Harold II of England, son of Earl Godwin of Wessex and the last of the Saxon Kings, was on this day nine hundred forty-seven years ago martyred in battle at Hastings by the conquering Norman army of William the Bastard. Thus began what has come to be known as the ‘Norman yoke’ – a memory of an England whose traditional language and traditional folkways were repressed by the imposition of foreign laws and a continental nobility. The Norman yoke was no fiction, and they wasted no time in laying it upon Saxon shoulders: within three years of King Harold’s death they had laid waste to the entire north of England and reduced it to starvation and beggary. Within twenty, they had effected a massive upward concentration of wealth, through force consolidated the holdings of over 4,000 Saxon thanes and earls into the hands of some 200 Norman lords, clamped down tight on minting to ensure their control over the developing monetary economy, introduced a more rigid form of feudal administration, introduced usury through fresh arrivals of Jewish financial families from Rouen, and took their payment by bleeding off the English economy to finance infrastructure in Normandy. The common English folkways crushed and driven underground in the aftermath of King Harold’s death still found expression through, for example, the popular mediaeval legend of Robin Hood, who championed simple folk and the commons against a ravening nobility.
Regrettably, during the Reformation and through the English Civil War, the ‘Norman yoke’ came to take on an anti-Catholic and anti-apostolic flavour as English Protestant nationalists attempted to marshal the Saxon heritage to their cause. In actuality, the deep irony of the ‘Norman yoke’ legend being invoked by the radical Calvinist Roundheads, was that their ‘reformed’ heresy was every bit as much a legalistic, repressive and regicidal Norman import as William the Bastard had been! (Jean Chauvin hailed from Picardie.) And, of course, in the end, those same English Protestants who bemoaned the ‘Norman yoke’ gladly welcomed with open arms yet another continental invader named William, who harrowed the Scottish, Irish and northern English every bit as brutally as his eponym had harrowed the Saxons.
In truth, Old England was not heterodox in any way, even if there was a backsliding in the moral life of the Church its twilight years. Much, much less were they wont to treat their kings with the dishonour their heretical offspring shew theirs, the doom of Saint King Edward the Martyr not withstanding. (Even that regicide was treated as a hitherto unheard-of and nigh unforgivable crime.) And, as Archpriest Andrew Phillips put it: ‘England of the Old English with all its faults was also a land of hallowed bishops and holy kings, of martyr-priests and confessors, of noble princes and princesses, saintly abbesses and humble cowherds, meek hermits and lowly monks, righteous families and silent nuns, faithful queens and gentle abbots, who hallowed it from North to South and East to West’. Just as the English people were generally loyal to their own kings, the English Church and people were highly loyal to Rome in all things beginning with St Gregory the Great and St Augustine of Canterbury. But, as Vladimir Moss put it in his book, The Fall of Orthodox England, ‘the “Romanity” to which the English were so devoted was not the Franco-Latin Catholicism of the later Middle Ages. Rather, it was the Greco-Roman Romanitas or Ρωμιοσύνη of Orthodox Catholicism’. The English maintained a special relationship with Byzantium not only on account of St Gregory the Great’s Byzantine apocrisiary post, but also as a consequence of so many Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Danes faring thence to serve in the Varangian Guard - a connexion they upheld and even intensified after the Norman Conquest.
The only true peculiarities, which came to be regarded as a faults from the perspective of Rome, pertained to matters of ecclesiastical governance. Rome detested the Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury for having failed to receive the omophor of his office directly from the Pope, even though no English archbishop had done so since 735. The Roman Church, in its quest to reform itself and to take up the mantle of secular and political power in its own right, in imitation of and over-against the kings it consecrated, was beginning to tread a dangerous path which would ultimately result in the heresies of nominalism, voluntarism and the moral plagues of the Reformation. Vladimir Moss makes the case persuasively, that even if it was by ecclesiastical-political happenstance rather than by a deliberate upholding of traditional doctrine, the English Church found itself in the position of being more orthodox than Rome.
