The Life of Harold Godwinson

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The Last Anglo-Saxon King of England

Ruling from January 5 to October 14, 1066, Harold Godwinson was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England before the Norman Invasion under William the Conqueror 

As a result of his sister’s marriage to Edward the Confessor, Harold became the Earl of East Anglia in 1045. In 1051, he accompanied his father into exile. When Godwin died in 1053, Harold also became the Earl of Wessex.

Opposition to Norman Influence

In 1058, Harold also became the Earl of Hereford, taking Godwin’s place at the centre of opposition to the growth of Norman influence under Edward the Confessor. He also increased his standing among the nobility campaigning against the Welsh during 1062 and 1063. In 1064, primary sources claim that Harold was shipwrecked near Ponthieu, off the north coast of France.

The primary sources claim that at some point prior to this, the Archbishop of Canterbury was sent by Edward the Confessor to appoint William, the Duke of Normandy, as his successor. Harold was then to be sent at a later date to swear fealty to William. Modern historians are sceptical as to the reliability of this story, claiming that William seems to have believed that he had been offered the succession to the English crown. However, it is possible that William may have been confused in this regard. The wishes of the reigning monarch were not the sole deciding factor in the succession of the English crown. At that time, an assembly of nobles called the Witangamot would also convene following the death of the reigning monarch and select a successor. Other acts by Edward also suggest that he did not intend to pass the crown to William. In 1057, he arranged the return of his nephew, Edward the Exile, from Hungary.

Later Norman writers suggest that Harold was seeking the release of family members still held hostage in France. There is general agreement among modern historians that Harold’s ship left Bosham and was blown off course. Harold was captured and held for ransom by the Count of Ponthieu. William arrived shortly afterward and secured Harold’s release. Harold then took part in William’s campaign against the Duke of Brittany. While crossing into Brittany, Harold rescued two of William’s soldiers from quicksand. Harold and William eventually pursued the Duke of Brittany to Dinan where he surrendered the keys to his fortress. In gratitude, William knighted Harold and gave him weapons and armour. The Bayeux Tapestry and other primary sources claim Harold swore an oath to support William’s claim to the English crown. Following Harold’s death, the Normans argued that Harold broke his oath to William when he claimed the throne for himself.

The Norman Invasion

In 1065, Edward the Confessor lapsed into a coma. On January 5th, 1066, he regained consciousness long enough to commend the kingdom to Harold’s “protection.” It is not entirely sure what Edward may have meant by this, but the Bayeux Tapestry depicts Edward pointing to a figure thought to be Harold. The nobles elected Harold king and he was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey, the next day. Harold was the first English monarch to be crowned at Westminster Abbey.

Upon learning that Harold had been declared King of England, William began planning an invasion of England. Initially William received little support for his invasion, but when he began spreading the story that Harold had sworn sacred oaths on holy relics that he would support William’s claim, William gained the support of the Church. In anticipation of William’s invasion, Harold gathered an army on the Isle of Wight to repel the Norman attack. However, the departure of William’s invasion fleet was delayed due to unfavourable winds. By September 8th, Harold’s supplies were running low. He disbanded his army and retreated to London. That same day Harald Hardrada, who also had designs on the English throne, landed an army at the mouth of the River Tyne.

Harald Hardrada advanced quickly, taking Yorkshire and defeating the Earls of Mercia and Northumbria in the process. Harald was intercepted by King Harold at Fulford, near York. He was defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge after a four day forced march from London.

On September 12, William’s invasion force finally sailed from France. The fleet was wracked by storms and several ships were lost. The rest of William’s armada was forced to take shelter along the French coast. William eventually landed on the Sussex coast, on September 28, 1066. Upon learning that William had landed at Pevensey, Harold marched south to Hastings, where he waited for William behind hastily constructed earthworks. Harold and William met at Senlac Hill near Battle Abbey. The fighting lasted for more than nine hours. Harold is traditionally thought to have been killed by an arrow to the eye.

Harold’s exact burial place is unknown, but he is believed to have been initially buried in Bosham Church in Chichester.

Following Harold’s death Edgar the Athling was proclaimed King, but was deposed by William the Conqueror.

Sources

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.

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