent words flowing from his blue-tinged lips. As the sun set, burning gold over the Thames marshes, the temperature dropped to below freezing. Come morning, there would be a white crust riming the edge of the river, the courtyards would be a film of treacherous ice.
Edith was at his feet, attempting to rub some feeling of heat into them. Earl Harold stood, wrapped in his own thoughts, beside the brazier, absently adding more charcoal. By Edward’s bedside stood the King’s personal priest, Robert fitz Wimarch, the Archbishops Stigand and Ealdred and his doctor, Abbot Baldwin.
“I like not this dishumour,” Baldwin muttered, laying his fingers on his king’s feverish temple and shaking his head in resignation. There was nothing more he could do for the dying man.
Stigand bent over the bed, shaking Edward’s shoulder with anxious temerity. “My Lord King, wake up. My Lord, please rouse yourself!”
Edward’s eyelids fluttered, then, for a long moment, he lay still, quite silent, the breath caught in his throat. Suddenly his eyes flashed open and he recognised Stigand leaning over him. His eyes wide and fevered within a skeleton-like translucent face, Edward stared into the startled face of the Archbishop.
“I am for God,” the King croaked. “I have no fear of meeting Him, I look forward to sitting at His feet. Bury me within my mausoleum, now that it is made ready for my coming.”
Stigand nodded. “There is no need to fear death, for you have served God well and you go to an everlasting life from this transitory one.”
“The succession.” Edith hissed. “Quickly man! While he is lucid, ask him of my brother and the succession!”
Harold, remaining beside the brazier with arms folded, had to admit his sister was resolute.
Either Stigand deliberately misunderstood, or had no intention of mentioning Tostig’s enforced exile from England, a subject that could upset the King mortally. The Archbishop held the monarch’s bone-thin fingers and said, “We are here, my Lord Edward. Your beloved wife Edith and Earl Harold be at your side.”
“No, no. Tostig, remind him of Tostig!” Edith brushed Stigand aside and took her husband’s hand earnestly within her own.
Irritated but unable to retaliate, Stigand curtly beckoned Harold to come to the bedside. With reluctance, Harold complied. It did not seem possible that Edward was actually dying, that so much was going to change from this day forward. As a king he had fallen short of expectation, was, Harold had to admit, almost as useless as Æthelred had been, yet unlike his father, the people loved Edward. For his unstinting care and concern for the well-being of the common folk he could not be faulted. In affection, Harold had never felt anything but amicable indifference - neither liking nor disliking him. There were things he admired about Edward, others he despised, but that was so of any man. None save Christ himself was perfect.
Edith glowered at Harold, furious that he had not demanded Edward reinstate their brother as earl, or, in protest at the gross insult to the Godwinessons, gone into exile with him. As they had all those years past when their father stood accused of treason.
Harold had tried explaining to her the difference between the charge against Godwine and that against Tostig, but she had adamantly refused to listen to sense and reason, too wrapped in her own fears and disappointment to recognise the truth. Perhaps a more astute king would have made a move against the trouble brewing in the North before it came to the boil, would have urged caution or removed Tostig from office before it had been too late - but Edward was not a wise man. What was woven could not be unravelled.
Harold sighed with regret for what might have been. He supposed there was room inside the hearts of some men for one area of excellence only. For Edward, it had been in his worship of God and the building of so splendid an abbey. He stared at the sunken face beneath the white, silken beard, the blue eyes that sparkled, not with a zest for life, but from the heat of fever, ðæt wæs göd cyning - he was a good king. Harold sighed again. He could not deny Edward that epitaph, though it was not the full truth. It was not of his fault that he had made errors of judgement along his way, that he had been weak where he ought to have been strong. Edward had not wanted the weighty responsibility of a crown. He should have been an abbot, an archbishop; in that sphere he would have warranted ðæt wæs göd.
“There is much I need say!” Edward rasped. “I would have my household around me.” He glanced fretfully at those few occupants of the room. Harold nodded to fitz Wimarch who went immediately to the door.
They were waiting below, the members of the Council and other men of importance who had served the King. Were waiting for a summons or to hear that their king was no more.
In silence, save for the noise of their boots treading upon the stone stair and brushing through the fresh-spread rushes, they filed in one behind the other to encircle the King’s bed. He had asked to sit up and Robert fitz Wimarch stood behind him, tears blurring his eyes, supporting the frail old man.
“I had a dream,” Edward said, his voice clearer than it had been for many a day. “I saw two monks whom I knew well while I was in Normandy and who passed into God’s safe hands many years ago. They told me of the evils of the men around me, of my earls, my bishops and my clerics. They told me in this dream that unless I warned you to repent and bow your heads in shame before God there would come evil to my kingdom, that the land would be ravaged and torn asunder by the wrath of God.”
“That is indeed a vision of warning, my Lord King.” Stigand said with grave concern, making the sign of the cross as he spoke.
