Harold Swears an Oath, Colour-printed wood engraving by James Doyle. Source: Wikimedia

Harold’s ill-fated trip to Normandy has sparked much debate among historians. Why did he go? How much damage did it cause? One thing is certain: Harold and William were far from strangers by the time they met on the battlefield of Hastings.

It is thought by some that Harold was on a fishing trip in the English Channel when a sudden rain squall blew his boat all the way to Ponthieu in 1064. Count Guy, as was his right, took Harold hostage and was apparently quite put out when Duke William showed up shortly thereafter and demanded that he give Harold up.  A proverbial case of From the Frying Pan Into The Fire! Once Harold was the unwilling guest of Duke William, he knew he wasn’t going to get out of there without some painful concessions.

Norman chroniclers favor the story that King Edward sent Earl Harold to Normandy to confirm his choice of William as heir to the English throne.  The obvious argument against this legend is that King Edward had no legal right to appoint his successor.  Although the king’s last wishes were always considered, the final decision was with the Witan, the king’s council. I don’t think this alleged promise was common knowledge in England—if it happened at all. It is far from certain that William visited England in 1052 (while Godwine was in exile). If this didn’t happen in 1052 and William’s plans were not common knowledge, there is a possibility that Harold didn’t know about William’s aspirations to the crown until he visited the ducal court.

There are other explanations about Harold’s intentions. It has been theorized that he was sounding the opposition, so to speak, for his own bid to the throne. But in 1064 King Edward was in good health and Edgar Aetheling, the true heir, was being raised at the royal court. The motivation that makes the most sense to me is the possibility that he went to Normandy in an attempt to secure the release of his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon, held hostage since around 1052. Alas, even this attempt failed (only Hakon was released) and ironically Wulfnoth’s isolation probably protected him from the same fate as his brothers.

Harold’s stay at William’s court was protracted and cordial – at least on the surface.  During this time, Duke William led a punitive expedition against Conan of Brittany, taking Harold with him and fighting side-by-side with the famous Saxon Earl.  The Bayeux Tapestry shows a scene where Harold wades into quicksand to save two Norman soldiers from certain death.  After the siege of Dinan, William gave Harold arms and weapons and knighted him for his valor.

Nonetheless, once Harold became William’s man—so to speak—it was time for him to return home.  But one final concession had to happen first: the great oath.  In front of all the Norman barons, Harold was obliged to swear an oath to support William’s claim to the English throne (against his own interests, even then), swear to secure the castle of Dover for William (not likely!), to marry one of William’s daughters. Knowing this was his only way out, Harold duly swore the oath knowing that under duress, many an oath was often considered invalid.  However, William was too smart to be outwitted; just to make it stick, he secretly laid the bones of Normandy’s saints beneath a tablecloth on which stood the bible.  Once the pledge was sworn, the tablecloth was whisked off and Harold was aghast that he had just sworn a false oath on holy relics.

The consequences of Harold’s oathbreaking were grim indeed; William used this event to help win the pope’s approbation for his conquest of England.  When the Duke unfurled his banner at the Battle of Hastings, he placed the Pope’s banner alongside for all to see.  The Normans went so far as to declare that God had turned against Harold’s kingdom and shown his favor to the invaders. I would think that Harold still felt a sting of guilt, regardless. Even his brother Gyrth is said to have offered to lead the army at Hastings since he wasn’t bound by any oath, but Harold scornfully rejected the idea.

One thing is for sure; as a consequence of this ill-fated voyage, both Harold and William knew how their future opponent would conduct himself on the battlefield. Harold would have returned to England a much wiser man and better prepared for the future; too bad he couldn’t change the course of his destiny.