The last Anglo-Saxon king of England, Harold's reign was short but would forever impact history. Afterward he was praised in England and vilified in France. Today he still holds a place of honor among the English.
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A Brief Note
Because most of these names are from nearly a millennium ago, they often have alternate spellings. These are indicated by brackets on the first instance only, following the primary spelling. For example, the modern name of John might be shown as John [Jon] the first time, but later simply as John.
Also, in a couple of places, terms from other languages (usually Old English) are used, followed by an explanation. These are used only where an exact Modern English equivalent doesn't exist. These terms also include two pronunciations. IPA stands for International Phonetic Alphabet, and it represents the general world standard pronunciation guide; ADP stands for American Dictionary Pronunciation and represents the typical type of self-created pronunciation guides most American dictionaries employ.
Note that, due to certain character set limitations, the IPA and ADP guides are close approximations and may not exactly match actual character representations that would normally be used.
Birth and early life
c. 1022 - 1043
Also known as Harold II of England, Harold was born at Bosham, West Sussex ("In the Footsteps of King Harold": c. 1020), in about 1022, second child to Godwin [Godwine], the powerful Earl of Wessex, and his wife Gytha (Ancestral Roots 6). He had many siblings, as listed below. Note: Harold's birth seems to conflict with that of Sweyn [Swegen], the elder brother of Harold; Sweyn's birth has been moved back two years from what some publications show. Discerning these birth dates has always been problematic at best (The House of Godwine 35).
- Sweyn (c. 1021 – 1052): brother, Earl of Herefordshire
- Gunhilda [Gunnhilda] (c. 1024 – 24 Aug 1087): sister, nun
- Tostig (c. 1026 – 25 September 1066): brother, Earl of Northumbria
- Edith [Eadgyth] (c. 1030 – 19 December 1075): sister, Queen consort of Edward the Confessor
- Gyrth (c. 1030 – 14 October 1066): brother, Earl of East Anglia, Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire
- Ælfgifu [Aelfgyva, Elgiva] (c. 1026 – c. 1066): sister
- Marigard (6 February 1033 – 6 August 1083): sister
- Leofwine (c. 1035 – 14 October 1066): brother, Earl of Kent
- Wulfnoth (c. 1040 – c. 1094): brother, in captivity most of life in Normandy; died still in captivity in Salisbury, England
Little is known of the childhood of Harold. Clearly he was trained in matters of leadership and government, although much of this was most likely innate. His father had climbed his way in power, from a low position in the Saxon aristocracy ("The battle of Hastings") to being at least the second most powerful man in England (Anglo-Saxon England 561). His mother was a close kin to King Canute [Cnut or Knut], a Danish king who succeeded Edmund II Ironside as king of England in 1016 ("Harold II").
Marriage and Earldom
Harold married Edith Swan-neck [Aldgyth or Ealdgyth Swanneshals] (also known as Edith the Fair), probably at least as early as 1045 (The Last Anglo-Saxon King 128). The marriage appears to have been one of love, done more Danico [IPA: /'moRe 'daniko/ ; ADP: MOR-ay DAH-nee-koh]: in the traditional Danish fashion. This meant it would have been a civil marriage, specifically a "handfast" (common-law) marriage ("Handfasting" 172–173). It is likely that Harold followed this method of wedding because his own mother was Danish. In any case, it was generally considered valid and binding by the people (there is no evidence that their children were ever considered illegitimate by the laity), although the Catholic Church considered Edith to be Harold's mistress, rather than an actual wife (House 139).
In 1044, Harold was made Earl of East Anglia by Edward the Confessor (Harold II, Godwinson (1066): Last of the Saxon Kings 1). Shortly thereafter, Sweyn—considered the black sheep of the family—helped Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, the King of Gwynedd in northern Wales, with an invasion into Deheubarth, the most southwestern kingdom of Wales (Flame-bearers of Welsh History 22). Among other things, the invasion resulted in Sweyn's abduction of the Abbess of Leominster, whom he retained; some claims were made that such was the result of true love, but suspicions formed that it was, in fact, for his own concupiscence (Shropshire: Its Early History and Antiquities 97). The result of this behavior was a blow to the House of Godwin. Sweyn was exiled, where he remained in Bruges with his father's long-standing ally, Count Baldwin V of Flanders. Sweyn's lands were divided between Harold and Beorn [Bjorn], a cousin (House 54–55).
