Harold Godwinson

Harold Godwinson, (c. 1022 – 14 October 1066) also known as Harold II, is widely regarded as the last Anglo-Saxon King of England before the Norman Conquest. Harold reigned from 5 January 1066, until his death at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October of that same year, fighting the Norman invaders, led by William the Conqueror.


Harold's father was Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex believed to be a son of Wulfnoth Cild.

Godwin married twice, both times to Danish women of high rank. His first wife was the Danish princess Thyra Sveinsdóttir, one of the daughters of Sweyn I of Denmark and Norway. His second wife was Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, whose brother or cousin Ulf Jarl was the son-in-law of Sweyn I and the father of Sweyn II of Denmark. Gytha and Ulf were allegedly grandchildren to the legendary Swedish Viking Styrbjörn the Strong (a disinherited prince of Sweden) and great-grandchildren to Harold Bluetooth, King of Denmark and Norway. This second marriage resulted in the birth of several children, notably two sons, Harold and Tostig Godwinson, and a daughter, Edith of Wessex (1020–75), who became the Queen consort of Edward the Confessor.

Powerful nobleman

When Godwin died in 1053, his son Harold took over. It was he, rather than Edward, who subjugated Wales in 1063 and negotiated with the rebellious Northumbrians in 1065. Consequently, shortly before his death, Edward named Harold as his successor even though he may already have promised the crown to a distant cousin, William, Duke of Normandy. He died on 4 January 1066 and was buried in the Abbey he had constructed at Westminster.

As a result of his sister's marriage to the king, Godwin's second son Harold was made Earl of East Anglia in 1045. Harold accompanied Godwin into exile in 1051, but helped him to regain his position a year later. When Godwin died in 1053, Harold succeeded him as Earl of Wessex (a province at that time covering the southernmost third of England). This made him arguably 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 English monarchy (1042–66) of Edward the Confessor, who had spent more than a quarter of a century in exile in Normandy.

He gained glory in a series of campaigns (1062–63) against the ruler of Gwynedd, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, who had conquered all of Wales; this conflict ended with Gruffydd's defeat and death (at the hands of his own troops) in 1063.

In 1064, Harold was apparently shipwrecked in Ponthieu. There is much speculation about the reason for this, with Norman sources saying that his journey was to give William King Edward's offer of the throne. One explanation was that Harold was seeking the release of members of his family who had been held hostage since Godwin's exile in 1051. Another is that he was on his way for a meeting with allies. According to the Norman version, his vessel was blown off course, and he was held hostage by Count Guy I of Ponthieu. Duke William arrived soon after and ordered Guy to turn Harold over to him. The source of much of this information can be found in the writings of William of Poitiers, whose veracity has been called into question.

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 St Michel, Harold is recorded to have rescued two of William's soldiers from the quicksand. They pursued Conan from Dol de Bretagne, then to Rennes, and finally to Dinan, where he surrendered the fortress's keys on 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.

By this time, William considered himself to be the successor of the childless Edward the Confessor, but the only sources we have for this are Norman ones from after the conquest, as the contemporary English sources such as the Anglo Saxon Chronicle are silent on the matter, referring to Edward's grand-nephew, Edgar, son of Edward the Exile, as Ætheling, or princely heir. It is unlikely that King Edward had ever made such as an offer, especially after the efforts of Harold to get the return of Edward the Exile, son of Edmund Ironside from Hungary, in 1057. During his supposed captivity, William of Poitiers claims that William obtained from Harold an oath to support William as the future king of England. After Harold's death, the Normans were quick to point out that in accepting the crown of England, Harold had perjured himself of this oath.

The chronicler Orderic Vitalis wrote: "This Englishman 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 all good?".

In 1065 Harold supported Northumbrian rebels against his brother Tostig, due to unjust taxation instituted by Tostig, and replaced him with Morcar. This strengthened his acceptability as Edward's successor, but fatally divided his own family, driving Tostig into alliance with King Harald Hardrada ("Hard Reign") of Norway.

Marriages and children

For some twenty years Harold was married More danico (in the Danish manner) to Ealdgyth Swan-neck (also known as Edith Swanneschals or Edith Swanneck) {1025-1086) and had at least six children by her. The marriage was widely accepted by the laity, although Edith was considered Harold's mistress by the clergy. Their children were not treated as illegitimate. Among them was a daughter Gytha, later wife of the Russian prince Vladimir Monomakh. Through descendants of this Anglo-Russian marriage, Harold is thus the ancestor of later English kings.

About January 1066, Harold married Edith (or Ealdgȳð), daughter of Ælfgār, Earl of Mercia, and widow of the Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. Edith had two sons — possibly twins — named Harold and Ulf (born c. November 1066), both of whom survived into adulthood and probably ended their lives in exile.

After her husband's death, the queen 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 the Conqueror initially before rebelling and losing their lands and lives. Aldith may have fled abroad (possibly with Harold's mother, Gytha, or with Harold's daughter, Gytha).

Reign as king

When Edward the Confessor died in 1066, his great nephew and heir Edgar Ætheling was widely regarded as too young to become King. Edward the Confessor pointed towards Harold Godwinson, as he lay at his deathbed. This sign was taken, by the other present noblemen, to mean that Edward chose Harold as his successor, though some say it was merely a curse. On 5 January 1066, the Witenagemot (the assembly of the kingdom's leading notables) approved him for coronation, which took place the following day. It was the first coronation in Westminster Abbey. Although later Norman sources point to the suddenness of this coronation, it is possible that it took place whilst 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.

