Harold II Godwinson


Harold depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

Adapted from Wikipedia:

Harold Godwinson, or Harold II (1022-1066) was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England[1].  He reigned from 6 Jan 1066 until his death at the Battle of Hastings on 14 Oct 1066 of that same year, fighting the Norman invaders led by William the Conqueror during the Norman conquest of England.  Harold is the first of only three kings of England to have died in warfare.  The other two were Richard I and Richard III.


Family background:  Harold was a son of Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex, and his wife Gytha Thorkelsdottir, whose supposed brother Ulf Jarl was the son-in-law of Sweyn I and the father of Sweyn II of Denmark.  Godwin and Gytha had several children, notably sons Sweyn, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwine and a daughter, Edith of Wessex (1029-1075), who became Queen consort of Edward the Confessor.


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

Powerful nobleman

As a result of his sister’s marriage to the king, Godwin’s second son, Harold, became Earl of East Anglia in 1045.  Harold accompanied his father 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 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 over twenty-five years in exile in Normandy.  He gained glory in a series of campaigns (1062-63) against Gruffydd ap Llywelyn of Gwynedd, the ruler of Wales.  This conflict ended with Gruffydd’s defeat and death in 1063.

In 1064, Harold was apparently shipwrecked in Ponthieu.  There is much speculation about this voyage.  The earliest post-conquest Norman chroniclers report that at some prior time, Robert, Archbishop of Canterbury had been sent by King Edward to appoint as his heir Edward’s maternal kinsman, William of Normandy, and that at this later date Harold was sent to swear fealty.  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 sitting 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.  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 on the coast of Ponthieu.  He was captured by Count Guy I of Ponthieu and was then taken hostage to the count’s castle at Beaurain, 15 miles up the River Canche from where it meets the English Channel at what is now Le Touquet.  Duke William arrived soon after 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 St Michel, Harold is recorded as rescuing two of William’s soldiers from the quicksand.  They pursued Conan from Dol de Bretagne 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.  After Harold’s death, the Normans were quick to point out that in accepting the crown of England, Harold had perjured himself of 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 valor. But what were these gifts to him without honor, which is the root of all good?”

Due to a doubling of taxation instituted 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 divided his own family, driving Tostig into alliance with King Harald Hardrada (“Hard Ruler”) of Norway.


Marriages and children:  For some twenty years Harold was married More danico (Latin: “in the Danish manner”) to Edith Swannesha 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.  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 marriage.  About January 1066, Harold married Edith (or Ealdgyth), daughter of Aelfgar, 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.


Reign as king

At the end of 1065, King Edward the Confessor fell into a coma without clarifying his preference for the succession.  On 5 Jan 1066, according to the Vita Aedwardi Regis, he died, but not before briefly regaining consciousness and commending his widow and the kingdom to Harold’s “protection”.  The intent of this charge is ambiguous, as is the Bayeux Tapestry, which simply depicts Edward pointing at a man thought to represent Harold.  When the Witenagemot convened the next day, they selected Harold to succeed, and his coronation followed on 6 Jan 1066, most likely held in Westminster Abbey (although there is no surviving evidence from the time to confirm this).  Later Norman sources point to the suddenness of this coronation, but it is possible that it took place because 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 of 1066, hearing that Harold had been crowned, Duke William II of Normandy began plans to invade by 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 in Ponthieu, William was given 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, claiming unfavorable winds, the invasion fleet remained in port for almost seven months.  On 8 Sep 1066, with provisions running out, Harold disbanded the army and he returned to London.  On the same day Harald Hardrada of Norway, who also claimed the English crown, joined Tostig and invaded, landing his fleet at the mouth of the Tyne.

The English earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria were defeated by the invading forces of Harald Hardrada and Tostig at the Battle of Fulford near York on 20 Sep 1066.  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.


The Battle of Hastings:  On 12 Sep 1066, William’s fleet sailed.  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 Sep 1066, the Norman fleet finally set sail for England, arriving it is believed the following day at Pevensey on the coast of East Sussex.  Harold now again forced his army to march almost 250 miles to intercept William, who had landed perhaps 7000 men in Sussex, southern England.  Harold established his army in hastily built earthworks near Hastings.  The two armies clashed at the Battle of Hastings, at Senlac Hill (near the present town of Battle) on 14 Oct 1066, where after nine hours of hard fighting and probably less than 30 minutes from victory Harold was killed and his forces routed.  His brothers Gyrth and Leofwine were also killed in the battle.


The spot where Harold died which became the site of Battle Abbey

Death:   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-color 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.



The account of the contemporary chronicler William of Poitiers, states that the body of Harold was given to William Malet for burial:

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.

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 herself.  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 which is only yards from Chichester Harbor and in sight of the English Channel.

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.  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 grave.


Bosham Church: the lower three storeys of the tower are Saxon, the top storey Norman

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.  Isabella of France (consort of Edward II) was also a direct descendant of Harold via Gytha.  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 1068-69 with the aid of Diarmait mac Mail na mBo.  They raided Cornwall as late as 1082, but died in obscurity in Ireland.  In a pedigree in the Book of Baglan a Harold Godwinson, earl of Wessex and Cornwall, is listed as a male line descendant of the Dukes of Cornwall.

[1] It could be argued that Edgar the Atheling, who was proclaimed as king by the Witenagemot  but never crowned, was really the last Anglo-Saxon king.


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