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.
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
and the father of King Sweyn
II of Denmark.
Godwin was the son of Wulfnoth,
probably a thegn and a native of
Godwin remained an earl throughout Cnut's reign, one of only two earls to
survive to the end of Cnut's reign.
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.
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.
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
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
Harold was aged about 25 in 1045, which makes his birth date around 1020.
Edith married Edward on 23 January 1045, and around that time Harold became
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.
Sweyn, Harold's elder brother, had been named an earl in 1043.
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.
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
In 1047 Harold's elder brother Sweyn was exiled after abducting the abbess of
lands were divided between Harold and a cousin, Beorn.
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.
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
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
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
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,
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.
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.
The chronicler Orderic
Vitalis wrote of Harold that he "was very tall and handsome, remarkable for
his physical strength, his courage and eloquence, his ready jests and acts of
valour. But what were these gifts to him without honour, which is the root of
Due to a doubling of taxation by Tostig in 1065 that threatened to plunge
England into civil war, Harold supported Northumbrian rebels against
his brother, Tostig,
and replaced him with Morcar. This
strengthened his acceptability as Edward's successor, but fatally split his own
family, driving Tostig into alliance with King Harald
Hardrada ("Hard Ruler") of Norway.
For some twenty years Harold was married More
danico (Latin: "in the Danish manner") to Edith the Fair (Edith
Swannesha) and had at least six children with her. The marriage was widely
accepted by the laity, although Edith was considered Harold's mistress by the
According to Orderic
Vitalis, Harold was at some time betrothed to Adeliza, a daughter of William,
Duke of Normandy, later William the Conqueror; if so, the betrothal never led to
About January 1066, Harold married Edith (or Ealdgyth), daughter
Earl of Mercia, and widow of the Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. Edith had two sons—possibly
twins—named Harold and Ulf (born around November 1066), both of whom
survived into adulthood and probably lived out their lives in exile.
After her husband's death, Edith is said to have fled for refuge to her
brothers, Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria, but both men made their peace with King
William initially before rebelling and losing their lands and lives. Edith
may have fled abroad (possibly with Harold's mother, Gytha, or with Harold's
daughter, Gytha). Harold's sons, Godwine and Edmund, fled to Ireland and
then invaded Devon, but were defeated
by Brian of Brittany.[d]
HIC RESIDET HAROLD REX ANGLORUM. STIGANT ARCHIEP(I)S(COPUS).
"Here sits Harold King of the English. Archbishop Stigand". Scene
immediately after crowning of Harold by (according to the Norman tradition)
Archbishop of CanterburyStigand (d.1072). detail from Bayeux Tapestry
At the end of 1065 King Edward the Confessor fell into a coma without
clarifying his preference for the succession. He died on 5 January 1066,
according to the Vita
Ædwardi Regis, but not before briefly regaining consciousness and
commending his widow and the kingdom to Harold's "protection". The intent of
this charge remains ambiguous, as is the Bayeux
Tapestry, which simply depicts Edward pointing at a man thought to represent
When the Witenagemot convened the
next day they selected Harold to succeed,[f]
and his coronation followed on 6 January, most likely held in Westminster Abbey;
though no evidence from the time survives to confirm this.
Although later Norman sources point to the suddenness of this coronation, the
reason may have been that all the nobles of the land were present at Westminster
for the feast of Epiphany,
and not because of any usurpation of the throne on Harold's part.
In early January 1066, hearing of Harold's coronation, Duke
William II of Normandy began plans to invade England, building 700 warships
and transports at Dives-sur-Mer
on the Normandy coast. Initially, William could not get support for the invasion
but, claiming that Harold had sworn on sacred relics to support his claim to the
throne after having been shipwrecked at Ponthieu,
William received the Church's blessing and nobles flocked to his cause. In
anticipation of the invasion, Harold assembled his troops on the Isle of Wight, but the
invasion fleet remained in port for almost seven months, perhaps due to
unfavourable winds. On 8 September, with provisions running out, Harold
disbanded his army and returned to London. On the same day Harald Hardrada of
Norway, who also claimed the English crown[g]
joined Tostig and invaded, landing his fleet at the mouth of the Tyne.
