The Saga of Tostig I

Tostig Godwinson by LTF86

The length of time Harold spent in Normandy is as unknown as its precise date or, indeed, its purpose. All that is known is that he was back in England in 1065. ‘Before Lammas’ (1 August), according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he ordered the building of a hunting lodge at Portskewet in Wales, so that the king (who was presumably at that time in good health) could hunt there; but on 24 August the site was overrun by Caradoc ap Gruffydd and the workmen killed. In September, more serious trouble broke out. In Northumbria, where Harold’s brother, Tostig, had been earl since 1055, there had been unrest on account of his harsh rule. Whether Tostig was really harsh or simply enforcing laws that had fallen into disuse under his predecessor, Earl Siward, cannot now be known; he is described by the author of the Vita Ædwardi as ‘a little over-zealous in attacking evil’, which perhaps implies a combination of the two. The Northumbrians seem to have had a good case: according to Florence of Worcester, the immediate cause of the rising was Tostig’s slaying of two Northumbrian nobles who were in his house under safe conduct, and the murder at court of Gospatric, a member of the old Northumbrian ruling house, in which he rather discreditably implicated his sister, Queen Edith, who organized it for him. Certainly, he seems to have doubled the taxes, which alone would be enough to cause unrest. On 3 October, while he was at court with the king, the Northumbrians rose up and killed as many of his housecarls and servants as they could find, broke open his treasury and carried off all his effects. They repudiated Tostig and sent a summons to Morcar, brother of Edwin, Earl of Mercia since the exile and death of their father Ælfgar, to be their earl; led by him, the Northumbrians advanced into England where they were joined by Edwin with his Mercian troops and some Welsh reinforcements. At Northampton they were met by Harold, sent by the king to try to effect some kind of reconciliation, but on this occasion his diplomatic powers failed. The Northumbrians refused point blank to take Tostig back. Edward tried to call out the army, as he had done in 1051, to restore Tostig by force of arms but found that on this occasion they would not fight. Confronted by the armed forces of all Northumbria and Mercia, and with a general feeling elsewhere in the country that Tostig had come by his deserts, the king had little alternative but to give in. The meeting was adjourned to Oxford where, after the feast of All Saints (1 November), Edward was obliged to agree to the exiling of Tostig and his replacement as earl by Morcar, and swore to uphold the laws of Cnut.

These events raise some interesting points, in addition to the fact that the outlawing of Tostig was almost certainly indirectly responsible for the defeat at Hastings. Firstly, although much is made of the separateness and of the Scandinavian sympathies of the inhabitants of the Danelaw, of which Northumbria was the most important part, there seems to have been no idea of any claim for independence in the rising. The Northumbrians did not want to leave the kingdom of England, they simply wanted a different earl – and the earl whom they chose, in preference to the half-Danish Tostig, was a man with no Danish blood in his veins at all. Even Cnut, a Danish king, had had difficulty with his relations with Northumbria; it was a turbulent region. Secondly, it has been suggested that the demand for the reaffirmation of the laws of Cnut indicates a demand for specifically Danish legislation for Northumbria alone; it is more likely that, since Edward, unlike so many of his predecessors, had never issued a law-code, and Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut had never had time to do so, the laws of Cnut were presumably the legal code in force over all England throughout his reign. The laws of King Edward, that the Conqueror was later symbolically to invoke, were in fact the laws of an earlier conqueror. The laws of Cnut were actually written for him by the impeccably English Archbishop Wulfstan of York and were based on the earlier laws of King Edgar. Patrick Wormald has surmised that the significance of Cnut’s law for the Northumbrian rebels was that it represented the pattern of northern rule subverted by Tostig’s government, and that their invocation of Cnut, like the Conqueror’s of Edward, was as much symbolic as practical; this seems likely.lxvi Thirdly, the insurrection caused an insuperable breach between Harold and Tostig, who blamed his brother for not supporting him and (if the Vita Ædwardi is to be believed) accused him in public of fomenting the rising to injure him. Finally, it is clear from Harold’s activities at Portskewet that the king was at that time in good enough health to be able to contemplate a hunting break there.

This was soon to change. According to the Vita Ædwardi, both Edward and the queen became ill with grief over the loss of Tostig, and a more modern biographer has guessed that the king may have suffered one or more strokes as a result of the stress.lxvii From this point on, his health declined steadily. Tostig, meanwhile, sought refuge once again in Flanders, and cast around for allies to support his restoration. He is said (there is no firm evidence) to have tried Normandy, but if he did, he got no direct help from William, who may none the less have been pleased enough to encourage him to add to Harold’s problems. He tried Denmark, but his cousin, Sweyn Estrithson, pleaded other commitments. He did rather better in Norway with Harald Hardrada.

