MARTYR-KING HAROLD OF ENGLAND
By Vladimir Moss
St. Harold was the last Orthodox king of England. He was born early in the eleventh century, the son of Earl Godwin of Wessex and his wife Gytha Thorkelsdottir, whose supposed brother, Ulf Jarl, was the father of King Sweyn II of Denmark. Godwin and Gytha had several children; Harold was the second.
When Edward the Confessor became King of England in 1043, he married Harold’s sister Edith. As a result of this Harold became Earl of East Anglia in 1045. In 1051 Earl Godwin was forced into exile, and Harold accompanied his father. However, when Godwin died in 1053, he succeeded him as Earl of Wessex. King Edward trusted Earl Harold in a way he had never trusted his father, so Harold soon became perhaps the most powerful man in England after the king.
In 1058 he became Earl of Hereford, which meant that he had to defend the English border against the Welsh. In a series of campaigns (1062–63) Harold defeated Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, the ruler of Gwynedd and Wales. In 1063 Gruffydd was killed by his own troops.
In 1064 Earl Harold made a great blunder. The story is related with variants and inconsistencies in the Norman sources and on the Bayeux tapestry, but is not related at all in the pre-Conquest English sources. Nevertheless, this much is clear: that Harold sailed from Bosham in Sussex on a mission to the continent, that he was storm-driven onto the coast of Ponthieu, where he was captured by Count Guy, that William of Normandy ransomed him from Guy and treated him kindly at first, but that later he was persuaded, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, to make an oath over a box of artfully concealed holy relics in Rouen that he would support William’s claim to the English throne.
Why did Harold make the fateful journey? One Anglo-Norman source suggests that he was simply on a fishing trip and landed up on the wrong side of the Channel. However, the eleventh-century Canterbury Monk Edmer of Canterbury, using sources close to the family, has a much more plausible story, namely, that Harold “asked leave of the king to go to Normandy to set free his brother and nephew who were being held there as hostages” (Harold’s father Earl Godwin had given these hostages to the king after his abortive coup in 1051). In support of this theory is the fact that Harold did return with one of the hostages, his nephew Hakon. William continued to hold Harold’s brother, Wulfnoth…
Edmer continues: “The king said to [Harold]: ‘I will have no part in this; but, not to give the impression of wishing to hinder you, I give you leave to go where you will and to see what you can do. But I have a presentiment that you will succeed in bringing misfortune upon the whole kingdom and discredit upon yourself. For I know that the Duke is not so simple as to be at all inclined to give them [the hostages] up to you unless he foresees that in doing so he will secure some great advantage to himself.’”
The king’s prophetic spirit did not fail him; and according to a twelfth-century tradition, a great blow was miraculously struck at the oak in Rouen where Harold made his oath to support William’s claim to the throne – an oath, which, since he broke it when he himself became king, led to his and his country’s downfall. “For the oak, which was once a tree of great height and beauty, … is stated, wonderful to relate, to have shed its bark, and to have lost its greenness and its foliage. A sight well worth seeing, for a tree which a little time before was remarkable for the number and thickness of its leaves, shrivelled up from the roots, as quickly as did the gourd of Jonah and the olive of that other prophet and all its branches became white.”
Just as the Lord’s withering of the fig tree signified the falling away of the Jewish synagogue, so the withering of the oak at Rouen signified the falling away of the English Church…
In 1065 a serious rebellion against King Edward’s rule broke out in Northumbria. The Earl of Northumbria at this time was Harold’s brother, Tostig, who angered his subjects by his cruelty. According to King Edward’s anonymous biographer, several members of the witan “charged that glorious earl with being too cruel; and he was accused of punishing disturbers more for desire of their property which would be confiscated than for love of justice.” But the same author excused Tostig on the grounds that “such… was the cruelty of that people and their neglect of God that even parties of twenty or thirty men could scarcely travel without being either killed or robbed by the multitude of robbers in wait.”
However, that there was probably some justice in the accusations appears from the fact that St. Cuthbert once intervened on behalf of a man condemned by Tostig, as Barlow describes in this summary of Simeon of Durham’s account: “[Tostig] had succeeded in arresting a man named Aldan-hamal, a malefactor notorious for theft, robbery, murder and arson. The criminal was condemned to death, despite attempts by kinsmen and friends to bribe the earl; and while in fetters at Durham awaiting execution, when all efforts at rescue had failed, his conscience was smitten, he repented of his crimes, and he promised St. Cuthbert that if he could go free he would make full atonement. St. Cuthbert heard his prayer, struck off his fetters, and allowed him to make a lucky escape into the church. The guards, under Tostig’s thane Barcwith, went in pursuit and considered breaking open the doors of the cathedral, for freedom of sanctuary, they thought, would allows all thieves, robbers, and murderers to laugh in their faces. But Barcwith was immediately struck down by heaven for his impiety and within an hour or two died raving mad; and Earl Tostig, terrified by his fate, pardoned the criminal and, later, held him in esteem.”
