England Under Harefoot

England Under Harefoot, Hardicanute, And Edward The Confessor

Author: Dickens, Charles

Chapter VI.

England Under Harold Harefoot, Hardicanute, And Edward The Confessor.

Canute left three sons, by name Sweyn, Harold, and Hardicanute; but his

queen, Emma, once the Flower of Normandy, was the mother of only Hardicanute.

Canute had wished his dominions to be divided between the three, and had

wished Harold to have England; but the Saxon people in the south of England,

headed by a nobleman with great possessions, called the powerful Earl Godwin

(who is said to have been originally a poor cow-boy), opposed this, and

desired to have, instead, either Hardicanute, or one of the two exiled princes

who were over in Normandy. It seemed so certain that there would be more

blood shed to settle this dispute, that many people left their homes, and took

refuge in the woods and swamps. Happily, however, it was agreed to refer the

whole question to a great meeting at Oxford, which decided that Harold should

have all the country north of the Thames, with London for his capital city,

and that Hardicanute should have all the south. The quarrel was so arranged;

and as Hardicanute was in Denmark, troubling himself very little about

anything but eating, and getting drunk, his mother and Earl Godwin governed

the south for him.

They had hardly begun to do so, and the trembling people who had hidden

themselves were scarcely at home again, when Edward, the elder of the two

exiled princes, came over from Normandy with a few followers, to claim the

English crown. His mother Emma, however, who only cared for her last son

Hardicanute, instead of assisting him, as he expected, opposed him so strongly

with all her influence, that he was very soon glad to get safely back. His

brother Alfred was not so fortunate. Believing in an affectionate letter,

written some time afterwards to him and his brother, in his mother's name (but

whether really with or without his mother's knowledge is now uncertain), he

allowed himself to be tempted over to England, with a good force of soldiers;

and landing on the Kentish coast, and being met and welcomed by Earl Godwin,

proceeded into Surrey, as far as the town of Guildford. Here he and his men

halted in the evening to rest, having still the earl in their company; who had

ordered lodgings and good cheer for them. But in the dead of the night, when

they were off their guard, being divided into small parties, sleeping soundly

after a long march and a plentiful supper, in different houses, they were set

upon by the king's troops, and taken prisoners. Next morning they were drawn

out in a line, to the number of six hundred men, and were barbarously tortured

and killed; with the exception of every tenth man, who was sold into slavery.

As to the wretched Prince Alfred, he was stripped naked, tied to a horse, and

sent away into the Isle of Ely, where his eyes were torn out of his head, and

where in a few days he miserably died. I am not sure that the earl had

wilfully entrapped him, but I suspect it strongly.

Harold was now king all over England; though it is doubtful whether the

Archbishop of Canterbury (the greater part of the priests were Saxons, and not

friendly to the Danes) ever consented to crown him. Crowned or uncrowned,

with the archbishop's leave or without it, he was king for four years; after

which short reign he died, and was buried, having never done much in life but

go a hunting. He was such a fast runner at this, his favorite sport, that the

people called him Harold Harefoot.

Hardicanute was then at Bruges, in Flanders, plotting with his mother

(who had gone over there after the cruel murder of Prince Alfred) for the

invasion of England. The Danes and Saxons, finding themselves without a king,

and dreading new disputes, made common cause, and joined in inviting him to

occupy the throne. He consented, and soon troubled them enough; for he

brought over numbers of Danes, and taxed the people so insupportably to enrich

those greedy favorites, that there were many insurrections, especially one at

Worcester, where the citizens rose, and killed his tax-collectors; in revenge

for which he burned their city. He was a brutal king, whose first public act

was to order the dead body of poor Harold Harefoot to be dug up, beheaded, and

thrown into the river. His end was worthy of such a beginning. He fell down

drunk, with a goblet of wine in his hand, at a wedding-feast at Lambeth, given

in honor of the marriage of his standard-bearer, a Dane named Towed the Proud.

And he never spoke again.

Edward, afterwards called by the monks, The Confessor, succeeded; and his

first act was to oblige his mother Emma, who had favored him so little, to

retire into the country, where she died, some ten years afterwards. He was

the exiled prince whose brother Alfred had been so foully killed. He had been

invited over from Normandy by Hardicanute, in the course of his short reign of

two years, and had been handsomely treated at court. His cause was now

favored by the powerful Earl Godwin, and he was soon made king. This earl had

been suspected by the people, ever since Prince Alfred's cruel death: he had

even been tried in the last reign for the prince's murder, but had been

pronounced not guilty; chiefly, as it was supposed, because of a present he

had made to the swinish king, of a gilded ship with a figure-head of solid

gold, and a crew of eighty splendidly armed men. It was his interest to help

the new king with his power, if the new king would help him against the

popular distrust and hatred. So they made a bargain. Edward the Confessor

got the throne. The earl got more power and more land, and his daughter

Editha was made queen; for it was a part of their compact, that the king

should take her for his wife.

