Edward summoned the other great earls of the land to support him against Godwine’s family; ultimately the King commanded Godwine and Harold to appear and answer charges. Godwine only agreed to do so if the King issued a safe-conduct. Edward refused.
Godwine knew there was no hope for his cause, at least for the moment. He had apparently been preparing for such an eventuality, because much of his treasure had already been loaded on a ship, and he quickly left the country along with most of his family. Their destination was Flanders, a common refuge for English exiles and home of Count Baldwin, brother of Tostig’s new bride. On a different ship, Harold and his younger brother Leofwine took sail for Ireland, where they were well-received by Dermot, King of Dublin and Leinster.
The future Edward the Confessor and his brother, Alfred, of course, remained in Normandy. As far as we can tell, nobody in England – least of all their mother – had considered either of them as potential candidates for the throne in the immediate wake of Cnut’s death. The Norman chronicler William of Jumièges tells us that, upon hearing the news of that ‘long-desired death’, Edward had set out for England ‘immediately’, but Jumièges was writing about twenty years later, and in any case careful chronology was never his major concern. It is more likely that his story belongs to the autumn of 1036, when Emma appears to have turned to the sons of her first marriage in a desperate attempt to improve her diminishing political fortunes.
Edward, said William of Jumièges, set sail for England with a fleet of forty ships, full of soldiers. This suggests that he intended to make a forceful bid for the throne, and, despite Jumièges’ best efforts to pretend otherwise, it clearly ended in failure. Edward landed safely at Southampton, but was immediately confronted by a large army of Englishmen. Battle was joined and Edward, we are assured, was the victor, but he concluded that the prospect of further success was slight. ‘Seeing that he could not possibly obtain the kingdom of the English without a larger army, he turned the fleet about and, richly laden with booty, sailed back to Normandy.’
There are two reasons for supposing that Edward’s botched bid for power had taken place at his mother’s behest. First, William of Jumièges has his English hero landing at Southampton, which would be the most obvious port of entry for a rendezvous with Emma at nearby Winchester. Secondly, and more compellingly, Emma herself, in the pages of her Encomium, goes to elaborate lengths to deny having ever encouraged her sons in Normandy to return to England. A letter was sent to them in her name, says the anonymous author, but it was a forgery, devised by her enemy Harold. As ever, the Encomium’s very insistence on this point suggests that what it is attempting to deny is the truth. Emma clearly had a hand in persuading her sons to come back, however much she may have subsequently wished to pretend otherwise.
For at some point in the same autumn of 1036, Alfred also decided to cross the Channel to England. Precisely how, why and when he went is unclear. The Encomium, for instance, says that he went with only a few men, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle insists that his aim was simply to visit his mother. William of Jumièges, by contrast, says that Alfred crossed with a considerable force, which would seem to imply a more ambitious objective. Later English chroniclers believed that Alfred, who sailed from Wissant to Dover, set out at the same time that Edward sailed for Southampton; most modern historians think it more likely that Alfred set out later, after his brother’s expedition had failed. Accounts of Alfred’s adventure differ in their detail largely because no one writing in England wished to be associated with its outcome. All versions of the story, however, agree that soon after arriving in England, Alfred and his men were met by Earl Godwine.
Godwine, as we have seen, had been the principal ally of Queen Emma in the aftermath of Cnut’s death – ‘her most devoted supporter’, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. But that had been when he, like she, had been confident of Harthacnut’s imminent return. Once that return started to look increasingly unlikely, Godwine’s support must have begun to waver. At some stage he decided to switch his allegiance to Harold, and the trigger for his desertion may well have been Emma’s attempt to promote Edward and Alfred. Godwine had been the principal beneficiary of the Danish conquest; the last person he wanted to see on the throne was one of that conquest’s principal victims, seeking to settle old scores. A creature of Cnut, he could only hope to prosper under one of Cnut’s sons; if not Harthacnut, then Harold. His only problem was how to make up for his late conversion to Harold’s cause; the arrival of Alfred in the autumn of 1036 presented him with the perfect opportunity.