The immediate cause of the rebellion appears to have been an extra tax imposed by Tostig on his earldom. The rebels seized York while Tostig was hunting with the king in Wiltshire, and proceeded to slaughter his officials and seize his treasury. They then summoned Morcar, younger brother of Earl Edwin of Mercia, and with him as their “earl” marched south to plead their case with King Edward, ravaging Tostig’s lands on the way. Earl Edwin joined them at Northampton, and there Earl Harold also came as the emissary of King Edward.
Harold was in a most difficult position. His natural desire was to support his brother against the rebels. But that would have led to civil war, which Harold now drew back from, just as his father and King Edward had done during the earlier crisis of 1051-52. In his meeting with the king at Oxford he counselled agreeing to the terms of the rebels. With great sorrow and reluctance, the king complied: Tostig was deposed, the rebels were pardoned and Morcar was confirmed as Earl of Northumbria. In the following month Earl Tostig and his wife fled to her brother, Count Baldwin of Flanders. Tostig was bitter that the king had not supported him against the rebels. But he especially blamed his brother Harold, claiming that the Northumbrians “had undertaken this madness against their earl at the artful persuasion of his brother, Earl Harold.” Harold denied this on oath; and since he gained nothing from the affair except the undying enmity of his brother, who fought against him in 1066, he must be believed.
King Edward died on January 5, 1066. Since he had no children, the witan had to look around for the best successor. Their choice fell on Earl Harold, who, as well as being the brother-in-law of King Edward, had been bequeathed the kingdom by him on his deathbed. A Waltham chronicler, writing after King Harold’s death, wrote that he was elected unanimously; “for there was no one in the land more knowledgeable, more vigorous in arms, wiser in the laws of the land or more highly regarded for his prowess of every kind”. King Edward’s anonymous biographer adds that he was handsome, graceful and strong in body; and calls him wise, patient, merciful, courageous, temperate and prudent in character. That he was both strong and courageous is witnessed not only by his highly successful military career but also by his pulling two men out of the quicksand during his stay with William in 1064. The fact that he was admired and trusted by most Englishmen is shown by his ascending the throne without any opposition, although he was not the strongest candidate by hereditary right. Only after his death did anyone put forward the candidacy of Prince Edgar, grandson of King Edmund Ironside – and that only half-heartedly. Thus on the English side there was general agreement that he was the best man to lead the country.
However, Duke William of Normandy claimed the kingdom as his by right, and denounced Harold as a usurper. His most powerful argument was that Harold had broken the oath of fealty that he had taken to William in 1064. Now all the evidence suggests that this oath was taken under duress. Moreover, the first law in the Code of King Alfred the Great stated: “If a man is wrongfully constrained to promise either to betray his lord or to aid an unlawful undertaking, then it is better to be false to the promise than to fulfil it.” Nevertheless Harold’s position was undoubtedly weakened by his breaking of his oath.
William now took his case to the papacy in Rome, and with the help of Archdeacon Hildebrand, the future Pope Gregory VII, he succeeded in obtaining the Pope’s blessing to his invading England – which, besides having an “unlawful” king, had in Stigand, archbishop of Canterbury, a “schismatic” primate who was not recognized by Rome.
So early in 1066 Duke William began to gather a vast army from all round Western Europe in preparation for what became, in effect, the first crusade of the heretical Papacy against the Orthodox Church.
King Harold was both hated and admired by the Normans. Thus William of Poitiers admitted that he was warlike and courageous. And Ordericus Vitalis, writing some 70 years after the conquest, says that Harold "was much admired for his great stature and elegance, for his bodily strength, for his quick-wittedness and verbal facility, his sense of humour and his honest bearing." Whatever his personal sins before he became king, he appears to have tried hard to atone for them once he ascended the throne. Perhaps under the influence of the holy Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester, he put away his mistress, the beautiful Edith “Swan-neck”, and entered into lawful marriage with the sister of Earls Edwin and Morcar, Alditha Then, as Florence of Worcester writes, he "immediately began to abolish unjust laws and to make good ones; to patronize churches and monasteries; to pay particular reverence to bishops, abbots, monks and clerics; and to show himself pious, humble and affable to all good men. But he treated malefactors with great severity, and gave general orders to his earls, ealdormen, sheriffs and thegns to imprison all thieves, robbers and disturbances of the kingdom. He laboured in his own person by sea and by land for the protection of his realm."
