Authors: Ian W. Walker
Tags: #Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King
The remnants of Harold’s family had been particularly affected by the defeat at Hastings. With the fall of the king and both his brothers, they had been deprived of their senior representatives. Harold’s sons and heirs were as young and untried as
Edgar. Faced with a stark choice between these boys, the majority of the leading Englishmen had returned not unnaturally to their familiar loyalty to Alfred’s dynasty. Deprived of political influence and military support, Harold’s family were forced to retreat before William’s advance, and seek refuge in their lands in south-west England. All the bright hopes of the beginning of the year had been dashed before its end, but the family were Harold’s heirs and fully intended to make every attempt to restore their fortunes. They also had the resources to do this. Countess Gytha’s offer for the return of Harold’s body provides an indication of the wealth still available to the family.
The family began to construct a basis for their planned return to power in the south-west, beyond William’s reach, probably under the direction of the redoubtable Countess Gytha. They chose Exeter, the fourth largest town in England, as their base. It was a wise choice as a city with direct links by sea to sources of possible support in Ireland and Denmark. In addition, the family held wide lands in the surrounding counties of Devon, Somerset and Cornwall. There they began repairing the town fortifications and securing support among the
of the region. They were apparently supported by a remnant of Harold’s
, perhaps those occupied on other duties during the Hastings campaign or survivors of the battle, and these men provided a nucleus of trained soldiers for a new army. The intention of the family was to make a bid for the throne based on the right of an
, or king’s son, to succeed his father on the throne. King Harold’s sons, Godwine, the eldest, Edmund and Magnus, were all eligible for the throne on this basis. It has been held that their mother Edith’s marriage
to the then Earl Harold disqualified them from the kingship. However, the succession of Harold ‘Harefoot’, son of Cnut and Aelfgifu of Northampton, in 1035 shows that such descent was not necessarily a disqualification. Not surprisingly, they appear to have had no intention of supporting
Edgar, who had already been put aside by Harold and who had now passed into Norman captivity.
The evidence for a revival by Harold’s family is scarce but not entirely lacking. Countess Gytha seems to have granted land at Warrington in Devon to Abbot Sihtric of Tavistock at this time, perhaps in return for his support. This appears to have been effective, as William of Malmesbury tells us that Sihtric later became a pirate, probably indicating that he joined the raiding fleet of King Harold’s sons. Abbot Ealdred of Abingdon was another supporter of Harold’s family, in breach of an oath of allegiance to King William, and he later travelled abroad with them. The fact that Ealdred supported Harold’s family is confirmed by the abbey’s own chronicle, which connects his opposition to William specifically with that of Countess Gytha. It is even possible that it was Gytha’s advice that the abbey’s
listened to when they went armed to join what is termed a gathering of William’s enemies. The Abingdon Chronicle places this latter event with Bishop Aethelwine’s rebellion in 1071, but there is no strict chronological sequence in this source and thus no reason to place it in 1071 rather than 1067 or 1068. Indeed, it is possible that the men of the abbey’s forces were on their way to Exeter when they were intercepted by Norman forces during William’s offensive of winter 1068. Another of the family’s supporters may have been Abbot Saewold of Bath, who fled to Flanders at the same time as they did, taking his valuable library with him. The family must also have rallied others to their cause and recruited support locally from their own lands and possibly former royal estates. It is possible that this scenario provided an occasion for the appropriation by Queen Mathilda of the wide estates of Brihtric, son of Aelfgar, which were situated in the region. If Brihtric had been among Gytha’s supporters at Exeter, William may have ordered the forfeiture of his estates and presented them as a gift to his wife when he met her at Winchester in Easter 1068 for her coronation, just after his campaign against Harold’s family. In addition, Orderic Vitalis records that envoys were sent from Exeter to urge other cities to join its stand and this may have been part of the family’s process of rallying support. They may also have sought aid from Swein of Denmark, but, if so, none was apparently forthcoming.
The opposition to William developed and fostered in this way by Harold’s family during this period was not a national movement. At this stage, the prospect of Godwine, Harold’s son, as king of England did not receive much support outside Harold’s former earldom. Godwine was young, unproven and little known in comparison with his father. The family could probably rely on old loyalties in Wessex to provide them with support, but could not count on such support beyond its borders. Nevertheless, the rebellion in the south-west inspired by Harold’s family was one of the most significant of those which occurred in William’s absence.
The situation in England was very tense and confused by the end of 1067, with widespread unrest but no recognized central authority among the English. King William’s control was limited largely to the south-east, and his soldiers were probably little in evidence outside an area from Kent to Hampshire and from the Channel coast to East Anglia. He himself had been absent since March 1067 and his forces had been left without his direct oversight. This situation allowed many separate rebellions to develop under their own leaders and with differing aims. By the time William returned to England in December 1067, many areas of the country were in open revolt, including Dover, the Welsh Borders and much of Northumbria, as well as the south-west. In most of these areas the uprisings were locally inspired and led by fairly minor local figures and until the return of the captive English leaders from Normandy, it was the rebellion in the south-west which provided the principal rallying point.
The significance of Harold’s family’s stand is made clear by the fact that, despite the wide extent of these rebellions, William on his return chose to strike first against Exeter. He did so almost immediately, undertaking a difficult winter campaign early in 1068. This haste was undoubtedly because William considered this to be the greatest threat to his position. It is likely that William reached this conclusion not simply because it was indeed the most substantial threat he faced, but also because it involved the sons of his dead rival, King Harold. Although Godwine, Edmund and Magnus were still young, they were old enough to lead military forces later in 1068 and therefore already represented a potential menace to William’s still insecure throne. They had refused to submit to William in 1066, unlike
Edgar, and were obviously dangerous threats to the legitimacy of his kingship. Taking these things into account, the reason that William directed his entire army against Exeter in the depth of winter immediately on his return is readily understandable.
