1064: Harold Godwinson’s Enigmatic Trip to Normandy

What prompted the journey to Normandy where the oath made by Harold would have fatal consequences for his reign.
Harold makes the oath
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In 1066 King Harold Godwinson of England met Duke William of Normandy on the battlefield near Hastings in what proved to be a pivotal moment in English history. What is less well known is that this was not the first time that the two men had shared a battlefield. There is good evidence – not least the Bayeux Tapestry – telling us that Harold Godwinson travelled to Normandy, probably in 1064. Whilst there, Harold joined William on his campaign into Brittany to fight Duke Conan of Brittany in the latest chapter of a long running feud. Although not all sources agree as to what happened whilst Harold was in Brittany, the Bayeux tapestry tells us that he rescued two of Duke William’s soldiers from quicksand near to Mont St Michel, participated in the siege of Dol, and finally caught Duke Conan at the town of Dinan. After this success, William honoured Harold as a brother warrior with gifts of arms.

It was also on this trip that the Norman sources allege that Harold swore on holy relics that he would support William’s claim to the English crown should King Edward the Confessor die without an heir. When Harold ultimately took the English crown for himself in January 1066, it was the breaking of this oath that William used, in part, to justify his invasion of England.

With hindsight, this trip to Normandy was a grave error of judgement on Harold’s part. So, what on earth was he doing there? The answer to this question is, and will always be, a mystery but there are several theories.

The sparse contemporary English sources are silent on the matter of Harold’s journey. The Norman sources, written after the conquest and often seeking to justify that conquest, are united in telling us that Harold travelled to Normandy with the specific purpose of confirming William’s succession on Edward’s behalf and pledging fealty to him. This assertion does not really stand up to even the lightest scrutiny. Most glaringly, at this time, Edward actually had an heir. Edgar Aetheling, grandson of King Edmund Ironside and great nephew to King Edward, had returned from exile in Hungary and although he was still very young, he held the blood of the House of Wessex.

There is also the question of why Harold would have agreed to undertake such a mission. Harold was at the height of his powers. He was Earl of Wessex, three of his brothers also held earldoms and his sister was married to the king and retained the possibility, however faint now, that she might produce an heir for Edward herself. Why then would Harold jeopardize this position of power to undertake a perilous journey and pledge his fealty to a man with a spurious claim to the English crown?

William of Malmesbury, a historian writing in the 12th century, tells us that Harold was simply on a fishing trip that was blown off course by a storm. It is not clear on what William of Malmesbury is basing this. Perhaps it was oral tradition or perhaps he was relying on other written sources that are now lost to us. Perhaps it was simply based on the appearance of two men climbing aboard Harold’s ships carrying fishing poles on the Bayeux Tapestry. Whether or not 11th century nobleman even undertook recreational fishing trips, and how they conducted these trips is not known, but the tapestry also shows men aboard the boat with their hawks and dogs which would make for an odd fishing trip.

One intriguing proposition is that Harold was travelling to Normandy because he sought to unite his family with William’s via marriage. His brother Tostig had previously secured an advantageous match for himself by marrying the daughter of the Count of Flanders so it is logical that Harold might seek to tie his family to another great power on the continent in the same way. Orderic Vitalis, the English chronicler writing in the 12th century, says that it was proposed that Harold would marry William’s daughter Adeliza.

The idea of a marriage proposal may be supported by one of the most baffling panels of the Bayeux Tapestry. This scene appears under the text ‘Aelfgyva and a cleric’ and shows a woman standing beside a cleric of some kind with no further explanation as to who either of these people are. The cleric has his arm outstretched and is touching the woman’s face. Bizarrely, in the border of the tapestry underneath the figure of Aelfgyva, a naked man with oversized genitals is squatting. Who Aelfgyva is, and what the relevance of the naked man is, remain topics of scholarly debate.

One theory is that Aelgyva was Harold’s sister Aelfgifu. This is superficially attractive and it is supposed that she might have been a match for William’s son Robert or another Norman noble. However, there is actually no evidence that Harold actually had a sister called Aelfgifu. Another theory is that Aelfgyva was the name ‘Adeliza’ anglicized by the English workers who produced the tapestry. If this is the case, the panel would support Orderic’s assertion. Whether any marriage was proposed, and why such a proposal never came to fruition, remains unknown.

Perhaps most compelling is the idea first put forward by Eadmer, a monk at Christ Church Canterbury. Eadmer was alive during this period and is known to have consulted with Bishop Aethelric, who was a relative of Harold Godwinson, when writing his work The Life of Dunstan. So Eadmer would potentially have had reliable, inside information about the events of Harold’s life when he started writing about Harold in the late 11th century. Eadmer states that Harold travelled to Normandy to secure the release of his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon who had been held captive in Normandy since they were taken hostage by King Edward in 1051. This had been done to ensure the good behaviour of Harold’s father Godwin after he had risen up in rebellion. Edward had sent the pair on to Normandy where they had remained since.

It is possible that Harold, now loyal to Edward, considered their ongoing captivity as a slight on his honour, and that he now felt himself to be powerful enough to negotiate with William.

Of course, we will never really know why Harold travelled to Normandy in 1064 but it is fascinating to speculate what impact this experience had on his later conduct. He had seen firsthand the tactics of the Normans. He had met with and got to know the man he would later face at Hastings. Harold’s strategy and tactics against the Normans in 1066 have been scrutinized for nearly a thousand years, in particular the haste with which he assembled his army and marched to meet the Normans. This journey to Normandy suggests that there was probably no one in England who understood better the nature of the threat that the English faced from Duke William. Perhaps the answer as to why Harold acted as he did, lies in what happened on this mysterious journey to Normandy.

Adam Staten is the author of Blood Debt.