The news of Harold's marriage to Ealdgyth put an end to the demands of Willia_f Normandy that Harold should take one of his daughters to wife, and in th_omplaints that he addressed to all Christendom against Harold the breach o_is promise in this respect was placed far more prominently than his failur_o carry out his oath to be the duke's man. It must have been evident indee_o all that it was beyond the power of the English king to keep this oath, obtained from him by force and treachery. He had been elected by the voice o_he English people, and had no more power than the meanest of his subjects t_and the crown they had bestowed to another.
The breach of this oath, however, served to obtain all the aid that the churc_ould give to William. Harold was solemnly excommunicated, and the struggl_or which the duke was preparing thereupon assumed the character of a sacre_ar. In England itself the Bull of excommunication had no effect whatever. Th_reat bulk of bishops and clergy were Englishmen, and thought far more o_heir king than of any foreign prince or prelate. Even the bishops and abbot_f Norman blood disregarded the commination, and remained staunch to Harold.
He had been a generous patron to the church, had maintained them in all th_rivileges and dignities that Edward had bestowed upon them, and possessed th_ove of the whole English people; therefore, in spite of bann and interdic_he churches remained open, services were held as usual, and people wer_arried and buried as if the Papal Bull had never been issued.
But it was not so on the Continent. The Norman barons as a body had at firs_efused to support the duke in an invasion of England, but as individuals the_ad been brought round to join in William's project, and to give far more ai_n ships and men than they were bound to do by their feudal engagements.
Having accomplished this, William issued an invitation to all adventurou_pirits in Europe to join him in his crusade against the excommunicated Kin_f England, promising that all should share alike in the plunder of Englan_nd in the division of its land. The bait was a tempting one. Some joined th_nterprise merely for the sake of gaining glory under the banner of one wh_as regarded as the greatest military leader in Europe, others were influence_y love of gain, while, as in the crusades, numbers joined to obtai_bsolution for past misdeeds by taking part in an enterprise blessed by th_ope. Thus the force which William was collecting greatly exceeded that whic_he resources of Normandy alone could have set on foot.
Among the first to hurry to the court of William, as soon as Harold'_ccession to the throne was known, was Tostig, in whose mind the refusal o_arold to embark in a civil war for his sake, and to force him upon the peopl_f Northumbria in spite of their detestation of him, was an injury not to b_orgiven. The fact that Tostig was ready thus to sacrifice England to his ow_rivate quarrel showed a baseness and recklessness that could hardly b_xpected from his early career. William naturally accepted the alliance, received Tostig's oath of allegiance, and aided him in fitting out a number o_hips manned by Norman and Flemish adventurers. Evading the watch kept by th_nglish fleet they crossed the sea, landed, and plundered and ravaged _onsiderable extent of country, and then retired, Tostig being enraged tha_illiam of Normandy was unwilling to send an expedition to act in concert wit_im until the whole of his plans were prepared and his great army ready fo_ea.
Normandy indeed had been converted into a vast camp. In every port grea_umbers of workmen laboured night and day building ships, for Normandy ha_eased to be a naval power, and its shipping was utterly insufficient to carr_he great army across. Tostig, impatient and hasty, thought no more of th_ath of allegiance that he had sworn to William. Driven from Yorkshire by th_orces of the northern earls he sailed to Scotland, where he was welcomed b_ing Malcolm, both as a sworn brother and as the enemy of England. Fro_cotland he entered into negotiations with Harold Hardrada of Norway. Thi_arlike monarch was in a fit mood to listen to his advances; he had for year_een engaged in a struggle with Denmark, which he had ineffectually attempte_o conquer, and had at last been forced to conclude a treaty of peace wit_weyn, its king.
Tostig had already endeavoured by personal persuasions to induce Sweyn t_evive his claim to the crown of England, and to undertake its conquest; bu_e altogether declined to undertake so dangerous and difficult an enterprise, and Tostig had then turned to Harold of Norway. Whether his interview with hi_as before he went to Scotland or whether he went thence to Norway is a poin_n which historians differ. Some deny that any interview took place, but th_alance of probability lies strongly in favour of an early interview, at whic_arold entered heartily into Tostig's plans, and began at once to mak_reparations for the enterprise.
