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   Chapter 3 HAROLD’S OATH TO WILLIAM.

William the Conqueror By Edward A. Freeman Characters: 18648

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06


A.D. 1064?

The lord of Normandy and Maine could now stop and reckon his chances of becoming lord of England also. While our authorities enable us to put together a fairly full account of both Norman and English events, they throw no light on the way in which men in either land looked at events in the other. Yet we might give much to know what William and Harold at this time thought of one another. Nothing had as yet happened to make the two great rivals either national or personal enemies. England and Normandy were at peace, and the great duke and the great earl had most likely had no personal dealings with one another. They were rivals in the sense that each looked forward to succeed to the English crown whenever the reigning king should die. But neither had as yet put forward his claim in any shape that the other could look on as any formal wrong to himself. If William and Harold had ever met, it could have been only during Harold's journey in Gaul. Whatever negotiations Harold made during that journey were negotiations unfriendly to William; still he may, in the course of that journey, have visited Normandy as well as France or Anjou. It is hard to avoid the thought that the tale of Harold's visit to William, of his oath to William, arose out of something that happened on Harold's way back from his Roman pilgrimage. To that journey we can give an approximate date. Of any other journey we have no date and no certain detail. We can say only that the fact that no English writer makes any mention of any such visit, of any such oath, is, under the circumstances, the strongest proof that the story of the visit and the oath has some kind of foundation. Yet if we grant thus much, the story reads on the whole as if it happened a few years later than the English earl's return from Rome.

It is therefore most likely that Harold did pay a second visit to Gaul, whether a first or a second visit to Normandy, at some time nearer to Edward's death than the year 1058. The English writers are silent; the Norman writers give no date or impossible dates; they connect the visit with a war in Britanny; but that war is without a date. We are driven to choose the year which is least rich in events in the English annals. Harold could not have paid a visit of several months to Normandy either in 1063 or in 1065. Of those years the first was the year of Harold's great war in Wales, when he found how the Britons might be overcome by their own arms, when he broke the power of Gruffydd, and granted the Welsh kingdom to princes who became the men of Earl Harold as well as of King Edward. Harold's visit to Normandy is said to have taken place in the summer and autumn mouths; but the summer and autumn of 1065 were taken up by the building and destruction of Harold's hunting-seat in Wales and by the greater events of the revolt and pacification of Northumberland. But the year 1064 is a blank in the English annals till the last days of December, and no action of Harold's in that year is recorded. It is therefore the only possible year among those just before Edward's death. Harold's visit and oath to William may very well have taken place in that year; but that is all.

We know as little for certain as to the circumstances of the visit or the nature of the oath. We can say only that Harold did something which enabled William to charge him with perjury and breach of the duty of a vassal. It is inconceivable in itself, and unlike the formal scrupulousness of William's character, to fancy that he made his appeal to all Christendom without any ground at all. The Norman writers contradict one another so thoroughly in every detail of the story that we can look on no part of it as trustworthy. Yet such a story can hardly have grown up so near to the alleged time without some kernel of truth in it. And herein comes the strong corroborative witness that the English writers, denying every other charge against Harold, pass this one by without notice. We can hardly doubt that Harold swore some oath to William which he did not keep. More than this it would be rash to say except as an avowed guess.

As our nearest approach to fixing the date is to take that year which is not impossible, so, to fix the occasion of the visit, we can only take that one among the Norman versions which is also not impossible. All the main versions represent Harold as wrecked on the coast of Ponthieu, as imprisoned, according to the barbarous law of wreck, by Count Guy, and as delivered by the intervention of William. If any part of the story is true, this is. But as to the circumstances which led to the shipwreck there is no agreement. Harold assuredly was not sent to announce to William a devise of the crown in his favour made with the consent of the Witan of England and confirmed by the oaths of Stigand, Godwine, Siward, and Leofric. Stigand became Archbishop in September 1052: Godwine died at Easter 1053. The devise must therefore have taken place, and Harold's journey must have taken place, within those few most unlikely months, the very time when Norman influence was overthrown. Another version makes Harold go, against the King's warnings, to bring back his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon, who had been given as hostages on the return of Godwine, and had been entrusted by the King to the keeping of Duke William. This version is one degree less absurd; but no such hostages are known to have been given, and if they were, the patriotic party, in the full swing of triumph, would hardly have allowed them to be sent to Normandy. A third version makes Harold's presence the result of mere accident. He is sailing to Wales or Flanders, or simply taking his pleasure in the Channel, when he is cast by a storm on the coast of Ponthieu. Of these three accounts we may choose the third as the only one that is possible. It is also one out of which the others may have grown, while it is hard to see how the third could have arisen out of either of the others. Harold then, we may suppose, fell accidentally into the clutches of Guy, and was rescued from them, at some cost in ransom and in grants of land, by Guy's overlord Duke William.

