In the Year of Our Lord, 1035, Harold Godwinson was eleven. He felt half a man, though at the Yuletide feast, Swein took his vows as housecarl and went with their father to the king’s court and they left Harold behind.
He chaffed, but there was nothing he could do. Swein had hair on his lip, and a young man’s uncertain voice, while Harold voice and bearing was still child-like. It was a time of change and transition. One foot in the world of adults, one foot in the affairs of children.
‘Less use than a broken wheel,’ his mother said, but when he wasn’t sulking or taking his hawks out, then he helped as much as he could.
Harold’s mood improved when his mother announced at table that the Easter Feast was to be held at Bosham that year.
‘Father will come?’ Tostig asked.
‘Of course,’ she told them. ‘Everyone will come.’
For weeks, it seemed, the hall began to fill up with retainers, housecarls, reeves and their households. There were abbots, bishops, monks and their households. They filled the guest halls for miles about, and the king’s horses were stabled in the fields across the bay.
Harold’s home was full of strangers. He had to tell them who he was. But most of the time he and Beorn went about, listening to their conversation.
There were tales of distant lands and wonders men had seen with their own two eyes, like a sheel with two heads, or a woman who had a full beard.
The king was smaller than Harold had imagined. Smaller and harder, like a handful of field-clay that has been pressed by the fingers into a hard lump, but for the Easter mass he stood out for wearing a smock of homespun.
The king stood in barefeet before the altar, and all were impressed, except it seemed for Beorn and Harold, who bored holes into his back.
After the mass, Knut changed into all his fine robes and led them all out of the church doors and down towards the water. The tide was out, and the mud flats stretched as far as the eye could see. Two oyster catchers piped as they flew low over the flats. A jackdaw sat on a branch and watched the gold and gleaming garents with interest as Knut led the great a good fifty yards from the shore.
Bishops, abbots, monks, scribes, thegns, alderman, reeves, wives, women of great standing – lifted their skirts so that the hems would not be spoiled by the mud. They followed the king and when they were out in the middle of the channel where boats usually lay on their sides, and Knut looked about and seemed satisfied. ‘Set my throne down here,’ he said.
Beorn had disappeared, but Harold caught Swein’s eye. They could not help sharing a smile as Knut arranged his silks with great pomp, and sat upon the throne, and the mud sucked the four legs a hand’s breadth down.
Knut turned to the crowd and started a speech about the things he had done for the English.
‘Lords, bishops, abbots, freemen! Hear me! In the time since I was anointed king, I have banished heathen practises, reimposed the law, and been a faithful observer of God’s laws and rights on the land. I have been a shield to you all. Protected all men from foreign hostility, and any who wanted to injure you I have not been shy to take up arms and to meet them, toe to toe, in battle. I have charged all my archbishops and diocesan bishops to be zealous in ensuring God’s dues are paid in each districts. I have charged all my reeves and ealdormen to keep my peace and to maintain my people justly. My earls have given sound judgements with the witness of the men of God. In God’s name I have emplored them to practise mercy whenever it can be supported. I have protected women who had been dedicated to God from marriage; admonished any who failed to keep the Sunday festival, from noon on Saturday to dawn on Monday. I have honoured the saints whose mass-day it was, gone to church, made supplication for his sins, zealously observed every fast-day!
‘And some among you have called me Magnus King. The Great King!’
There was a loud groundswell of assent.
As Knut spoke Harold could see the waters appear around the far headland. They gleamed in the cool April sunlight, and rippled steadily towards where they stood, smoothing out the mud flats. They came so close that Harold could see the individual silver ripples. A flock of gulls swooped down. Some of them landed, and the water in the channel was deep enough for them to bob and caw to each other to come and watch.