Treachery and murder
1046 - 1051
A return of Sweyn the following year would be short-lived. It appears King Edward was willing to forgive Sweyn for his indiscretions, and that he wanted to return Sweyn's original title and lands to him. Harold and Beorn, however, indicated that they "would surrender to [him] nothing [of his] that the king had imparted to them" (Anglo Saxon Chronicle C). The king accepted their decision, apparently inflaming the returned son.
At about this time, an invasion was attempted by Osgod Clapa, a Danish magnate who had been exiled in 1046 from England (Anglo-Saxon England 430). Earl Godwin was ordered to the English Channel, where Clapa's ships were spotted. He was accompanied by 42 ships, including two of the king's own ships, which came under command of his sons, Harold and Tostig. Beorn was left behind to command Harold's own ship. Sweyn convinced Beorn to help him work out his reinstatement with the king, at the time in Sandwich. They sailed to Bosham, probably for appearances, but once there Sweyn bound his cousin (who had brought only 3 men with him) and brought him onto his own ship. Then, for some unknown reason, the defenseless Beorn was murdered at Dartmouth (The Last Anglo-Saxon King 24).
Perhaps Sweyn intended to use Beorn as a hostage during his negotiations; maybe Beorn vehemently refused to help him after all, inciting his wrath. In either case, this act made Sweyn's exile permanent. King Edward declared him níðing [IPA: /'nIðIng/; ADP: NIH-thing], meaning a coward, outlaw, or one who commits a vile act. Six of Sweyn's eight ships forsook him, and he was forced to return to Bruges ("In the Footsteps of King Harold": 1049).
A Swift Response
The response of the king was absolute. Not only was Sweyn exiled for life, but the rest of the House of Godwin was punished. Godwin and his sons were also exiled from England, and Edward's own wife, Edith, was moved to a nunnery (The Norman Conquest and Beyond, 68). It is noteworthy that a number of French nobles and religious figures remained in England after this exile ("History – Anglo-Saxons and Vikings": Harold Godwinson). That King Edward favored those of French blood, often over Anglo-Saxon blood, seems apparent ("January 5, 1066"). It is plausible that Edward's time in exile in Normandy prior to ascension to the throne affected his feelings and even judgment with regard to those of French blood. It is equally possible that the extremity of the punishment against the House of Godwin came from a desire to purge the land of a powerful rival influence, and the act of Sweyn gave the king an excuse to rid himself of the lot.
Banishing Earl Godwin proved ultimately to be a double-edged sword. Certainly there would have been great envy of the earl among some. It is unlikely for anyone to hold the control over most affairs in England without enemies circling, waiting for any show of weakness. Now that it had come, however, a realization came: England had effectively been conquered. It wasn't a conquest on a battlefield; it was a takeover of a different kind. She had been conquered by intrigue and craft. Those who now sat in dominion over the kingdom were strangers, friends of Edward the Confessor, but aliens from Normandy nonetheless (The History of the Norman Conquest of England, 2:204).
Soon the call for the return of Godwin spread through England. He was in many ways regarded as the father of his country. The sovereignty and stability of the kingdom was now in jeopardy:
Et quoniam supra diximus eum ab omnibus Anglis pro patre coli, subito auditus discessus ejus exterruit cor populi. Ejus absentiam sive fugam habuere perniciem suam, interitum gentis Anglicæ excidium insuper totius patriæ (Vita Ædwardi Regis, 404).
And since we said above that he was accounted by all the English as an honored father, the people's hearts broke with terror. His absence or flight spelled disaster, the English nation's ruin, and even complete subversion as a consequence.