It was certain that an invading force from Norway would land in Northumbria, and Harold, although he might not be able to rely greatly upon the assistanc_f the northern earls as against the Normans, knew that they would do thei_est to defeat an expedition landing on their own shores, especially whe_ostig was a sharer in the invasion. His own thoughts were wholly bent upo_epelling the mighty expedition gathering in Normandy, and for this purpose, by immense efforts, he collected the greatest army and fleet that had eve_een got together in England. An incessant watch was kept up along the coas_here the Normans might be expected to land, while the fleet cruised fo_onths between the Thames and the Isle of Wight prepared to give battle to th_nvaders.
But the conditions of service in England were such that it was impossible t_eep a great force on foot for an indefinite time. The housecarls were th_nly regular portion of the army The great bulk of the force, both land an_ea, consisting of the levies or militia, whose term of service was ver_imited. It says much for the influence of Harold that he was able for fou_onths to keep his army and navy together. Had the foe appeared, soldiers an_ailors would have done their duty, but the long term of inaction, the wear_aiting for a foe that never came, was too much, and when September arrive_nd the harvest was ready to be gathered it was impossible even for him t_eep the men longer together. The army disbanded, the levies went to thei_omes, and the ships of the fleet sailed away to the ports to which the_elonged. All the efforts and anxieties of Harold, all his lavish expenditur_n feeding and providing for so great a number of men had been thrown away.
England lay for a time absolutely defenceless against the coming storm.
It was not until August that Wulf had completely recovered his strength, an_as able to join the army.
"This is not a time," Harold said to him on the day he arrived at the camp,
"for the granting of dignities or the bestowal of grants. But if we ar_uccessful, and I remain King of England, the services you have rendered me a_he risk of your life, Wulf, shall be worthily rewarded."
"I need no reward," Wulf replied. "My estates are sufficient for all my needs, and I desire neither land nor dignity, being more than content that I hav_een enabled to render a service to you and to England."
Wulf was, however, at once appointed as commander of the whole of th_ousecarls supplied by the thanes of the south coast of Sussex. None of thes_odies were equal in strength to his own carefully prepared contingent, few o_he thanes having kept up more than fifteen or twenty men constantly unde_rms, and these only for the past few months, in consequence of Harold'_xhortations. Altogether the force amounted to about four hundred men. Eac_arty had its own sub-officer, and Wulf did his best to weld them into on_ody. When the army broke up, he returned with the king to Westminster. Th_ay after he arrived there a man met him as he issued from the palace, an_anded him a letter. It contained but the words:
" _I would fain see you. If you will follow the bearer he will bring you t_e. Say naught to any one of this message. Edith._ "
"Is the distance far?" he asked the man.
"It is to Croydon, my lord. I have ridden here on horseback."
Wulf at once ordered his horse to be brought to him.
"Will you be back to-night, my lord," Osgod asked, as he mounted, "in case th_ing should wish to see you?"
"I shall not be back till late, possibly not until to-morrow I do not tell yo_here I am going, in order that if you are asked you may be able truly t_eply that I said nothing before I mounted, as to my destination."
It was just mid-day when Wulf drew up his horse before a modest house standin_n a secluded position a quarter of a mile from the village of Croydon. Edit_et him at the doorway.
"I thank you, Wulf, for answering my request so speedily. There is much that _ould ask you about my lord. I hear of him only by general report, fo_lthough from time to time I send him messages I give him no opportunity fo_riting to me, and I know that he has respected my wishes, and has caused n_earch to be made for me."
"Harold sometimes speaks to me of you, lady, and has in no way forgotten you.
He did charge me to find out if I could the place of your abode; not that h_ould seek an interview with you, but, should there be need, he might be abl_o send a message." By this time they were seated in the room where Edit_pent the greater part of her time.
"It is better that we should not meet," she said earnestly. "His mission is t_ork and to fight for England; mine to remain apart from all men and to spen_y time in prayers for him. I know that he places great confidence in you, a_ndeed he well may, for I heard how you had saved his life, well nigh at th_xpense of your own. Is he happy with his new queen?"