The papacy of Alexander II, having rejected Stigand as non-canonical, was left hearing only the Bastard’s side of the story. The Bastard, aided by Prior Lanfranc of Bec, insisted to the Pope that: a.) Harold was the son of a murderer (though even if Earl Godwin of Wessex had killed Ælfred Æþeling, there was no right cause to hold his son to account for it); b.) St King Edward the Confessor had promised to make him his heir (though in this, we have William’s word alone); c.) that Harold had been crowned king against canon law by an illegal Archbishop, Stigand (even though this is not attested from English sources); and d.) that Harold had broken an oath sworn over holy relics to support William the Bastard’s claim to the English throne (even though, as hostage of the Normans, he was clearly under duress when he made the oath, and had no knowledge of the relics he had sworn that oath upon, since William had made shameful and blasphemous use of them by hiding them from Harold’s view). The Pope, however, in the absence of any delegation from England or the English Church, lent his full support to William and even proclaimed it a holy war to save England from error.
Harold himself should be considered here. He was, by all accounts, a good king and a good man: ‘wise, patient, merciful, courageous, temperate and prudent in character’. He repeatedly showed courage, loyalty and compassion - he saved two men from quicksand when he was a hostage of the Normans. In the wake of the death of St King Edward the Confessor, he ascended to the throne without any opposition from the Saxon witan. Vlaidmir Moss cites Florence of Worcester’s glowing account of his short reign:
[Harold] immediately began to abolish unjust laws and to make good ones; to patronize churches and monasteries; to pay particular reverence to bishops, abbots, monks and clerics; and to show himself pious, humble and affable to all good men. But he treated malefactors with great severity, and gave general orders to his earls, ealdormen, sheriffs and thegns to imprison all thieves, robbers and disturbances of the kingdom. He laboured in his own person by sea and by land for the protection of his realm.Given his evident piety, the news of Pope Alexander II’s excommunication of him and support for the Bastard doubtless came as a great blow to Harold and to his men. Yet, as Moss recounts, Harold still fought bravely, and many of his men, including men of the Church, fought stalwartly at his side. Moss wonders:
Why did they stay, knowing that they stood to lose, not only their bodies, but also, if the anathema was true - their eternal souls? Very few probably knew about the schism of 1054 between Rome and Constantinople or about the theological arguments - over the Filioque, over unleavened bread at the Liturgy, over the supposed universal jurisdiction of the Pope - that led to the schism of 1054. Still fewer, if any, could have come to the firm conclusion that Rome was wrong and Constantinople was right. That Harold had perjured himself in coming to the throne was generally accepted - and yet they stayed with him.We beseech you, Harold, Holy Martyr and Strastoterpets, intercede for us with our Heavenly Father, that we may also find the kindness to insist upon his justice and the courage to fight for his truth, even when all the forces of the world, of empire and of worldly gain are arrayed against us. Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages; amen.
In following King Harold, the Englishmen who fought and died at Hastings were following their hearts rather than their heads. Their hearts told them that, whatever the sins of the king and the nation, he was still their king and this was still their nation. Surely God would not want them to desert these at the time of their greatest need, in a life-and-death struggle against a merciless foreign invader? Perhaps they remembered the words of Archbishop Wulfstan of York: “By what means shall peace and comfort come to God’s servants and God’s poor, but through Christ and through a Christian king?” Almost certainly they were drawn by a grace-filled feeling of loyalty to the Lord's Anointed; for the English were exceptional in their continuing veneration for the monarchy, which in other parts had been destroyed by the papacy.
The English might also have reflected that this day, October 14, was the feast of St. Callistus, a third-century Pope who was considered by many Roman Christians of his time (including St. Hippolytus) to be a schismatic anti-pope. If that Pope could have been a schismatic, was there not much more reason to believe that this one was schismatic, too, being under the anathema of the Great Church of Constantinople and presuming as he did to dispose of kingdoms as he did churches and blessing the armed invasion of peaceful Christian countries by uninvited foreigners? And if so, then was it not they, the Normans, who were the schismatics, while the true Christians were those who refused to obey their false decrees and anathemas? In any case, after the battle very few Englishman fled to Old Rome, the traditional refuge of English exiles. They preferred, as we have seen, the Orthodox capitals of Constantinople and Russia!