Some even felt exile with Godwin was better than life with him gone. According to the 1066 version of Vita Ædwardi Regis, "Felicem se putabat qui post eum exsulari poterat" (404). That is to say, "Happy are they who can be exiled after him." Missives begging Godwin to return were sent across the channel, and men crossed the sea in person, pledging themselves to his cause. Should Godwin return, he would find a great number of supporters. This was not some secret conspiracy against Edward the Confessor: England nearly unanimously sought the return of their father.
Clash of the Titans
1051 - 1054
Naturally all of these petitions of loyalty to Godwin and treason against the king did not go unnoticed. In addition to the laity, the Witenagemot [IPA: /'witena je'mo:t/; ADP: /wee-TAY-nuh-YEH-mote/] — an assembly of ruling class noblemen who advise the king — were upset at the large growth of Norman influence in England. Try as he might (king or no), Edward had little chance of things going his way.
With or without all of this support, Godwin most likely had begun planning his return the moment he was exiled. In early 1052, the earl was back in force (Norwegian Invasion, 103): an army commanded by his sons Harold and Tostig aboard a fleet of ships ("Edward the Confessor"). His first effort was unsuccessful. Depending on the version of the story to be believed, he may have sailed toward Dungeness, encountered the royal fleet, and returned to continental Europe by using a storm as cover. An alternate version of the story indicates he landed at Kent and gained a following, only to be chased back to mainland Europe by the royal fleet (Norwegian Invasion, 103).
The fact that in either case Godwin, Harold, and Tostig remained uncaptured proved the Norman replacements were less adept militarily. In further consequence, it was decided a change was needed, so the fleet went back to London for new leadership. Godwin was clearly not discouraged by the outcome: mere months passed before his second attempt to retake his position of power. Arguably, though, he had never really lost it.
That same summer, Godwin was back. He arrived at the Isle of Wight, used as a safe port for pirates and brigands from which to assault the English coast. After meeting Harold and Leofwine who had just come from Ireland, he sailed to Wessex, his primary seat of power. It seems he was hugely successful: "all came to meet him … like children their long awaited father" (Vita Ædwardi, 40–43).
One of Godwin's primary opponents was the Norman, Robert de Jumièges. Earlier a prior of the Abbey of St. Ouen (at Rouen, France), he was appointed in 1037 as abbot of Jumièges Abbey, also near Rouen. It was during his abbotship here that he met and became close friends with Edward the Confessor, so much so that Robert traveled with Edward during his return to England ("Robert of Jumieges"). By August 1044, he had been appointed as Bishop of London.
Over time, animosity between Robert and Godwin would only grow. Robert was leader of the party opposed to Godwin, even getting himself appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury on 29 June 1051 ("Robert of Jumièges [d. 1052/1055]") after the vacancy left by the death of Edsige [Eadsige]. This appointment was over Godwin's kinsman Athelric [Æthelric] and happened despite objections by the monks of Canterbury (The English Church, 209). As Archbishop, Robert exercised influence on the king, incensing him against Godwin and likely contributing to the earl's banishment.
Additionally, there were multiple failed attempts by Robert to reclaim lands from Godwin that were formerly part of the Archbishopric but lost during Edsige's time. Robert even appointed his own favored candidate, William the Norman, as Bishop of London over Sparrowhawk [Spearhafoc], the Abbot of Abingdon, favored by both the king and Godwin (Ruling England, 52). Finally things came to a head at a council of Gloucester in September 1051, when Robert even went so far as to claim Godwin was involved in a plot to assassinate the king (Edward the Confessor, 111). Edward most likely felt he had no choice: a disgraceful Sweyn, a family with incredible power, and now an attempt on his life. The House of Godwin was banished, and Robert claimed both the office of sheriff of Kent and victory over his rival.
Or so it seemed. Godwin, having gathered a large force, prepared to move. The manoeuver was intended to be an act of flexing muscles rather than actual assault, but the former Earl of Wessex was prepared should it come to more.
1051 - 1065
With the return of the Godwin house to England, a change was in the air.
