What were the reasons behind Harold’s visit to Normandy and How was the Visit Significant?
Approaching the year 1064 Harold Godwinson had established himself with great power, authority and had great potential to excel as earl of Wessex and possibly achieve what no Godwin had done in history, the Crown and title of King of England. As Walker quotes “Harold was at the height of his power and influence. A successful military commander and the leading noble in England, and with the demise of Earl Aelfgan he had no real rivals… However an episode occurred about this time which was ultimately to land to his downfall.” To great controversy between historians Harold went on a voyage and found himself ending up in Normandy. How and why is even today a huge debate and is explained in many forms by Poitier’s and Walker etc. The debate is ultimately down to the reason of there not being any Anglo-Saxon recording of this event and therefore we as historians are left to retrieve as much realistic evidence from the Norman sources, as biased as they may seem. Was Harold merely entertaining himself with a little recreational Fishing off the coast of England and just happened to end up in William’s quarters... Even more convincing is the story which many Norman’s claim to be true, which assumed Harold’s main objective was to deliver an oath to William to promise Edward’s throne to him. Or was he there to salvage what he could of his family’s great oath to their own and bring back his brother and nephew whom were still being held as hostage by William. In addition the historians have also been led to believe that Harold had just kicked off his diplomatic tour of Europe trying to gain support for his claim for greatness. The possibilities seem endless as to the reasons why Harold found himself in Normandy in 1064. In addition with this the event in itself had extreme significance on the forthcoming history of Harold and William as well as Britain and Normandy.
The Norman chronicles which the historians of today were having to rely on were hugely in favour of the assumption that Harold was carrying out an order by his king Edward. “Harold on this occasion had been commanded by the confessor to proceed to Normandy in order formally to confirm in the presence of William the grant of the succession to the English throne which had previously been made by the King to the Duke.” (Douglas). Harold doubtlessly had little liking for this task but it was claimed that it would have been unwise to disobey the King’s orders and a lot of personal experience could have been gained out of the visit. This account which is the subject of the three earliest accounts which have survived may come across as a possible solution to the reasoning behind Harold’s voyage, however modern day historians have become too familiar to biased Norman sources and have built up several reasons as to why this would appear false. Firstly Edward did not appear to have any contact with William since they last met when William was but fourteen years of age and too young and inexperienced too even consider offering him the throne. So why he sent Harold to swear an oath that he wanted his throne to be controlled by someone he had no knowledge of is oblivious to me. Secondly William had just previously been on a conquest in Maine which had resulted in the death of the nephew of Edward. This was not the right incentive for Edward to then offer him the throne. In addition with this Edward was supposedly on his death bead and therefore had to send Harold at that time. However Anglo-Saxon Chronicles had revealed that Edward was healthy and active therefore calling on the Earl of Wessex to carry out such a duty would have seemed odd. This story was a significant reason why the Norman’s and particularly William were outraged at why Harold later became King. They were led to believe by Robert of Jumieges that William had been promised the throne by Edward himself during the crisis of 1051 and 1052 hence the reason why William still held on to the two hostages who were close relations to Harold. However unknown to William was the fact that Robert of Jumieges had fled to Normandy for fear of his life because of his ill treatment of Godwin and merely offered the hostages and delivered the false claim in the hoping that when William went to Britain for his kinship he would be reinstated as Archbishop of Canterbury.
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A controversial debate however would not be a debate if there wasn’t any little less convincing stories which added to the confusion of the event. William of Malmesbury suggested that Harold in fact had absolutely no intention of visiting Normandy and was purely on a fishing trip off the coast of Britain, when horrible storms and high gales swept the fishing boat to the shore of Normandy. Exaggerated? Or just stupid? The evidence supporting this assumption relies heavily on the Bayeaux tapestry where in one of the scenes there is a picture of a fishing pole. It is also a matter of uncertainty as to the events which led to Harold’s arrival in Normandy. According to William of Malmesbury he had been swept there by strong seas, however many early Norman sources reveal that Harold had been swept away in high winds and landed on the shore of Ponthieu where he was seized by Count Guy. Count Guy made his fortunes out of seizing rich people whom had got lost at sea and then selling them on as slaves. Douglas quotes William demanded the person of Harold from Count Guy and he perhaps agreed to pay a ransom. All sources quote that Harold was treated as a guest of the highest honour in William’s quarters.
