WHEN Edward the Confessor died, the people chose Harold Godwin to be their king, although he was not the real heir to the throne. The real heir was Edgar Ætheling, Edward's grand-nephew and grandson of Edmund Ironside, that king who had such a short and troubled reign and who fought so bravely against Canute the Dane.
But Edgar Ætheling was only a little boy. It seemed to the people as if he was not even an English boy, because he had lived all his life in a far-off country called Hungary, to which Canute had banished his father, and had come to England only a few months before Edward, his grand-uncle, had died. He did not understand the English language nor English ways, so nearly all the people looked upon him as a stranger. They were very tired of the strangers and foreigners with whom Edward had filled his court, and so they said, "Let us have a real Englishman to rule over us, and one who is brave and wise."
They knew Harold was brave, for he had already led them many times in battle. They knew that he was wise, because Edward, during the last years of his life, had been very ill and week, and had allowed Harold to rule for him. And above all they knew Harold bitterly hated Edward's friends, the Norman nobles, and they were sure he would drive them out of the country. But they did not know what was perhaps Harold's chief reason for hating the Normans. They did not know that he had promised the crown of England to the most powerful of them all, William, Duke of Normandy.
So it came about that the day after Edward the Confessor was buried, the people crowded again to the grand new church at Westminster. This time they came to see the new king crowned. The church was filled with the nobles and the great people of the land. Outside the common folk and those who could not get inside waited, impatient to know what was happening.
It was in the beginning of January, and the weather was bitterly cold, but the people did not seem to mind that, so eager were they to see their new king as he passed. Although the wind blew keenly from the north, the sky was blue, and the winter sun shone brightly on the gay colours of their holiday clothes, making the gold ornaments of the women, and the helmets and shields of the soldiers, glitter and sparkle.
The day before, the streets had been full of grave and mourning crowds, sorrowing for the death of their king. This day there was no mourning, everything seemed joyful and glad, and hope shone in the faces of all. Only here and there in the crowd could be seen a few scowling Normans, but they soon slunk away, afraid of the fierce looks and angry words with which the Saxons greeted them.
Within the church all was solemn and quiet. After earnest prayer to God, the Archbishop of York, holding the crown in his hand, turned to the people. Harold knelt humbly at the steps of the high altar, while a breathless hush filled the great church from end to end. Then in the silence the voice of the old archbishop rang out clear and sharp, "Do you choose Harold, Earl of Wessex, son of Godwin, to be your king?
Like the thunder of the waves as they break upon the beach came the answer, "We do, we do."
The words sounded again and again through the aisles of the great church, echoing and re-echoing from the vaulted roof, till it seemed as if all England had answered. Outside the church the people took up the cry, "Harold, son of Godwin, Harold, son of Godwin, Harold the Englishman for our king."
In the silence which followed, Harold placed his hands between those of the archbishop, and promised to fear God, to rule wisely, and to keep the laws of the land.
Then the archbishop, speaking solemn words, anointed him with holy oil, placed the crown of England upon his head, and the sceptre in his hand.
Harold rose from his knees, no longer Earl of Wessex, but King of England. As he turned to the people he looked so brave, handsome, and kingly, that a cry of love and gratitude rose from them, and once again the arches of the great church rang with shouts. One after another the lords and mighty men of England passed before their king. They knelt to him, promising to be true to him, to fight for and obey him, just as he had promised them that he would try to rule well and be a good king.
At last the solemn ceremony was over. Harold passed down the long aisles, followed by the archbishop and bishops in their splendid robes, and the lords and knights in their shining armour. Out of the dim church into the open air they went; out into the sunshine where the people were waiting for their king. When Harold appeared, wearing the crown and royal robes and carrying the sceptre in his hand, they shouted and cheered again and again for joy. "Harold for ever; Harold the King!" they cried.
So Harold was crowned, and all England was glad and at peace.
But the peace and the gladness did not last long. As soon as Harold was crowned, the few Normans who still remained in England fled to Normandy. They went to Rouen, the town in Normandy where Duke William lived.