The invading forces of Hardrada and Tostig defeated the English earls, Edwin
of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria, at the Battle of Fulford near
York on 20
September 1066. They in turn were defeated and slain by Harold's army five days
later at the Battle
of Stamford Bridge, Harold having led his army north on a forced march from
London in four days and having caught them by surprise. According to Snorri Sturluson,
before the battle a man bravely rode up to Harald Hardrada and Tostig and
offered Tostig his earldom if he would but turn on Harald Hardrada. When Tostig
asked what his brother Harold would be willing to give Harald Hardrada for his
trouble, the rider replied that he would be given seven feet of ground as he was
taller than other men. Harald Hardrada was impressed with the rider and asked
Tostig his name. Tostig replied that the rider was none other than Harold
According to Henry
of Huntingdon, "Six feet of ground or as much more as he needs, as he is
taller than most men", was Harold's response. It is, however, unknown
whether this conversation ever took place.
Battle of Hastings
Harold's death depicted in the Bayeux
Tapestry, reflecting the tradition that Harold was killed
by an arrow in the eye. The annotation above states Harold
Rex Interfectus Est, "Harold the King was killed".
On 12 September William's fleet sailed.[h]
Several ships sank in storms, and the fleet was forced to take shelter at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme
and wait for the wind to change. On 27 September the Norman fleet finally set
sail for England, arriving, it is believed, the following day at Pevensey on the coast of East
Sussex. Harold's army marched 241 miles (386 kilometres) to intercept William,
who had landed perhaps 7000 men in Sussex,
southern England. Harold established his army in hastily built earthworks near
The two armies clashed at the Battle of Hastings, at Senlac Hill (near the
present town of Battle)
close by Hastings on 14 October, where after nine hours of hard fighting and
probably less than 30 minutes from victory, Harold was killed and his forces
His brothers Gyrth
were also killed in the battle.
The account of the battle, Carmen
de Hastingae Proelio ("Song of the Battle of Hastings"), said to have
been written shortly after the battle by Guy,
Bishop of Amiens, says that Harold was killed by four knights, probably
including Duke William, and his body brutally dismembered. Amatus of
Montecassino's L'Ystoire de li Normant ("History of the Normans"),
written thirty years after the battle of Hastings, is the first report of Harold
being shot in the eye with an arrow. Later accounts reflect one or both of these
two versions. A figure in the panel of the Bayeux
Tapestry with the inscription "Harold Rex Interfectus Est" (Harold
the King is killed) is depicted gripping an arrow that has struck his eye, but
some historians have questioned whether this man is intended to be Harold, or if
Harold is intended as the next figure lying to the right almost prone, being
mutilated beneath a horse's hooves. Etchings made of the Tapestry in the 1730s
show the standing figure with differing objects. Benoît's 1729 sketch shows only
a dotted line indicating stitch marks without any indication of fletching (all
other arrows in the Tapestry are fletched). Bernard de Montfaucon's 1730
engraving has a solid line resembling a spear being held overhand matching the
manner of the figure to the left. Stothard's 1819 water-colour drawing has, for
the first time, a fletched arrow in the figure's eye. Although not apparent in
the earlier depictions, the Tapestry today has stitch marks indicating the
fallen figure once had an arrow in its eye. It has been proposed that the second
figure once had an arrow added by over-enthusiastic nineteenth-century restorers
that was later unstitched.
A further suggestion is that both accounts are accurate, and that Harold
suffered first the eye wound, then the mutilation, and the Tapestry is depicting
both in sequence.
Burial and legacy
The spot where Harold died, which became the site of Battle
"The two brothers of the King were found near him and Harold himself,
stripped of all badges of honour, could not be identified by his face but only
by certain marks on his body. His corpse was brought into the Duke's camp, and
William gave it for burial to William, surnamed Malet, and not to Harold's
mother, who offered for the body of her beloved son its weight in gold. For
the Duke thought it unseemly to receive money for such merchandise, and
equally he considered it wrong that Harold should be buried as his mother
wished, since so many men lay unburied because of his avarice. They said in
jest that he who had guarded the coast with such insensate zeal should be
buried by the seashore".
