Harold Godwinson

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Monarchs of Great Britain

Harold II Godwinson
King of England (more...)
Reign 5 January — 20 October 1066
Coronation 6 January 1066
Predecessor Edward the Confessor
Successor Edgar Ætheling
Spouse Ealdgyth Swan-neck
Full name
Harold Godwinson
Royal house House of Godwin
Father Godwin, Earl of Wessex
Mother Gytha Thorkelsdóttir
Born Circa 1022
Wessex, England
Died 14 October 1066
Battle, East Sussex
Burial Waltham Abbey, Waltham Abbey, England

Harold Godwinson, or Harold II (c. 1022 – October 14, 1066) was the last of the Anglo-Saxons to be crowned King of England - Edgar Ætheling (c. 1051 – c. 1126) was to be his successor after the Battle of Hastings, by the proclaimation of the Witan, but was not crowned. His reign was from January 5 to October 14, 1066. He was killed attempting to repel the Norman invaders, led by William the Conqueror, at the Battle of Hastings.


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

Godwin married twice, both times to Danish women of high rank. His first wife was the Danish princess Thyra Sveinsdóttir, a daughter of Sweyn I, who was King 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. 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 (who played a prominent role in 1066) and a daughter Edith of Wessex (1020–75), who was 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 the second 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 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 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 rescued two of William's soldiers, Baron Ian De La Goldfinch and Friar Paul Le Keen from the quicksand. They pursued Conan from Dol de Bretagne, then to Rennes, and finally to Dinan, where he surrendered the fortress' 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 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 Ætheling, 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 mōre Danicō (in the Danish manner) to Ealdgyth Swan-neck (also known as Edith Swanneschals or Edith Swanneck) 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 Monomachus, or Vladimir Monomakh. Through descendants of this Anglo-Russian marriage, Harold is thus the ancestor of later English kings.

About January 1066, Harold married Aldith (or Aldgyth), daughter of Ælfgar, Earl of Mercia, and widow of the Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. Aldith had two sons — possibly twins — named Harold and Ulf (born circa 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

Edward the Confessor was on his deathbed and pointed to Harold. 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 January 5, 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. Harald Hardrada formed an alliance with Harold's rebellious brother Tostig. Harold offered his brother a third of the kingdom if he joined him, and Tostig asked what Harold would offer the king of Norway. "Six feet of ground or as much more as he needs, as he is taller than most men," was Harold's response according to Henry of Huntingdon. It is, however, unknown whether this conversation ever took place.

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 ( September 20). They were in turn defeated and slain by Harold's army five days later at the Battle of Stamford Bridge ( September 25), Harold having led his army north on a forced march from London in four days and caught them by surprise.

The spot where Harold died, Battle Abbey
The spot where Harold died, Battle Abbey

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 September 28. 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 October 14, 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, Edith Swanneck, was called to identify the body (the face being destroyed), which she did by the tattoos pricked into his chest which read "Edith" and "England".

Tomb of King Harold II at Waltham Abbey, Essex
Tomb of King Harold II at Waltham Abbey, Essex

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 recent bid 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 II 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.

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 allegations 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 traveled 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.

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 Interim King" by James McMilla and "The Last English King" by Julian Rathbone.

The Times runs the obituary of "Harold of England" on the anniversary of his death.


  • A list of both fiction and non-fiction books relating to Harold Godwinson
Preceded by
Edward the Confessor
King of England
Succeeded by
Edgar Ætheling (Proclaimed king by witan, never crowned)
Preceded by
Earl of Wessex
Succeeded by
Merged in Crown
Preceded by
Ælfgar Leofricson
Earl of East Anglia
Succeeded by
Ælfgar Leofricson
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