Nowadays, if one wants to speak to a king, or great prince, it is not always easy, for soldiers and servants guard the doors. But in those days it was much more easy, so one of these Normans who fled from England went to find Duke William, for he knew he had great news to tell. William was out hunting when this messenger from England arrived. He was so eager to tell the news that he could not wait until the duke returned, but followed him into the park. He searched about for some time, and at last saw William riding towards him surrounded by all his lords and ladies, his falcon on his wrist, and his bow in his hand. The duke looked so splendid and powerful that the messenger was almost afraid to tell the news he brought. "My lord," he said, dropping on his knees, "Edward, King of England, is dead."
Duke William's bright eyes shone with joy.
"Ah!" he exclaimed.
"And Harold, son of Godwin, is crowned king in his stead," went on the man.
Then Duke William's eyes flashed fire, his bow dropped from his hand, his face grew red and dark with anger.
"The Saxon dog, the oath-breaker," he thundered, in a voice which made those who heard him tremble. Then he was silent, and those around him were silent too, trembling in fear before the awful wrath of their lord.
For many minutes William sat in dumb rage, clasping and unclasping the rich cloak which fell from his shoulders. Then, still without uttering a word, he turned and rode back to his palace. He seemed neither to see nor hear anything, but throwing himself on a couch, he buried his face in his cloak, and gave himself up to angry thoughts.
His courtiers stood round whispering and frightened. At last one, more bold than the others, went up to him, and laying his hand upon the duke's shoulder, "Rouse yourself, my lord," he said, "you have a message to send to Harold Godwinson, before the common folk hear how he has insulted you."
"Ay, that have I," said William fiercely. Then he called for the man who had brought the news.
He came in fear and trembling, but William only looked darkly at him. "Go," he said after a pause, "go back to England. Tell Harold Godwinson (he would not call him King Harold) that I, William of Normandy, demand the crown and throne of England. Tell him if he will not give it peaceably, that I will come and take it by force."
So the messenger returned to England, and came to Harold as he was sitting in state surrounded by his lords and nobles. Harold listened quietly to the message. Then in a clear and calm voice he replied, "Go tell your master that the crown and throne of England are not mine to give and take at will. Tell him that the people of England have given them to me in trust, and that while I live, I will keep and guard them as best I can. Let William of Normandy beware!"
When the messenger returned to Rouen with this message, William's anger was terrible. At first he could neither speak nor think for rage, but soon he recovered himself and called all his lords together. He asked them to go with him over the sea, to help him to fight Harold and make himself King of England.
But his lords and nobles refused. "It is a very dangerous thing to do," they said. "These English are a great and brave people. They will kill us all. We will not go."
Although William was lord over these men, he could not force them to go across the sea with him. He could only ask them to go. He was very angry with them for refusing, so he broke up the council and sent all the nobles away. Then he made each one come to him alone, and tried to persuade them, one by one, to go with him over the sea to England.
But it was of no use, one after another they refused. "It is all very well for you," they said, "if you win you will have the crown of England; but as for us, those of us who are not killed will return poorer than before. We will not go."
Then Duke William said, "If you will only come with me I will give you fair lands, strong castles, and great stores of money. England is a rich country, and when I have conquered the people, I will take their lands and money away from them and give them to you."
Then all the nobles answered, "We will go."
After that they went to their own homes to gather their soldiers together, and to prepare armour and weapons for battle. But William was not content with the soldiers which his own Norman nobles had promised. He sent messengers into all parts of France, with the promise of land and money as reward, to every one who would come to fight for him.
Very many came. From far and near they flocked to the court of William, glad at the thought of possessing the green fields and broad forest lands of England.
But William had not ships enough to carry so large a company over the sea, so he bought ships, and made people build them for him, paying sometimes with money, sometimes with promises of English land.
Never was such a wonderful army and so great a fleet gathered together in so short a time.
But William was a great leader. He was fierce, strong, and determined. He had set his heart on being King of England, and King of England he meant to be. So night and day he planned and worked, persuading and forcing people in one way or another to help him.