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KING HAROLD, son of Earl Godwin of Boseham (Bosham).

vol. 2 of The Prose Works of John Milton. circa 1670

Harold, whether by King Edward a little before his death ordained successor to the crown, as Simeon of Durham and others affirm;* or by the prevalence of his faction, excluding Edgar the right heir, grandchild to Edmund Ironside, as Malmsbury and Huntingdon agree; no sooner was the funeral of King Edward ended, but on the same day was elected and crowned king: and no sooner placed in the throne, but began to frame himself by all manner of compliances to gain affection, endeavoured to make good laws, repealed bad, became a great patron to church and churchmen, courteous and affable to all reputed good, a hater of evil doers, charged all his officers to punish thieves, robbers, and all disturbers of the peace, while he himself by sea and land laboured in the defence of his country: so good an actor is ambition.

In the mean while a blazing star, seven mornings together, about the end of April was seen to stream terribly, not only over England, but other parts of the world; foretelling here, as was thought, the great changes approaching: plainliest prognosticated by Elmer, a monk of Malmsbury, who could not foresee, when time was, the breaking of his own legs for soaring too high. He in his youth strangely aspiring, had made and fitted wings to his hands and feet; with these on the top of a tower, spread out to gather air, he flew more than a furlong; but the wind being too high, came fluttering down, to the maiming of all his limbs; yet so conceited of his art, that he attributed the cause of his fall to the want of a tail, as birds have, which he forgot to make to his hinder parts. This story, though seeming otherwise too light in the midst of a sad narration, yet for the strangeness thereof, I thought worthy enough the placing, as I found it placed in my author.

But to digress no father: Tosti the king’s brother coming from Flanders, full of envy at his younger brother’s advancement to the crown, resolved what he might to trouble his reign; forcing therefore them of Wight Isle to contribution, he sailed thence to Sandwich, committing piracies on the coast between. Harold, then residing at London, with a great number of ships drawn together, and of horse troops by land, prepares in person for Sandwich: whereof Tosti having notice directs his course with sixty ships towards Lindsey, taking with him all the seamen he found, willing or unwilling; where he burnt many villages, and slew many of the inhabitants; but Edwin the Mercian duke, and Morcar his brother, the Northumbrian earl, with their forces on either side, soon drove him out of the country. Who thence betook him to Malcolm the Scottish king, and with him abode the whole summer. About the same time duke William sending ambassadors to admonish Harold of his promise and oath, to assist him in his plea to the kingdom, he made answer, that by the death of his daughter betrothed to him on that condition, he was absolved of his oath; or not dead, he could not take her now an outlandish woman, without consent of the realm; that it was presumptuously done, and not to be persisted in, if without consent or knowledge of the states, he had sworn away the right of the kingdom; that what he swore was to gain his liberty, being in a manner then his prisoner; that it was unreasonable in the duke, to require or expect of him the foregoing of a kingdom, conferred upon him with universal favour and acclamation of the people. To this flat denial he added contempt, sending the messengers back, saith Matthew Paris, on maimed horses.

The duke, thus contemptuously put off, addresses himself to the pope, setting forth the justice of his cause; which Harold, whether through haughtiness of mind, or distrust, or that the ways to Rome were stopped, sought not to do. Duke William, besides the promise and oath of Harold, alleged that King Edward, by the advice of Seward, Godwin himself, and Stigand the archbishop, had given him the right of succession, and had sent him the son and nephew of Godwin, pledges of the gift: the pope sent to duke William, after this demonstration of his right, a consecrated banner. Whereupon he having with great care and choice got an army of tall and stout soldiers, under captains of great skill and mature age, came in August to the port of St. Valerie. Meanwhile Harold from London comes to Sandwich, there expecting his navy; which also coming, he sails to the Isle of Wight; and having heard of duke William’s preparations and readiness to invade him, kept good watch on the coast, and foot forces every where in fit places to guard the shore. But ere the middle of September, provision failing when it was most needed, both fleet and army return home. When on a sudden, Harold Harvager king of Norway, with a navy of more than five hundred great ships,* (others lessen them by two hundred, others augment them to a thousand,) appears at the mouth of the Tine; to whom earl Tosti with his ships came as was agreed between them; whence both uniting set sail with all speed, and entered the river Humber. Thence turning into Ouse, as far as Rical, landed, and won York by assault. At these tidings Harold with all his power hastes thitherward; but ere his coming, Edwin and Morcar at Fulford by York, on the north side of Ouse, about the feast of St. Matthew had given them battle; successfully at first, but overborn at length with numbers; and forced to turn their backs, more of them perished in the river than in the fight.

