CHAPTER VII – ENGLAND UNDER HAROLD THE SECOND,
AND CONQUERED BY THE NORMANS
HAROLD was crowned King of England on the very day of the maudlin Confessor’s funeral. He had good need to be quick about it. When the news reached Norman William, hunting in his park at Rouen, he dropped his bow, returned to his palace, called his nobles to council, and presently sent ambassadors to Harold, calling on him to keep his oath and resign the Crown. Harold would do no such thing. The barons of France leagued together round Duke William for the invasion of England. Duke William promised freely to distribute English wealth and English lands among them. The Pope sent to Normandy a consecrated banner, and a ring containing a hair which he warranted to have grown on the head of Saint Peter. He blessed the enterprise; and cursed Harold; and requested that the Normans would pay ‘Peter’s Pence’ – or a tax to himself of a penny a year on every house – a little more regularly in future, if they could make it convenient.
King Harold had a rebel brother in Flanders, who was a vassal of HAROLD HARDRADA, King of Norway. This brother, and this Norwegian King, joining their forces against England, with Duke William’s help, won a fight in which the English were commanded by two nobles; and then besieged York. Harold, who was waiting for the Normans on the coast at Hastings, with his army, marched to Stamford Bridge upon the river Derwent to give them instant battle.
He found them drawn up in a hollow circle, marked out by their shining spears. Riding round this circle at a distance, to survey it, he saw a brave figure on horseback, in a blue mantle and a bright helmet, whose horse suddenly stumbled and threw him.
‘Who is that man who has fallen?’ Harold asked of one of his captains.
‘The King of Norway,’ he replied.
‘He is a tall and stately king,’ said Harold, ‘but
his end is near.’
He added, in a little while, ‘Go yonder to my brother, and tell him, if he withdraw his troops, he shall be Earl of Northumberland, and rich and powerful in England.’
The captain rode away and gave the message.
‘What will he give to my friend the King of Norway?’ asked the brother.
‘Seven feet of earth for a grave,’ replied the captain.
‘No more?’ returned the brother, with a smile.
‘The King of Norway being a tall man, perhaps a little more,’ replied the captain.
‘Ride back!’ said the brother, ‘and tell King Harold to make ready for the fight!’
He did so, very soon. And such a fight King Harold led against that force, that his brother, and the Norwegian King, and every chief of note in all their host, except the Norwegian King’s son, Olave, to whom he gave honourable dismissal, were left dead upon the field. The victorious army marched to York. As King Harold sat there at the feast, in the midst of all his company, a stir was heard at the doors; and messengers all covered with mire from riding far and fast through broken ground came hurrying in, to report that the Normans had landed in England.
The intelligence was true. They had been tossed about by contrary winds, and some of their ships had been wrecked. A part of their own shore, to which they had been driven back, was strewn with Norman bodies. But they had once more made sail, led by the Duke’s own galley, a present from his wife, upon the prow whereof the figure of a golden boy stood pointing towards England.