Despite the equivocation of some modern commentators, there is considerable agreement in our sources about what happened next. Both the Encomium and William of Jumièges agree that when Godwine met Alfred he took him under his protection; according to the Encomium this entailed diverting him from his intended destination of London and leading him instead to Guildford, where he and his followers were feasted with plenty of food and drink, and shown to beds in separate lodgings. Then, during the night they were seized and attacked. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which breaks into mournful verse, ‘some of them were sold for money, some cruelly murdered; some of them were put in chains, some of them were blinded; some were mutilated, and some were scalped’. It was, the Chronicle laments, the single worst atrocity in England since the Danish conquest. Alfred himself was spared, but cast in chains and taken to Ely in Cambridgeshire, where he was blinded and left in the care of the local monks. A short while later, in February 1037, he died from his wounds and was buried in the town’s abbey.
There can be little doubt that Godwine was responsible for this massacre. One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle discreetly excises his name from its account, but another accuses him directly (‘Godwine prevented him [Alfred], and placed him in captivity / Dispersing his followers besides, slaying some in various ways’).fn1 William of Jumièges, who offers what is arguably the most neutral version of events, says that Godwine imprisoned and slew some of his guests, but sent Alfred and certain others to Harold in London; it was Harold who was responsible for ordering his rival’s subsequent blinding. Emma, in her Encomium, endeavoured to shift all the blame on to Harold, claiming it was his men, not Godwine’s, who appeared in the night at Guildford and carried out the atrocities – a suggestion so implausible that even her hired author seems to have found it difficult to swallow.
All these accounts, however, were written with the benefit of hindsight. At the time the killing of Alfred achieved its objective for those involved. Godwine had successfully ingratiated himself with Harold by removing a potential rival for the throne; Harold, with Godwine by his side, enjoyed universal political support. ‘In this year’, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in its entry for 1037, ‘Harold was everywhere chosen as king, and Harthacnut repudiated because he remained too long in Denmark.’
‘His mother’, the Chronicle adds, ‘was driven from the country without any mercy to face the raging winter.’
It might be supposed that Emma, on being forced into exile, would cross to Normandy. But the queen had long ago severed any vestigial links, political or emotional, which might have pulled her towards the land of her birth. She chose instead to settle in Flanders, an independent county to the north of France. It is possible that she had been there once before, for Cnut had passed through the same region during his celebrated visit to Rome (the author of Emma’s Encomium, a Fleming himself, recalled how the king had characteristically showered the churches of St Omer with valuable gifts). Whatever the case, Emma, as Cnut’s widow, was well received by the count of Flanders, Baldwin V, and furnished with a suitably luxurious residence in the town of Bruges.
As soon as she and her supporters were comfortably ensconced, the exiled queen began to plot her next move. If the Encomium is to be believed, her first thought was to send messengers to Edward in Normandy, asking him to visit her without delay. He, we are told, duly rode to Flanders, but explained that he could offer no help. It is easy enough to believe that Edward, having already made two unsuccessful bids for the English throne, and having seen his brother brutally murdered in an apparently similar attempt, would want no further part in any of his mother’s schemes. According to the Encomium, however, he declined to assist her on more technical grounds, explaining that ‘the English nobles had sworn no oaths to him’. This sounds altogether more suspicious: Edward is being wheeled on only to renounce his claim, thereby legitimizing Emma’s next move, which, as the Encomium makes clear, was to send messengers to Harthacnut. As the queen must have appreciated, Edward, a long-term exile, was in no real position to offer her any serious help. Only Harthacnut, in his capacity as king of Denmark, could command the resources necessary for a new invasion of England.
He kept everyone waiting for a further two years, but at length the young Danish king showed his hand. According to the Encomium, he assembled a great fleet in anticipation of an armed struggle, but in the first instance set out with only ten ships to meet his mother in Bruges. This, says the Encomium, was nearly a disaster, because they sailed into a storm and were forced to drop anchor while at sea. During the night that followed, however, Harthacnut received divine encouragement, dreaming that Harold, ‘the unjust usurper of his kingdom’, would die in just a few days’ time. And so it came to pass. The storm subsided, Harthacnut completed his voyage to Bruges, and was at last reunited with his mother. A short while later, messengers arrived from England, informing them that Harold was dead, and begging Harthacnut to take the crown.
As the dream sequence makes clear, the Encomium’s account is informed by its knowledge of future events. Unfortunately, we have few other sources against which to check its version of events. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, having dealt with the murder of Alfred, thereafter maintains a studious silence on political matters for the rest of Harold’s reign, commenting only on ecclesiastical affairs and the state of the weather. Had Harold lived longer, we might know more about these missing years; as it is, he remains one of the most anonymous kings ever to have sat on England’s throne. Even his colourful cognomen, Harefoot, tells us nothing, for it was not recorded until the twelfth century (as Harefah) and probably arose from confusion with the Norwegian king Harold Fairhair. Nor do we know anything about the circumstances of his death. The Chronicle notes only that he died at Oxford on 17 March 1040 and was buried at Westminster.