The whole story is eminently characteristic of William. He would be honestly indignant at Guy's base treatment of Harold, and he would feel it his part as Guy's overlord to redress the wrong. But he would also be alive to the advantage of getting his rival into his power on so honourable a pretext. Simply to establish a claim to gratitude on the part of Harold would be something. But he might easily do more, and, according to all accounts, he did more. Harold, we are told, as the Duke's friend and guest, returns the obligation under which the Duke has laid him by joining him in one or more expeditions against the Bretons. The man who had just smitten the Bret-Welsh of the island might well be asked to fight, and might well be ready to fight, against the Bret-Welsh of the mainland. The services of Harold won him high honour; he was admitted into the ranks of Norman knighthood, and engaged to marry one of William's daughters. Now, at any time to which we can fix Harold's visit, all William's daughters must have been mere children. Harold, on the other hand, seems to have been a little older than William. Yet there is nothing unlikely in the engagement, and it is the one point in which all the different versions, contradicting each other on every other point, agree without exception. Whatever else Harold promises, he promises this, and in some versions he does not promise anything else.

Here then we surely have the kernel of truth round which a mass of fable, varying in different reports, has gathered. On no other point is there any agreement. The place is unfixed; half a dozen Norman towns and castles are made the scene of the oath. The form of the oath is unfixed; in some accounts it is the ordinary oath of homage; in others it is an oath of fearful solemnity, taken on the holiest relics. In one well-known account, Harold is even made to swear on hidden relics, not knowing on what he is swearing. Here is matter for much thought. To hold that one form of oath or promise is more binding than another upsets all true confidence between man and man. The notion of the specially binding nature of the oath by relies assumes that, in case of breach of the oath, every holy person to whose relies despite has been done will become the personal enemy of the perjurer. But the last story of all is the most instructive. William's formal, and more than formal, religion abhorred a false oath, in himself or in another man. But, so long as he keeps himself personally clear from the guilt, he does not scruple to put another man under special temptation, and, while believing in the power of the holy relics, he does not scruple to abuse them to a purpose of fraud. Surely, if Harold did break his oath, the wrath of the saints would fall more justly on William. Whether the tale be true or false, it equally illustrates the feelings of the time, and assuredly its truth or falsehood concerns the character of William far more than that of Harold.

What it was that Harold swore, whether in this specially solemn fashion or in any other, is left equally uncertain. In any case he engages to marry a daughter o

f William-as to which daughter the statements are endless-and in most versions he engages to do something more. He becomes the man of William, much as William had become the man of Edward. He promises to give his sister in marriage to an unnamed Norman baron. Moreover he promises to secure the kingdom of England for William at Edward's death. Perhaps he is himself to hold the kingdom or part of it under William; in any case William is to be the overlord; in the more usual story, William is to be himself the immediate king, with Harold as his highest and most favoured subject. Meanwhile Harold is to act in William's interest, to receive a Norman garrison in Dover castle, and to build other castles at other points. But no two stories agree, and not a few know nothing of anything beyond the promise of marriage.

Now if William really required Harold to swear to all these things, it must have been simply in order to have an occasion against him. If Harold really swore to all of them, it must have been simply because he felt that he was practically in William's power, without any serious intention of keeping the oath. If Harold took any such oath, he undoubtedly broke it; but we may safely say that any guilt on his part lay wholly in taking the oath, not in breaking it. For he swore to do what he could not do, and what it would have been a crime to do, if he could. If the King himself could not dispose of the crown, still less could the most powerful subject. Harold could at most promise William his "vote and interest," whenever the election came. But no one can believe that even Harold's influence could have obtained the crown for William. His influence lay in his being the embodiment of the national feeling; for him to appear as the supporter of William would have been to lose the crown for himself without gaining it for William. Others in England and in Scandinavia would have been glad of it. And the engagements to surrender Dover castle and the like were simply engagements on the part of an English earl to play the traitor against England. If William really called on Harold to swear to all this, he did so, not with any hope that the oath would be kept, but simply to put his competitor as far as possible in the wrong. But most likely Harold swore only to something much simpler. Next to the universal agreement about the marriage comes the very general agreement that Harold became William's man. In these two statements we have probably the whole truth. In those days men took the obligation of homage upon themselves very easily. Homage was no degradation, even in the highest; a man often did homage to any one from whom he had received any great benefit, and Harold had received a very great benefit from William. Nor did homage to a new lord imply treason to the old one. Harold, delivered by William from Guy's dungeon, would be eager to do for William any act of friendship. The homage would be little more than binding himself in the strongest form so to do. The relation of homage could be made to mean anything or nothing, as might be convenient. The man might often understand it in one sense and the lord in another. If Harold became the man of William, he would look on the act as little more than an expression of good will and gratitude towards his benefactor, his future father-in-law, his commander in the Breton war. He would not look on it as forbidding him to accept the English crown if it were offered to him. Harold, the man of Duke William, might become a king, if he could, just as William, the man of King Philip, might become a king, if he could. As things went in those days, both the homage and the promise of marriage were capable of being looked on very lightly.

