Saturday 15 October 2011

The Battle of Hastings, the Hermit King, and Loyalty unto Death

14 October is the date of the Battle of Hastings, so here is an unusual account of that momentous event. It's from a medieval Old Norse text called 'Hemings þáttr', the story of the adventures of a probably fictional man named Heming. Heming starts off in Norway, but his combative attitude to King Harald Hardrada makes it advisable for him to leave the country, and he goes to England. He lives at the court of Edward the Confessor, but his real loyalty is reserved for Harold Godwinson, and at the time of the Norwegian invasion and Norman Conquest he is fighting at the side of the English Harold. The latter part of his story, telling of the events of 1066, is founded on decent historical sources but elaborated with a great deal of clearly fictional conversations, dream visions, portentous omens, dramatic encounters, etc. It's not in any way reliable as a historical source but it's a very interesting text all the same; I especially like the author's taste for pithy dialogue, which is illustrated to good effect in this extract.

So we take up the story where Harold Godwinson has just defeated the Norwegians (and his own brother Tostig) at the battle of Stamford Bridge, and now he has heard that William of Normandy is intending to invade England.

This is my translation from the Old Norse.

King Harold heard this, and gathered his men around him. His army was very badly wounded. The king bid them leave the country if they thought they were not strong enough to follow him, but all said that they would stay with him. The king said, "Give me up if you will not follow me loyally," but they said they would never part from him.

He mustered his forces to meet William, and a hard battle began. That was nineteen days after the day when Harald Sigurdson [i.e. Harald Hardrada] fell. There was a great slaughter among the Englishmen, because many in the battle were not strong enough to be there. They fought all day, and in the evening King Harold Godwinson fell. But Heming and Helgi and Waltheof drew up their men in a 'swine's snout' formation, and no one could break through it.
Then William said, "I will give you a truce, Waltheof, if you will swear loyalty to me, and you will have your inheritance and your earldom."

Waltheof said, "No oaths will I swear to you, but I will promise loyalty to you, if you do this."

"On those terms, we can make peace," said William.

Waltheof asked, "What options will these others, Helgi and Heming, be given, if they make peace with you?"

William replied, "Helgi shall have his inheritance and earldom. He must swear loyalty to me, and advise me about those matters in which he is better-informed than I. And Heming shall stay with me, and if he is loyal to me, I shall value him more than any other man."

Waltheof asked them, "What do you two plan to do?"

Helgi replied, "Heming shall decide."

Heming replied, "I know that to you Englishmen it will seem best to put an end to this strife, but to me it seems no joy to go on living after this battle. But I will not keep you in danger any longer than you wish, although I think that for Waltheof this peace will prove brief."

Waltheof replied, "Better that we be overthrown than that we trust no one! No more men will lose their lives for my sake."

They gave up the fighting, and made peace. Then William was accepted as king, and rode away from there to London. Waltheof asked for leave to go home, and received it; he rode away with twelve men.

The king watched him go, and said, "It is unwise to allow a man to ride away free who refuses to swear any oaths to us. Ride after him and kill him." They did so. Waltheof dismounted, and forbade his men to defend him. He went to a church and was killed there, and there he was buried; and men believe he is a saint.

[Helgi is a totally fictional character said in this text to be the Earl of Gloucester, but Waltheof was a real person; he almost certainly did not fight at Hastings, but he did lead rebellions against the Normans a few years later and was executed for treason. In this text he appears as an honourable English warrior, treacherously killed by King William. After his execution he was indeed venerated as a martyr - 'men believe he is a saint' - although only at Crowland Abbey.]

The Survival of Harold Godwinson

On the night after Harold Godwinson fell, an old cottager and his wife went to the battlefield to strip the bodies of the slain and get riches for themselves. They saw a great pile of bodies, and noticed a bright light above it. They discussed it, and said that there must be a holy man among the slain. They began to clear away the bodies where they had seen the light, and they saw the arm of a man sticking out of the heap of corpses. There was a large gold ring on it. The cottager took hold of the arm and asked whether the man was alive. He answered, "I'm alive."

The cottager said, "Get the corpses off him - I think it's the king."

They pulled the man up and asked if he could be healed. The king said, "I think I could be healed, but I don't think you two could do it."

The old woman said, "We'll try."

They picked him up and laid him in their cart, and went home with him.

They keep him in secret, and lie to King William's men when they come looking for Harold's body, by saying that the bloody trail leading to their house (!) is caused by the old woman, who has gone mad and killed their horse. The king's men believe them, and go back and tell William that Harold is dead and his body can't be found. Then the old woman goes to Heming, and tells him that Harold is still alive.
The next day Heming came to the king and there was a very joyful meeting. They talked all that day. Heming asked the king to go through the whole country and gather an army. "You'll soon win the land back from William."

The king said, "I see that might be done; but then many men would be forced to break their oaths [to William], and I do not want so much evil to happen because of me. I will follow the example of King Olaf Tryggvason [king of Norway], who after he was defeated at Wendland would not go back to his kingdom, but went out to Greece, and served God there while he lived. I will have a hermit's cell built for me now in Canterbury, where I will be able to see King William in the church as often as possible. And I will live only on the food you bring me."

This Heming agreed to. The king gave the peasants ample money, and then he went into his hermit's cell. He was there for three years, and no one knew who he was, except Heming and the priest who heard his confessions. Then one day when Heming came to see Harold, he told him he had contracted an illness which would be his death.

And one day when King William was sitting at table, they heard bells ringing throughout the town. The king asked why they were ringing so beautifully. Heming answered, "I think a monk has died - the one named Harold."

"Which Harold is that?" asked the king.

"Godwinson," said Heming.

"Who has been looking after him?" asked the king.

Heming replied, "I have."

"If that is true," said the king, "it will be your death! But we wish to see his body."

He went to the cell where the body lay. It had been stripped bare, but they all recognised King Harold. The body was beautiful and fair to look on, and they noticed a sweet smell, so that all who were there understood that he was truly a holy man.

The king asked Heming what he was prepared to do to save his life. Heming asked, "What are you asking for?"

The king said, "That you swear this to me: that you will be as true to me, all your life, as you have been to King Harold, and that you will follow me as you followed him."

Heming said, "I would rather die with him than live with you. I might have betrayed you long ago, if I had wished to!"

"It is true," said the king, "that if you were killed, there would be one less valiant man in England. I will now make you an offer: you will be the foremost baron in England, you will be in my own bodyguard, and you will be the leader of them all. If you do not want that, I will give you three pounds every year in reward for your service, and you can live anywhere you like in England."

Heming thanked the king for his offer, and said, "I will accept to stay in England, but from henceforth I have no desire to own any goods. This I will ask from you: that you promise to give me this very cell, and here I will live the rest of my days."

The king was silent for a long time, and then he said, "Because this request is made with a pure heart, it will be granted."

Then King William had King Harold's body clothed in a king's shroud, and his body carried out as honourably as possible. He was interred with the greatest honours. Shortly afterwards, Heming went into this cell, and served God there until the days of his old age; and at last his sight failed, and he died in that hermitage. And now there is no more to tell of Heming.

I love this ending - so much better than what really happened. I'm a sucker for legends about Harold's survival after Hastings, and the idea of him spending the rest of his life as a hermit in Canterbury is just amazing. (In this alternative reality, we could imagine him living in Canterbury at the same time as the Bayeux Tapestry was being made there.)

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