January 1066 - September 1066
Return of the Prodigal
Having been banished the previous year, Tostig was embittered against his brother. He believed he had been slighted and wished to redeem his good name. Rather than asking forgiveness or seeking amends, however, he chose to invade England. In May 1066, he raided the eastern coast of England, but was repulsed by Harold's armies. After fleeing to Scotland for safety, he arranged an alliance with Harald Hardradda, the current king of Norway.
The year 1066 had been a taxing one on the king and his provisions. On September 8, Harold was forced to disband his fleet and the fyrd [IPA: /furd/; ADP: FOORD], the conscripted army) as supplies were running low. Unfortunately, the Viking Harald Hardradda and his new-found ally, Tostig, were heading up the Humber with a massive fleet of 300 ships. Just a week after disbanding much of his military, Harold learned they had made landfall in the north, at a village called Riccall, about 9 miles (15 kilometers) south of York.
When they marched on York on September 20, Harald and Tostig were met by the Earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria (grandsons of Leofric to whom Tostig's earldom had been given) south of the city, at Gate Fulford. The armies faced off across a ditch separating the River Ouse and a marsh, near Heslington. The battle soon ended in the surrender of the earls to the Viking invader. York promised 500 hostages to the Viking army, to be delivered five days later.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge
By September 20, word had reached Harold, who immediately mustered his troops once more and marched hard for York, gathering as many huscarls [IPA: /'hus-karlz/; ADP: HOOS-karls] and thegns [IPA: /thenz/; ADP: THAYNS] as he could along the way. He marched a distance of 185 miles (296 kilometers) in only four days. When he reached York, he learned of the planned delivery of hostages and pushed straight to Stamford Bridge, which crossed the River Derwent.
Harald had left a portion of his army on the west side of the river to guard the bridge, while the bulk had been staying at Tadcaster, to the southwest of York. The night before, the Vikings camped on the southeast of Stamford Bridge, on the bank opposite the force that guarded it. The invaders were caught completely offguard, most likely because only 500 hostages were expected. Tostig only realized what was happening when the dust kicked up by the approaching men — far more than that of 500 hostages — was also accompanied by the glint of weapons and armor. In 1225, Snorri Sturluson described this in his saga Heimskringla:
…the army grew greater the nearer it came, and it looked like a sheet of ice when the weapons glittered.
The Vikings may not have been equipped as they ought to have been. Snorri Sturluson also wrote that the Vikings had left their armor on their ships, so only fought with shield, helm, and spear. Harald's army was now divided by the River Derwent and poorly equipped, not having expected an army to arrive as quickly as it had. The force on the west bank was quickly annihilated, and the English began across the bridge.
According to a folk story, a single Viking held the army of Harold at bay until a soldier floated on a barrel beneath the bridge and stabbed a spear up through the bridge's slats, killing the defender. They were most likely delayed because of the narrowness of the bridge and size of the army. The delay provided time for the army of Harald and Tostig to hastily form a shield-wall in defense on a tract known today as Battle Flat.
As the English army reached the eastern shore, they too formed a shield-wall. It is most likely at this time that Tostig was offered a truce if he would submit to Harold before the battle. He demanded to know what his ally, Harald, could have. The response was that Harald could have enough English ground to make his grave. Tostig declined to talk further, and the English rushed forward.
The battle lasted hours, with the Vikings' lack of armor almost certainly their greatest weakness. Harald and Tostig were both killed, and the flanks of the invaders began to buckle. Eystein Orre arrived with fresh Vikings from their camp at Riccall and renewed the fight for a bit longer. Ultimately, however, the vikings were crushed. Of the 300 ships that arrived, only 24 — eight percent — were needed to carry the survivors home.
Olof (Harald's son), Earl Paul [Páll] Thorfinnsson, and Earl Erlend Thorfinnsson (Paul's brother) were among the few leaders left. Olof first retreated to Orkney, where he overwintered with the earls; he departed for Norway in the spring, never to return.
Early in the year 1066, Edward the Confessor passed on. Whether the succession of William to the throne was rightful has been a source of debate for centuries; in the year 1066, it was cause for war.
It is not only unclear whether Edward wanted William to succeed him, but no one can with certainty verify whether Edward even actually passed the crown.
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