Extract: Unruly by David Mitchell

In this extract from David Mitchell's new book on the kings and queens of Britain he talks Harold vs. William at the famous Battle of Hastings

David Mitchell
Image credit: Victoria Ford / Penguin

Naughty Harold wanted to be king

Harold Godwinson, son of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. He ascended the throne on 6 January 1066 following the death of his brother-in-law, King Edward the Confessor, who died without an heir. Harold led the Anglo-Saxons in their fight against William the Conqueror and the Norman invaders, culminating in the Battle of Hastings.

Did Harold Godwinson deserve to lose? The Norman version of history, which William and his heirs energetically advanced after the Conquest, claimed he did. But not in the way we might imagine. They didn’t say it was lack of hard work, or of martial and regal acumen, that meant he merited failure. That would have been hard to argue if they’d tried – he was a capable, canny and ruthless operator. For the Normans, what clinched their case against Harold was his lack of luck. That proved he didn’t deserve to win, because it showed that God was against him.

The reason God was against him, they said, was that he’d broken his oath to support William – he’d committed the sin of perjury and there was no way lovely old God would allow such a rotter to continue in a position of power. This was drawing a veil over the large number of absolute scumbags who were merrily in charge of vast swathes of the world, then and before. In a time of deep and sincere religiosity, and terrifying, short and brutal human existences, the idea that the hand of God was moving in a mysterious way to ensure some sort of cosmic justice – so that when things seemed to go unexpectedly well or badly, that wasn’t just the terrifying random nature of existence but a tiny, incomprehensible part of some vaguely beneficent plan – was key to keeping every- one’s peckers up.

Plus, as a not very religious person from the twenty-first century, I won’t buy into all the judgemental priggishness about oaths. Harold might have broken his word . . . So what? It was probably extorted under pain of death or mutilation, either for him or his brother or nephew whom William had been holding hostage for over a decade. The contenders for power in this era are depressingly willing to be vicious sadists to achieve their ends. In that context, the significance of Har- old’s alleged promise to support William is utterly lost on me.

Ambition aside, stasis wasn’t really possible for Harold. He was an overmighty subject, the most powerful English earl by far. Kings don’t like that. Even Edward the sanctimonious Confessor hadn’t, and had attempted to destroy the Godwins fifteen years earlier. The failure of that plan created a brief period when it was relatively safe to be such a dominant earl because the king had lost heart. A new king, say William, wasn’t going to have it.

In theory, Edgar Atheling, now in his early teens, might have done, for a bit. Harold could have popped him on the throne and said to everyone, ‘Look, this little chap has clearly got the strongest dynastic claim. Any attempt by Duke William of Normandy to deny that is going to sound actively funny, whatever he says I swore. So little Eddie’s the king. If you don’t like it, you’ll answer to me.’ Harold might have been able to continue as the power behind the throne, now that the throne was an adolescent-size chair rather than a geriatric’s deathbed.

But for how long? Edgar would grow up and want real power. William would probably have still invaded. The leading barons might not have thanked Harold – children on the throne are notorious catalysts for trouble. Hostile forces see it as a great opportunity to start chipping bits off the kingdom. It seems less likely to have worked out than Harold taking the throne himself.

Hostile forces see it as a great opportunity to start chipping bits off the kingdom

For Harold, it’s either promotion or demotion, and demotion might have been fatal for him even without a big battle. I’m sure Harold’s primary reasons for seizing power were straightforward ambitious, brutal, egotistical ones, but it’s worth bearing in mind that a life of pious and dutiful service to a new king wasn’t necessarily an option.

It’s odd, in light of the whole history-is-written-by-the- victors thing, that Harold should be such a sympathetic figure in the eyes of posterity. It’s not just me. I think most British schoolchildren learning about the Norman Conquest root for Harold. When I was about seven, as part of the relentless cut- ting out and sticking with which primary-school teachers fill their charges’ days, we all had to pick whether to make little versions of Harold’s banner from the Battle of Hastings or William’s. Almost everyone opted for Harold’s valiant little dragon rather than William’s pompous papal cross.

William’s banner had been personally blessed by Pope Alexander II, who backed the duke’s claim to the throne. More evidence of the Normans’ assiduous self-justification campaign – as is, looked at in a certain way, my personal dis- like of Edward the Confessor. Bear with me – this is a bit convoluted.

My starting point in this bit of history was as a Harold sup- porter. Before I’d heard of Edward the Confessor, I knew about the Battle of Hastings and who won and thought that was a pity. I only learned about Edward afterwards and didn’t like him because he seemed pro-William. The fact that that’s how he seemed is the victory of Norman propaganda. Central to William’s claim was the assertion that Edward had bequeathed the throne to him. My dislike of Edward shows that I have bought that argument. Well done the Normans.

It doesn’t make me think William should have been king, though. Since I’m a twenty-first-century comedian, the issue of royal legitimacy isn’t that important to me (typical TV lefties . . .). I’m imposing anachronistic values. Some would say that’s unfair of me. I reckon I’ve got the right to enjoy 1066 in whatever way I like.