Agreeing, Ealdred of York nodded his head. “There is evil intent in all mankind and unless we humble ourselves before God we shall all face His anger.” He glanced meaningfully at Edith. “Men and women must serve God, and the chosen king, as they are commanded.”
Satisfied that his archbishops could be trusted to do their best to save the tormented souls of men, Edward spoke, with a dignified clarity, the words of the verba novissima, the will declared aloud on the deathbed, naming lands and gifts that were to go to those who had served him well. He spoke of the loyalty that his wife had shown him and said that like a daughter had he loved her. He smiled up at her, begging her not to weep. “I go to God. May He bless and protect you.”
In vain, Edith had attempted to sniffle back the flood of tears, but now gave in to her despair. She had not thought that she had felt anything for Edward, had simply endured his presence, his whining and pathetic weaknesses, but suddenly, now that she was to lose him, Edith realised that she looked upon him, this man who was three and twenty years her senior, as a father. Did she love him? She did not know, but she would miss him. She let the tears fall.
Similar tears were pricking in the eyes of them all. Some fell to their knees, others bowed their heads. Nearly all murmured the prayer of the Lord.
“Sir,” Stigand said softly, again leaning nearer to Edward, who had closed his eyes. “We would know your last wish. Would know who it is you would commend to follow you.”
Edward’s eyes opened. He attempted a weak smile at his Archbishop of Canterbury, fluttered his left hand towards Harold, who took it, absently rubbing his thumb over the taut surface of the proud-standing knuckles.
“My Earl of Wessex.” Tiredness was creeping over Edward; his words came with difficulty. He allowed his eyes to droop closed once more, his hand fall limp within Harold’s. “I commend my wife’s protection to you.”
Energy drained, his body slumped against the supporting arms of fitz Wimarch, the breath catching with an indrawn choke in his chest. The effort of putting thought and speech together had taken everything from him. “Leave, me,” he gasped. “I would make my confession.”
They left Edward’s chamber, quiet and subdued. Another death was a sober reminder that an end must come, eventually, for all who were born and breathed.
Only the King’s doctor and priest remained, and Edith. She knew the rest would go to the Council chamber to discuss the practicalities of her husband’s death - the funeral, the succession. Tears and breath juddered from her. All of it had been so pointless, so utterly and completely pointless! Oh, if only Tostig had not been so damned stupid. If only Harold had supported him. If only Edward were not to die…if only, if only. Where did those pathetically useless words end? If only Edward had been a husband to her, if only she had borne a child…
The murmur of conversation was low within the Council chamber, flickering in unison with the dance of the candle flames. All but a few of the Witan were present. Nine and thirty men. Two Archbishops: Stigand of Canterbury and Ealdred of York. The bishops of London, Hereford, Exeter, Wells, Lichfield and Durham; among the abbots, the houses of Peterborough, Bath and Evesham. Shire reeves and thegns - Ralf, Esgar, Eadnoth, Bondi, Wigod and Æthelnoth among others; the royal clerics, Osbern, Peter and Robert; Regenbald the King’s chancellor…and the five earls of England: Harold, his brothers Leofwine and Gyrth, and Eadwine and Morkere. They talked of the morrow’s expected weather, the succulence of the meat served for dinner, the ship that had so unexpectedly sunk in mid-river that very morning. Anything and everything unrelated to the difficulties that lay ahead in these next few hours and days.
Archbishop Ealdred exchanged a glance with Stigand, who nodded agreement. He stood and cleared his throat. “My lords, gentlemen, we must, however hard it be for us, discuss what we most fervently would have hoped not yet to have to.”
The light talk faded, grim faces turned to him, men settled themselves on benches or stools, a few remained standing.
“It is doubted that Edward will survive this night. It is our duty, our responsibility, to choose the man who is to take up his crown. I put it to you, the Council of England, to decide our next King.” Then Ealdred folded his robes around him and sat.
Those present were suddenly animated; opinions rose and fell like a stick of wood bobbing about on an incoming tide. Only two names were on their lips: Edgar the boy ætheling, and Harold.
The two in question sat quiet, on opposite sides of the chamber: one still asking himself if this was what he wanted; the other, bewildered and blear-eyed from the lateness of the hour. He had never before been summoned to attend the Council. It was not a thing for a boy, this was the world of men, of warlords and leaders. He was not much impressed by it.
Edgar looked from one to another, listened to snatches of the talk. He had been immersed in a game of taefl with his best friend - had been winning. One more move… and they had come, fetched him away, curse it! Sigurd always won at taefl; it had been Edgar’s big moment, his one chance to get even….
For an hour they debated, the hour-candle burning lower as the discussion ebbed and flowed. Occasionally someone would toss out a sharp question to the boy or Harold, seeking opinions, assurance. Edgar answered as well he could, Harold with patient politeness.
Midnight was approaching; servants had come and replaced the hour candle with a new one. The same words passed around and around.