Bosham Church: the
lower three storeys of the tower are Saxon, the top storey
Another source states that Harold's widow, Edith Swannesha, was
called to identify the body, which she did by some private mark known only to
her. Harold's strong association with Bosham,
his birthplace, and the discovery in 1954 of an Anglo-Saxon coffin in the church
there, has led some to suggest it as the place of King Harold's burial. A
request to exhume a grave in Bosham church was refused by the Diocese of
Chichester in December 2003, the Chancellor having ruled that the chances of
establishing the identity of the body as Harold's were too slim to justify
disturbing a burial place.
A prior exhumation had revealed the remains of a man, estimated at up to 60
years of age from photographs of the remains, lacking a head, one leg and the
lower part of his other leg, a description consistent with the fate of the king
as recorded in the Carmen. The poem also claims Harold was buried by the sea,
which is consistent with William of Poitiers' account and with the
identification of the grave at Bosham Church that is only yards from Chichester Harbour
and in sight of the English
There were legends of Harold's body being given a proper funeral years later
in his church of Waltham
Holy Cross in Essex, which he had refounded in
1060. Legends grew up that Harold had not died at Hastings but instead fled
England or that he later ended his life as a hermit at Chester or
Harold's son Ulf, along with Morcar
and two others, were released from prison by King William as he lay dying
in 1087. Ulf threw his lot in with Robert
Curthose, who knighted him, and then disappeared from history. Two
of Harold's other sons, Godwine and Edmund, invaded England in 1068 and
1069 with the aid of Diarmait
mac Máel na mBó.[j]
They raided Cornwall as late as 1082, but died in obscurity in Ireland.
^It could be argued that Edgar the Ætheling, who was proclaimed as
king by the witan but never crowned, was really the last Anglo-Saxon king.
^Edward may not have been blameless in this
situation, as at least one other man, Sweyn II of Denmark, also thought Edward
had promised him the succession.
^At this time there were a range of spousal
relationships, from outright concubinage to fully recognised,
church-sanctioned marriages. There are no contemporary sources for Harold's
marriages, just the writings of later Norman chroniclers, who had a more
church-centered view, and also had motivation to diminish the status of
Harold's children. Consequently, the exact status of the relationship between
King Harold and Edith the Fair is unclear.
^At midsummer in 1069, Brian and Alan the Black
led a force that defeated a raid by Godwine and Edmund, sons of Harold
Godwinson, who had sailed from Ireland with a fleet of 64 ships to the mouth
of the River Taw in Devon. They had
escaped to Leinster after the Battle
of Hastings in 1066 where they were hosted by Diarmait.
In 1068 and 1069 Diarmait lent them the fleet of Dublin
for their attempted invasions of England.
^Frank Barlow points out that the author of the
Vita, who appears to have looked favourably on Harold, was writing
after the Conquest and may have been intentionally vague.
^This was in preference to Edward's great-nephew,
the Ætheling, who had yet to reach maturity.
^His claim came through a succession pact
concluded between Harthacnut,
king of England and Denmark, and Magnus I of Norway,
whereby the kingdoms of the first to die were to pass to the survivor. Magnus
had thus gained Denmark on Harthacnut's death but had not pursued the other
crown. Hardrada, uncle and heir of Magnus, now claimed England on this
^Historians do not accept that from January
to September the wind was never favourable for an invasion as William
claimed. It is generally believed he knew of Harald Hardrada's plans
and waited for Harold Godwinson to be weakened or engaged with fighting
in the north before he proceeded with his own plans.
^Battles of the time rarely lasted more
than two hours before the weaker side capitulated, nine hours indicates
the determination of William. William's forces had already recovered
from a near rout after reports he had been killed, but William raised
his visor to prove he was alive and his men rallied. Battles were
also not fought at night and as Harold would receive fresh reinforcements
in the morning he was more or less assured of victory. Harold was
killed shortly before sunset.
Sturluson, Snorri (1966). King Harald's
Saga. Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books.
William of Poitiers, Gesta Guillelmi II Ducis Normannorum, or "The
Deeds of William II, Duke of the Normans". Quoted by David C. Douglas &
George W. Greenaway (eds.), in: English Historical Documents 1042–1189,
Walker, Ian (2000). Harold the Last
Anglo-Saxon King. Gloucestershire: Wrens Park. ISBN0-905-778-464.