In lieu of other evidence, the most reasonable assumption must be that Harold’s death was unsuspicious and unexpected; it certainly seems to have caught the great men of England unprepared. The substance of the Encomium’s story, that Harthacnut received a peaceful offer of the crown after Harold’s death, is confirmed by the Chronicle. ‘They sent to Bruges for Harthacnut’, it says in one version, ‘with the best intentions.’ The Danish king duly arrived a week later and was accepted as England’s new ruler. But, as the comment about best intentions suggests, the various versions of the Chronicle for these years were also written retrospectively, and the brief rule of Harthacnut was a disaster from the first. In the words of the Chronicle, ‘he never did anything worthy of a king while he reigned’.
To be fair to Harthacnut, the political situation he inherited was ghastly. The great men of England – in particular, its three principal earls – had previously rejected him in favour of his half-brother. But with Harold now dead the tables had been unexpectedly turned; everyone must have felt acutely anxious about the recent past and how it might affect their future prospects. Harthacnut himself did nothing to calm matters when he ordered his predecessor’s body to be dug up from Westminster Abbey and, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘flung into a fen’. Clearly the new king was not about to let bygones be bygones; one imagines that he received plenty of encouragement from his mother. According to a later chronicler called John of Worcester, Harold’s corpse was subsequently thrown into the Thames, before being recovered by a sympathetic fisherman and taken for reburial in London’s Danish cemetery.
John of Worcester (until recently known to historians as Florence of Worcester) is, in fact, our best source for the reign of Harthacnut (and also one of our best informants for the Norman Conquest); although he lived and wrote in the early twelfth century, he used the earlier Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a model, and added many credible details. As his account makes clear, it proved impossible to blame all the mistakes of Harold’s reign on the dead king himself. The murder of Alfred, about which men had remained silent for so long, now became the subject of recrimination, and the archbishop of York openly blamed Earl Godwine and the bishop of Worcester (which would explain John of Worcester’s inside knowledge). The bishop was for a while deprived of his office, while the earl was obliged to make public amends for his crime, albeit using the oldest excuse in the book. ‘He swore to the king’, explains John of Worcester, ‘that it had not been by his advice or at his wish that his brother was blinded, but that his lord, King Harold, had ordered him to do what he did.’
What ultimately seems to have compromised Harthacnut’s kingship, however, was his attempt to raise extortionate sums of money. Although in the event his accession had occurred by peaceful invitation, he had come to England accompanied by his pre-prepared invasion fleet, manned by mercenaries who still expected to be paid. Thanks to the initiative of King Æthelred, the country had a tax system specifically designed for such purposes, but Harthacnut seems to have pushed it much harder than any of his predecessors. As one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle explains (in astonishing detail), the new king paid his troops at the customary rate, established in the days of Cnut and continued during the reign of Harold. But whereas these earlier rulers had each maintained a permanent fleet of sixteen ships, Harthacnut had arrived in England with sixty-two. Thus the sum he raised in taxation during his first year – a credible-sounding but nevertheless gargantuan £21,000 – represented something like a fourfold hike; another version of the Chronicle described it as ‘a severe tax which was borne with difficulty’. Perhaps worse still, the punishment looked set to continue indefinitely. The following year the new king dismissed thirty of his ships, but exacted a tax of £11,000 to pay the thirty-two that remained. Even his reduced fleet meant a tax demand double the size of the old days.
Such a rapacious level of taxation seems to have had disastrous effects on the kingdom’s economy. ‘Wheat rose in price to fifty-five pence a sester, and even higher’, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, expecting us to share its outrage, and unwittingly giving us the first recorded instance of price inflation in English history. In order to compel payment Harthacnut sent his housecarls out into the provinces to act as collectors. The two that went to Worcester were chased into the cathedral and killed by an angry mob, leading to royal retribution that was still vividly recalled some eighty years later. So enraged was the king, says John of Worcester, that he dispatched a great army of earls and housecarls, ‘ordering them to slay all the men if they could, to plunder and burn the city, and to lay waste the entire region’. Luckily, the people of Worcester received advanced warning of the army’s coming, allowing most of them to withdraw to Bevere, an island in the middle of the River Severn, which they fortified and successfully defended. Nevertheless, the king’s forces spent four days looting and burning the city before his anger was slaked.