"His thoughts at present, lady, are altogether turned to public affairs, an_t is well perhaps that it should be so. I do not think that he receives muc_ympathy from the queen, who cares more, I should say, for her brothers, th_orthern earls, than for her husband."
"It is scarce a wonder that it should be so," Edith replied; "though it seem_trange to me that any woman could live with Harold without loving him wit_ll her heart. And yet she may well feel that she, like Harold, has bee_acrificed. There was no shadow of love between them before their marriage, i_act she may even have hated him, for it was he who brought ruin and deat_pon her husband, the Welsh king. She must know that he only married her i_rder to gain the firm alliance of her brothers, and that her hand was give_y them to Harold without any reference to her feelings. I would that the kin_ere happy, even though it were with another. But it was not for his happines_hat I left him, but that England might be one. Is it true that the army i_roken up and the fleet scattered?"
"It is true, lady. Save for three or four thousand housecarls, there is not a_rmed man in readiness to defend England."
"It must be a terrible trial to him."
"It is, my lady. He returned to town yesterday dispirited and cast down at th_ailure of the work of months."
"Still they will reassemble rapidly," she said, "when the Normans reall_ome?"
"Doubtless they will. But the loss of the fleet is greater than that of th_rmy, for at sea we could have met and almost assuredly have conquered them, for the Normans are no match for our sailors; whereas to meet so great an arm_f trained soldiers, with hastily assembled levies, is to fight under ever_isadvantage."
"And is the rumour true which says that Tostig and Harold of Norway are als_reparing for an invasion?"
"All reports that come to us through Denmark are to that effect."
"It is enough to make the stones cry out," Edith said indignantly, "that a so_f Godwin should thus betray England. I never thought it of him. He wa_eadstrong and passionate; yet as a young man he was loved almost as much a_arold himself, nay, some loved him more. But it was not on account of publi_ffairs that I brought you here, but to talk of Harold. I know nought of hi_aily doings, of his thoughts, or his troubles. Tell me all you can of him, Wulf."
For a long time they talked of the king. She had from the first been draw_owards Wulf by seeing how he loved Harold, and as they talked her tears ofte_ell.
"I am proud of him," she said at last; "more proud of him than when he was th_ight of my life. My sacrifice has not been in vain. He is what I would hav_im. One whose thoughts are all fixed upon his country; who gives all hi_nergy, all his wisdom, all his time to her service. Humbler men can be happy, but a king has higher duties than others, and for him love and marriage, wif_nd children, the joys of the peasant, must be altogether secondary. The goo_f his country, the happiness and welfare of tens of thousands are in hi_ands; and if in these respects he acts worthily, if he gains the blessings o_is people, he can afford to do without the home joys that are so much t_esser men. You are sure that he is not unhappy? If I did but know this, _ould be content."
"I do not think he is unhappy," Wulf said confidently. "He has the applaus_nd love of all men, and the knowledge that all his work is for the good o_is country and his people. He may have regrets, but he has little time t_pend upon them when he has in hand so vast a work, upon which night and da_is every thought is directed."
"I suppose you wish to get back to-night, Wulf?"
"I should greatly prefer it," he said.
"And I would rather that you did not remain here. It may seem inhospitable, but I feel it would be better so. No one here knows who I am, and at first m_ervants were plied with questions whenever they went abroad; but the wonde_as died away, and the villagers have come to believe that I am, as I gav_ut, the widow of a court official. Should it be known that a young than_tayed here the night, it would set them gossiping afresh. Stay and sup wit_e before you start."
"And am I to tell the king I have seen you?" he asked.
"What think you yourself, Wulf?"
"I am sure that he would be glad to know. I need not say where you are living.
I will say that you have charged me to keep it secret, and he will forbea_uestioning me. But I am sure that it will give him deep pleasure to know tha_ have seen you, to learn how you look, how you are living, how you occup_ourself, and how you think of him. It cannot but be a trial to him to kno_othing of one he so loves. More than once he has told me that he wondere_hether you had entered a convent, whether you were in health, how you bor_ourself, and other matters."
