It happened today - January 6, 2016

On this day, January 6, back in 1066 Harold the Great took the throne of England. Or Harold the Chump. It all turns on the flight of an arrow.

For those of you not obsessed with the Anglo-Saxon monarchy, and I’m told there are such people, Harold Godwinson is the last crowned Anglo-Saxon monarch. Not the last reigning monarch; that was Edward the Confessor. Nor the last Anglo-Saxon monarch; that was Edgar Atheling, who was proclaimed king by the witenagemot, or council of leading citizens, on the death of Harold at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066 but never had his bottom end sufficiently firmly perched on the throne to perch a crown on his top end, and in December the witenagemot voted to submit him to William “the Conqueror”. But I digress pedantically.

The point is that before Edward the Confessor died, childless and without formally designating an heir, he emerged from his coma long enough to commend his widow and kingdom ambiguously to Harold’s “protection”. And it is more than a little interesting that Harold had no blood claim to the throne at all, despite being intermarried into the elite of Saxon society and by virtue of his father’s ambition and talent being the most powerful nobleman in the kingdom. But Anglo-Saxon England was a land of liberty under law and popular consent, and so he became king by election. The witenagemot knew perfectly well that Edgar Atheling had a better hereditary claim (considerably better, as Harold had none) and that William of Normandy said Edward had named him has heir. But they got to say, and they said Harold.

The reason I call him the Great is that he took the crown at a moment of almost unendurable crisis. Not only was William plotting an invasion, but so was King Harald III “Hardrada” or, loosely, “harshly minded ruler” of Norway along with Harold Godwinson’s own brother Tostig. Ah, sibling rivalry.

Hardrada and Tostig did indeed invade in early September at the mouth of the Tyne in Yorkshire in northeastern England and defeated Harold’s supporters at the Battle of Fulford. Meanwhile Harold force-marched his army north to confront the invaders at Stamford Bridge. And there’s a classic story of a man from his camp riding up to Tostig and Hardrada and offering Tostig an earldom to abandon the war.

Tostig asked what his brother would give his ally, the Norwegian king, and was told something to the effect of “Six feet of ground, or perhaps more, as he is a tall man.” Impressed, Hardrada asked Tostig who this bold messenger was, only to be told it was Godwinson himself.

It is, or should be, a classic line, because in the ensuing battle Godwinson defeated his enemies and killed both Tostig and Harald of Norway on September 25. Unfortunately William invaded three days later and Harold marched his exhausted men back south to Hastings where, on October 14 at Senlac Hill, they withstood charge after charge before succumbing to a ruse, breaking the shield wall to pursue the apparently retreating Normans, and were crushed. At some point at or near the climax of the battle Harold himself was killed. The standard version of his death depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry is that he was felled by an arrow in the eye, though a alternate account says he was slain by by William personally along with three of his knights. And instead of being the man who saved English liberty and common law from continental despotism and Roman law, he became the chump shot through the head.

I like the arrow version partly because it raises a great “what if” of history. What if the archer had missed the big guy giving the orders? Or what, indeed, if he’d been aiming for someone else, had his elbow jostled, and fired the crucial shot by mistake? How different might history have been?

Or how not different? For the Normans, often masterful men indeed, replaced the entire Saxon ruling elite with men with French names and usually Viking pasts. Like William himself, the great-great-great-grandson of one Rollo né Ganger-Hrólf, a pirate who beat Normandy out of the French king by his combination of ferocity and skill. But they were never able to snuff out Saxon liberty. Instead, 150 years after the Conquest, William’s own great-great-grandson was forced to seal the Magna Carta affirming the rights of the English by an informal but potent group of leading men and their supporters with its own roots in the witenagemot.

On the other hand, a Saxon victory at Hastings might have seen England remain more firmly a Scandinavian rather than a European nation. To the extent that it was European; certainly the English and the French would both have sneered at that notion for most of their respective histories though less in the period between the Conqueror and Bad King John than at any point since or, probably, any previous time following Caesar’s invasion of Britain to try to stop them aiding the Gauls he was determined to vanquish.

In any event, Harold was an extraordinary man who got off one of history’s great lines before history got him. He didn’t accomplish enough to become “the Great” but I do think he had greatness in him. And he deserves to be remembered for that “Six feet of earth” crack at least as much, I say, as for that final fatal arrow however fired.