The Grey Apple Tree

This is the text of a script I used in an audio-visual presentation about the events leading to the battle of Hastings.

Edward the Confessor is on the throne of England. There has been a power struggle amongst the small kingdoms of Cornwall, Wessex, Mercia, and Northumbria for the last 200 years. Alfred the Great and his descendants had been the rulers of Wessex from 871 to 1016, when his descendant Edmund Ironside had negotiated the succession away to the Danish King Canute.

Canute became the first King of England. He married Emma of Normandy, the mother of Edmund Ironside, and widow of the Wessex King Ethelred the Unready, uniting the Saxon Kingdoms and Denmark in name, if not in reality. After Canute's death in 1035, the succession switches back and forth between the sons of Ethelred, and the sons of Canute, culminating in the ascent to the throne of Edward the Confessor in 1042. Edward is the last son of Ethelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy. Edward had married Edith, the daughter of the powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex, but their union was not fruitful. Now Edward is becoming old and weak. As his life draws to a close, a power struggle begins…to determine who will be his successor.

There are four main claimants to the throne. Edgar the Atheling's claim to the throne of England is based on a strong blood tie with the Anglo Saxon Kings of England. He is the grandson of Edmund Ironside and a direct descendent of Alfred the Great. But, although the rightful claimant, Edgar is only ten years old and does not have the support of the Witan, the powerful nobles of England.

Edgar Atheling's claim to the throne

The next claimant to the English throne is the Viking Harald Hardrada who succeeded Magnus the Good as King of Norway. Magnus had been declared heir to the English throne after Canute's youngest son Hardicanute died childless, but Edward the Confessor had taken his opportunity to seize the throne instead. Now that Edward is nearing the end of his life, Harald Hardrada wants to succeed him.

There are two remaining candidates. The first is William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy. His claim results from a distant blood relationship to King Edward through Edward's mother, Emma of Normandy, the second wife of Ethelred the Unready of Wessex. Normandy has close ties of friendship with Wessex dating back to 988, when a formal treaty was arranged between them, against the Vikings…and in 1051, Edward had announced that William Duke of Normandy would succeed him on the throne of England.

Harold Godwinson's claim to the throne

The last and perhaps the weakest claimant is Harold Godwinson, the Anglo-Saxon Earl of Wessex. He is distantly related to King Cnut, through his Danish mother's relatives and his sister is married to King Edward. After the King, Harold is the richest and most powerful man in England, a good leader in battle and an advisor to the King. More importantly, Harold Godwinson has the confidence of the Witan.

What follows is told through the narrative of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, half-brother to Duke William of Normandy. His account has been called the oldest strip cartoon in the world and is simply known to us as the "Bayeux Tapestry."

The word tapestry originally simply meant a "hanging". The Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry in the usual sense of the word. It is an embroidery of woollen threads on linen cloth, 230 feet long by 20 inches deep, believed to have been made at Canterbury in Kent in the 1070s.

Our narrative begins in 1064. The main subjects of the narrative are Harold Godwinson and William Duke of Normandy, with an occasional appearance of the narrator himself, Bishop Odo.

Harold Godwinson sets sail for Normandy. Some historians say he had been sent to Normandy on a Diplomatic Mission to renew Edward's promise that William would succeed him. Another interpretation is that he was shipwrecked there, taken hostage and forced to support William's claim. The tapestry tells us that Harold is seized on arrival by Guy Turold and conveyed to his stronghold at Beaurain, where William's messengers come to speak with him.

Harold is taken from there to William, Duke of Normandy's palace…French historians stress how well Harold is being treated by William. Harold now accompanies William and his army to Brittany on a campaign against Conan of Brittany at Dinan, and distinguishes himself by rescuing soldiers from the quicksand. After this William gives weapons to Harold and they come to Bayeux, where Harold swears an oath of allegiance to William confirming William as heir to the English throne, before returning to England.

Back in England, King Edward is gravely ill and he dies soon afterwards. The tapestry depicts his coffin being carried to the Church of St Peter. Now Harold makes a huge mistake. He goes back on his word and is crowned King of England.

A furious William, on hearing news of the Coronation, orders the building of a fleet of ships and prepares his troops for Invasion. The ships are loaded with weapons, armour, food and wine. William and his army cross the channel and disembark at Pevensey, where the horses are taken ashore and the soldiers are sent to Hastings to requisition food. The tapestry shows them cooking meat and feasting. Bishop Odo, William's half-brother, blesses the food and wine and they await news of Harold.

Harold meantime is on his way back from a battle in the North where he has defeated the Viking challenge to his crown, at Stamford Bridge. As his tired and depleted army march south, William's troops have time to refresh and prepare themselves for the forthcoming battle. The tapestry shows the Norman army setting off to do battle against Harold. The English fight on foot and the Normans on horseback.

Harold's army arrives and the battle begins on 14th October 1066. Harold's brothers, the Earls Gyrth and Leffwynn are early casualties, both dying in hand to hand fighting. The battle is fierce and bloody with many losses on both sides. The margin of the tapestry shows dead and mutilated soldiers and fallen horses. William raises his helmet to spur on his troops and finally Harold is killed, perhaps first hit in the eye by an arrow and then mown down by Norman Knights. Later his mutilated body is only recognisable by his mistress identifying private marks on his body.

The battle draws to a close with William triumphant and the English soldiers fleeing for their lives.

Soon afterwards William the Conqueror is crowned King of England. He retains the Old English laws and brings to the unified Kingdom of England, a new language, a new style of building, huge taxes and the greatest survey that had ever been undertaken, the Domesday book.

King William I "The Conqueror"

William is remembered for many things, but perhaps most of all for the battle at Senlac Hill, near Hastings that William fought to gain the crown of England and which was known as the Battle of the Grey Apple Tree.

© Christine Widdall 2018

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