The Norwegians taking with them five hundred hostages out of York, and leaving there one hundred and fifty of their own, retired to their ships. But the fifth day after, King Harold with a great and well-appointed army coming to York, and at Stamford bridge, or Battle bridge on Darwent, assailing the Norwegians, after much bloodshed on both sides, cut off the greatest part of them, with Harvager their king, and Tosti his own brother.† But Olave the king’s son, and Paul earl of Orkney, left with many soldiers to guard the ships, surrendering themselves with hostages, and oath given never to return as enemies, he suffered freely to depart with twenty ships, and the small remnant of their army. One man‡ of the Norwegians is not to be forgotten, who with incredible valor keeping the bridge a long hour against the whole English army, with his single resistance delayed their victory; and scorning offered life, till in the end no man daring to grapple with him, either dreaded as too strong, or contemned as one desperate, he was at length shot dead with an arrow; and by his fall opened the passage of pursuit to a complete victory. Wherewith Harold lifted up in mind, and forgetting now his former shows of popularity, defrauded his soldiers their due and well-deserved share of the spoils.

While these things passed in Northumberland, duke William lay still at St. Valerie; his ships were ready, but the wind served not for many days; which put the soldiery into much discouragement and murmur, taking this for an unlucky sign of their success; at last the wind came favourable, the duke first under sail awaited the rest at anchor, till all coming forth, the whole fleet of nine hundred ships with a prosperous gale arrived at Hastings. At his going out of the boat by a slip falling on his hands, to correct the omen,§ a soldier standing by said aloud, that their duke had taken possession of England. Landed, he restrained his army from waste and spoil, saying that they ought to spare what was their own. But these things are related of Alexander and Cæsar, and I doubt thence borrowed by the monks to inlay their story. The duke for fifteen days after landing kept his men quiet within the camp, having taken the castle of Hastings, or built a fortress there. Harold secure the while, and proud of his new victory, thought all his enemies now under foot: but sitting jollily at dinner, news is brought him that duke William of Normandy with a great multitude of horse and foot, slingers and archers, besides other choice auxiliaries which he had hired in France, was arrived at Pevensey.

Harold, who had expected him all the summer, but not so late in the year as now it was, for it was October, with his forces much diminished after two sore conflicts, and the departing of many others from him discontented, in great haste marches to London. Thence not tarrying for supplies, which were on their way towards him, hurries into Sussex, (for he was always in haste since the day of his coronation,) and ere the third part of his army could be well put in order, finds the duke about nine miles from Hastings, and now drawing nigh, sent spies before him to survey the strength and number of his enemies: them discovered, such the duke causing to be led about, and after well filled with meat and drink, sent back. They not otherwise brought word, that the duke’s army were most of them priests; for they saw their faces all over shaven; the English then using to let grow on their upper lip large mustachios, as did anciently the Britons. The king laughing answered, that they were not priests, but valiant and hardy soldiers. Therefore said Girtha his brother, a youth of noble courage and understanding above his age, “Forbear thou thyself to fight, who art obnoxious to duke William by oath, let us unsworn undergo the hazard of battle, who may justly fight in the defence of our country; thou, reserved to fitter time, mayest either reunite us flying, or revenge us dead.” The king not hearkening to this, lest it might seem to argue fear in him or a bad cause, with like resolution rejected the offers of duke William sent to him by a monk before the battle, with this only answer hastily delivered, “Let God judge between us.”