"Tell him then, Wulf. You can tell him that great as has been my grief ove_ur separation, I can yet feel happy in my solitude in knowing how nobly he i_oing his kingly work, and that I have never wavered in my assurance that _as right when I bade him go. Tell him that I have no thought of entering _loister; that I have my old servants and my garden and needle-work; that _pend much of my time in ministering to my poorer neighbours, and that I a_etting to be loved by them. Say that my health is good, and that I have ever_omfort I need save his presence. Tell him that if I fall ill, and the leeche_ay that I shall die, I shall send for him to see me once again, but that i_uch manner only will we meet in this life; and that it is my prayer that h_ill not seek to alter my resolution, for that the pain of parting again woul_e more than the joy of seeing him. He is another woman's now, and that by m_ct, therefore it would be a grievous sin for us, loving each other as we do, to meet again, unless he or I was on a death-bed."
The supper was served early, and when it was eaten Wulf's horse was brough_ound to the door.
"Am I to come again?" he asked.
She did not answer for a time. "Not unless I send for you, Wulf. Our meetin_as given me much pleasure, and I shall be the happier for it, but for a tim_ur talk of the past and present will unsettle me and stir up afresh regret_nd longings. Therefore, it were best that you come not again until I send fo_ou."
The darkness was just closing in when Wulf rode into Westminster.
"The king has twice asked for you, my lord," Osgod said, as he alighted. "Th_ast time a quarter of an hour since."
Wulf at once went to the king's closet, where he was at work with two or thre_ecretaries, to whom he was dictating.
"I want you, Wulf," the king said as he entered. "Where hast been?" Wul_lanced at the secretaries, and Harold bade them retire till he summoned the_gain. Wulf then related at length his interview with Edith. Harold listene_n silence.
"I am right glad at your news," he said, when the latter had finished. "It i_ust what I thought she would do. Her words are lofty and wise; truly a kin_an little hope for happiness such as that which is in the reach of th_umblest of his subjects. But we will talk of this again. For the present _ust think of public business. News has been brought me by a sure hand fro_enmark that the fleet of Norway has sailed. 'Tis said that Harold has calle_ut a levy of half the fighting men of his kingdom, and that he has fiv_undred war-ships besides transports. His son, Magnus, has been left behind t_ule Norway with the title of king. Harold intends to conquer England an_eign here. I must lose no moment in sending the news to the northern earls.
Doubtless it is on their coast he will first land. There is no one I woul_ooner trust than yourself, and you shall be my messenger.
"I have the letters already written to them, warning them that every ma_apable of bearing arms should be summoned to their standard, and ever_reparation made to repulse the foe. Of help at present I can give them none; my army is dispersed, my shores undefended, and at any moment William's flee_ay appear off the coast. Let them meet the Norwegians, while I meet th_ormans. It is for you to press upon them the counsels I give in my letters; and I would that you should remain with them, sending messages to me from tim_o time, giving me full tidings of what takes place at York and how they far_n their struggle with Harold of Norway, and, as I fear, with my brothe_ostig. They met you at Northampton, and they know the confidence I place i_ou and the services you rendered in the Welsh campaign. However, althoug_hey may receive you well I fear that your counsel will go for nought. The_re haughty and headstrong, and assuredly they will not be guided by one of m_hanes. Do not, therefore, press the matter with them, or risk incurring thei_nger. I want you to stand well with them, for so only can you learn thei_iews and keep me informed of what is doing. Being assured that you woul_ndertake the duty I have highly commended you to them as my representative a_ork, and I doubt not that you will be well received. Brothers-in-law thoug_hey are I can count on but little aid from them in our struggle with th_ormans, but there they will be fighting for their own earldoms and will d_heir best, though I fear the result, for they have been deaf to my entreatie_o keep an army on foot, and the hurried levies of the North will scarce stan_gainst the mighty army Harold Hardrada is bringing against them."
"I will start immediately, my lord."
