The Confessor's Gift and the Conqueror's Oath
By Lynda Denyer

Pages 1 . 2 . 3

Steyning underpins the story of King Harold's clash with Duke William
of Normandy in 1066. It has even been said that Steyning was one of the
reasons why King Harold lost his crown!

1. Grant by Duke William to the Church of the Holy Trinity at Fécamp.

Of the land of Steyning [co. Sussex]; the Duke gave seisin to the Church by the token of a knife, before he went to England; the grant to take effect if God should give him victory in England.

Witnesses: Aymeri the vicomte; Richard fitz Gilbert; Pons.*

Statue of the Conqueror

Statue of William the Conqueror at Falaise, Normandy

This is a note of the very first Anglo-Norman charter by William the Conqueror in 1066. It is an oath sworn upon a knife, which sends a shiver down the spine. William's grant is conditional upon his conquest of England, which is even more curious. The Norman fleet had not yet crossed the sea! On the eve of the most famous event in English history, Steyning was the subject of an extraordinary bargain offered by Duke William, "if God should give him victory".

St Andrew's Church

St Andrew's Church, Steyning

Why Steyning? Today it is a picturesque little town nestled beneath the South Downs in West Sussex, with an ancient church dedicated to Saint Andrew.

This dedication apparently dates from its foundation, although an additional dedication was recently made to Saint Cuthman. The church still celebrates its foundation by the Anglo-Saxon Saint Cuthman. The ancient port of Steyning was known as Cuthman's port. Pilgrims once flocked to the church to visit his shrine and King Aethelwulf was buried there in the year 858. Aethelwulf was the father of King Alfred, who bequeathed Steyning to his nephew in his will. Strange to say, Steyning was also a powerful justification for Duke William's attack against King Harold.

The Bayeaux Tapestry tells the conquest story as the Normans wanted it to be remembered. This is still the version most familiar to us today. King Edward the Confessor promised Duke William the crown of England and Earl Harold swore upon two caskets of holy relics to support the Norman succession. When Edward died, Harold broke his solemn promise and took the crown for himself.

William made a great deal of Harold's oath after the Conquest, but the story was not a very persuasive call to arms when William first proposed his dangerous adventure. Harold was an impressive leader who had been annointed before God and crowned in peace by the will of his people. There were further Norman accusations about malpractice in the English Church but these only brought to mind the similar or worse condition of other European churches, including Normandy itself.

Duke William had another charge against his rival. It was that Harold withheld for himself what Edward the Confessor had given to the Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy, namely Steyning and its church. This accusation was broadly true. It was, more importantly, dramatic proof of Harold's contempt for the Roman Church because of the special status included with King Edward's gift. Steyning had been taken out of the control of the English bishops and given into the personal charge of the Pope. Depriving the Pope of his dominion was an exceptionally serious offence.

This and other damning propaganda against Harold won William papal support. The Roman Church was ever seeking to tighten its grip on European politics and to enforce the obedience of kings. The Pope gave William a consecrated banner and some holy relics to rally troops for the coming battle. King Harold was excommunicated. Papal approval was the deciding factor which gained William the coalition of support necessary for his high risk venture. Powerful men flocked to his banner, encouraged and excited by the prospect of a Holy War or Crusade.

Victorian Bayeux Tapestry
© Reading Museum Service (Reading Borough Council). All rights reserved.
Earl Harold makes an oath before Duke William in Normandy:
The Victorian Bayeux Tapestry

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Page last updated
16th August 2021