Harold Godwinson

Harold Godwinson
Harold Godwinson
Harold depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry
King of England
Reign 5 January – 14 October 1066
Coronation 6 January 1066
Predecessor Edward the Confessor
Successor Edgar II (uncrowned)
(otherwise) William I
Consort Edith Swanneck
Edith of Mercia
Full name
Harold Godwinson
House House of Godwin
Father Godwin, Earl of Wessex
Mother Gytha Thorkelsdóttir
Born c.1022
Wessex, England
Died 14 October 1066(1066-10-14) (aged 43/44)
Battle of Hastings, Sussex
Burial Waltham Abbey, Essex, or Bosham (disputed)

Harold Godwinson (or Harold II) (Old English: Harold Gōdwines sunu) (c. 1022 – 14 October 1066) was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England.[note 1] Harold reigned from 6 January 1066 [1] until his death at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 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

Attributed coat of arms of Harold (who lived before standardized coats of arms came into use) based on version by Matthew Paris, from his Historia Anglorum

Harold was a son of Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex, and his wife Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, 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.

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 at the hands of his own troops, in 1063.

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)

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 the childless king to appoint as his heir Edward's maternal kinsman, William of Normandy, and that at this later date Harold was sent to swear fealty.[2] 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.[note 2] 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,[3] 24 1/2 km 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.[4] 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: "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?".

Due to an unjust 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

Coin of Harold II. British Museum.

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.[note 3] Their children were not treated as illegitimate[by whom?]..[citation needed]

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.[5]

About January 1066, Harold married Edith (or Ealdgyth), daughter of Ælfgar, Earl of Mercia, and widow of the Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Llywelyn an enemy of the English. Edith had two sons—possibly twins—named Harold and Ulf (born c. November 1066), both of whom survived into adulthood and probably lived out their lives in exile.[citation needed]

After her husband's death, the queen is said[by whom?] 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). Harold's sons Godwine and Edmund fled to Ireland and then invaded Devon but were defeated by Brian of Brittany.[note 4][citation needed]

Family tree

Godwin (c. 1001–1053)
Gytha Thorkelsdóttir
Sweyn Godwinson
Edith Swannesha
Harold Godwinson
Ealdgyth, daughter of Earl Ælfgar
Gruffydd ap Llywelyn
Tostig Godwinson
Edith of Wessex
Edward the Confessor
(c. 1004–1066)
King of England (1042–1066)
Godwine (b. 1049)
Edmund (b. 1049)
Magnus (b. 1051)
Gunhild (1055–1097)
Gytha of Wessex (1053–1098)
Harold (1067–1098)
Ulf (1067–1087)

Reign as king

At the end of 1065, King Edward the Confessor ailed and fell into a coma without clarifying his preference for the succession. On 5 January 1066, according to the Vita Ædwardi 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.[note 5] When the Witenagemot convened the next day, they selected Harold to succeed,[note 6] and his coronation followed on 6 January, most likely held in Westminster Abbey, however there is no surviving evidence from the time to confirm this.[6] Although later Norman sources point to the suddenness of this coronation, 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 King, 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 unfavourable winds, the invasion fleet remained in port for almost seven months. On 8 September 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[note 7] joined Tostig and invaded, landing his fleet at the mouth of the Tyne.

Invading what is now Yorkshire, 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.[7] 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

On 12 September William's fleet sailed.[note 8] 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 now again forced his army to march 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 Hastings. 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 routed.[note 9] His brothers Gyrth and Leofwine were also killed in the battle.[citation needed]


The death of Harold depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, which gives rise to the traditional view that Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye. The annotation above states Harold Rex Interfectus Est, "Harold the King is killed".
The death of Harold, as tradition renders it (this version is uncertain)

The account of the battle Carmen de Hastingae Proelio (the 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.[8] 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 spot where Harold died which became the site of Battle Abbey

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".[9]

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.[10] 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 Harbour and in sight of the English Channel.[11]

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.[12] 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.

Legacy and legend

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

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.[13]

Harold's son 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 then disappeared from history.