"Here is a royal order upon all governors and thanes to give you changes o_orses and to aid you in all ways. Take that giant of yours with you, he is _aithful fellow and is not wanting in sense; you will find him of great us_here. You will, of course, accompany the earls to the field. Watch well ho_he levies fight, it is long since they have been called upon to meet a foe, and I would fain know how much they can be trusted on the day of battle. A_our own horse has travelled to-day take two of my best, here is an order t_he head of the stables to deliver them to you. Is there aught else that I ca_o for you?"
"Nothing, my lord. I understand your wishes, and will follow them as closel_s I can."
"Do not expose yourself too much on the field of battle, Wulf. I cannot spar_ou, and therefore charge you not to be rash, and if matters go ill to provid_or your safety as far as you may."
Wulf found Osgod awaiting him in the hall below.
"I thought you might require me, master, so I waited till you had seen th_ing."
"You did well, Osgod. I am starting on a journey to York and you are t_ccompany me. We ride armed, so get on your coat of mail and take you_avourite axe, then carry this order to the stables and tell them to have th_wo horses ready at the gates in half an hour's time; then go to the kitche_nd eat a hearty meal and put up some bread and cold meat in a wallet. W_hall ride fast and with few stoppages, for I have the royal order for chang_f horses everywhere."
"That is good news, my lord. After dawdling away the last four months doin_othing I am glad to hear that there is a chance of striking a strong blow o_omeone, though who it is I know not."
"Now go, Osgod, I have also to change my clothes and drink a horn of ale an_at something, though I supped but three hours since. Put my gayest suit int_he saddle-bag, for I may stay some time at York, and must make a fair show, going as I do as Harold's messenger."
The journey was accomplished at an extraordinary rate of speed, Harold's orde_rocuring them a change of horses when ever they stopped; and they but onc_alted for a few hours' sleep. Wulf found that Edwin and Morcar were both a_ork, and alighted at the gate of their residence. Announcing himself as _essenger from the king, he was at once conducted into their presence.
"It is Wulf of Steyning, is it not?" Edwin said courteously. "The message mus_e urgent indeed since Harold has chosen you to carry it. When did you leav_im?"
"I left Westminster at nine o'clock on the evening of Tuesday."
"And it is now but mid-day on Thursday," the earl said in a tone o_stonishment. "You have ridden nigh two hundred miles in less than fort_ours."
"The roads are good, my lord, and I had the king's order for changes of horse_henever needed. I slept six hours at Northampton, but have ridden withou_ther stop save to take meals. I knew that the message I bore was o_mportance, as you will see by the king's letter."
Edwin opened the letter and laid it before Morcar, and the two read i_ogether.
"This is serious news indeed," Edwin said when they had perused it. "So Harol_f Norway is on his way hither with five hundred warships and half the male_f Norway. Since the news has come from Denmark he must already have been nig_ fortnight at sea, and if he had sailed hitherwards we should have heard lon_re this of his being within sight of our shores. As we have heard nought o_im it may be that his object has been misreported, and that it is not agains_s that his fleet is bound."
"I fear that it can have no other destination," Wulf said; "though it may b_hat it has sailed first to Scotland to obtain assistance from Malcolm. There, too, he will find Tostig, whom the king fears is in alliance with him."
"Then assuredly it is against us that he comes," Morcar said, "and unless th_inds shatter his fleet we shall hear of him before long. But he may lan_nywhere from the border of Scotland to the Humber, and it is useless ou_rying to hinder him along so great a line. He may delay his coming as Willia_f Normandy has done, and our men, like those of Harold, will not remain unde_rms for months doing nothing. With so great an army he must move slowly an_e shall have plenty of time to gather our forces to meet him. Harold urges u_o call out the levies at once, but he does not know the Northumbrians as w_o. They will fight, and stoutly, but they will scatter as soon as their ter_xpires. It is but six weeks since we called them under arms to repuls_ostig, and unless they themselves see the danger presses they will not leav_heir homes again after so short an interval. I am glad to see by the king'_etter that he has charged you to stay with us for a while. We shall be gla_f your presence, both as the agent of our royal brother and as one who ha_lready proved himself a valiant and skilful soldier."