Although there had been no open opposition to his consecration as king, one source indicates that “the Northumbrians, a great and turbulent folk, were not ready to submit”, just as they had not been ready to submit to King Edward. Harold needed to be sure that he had the support of the turbulent North. So early in the year he enlisted the aid of Bishop Wulfstan on a peacemaking mission to Northumbria.
“For the fame of [Wulfstan’s] holiness,” writes William of Malmesbury, “had so found a way to the remotest tribes, that it was believed that he could quell the most stubborn insolence. And so it came to pass. For those tribes, untameable by the sword, and haughty from generation to generation, yet for the reverence they bore to the Bishop, easily yielded allegiance to Harold. And they would have continued in that way, had not Tostig, as I have said, turned them aside from it. Wulfstan, good, gentle, and kindly though he was, spake not smooth things to the sinners, but rebuked their vices, and threatened them with evil to come. If they were still rebellious, he warned them plainly, they should pay the penalty in suffering. Never did his human wisdom or his gift of prophecy deceive him. Many things to come, both on that journey and at other times, did he foretell. Moreover he spake plainly to Harold of the calamities which should befall him and all England if he should not bethink himself to correct their wicked ways. For in those days the English were for the most part evil livers; and in peace and the abundance of pleasant things luxury flourished.”
In the spring and summer, as Halley's comet blazed across the sky, the two armies massed on opposite sides of the Channel. While William built a vast fleet to take his men across the Channel, King Harold kept his men under arms and at a high degree of alert all along the southern English coast. By September, William was ready; but adverse winds kept him in French ports. King Harold, however, was forced to let his men go home to bring in the harvest. The English coast was now dangerously exposed, and on September 27, taking advantage of a change in the wind, William embarked his men.
As if that were not enough, Harold now suffered another reverse: King Harald Hardrada of Norway, who had acquired a great reputation as a warrior in the Byzantine emperor’s army, invaded Northumbria with the aid of the English King Harold's exiled brother Tostig, According to the medieval Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson, as the Norwegian Harald was preparing to invade England, he dreamed that he was in Trondheim and met there his half-brother, St. Olaf. And Olaf told him that he had won many victories and died in holiness because he had stayed in Norway. But now he feared that he, Harald, would meet his death, "and wolves will rend your body; God is not to blame." Snorri wrote that "many other dreams and portents were reported at the time, and most of them were ominous."
After defeating Earls Edwin and Morcar at Gate Fulford on September 20, the Norwegian king triumphantly entered York, whose citizens (mainly of Scandinavian extraction) not only surrendered to him but agreed to march south with him against the rest of England.
However, on September 25, after an amazingly rapid forced march from London, the English King Harold, arrived in York, and then almost immediately hurried on the further seven miles on to Stamford Bridge, where the Norwegians and rebel English and Flemish mercenaries were encamped. After a long battle in which both sides suffered huge losses, the Norwegian army was destroyed and both Harald Hardrada and Tostig were killed. The 'C' manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ends on this high point; but Divine Providence decreed that "the end was not yet".
On October 1, while he was celebrating his victory in York, King Harold heard that William had landed at Pevensey on the south coast. Although, from a military point of view, he would probably have done better to rest and gather together a large force from all round the country while drawing William further away from his base, thereby stretching his lines of communication, Harold decided to employ the same tactics of forced marches and a lightning strike that had worked so well against the Norwegians. So he marched his men back down to London.
On the way Harold stopped at Waltham, a monastery he had founded and generously endowed to house the greatest holy object of the English Church - the Black Cross of Waltham. Several years before, this Cross had been discovered in the earth in response to a Divine revelation to a humble priest of Montacute in Somerset. It was placed on a cart drawn by oxen, but the oxen refused to move until the name "Waltham" was pronounced. Then the oxen moved, without any direction from men, straight towards Waltham, which was many miles away on the other side of the country. On the way, 66 miracles of healing were accomplished on sick people who venerated it, until it came to rest at the spot where King Harold built his monastery.
Only a few days before, on his way to York, King Harold had stopped at the monastery and was praying in front of the Black Cross when he received a cheering message from Abbot Ethelwine of Ramsey. King Edward the Confessor had appeared to him that night, he said, and told him of his (Harold's) affliction of both body and spirit - his anxiety for the safety of his kingdom, and the violent pain which had suddenly seized his leg. Then he said that through his intercession God had granted Harold the victory and healing from his pain. Cheered by this message, Harold received the healing of his pain - and the victory.
