Harold Godwinson

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Harold Godwinson, or King Harold (c1022 – October 14, 1066) was the last in Anglo-Saxon England to be crowned King. He reigned from January 5, 1066, and was killed attempting to repel the Norman invaders, led by William the Conqueror, at the Battle of Hastings.



Harold's father was the notorious Godwin (d.1053), son of Wilfnoth, "probably a Sussex thegn",[1] by his wife Gytha. It is unclear whether Godwin was an Anglo-Saxon or a Dane. However, given that his wives were both Danish[2] it seems almost certain he was also a Dane. Also, the Danish King Cnut granted Wessex to "his upstart favourite, Godwin" about or before 1018, firstly as a Thegn, then as Earl.[3] Moreover, Godfrey relates that "in Anglo-Saxon society class distinctions were regarded as natural and essential" and that "there can be no doubt that there was a real class structure in Anglo-Saxon society "[4] and this did not change under the Danish King Cnut.

Godwin married twice, both times to Danish women of high rank. His first wife was the Danish Princess Thyra, daughter of Sweyn I, King of Denmark and Norway. His second wife was Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, whose brother (or cousin) Jarl Elf was the son-in-law of Sweyn I and the father of Sweyn II. Gytha and Elf 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, to Gytha, resulted in the birth of several children, notably two sons: Harold and his ruthless brother Tostig Godwinson, and a daughter, Edith of Wessex (1020–75), who was Queen consort of (a reluctant) Edward the Confessor.


The Godwinsons were notorious for their ambitions, treachery, murder and their manipulation of King Edward. Godwin is held responsible for the murder of Prince Arthur, Edward the Confessor's brother, during a trip by Arthur to England from exile in 1036. In 1040 Godwin gave the Danish King Hardacnut a galley containing eighty warriors."[5] In 1051 Earl Godwin and all his sons rebelled in force but were defeated by Edward and banished from England. Godwin, Swein, Tostig and Gurth all went to Bruges; Harold and Leofwine went to the Norwegian port of Dublin, in Ireland, and stayed there the winter, returning the following year with a small invasion force and fleet. On this occasion, Edward was caught by surprise and was humiliatingly forced to restore the Godwinsons in their titles and properties. Despite Godwin's death on April 15, 1053 while dining with the King, his family had by now become the leading power in the land and Harold now established himself as the foremost general in the kingdom by virtue of his repeated victories over the Welsh Prince, Gruffyd.[6][7])

Usurps throne

Edward the Confessor, being childless, planned to recognise his young cousin (once removed), William II Duke of Normandy as his heir. Negotiations with William seem to have been opened by Archbishop Robert when travelling to Rome in the spring of 1051. Edward's magnates, including Godwin, swore to accept William as king on Edward's death, and hostages were given in support of Godwin's oath particularly, he being untrustworthy.[8] Eighteen year-old William then made a State Visit to England in the winter of 1051-2, a chance for Edward to show his gratitude to Normandy for having sheltered him as an exile.[9] Edward had no near kinsmen living in England; he had little interest in his Scandinavian relations; and it was natural that he should turn to William, the son of his protector and champion, Duke Robert I of Normandy. Edward was also a grandson of Richard I Duke of Normandy, their common ancestor. And there was certainly an active Norman party in England. Whilst William was never formally invested with the kingship, the mention in the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio that Edward sent William a sword and a ring goes some way in this direction.[10] "Historians are generally agreed that until shortly before his death Edward, who was educated in Normandy and had personal leanings towards their manners, wished his successor to be William, Duke of Normandy."[11]

About 1064 King Edward sent Harold across the channel to the Court of Duke William to swear the same oath as his father to William in person.[12] While there Harold fought for the Duke in Brittany and accepted Arms from William, which involved the famous oath of allegiance, when he publicly swore on holy relics at Bayeux to support William's claim to the English throne.[13] Despite the "ruthless intriguers" which made up much of his reign, when Edward died on January 5, 1066, he had done all he could to arrange for the succession in the way he wanted.[14]

However Harold now declared himself as a candidate for the throne. In effect an act of legal perjury. A tale arose that when King Edward was on his deathbed he pointed to Harold. This sign was taken by some present to mean that Edward chose Harold as his successor, though some say it was merely a curse, which seems more likely given the reputation of the Godwinson clan. On January 5, 1066, the Witenagemot (the assembly of the kingdom's leading wise men) accepted, under some duress (the decision of the Witan did not constitute the right to rule[15]). Harold's claim, and his coronation hurridly took place the following day. It was the first coronation in Westminster Abbey. Contemporaries stressed the almost indecent haste of this coronation. [16]

Rivals and invasions

England was then invaded, firstly by Harald Hardrada of Norway and secondly by Edward's first cousin once removed, William, Duke of Normandy, both of whom claimed the English crown. William claimed that he had been promised the English crown by King Edward, and that in addition Harold Godwinson had sworn to support his claim after having been shipwrecked in Ponthieu, and later. Harald Hardrada had meanwhile 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.

Battle of Hastings

Harold now again forced his army to march 241 miles (386 kilometres) to intercept William, who had landed perhaps 7000 men at Pevensey 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 village 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 (now estranged) 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".


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 the 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 were too slim to justify disturbing a burial place. A prior exhumation had revealed the remains of a middle-aged man lacking one leg.


  1. Barlow, Professor Frank, The Feudal Kingdom of England 1012 - 1216, by Professor Frank Barlow, London, 1955, p.56.
  2. Barlow, 1955, p.56: His first wife was the sister of King Cnut's brother-in-law, Earl Elf, a Danish family said to descend from a bear!
  3. Barlow, 1955, p.55.
  4. Godfrey, John, "The Defeated Anglo-Saxons Take Service with the Eastern Emperor" in Proceedings of the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies 1978 vol.1, London, 1979, p.63.
  5. Hooper, Nicholas, "Anglo-Saxon Warfare on the Eve of the Conquest" in Proceedings of the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies 1978 vol.1, London, 1979, p.85.
  6. Humble, Richard, The Saxon Kings, BCA, London, 1980, p.196.
  7. Walker, David,, "The Norman Settlement in Wales" in Proceedings of the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies 1978 vol.1, London, 1979, p.131.
  8. Williams, Ann, "Some Notes and Considerations on Problems Connected with the English Royal Succession 860 - 1066" in Proceedings of the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies 1978 vol.1, London, 1979, p.165.
  9. Humble, 1980, p.193.
  10. Williams, A., 1979, p.165.
  11. Barrow, Professor G.W.S., Feudal Britain, London, 1956, p.30.
  12. Williams, A., 1979, p.165.
  13. Brooks, N.P., & Walker, H.E.,"The Authority and Interpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry" in Proceedings of the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies 1978 vol.1, London, 1979, p.8, where two further chroniclers give the place of the oath as Bonneville and Rouen.
  14. Humble, 1980, p.198.
  15. Williams, A., 1979, p.162.
  16. Humble, 1980, p.200.