Apartments were at once assigned to Wulf in the palace, and he was treated a_n honoured guest. He had been furnished by the royal chamberlain with a_mple sum of money, and every two or three days despatched messengers t_ondon. He was greatly disturbed in mind, for the earls made no preparatio_hatever to meet the coming storm, but continued to hunt or to hawk, to giv_ntertainments, and to pass their time as if the news of a mighty invasion ha_ever reached them. The first attempts he made to urge them to follow Harold'_ounsel were dismissed so curtly that he felt it useless to persevere.
A fortnight passed by, and then a messenger rode into York with the news tha_ vast fleet had entered the Tyne, and that the Norsemen were harrying an_urning the country. Harold Hardrada had first sailed to the Isles of Shetlan_nd Orkney, which, with the northern districts of the mainland, formed _owerful Scandinavian province. Paul and Erning, the two young earls of th_tate, and a large number of their subjects, joined the fleet, as did a Scotc_ontingent sent by Malcolm and commanded by Tostig, who also had with him th_orce he had brought from Flanders. Iceland, then a great Norwegian colony, sent ships and men, as did an Irish sovereign of Danish descent.
Roused to action at last the northern earls sent out summonses in al_irections for the levies to assemble. The invaders were next heard of a_carborough, which made a brave resistance, but the Norsemen took post on th_teep hill overhanging the town, and gathering there a vast pile of wood se_t on fire, and hurled blazing timbers down on the place. Many of the house_aught fire, and this spread rapidly. The inhabitants surrendered, but th_reater portion was slaughtered and the town given up to plunder. Holderness, like Scarborough, bravely but unsuccessfully resisted the attack, and th_reat fleet sailing south entered the Humber. Hour by hour messengers rod_nto York bringing news of the progress of the invaders; hour by hour th_orthumbrian levies poured into the capital.
Much as he had disapproved of their previous carelessness and delay, Wul_cknowledged that the two northern earls now bore themselves as men. They sa_o the defences of the town, mustered all the inhabitants capable of bearin_rms, arranged for the feeding and disposition of the levies, and did all tha_as possible at so short a notice to get them to take the field But he saw, too, that this raw militia was but little calculated to stand before th_ssault of the Norsemen. There was no body of seasoned troops like th_ousecarls to serve as a nucleus, and to bear the chief brunt of the battle.
All alike were raw, inexperienced, and badly armed, save for the axe, whic_as the favourite weapon of the English.
The great fleet made no stay but sailed up the Humber, packing closely in th_iver as it narrowed, till it seemed well-nigh covered from shore to shor_ith the crowded ships. It passed the little village of Selby, and cast ancho_eside the left bank of the Ouse, near the village of Riccall, but nine miles'
march from York. Olaf, the king's son, the two earls of Orkney, and the bisho_f those islands remained on board to guard the ships, for the Northumbria_leet, which was far too small to encounter so great an armament, had take_efuge up the Wharfe, and might descend and attack the Norse vessels were the_eft unguarded. The main body of the great army under the king and Tosti_anded and prepared to march upon York. Sudden as the call had been there wa_o lack of spirit or patriotism in the English levies. Among their ranks wer_any priests and monks, who felt that it was their duty to aid in the defenc_f the land against the semi-heathen host that invaded it. The memory of th_ast invasion of the Norsemen, when the churches had been sacked and th_riests slain on the altar, inspired them, and they and the monks responded a_eadily as did the laymen to the summons of the earls. These had not hesitate_o consult Wulf as to the post where they had best station themselves to giv_attle, and the disposition of their forces. One who had distinguished himsel_nder Duke William of Normandy, and under Harold in Wales, had, young thoug_e was, more experience of war than any of the northern thanes, and as th_epresentative of Harold all these were ready to listen with respect to hi_dvice. He had already spent four or five days in surveying the ground in th_irection from which the Norsemen were likely to advance, and had decided tha_ place known as Gate Fulford, two miles from the city, was best calculate_or defence, it being situated on a narrow ridge, having the river and it_wampy banks on one side, and a flat marshy country on the other. Thither th_rmy of the earls marched to take up its position.