Two of his other sons, Godwine and Edmund, made a number of attempts at invading England in 1068 and 1069 with the aid of Diarmait mac Mail na mBo.[note 10] They raided Cornwall as late as 1082,[citation needed] 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.[14]


In popular culture

Fictional accounts based on the events surrounding Harold's brief reign as king of England have been published, notably 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 short story, included in his 1910 collection, Rewards and Fairies, where an aged King Harold meets Henry I and dies in the arms of a Saxon knight.

Modern novels have included The Golden Warrior by Hope Muntz,[citation needed] The Interim King by James Colman McMillan,[citation needed], Lord of Sunset by Parke Godwin, The Last English King by Julian Rathbone, Warriors of the Dragon Gold by Ray Bryant, and the novel God's Concubine by Sara Douglass. 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).[citation needed]


See also


  1. ^ It could be argued that Edgar the Atheling, who was proclaimed as king by the witan but never crowned, was really the last Anglo-Saxon king.
  2. ^ 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. Howarth, 1066: The Year of the Conquest, pp. 69-70.
  3. ^ At this time there were a range of spousal relationships, from outright concubinage to fully recognized, 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.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Frank Barlow points out that the author of the Vita, who appears to have looked favorably on Harold, was writing after the Conquest and may have been intentionally vague. Frank Barlow, Edward the Confessor, University of California Press: Los Angeles, 1970, p. 251.
  6. ^ This was in preference to Edward's great-nephew, Edgar Ætheling, who had yet to reach maturity.
  7. ^ 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 basis.
  8. ^ 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.[citation needed]
  9. ^ 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.[citation needed]
  10. ^ At midsummer in 1069, Brian of Brittany 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.


  1. ^ DeVries, K., The Norwegian Invasion of England in 1066. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1999 ISBN 0851157637
  2. ^ David Howarth, 1066: The Year of the Conquest, Penguin Books, 1983, pp. 69-70; Elisabeth van Houts, ed. The Gesta Normannorum Ducum of William of Jumieges, Orderic Vitalis and Robert of Torigni, Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1995, vol. 2, pp. 158-61
  3. ^ Bayeux Tapestry, in which the place is called in Latin Belrem
  4. ^ Howarth, 1066: The Year of the Conquest, pp. 71-72
  5. ^ Round, J. H. (1885). "Adeliza (d 1066?)". Dictionary of National Biography Vol. I. Smith, Elder & Co.. http://www.oxforddnb.com/templates/olddnb.jsp?articleid=164. Retrieved 2009-11-09.  The first edition of this text is available as an article on Wikisource:  "Adeliza (d.1066?)". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. 
  6. ^ Westminster Abbey Official site - Coronations
  7. ^ Sturluson, Snorri (1966). King Harald's Saga. Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books. pp. 149. 
  8. ^ Eighteenth century etchings of the tapestry
  9. ^ 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, London, 1959. p.229.
  10. ^ In re Holy Trinity, Bosham [2004] Fam 124 — decision of the Chichester Consistory Court regarding opening King Harold's supposed grave.
  11. ^ The Debate concerning the remains found in Bosham Church Bosham Online Magazine 25 November 2003 Updated to include the Chancellor's ruling of 10 December 2003
  12. ^ Hilliam, Paul (2005). William the Conqueror: First Norman King of England. New York City, New York: Rosen Publishing Group. p. 57. ISBN 1-4042-0166-1. http://books.google.com/books?id=a4NZYnOqKXYC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false. 
  13. ^ Moss, Vladimir (2007). The Fall of Orthodox England: The Spiritual Roots of the Norman Conquest, 1043-1087.
  14. ^ Williams, John (1910) Llyfr Baglan: or The Book of Baglan. Compiled Between the Years 1600 and 1607; edited by Joseph Alfred Bradney. London: Mitchell, Hughes and Clarke; p. 80


  • Biography by P. Compton (1971), in: F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England; 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press ISBN 0198217161
  • Biography by Ian W. Walker (1997): Harold: the last Anglo-Saxon King. Stroud: Sutton Publishing ISBN 0-7509-1388-6


External links

Harold Godwinson
Born: c. 1022 Died: 14 October 1066
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Edward the Confessor
King of the English
Succeeded by
Edgar Ætheling
Proclaimed king by Witan, never crowned
Peerage of England
Preceded by
Earl of East Anglia
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Earl of Wessex
1st creation
Merged in Crown

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