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Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Bayeux Tapestry: A Tale of Two Men

As we know, the tapestry is an embroidered work, created in the 11thc to convey the story of the events that led to the Norman Invasion of 1066. The main characters of this saga are Harold Godwinson and William, Duke of Normandy. It is a tale of two halves, the first half appears to be from Harold’s perspective and the second is more from William’s. Before their fateful meeting in 1064, there does not seem to be any recorded documentation that they ever met prior to this. William is only recorded in one English source as ever having been to England, as stated by Douglas (1953) and Harold was at this time, in Ireland in exile.

William, known as the Bastard and later known as the Conqueror, was born in Normandy around 1027, the baseborn result of his father, Duke Robert of Normandy's liaison with Herleva, the daughter of a tanner. Robert never married William's mother, although he may well have had some regard for her, for she also bore him a daughter, Adelaide. Because of her status, he would not have been permitted to marry her and eventually put her aside, finding a husband for her, one of his barons Herluin de Conteville. Herleva went on to give birth to two sons, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and Robert the Count of Mortain and another daughter whose name is not recorded.

William was said to have been around 5ft 10 according to an examination of his femur bone, quite a tall man for his day. He was also said to have been strong, broad-shouldered and a strong bowman (Bates 2001). His voice was said to have been gruff and he seems to have had little in the way of culture. He was said to have not been able to read or write, in contrast to Harold who was a very well educated man. During his later years, he became very corpulent. Perhaps this was to compliment the avaricious reputation he had earned for himself.

                                                        Harold Godwinson

Harold Godwinson was born somewhere between 1022-24. He was the second son of Godwin, Earl of Wessex. His sister was Queen Edith, wife of the Confessor.The chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, says that he was very tall and handsome, possessed with great physical strength and charm, knowledge and courageous. The Vita Edwardi describes him as handsome, graceful and strong (Walker 1997). His strength and valour may be proven in the scene of the Bayeux Tapestry where he pulls to safety two drowning men. But Orderic finishes his flattering depiction of Harold by saying“But what were these gifts to him without honour, which is the root of all good? " Most likely in reference to Harold’s so-called perjury and oath-breaking.

He started his career as Earl of East Anglia. When his father got into trouble with the King over the Dover incident, Harold rallied to his father’s side with all his men. Unfortunately, the thegns and nobles were not willing to involve themselves at that time in a civil war and Godwin and his family was forced to flee into exile. Harold and his younger brother Leofwine went to Ireland to drum up support there, whilst the rest of his family fled across the sea to Flanders, to the protection of William of Normandy’s father-in-law, Count Baldwin. A year later, they were all back and restored to favour, convincing Edward to rid the country of those Norman’s in his retinue who had badly counseled him. Then when his father died, he was granted his Earldom of Wessex in 1053.

William was said to have coveted the English crown and it is quite likely that he visited England in 1051 when it was said that Edward had promised to make him his heir. The Norman's were to base William's claim on this fact when it was necessary to drum up support for William's venture to England to wrest the crown from Harold. William was to accuse Harold of perjury and breaking his oath as his 'vassal' to support his claim. In the autumn of 1064, Harold was to travel to Normandy. Strangely, the Anglo Saxon chronicle does not record this visit, but an English monk, Eadmer, writing in his Historia Novorum in Anglia, states that Harold wanted to gain the release of his brother and nephew, Wulfnoth and Hakon, who were hostages at William's court. Eadmer might have had access to the Godwin's through Harold's uncle Aelfric who was a cleric. It may have been from him that he got the information (Bridgeford).

Harold, Eadmer says, sailed for Normandy with a crew and was blown of course, ending up  on the shores of Ponthieu. The rogue count of Ponthieu, Guy, held him and his men captive and stole all the wealth that Harold had brought to secure his kinsmen's release. Fortunately, one of Harold's men escape and alerts the Duke who then sets about rescuing Harold, demanding his release from Guy. Guy is obviously intimidated by the Duke and Harold is handed over into William's care.

Imagine William's  delight to have the famous Harold Godwinson in his clutches? This was a chance for him to secure the support of the leading man of England. The fact that Harold had come for an entirely different purpose was by the by. Imagine Harold trying to explain that he was not there to confirm William with the heirdom without greviously incurring the dispeasure of his host who, on his home turf, would have had the upper hand. Harold might even try to explain that Edward had appointed Edgar as the atheling. Perhaps William would dismiss this stating that surely a young boy would not come before a man like he? No, Edward had promised him the crown and as far as he was concerned a promise was a promise. Harold would have heard of William's ruthless and brutal nature and most likely would have felt concerned for his and his men's safety.

Imagine Harold's horror when he realised he had made a dreadful mistake, one that was going to change the course of history forever.....