Needless to say, none of this did much good for what we might call Harthacnut’s public relations. ‘All who had been zealous on his behalf’, says the Chronicle, ‘now became disloyal to him.’ And that was merely in response to his initial demand of tax in 1040; the following year the Chronicle also complained that the new king had betrayed one of his earls, Eadwulf, having guaranteed his safety, ‘and thereby became a breaker of his pledge’. Tax-raiser, pledge-breaker, harrier of his own people: small wonder some powerful people started to look at Harthacnut and wonder if they might have made a mistake.
The king’s rapidly diminishing popularity is that background against which we have to try to make sense of the extraordinary events that followed. At some point in the year 1041, Harthacnut apparently invited his half-brother Edward to come over from Normandy, in the words of the Encomium, ‘to hold the kingdom with him’. Something like this certainly happened: Edward in due course crossed the Channel and was, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘sworn in as king’.
There is no wholly satisfying explanation as to why Harthacnut should have wished to act in this way. The Encomium says it was because he was ‘gripped by brotherly love’. It also calls Harthacnut, Edward and Emma herself ‘sharers of rule’, comparing them to the Holy Trinity that rules in heaven, and seeks to reassure its readers that there is ‘no disagreement between them’. As usual, this is almost as good as having a statement from an independent witness that there was disagreement of some sort between Emma and her two sons, and this in turn raises the possibility that Harthacnut may have had little choice but to recall Edward, the half-brother he had almost certainly never met before.
This impression is reinforced by a short description of Edward’s return to England in 1041 that occurs in a twelfth-century legal text known as the Quadripartitus. When Edward arrived, says the anonymous author, ‘the thegns of all England gathered together at Hursteshevet, and there it was heard that he would be received as king only if he guarantee to them upon oath the laws of Cnut and his sons’. ‘Hursteshevet’, it has been persuasively argued, should be read as ‘Hurst Head’, and identified with the spit of land near Southampton, at the western end of the Solent, where Hurst Castle now stands. Edward, in other words, seems to have been met at a point of disembarkation, almost before he had set foot in England itself, and obliged to make a promise of good governance. Moreover, it was a promise made to what sounds like a large, representative body – ‘the thegns of all England’ – which raises intriguing possibilities. Edward’s return and Harthacnut’s increasing unpopularity are usually seen as connected, but it is generally assumed that it was the king’s own decision to share power. Yet we only have the Encomium’s word for this. The author of the Quadripartitus attributes no initiative at all in the business of Edward’s return to Harthacnut; rather, the matter is said to be the work of Earl Godwine and the bishop of Winchester. Plausibly, therefore, this may have been a decision that was forced upon Harthacnut by his disgruntled subjects, with Godwine figuring as a key player.
There is a third and arguably simpler explanation, which is that Harthacnut may have been mortally ill in 1041. A later Norman writer, William of Poitiers, implies as much in his account of affairs leading up to the Norman Conquest. If this was indeed the case, it is conceivable that Harthacnut may have needed Edward to act as a regent in the first instance and to succeed him in the event of his death. There are, however, difficulties in accepting this tidy solution. The first is that William of Poitiers, as well as being late, is far from being an entirely reliable witness; it seems quite likely, though by no means absolutely certain, that he imagined that Harthacnut suffered from ‘frequent diseases’ simply because he knew how the king’s story ended. The second difficulty is that William’s picture of an ailing Harthacnut is contradicted by that of John of Worcester, who says that the king was ‘merry, in good health and great heart’ up to the very end. This turned out to be a wedding feast held at Lambeth near London in the summer of 1042. Harthacnut, says John, was standing with the bride and a group of other men when ‘he suddenly crashed to the ground in a wretched fall while drinking’. ‘Those who were nearby took hold of him’, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘but he never spoke again, and passed away on 8 June.’ A good Viking way to go, to be sure, but also one with more than a hint of suspicion about it, given his massive unpopularity, and the cup that had been in his hand. Sinister or not, Harthacnut’s death resolved the anomaly of the recent experiment in joint rulership. In due course the dead Dane was lowered into the ground in Winchester’s Old Minster, alongside the bones of his father. ‘Before he was buried’, says the Chronicle, ‘the whole nation chose Edward to be king.’ As a hurriedly revised version of the Encomium observed, the wheel had turned full circle. Against all odds, England’s ancient royal house had been miraculously restored.