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When Harold met William in 1064; a tale of quicksand and cunning

There is a stained glass window in the Église Notre-Dame at Pontorson that depicts an odd moment in Normandy history that took place just a couple of years before William invaded England. It is the story of Harold Godwinson’s unexpected visit to Normandy in 1064.

Match! Built to last; Église Notre-Dame

Harold the hostage

No one is entirely sure why Harold Godwinson, the powerful Saxon Earl of Wessex with one eye on his country’s throne, sailed over to France.  Norman propaganda piece the Bayeux Tapestry proclaimed he was sent by childless King Edward to tell William Duke of Normandy that William was Edward’s choice of heir.  This famously one sided Norman chronicle conveniently forgot that not only was Edward was quite well thank you but the decision of his successor would be made by the King’s council, the Witan.

Other suggestions are Harold was in France to negotiate for the freedom of his brother Wulfnoth and nephew Hakon, hostages at William’s court since 1052.  Or that he had been fishing and was forced across the channel by a bad storm.

Whatever the reason, Harold landed in the old region of Ponthieu (near le Touquet) and was promptly taken hostage by local bandit Count Guy I of Ponthieu.  Harold was locked up in the Count’s chateau at Beaurain but word soon reached William who ‘with prayer and threats’ ordered Guy to hand over the Earl. Harold was fortunate, the Ponthieu had a reputation for passing time waiting for ransom money by torturing their hostages.

From an old postcard – William Duke of Normandy statue in Falaise

Said the spider to the fly

William knew Harold was a fellow contender for the English crown but rather than imprison him, he treated Harold as an honoured ‘guest’.  Both were men in the prime of their lives; tall, strong and used to power.

Contemporary historian Orderic Vitalis described Harold as ‘very tall and handsome, remarkable for his physical strength, his courage and eloquence, his ready jests and acts of valour…

At this time Conan II of Brittany, traditional rival of Normandy, was furious with William for supporting a rebellion against Conan in his own Duchy.  He threatened to invade William’s border lands near Mont Saint-Michel and this gave William an excellent opportunity to show off.  He would take Harold and an army South and put Conan II firmly in his place.

For William the campaign would not go quite to plan while Harold will earn place on Pontsoron’s church window…


To get to Brittany, William, Harold and a small army had to cross by Mont Saint-Michel over the famously dangerous Cousenon river, a mire of swirling tides and quicksand.  The Bayeux tapestry and the window at Pontorson, describe what happened next.

It was chaos. Some dismounted and made their way safely across while others were sucked into the powerful quicksand.  Harold was able to pull two knights to safety, a remarkable feat of strength. The tapestry also shows the less fortunate lying under the sand with the eels…

Pulling people out of quicksand clearly impressed everyone and takes up a generous section of the Bayeux tapestry – and later the beautiful window at Pontorson.

That’s Harold on the right with the fab moustache, pulling two knights out of the quicksand – window in the church in Pontorson

A story with different endings

After the river debacle, William and his army chased a furtive Conan II to the chateau at Dinan where, after a minor siege,  Conan was finally forced to admit defeat.  The tapestry shows Conan passing out the keys to the chateau on the end of a lance. Or so the Bayeux tapestry would have everyone believe. Other chronicles suggest William and his army chased Conan around Brittany until they ran out of supplies and had to head home.

Keys to chateau Dinan are passed out on a lance to William

Records do agree that William and Harold didn’t meet Conan in battle.  The campaign would eventually go in William’s favour as it left Harold Godwinson underwhelmed with Norman fighting strategy, to his later detriment.

The infamous oath…

During his time in Normandy Harold is thought to have discussed marrying one of William’s daughters and William is known to have used family alliances to strengthen his own position.  More famously Harold’s visit ended with gifts and an unfortunate oath described here by Orderic Vitalis:

‘Harold himself had taken an oath of fealty to Duke William at Rouen in the presence of the Norman nobles, and after becoming his man had sworn on the most sacred relics to carry out all that was required of him.    After that, the Duke had taken Harold on an expedition against Conan, Count of Brittany, and had given him splendid arms and horses and heaped other tokens upon him and his companions.’

The quote highlights another historical conundrum, was the oath before or after the Brittany campaign? Chronicles disagree but it is not as important as what was said.  Did William con a rather bigger oath from Harold than Harold planned?

On receiving arms and armour from William, Harold thought he was being honoured for heroics in the Brittany campaign but William apparently hidden some choice religious relics under a cloth, making Harold’s ‘thanks’ a rather more serious ‘fealty’ oath of allegiance.  To his horror Harold had proclaimed William his lord and by now Harold was well aware of William’s ambition for the English throne.

Harold could later swear the oath was made under duress making it invalid, but the damage would go down in history and help William secure the Pope (and so God’s) support for his campaign in 1066.

