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