More anachronistic values: I support Harold because he’s defending his homeland against an invader. What business has William got being king of England? He’s practically French! If not French, he’s a Viking! What I’m not also thinking is ‘He was born out of wedlock so shouldn’t have anything nice.’ Mean though that sounds, it would be less anachronistic. Though still slightly anachronistic, as insistence on legitimacy of birth didn’t fully kick in till the twelfth century. The events of 1066 happen on the tail of a slightly more relaxed attitude to it – possibly thanks to those Viking kings who had more than one ‘wife’ on the go (e.g. Cnut who was married to Emma of Normandy and also one of the many Aelfgifus) but all of whose king-sired issue might be in the running for next monarch.

What business has William got being king of England? He’s practically French!

Still, while the tenth-century rules of succession might have been vaguer than they subsequently became, that doesn’t mean anyone could apply. You were supposed to have some sort of family claim. Otherwise there’s no limit to who might have a pop, which, as discussed in the last chapter, has shitty consequences unless you’ve got a massive and stable infra- structure to stop the applicants turning the country into a battlefield. Such infrastructures were not available in western Europe at the time.

Some royal blood was expected. Harold had none. William, who was spitting tacks about Harold’s swift coronation, had some. Little Edgar Atheling had loads, though the poor kid had little else.

Harold’s seizure of the throne as nothing more than a very powerful aristocrat, while it might smack pleasingly of nascent meritocracy to us today, was, by the standards of the time, a far more egregious violation of how things were sup- posed to work than William’s armed invasion. But it shows gumption, and he was defending the country of his birth, so he remains sympathetic despite all the subsequent Norman attempts to slag him off. They should have just said he was a paedo.

1066 – a good year for Harold

Things had been tough but satisfying for the new king – like an overdone steak when you really need the iron. The year had started well with his being crowned king, then he’d stabilized his position swiftly and relatively peacefully. He’d repelled Tostig’s various raids, raised a large army in the early summer and divided it into sections stationed all along the south coast, while Harold himself set up his headquarters on the Isle of Wight. It was the height of the campaigning season and he was ready for William.

Annoyingly, William didn’t turn up. By early September, Harold’s troops had run out of food and he had to let them go home. Still, the year was getting on, the weather was likely to worsen, so there was a decent chance, the king must have thought, that William wasn’t going to invade at all.

Harold then found out that someone else had: Vikings! That’s a blast from the past, isn’t it?! A bit retro, like that Carry On film that came out in 1992. Also like that Carry On film, this was the absolute last time, and it didn’t work.

It might have done, though. Tostig had been making powerful new friends. He’d persuaded the King of Norway, another Harold (though often called Harald to avoid confusion so I’m going with that), to attack England for old times’ sake. That will have appealed to Harald, I suspect. He is known to posterity as ‘Hardrada’, meaning ‘hard ruler’, and he was an old-school Viking and renowned bruiser.

Vikings! That’s a blast from the past, isn’t it?! A bit retro, like that Carry On film that came out in 1992

About fifty years old, which, given contemporary life- expectancy coupled with his lifestyle, makes him about 260 in our years, he was arguably the greatest warrior of the day. He’d spent much of his life fighting for the Byzantine emperors, exotically enough. These actual proper Roman emperors – none of your nouve Carolingian pretension – had an elite force known as the Varangian Guard, largely made up of battle-hardened Norsemen. After a successful career of banging Greeks’ heads together, Harald returned to Scandinavia in 1045, made himself king of Norway and repeatedly attempted to make himself king of Denmark too.

He was running out of things to do. At the bottom of all our ‘to do’ lists is the last task: die. By implication, anyway. I suspect actually writing it on a list is a red flag mental health- wise. Perhaps Harald thought conquering England would be a good way of delaying the inevitable. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

The news that the greatest Viking of the age, at the head of a fleet of dragon ships, had invaded the north, defeated Earls Edwin and Morcar in battle and taken York would have been enough to make King Harold doubt whether he’d ever get the chance to enjoy his long-awaited clash with the Duke of Normandy. Yet the new king’s response was impressive. He reassembled his extremely recently disbanded army (which, apart from anything else, must have been very annoying to have to do) and marched north so quickly that he caught Harald and Tostig on the hop. At the Battle of Stamford Bridge, just east of York, the Norwegians didn’t even have a chance to put on their chain mail. They were brutally and bloodily defeated. Both Tostig and the previously invincible Harald were killed.

That was on 25 September. On the 28th, William of Normandy landed with an army at Pevensey Bay in Sussex.

‘That’s not tremendously convenient,’ Harold must have reflected as he wearily marched south. ‘Though at least this time it’s happened before I disbanded my army.’ I like to think of him as a glass-half-full kind of guy.

Plus, listen to David Mitchell on the Penguin podcast talking about Unruly

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