Harold II
King of England
Reign 5 January 106614 October 1066
Predecessor Edward the Confessor
Edgar Ætheling
Spouse Ealdgyth Swan-neck
Godwine, Edmund, Magnus, Gunhild, Gytha, Harold, Ulf
Full name
Harold Godwinson
Royal House House of Godwin
Father Godwin, Earl of Wessex
Mother Gytha Thorkelsdóttir
Born Circa 1022
Wessex, England
Died October 14, 1066
Battle of Hastings
Burial Waltham Abbey, Waltham Abbey, England

Harold Godwinson, or Harold II of England (c. 1022 – October 14, 1066) was the last crowned Anglo-Saxon King of England.[1] He ruled from January 5 to October 14 1066 when he was killed at the Battle of Hastings.


Harold's father was Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex himself a son to Wulfnoth Cild, Thegn of Sussex (now believed to be descended from King Ethelred I, the elder brother of Alfred the Great).

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, Norway and England. 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-grand-children 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 (1020–1075), who was Queen consort of Edward the Confessor.

Family TreesEdit

Powerful noblemanEdit

As a result of his sister's marriage to the king, Godwin's second son Harold was created 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 he replaced his late father as the focus of opposition to growing Norman influence in England under the restored Saxon monarchy (1042–1066) 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 (1062–1063) 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 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. The most likely explanation was that Harold was seeking the release of members of his family who had been held hostage since Godwin's exile in 1051. In any case, his vessel was blown off course, and he was held hostage by Count Guy of Ponthieu. Duke William arrived soon after and forced Guy to turn Harold over to him.

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 Edgar Ætheling, son of Edward, 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 captivity, William obtained from Harold an oath to support William as the future king of England. It seems likely that William forced Harold to swear to support his claim to the throne, only revealing after the event that the box on which he had made his oath contained holy relics. After Harold's death, 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 childrenEdit

For some twenty years Harold was married mōrē 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 KingEdit

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. When the Witenagemot convened the next day, they selected Harold to succeed, and his coronation followed on 6 January, the first coronation in Westminster Abbey. 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.

The figure on the far right once had an arrow in its eye that had later been unstitched. Consensus is growing that both figures are Harold with the first showing the arrow that felled, but did not kill him, and his subsequent death and mutilation at the hands of a knight.

In early January of 1066, hearing that Harold had been crowned King, William Duke 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. 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 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. 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.

On 12 September William's fleet sailed. 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, near Senlac Hill (the present town of Battle) close by Hastings on 14 October, where after nine hours of hard fighting and less than 30 minutes from victory Harold was killed and his forces routed. His brothers Gyrth and Leofwine were also killed in the battle.

Legacy and LegendEdit

Harold's illegitimate 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. Consequently, the Russian Orthodox Church recently recognised Harold as a martyr with October 14 as his feast day. 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, and have little claim to fact.

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. By the 21st century, Harold's reputation remains tied as it has always been, with subjective views of the "right-ness" or "wrong-ness" of the Norman conquest.


  1. Edgar Ætheling (c. 1051–c. 1126) was proclaimed king after the Battle of Hastings by the Witan but was never crowned.

Bibliography Edit

  • Biography by P. Compton (1961); F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (3d ed. 1971).
  • Biography by Ian W. Walker: Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King. Sutton Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 1997. ISBN 0-7509-1388-6

External links Edit


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