But it was a different story on the way back south to fight the Normans. Harold "went into the church of the Holy Cross and placed the relics which he had in his capella on the altar, and made a vow that if the Lord granted him success in the war he would confer on the church a mass of treasures and a great number of clerics to serve God there and that he himself would serve God as His bought slave. The clergy, therefore, who accompanied him, together with a procession which went before, came to the doors of the church where he was lying prostrate, his arms outstretched in the form of a cross in front of the Holy Cross, praying to the Crucified One.
“An extraordinary miracle then took place. For the image of the Crucifixion, which before had been erect looking upward, when it saw the king humble himself to the ground, lowered its face as if sad. The wood indeed knew the future! The sacristan Turkill claimed that he himself had seen this and intimated it to many while he was collecting and storing away the gifts which the king had placed on the altar. I received this from his mouth, and from the assertion of many bystanders who saw the head of the image erect. But no one except Turkill saw its bending down. When they saw this bad omen, overcome with great sorrow, they sent the senior and most distinguished brothers of the church, Osegood Cnoppe and Ailric Childemaister, in the company to the battle, so that when the outcome was known they might take care of the bodies of the king and those of his men who were devoted to the Church, and, if the future would have it so, bring back their corpses..."
On October 5, Harold was back in London with his exhausted army. Common sense dictated that he stay there until the levies he had summoned arrived; but instead, to the puzzlement of commentators from the eleventh to the twentieth centuries, he pushed on by a forced march of fifty to sixty miles south, after only a few days' rest and without the much needed reinforcements. What was the reason for this crucial tactical blunder?
David Howarth has argued convincingly that the reason was that Harold now, for the first time, heard (from an envoy of William's) that he and his followers had been excommunicated by the Pope and that William was fighting with the pope's blessing and under a papal banner, with a tooth of St. Peter encrusted in gold around his neck. "This meant that he was not merely defying William, he was defying the Pope. It was doubtful whether the Church, the army and the people would support him in that defiance: at best, they would be bewildered and half-hearted. Therefore, since a battle had to be fought, it must be fought at once, without a day's delay, before the news leaked out. After that, if the battle was won, would be time to debate the Pope's decision, explain that the trial had been a travesty, query it, appeal against it, or simply continue to defy it...
"... This had become a private matter of conscience. There was one higher appeal, to the judgement of God Himself, and Harold could only surrender himself to that judgement: 'May the Lord now decide between Harold and me' [William had said]. He had been challenged to meet for the final decision and he could not evade it; in order that God might declare His judgement, he was obliged to accept the challenge in person.
"He left London in the evening of 12 October. A few friends with him who knew what had happened and still believed in him: Gyrth and his brother Leofwine, his nephew Hakon whom he had rescued from Normandy, two canons from Waltham already nervous at the miracle they had seen, two aged and respected abbots who carried chain mail above their habits, and - perhaps at a distance - Edith Svanneshals, the mother of his sons. He led the army, who did not know, the remains of his house-carls and whatever men of the fyrd had already gathered in London. The northern earls had been expected with contingents, but they had not come and he could not wait. He rode across London Bridge again and this time down the Dover road to Rochester, and then by the minor Roman road that plunged south through the Andredeswald - the forest now yellow with autumn and the road already covered with fallen leaves. The men of Kent and Sussex were summoned to meet at an ancient apple tree that stood at the junction of the tracks outside the enclave of Hastings. Harold reached that meeting place late on Friday 13, ready to face his judgement; and even while the army was forming for battle, if one may further believe the Roman de Rou, the terrible rumour was starting to spread that the King was excommunicated and the same fate hung over any man who fought for him."
The only military advantage Harold might have gained from his tactics - that of surprise - was lost: William had been informed of his movements. And so, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says, it was William who, early on the morning of October 14, "came upon him unexpectedly before his army was set in order. Nevertheless the king fought against him most resolutely with those men who wished to stand by him, and there was great slaughter on both sides. King Harold was slain, and Leofwine, his brother, and Earl Gurth, his brother, and many good men. The French had possession of the place of slaughter, as God granted them because of the nation's sins..."
As William of Malmesbury said, the English "were few in numbers, but brave in the extreme". Even the Normans admitted that the battle had been desperately close. If King Harold had not been hit in the eye by a stray arrow, the result may well have been different. But Divine Providence judged otherwise, as the chronicler said, “because of the nation’s sins”.
Why did the chronicler say: "with those men who wished to stand by him"? Because many did not wish to stay with him when they learned of the Pope's anathema. And yet many others stayed, including several churchmen.