But although she was a gentle lady, in all things worthy to be beloved, -

good, beautiful, sensible, and kind, - the king from the first neglected her.

Her father and her six proud brothers, resenting this cold treatment, harassed

the king greatly by exerting all their power to make him unpopular. Having

lived so long in Normandy, he preferred the Normans to the English. He made a

Norman archbishop, and Norman bishops; his great officers and favorites were

all Normans; he introduced the Norman fashions and the Norman language; in

imitation of the state custom of Normandy, he attached a great seal to his

state documents, instead of merely marking them, as the Saxon kings had done,

with the sign of the cross, - just as poor people who have never been taught

to write now make the same mark for their names. All this, the powerful Earl

Godwin and his six proud sons represented to the people as disfavor shown

towards the English; and thus they daily increased their own power, and daily

diminished the power of the king.

They were greatly helped by an event that occurred when he had reigned

eight years. Eustace, Earl of Boulogne, who had married the king's sister,

came to England on a visit. After staying at the court some time, he set

forth, with his numerous train of attendants, to return home. They were to

embark at Dover. Entering that peaceful town in armor, they took possession

of the best houses, and noisily demanded to be lodged and entertained without

payment. One of the bold men of Dover, who would not endure to have these

domineering strangers jingling their heavy swords and iron corselets up and

down his house, eating his meat and drinking his strong liquor, stood in his

doorway, and refused admission to the first armed man who came there. The

armed man drew and wounded him. The man of Dover struck the armed man dead.

Intelligence of what he had done spreading through the streets to where the

Count Eustace and his men were standing by their horses, bridle in hand, they

passionately mounted, galloped to the house, surrounded it, forced their way

in (the doors and windows being closed when they came up) and killed the man

of Dover at his own fireside. They then clattered through the streets,

cutting down and riding over men, women, and children. This did not last

long, you may believe. The men of Dover set upon them with great fury, killed

nineteen of the foreigners, wounded many more, and, blockading the road to the

port, so that they should not embark, beat them out of the town by the way

they had come. Hereupon Count Eustace rides as hard as man can ride to

Gloucester, where Edward is, surrounded by Norman monks and Norman lords.

"Justice!" cries the count, "upon the men of Dover, who have set upon and

slain my people!" The king sends immediately for the powerful Earl Godwin, who

happens to be near; reminds him that Dover is under his government; and orders

him to repair to Dover, and do military execution on the inhabitants. "It

does not become you," says the proud earl in reply, "to condemn without a

hearing those whom you have sworn to protect. I will not do it."

The king, therefore, summoned the earl, on pain of banishment, and loss

of his titles and property, to appear before the court to answer this

disobedience. The earl refused to appear. He, his eldest son Harold, and his

second son Sweyn, hastily raised as many fighting-men as their utmost power

could collect, and demanded to have Count Eustace and his followers

surrendered to the justice of the country. The king, in his turn, refused to

give them up, and raised a strong force. After some treaty and delay, the

troops of the great earl and his sons began to fall off. The earl, with a

part of his family and abundance of treasure, sailed to Flanders; Harold

escaped to Ireland; and the power of the great family was for that time gone

in England. But the people did not forget them.

Then Edward the Confessor, with the true meanness of a mean spirit,

visited his dislike of the once powerful father and sons upon the helpless

daughter and sister, his unoffending wife, whom all who saw her (her husband

and his monks excepted) loved. He seized rapaciously upon her fortune and her

jewels; and, allowing her only one attendant, confined her in a gloomy

convent, of which a sister of his, no doubt an unpleasant lady after his own

heart was abbess, or jailer.

Having got Earl Godwin and his six sons well out of his way, the king

favored the Normans more than ever. He invited over William, Duke of

Normandy, the son of that duke who had received him and his murdered brother

long ago, and of a peasant girl, a tanner's daughter, with whom the duke had

fallen in love for her beauty as he saw her washing clothes in a brook.

William, who was a great warrior, with a passion for fine horses, dogs, and

arms, accepted the invitation; and the Normans in England, finding themselves

more numerous than ever when he arrived with his retinue, and held in still

greater honor at court than before, became more and more haughty towards the

people, and were more and more disliked by them.

