1066: The Men Who Would Be King

Harold, England’s most powerful man, had made himself king. But as Ealdred, Archbishop of York, placed the crown upon his head, Harold knew he was going to have to fight to keep the throne. There were no fixed rules of succession in 11th-century England. The new king should, ideally, be a blood relative of the dead ruler but might trumped claims of blood. And the only available blood relative to Edward was the young – no more than 13 – Edgar Ætheling, the grandson of Edmund Ironside. ‘Ætheling’ is an Old English title meaning someone who is throneworthy: Edgar was a suitable candidate for the throne.

But the crown did not rest upon blood alone. The reigning king might nominate his successor, and the sources indicate that Edward, on his death bed, did give his blessing to Harold as the man to succeed him. Unfortunately, Edward had also made such a promise to William, Duke of Normandy, and probably to Edgar Ætheling’s father too – and thus to Edgar himself.

Finally, there was the choice of the magnates of England. A king could not rule without their assent and, in choosing the new king, theirs were the most powerful voices. Assembled as they were, there can be no doubt that England’s magnates chose Harold as king; a choice made easier by the fact that Harold had cemented an alliance with the new earls of Northumbria and Mercia, Morcar and Eadwine, by marrying their sister, Ealdgyth.

The cast had assembled. It remained for the fatal drama to be played to its end.

The Death Bed of Edward the Confessor

Did King Edward give the crown to Harold Godwinson, his most powerful earl, as he lay dying on 6 January 1066? The sources disagree, although most do aver that Edward did give rule of the kingdom into Harold’s hands. However, the life of Edward, commissioned by his queen, tells us who was with him on that fateful day: Edith herself, her brother Harold, the archbishop of Canterbury and the steward of the palace. The Bayeux Tapestry reproduces this scene. But what exactly did Edward say? Again, according to the Vita (Life) of Edward, the king commended the queen and the kingdom to Harold’s protection. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Harold’s kingship – although admittedly the king was dying at the time. But, in England, the king’s wish did not determine his successor; in the end, that was a matter for the magnates of the country. And Harold had spent many years cultivating his contacts with them carefully. So it was no surprise that they chose Harold as king, and saw him crowned the same day as Edward died. The king was dead, long live the king. Or so they hoped.

Adventures with Words: Nameless by Dean Koontz

First, the necessary warning: Nameless is actually a series of six novellas, each readable in an hour or less, with each having its own title. The stories are episodes but disconnected save in having the same protagonist, the Man Without A Name (oops, someone has used that already, let’s call him ‘Nameless’ instead) who sets out in each story to bring truth and an appropriately sticky ending to a killer, swindler, abuser or similarly appalling villain. Nameless is supported by a mysterious organisation that provides him with his assignments and all the necessary information and material, from guns to accommodation, to carry out his assignments, but Nameless himself cannot remember anything about his past beyond the last two years. The series of six novellas carry hints as to his past until in the final one in this first series, Memories of Tomorrow, Nameless learns something of who he is and who he was and why he is doing what he is doing. I won’t give it away but the answer is somewhat more prosaic than the intriguing metaphysical paradox that lay at the heart of Innocent, another Koontz novel that riffed on this same idea.

By my patented Koontzometer – my reading device for locating Dean’s huge ouput on a scale that ranges from the marvellous to the dreadful – I put this Nameless series as a solid to good read: each novella pulls you in and pulls you through to the end and they make excellent bedtime reading: just long enough to keep you up past your normal bedtime but not too long to make you into a shuffling zombie the next day. However, I am not sure that I will bother with Nameless series 2 where top-drawer Koontz would have me reading the next series already. I think, when I next want some quick reads, then that will be the time.

The Scandalous Life and Death of Swein Godwinson, Harold’s elder brother

Swein Godwinson, the eldest son of Earl Godwin and Harold’s elder brother, led a tumultuous life. According to the man himself, he was the son, not of Earl Godwin but of King Cnut. However, his mother denied the claim vehemently. In 1046, Swein abducted Eadgifu, the abbess of Leominster, intending to marry her and claim the Leominster estates. When the king refused to agree to the marriage, Swein released Eadgifu, who returned to Leominster. But her abbey was disbanded, which suggests Eadgifu may not have been an entirely unwilling abductee. Swein fled to Flanders. In 1049, Swein returned, hoping to reclaim his territories, which had been split between Harold and a cousin, Beorn. Beorn eventually agreed to help Swein, but Swein ended up abducting Beorn too. The end for his cousin was worse than for the abbess: Swein murdered him. As a result, Swein was outlawed again. However, Earl Godwin engineered his forgiveness, but when the Godwins were exiled in 1051, Swein left the rest of the family to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and atone for his sins – these being so heinous that he went barefoot. But Swein, purged of his sin, died on the way back before he could sin again.

Five Things About: Harold Godwinson

Harold’s mistress, Edith Swanneck, may have been Eadgifu the Fair, one of the largest landholders in England before 1066.

The estates of the Godwinsons produced an income of £8500 a year in the 1050s; the king’s estates gave him £6000 per year.

