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What was King Harold up to?

Harold quite possibly was not ‘up’ to anything – if the theory about a hunting trip that went wrong is correct. He was simply caught out by the weather – as has been happening to people in England since the year dot.

So it was a great fuss about nothing.

No. Because the Normans had no idea what had brought Harold to Normandy. They were great chess players, and were always asking themselves what their opponents were up to. People who play high politics are always asking themselves what their rivals are up to, when it is not always clear that they are up to anything. When the Austrian Chancellor, Count Metternich, was brought news in the middle of the night that the Russian Ambassador had died suddenly, he propped himself on an elbow and muttered, ‘What does he mean by that?’

Harold, as the greatest potential rival to William for the throne, was naturally the biggest potential opponent. Each of them knew perfectly well what the ambitions of other man were. It seemed inconceivable to the logical Normans that Harold would have put himself at such a disadvantage for no reason at all. So, to repeat, there was something ‘up’. The problem, of course, was finding out what it was. The Normans spent most of the summer of 1064 grappling with it.

What did they do?

The immediate thing to do was get hold of Harold.

You mean under lock and key?

Not exactly, but at least somewhere where they could keep an eye on him.

But he was already in Normandy, and William knew he had been shipwrecked in the mouth of the Somme.

Once again, it is not as simple as that. Harold was shipwrecked in a small county on the borders of Normandy called Ponthieu, which, under its count, Guy, was technically independent.

Ah. So William could not infringe the sovereignty of a foreign power.

Yet again, not quite so simple. Count Guy was indeed the ruler of Ponthieu, but William, as his stronger neighbour, was his feudal overlord. So all William had to do was point out to Guy that, if he knew what was good for him, he had better hand Harold over. Guy, was very small-time, and had only got as far as thinking about raising ransom money on Harold. Earls of Wessex should be quite a profitable proposition. William had much bigger fish to fry than that. The Tapestry shows Guy meeting William at the border of Normandy and Ponthieu and doing as he was told. All this took time.

So Harold was now William`s prisoner.

Guest, rather. There is no evidence that Harold was chained to the wall. But everyone knew that Harold, under the circumstances, was a unique kind of guest. Etiquette had to be followed between a duke and an earl, and each needed the chance to size up the opposition, but clearly something would have to happen; the situation could not stay as it was.

It was going to be most interesting summer. . .


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Berwick Coates