Another reason, which could possibly counter the reason of Harold visiting Normandy on an order to deliver a message to William, is the suspicion that he was just doing some hunting on Norman grounds. A keen athletic strong man like himself would often participate in some hunting during his recreational time. Possibly this could have been a reason for going to Normandy, as well as delivering the promise or going on a European tour, however for him to travel all that way in treacherous seas, where the probability of shipwrecking was at an incredibly higher percentage than nowadays, then just to entertain himself with some wild boar hunting seems somewhat unlikely. The fact of the matter is he could have hunted absolutely anywhere and any time in England. Why he would want to go to Normandy to do it at the “Height of his power” (Douglas) is unknown to many. Like the fishing trip story the lack of evidence does not make it a huge contender for the real reason why Harold did depart to Normandy. Realistically it appears a little stupid and the only source for such a wild assumption can be found in the Bayeux Tapestry where there appears to be a hawk and dogs on the same boat as Harold.
Walker Quotes “Whatever the reason for Harold’s journey across the channel, and the wish to rescue his relatives from Norman captivity, recorded by Eadmer using sources close to the family seems most likely.” This is generally the British opinion and in comparison with the other stories probably the most realistic. This comes across as particularly realistic in that the Godwins’ were very altruistic towards their family. This was expressed when Godwin tried desperately and went to all lengths to get his eldest son Swein who had previously been exiled for the worst crime known to man at that time back into the country and by his side. Godwin tried all his life to get his family as powerful and high up as possible. Therefore this family tradition run through into Harold and he felt it his personal duty to do what his father would have and retrieve his brother and nephew from the captivity of the Norman's. No Norman source mentions this as the ultimate reason as to Harold’s voyage, however this assumption also could have been part and part with the other story in which Harold was also on a diplomatic European tour.
Why wouldn’t Harold on his journey through Normandy want to learn some inside knowledge on the ferocity and might of the hugely powerful Norman army. Also, to get a chance to see the man behind the ‘Bastard’ to his counterparts or Duke William to those who feared him. William had sent shivers down the spines of those who crossed him even at the fragile age of fourteen. He had won conflicts and conquests over many countries and his forces and cavalry were increasing by the minute. It was almost inevitable that the two country’s, Britain and Normandy, were going to cross each other in the near future therefore Harold could have seen his little escapade to retrieve his family as a chance to see his tactics and strength on the battlefield first hand. It was reported that during Harold’s comfortable stay with William they together went on a little conquest in which Harold saw the well-publicised horsepower of the Norman army. Whilst fighting on the battlefield it was also reported in the Bayeux Tapestry that Harold pulled two soldiers from their death in the quick sand. This obviously impressed the battle shy duke. Whilst on his European tour it is claimed he was trying to gain support from anyone who had an army behind them which therefore led him to Normandy. If there is any truth behind the story it may seem a little foolish on Harold’s behalf but possibly he was not to know how strongly and desperately William felt towards his claim to the throne.
Either way how or when he ended up as Duke William’s guest is irrelevant to how significant the event was. William’s main objective was to soften Harold up until eventually getting him to sign the all-important oath. In the days of 1064 an oath was worth a lot more than what it is today. However an oath over religious relics would be an immortal sin and if done and then ignored William would have had the power to wage a holy war against Harold. Oblivious to the fact that he was making an oath over religious relics Harold was pressured into agreeing to the oath and in doing so gave William’s claim to the throne another giant leap to reality. The ideology behind the relics was that William now had witnesses to prove Harold’s probable blasphemy and in turn gaining the support of the pope. This visit was extremely significant in that William now felt he had a moral ascendancy over Harold, which could later be used to undermine Harold’s position. Harold knew too well the consequences if he refused to sign the oath, imprisonment or even more likely death. If William wanted something he usually tended to get it. Another point of key significance from the outcome of these events was the personal experience of Harold after seeing the force and strength, which the Norman army possessed. This would then become very resourceful when the inevitable conquest from William did come. Walker quotes “Although an apparently disastrous expedition, Harold may have gained something from it. He was finally fully aware of William’s ambitions and the determination that lay behind them. I feel the greatest importance however which had the greatest effect on the history of Britain was the first considerations from Harold that his country needed a true leader, both on the battle front and in the running of the country. It was after this catastrophic journey that he first realised that the Aethling Edgar was still too young and inexperienced to defend his country against the now obvious might of the Norman’s’. This may have been the initial step to the eventual succession to the throne in 1066.
The reasons as to why the visit to Normandy took place are still unknown however what we do know is that the effects had played a major role in British History. The biased Norman sources lay strong suggestion to the assumption that Harold was carrying out an order from Edward however this does not seem to justify the reality behind the story. I think Harold’s oath and closeness to his family brought him to Normandy and his foolishness led him to believe he could learn more off William to help his on claim for greatness. However he underestimated William’s determination and you could say he ended up paying for it. What is known is that Harold soon realised there was only one man who could fill the boots of Edward and so he took it upon himself to do so.