Harold Godwinson (1022 – 14 October 1066), often referred to as Harold II, was the last crowned Anglo-Saxon king of England.
He was the son of Godwin of Wessex and Githa Thorkelsdater, sister of Ulf Yarl, the father of Sven II of Denmark. He fell at the Battle of Hastings (14 October) against the Norman invaders led by William the Conqueror, his death marked the end of Anglo-Saxon rule in England.Harold was a powerful earl and a member of a prominent Anglo-Saxon family with ties to Knut. After Edward the Confessor”s death in January 1066 the royal council called for Harold Godwinson to succeed him, Harold”s coronation as the new king took place at Westminster Abbey. In September that year he successfully countered an attack by another pretender to the throne of England of Harald III of Norway just two weeks later his army faced William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings, in the battle Harald Harald Haralda fell. His mother”s brother Ulf Yarl had married his mother”s sister Knut”s sister Estrid Swainsdatter,by this marriage his uncle became the son-in-law of Sven I of Denmark. Their son Sven II of Denmark then became King of Denmark (1047).
His father Harold Godwin was the son of Wulphnoth, an old Sussex nobleman, who began his political career on the side of King Edmund the Ironmonger, but then when Knut appointed him Earl of Wessex he supported Knut (1018). Godwin was one of the two earls of Knut”s reign who remained in office after him. After Knut”s death (1035) Edwin initially supported Arthurianus but soon changed his support to Harold the Harefoot (1037) at the same time that he was accused of involvement in the blindness of Alfred Etheling the brother of the future King of England Edward the Confessor. After the death of Harold the Hare and the accession to the throne of Arthur (1040), Edwin was accused of involvement in Alfred”s murder but managed to bribe Arthur with a large ship after taking an oath that he himself did not wish Alfred harm. After Arthur”s death Edwin had a major role in the accession to the throne of the new King Edward the Confessor, reaching the height of his power when his daughter Edith of Wessex married Edward. His parents had six sons and three daughters one of whom Edith, Harold Godwinson was their second son, the eldest being Sven Godwinson. Harold is recorded as being about 25 years old in 1045 which puts his birth at around 1020.
Edith married Edward the Confessor on 23 January 1045, at the same time Harold became Earl of East Anglia, shown as an earl in documents from 1044 but his title was formalised in 1045. Harold seems to have been placed in this position in order to defend the Anglo-Saxon kingdom from the attacks of the Norwegian King Magnus the Good, he probably moved some ships to the Isle of Sandwich in order to deal with Magnus. His elder brother Harold Sven also took the title of earl (1043). At the time Harold was named Earl he seems to have begun his affair with a noblewoman named Edith who was heir to the lands of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex which belonged to Harold”s new duchy. The relationship was a kind of marriage without being formalised, it was not condemned by the church and was accepted by many of his supporters, the relationship was entered into by Harold in order to secure support in his new county.
Harold”s elder brother Sven was exiled (1047) after his failed attempt to kidnap the abbess of Leominster, his lands were divided between Harold himself and their Danish cousin Beorn Estridsson. In 1049 Harold was captain of the fleet in the aid sent to Henry III of the Holy Roman Empire to help him deal with the rebellion of Baldwin V of Flanders. During this campaign Sven returned to England to claim his lands, the two dukes refused to give him back their lands, Sven kidnapped his cousin Beorn and murdered him. Earl Edwin was exiled and Harold helped his father regain his lands, Edwin died (1053), Harold inherited him in the county of Wessex and became the most powerful man in England after the king. Harold additionally became Earl of Hereford (1058) in order to further increase the Norman influence in England after the House of Wessex was restored by Edward the Confessor who had spent some 25 years in exile in Normandy. He led a series of campaigns against Gryffindor of Lewellin, King of Wales in the period (1062 – 1063), the campaigns ended in success and the death of Gryffindor (1063).
In 1064 Harold was shipwrecked at Pontyet, there are many opinions about this voyage, the oldest being that Edward sent Robert, Archbishop of Canterbury, to William to appoint him his successor and then sent Harold himself to swear allegiance to him. Later historians disagree that Edward the Confessor had named a specific successor, as evidence they claim the convergence of the nobles after his death to name the new king. Other historians claim that he had invited Edward the Exiled from Hungary to succeed him as son of Edmund the Ironborn (1057), this is another proof that he had not named William as his successor. Later Norman historians give further explanations for this journey, stating that Harold was travelling to bring back family members who had been exiled in 1051, or he was participating in a hunt and an unexpected storm threw him across the channel. Guy I, Count of Pontier captured him as a prisoner and took him to the castle of Beauregard. Duke William of Normandy arrived at that moment and asked Guy to hand him over to him in order to accompany him to war with Conan II of Brittany. Harold rescued two of William”s soldiers and forced Conan to hand over the keys to the castle, William of Normandy crowned him a knight. The Bayeux tapestry describes the oath Harold took to William the Conqueror to recognize him as King of England after the death of Edward the Confessor, but after Edward”s death he broke his oath.The writer Orderick Vitalis (1075 – 1142) mentions that Harold was very tall, handsome with great physical strength and courage. Tostick Godwinson”s harsh taxation (1065) almost caused civil war in England; Harold supported the Northumbrian rebels against his brother, replacing Tostick with Morkar. This greatly increased Harold”s popularity and gave him a serious lead for succession to the English throne which forced Tostick to enter into an alliance with Harald Haralda.