“As I see things,” Archbishop Stigand said, his voice pitched to drown the rattle of debate, “we have talked of but the two contenders. Edgar?” He beckoned the lad forward. He came hesitantly, not much caring for this direct focus of attention for he was a shy boy.
Stigand continued, not noticing the boy’s reluctance. If Edgar were elected king it would make no difference that the lad did not want the title. To be king was a thing ordained and sanctioned by God, personal preference did not come into it. “He is of the blood, but not of age. Second, Harold of Wessex.” Again the Archbishop paused to motion the man forward. “He has ruled England on Edward’s behalf these past many years and has proven himself a wise and capable man. But there is a third possibility. Duke William may claim the crown through the Lady, Queen Emma, and through some misguided impression that Edward once offered him the title.”
Immediately there were mutterings, shaking of heads, tutting. Uneducated foreigners, especially Norman Dukes, it seemed, were unanimously declared as not understanding the civilised ways of the English.
Stigand half smiled, said, “I take it, then, that William is excluded from the voting?”
“That he is!”
“Damned impudence, if you ask me.”
“Does he think we would stoop so low as to elect a king who could not sign his own name?”
The clerk at his table to one side was scribbling hastily, attempting to write down as many of the comments as he could; the records would be rewritten later in neat script, the irrelevancies deleted, the gist of the proceedings tailored to fit the Church-kept - and censored - chronicle.
“Duke William cannot be so easily dismissed,” Harold interrupted. He waited for the babble of voices to quieten. “The Duke will not heed anything said in this room. If he has set his mind on wearing a crown then he will come and attempt to take it, I am certain of that. If he is rejected here in this Council, the question, my lords, will not be if or how or can he attack us, but when.”
“But he may be satisfied knowing a grandson of his was to hold England.” The Chancellor, Regenbald, spoke up. “You are to wed his daughter, does that not adequately relieve the situation?”
Aye, they were all agreed, it did. All except Harold.
He stood beside Stigand, saying nothing more. It was not his place to influence Council, but it was difficult to keep his tongue silent with some of these more inane remarks. Duke William looked at things as if through thick-blown glass, his view distorted to match his own expectations. Besides, to placate William with an alliance of marriage presupposed that Harold would be elected king, and they had not, yet, done so.
The door to the chamber opened, heads turned, speech faded. Abbot Baldwin entered. He had no need to say anything, his expression of grief told his message. Archbishop Ealdred murmured a few words of prayer, joined by Stigand and other holy men. “Amen,” he said. Then he looked up, his gaze sweeping across the room.
“We are agreed then? The King commended his wife, our good Lady Edith, into the care of the Earl of Wessex. It is in my mind that by this he intended for Earl Harold to protect and reign over England.”
There came but one murmur of disapproval: from Morkere, new-made Earl of Northumbria.
“It is in my mind that Earl Harold, once crowned, may go back on his word and restore his brother to favour. I have no intention of relinquishing my earldom.” He spoke plainly, but firmly. His brother, Eadwine, close at his side, nodded. Several thegns and nobles from the northern earldoms agreed also. A bishop too, Harold noticed.
Harold stepped forward, offering his hand to Morkere. “My brother has become a jealous fool. I make no secret of the fact that I would rather have him back in England, where I can keep eye on him, but he will never return to Northumbria. You have my sworn word.”
Morkere did not take the proffered hand. “Is your word good, my Lord Earl? Did you not grant your word - your oath - that you would support William of Normandy in his claim for England?”
An uneasy silence. Harold smiled laconically. Morkere showed signs of becoming a good earl, a worthy man to hold Northumbria.
“That oath,” Harold said, “was taken under duress. I am under no obligation to keep it. I was given the choice of losing my honour or my life and freedom, and that of my men. There are oaths, and oaths, my friend.” He nudged his hand further forward, inviting Morkere to take it, still smiling. “I made that vow to William knowing full well that it was more dishonourable for a lord to endanger the lives of others than to pledge an oath with no intention of keeping it. I make this one to you with a view to the opposite.”
Aware he had to give some other insurance to convince this rightfully suspicious young man, he added, “Within our traditional law there is no dishonour in breaking a promise to a man who is himself dishonourable. To those who are worthy ’tis different.” For a third time he offered his hand. “Take my word, Morkere, Tostig will not have Northumbria while I am able to prevent it. I give that unbreakable vow to a man I call worthy to receive it.”
Morkere was tempted to look at his brother, seek his opinion, but did not. He was his own man, earl in his own right, with his own decisions to make - be they right or wrong.
Decisively, with a single, abrupt nod of his head, gazing steadily into Harold’s eyes, he set his broad hand into the other man’s. “I accept your pledge, my Lord of Wessex.” Corrected himself. “My Lord King.”
There was no need for Morkere to add anything further, for Harold understood the look that accompanied that acceptance from steady, unblinking eyes: God protect you, though, should you break it.
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