The old Earl Godwin, though he was abroad, knew well how the people felt;

for, with part of the treasure he had carried away with him, he kept spies and

agentsin his pay all over England. Accordingly, he though the time was come

for fitting out a great expedition against the Norman-loving king. With it he

sailed to the Isle of Wight, where he was joined by his son Harold, the most

gallant and brave of all his family. And so the father and son came sailing

up the Thames to Southwark; great numbers of the people declaring for them,

and shouting for the English earl and the English Harold, against the Norman


The king was at first as blind and stubborn as kings usually have been

whensoever they have been in the hands of monks. But the people rallied so

thickly round the old earl and his son, and the old earl was so steady in

demanding, without bloodshed, the restoration of himself and his family to

their rights, that at last the court took the alarm. The Norman Archbishop of

Canterbury, and the Norman Bishop of London, surrounded by their retainers,

fought their way out of London, and escaped from Essex to France in a

fishing-boat. The other Norman favorites dispersed in all directions. The old

earl and his sons (except Sweyn), who had committed crimes against the law,

were restored to their possessions and dignities. Editha, the virtuous and

lovely queen of the insensible king, was triumphantly released from her

prison, the convent, and once more sat in her chair of state, arrayed in the

jewels of which, when she had no champion to support her rights, her

cold-blooded husband had deprived her.

The old Earl Godwin did not long enjoy his restored fortune. He fell

down in a fit at the king's table, and died upon the third day afterwards.

Harold succeeded to his power, and to a far higher place in the attachment of

the people, than his father had ever held. By his valor he subdued the king's

enemies in many bloody fights. He was vigorous against rebels in Scotland, -

this was the time when Macbeth slew Duncan, upon which event our English

Shakespeare, hundreds of years afterwards, wrote his great tragedy; and he

killed the restless Welsh King Griffith, and brought his head to England.

What Harold was doing at sea, when he was driven on the French coast by a

tempest, is not at all certain; nor does it at all matter. That his ship was

forced by a storm on that shore, and that he was taken prisoner, there is no

doubt. In those barbarous days, all shipwrecked strangers were taken

prisoners, and obliged to pay ransom. So a certain Count Guy, who was the

lord of Ponthieu, where Harold's disaster happened, seized him, instead of

relieving him like a hospitable and Christian lord, as he ought to have done,

and expected to make a very good thing of it.

But Harold sent off immediately to Duke William of Normandy complaining

of this treatment; and the duke no sooner heard of it than he ordered Harold

to be escorted to the ancient town of Rouen, where he then was, and where he

received him as an honored guest. Now some writers tell us that Edward the

Confessor, who was by this time old and had no children, had made a will

appointing Duke William of Normandy his successor, and had informed the duke

of his having done so. There is no doubt that he was anxious about his

successor; because he had even invited over, from abroad, Edward the Outlaw, a

son of Ironside, who had come to England with his wife and three children; but

whom the king had strangely refused to see when he did come, and who had died

in London suddenly (princes were terribly liable to sudden death in those

days), and had been buried in St. Paul's Cathedral. The king might possibly

have made such a will; or, having always been fond of the Normans, he might

have encouraged Norman William to aspire to the English crown, by something

that he said to him when he was staying at the English court. But certainly

William did now aspire to it; and, knowing that Harold would be a powerful

rival, he called together a great assembly of his nobles, offered Harold his

daughter Adele in marriage, informed him that he meant, on King Edward's

death, to claim the English crown as his own inheritance, and required Harold

then and there to swear to aid him. Harold, being in the dukes power, took

this oath upon the missal, or prayer-book. It is a good example of the

superstitions of the monks, that this missal, instead of being placed upon a

table, was placed upon a tub; which, when Harold had sworn, was uncovered, and

shown to be full of dead men's bones, - bones, as the monks pretended, of

saints. This was supposed to make Harold's oath a great deal more impressive

and binding. As if the great name of the Creator of heaven and earth could be

made more solemn by a knuckle-bone, or a double-tooth, or a finger-nail of


Within a week or two after Harold's return to England, the dreary old

Confessor was found to be dying. After wandering in his mind like a very weak

old man, he died. As he had put himself entirely in the hands of the monks

when he was alive, they praised him lustily when he was dead. They had gone

so far already, as to persuade him that he could work miracles; and had

brought people afflicted with a bad disorder of the skin to him, to be touched

and cured. This was called "touching for the king's evil," which afterwards

became a royal custom. You know, however, who really touched the sick, and

healed them; and you know his sacred name is not among the dusty line of human


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