This past week we wrapped up the Norman Conquest of 1066. I wanted us to see the conflict between Harold Godwinson and William of Normandy not just as battle for the throne between two rivals, but as a window into the society at large. Toward that end we focused a lot of our discussion on oaths in early Medieval Europe.
We looked at oaths because the central controversy involving the Norman Conquest involved a dispute over an oath taken by Harold. Harold apparently got blown off course one day and landed in Normandy in France. Instead of holding him for ransom, William, Duke of Normandy protected and befriended him. At the end of his visit, William asked Harold to pledge that he would not seek the throne of England after Edward the Confessor’s death.
In that oath, several questions arise:
- Did Harold promise to let William have the throne?
- If so, was that promise binding, i.e. was the oath a valid oath?
- Did Harold really break his oath in the first place?
Oaths had crucial important for this period I think, for the following reasons:
1. Today we have extensive written contracts, police, and law courts to enforce social order and provide a platform for trust in social interaction. The world of 1066 had none of these things. So we see instead an ironclad priority placed on “keeping one’s word,” which stood in place of the modern written contract. Breaking one’s word, then, did not just damage your personal reputation, it threatened the fabric of civilization itself.
2. This can help us understand why the Church felt the need to involve itself in the oaths of great noblemen. By 1066 Europe had only recently emerged from a chaotic “dark age,” of barbarian invasions. The Church wanted peace, and so often strengthened them by adding spiritual overtones on the oaths to make them even more binding. One could argue that this would make the Church a meddler in personal affairs. I think they would respond that peace is everyone’s business.
Of course oaths could only bind under certain circumstances:
- Oaths were freely taken — that is, no compulsion came with the oath.
- The terms of the oath could be performed by those making the oath (one could not vow for another’s actions)
- One could not vow to sin, and then sin because, “I promised I would.”
As an example, there is this text from the life of King Louis IX of France in 1248, from The Chronicle of Matthew Paris. Note how all urge him to “unbind” himself from his first oath, but then once he vows again, the matter is settled.
. . .the lord king of the French who, as was well known, had taken the cross [vowed to go on a Crusade] was severely criticized, and almost circumvented by his magnates and courtiers, because he was unwilling to redeem or commute his oath in any way, in spite of the [fact that he taken the vow when very ill]. His mother Blanche, aware of the king’s imbecility at the time [of the oath] insisted and earnestly argued with him, and the bishop addressed him as follows.
“My lord king, remember that when you took the cross, making a vow so hurriedly and without advice, you were ill and your mind wandered. The words you then uttered lacked truth and authority. The good pope will willingly grant a dispensation from the oath, knowing the critical state of your kingdom and your past infirmity.”
Then the king’s mother added her own suggestions, spoke to him with some effect. “Dearest son! Instead of resisting your own prudence, pay attention to the advice of friends. Bear in mind how pleasing it is to God to give heed to the voice of one’s mother. Stay here and the Holy Land will suffer no detriment. . . . God neither plays tricks nor does he quibble. You are sufficiently excused by your illness and the deprivation of your reason. . .”
To this the king, no little moved, replied, “. . . Lord bishop, here is the cross which I assumed; moreover, I resign it to you.” Raising his hand to his shoulder, he ripped off the cross. At this all those sitting around him expressed their intense joy, but the lord king, altering his tone, said: “My friends, certainly I am not now deprived of my reason or my senses, nor am I powerless or infirm. Now I demand back my cross. He who ignores nothing knows that nothing edible shall enter my mouth until I have signed myself with it.”
When those present saw this they recognized the hand of God here (Ex. 8:19), and that these things had been effected by a divine force from Heaven. Nor did anyone dare raise any further questions about the affair. We have recorded this business fully and exactly so that everyone appreciates the constancy of the most Christian king of the French in the service of Christ.
One of the controversies of 1066 revolved around Harold’s oath. Some argued that it was not taken freely, as Harold at the time was under William’s custody and protection. Some also argued that the oath was not Harold’s to make, as the English Witan chose kings, and Harold might feel bound by their choice. When Harold broke his vow (from William’s perspective, it set about a clash that could be solved only through battle. Harold might argue that. . .
- The oath I took does not bind, for I took it under indirect compulsion, a stranger in William’s land. Besides this, I do not fight for my own personal gain, but for England.
- I fight for England’s right to choose an English king. Edward the Confessor (God rest his soul) always had half of himself in Normandy. I say that England has a right to choose an English king that will look after English interests.
