Harold Godwinson

Harold Godwinson

Harold enthroned as King of England
King of England
Reign 5 January – 14 October 1066
Coronation 6 January 1066
Predecessor Edward the Confessor
Successor Edgar II (uncrowned)
(otherwise) William I
Consort Edith the Fair
Edith (Ealdgyth) of Mercia
Issue Godwin
Edmund
Magnus
Gunhild
Gytha
Harold
Ulf
House House of Godwin
Father Godwin, Earl of Wessex
Mother Gytha Thorkelsdóttir
Born c. 1022
Wessex, England
Died 14 October 1066(1066-10-14) (aged 43/44)
Battle of Hastings, Sussex
Burial Waltham Abbey, Essex, or Bosham, Sussex (disputed)

Harold II (or Harold Godwinson) (Old English: Harold Godƿinson; c. 1022 – 14 October 1066) was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England.[a] Harold reigned from 6 January 1066[1] until his death at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October, fighting the Norman invaders led by William the Conqueror during the Norman conquest of England. His death marked the end of Anglo-Saxon rule over England.

Harold was a powerful earl and member of a prominent Anglo-Saxon family with ties to King Cnut. Upon the death of Edward the Confessor in January 1066, the Witenagemot convened and chose Harold to succeed; he was crowned in Westminster Abbey. In late September he successfully repelled an invasion by rival claimant Harald Hardrada of Norway, before marching his army back south to meet William the Conqueror at Hastings some two weeks later.

Family background

Harold was a son of Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex, and Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, sister-in-law of King Cnut the Great of England and Denmark. Gytha's brother was Ulf Jarl, who was married to Cnut's sister Estrith. This made Ulf the son-in-law of King Sweyn Forkbeard,[2] and the father of King Sweyn II of Denmark.[3] Godwin was the son of Wulfnoth, probably a thegn and a native of Sussex.[4] Godwin remained an earl throughout Cnut's reign, one of only two earls to survive to the end of Cnut's reign.[5] On Cnut's death, Godwin originally supported Harthacnut instead of Cnut's initial successor Harold Harefoot, but managed to switch sides in 1037, although not without becoming involved in the murder of Alfred Aetheling, half brother of Harthacnut and younger brother of the later King Edward the Confessor.[6] When Harold Harefoot died, Harthacnut became king and Godwin's power was imperiled by his earlier involvement in Alfred's murder, but an oath and large gift secured the new king's favour for Godwin.[7] Harthacnut's death in 1042 likely involved Godwin in a role as kingmaker, helping to secure the English throne for Edward the Confessor. In 1045, Godwin was at the height of his power, when his daughter Edith was married to the king.[8]

Godwin and Gytha had several children. The sons were Sweyn, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine and Wulfnoth. There were also three daughters: Edith of Wessex, originally named Gytha but renamed Ealdgyth (or Edith) when she married King Edward the Confessor; Gunhild; and Ælfgifu. The birthdates of the children are unknown, but Sweyn was the eldest and Harold was the second son.[9] Harold was aged about 25 in 1045, which makes his birth date around 1020.[10]

Powerful nobleman

Edith married Edward on 23 January 1045, and around that time Harold became Earl of East Anglia. Harold is called "earl" when he appears as a witness in a will, that may date to 1044, but by 1045 Harold regularly appears as an earl in documents. One reason for his appointment to East Anglia may have been a need to defend against the threat from King Magnus the Good of Norway. It is possible that Harold led some of the ships from his earldom that were sent to Sandwich in 1045 against Magnus.[11] Sweyn, Harold's elder brother, had been named an earl in 1043.[12] It was also around the time that Harold was named an earl that he began a relationship with Edith, who appears to have been the heiress to lands in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex, lands in Harold's new earldom.[13] The relationship was a form of marriage that was not blessed or sanctioned by the Church, known as more Danico, or "in the Danish manner", and was accepted by most laypeople in England at the time. Any children of such a union were considered legitimate. Harold likely entered the relationship in part to secure support in his new earldom.[14]

In 1047 Harold's elder brother Sweyn was exiled after abducting the abbess of Leominster. Sweyn's lands were divided between Harold and a cousin, Beorn.[15] In 1049, Harold was in command of a ship or ships that were sent with a fleet to aid the German Emperor Henry III against Baldwin V, Count of Flanders, who was in revolt against Henry. During this campaign, Sweyn returned to England and attempted to secure a pardon from the king, but Harold and Beorn refused to return any of their lands, and Sweyn, after leaving the royal court, took Beorn hostage and later killed him.[16]

When in 1051 Earl Godwin was sent into exile, Harold accompanied his father and helped him to regain his position a year later. Then Godwin died in 1053, and Harold succeeded him as Earl of Wessex (the southern third of England). This arguably made him the most powerful figure in England after the king.

In 1058, Harold also became Earl of Hereford and replaced his late father as the focus of opposition to growing Norman influence in England under the restored monarchy (1042–66) of Edward the Confessor, who had spent more than 25 years in exile in Normandy. He led a series of successful campaigns (1062–63) against Gruffydd ap Llywelyn of Gwynedd, the ruler of Wales. This conflict ended with Gruffydd's defeat and death in 1063.

Harold in northern France

HAROLD SACRAMENTUM FECIT WILLELMO DUCI ("Harold made an oath to Duke William"). (Bayeux Tapestry) This scene is stated in the previous scene on the Tapestry to have taken place at Bagia (Bayeux, probably in Bayeux Cathedral). It shows Harold touching two altars with the enthroned Duke looking on, and is central to the Norman Invasion of England.

In 1064, Harold apparently was shipwrecked at Ponthieu. There is much speculation about this voyage. The earliest post-conquest Norman chroniclers report that King Edward had previously sent Robert, Archbishop of Canterbury, to appoint as his heir Edward's maternal kinsman, William of Normandy, and that at this later date Harold was sent to swear fealty.[17] Scholars disagree as to the reliability of this story. William, at least, seems to have believed he had been offered the succession, but there must have been some confusion either on William's part or perhaps by both men, since the English succession was neither inherited nor determined by the reigning monarch. Instead the Witenagemot, the assembly of the kingdom's leading notables, would convene after a king's death to select a successor. Other acts of Edward are inconsistent with his having made such a promise, such as his efforts to return his nephew Edward the Exile, son of king Edmund Ironside, from Hungary in 1057.[b] Later Norman chroniclers suggest alternative explanations for Harold's journey: that he was seeking the release of members of his family who had been held hostage since Godwin's exile in 1051, or even that he had simply been travelling along the English coast on a hunting and fishing expedition and had been driven across the Channel by an unexpected storm. There is general agreement that he left from Bosham, and was blown off course, landing at Ponthieu. He was captured by Guy I, Count of Ponthieu, and was then taken as a hostage to the count's castle at Beaurain,[18] 24.5 km up the River Canche from its mouth at what is now Le Touquet. Duke William arrived soon afterward and ordered Guy to turn Harold over to him.[19] Harold then apparently accompanied William to battle against William's enemy, Conan II, Duke of Brittany. While crossing into Brittany past the fortified abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, Harold is recorded as rescuing two of William's soldiers from quicksand. They pursued Conan from Dol-de-Bretagne to Rennes, and finally to Dinan, where he surrendered the fortress's keys at the point of a lance. William presented Harold with weapons and arms, knighting him. The Bayeux Tapestry, and other Norman sources, then record that Harold swore an oath on sacred relics to William to support his claim to the English throne. After Edward's death, the Normans were quick to point out that in accepting the crown of England, Harold had broken this alleged oath.