english history · history

The Mysterious Oath of 1064

What was William of Normandy’s reasoning to invade England? And did he really need one?

Technically, William’s claim was the strongest being a cousin of Edward the Confessor (at least stronger than both Hardrada and Harold). In William’s youth, he apparently met Edward the Confessor while Edward was in exile (due to the Viking takeover of England), they became friends, and Edward allegedly told William that he would name him his successor when the time came. It seems young William took that to heart, which is understandable. Once he became such a successful Duke and proved to everyone he was not just a bastard; he would want to expand his territory. England was a great prospect. Under Edward the Confessor, England had large and fertile territory, had an efficient government and the crown was obtaining great wealth through their tax system. Naturally, he would use any claim he had to obtain this territory, but also appear righteous in the process.

In 1064, Edward the Confessor was King, but did not have an heir to succeed him. He may or may not have promised William in the past, but now he was looking closer to home for his successor. This is where the Bayeux Tapestry begins.

Side Note: The way to tell the Normans from the Anglo-Saxons apart on the tapestry is there hair. The Anglo-Saxons wore longer hair with facial hair as well, while the Normans were clean shaven with short hair.

The oath of Harold to William is on of the most important, yet controversial, events illustrated on the Tapestry. It is unknown why, but Harold Godwinson made a journey to Normandy. This may be to rescue his brother who was hostage, or confirm Edwards dedication to William as a successor, or even just a complete fishing accident/getting blow off course; it is really unclear. The second option is definitely from the Norman point of view and William would use this to make his campaign stronger and to gain sympathy and support for his “noble” cause. Whatever the reason, Harold gets stranded on Norman soil where he is captured by a local nobleman. When William hears that this nobleman has Earl Harold Godwinson, the prisoner is transferred to him. William keeps him as his “honored” guest (but let’s be real…a prisoner still). Why would William keep Harold around? He obviously wanted something.

The tapestry then illustrates that Harold went on campaign with William in Brittany and proved himself a capable military leader and courageous by saving fallen men. In the tapestry he saves them by pulling them out of the sand in a dramatic action scene. He is knighted by Duke WIlliam, which is significant as Harold is now illustrated in a position of subordination to William, his lord. The tapestry goes on to depict the Bayeux Cathedral where Harold, arms outstretched, touches to reliquaries and makes an oath. One would make the assumption that this was a sacred oath (sealed by the touching of the religious relics) that Harold would support William’s claim. That is how William took it at least, but the tapestry and other sources are vague. What did Harold vow to WIlliam that day or did this event even happen at all in the first place?

It makes sense that Harold would just say whatever oath that would send him back to England, but then again breaking an oath that was sworn over sacred relics was a monumental sin. This was taken very seriously in this age and William definitely took it seriously. Whether this event even happened or not William used to support his claim. A sacred oath was broken and it was his duty to fight for it.

Ironically, at this point Edward the Confessor was probably not even considering William as his successor anymore. He had some relatives who held a stronger claim (though extremely young) and Harold Godwinson practically ruled all of England already (through earldoms held by his family). He was popular, intelligent, and a great leader. Why would Edward have to look elsewhere? The Anglo-Saxons ran on a system of election through the witan anyway, there was no need to only use the primogeniture system.

Image result for bayeux tapestry harold and king edward
Harold returns from Normandy to meet with King Edward

The tapestry continues with an interesting scene which Bridgeford points out in his book. Harold Godwinson returns to King Edward after being held hostage in Normandy and must give him an account of all that has transpired. The artists show Harold as apologetic. “Clothed under the myriad folds of a great green cape, he is standing with his arms outstretched in Edward’s direction, as if begging forgiveness from the king; his head is not so much lowered, his whole neck has been bent over…’I have done a terrible thing,’ he seems to be saying” (Bridgeford, pg 95). King Edward looks aged and sickly and points his finger towards Harold criticizing him. King Edward is going to die soon and Harold’s actions in Normandy caused many problems for the future. The Normans said that Harold went to Normandy to confirm Edward’s support for William, but why would this scene of apology be a part of the tapestry? I believe this is again an instance where we see the discrepancy between who commissioned the piece and who actually created it. The Anglo-Saxons artists, now under Norman rule, put in their own biases as well possibly showing that this is where the conflict started or this is what they regret.

Though it may have been commissioned as Norman propaganda it can still be seen as a English version of events as well. Imagery of a fox and a crow are used in the border images of the tapestry possibly indicating an old fable. A cunning fox plays upon the crows vanity and asks the crow to prove how beautiful his voice was. Falling for the trick the crow sings dropping the food that was in his mouth which the fox then proceeded to steal. Those who delight in flattery will pay a price. Bridgeford asks in his book and it is something I hadn’t thought of either: Is there a connection that William represents the greedy fox while “Harold is the naive and foolish crow?”

Food for Thought:

Do you believe that this chain of events actually happened or is it made up to run a more favorable campaign?

If so, what was the oath Harold actually gave to William?

Further Reading:

1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry by Andrew Bridgeford

1066: The Year of Conquest by David Howarth

1066: The Story of a Year by Denis Butler

Memory and Myths of the Norman Conquest by Siobhan Brownlie

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