England was then invaded by both Harald Hardrada of Norway and William, Duke of Normandy, both of whom claimed the English crown. William claimed that he had been promised the English crown by Edward, and that Harold had sworn to support his claim after having been shipwrecked in Ponthieu. As to the Norwegian, Harthacanute of England and Denmark and Magnus I of Norway had concluded a succession pact decades earlier, whereby the kingdoms of the first to die were to pass to the survivor. Magnus had thus gained Denmark on Harthacanute's death but had not pursued the other crown. However, Hardrada, as uncle and heir of Magnus, now claimed England on this basis. Hardrada also had formed an alliance with Harold's rebellious brother Tostig.

Invading what is now Yorkshire in September 1066, Harald Hardrada and Tostig defeated the English earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria at the Battle of Fulford near York on 20 September. They were in turn 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 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 Godwinson. 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.

Harold now again forced his army to march 241 miles (386 kilometres) to intercept William, who had landed perhaps 7000 men in Sussex, southern England three days later on 28 September. Harold established his army in hastily built earthworks near Hastings. The two armies clashed at the Battle of Hastings, near the present town of Battle close by Hastings on 14th October, where after a hard fight Harold was killed and his forces routed. His brothers Gyrth and Leofwine were also killed in the battle. According to tradition, Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye, but it is unclear if the victim depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry is intended to be Harold, or whether indeed the tapestry's scene depicts that particular type of wound. Whether he did, indeed, die in this manner (a death associated in the Middle Ages with perjurers), or was killed by the sword, will never be known. Harold's first wife, Ealdgyth Swan-neck, was called to identify the body, which she did by some private mark known only to herself.

Harold's body was buried in a grave of stones overlooking the shore, and was only given a proper funeral years later in his church of Waltham Holy Cross in Essex, which he had refounded in 1060.

Harold's strong association with Bosham and the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon coffin in the church in the 1950s has led some to speculate that King Harold was buried there. A request to exhume a grave in Bosham church was refused by the Diocese of Chichester in December 2004, the Chancellor ruling 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 middle-aged man lacking one leg, a description which fits the fate of the king according to certain chroniclers.

There is a legend that Henry I of England met an elderly monk at Waltham Abbey, who was in fact a very old Harold. King Harold had a son posthumously called Harold Haroldsson who may have been this man, and may also be the occupant of the alleged grave.

Legacy and legend

Harold's daughter Gytha of Wessex married Vladimir Monomakh Grand Duke (Velikii Kniaz) of Kievan Rus' and is ancestor to dynasties of Galicia, Smolensk, and Yaroslavl, whose scions include Modest Mussorgsky and Peter Kropotkin. Isabella of France (consort of Edward II) was also a direct descendant of Harold via Gytha, and thus the bloodline of Harold was re-introduced to the Royal Line. Subsequently, undocumented claims that the Russian Orthodox Church has recently recognised Harold as a martyr have been made. Ulf, along with Morcar and two others, were released from prison by King William as he lay dying in 1087. He threw his lot in with Robert Curthose, who knighted him, and disappeared from history. Two of his elder half-brothers, Godwine and Magnus, made a number of attempts at invading England in 1068 and 1069 with the aid of Diarmait mac Mail na mBo. They raided Cornwall as late as 1082, but died in obscurity in Ireland.


A cult of hero-worship rose around Harold, and by the 12th century, legend says that Harold had indeed survived the battle, had spent two years in Winchester after the battle recovering from his wounds, and then travelled to Germany, where he spent years wandering as a pilgrim. As an old man, he supposedly returned to England, and lived as a hermit in a cave near Dover. As he lay dying, he confessed that although he went by the name of Christian, he had been born Harold Godwinson. Various versions of this story persisted throughout the Middle Ages, but have little basis in fact. Harold's wife was pregnant with a son when he died, whom she named "Harold" and he became a monk at Waltham Abbey and is said to have met Henry I, leading to the idea that Harold Godwinsson had survived, instead of Harold Haroldsson.

In popular culture

Literary interest in Harold revived in the 19th century, with the play Harold, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in 1876; and the novel Last of the Saxon Kings, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in 1848. Rudyard Kipling wrote a story, The Tree of Justice (1910), describing how an old man who turns out to be Harold is brought before Henry I. E. A. Freeman wrote a serious history in History of the Norman Conquest of England (1870–79), in which Harold is seen as a great English hero. Fictional accounts based on the events surrounding Harold's struggle for and brief reign as king of England have been published, notably "The Golden Warrior" by Hope Muntz, "The Interim King" by James McMilla, "Lord of Sunset" by Parke Godwin, and The Last English King by Julian Rathbone.

The one-act play A Choice of Kings by John Mortimer deals with his deception by William after his shipwreck.

On screen, Harold has been portrayed by Rex Reason in the film Lady Godiva of Coventry (1955), Patrick Newell in the comedy film Father Came Too! (1962), Michael Craig in a TV adaptation of A Choice of Kings in the ITV Play of the Week series (1966), Barrie Ingham in the two-part BBC TV play Conquest (1966; part of the series Theatre 625), Norman Chappell in an episode of the TV comedy series Carry On Laughing entitled "One in the Eye for Harold" (1975), and Jâms Thomas in an episode of the British educational TV series Historyonics entitled "1066" (2004).

See also



  • Biography by P. Compton (1961); F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (3d ed. 1971).
  • Biography by Ian W. Walker: Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King. Sutton Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 1997. ISBN 0-7509-1388-6

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