Tostig Appears with a Fleet

Few records of Harold’s short reign survive, for obvious reasons; no one, after Hastings, would want to produce any of his charters or writs in evidence, and in fact only one writ has survived. But from what indications there are, there is no reason to doubt the general tenor of Florence of Worcester’s remarks. Of the few tangible pieces of evidence that survive, the most impressive is his coinage, elegant silver pennies of good weight, bearing his crowned head in profile, struck in more than forty mints. The number of coins minted indicates the urgent need he felt he was likely to have for ready money.

Trouble began in the late spring. On 24 April Halley’s comet made its appearance, causing wonder and consternation on both sides of the Channel. Shortly after, the exiled Tostig appeared with a fleet, pillaged along the south coast from Wight to Sandwich, pressganging men as he went, and, scared off by King Harold’s arrival, continued up to Lindsey where he is said to have burnt many villages and put many men to death. There he was encountered by Earls Edwin and Morcar, who beat him off with much loss. Most of his remaining men deserted, and he limped with his remaining twelve small ships up to Scotland where he was sheltered by King Malcolm, his sworn brother.

In the meantime, in England, Tostig had made his first contribution to the English defeat. The preliminary skirmish in May had convinced Harold that his brother was acting in league with William and that his descent upon the south coast was the preliminary to the full-scale invasion he was expecting. He called out the fyrd, and mobilized the navy. On this occasion he may well have called out the general fyrd, for the Chronicle tells us that he gathered a greater land and ship army than any king had ever raised before, but it telescopes events here, for it passes straight on from this remark to events later in the year. Florence of Worcester gives a fuller account:

King Harold arrived at Sandwich and waited there for his fleet. When it was assembled, he crossed over with it to the Isle of Wight, and, inasmuch as William, count of the Normans, was preparing to invade England with an army, he watched all the summer and autumn for his coming. In addition he distributed a land force at suitable points along the sea-coast. But about the feast of the Nativity of St Mary [8 September] provisions fell short so that the naval and land forces returned home.

These dates indicate that he had held the fyrd in service not for the statutory two months but for nearly four, including the period of harvest, so it is hardly surprising that provisions should have run out. If William held his men together at Dives and St Valéry without foraging, he did well, but it can only have been for about half the time (though we have no certain knowledge of the date when William assembled his army, the evidence points to this being in early August). With hindsight, Harold must have been aware that he had called out the fyrd too soon but his belief that Tostig and William were acting in concert was reasonable; given the time it took for the host to assemble, he dared not wait. The land fyrd went home to rescue the harvest, the fleet was sent around to London to refit. There are rumours (as has already been noted, though the E Chronicle puts it earlier than September), though no firm corroboration, that there was a sea encounter with the Normans; if there was, it might have taken place at about this time, perhaps coinciding with William’s transfer of his forces from Dives to St Valéry. It is known from the Norman sources that there were storms in the Channel at this date, in which William lost many men and ships; it is perfectly possible either that the English fleet was also damaged in the storms (it is recorded that some of Harold’s ships were lost on the way to the North Foreland), or that there was in fact an encounter between the two opposing navies in which both sides lost ships as both were moving east up the Channel. There is an interesting note in the Domesday Book of a certain Æthelric of Kelveden in Essex who ‘went away to a naval battle against King William’ and fell ill on his return.lxxxii The storms at this point give some support to Harold’s reasons for standing his forces down. By the beginning of September, the period of the equinoctial gales had arrived, and normally seafaring would stop for the winter. The likelihood of William launching an attack later than this must have seemed to him to be much reduced. In fact, William’s luck held and 1066 was to produce a St Martin’s summer.

Snorre Sturlason’s King Harald’s Saga claims that Tostig went in person to Norway before he appeared in May off the south coast of England. If he went to Sweyn Estrithson in Denmark, he might well have carried on to Norway. Snorre provides an account of his interview with Harald Hardrada. Tostig would, Snorre suggests, have reminded Harald of his own claim to the English throne through his nephew, King Magnus, and of the plunder to be expected in England; he would have suggested that, if they were to conquer England together, they could share the kingdom and its riches (he might, however, have reflected that, on past performance, Harald Hardrada was not a man likely to share a kingdom); and, possibly most persuasive of all his arguments, he would have pointed out that in York, the capital of the northern Danelaw, there would be much sympathy and support for an invader of Scandinavian origins. How far this was true is not easy to estimate now. We have seen that, when the Northumbrians rebelled in 1065 against their last earl, Tostig, they did so not to gain Northumbrian independence but to secure a non-Scandinavian replacement for him. What Tostig would have ignored in his anxiety to be reinstated in his earldom, and what he would naturally not have mentioned to Harald Hardrada, was his own great unpopularity in Northumbria generally and York in particular.