But it was not in the temper or in the circumstances of William to put any such easy meaning on either promise. The oath might, if needful, be construed very strictly, and William was disposed to construe it very strictly. Harold had not promised William a crown, which was not his to promise; but he had promised to do that which might be held to forbid him to take a crown which William held to be his own. If the man owed his lord any duty at all, it was surely his duty not to thwart his lord's wishes in such a matter. If therefore, when the vacancy of the throne came, Harold took the crown himself, or even failed to promote William's claim to it, William might argue that he had not rightly discharged the duty of a man to his lord. He could make an appeal to the world against the new king, as a perjured man, who had failed to help his lord in the matter where his lord most needed his help. And, if the oath really had been taken on relics of special holiness, he could further appeal to the religious feelings of the time against the man who had done despite to the saints. If he should be driven to claim the crown by arms, he could give the war the character of a crusade. All this in the end William did, and all this, we may be sure, he looked forward to doing, when he caused Harold to become his man. The mere obligation of homage would, in the skilful hands of William and Lanfranc, be quite enough to work on men's minds, as William wished to work on them. To Harold meanwhile and to those in England who heard the story, the engagement would not seem to carry any of these consequences. The mere homage then, which Harold could hardly refuse, would answer William's purpose nearly as well as any of these fuller obligations which Harold would surely have refused. And when a man older than William engaged to marry William's child-daughter, we must bear in mind the lightness with which such promises were made. William could not seriously expect that this engagement would be kept, if anything should lead Harold to another marriage. The promise was meant simply to add another count to the charges against Harold when the time should come. Yet on this point it is not clear that the oath was broken. Harold undoubtedly married Ealdgyth, daughter of ?lfgar and widow of Gruffydd, and not any daughter of William. But in one version Harold is made to say that the daughter of William whom he had engaged to marry was dead. And that one of William's daughters did die very early there seems little doubt.

Whatever William did Lanfranc no doubt at least helped to plan. The Norman duke was subtle, but the Italian churchman was subtler still. In this long series of schemes and negotiations which led to the conquest of England, we are dealing with two of the greatest recorded masters of statecraft. We may call their policy dishonest and immoral, and so it was. But it was hardly more dishonest and immoral than most of the diplomacy of later times. William's object was, without any formal breach of faith on his own part, to entrap Harold into an engagement which might be understood in different senses, and which, in the sense which William chose to put upon it, Harold was sure to break. Two men, themselves of virtuous life, a rigid churchman and a layman of unusual religious strictness, do not scruple to throw temptation in the way of a fellow man in the hope that he will yield to that temptation. They exact a promise, because the promise is likely to be broken, and because its breach would suit their purposes. Through all William's policy a strong regard for formal right as he chose to understand formal right, is not only found in company with much practical wrong, but is made the direct instrument of carrying out that wrong. Never was trap more cunningly laid than that in which William now entangled Harold. Never was greater wrong done without the breach of any formal precept of right. William and Lanfranc broke no oath themselves, and that was enough for them. But it was no sin in their eyes to beguile another into engagements which he would understand in one way and they in another; they even, as their admirers tell the story, beguile him into engagements at once unlawful and impossible, because their interests would be promoted by his breach of those engagements. William, in short, under the spiritual guidance of Lanfranc, made Harold swear because he himself would gain by being able to denounce Harold as perjured.

The moral question need not be further discussed; but we should greatly like to know how far the fact of Harold's oath, whatever its nature, was known in England? On this point we have no trustworthy authority. The English writers say nothing about the whole matter; to the Norman writers this point was of no interest. No one mentions this point, except Harold's romantic biographer at the beginning of the thirteenth century. His statements are of no value, except as showing how long Harold's memory was cherished. According to him, Harold formally laid the matter before the Witan, and they unanimously voted that the oath-more, in his version, than a mere oath of homage-was not binding. It is not likely that such a vote was ever formally passed, but its terms would only express what every Englishman would feel. The oath, whatever its terms, had given William a great advantage; but every Englishman would argue both that the oath, whatever its terms, could not hinder the English nation from offering Harold the crown, and that it could not bind Harold to refuse the crown if it should be so offered.

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