Harold Godwinson, also known as Harold II, was the final crowned Anglo-Saxon English king. From January 6, 1066, until his tragic demise at the Battle of Hastings, he valiantly fought against the Norman invaders led by William the Conqueror during the Norman conquest of England, thus marking the end of Anglo-Saxon rule over the country.
Family Background: Ties to Cnut the Great
Harold Godwinson belonged to a prominent Anglo-Saxon family with strong connections to Cnut the Great. After the passing of his father, Godwin, Earl of Wessex, Harold rose to power as a prominent earl. Following the death of his brother-in-law, King Edward the Confessor, on January 5, 1066, Harold Godwinson was chosen by the Witenagemot to succeed him.
He was most likely the first English monarch to be crowned at Westminster Abbey. In September of the same year, Harold Godwinson successfully repelled an invasion by rival claimant Harald Hardrada of Norway in York before marching his army back south to confront William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings two weeks later.
A Powerful Nobleman
Harold Godwinson‘s father, Godwin, was a notable figure as the Earl of Wessex, and his mother, Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, was the sister of King Cnut the Great of England and Denmark. Harold had several siblings, including six sons—Sweyn, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine, and Wulfnoth—and three daughters—Edith of Wessex, Gunhild, and Ælfgifu. The exact birth dates of the children are unknown, but Harold’s birth year is estimated to be around 1020.
Harold’s rise to power began when he became Earl of East Anglia in 1045 after his marriage to Edith the Fair, who held significant lands in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, and Essex. This marriage, although not sanctioned by the Church, was widely accepted by the laypeople of England. Through this union, Harold Godwinson sought to strengthen his position in his new earldom.
Reign and Military Successes
In 1053, upon the death of his father, Harold succeeded him as Earl of Wessex, becoming one of the most influential figures in England after the king. He played a crucial role in defending England against Welsh attacks in 1055 and later became the Earl of Hereford in 1058. As the focus of opposition to the growing Norman influence under Edward the Confessor’s restored monarchy, Harold Godwinson led successful campaigns against Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, the king of Wales, from 1062 to 1063, resulting in Gruffydd’s defeat and death.
Harold’s Journey to Northern France
In 1064, Harold’s journey to the region of Ponthieu in northern France has been a topic of much speculation. According to some accounts, King Edward had previously sent Robert of Jumièges, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to appoint William II of Normandy as his heir, and Harold was sent to swear fealty to William.
However, the reliability of this story is debated among scholars. Harold’s voyage might have been motivated by various factors, such as seeking the release of his family members held hostage since his father’s exile in 1051 or embarking on a hunting and fishing expedition that was disrupted by a storm. Regardless of the purpose, Harold Godwinson was captured by Count Guy I of Ponthieu and taken as a hostage to Beaurain, where he was later handed over to William.
Harold Godwinson accompanied William in battles against Conan II, the Duke of Brittany, and it was during this time that he allegedly swore an oath on sacred relics to support William’s claim to the English throne.
The Battle of Hastings
On September 12, 1066, William’s fleet sailed from Normandy and arrived at Pevensey the following day. Meanwhile, Harold assembled his troops on the Isle of Wight in preparation for the impending invasion. However, due to unfavourable winds, William’s invasion fleet remained in port for nearly seven months.
On September 8, with provisions running low, Harold disbanded his army and returned to London. On the same day, Harald Hardrada and Tostig, Harold’s brother, landed in the north at the mouth of the Tyne with their invading forces. They defeated the English earls Edwin and Morcar at the Battle of Fulford near York on September 20, 1066.
In a remarkable show of strength and determination, Harold led his forces on a forced march from London to Yorkshire, catching Hardrada’s army by surprise. The Battle of Stamford Bridge took place on September 25, resulting in Harold’s victory and the deaths of Hardrada and Tostig.
The Final Battle and Harold’s Fate
Following the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold received news of William’s long-awaited invasion. The Norman fleet had finally set sail from Normandy and arrived at Pevensey on September 28. Harold’s army, after a 240-mile march, confronted William’s forces at the Battle of Hastings on October 14. After a fierce nine-hour battle, Harold was killed, along with his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine, and his forces were defeated.
The exact circumstances of Harold’s death remain a subject of scholarly debate. Some accounts suggest he was lanced and dismembered by four knights, while others claim he died from an arrow wound to the head. The Bayeux Tapestry, although not entirely conclusive, depicts Harold with an arrow in his eye.
Legacy and Family
Harold’s reign was short-lived but significant in English history. His death marked the end of Anglo-Saxon rule and the beginning of Norman dominance in England. Harold was married to Edith the Fair for approximately twenty years and had at least five children with her.
His marriage to Ealdgyth, daughter of Earl Ælfgar and widow of Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, is also recorded. The fate of Harold’s wives after his death remains uncertain, as does the fate of his children. Some of his sons sought refuge in Ireland, while others may have found shelter at the Danish court.
In conclusion, Harold Godwinson’s reign was marked by his valiant defence of England against rival claimants and invaders. Although his reign was cut short, his legacy lives on, forever etched in the pages of English history.
*Feature Image: Myrabella, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons