Fate has dealt me a mortal blow. I know it. Never in my life have I done anything I am destined to regret more. William the Bastard has gotten the better of me, and has forced me to give an oath to support his claim to the throne. He trapped me in a golden cage of my own making.
It seemed a hundred years ago when I left Bosham with my hunting dogs and my falcon. I may have pretended I was going on a hunt, but my real aim was to ransom my little brother Wulfnoth and my nephew Hakon. They had been hostages in Normandy long enough. I was so proud of myself back then—so sure I was ready for anything. And just as soon as I set foot on land, my world went to pieces. I could still be languishing in Count Guy's dungeon if it weren't for Duke William's timely intervention. And so, like Scylla and Charybdis, I was caught between the rocky shoal and the whirlpool.
For a while I became William's hostage, as sure as Wulfnoth was. How was I to know that the duke thought himself King Edward's heir, duped by that wily Robert of Jumièges? Who would have thought the archbishop would take such a far-sighted revenge on my family—no, on our whole country—because of his feud with father? I never would have ventured to Normandy if I had known about William's expectations. And once I was caught in his power, I had no choice but to do his bidding. I would have done anything to get away from there.
As soon as William got what he wanted, he let me fly away. But not Wulfnoth. Poor Wulfnoth. The duke of Normandy kept my brother as surety for my wretched oath. Sick at heart for leaving Wulfnoth behind—wondering if I was doing the right thing—I watched the Norman coast recede along with my brother's hopes. What else could I have done? I listened to the boat creak and the water splash in that comforting way which tells us all is well; though in my case this was an illusion. I put my arm around my nephew Hakon's shoulders, chiding myself for wishing it was Wulfnoth standing beside me and not him. But I never had any feelings for Swegn's son and it was too late to change that now. It wasn't Hakon's fault Duke William saw fit to retain my little brother as hostage. Ironically, it was Hakon's good fortune that he had no particular value to anybody.
I should have felt some relief that my mission wasn't a total failure. But I didn't. I may have gained freedom for my nephew, but I may have lost my soul in the process. And my self-respect. How could things have gone so wrong?
No matter whom the witan elects as next king, Edward's successor will have to face Duke William and his remorseless claim. But there was something more that bothered me. Archbishop Robert was friends with King Edward. He had served the king for years, and only left the country because he was forced out of power—by my father, of course. His first act of revenge was to snatch away poor Wulfnoth and Hakon as hostages. His second act was to promise the throne to William. It's possible that he and Edward planned my family's outlawry all along; could it also be that the king really did offer the crown to Duke William? I shuddered to think on it.
And how was I going to ask him? I would have enough trouble explaining myself when I got back to England without seeming to accuse him. What would be the point? As king, Edward could do whatever he pleased. But to give away his country to a foreign ruler? I just didn't see how that was possible. Even Edward had some loyalty toward his subjects. I hope.
Looking back, I would say my troubles with Harold started after he returned from Normandy, back in the late summer of 1064. While Harold was gone, things were so much better. King Edward and I spent a lot of time together, and I'm proud to say he treated me like a close companion. Without my brother's presence, Edward was quite another man; he was more relaxed, he would laugh more and even jest on occasion. Anyway, when Harold returned—already stinging from the trouble his pride had brought him—he made a quiet entrance into the great hall. He took one look at the king and I, drinking together and laughing, and his face turned three shades of red. My sister the queen told me about it later, because at the time I was turned away from him. What I would have given to see my brother's face!
The king looked up and saw Harold, and the change that came over him was immediate. His smile faded, his eyes took on that old guarded expression; his manner turned formal as he stood with a hand out for Harold to kiss. "Welcome back to court," the king said sadly. "You have been sorely missed."
Everyone except Harold could tell that Edward said the exact opposite of what he meant. But of course my brother chose to take him literally. "I am relieved to be back, Sire," he said. "Although I'm sorry to say my mission was only half-accomplished."
Harold had gone to Normandy to retrieve my brother Wulfnoth and our nephew Hakon, held there as hostages for the last twelve years. Edward had advised him against going, but my brother had to play hero, no matter what the cost.
I sat up at his admission. "What happened?" I exclaimed. "Where is our brother?"
I expected some sort of retort from Harold, but he actually hung his head. "Duke William allowed me to bring back Hakon, though he insisted on keeping Wulfnoth. He wanted security against certain promises he extorted from me..."
He trailed off. I jumped to my feet, angrily. "What's that! You left Wulfnoth behind in Normandy?"
That got a reaction from him. "You weren't there, Tostig. I tried my best." He was angry, but something was holding him back.
"And your best wasn't good enough. Poor Wulfnoth! We'll never get him back now."
King Edward put a hand on my arm, nodding for me to contain myself. I turned away.
"Was it such a difficulty, then," he asked Harold, "getting my cousin William to cooperate?" William was more of a second or third cousin to Edward, but our king spoke of the duke with great regard.
"Sire," Harold blurted, rushing his words together, "I must speak to you alone on this matter."
My brother's manner radiated desperation. Despite myself, I watched curiously as he followed the king from the room. My sister and I exchanged glances, and she slipped out after them. Edward never excluded her from his presence—nor indeed, do I think he could have.
Tostig was right. My husband never forgave himself for exiling me to a nunnery when he banished my father back in 1051, even though I think he was glad when father died two years later. Still, there was no denying the injustice of my imprisonment, and ever since then, Edward attempted to atone by admitting me to his presence on any occasion I desired. That is how I was able to witness the emotional scene between Harold and the king, when he confessed to his foul oath to support William's claim to the English throne... Editha
My sister was gone a long time, and the great hall gradually emptied out. When Editha came back she was very pale. She sat down on the throne and I moved to her side, taking her usual chair. She put a hand to her forehead.
"Prepare yourself," she said to me. "I have some very disturbing news."
"He's gone. There is nothing more for him to say right now."
I took her hand. "Tell me."
Editha gave a great sigh. "Edward had warned him not to go. But mayhap it is better this way. At least we know."
She was trying my patience. I forced myself to stay calm.
"About William's designs on the throne. He sees himself as Edward's heir."
I gasped. What was she talking about?
"From what Harold just admitted, Archbishop Robert of Jumièges told him Edward promised the throne, way back after our father's exile. Robert delivered Wulfnoth and Hakon into William's hands as hostages for this promise. All this time, William has schemed for the throne of England."
I was shocked. But then I was puzzled.
"What has this to do with Harold?"
"Our brother fell into William's trap. The duke would not let him leave until he swore an oath to support William's claim. A frightful oath. An oath on the relics of Normandy's saints."
I crossed myself, twice. This was indeed dreadful news. For all of us.
"Harold was lucky to get away," she added. "Hakon was lucky to get away. William kept Wulfnoth as hostage against Harold's promise. Now our brother needs to expiate his sin, for we all know he made that oath in vain. What will happen to poor Wulfnoth?"
No wonder he couldn't face me. We could only hope that Edward would outlive William, which would make Harold's oath moot. Otherwise...well, there was nothing to be done now.
My meeting with the king was just as distressing as I expected it to be. At least he let me tell him alone, with just my sister in tow. I wasn't strong enough to confront Tostig just yet; the few words that passed between us were almost more than I could bear. He has a way of making me uneasy; ever since we were boys, he has always been on the verge of fighting with me, and his sarcasm can be biting.
Unfortunately, I wasn't feeling much better around Edward, but for different reasons. We both remembered his warning when I originally announced my plans. And now I couldn't shake the uncomfortable feeling that even back then, he knew much more than I did about William's secret ambition.
The king offered me a seat; I was glad of it, for my emotions were exhausting me. I looked at the floor, waiting for him to speak. But of course, I was the supplicant here.
"Tell me, Harold," he said finally. His voice was not friendly.
I raised my head.
"Sire, had I known William desired the throne, I never would have crossed the Channel."
That was as close as I dared to make an accusation. I waited for a reaction.
Edward was much better at hiding his feelings since our outlawry. He rubbed his cheek, looking into the distance.
"The throne," he said quietly. "What about the throne?"
Could it be possible he didn't know? I looked at my sister but she shrugged her shoulders.
"Wulfnoth told me," I went on, "that Archbishop Robert made the announcement directly after he left England. With my brother." This was shaky ground, for I don't think Edward ever forgave our victorious return from exile. Many of his Norman friends left the country and never came back. Including Robert, who died a couple of years later. I'm sure Edward was thinking about this as well, but his face betrayed no emotion. I took a deep breath.
"The archbishop told William you wanted him to be your heir. That you sent Wulfnoth and Hakon as hostages to secure your promise."
I stared at the king. He blinked back.
"Do you believe that?" he said finally.
I didn't know. I took a deep breath. "Wulfnoth said Robert told the duke that my father and the other great earls agreed. I certainly don’t believe that!" His question was only half answered. I waited. He didn’t move a muscle. "He said Robert made it all up to wreak revenge on us," I added.
After a moment, Edward nodded as if in agreement. "I will tell you this, Harold. When your father was in exile, Archbishop Robert and I spent a lot of time together, much of it in idle conversation."
He paused so long I thought he was finished. Editha bent over his shoulder.
"No, my dear, Harold deserves to know. You deserve to know. There was a time I mentioned William's name, more as wistful musing than any desire to act on it. I know the witan. William would not be popular in this country. He would understand your customs less than I did."
I didn't know what to say. Where was the truth in this?
"And the hostages?"
He looked away. "They were in Archbishop Robert's charge. I was not involved."
I frowned despite myself. As I suspected, Edward took no responsibility for my brother at all.
"He was so brave." My voice shook. "I hated to leave him behind."
"What exactly happened?"
It was hard to look back at those months. "William treated me well, but I was never left alone. He set guards outside my door at night. He kept me at his side nearly every day. He took me on campaign with him. He even knighted me..." Those words were hard to say and I had to swallow. "When I finally tried to take my leave, he insisted that I do so in front of a grand assembly of nobles and ecclesiastics."
The king pursed his lips but said nothing.
"Sire, he made me swear an oath that I would be his man in England and support his claim to the throne." I put my hands over my face. "He made me swear that I would give him Dover castle so he could garrison it with his own men." Edward gasped.
"There was no other way." My voice was almost pleading with him to understand. "I swore that oath on the bones of his saints, though I did not know it until too late. And I don't even know which saints!"
Edward probably crossed himself, for I heard the swish of his sleeves though I could not bear to uncover my face.
"I forswore myself to gain my freedom," I said, still trying to control my voice. "I took that oath under duress."
Those last words served to calm me, for I truly believed I could stand behind this defense. But when I finally looked at Edward, I was not reassured.
"Your actions will have grave consequences, Harold. I fear for you."
I gasped. He sounded like a reproachful prophet. Or was it my own guilt ringing in my ears?