Harold’s mother, Gytha, was Danish, the daughter of one of Cnut’s nobles. When Swein, her eldest son, claimed that Cnut was really his father, Gytha assembled the noblewomen of Wessex to swear her faithfulness to Earl Godwin.

Harold’s sister, Edith, the wife of King Edward, commissioned a biography of the king after his death which served to commemorate him and exonerate her from blame for the disaster that befell her family in 1066.

Wulfnoth, the hostage Godwinson, remained William’s prisoner until William freed him in a general amnesty on his deathbed, only for William’s heir, William Rufus, to promptly imprison him again. Wulfnoth died in 1094. By then he had been a prisoner for 43 years.

When William Met Edward

William knew Edward, future king of England, from his boyhood. For when William was born, Edward was a young prince living in exile with his mother’s relatives in Normandy. William was in his early teens when Edward returned to England, the unexpected king. But Edward retained close links with the court where he had grown up and after the expulsion of the Godwine family in 1051, Edward sent across the Channel for William to come visit. According to one of the versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, William did just that, visiting Edward in October or November of 1051. The Duke came as the king’s vassal, but the king had a great gift to impart to his new vassal: the promise of the throne. With Edward rid of the Godwines, he felt himself able to promise the throne to whomever he wished, and William was the son of the people who had sheltered and helped him through his long exile. So William returned to Normandy convinced that, if Edward remained childless, then the throne of England would come to him. But did Edward have the authority to promise the crown to William? There were no hard and fast rules of succession; the king’s wish was important but it was not paramount, for the succession depended also on the assent of England’s magnates, and they were certainly not keen on a Norman king, and even less so once the Godwines returned to power in 1052.

Sabbat War

In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war… sort of has to be, since it’s all based on a war game and if people weren’t fighting there wouldn’t be a game. But despite all the grimness, all the darkness, and all the war, the galaxy of the 40th (and now 41st) millennium can be a thrilling place to visit, particularly when your guide is Dan (The Man) Abnett – the writer who first got me reading Warhammer stories and one of the best, and hardest working, writers today. I’ve followed Dan’s stories of the soldiers and officers of the Tanith First and Only through all its many volumes, as the Man has written out his own vision of the 40k future in the Sabbat Worlds and they are among the best war fiction you could read anywhere. So it was a great honour to be asked to contribute a story to this anthology – edited by the Man himself (eeeeekkkkk!) – along with other 40k writers. It’s Dan’s sandbox and he has kindly invited us in to play. The story I’ve written for the anthology is, I think, the best 40k story I’ve written so far and it sits beside some other great writers. It’s an honour to be included among them. Here’s the full line-up of stories and writers.

This is What Victory Feels Like (Forever the Same) by Dan Abnett
Whose Voice is Heard No More by Graham McNeill
Glory Flight by Robert Rath
The Death of the Prophet by Marc Collins
Nineteen-Three Coreward, Resolved by Matthew Farrer
The Tomb of Vichres by Justin D Hill
Deep by Edoardo Albert
Armaduke by John French
Indomitable Spirit by Rachel Harrison
From There to Here by Dan Abnett

Sabbat War is now available to pre-order from the Black Library website, here, and goes on sale on 19 June. It’s going to be good (in the grim, dark, 40k manner of good of course).

See Us Talk

Paul Gething and I will be talking ‘Warrior’ and all things archaeological and Anglo-Saxon at an online talk for the Felixstowe Book Festival at 1:30pm on Saturday 26 June. This will probably be the last time we talk about the warrior that Paul excavated from the Bowl Hole outside Bamburgh Castle, so if you want to hear about screaming skulls, Thor’s thunder and lots and lots of bones, get your tickets from the Festival box office. Here’s the link.

Five Things About: Edward the Confessor

According to Edith, Edward’s queen, the king had taken a vow of chastity, thus explaining their lack of children. Historians are dubious, taking this as Edith’s attempt to excuse herself from the calamity that befell her family in 1066.

Edward also had a sister, Godgifu, who married Drogo, count of the Vexin, and then, when Drogo died, Eustace, count of Boulogne.

When Swein Forkbeard died in 1014, Æthelred sent his ten-year-old son Edward back to England to help negotiate Æthelred’s return.

Edward began to rule in his late 30s. Only his father, Æthelred, among recent English kings had reached such an age. Edward would rule for another quarter century.

Edward, according to contemporary accounts, was a particularly tall man with rosy cheeks – no doubt kept ruddy by his favoured past time, hunting.

Five Things About: William the Conqueror

Keeping it in the family, William appointed his half-brother, Odo, bishop of Bayeux when Odo was still a teenager. After Hastings, William gave Kent to Odo.

William made his other half-brother, Robert, count of Mortain. Robert was one of his key lieutenants, before and after Hastings, when he became one of England’s greatest landowners.

William nicknamed his eldest son, Robert, ‘Curthose’, which can be translated as ‘Shortypants’. Relations between father and son were strained.

William had a passion for hunting that, after the Conquest, would translate into the creation of huge new hunting grounds in England such as the New Forest.

William’s third son, also called William and later king of England, was nicknamed ‘Rufus’ either for his red hair or his red complexion.