Correspondingly, the strength of Exeter’s resistance to William surely indicates something more than Orderic’s statement that it arose from a desire to preserve the laws and customs of the town. This purpose would surely be much better served by a speedy submission and a request for a writ from the new king securing these customs, as in the case of London. The real reason may have been loyalty to King Harold’s family; Countess Gytha was certainly present, if not also his sons, in the town during the siege. The attempts of the citizens to recruit wider support certainly speak of more serious reasons. Whatever the reason, William spent some eighteen days laying siege to the town, and a large part of his army perished in the process. The eighteen-day defence put up by the citizens demonstrates that the English
was still a very effective defensive structure when properly garrisoned, despite the fashion among some for considering the Norman castle superior. Nevertheless, William’s persistence paid off and the city was forced to submit, according to the Chronicle, ‘because the
had betrayed them’. This may indicate that the citizens expected relief or aid from the local
which did not come. Alternatively, it may mean that some of the
who made up the garrison deserted. John of Worcester portrays the garrison as consisting of the citizens and only some
. In either case, this failure probably reflects the political and military inexperience of those directing the defence, possibly Harold’s sons.
Whether King Harold’s sons were actually present in Exeter during the siege, escaping before the surrender as his mother did, or whether they were perhaps among those who failed to bring relief is unknown. John of Worcester mentions Gytha’s escape with ‘many others’, and perhaps this included Harold’s sons and other family, and Abbot Sihtric of Tavistock. Escape by ship down the river Exe seems most likely given the siege conditions on land and Gytha’s subsequent move to Flatholme. William’s swift and decisive action against Exeter had severely undermined the family’s position in the south-west, and his subsequent pursuit into Cornwall compelled them to take flight overseas. Countess Gytha and other ladies, probably including Harold’s daughter, Gytha, and his sister, Gunnhild, went out to the island of Flatholme in the Bristol Channel where they were relatively safe but prepared for a quick return. Despite the set-back at Exeter, King Harold’s sons were not yet ready to give up and, perhaps recalling stories of their father’s previous exile, they sailed to Dublin with their
to seek aid from King Diarmait. He still ruled Dublin and commanded its mercenaries, and he welcomed them as he had their father. He and ‘his princes’, perhaps a reference to his son, Murchad, provided them with support, possibly in memory of their father but more likely in return for some of the family treasure. Indeed, part of this treasure, ‘the battle standard of the King of the Saxons’, was presented by King Diarmait to his ally Toirdelbach, King of Munster, that same year. This may have been the standard of the deceased King Edward, perhaps the Dragon of Wessex shown in the Bayeux Tapestry, as King Harold’s own personal banner undoubtedly fell into Norman hands after Hastings.
With Diarmait’s assistance, King Harold’s sons returned unexpectedly from Ireland in the summer of 1068. Their naval force, recruited in Dublin, landed at the mouth of the river Avon and ravaged the surrounding district. They then attempted to take the town of Bristol, perhaps to replace their lost base at Exeter with one closer to their new supporters in Ireland. The citizens of Bristol proved unsympathetic and they were forced to attempt to take it by storm, which suggests that they had a considerable force under their command. The citizens resisted them fiercely, perhaps fearing the same fate as Exeter when William retaliated or simply distrustful of the brothers’ Hiberno-Norse mercenaries. Their assault unsuccessful, the brothers were forced to take what booty they had gathered and move down the coast to Somerset, perhaps near the mouth of the river Parret. There, Godwine held lands at nearby Nettlecombe and Langford Budville, and the Taunton mint could be raided. Again the brothers met with resistance, this time led by Eadnoth the
, who had previously served their father but had now submitted to William. In the battle which resulted, many fell on both sides, including Eadnoth and probably one of the king’s sons as only two appear to have returned a year later. The brothers were apparently victorious in this battle but it did not provide the swift breakthrough or accession of support they hoped. William’s decisive action at Exeter had been too effective in cowing English resistance. The surviving brothers, Godwine and perhaps Edmund, though the latter’s name is nowhere recorded, returned to Ireland with their remaining forces and a considerable amount of loot. The reference to spoils in John of Worcester may reflect these events, or perhaps those of the following year as he mentions raids in Devon and Cornwall and Harold’s sons were to raid that area in 1069.
King Harold’s sons were still not prepared to give up their attempts at the restoration of their fortunes in England. In the next year, 1069, at midsummer they secured another large fleet from Dublin, consisting of over sixty ships this time. Orderic says ‘they landed first at Exeter’, and if this is correct and not a confused reference to their possible earlier sojourn there this probably represents an attempt to revive their earlier success. However, the new Norman castle in the town effectively prevented any further rebellion on the part of the citizens. In addition, William’s relatively lenient treatment of their rebellion in 1068 encouraged them not to risk these terms by further insurrection. The brothers then appear to have turned to raid the south coasts of Devon and Cornwall, perhaps in frustration at their failure to rouse Exeter. Domesday Book records lands laid waste there by the Irishmen of their fleet between Kingsbridge Estuary and Bigbury Bay. Similarly, waste recorded in the Lizard peninsula may also be attributable to their activities.
The brothers then rounded Lands End and came ashore in the mouth of the river Taw in north Devon. They laid waste the countryside around Barnstable and moved inland, perhaps again heading for Godwine’s estates at Nettlecombe and Langford Budville near Milverton in Somerset. However, the lack of any opposition so far on this trip appears to have made the brothers incautious, and they were caught out by a large Norman force under Count Brian. In the battle or series of encounters that followed, most of the brothers’ best men were slain, as many as 1,700 according to William of Jumieges and including a number of
, and only a small force escaped at nightfall to return to Ireland.