From an Anglo-Saxon psalter
From an Anglo-Saxon psalter

The fateful oath
In the interval also, probably in 1064, occurred Harold's involuntary and disastrous visit to Normandy. For some reason unknown he had taken ship, and was wrecked on the territory of Guy of Ponthieu, a vassal of William Duke of Normandy.

William made Guy hand over his captive, and then, as a condition of release, required that Harold should take the oath of allegiance to him and should swear to do his best to secure him the succession to the English throne.

With death or permanent captivity in a dungeon as the probable alternatives, Harold took the oath, which according to tradition, was made the more awful by having been unconsciously sworn upon sundry particularly sacred relics.

Seeing that the election of the king of England lay entirely with the Witan, the extent of the obligation involved is problematical, even apart from the question whether oaths taken under such circumstances are to be held binding.

At any rate William or his supporters felt it necessary to make a great point of the peculiar sanctity which had been imparted to the oath by the trick of concealing the sacred relics from Harold when he took it.

Tostig exiled
Having taken the oath, whatever it was worth, Harold returned to England to find that his brother Tostig had been so playing the tyrant in Northumbria that the folk of that earldom, drove him out and elected in his place Morkere, the younger son of AElfgar, and brother of Edwin now Earl of Mercia. Harold refused to back up his ill-conditioned brother, as he had refused to back up Sweyn; Tostig was dismissed into exile, and Morkere was confirmed in the earldom of Northumbria.

Finally Harold, as already noted, married Ealdgyth, the sister of the two Leofricsons. For the third time he had the opportunity of crushing the rival house, which, technically at least, was guilty of fomenting rebellion; and for the third time he chose to seek instead peace and reconciliation.

But now King Edward himself was dying. The one Englishman manifestly fit to succeed him on the English throne was Earl Harold. The sole representative of the blood royal was young Edgar the AEtheling, whose father, Edward, the son of Edmund Ironside, had returned with him from Hungary to England some years before, only to die himself within a few months.

The whole principle of succession had been turned upside down by the interlude of the Danish kings; and the Witan no longer felt itself bound to choose the one representative of the house of Cerdic when it was obvious that a strong man was needed on the throne and the AEtheling was a mere boy.

Harold proclaimed king
Whatever promises Edward the Confessor may have made to William, he undoubtedly himself nominated Harold as his successor. The day after Edward's death Harold was unanimously elected by the Witan, and was crowned by the Archbishop, of York, because there were doubts as to the validity of the position of Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But, if there was no direct opposition in England, Harold had to reckon with the jealousy of the young earls of the North, and with at least three possible claimants on the continent. There was no doubt at all that the Duke of Normandy would strike for the crown of England, although he had no conceivable title except the alleged promises of Edward the Confessor and Harold, neither of whom had any power of bestowing the crown whatever.

Then there was Sweyn of Denmark, Knut's nephew; and there was at least a possibility that Harald Hardraada of Norway might grasp at a crown which rested so insecurely on its wearer's head. Harold himself was king by election only, without any hereditary title; and he had nothing to trust to but his own abilities and the loyalty of the nation to his person.

The Danelagh was quite as likely as not to declare for the king of Denmark if once the question were seriously raised; and in the meantime the exiled Tostig was intriguing on all sides against the brother who had allowed him to be banished for his crimes.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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