The offers were these, that Harold would either lay down the sceptre, or hold it of him, or try his title with him by single combat in sight of both armies, or refer it to the pope. These rejected, both sides prepared to fight the next morning, the English from singing and drinking all night, the Normans from confession of their sins, and communion of the host. The English were in a strait disadvantageous place, so that many, discouraged with their ill ordering, scarce having room where to stand, slipped away before the onset, the rest in close order, with their battleaxes and shields, made an impenetrable squadron: the king himself with his brothers on foot stood by the royal standard, wherein the figure of a man fighting was inwoven with gold and precious stones. The Norman foot, most bowmen, made the foremost front, on either side wings of horse somewhat behind. The duke arming, and his corslet given him on the wrong side, said pleasantly, “The strength of my dukedom will be turned now into a kingdom.” Then the whole army singing the song of Rowland, the remembrance of whose exploits might hearten them, imploring lastly divine help, the battle began; and was fought sorely on either side: but the main body of English foot by no means would be broken, till the duke causing his men to feign flight, drew them out with desire of pursuit into open disorder, then turned suddenly upon them so routed by themselves, which wrought their overthrow, yet so they died not unmanfully, but turning oft upon their enemies, by the advantage of an upper ground, beat them down by heaps, and filled up a great ditch with their carcasses.

Thus hung the victory wavering on either side from the third hour of day to evening; when Harold having maintained the fight with unspeakable courage and personal valor, shot into the head with an arrow, fell at length, and left his soldiers without heart longer to withstand the unwearied enemy. With Harold fell also his two brothers, Leofwin and Girtha, with them greatest part of the English nobility. His body lying dead a knight or soldier wounding on the thigh, was by the duke presently turned out of military service. Of Normans and French were slain no small number; the duke himself that day not a little hazarded his person, having had three choice horses killed under him. Victory obtained, and his dead carefully buried, the English also by permission, he sent the body of Harold to his mother without ransom, though she offered very much to redeem it; which having received she buried at Waltham, in a church built there by Harold. In the mean while, Edwin and Morcar, who had withdrawn themselves from Harold, hearing of his death, came to London; sending Aldgith the queen their sister with all speed to West-chester.—Aldred archbishop of York, and many of the nobles, with the Londoners, would have set up Edgar the right heir, and prepared themselves to fight for him; but Morcar and Edwin not liking the choice, who each of them expected to have been chosen before him, withdrew their forces, and returned home.

Duke William, contrary to his former resolution, (if Florent of Worcester, and they who follow him,* say true,) wasting, burning, and slaying all in his way; or rather, as saith Malmsbury, not in hostile but in regal manner, came up to London, met at Barcham by Edgar, with the nobles, bishops, citizens, and at length Edwin and Morcar, who all submitted to him, gave hostages and swore fidelity, he to them promised peace and defence; yet permitted his men the while to burn and make prey. Coming to London with all his army, he was on Christmas-day solemnly crowned in the great church at Westminster, by Aldred archbishop of York, having first given his oath at the altar, in presence of all the people, to defend the church, well govern the people, maintain right law, prohibit rapine and unjust judgment. Thus the English, while they agreed not about the choice of their native king, were constrained to take the yoke of an outlandish conqueror. With what minds and by what course of life they had fitted themselves for this servitude, William of Malmsbury spares not to lay open. Not a few years before the Normans came, the clergy, though in Edward the Confessor’s days, had lost all good literature and religion, scarce able to read and understand their Latin service; he was a miracle to others who knew his grammar. The monks went clad in fine stuffs, and made no difference what they eat; which though in itself no fault, yet to their consciences was irreligious. The great men, given to gluttony and dissolute life, made a prey of the common people, abusing their daughters whom they had in service, then turning them off to the stews; the meaner sort tippling together night and day, spent all they had in drunkenness, attended with other vices which effeminate men’s minds. Whence it came to pass, that carried on with fury and rashness more than any true fortitude or skill of war, they gave to William their conqueror so easy a conquest. Not but that some few of all sorts were much better among them; but such was the generality. And as the long-suffering of God permits bad men to enjoy prosperous days with the good, so his severity ofttimes exempts not good men from their share in evil times with the bad.

If these were the causes of such misery and thraldom to those our ancestors, with what better close can be concluded, than here in fit season to remember this age in the midst of her security, to fear from like vices, without amendment, the revolution of like calamities?

EARL GODWIN, EDWARD THE CONFESSOR & BOSHAM

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