Instead, William watched, and he waited

Claims to the throne

It all began with the death of Edward the Confessor, in January 1066. The Bayeux tapestry depicts Edward on his deathbed, offering the English crown to Harold, and this event is reflected in most of the chronicles of the time.

Edward's corpse was eventually borne in state to his own new cathedral church at Westminster, and the tapestry shows Harold there, being offered the crown by the magnates of England, among whom must have been Edwin and Morcar.

Harold was crowned at Westminster Abbey by Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury and Archbishop Ealdred of York. It is significant that only the former is depicted (and actually named) on the Bayeux tapestry, as his appointment had never been recognised by the Pope, allowing the Norman propaganda machine to portray Harold's coronation as illegal.

On the tapestry, the members of the congregation shown as witnessing the event are facing Harold, but their eyes are turned towards Halley's Comet, which is depicted in the sky as a portent of the doom to come. Harold is seen receiving news of the Comet with fear in his eyes.

William decided on invasion...

These bad omens for Harold were important to William of Normandy, who was set on claiming the English crown for himself - omens as important as the 'promise' of 1051 and the 'oath' of 1064. This was because, despite his pre-eminent position, he required the active co-operation of his nobles for the great venture he was planning - the venture to invade England and become the English king.

William could not just demand support from his nobles, he had to convince them of his case. He needed to show his followers that his claim was a lawful one, and that he had God on his side. So when he decided on invasion, he took elaborate measures to ensure he had strong support, and even sent an envoy to the Pope asking for his blessing.

William did not move immediately. He only began plans for an invasion after Tostig arrived in neighbouring Flanders, looking for support against Harold in a projected invasion of Northumbria. This was the lever that William needed: with Harold occupied in the north, William could invade in the south. Whether or not he thought God was on his side, William's preparations were very down to earth.


Harold becomes king

Instead, William watched, and he waited - Westminster Abbey, the site of Harold's coronation © On top of anything else, William must have been painfully aware that his claim to England's throne was actually the least legitimate of all the putative contenders. It rested entirely on a spurious promise, made over 15 years previously, and on the fact that William's great-grandfather was Edward's maternal grandfather.

Harold had an equally weak blood claim, through the brother-in-law of King Cnut, although it was he who was Edward's last nominated heir. There were others with much stronger blood claims, among them Swegn Estrithson, King of Denmark, who was the nephew of King Cnut; and Edgar the Aetheling, grandson of Edmund Ironside, from whom Cnut had wrested the kingdom in 1016.

Aetheling actually means 'throneworthy' and was the title given to the most legitimate heir; but a legitimate blood claim was only part of the issue. The crown would go to the claimant who could muster most support amongst the 'great and the good' of England. In January 1066, Edgar Aetheling was a minor, and with the wolves breathing at the door, the English magnates could not afford to risk the kingdom in such inexperienced hands. So they turned to Harold, the obvious power behind the throne, who, as we have seen, had prepared his ground well.

Instead, William watched, and he waited...

Immediately after Edward's death, the cards were flying and everyone was gambling madly. Tostig enlisted the help of a powerful Joker in the pack, the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada, an adventurer who had fought for the Byzantines in the Varangian Guard and was now trying to recreate the Viking kingdom of Northumbria.

William had the other Joker, the Pope, in his pocket, and was drawing his Aces around him. He toured Normandy, visiting each of his most powerful barons in person, and also made deals with neighbouring magnates like Eustace of Boulogne and the exiled Count Alan of Brittany. He promised them land and positions within his new kingdom, which they in turn could grant to their followers in return for loyal service.

In May 1066, Tostig made his first, abortive, attempt to invade England. Harold called out the English levy (the fyrd), which was an army of English peasant farmers obliged to fight for their king when required to do so, and kept it out. He wanted to be ready to face the invasion fleet that William had built and mustered at Rennes on the Norman coast. But William did not come.

Instead, William watched, and he waited, and he made his meticulous preparations. These included the gathering of all the great magnates of Normandy, called to attend the dedication of his wife Matilda's new abbey at St Etienne, in Caen, on 18 June 1066. There William asked for the blessing of God on his invasion plan, and ensured that he also had the backing of man.


Stamford Bridge

Instead, William watched, and he waited - Stamford Bridge, the site where Harold defeated Tostig © In July, William's invasion fleet moved north to Dives, but still it did not cross the Channel. The sources say that the leader was waiting for fair weather, but he may equally have been awaiting news that Tostig had made his move. Either way, it was a perfect strategy. The English fyrd was a levy of peasant farmers, who by August were clamouring to be released so that they could take in their harvest. Harold had no option but to let them go.

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