In late 1065 King Edward the Confessor fell into a coma and died on 5 January 1066 before he could specify who he would name as his successor; his widow declared that he had left his kingdom under the protection of Harold. His intentions are questionable, Bayeux”s tapestry shows him proposing a man resembling Harold, his coronation took place the next day at Westminster Abbey but there is no evidence to confirm this. The real reason the nobles gathered the next day was more to celebrate Epiphany than to celebrate Harold”s coronation.In early January 1066 when William II of Normandy learned of Harold”s coronation he began preparing to invade England by gathering 700 ships on the Norman coast. At first William refused to carry out the invasion claiming that Harold had sworn to him in the holy relics that he would be William”s heir to the throne, William accepted the blessing of the church and all the nobles sided with him. Harold assembled his army on the Isle of Wight, after a 7 month stay he was then forced by bad weather to leave and return to London. At the same time the Norwegian King Harald Harald Haralda who also claimed the throne of England made an attack with Tostik at the mouth of the River Tyne.
The forces of Harald Haralda and Tostik defeated the forces of Edwin of Mercia and Morkar of Northumbria at the Battle of Fulford near York on 20 September 1066. Harold marched north and arrived in four days from London to Yorkshire, taking Harald Harald Haralda by surprise, on 25 September at the Battle of Stamford Bridge Harald Harald Haralda and Tostick were defeated and killed. Snorri Sturluson reports that shortly before the battle an unknown man who did not give his name came to find Haralda Haralda and Tostick, spoke to Tostick and offered him the return of his county if he turned against Haralda. Tostick asked the man what King Harold was offering him to make it happen and the man replied “seven feet from English soil since he is taller than all men.” Harald Haralda was impressed with the man”s courage and asked Tostick who he was, Tostick replied that the unknown man was Harold Godwison himself. Henry of Huntingdon reports that the man said : “six feet of ground or as much as it takes since he is taller than all the men.”
On 12 September 1066 William”s fleet sailed for Normandy, many of his ships were sunk by the storm but his fleet finally managed to reach the coast of east Sussex on 27 September. Harold”s army marched 386 miles with 7000 men to meet William and began hastily constructing defensive forts around Hastings. The two armies met at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October, after nine hours of hard fighting William the Conqueror was the great victor, Harold Godwinson fell in battle along with his brothers Girth and Leofwyn as described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The report that Harold died from an arrow between the eyes is not certain and may be a matter of debate. A Norman source written immediately after the battle by Guy, Bishop of Amiens, states that Harold was killed by four knights including William himself and his body was dismembered. 12th century Anglo-Norman historians such as William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntington state that he was killed by an arrow that wounded him in the head, the mention that the arrow struck him between the eyes is probably a 14th century addition.
A scene in the Bayeux tapestry with the inscription “Harold the King is dead” shows a human figure struck in the eyes by an arrow, next to it is another human figure mutilated on the legs of a horse. The linear etching on the tapestry scene has forced scholars to explain it in different ways, Benoit (1729) points out that the line of the arrow is dotted which means that this man was not struck with the arrow as seen in the other human figures. Bernard de Monfocon points out that in the second figure the arrow line is full, concluding that the second human figure belongs to Harold, the same conclusion was reached by most scholars of that time. Other scholars have stated that the inscription refers directly to the first figure with the arrow in the eyes, creating strong disagreement about the presence of Harold in the scene shown in the tapestry. The latter scholars note that it is possible that both figures belong to Harold, explaining that he was first struck with the arrow and then amputated, i.e. the scene shows the same man in a sequence of events.
The contemporary historian William of Poitiers notes that Harold”s body was given to William Mallet for burial. Harold”s two brothers were found very close to him, he himself stripped of all formal clothing could only be identified by a few marks on his body. William the Conqueror offered Harold”s body for burial to William Vallet and not to his mother although she offered him all of Harold”s weight in gold to take her son”s body, William claimed that burial matters should have nothing to do with monetary transactions. Other sources report that Harold”s widow Edith the Strong was asked to identify her husband”s body by several marks that were very familiar to her. Harold”s association with Bosham his birthplace and the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon grave in the town”s church in 1954 led many to conclude that this particular grave belonged to King Harold Godwinson. The Diocese of Chichester rejected the request for an exhumation in this grave in December 2003, claiming that this particular grave was unlikely to belong to a king. An early exhumation discovered the skeleton of a man under 60 years old with a severed head, one arm and half a leg concluding that it is the body of King Harold as described in Carmen. The poem states that King Harold was buried near the sea which was his main place of action, Bosham actually was in close proximity to Chichester harbour on the English Channel.
There is a legend that Harold”s body was moved a few years later to a new church which had been founded in Waltham, a holy place in Essex around 1060. Another legend says that Harold Godwinson did not fall at the Battle of Hastings but managed to escape, dying later as a hermit in Chester or Canterbury. His son Harold Ulf along with Morkar and two others were released after the death of William the Conqueror, Ulf entered the service of Robert II of Normandy who crowned him a knight, he has since disappeared from history. Two other of Harold”s sons Godwin and Edmund attacked England (1068, 1069) with the aid of the high king of Ireland, raided Cornwall (1082) but died shortly afterwards in Ireland under suspicious circumstances.
Harold was married for about six years to Edith the fair or swan-necked. The marriage was performed in the manner of the Danes (Norwegian custom), but the clergy did not recognize this marriage of his. They had at least six children:
The chronicler Orderick Vitalis reports that Harold was engaged to Adelisa, daughter of William I, the Conqueror of England, but his marriage to her never took place.
In January 1066 Harold had a second marriage with Edith
born around 1066; they both died in exile. After her husband”s death, Edith took refuge with her two brothers, Edwin, Earl of Mercia, and Morkar, Earl of Northumbria. Her brothers initially declared allegiance to William I the Conqueror, but then rebelled and lost their lands and their lives. Edith then probably fled abroad with Harold”s mother (or daughter) Githa. Harold”s sons Godwin and Edmund escaped to Ireland; then they invaded Devon, where they were defeated by Brian Earl of Cornwall.