© Michael Leete 2005
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The oath sworn by Harold was fundamental to William's justification for his claim to the English crown. The historical records of it, however, vary substantially. Essentially, duke William claimed that Harold swore fealty regarding the kingdom of England with many oaths1. William of Poitiers expanded the text considerably but placed the oath before the Breton campaign, at Bonneville-sur-Touques. Orderic Vitalis thought the oath was taken at Rouen. Whatever we may come to believe, Harold's version will never be known, although we may be certain that in place of the latin inscription in the Tapestry, he would have quoted the tag from Horace, non ego perfidium dixi sacramentum2.
Before looking in detail at the Tapestry, this is what William of Poitiers wrote:
A council was convened at Bonneville-sur-Touques and there, according to the sacred rite of Christian people, Harold swore an oath of fidelity to William. A number of extremely famous men who are not given to lying, whose word can be trusted and who, moreover, were present and witnessed the event, have told how, freely and distinctly, as the last article of his oath, Harold made the following deposition: that he would act as William's representative at the court of his master, king Edward, as long as that king remained alive; that after Edward's death he would do everything in his power, by exercising his authority and by using his vast wealth, to confirm William in his succession to the throne of England; that in the meantime he would entrust to the duke's military representatives Dover castle, to the fortification of which he would give his own personal attention, paying for it with his own funds; and finally that he would hand over other castles in such districts of the country as the duke might wish to fortify, and that he would provide the garrisons with all the food they needed. The duke took Harold's two hands in his and received his homage. Then, just before Harold made his oath, the duke received his petition, and confirmed him in the possession of his lands and all his functions. Edward was already ill, and he was not expected to live long3.
The Tapestry inscription (Panels 58-60), following 'Here William came to Bayeux,' is VBI hAROLD: SACRAMENTUM: FECIT:-VVILLELMO DVCI:- which gives no indication of the content of the oath. The graphics give due solemnity to the occasion. Harold is drawn in a fine, flowing cloak with the tips of his fingers touching the reliquaries on either side. On the left, William sits enthroned, with two attendants. He also wears a flowing cloak and is holding a sword over his shoulder, apparently still in its scabbard. All three men are pointing roughly in Harold's direction4. On the right stand two Anglo-Saxons. The nearest points towards Harold but his companion, while still looking at Harold, appears poised to embark on the ship beside him as if muttering to himself, "Come on! Get on with it then we can all go home." The reliquary that Harold is touching with the first two fingers of his right hand seems to be fitted with handles, suggesting that it was a portable affair. It is intriguing to think that it might have been William's personal shrine. Medieval artists were not good at a perspective of converging sight-lines, but if the handles were conveniently placed for carrying the whole, that is rather further apart than a man's shoulders, the casket would be standing on a small table that would serve nicely as a travelling altar.
Before he died he ordered his son, William Rufus, to arrange for the dedication (that is, of Battle Abbey), and to make a further gift of a manor of the value of £40 a year; he left the monks his mantle, ornamented with gold and gems, three hundred reliquaries in gold and silver, and a shrine containing relics in the form of an altar on which mass was celebrated for him in the field5.
The dedication of Battle Abbey church in the presence of king William Rufus, took place on 11th February 1094. The words a shrine containing relics in the form of an altar seem to be an accurate description of the illustrated reliquary that Harold is touching.
The 'number of famous men' who witnessed the oath according to William of Poitiers6 were not included in the Tapestry. Duke William is shown with just two attendants, neither of whom is the bishop of Bayeux. The importance of the scene is paramount and Odo is thought to have been the patron of the Tapestry on the grounds, partly, of his appearances within it. And yet, in his eyes, warrior bishop or not, nothing would have so enhanced his stature as to have been shown as a principle witness to the famous oath and the clerical director of it. Few things would have given the oath greater force than being witnessed by a bishop. Odo may not have taken his religious duties very seriously in his own mind but he was fully conscious of the power his position gave him. Why else would he have aspirations to become Pope? In public at least, he had no choice but to appear to comply with the religious observance that was expected of a bishop. In a nutshell, Odo might not have attended the assembly of magnates in Bonneville-sur-Touques but the Tapestry placed the oath in, or near, Bayeux and Odo could not have avoided being present in his own city, if only as curator of one of the reliquaries.
As regards Harold making his petition in the version of William of Poitiers, part of any petition must have been for the return of the hostages Wulfnoth and Hakon and the repatriation of Ælfgyva. As to the rest, for such a massive concession, Harold could have expected nothing less than to be massively rewarded. Merely to retain his lands and functions would not even come close to his expectations from such a bargain as he was alleged to be making. We do not know what happened to Ælfgyva but we do know that Harold's brother Wulfnoth was not sent home since his release was ordered by the Conqueror on his death-bed. We also know that the Tapestry has no scene where William makes reciprocal oaths and it is certain that none of the written accounts mention such a thing.
Duchess Matilda will surely have been present at the time of the oath-taking even if she were not a witness to the oath itself. Second only to Harold and her husband, she knew better than anyone else what really happened. As patron to the Tapestry she would not have wanted to show that William was telling lies but the vagueness of the Tapestry could easily be accounted for if she did not want to tell lies herself or to be too forthright in denouncing her husband. Surely, Odo's stance would have been to be explicit about the oath and to have himself, in full regalia, as a principal witness. Whether the Norman version was true or false would not have troubled his conscience for a minute!