Why did they stay, knowing that they stood to lose, not only their bodies, but also, if the anathema was true - their eternal souls? Very few probably knew about the schism of 1054 between Rome and Constantinople or about the theological arguments - over the Filioque, over unleavened bread at the Liturgy, over the supposed universal jurisdiction of the Pope - that led to the schism of 1054. Still fewer, if any, could have come to the firm conclusion that Rome was wrong and Constantinople was right. That Harold had (involuntarily) perjured himself in coming to the throne was generally accepted - and yet they stayed with him.
In following King Harold, the Englishmen who fought and died at Hastings were following their hearts rather than their heads. Their hearts told them that, whatever the sins of the king and the nation, he was still their king and this was still their nation. Surely God would not want them to desert these at the time of their greatest need, in a life-and-death struggle against a merciless foreign invader? Perhaps they remembered the words of Archbishop Wulfstan of York: "By what means shall peace and comfort come to God's servants and God's poor, but through Christ and through a Christian king?" Almost certainly they were drawn by a grace-filled feeling of loyalty to the Lord's Anointed; for the English were exceptional in their continuing veneration for the monarchy, which in other parts had been destroyed by the papacy.
William's actions just after the battle were unprecedentedly cruel and impious, even by the not very civilized standards of the time. Thus he refused to give the body of King Harold, which had been hideously mutilated by the Normans, to his mother for burial, although she offered him the weight of the body in gold. Eventually, the monks of Waltham, with the help of Harold's former mistress, Edith "Swan-neck", found the body and buried it, as was thought, in Waltham.
However, there is now compelling evidence that a mutilated body discovered in a splendid coffin in Godwin's family church at Bosham on April 7, 1954 is in fact the body of the last Orthodox king of England.
In fact, two royal coffins were found on that date. One was found to contain the bones of the daughter of a previous king of England, Canute, who had drowned at a young age. The other, "magnificently furnished" coffin contained the bones of a middle-aged man, but with no head and with several of the bones fractured. It was supposed that these were the bones of Earl Godwin, the father of King Harold.
For several years no further attention was paid to this discovery. However, just recently a local historian, John Pollock, has re-examined all the evidence relating to the bones in the second coffin and has come to the conclusion that they belong to none other than King Harold himself.
He points out, first, that they could not belong to Earl Godwin, because, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Godwin was buried in Winchester, not Bosham.
Secondly, the bones are in a severely mutilated state, which does not accord with what we know about Godwin's death. However, this does accord with what we know about King Harold's death, for he was savagely hacked to pieces by four knights on the field of battle. As the earliest account of the battle that we have, by Guy, Bishop of Amiens, says: "With the point of his lance the first (William) pierced Harold's shield and then penetrated his chest, drenching the ground with his blood, which poured out in torrents. With his sword the second (Eustace) cut off his head, just below where his helmet protected him. The third (Hugh) disembowelled him with his javelin. The fourth (Walter Giffard) hacked off his leg at the thigh and hurled it far away. Struck down in this way, the dead body lay on the ground." Moreover, the Bayeux Tapestry clearly shows the sword of one of the knights cutting into the king's left thigh - and one of the bones in the coffin is precisely a fractured left thigh bone.
Thirdly, although some sources say that Harold was buried in the monastery he founded at Waltham, his body has never been found there or anywhere else in spite of extensive searches. However, the most authoritative of the sources, William of Poitiers, addresses the dead Harold thus: "Now you lie there in your grave by the sea: by generations yet unborn of English and Normans you will ever be accursed..." The church at Bosham is both by the sea and not far from the field of battle...
Therefore it is possible that the grieving monks who are said to have buried King Harold's body at Waltham, in fact buried it in his own, family church by the sea at Bosham. Or, more likely, William himself buried it at Bosham, since the church passed into his possession, and he is said to have ordered its burial “on the sea-shore”. But this was done in secret, because the Normans did not want any public veneration of the king they hated so much, and the Church could not tolerate pilgrimages to the grave of this, the last powerful enemy of the "reformed Papacy" in the West. And so the rumour spread that Harold had survived the battle and had become a secret hermit in the north - a rumour that we can only now reject with certainty.
Harold’s daughter Gytha fled to Kiev, where she married Great-Prince Vladimir Monomakh. The blood of the last Orthodox king of England was therefore joined to that of the Russian royal family. Although King Harold has never been formally canonized, and the Normans made his cult unlawful, we can venerate him among the saints because he gave his life on the field of battle for the defence of his Orthodox homeland against the heretical Latins.
Holy Martyr-King Harold, pray to God for us!