- I do not fight for petty slights, nor revenge. I fight for uphold civilization itself, and the sanctity of oaths taken upon holy relics. If oaths have nothing sacred to them, we have nothing to keep us together but naked force and barbarism.
- If kings do not keep their oaths, neither can we expect the common man to do so.
- The pope has given me his banner, for he too recognizes the greater good at stake in this. Harold’s refusal to back down show him as an enemy of the Church and civilization.
Some sources suggest other things at stake. When he landed unexpectedly in Normandy, Harold faced potential danger, as I mentioned above. William took him under his wing, and gave him protection. But it may have been necessary, for Harold to be fully protected, for Harold to become William’s “man,” in the feudal sense. That is, Harold would agree to serve William in exchange for William’s protection. Once it was known that Harold “belonged” to William, then and only then would he have been safe.
If this happened, Harold’s actions amounted to a personal betrayal.
In the famous Battle of Hastings that ensued, both armies fought well but Harold was killed in the fighting, which left the throne open for William of Normandy, from then on known as William the Conqueror.
Many in England get tired of hearing about 1066 in much the same way that we may tire of hearing of 1492. But the Norman Conquest did change the social fabric of England, and more importantly, brought England into the fold of the European continent.
Some years after the Normans displaced the Saxons, a handful of monks wrote the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,” detailing life before and after William. The conclusion below, though short, provides an interesting opportunity for textual analysis. Did the Anglo-Saxon writer like William or not? Did he have to praise him because he was a Saxon and had lost, or is the praise surprising for the very same reason? Was William a good king? It depends on what you think most important about political leadership. . .
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Assessment of William I
If anyone would know what manner of man King William was, the glory that he obtained, and of how many lands he as lord, then will we describe him as we have known him, we who had looked upon him and who once lived at his court. This King William…was a very wise and great man, and more honored and more powerful than any of his predecessors. He was mild to those good men who loved God, but severe beyond measure to those who withstood his will. He founded a noble monastery [Battle Abbey] on the spot where God permitted him to conquer England., and he established monks in it, and he made it very rich. In his days the great monastery at Canterbury was built, and many others also throughout England; moreover, this land was filled with monks who lived after the ule of St. Benedict; and such was the state of religion in his days that all who would, might observe that which was prescribed by their respective orders.
King William was also held in much reverence. He wore his crown three times every year when he was in England: at Easter he wore it at Winchester, at Pentecost at Westminster, and at Christmas at Gloucester. And at these times all the men of England were with him, archbishops, bishops, abbots and earls, thanes and knights. So also was he a very stern and wrathful man, so that none durst do anything against his will, and he kept in prison those earls who acted against his pleasure. He removed bishops from their sees and abbots from their offices, and he imprisoned thanes, and at length he spared not his own [half-]brother Odo. This Odo was a very powerful bishop in Normandy. His see was that of Bayeux, and he was foremost to serve the king. He had an earldom in England, and when William was in Normandy he [Odo] was the first man in this country, and him did William cast into prison.
Amongst other things, the good order that William established is not to be forgotten. It was such that any man…might travel over the kingdom with a bosom full of gold unmolested; and no man durst kill another, however great the injury he might have received from him. He reigned over England, and being sharp-sighted to his own interest, he surveyed the kingdom so thoroughly that there was not a single hide of land throughtout the whole of which he knew not the possessor, and how much it was worth, and this he afterward entered in his register. The land of the Britons [Wales] was under his sway, and he built castles therein; moreover he had full dominion over the Isle of Man; Scotland was also subject to him…; the land of Normandy was his by inheritance, and he possessed the earldom of Maine, and had he lived two years longer, he would have subdued Ireland by his prowess, and that without a battle.
Truely there was much trouble in these times, and very great distress. He caused castles to be built and oppressed the poor. The king was also of great sterness, and he took from his subjects many marks of gold, and many hundred pounds of silver, and this, either with or without right, and with little need. He was given to avarice and greedily loved gain. He made large forests for the deer, and enacted laws therewith, so that whoever killed a hart or a hind should be blinded. As he forbade killing the deer, so also the boars; and he loved the tall stags as if he were their father. He also commanded concerning the hares, that they should go free. The rich complained and the poor murmured, but he was so sturdy that he took no notice of them; they must will all that the king willed, if they would live, or keep their lands,…or be maintained in their rights. Alas that any man should so exalt himself…. We have written concerning him these things, both good and bad, that virtuous men may follow after the good, and wholly avoid the evil, and may go in the way that leadeth to the kingdom of heaven.