Lastly, king Edward was not already ill. The time of Harold's sojourn in France is fixed by the Tapestry as something like March to July. Harold's first campaign against Gryffydd ap Llewelyn took place soon after king Edward's Christmas court held in 1062 at Gloucester. Later in the year 1063, Harold sailed from Bristol into South Wales and Tostig attacked from Chester in the north. Gryffydd was murdered by his own men on 5th August. There was not time for the Welsh expedition in conjunction with his brother Tostig to have followed Harold's return from France, but what a pity it is that none of Harold's inscribed pillars in celebration of his victory have ever been found7. Fighting in Wales fixes the French expedition into 1064 when Edward was perfectly well enough to hunt until October of the following year. In the Spring of 1065, Harold again invaded South Wales and began to erect some buildings at Portskewett8, perhaps as a safe port for the Bristol merchants trading into Wales. He invited Edward to hunt there with him but on 24th August the Welsh attacked the buildings, killed the builders and carried off whatever they could carry. It is, perhaps, just possible that the French expedition could have been fitted in between Harold's known presence in England for the early invasion of Wales and the issue of the invitation to Edward, before the last week in August, to some hunting, but that would leave 1064 rather empty of recorded incident, which does not seem likely.
Instead of hunting in South Wales in 1065, Edward went hunting in Wiltshire with Harold's brother, Tostig, where news arrived of the Northumbrian rebellion against earl Tostig. Tostig was not a good ruler in Northumbria. Earl Siward had been killed in Scotland in 1055 together with his eldest son and his nephew. He had been appointed by king Cnut and had ruled Northumbria well and kept its borders secure against the Scots. Unhappily, his only surviving son, Waltheof, was judged too young to succeed and Tostig, who had absolutely no knowledge of Northumbria and its problems, was appointed through the influence of his sister, the queen, and of earl Harold. Florence of Worcester noted three of Tostig's murders, including Gamel son of Orm, who was theoretically protected by a safe conduct at the time of his death. Gamel was one of the hereditary lawmen of York9 and was probably a son of Orm son of Gamel of Kirkdale. The name Orm Gamelsuna is written on a sundial at Kirkdale with the inscription that he bought the church of St Gregory when it was all ruined and tumbled down and he caused it to be built afresh from the foundation in the days of king Edward and in the days of earl Tosti.
There is nothing in the Tapestry to suggest the unrest in England towards the end of 1065 but there were two serious consequences that did affect the events that the Tapestry's patron and designer were depicting. That is to say, the course of the rebellion seems to have hastened the king's death and Tostig's own attempts to obtain his return to England by force caused the fyrd to be called out by king Harold much earlier than was necessary, in the belief that his brother's raiding was merely a fore-runner of the main event. Had king Edward lived longer, the young prince Edgar might have been judged old enough to succeed him. Had the fyrd been called out later they would not have had to be disbanded just before the Norman invasion was launched.
Earl Harold was the negotiator with the rebels in October 1065. In the end, he could do nothing for Tostig short of civil war and it was insinuated that he did not want to. Harold was also not helped by king Edward who decided to call out the fyrd when the insurgents moved from Northampton to Oxford. No men answered Edward's summons. Between rage and impotence, Edward probably suffered some kind of heart attack and remained lucid only long enough to exile Tostig. From that time onwards, he was 'dead and buried' as far as being a king is concerned and the apparent error in the Tapestry in showing king Edward being carried to his funeral in the West Minster before the scene portraying his death may be explained as an allusion to this. In any case, it is another of the 'meanwhile' situations with the pall-bearers walking from right to left10.
The second result of the Northumbrian rebellion was that the enmity between the brothers, whether or not it existed before the rebellion, became literally deadly. Harold became sub regulus and Tostig left England and took his wife Judith to her father in Flanders. His activities over the next few months may well have inspired both William of Normandy and Harald Hardraada of Norway to activate their own ambitions without further delay.
1 William of Jumièges.
2 I have sworn no faithless oath.
3 The Bayeux Tapestry and the Norman Invasion (1973), Lewis Thorpe.
4 Some say towards the word SACRAMENTUM in the caption but if this were so, William would certainly point to the word.
5 Battle Abbey (undated), Sir Harold Brakspear KCVO, FSA, FRIBA, published by order of the Trustees of the will of the late Sir Augustus Webster, Bt, and the Principal of Battle Abbey School.
6 William of Poitiers claimed, in effect, that many of these famous men had been his own informants. The fact that he named none of them somewhat diminishes the force of his claim.
7 The Description of Wales, Gerald of Wales: Penguin 1980, p.266: In commemoration of his success, and to his own undying memory, you will find a great number of inscribed stones put up in Wales to mark the many places where he won a victory. This was the old custom. The stones bear the inscription: HIC FUIT VICTOR HAROLDUS. It is to these recent victories of the English over the Welsh, in which so much blood was spilt, that the first three kings of the Normans owe the fact that in their lifetime they have held Wales in peace and subjection.
8 A town now at the Welsh end of the Severn railway tunnel (portum Eskewin).
9 The English and the Norman Conquest (1995), Ann Williams: p.161. Both Orm and Gamel are names from Old Norse but Orm was probably the same Ormr who married Æthelthryth (an Old English name), great grand-daughter of Ealdhun, bishop of Durham 995-1018. See Women in Anglo-Saxon England (1984), Christine Fell, p.139.
10 Anglo-Saxon Art (1982), C R Dodwell: three scraps of silk taken from Edward the Confessor's tomb when it was damaged during preparations for the coronation of James II (V & A Museum) appear to show that the embroidered pall and shroud illustrated in the Tapestry were representative of the type of textiles used although the silk in the tomb may not have been original due to successive translations.