Sneaky! William (apparently) hides some choice religious relics under a cloth making Harold’s oath rather more serious…

Harold finally went back to England before the winter of 1064 a wiser man.  William’s military strategy may not have impressed him but his cunning and ambition was not in question.  What William thought can only be surmised.

The church

Pontorson was owes its name to Norman chief ‘Orson’ who built a bridge here at the behest of Robert the Devil (or Magnificent, depending on the chronicle), William’s father.  Church construction started with William Duke of Normandy then additions across the centuries.

A wooden sculpture of the Virgin Mary was apparently saved from destruction during the French revolution by a city worthy who popped a cap on her and presented the statue to the revolutionaries as ‘Marianne’ symbol of the first French republic. Unfortunately the 15th century altarpiece depicting the life of Christ was not so lucky. Every single saintly head was snapped off.

Over the southern entrance door is a carving of a man and a very large bird. No-one has any idea what this represents, perhaps one of our historian readers can help?

Carving above the southern entrance to Notre Dame church in Pontorson – giant bird or tiny man?

After Harold’s visit

Harold sailed safely back to England having secured freedom for his nephew Hakon, but not his brother Wulfnoth.  This protected Wulfnoth from a certain battle a few months later near Hastings.

Conan II was asked to help William with his 1066 conquest of England but refused, saying the Normans poisoned his father in 1040.  During Conan’s own 1066 campaign against Anjou, he took Pouancé and Segré, and arrived in Château-Gontier, where he was found dead after donning poisoned riding gloves. Duke William was widely suspected to be behind the assassination.

William invaded England and battled Harold Godwinson in 1066. But that is another story.

Some sources

BBC history

The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy Vol III by Ordericus Vitalis

One thought on “When Harold met William in 1064; a tale of quicksand and cunning

  1. In the Bayeux Tapestry’s “Harold’s Oath” scene, a brightly dressed figure stands between Bishop Odo and Duke William. This is Alan Rufus (second son of Count Eudon who was Duke of Brittany until deposed by his nephew Conan II). Alan is pointing at the word “sacramentum” and attempts to speak, but Odo shushes him.

    In the famous Norman “Last Supper” scene, Alan is again standing beside the Bishop, this time pointing at Odo’s name.

    Odo was a family friend, but Alan and he wouldn’t remain friends, in part because Odo devastated Yorkshire twice: in 1069-70 and again in 1080. In 1082/3, Odo devised a hair-brained scheme to take garrisons from England to Rome. This forced William to abandon Alan and another 200 loyal men in hostile territory. Many of them died.

    Conan’s father Alan III was suspected poisoned by the rebel whose castle he was besieging, Roger I de Montgomery. Since the latter’s son Roger II’s wife was Mabel of Belleme, also an infamous poisoner, and the couple were (probably) in Normandy on 11 December 1066, whereas Duke William was still busy in England trying to be crowned, I accuse the Montgomery of the deed. (Roger II later proved himself duplicitous during the Baronial Rebellion of 1088.)

    Wace says that Alan Rufus and his men caused the English at Hastings “great damage”. The BT shows this in an extended scene in which Earls Leofwine and Gyrth are assailed by Breton knights, Alan Rufus being featured challenging an axe-wielding Gyrth whom another mailed soldier is about to stab in the back with a sword. A notorious Norman account identifies this moment as Duke William defeating Earl Gyrth in single combat. Domesday records that William and Alan divided many of Gyrth’s estates between them.

    Alan evidently reconciled with the English, as he surrounded himself with them, the only post-Conquest magnate to do so. Strange as it seems, even King Harold’s daughter Gunhildr grew to love him.

    The Rebellion of 1088 was led by Odo two months after Alan, apparently as a penance for Norman mischief, persuaded William II to open St Mary’s Abbey York. All the greatest magnates joined Odo, and for a moment William II was pinned between hostile forces and the shut gates of London. However, the Bishop of Durham persuaded the Londoners to shelter their king. William II made sufficient promises that the reconstituted English Fyrd sided with the King and those under Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester defeated Roger of Montgomery’s West Midland army. Meanwhile Archbishop Thomas of York defeated the northern rebels, and William II authorised Alan to seize enemy estates.

    When all the rebels had been defeated, they faced the death penalty, but the loyal barons (read Alan) advised William II to spare them because England needed experienced administrators.

    Odo of Bayeux was sent into exile in Normandy for life, only to see an English army occupying much of the Duchy in February 1091 until a nervous Philip I of France sent Pope Urban II (Odo of Chatillon) to negotiate a partition.

    I sometimes wonder whether Urban’s decision in 1095 to mount a Crusade to unite Christendom was due to his personal loyalty to a France under continuing threat of invasion by William II’s England?

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