Northern Invasion

Whether or not Tostig went to Norway, whether or not Snorre’s hypothetical conversation ever took place, contact must have been made between him and Hardrada in some way. Tostig, as we have seen, retired to Scotland to lick his wounds under the protection of King Malcolm and wait for the rendezvous. Snorre is irritatingly economical with dates, but says that Harald sailed from the Solund Isles to Shetland, where he stopped only briefly, before continuing to the Orkneys which were then Norwegian territory. Here he paused to deposit one of his two wives and both his daughters, and to pick up the Orcadian earls Paul and Erland with their men and ships. It has been estimated that, with what forces Tostig had been able to recruit from Scotland, the Norwegian armada consisted of about three hundred ships and nine thousand men. There may well have been more men than that. The crew of a Scandinavian warship could be anything between forty and eighty men, and, allowing for the fact that some of the ships would be supply ships that would hold fewer and whose crew might not be fighting men, it is not impossible that Hardrada’s fighting force could have been as many as twelve thousand. He then sailed down the east coast of Scotland and England as far as Scarborough. When and where the junction with Tostig took place is uncertain. He may have picked him up off the Firth of Forth on his way south; Snorre says they did not meet until Hardrada arrived in England and that Tostig then became his man. We do not know, therefore, whether they were together when Hardrada sacked and subjugated Cleveland and Scarborough and burned the town. At Holderness an English force opposed him but was defeated. The Norwegian fleet then turned into the Humber and proceeded up it and up the Ouse as far as Riccall, driving before it Earl Morcar’s ships, which were bottled up there at Tadcaster on the Wharfe, which joins the Ouse just above Riccall. Hardrada could have continued up the Ouse as far as York itself, but would then have risked the English ships coming back down river into the Ouse to cut off his retreat. At Riccall, he was only ten miles south of York.

From Riccall, leaving a substantial body of men to guard the ships, Hardrada and Tostig marched on York on 20 September but were confronted by Earls Edwin and Morcar at Gate Fulford, barring his road to the city. The English earls had thus had the opportunity to pick their ground for battle, and had arranged themselves with their right flank on the bank of the Ouse and their left defended by a deep ditch beyond which was bog and marshland. Hardrada, facing them, also drew up his army with one flank reaching down to the river Ouse, and the other and weaker stretching inland towards the dyke and the large area of swampy ground. He placed himself towards the river end where his forces were strongest, with his menacing standard Land Waster (a white silk banner on which Odin’s bird, the black raven, gaped for slaughter with wings spread) over his head. According to Snorre, the English approached in close formation, and launched their first attack on the weaker wing opposing them. This almost immediately gave way and, as the English pursued them, Hardrada swung his stronger wing around to take them in the rear and the flank, pushing them into the boggy land. There was really no contest. The English fought well but when pushed back into the quagmire behind them, many took flight and were drowned either in the river or in the swamp – so many, in fact, that it was said that the Norwegians could cross the swamp dryshod on the bodies of the dead. Edwin and Morcar survived, and surrendered York on 24 September. They could hardly do anything else. The fact that the city was not sacked may have been because it was the capital of Tostig’s old earldom and he wanted it back. None the less, the fate of Scarborough, if known to the citizens, would have done much to persuade them to accept whatever terms were offered.

Hardrada demanded hostages from all the main Northumbrian families, helpfully identified for him by Tostig, provisions for his army and agreement that the Northumbrians would join with his forces and march south to conquer the rest of England. According to Florence of Worcester, Hardrada also gave hostages in return; if so, this was presumably in earnest of his future good faith if he conquered England and a gesture to ingratiate himself with the men of York. This is not confirmed in any of the surviving versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which merely say that Hardrada took hostages. Some of these were delivered immediately, but more, and much of the commissariat, had to come from a distance. Since York was inadequately supplied to maintain the Norwegian army, Hardrada withdrew to his ships to await deliveries, which it was agreed should take place on 25 September at Stamford Bridge on the Derwent, a convenient central and strategic point where several roads met.

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