Reigned Jan 1066 – Oct 1066
Died Oct 1066
To begin to tell the story of Harold II, who is the last of Saxon kings, we must return to the reign of Canute.
Following the departure of Aethelred the Unready to Normandy in 1013, after a reign of semi incompetence and mismanagement, he left the country to be defended by his son, Edmund Ironside. For three years he battled against the Danish invaders until finally being defeated at Ashingdon on the 18th October 1016.
Edmund was granted Wessex as a peace offering, but died or was murdered soon afterwards. Son of Sweyn Forkbeard, Canute, was declared king of England in 1017.
Canute’s conversion to Christianity led him to the meeting with Harold’s father. Harold’s father was also a religious man, who spent his younger days in Sussex. Godwin, which was his surname, was on a visit to the shrine of Dicul, who was a missionary, and St Wilfred. Located in Bosham, which is near Chichester, became a great favourite with Canute. So much so that he built a home and church there. It was here that Godwin and Canute met.
As you will see later, it may been more by design than circumstance. Bosham is the famed location where Canute was said to have attempted to turn back the tide. It was an act to show that he was not as powerful as God but merely mortal. The act was meant to fail. Godwin at this time was a thegn (a noble fighting man). Canute and Godwin became friends, culminating in his appointment as the Earl of Wessex. To become the Earl of Wessex was a position of such power that he only needed to answer to the king. Canute who was the king of England, Denmark and later Norway, bestowed great power on Earl Godwin. He became acknowledged as the Bretwalda of all England.
The Godwin Family
Godwin had eight children, six sons and two daughters. His wife Gyda was from the Royal house of Denmark (probably another shrewd move). The sons were named Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Sweyn, Leofwin and Wulfnot. The daughters were Edith, Elgifu and possibly a third named Gunhild.
Patriotism Or Selfishness?
The area around Chichester is very beautiful even today, so it is likely that the children had a pleasant upbringing. Underlying it all, Godwin was a patriot, which was to become self evident later on. His patriotism however, would not be allowed to get in the way of his own self interests. Even at this early stage you can begin to understand Godwin’s thought processes.
The Whinging Tostig
At an early stage, it was evident that Harold was becoming the dominant male child of the family. Edith, the eldest daughter and first born was however to become an influence in the Godwin saga. She became a shoulder to cry on and was not adverse to making her opinions known, even to the detriment of the family has a whole. She had a particular favourite, Tostig. He would frequently go to her and complain about the treatment he was suffering from the other sons. Edith would incite Tostig to stand up to his brothers, especially Harold. This advice would have serious repercussions later on.
Edward Becomes King
When Canute died in 1035, Godwin who was now the most powerful man in the country, used his great influence to sway the Witan to choose Harold Harefoot (Harold I) followed by Canute’s other son Hardicanute. When in 1042, Hardicanute died, Godwin again used his influence to ensure that Edward the Confessor became king. Primogeniture was only ever assured during times of peace. When the country was in a constitutional or war crisis, the Witan would choose the king. He would be chosen for his leadership qualities and experience. In earlier times, respect was generally earned on the battle field. So the choice of Edward the Confessor, who was more concerned with religion than running the country was rather odd.
Edward the Confessor became king in 1042. Godwin seeing a opportunity to increase his power and influence over the realm, arranged the marriage between Edward and his daughter Edith. It was a marriage of convenience and was probably never consummated. It was almost as though Edward had walked into a trap. Not only did he have the all powerful Godwin to reckon with, but the ambition and squabbles of his children and Godwin’s ongoing feuds with Leofwin of Mercia and Sward of Northumbria.
Edward who had spent most of his formative years in Normandy, began to introduce Normans to his court. This obviously became unpopular with Godwin and his supporters. Edward was still fond of Godwin’s sons and granted Harold the earldom of East Anglia. Harold, still in his early twenties, met and fell in love with Edith Swan Neck, who he met in Nazeing in Essex. She became his loyal mistress and he would visit her whenever he could. Harold suffered paralysis soon after their meeting, but managed to recover. To give thanks to God, he built an abbey at Waltham Cross. He would later be laid to rest there after his final battle.
Not all the sons were as God fearing as Harold. Sweyn, who was now the Earl of Herefordshire, advanced into Wales to counteract the frequent incursions by the Welsh on his domain, raped the Abbess of Leominster. For this act, he was exiled abroad. Three years later, he was allowed to return. Expecting to be reinstated as Earl, he was to be disappointed. Harold informed Edward of other crimes that he had supposedly committed. Edward hearing this, refused his reinstatement. Harold was particularly friendly with the nephew of Canute, Earl Beorn. When Sweyn heard the news, he lured Beorn onto his boat under the pretence of trying to explain the situation and gain his support. When Beorn refused, he was put to death. When Harold heard of this atrocity, he collected his body and buried it next to his father at Winchester.
Edward was now introducing even more Norman advisers and courtiers to England. To Godwin and his family, this was being seen as a threat to the family and the power that they held. Despite the politics, the arranged marriage of Edith to Edward made sure that the king stayed in contact with the family. Edward visited Bosham with Edith on a regular basis. He grew fond of the Godwin children especially Tostig, who was Edith’s favourite.
Edward the Confessor continued the Norman influx to England, much to the ever growing anger of Godwin. It all came to a head with the appointment of Robert of Jumieges as Archbishop of Canterbury. To make a Norman the Archbishop of Canterbury, was almost the final straw as far as Godwin was concerned. What also angered Godwin was the appointment of Edward’s nephew Ralph, to the earldom of Herefordshire, a title held by Sweyn. The Norman Saxon feud was coming to a head. It would only be a matter of time before this uneasy alliance ended. .
Matters came to a head in 1051 when Count Eustace of Boulogne, who was married to Duke William’s sister arrived in Dover after a visit to Robert of Jumieges in Canterbury. Here they became drunk and rowdy. When they were ignored by the towns people, they started abusing the locals. When the locals began to fight back, one of them was murdered. This angered the people of Dover so much that they attacked Eustace and his entourage with stones and other missiles so that he had to make a hasty retreat out of the town. Edward, when he heard of the attack, and the request for justice by Eustace, went to Godwin and asked him to act. Godwin realised that the people of Dover had been provoked beyond all reason. He refused any punishment or retribution. .
The Godwins Are Exiled
Realising that now there could only be one ruler of England, Edward decided to act against Godwin and his growing army. Godwin had been preparing for this very showdown. The king called on Mercia and Northumbria to come to his aid. This they prepared to do. Marching south, they had a change of heart. They began to realise that civil war was unacceptable, so returned home. A hasty meeting of the Witan was convened in London. Here a solution could be argued out. Neither side trusted the other. It was an uneasy stand-off on both banks of the river Thames. Godwin and Harold requested safe passage to the meeting, but were refused.
The Godwin family were given five days to leave the country. All their possessions were confiscated. Their cry for help to his once loyal forces came to nothing. In those days, fighting against the kings interests would have been considered treason, akin to mutiny on a naval ship. Having totally run out of options, they departed for Flanders and sanctuary with Count Balduin, who always seemed available for English exiles. Harold and his brother Leofwin were not to be put down so easily. They sailed to Ireland with Flemish and Irish mercenaries and started to raid the English coast. .
Godwins Invade England
During this period of exile, Duke William visited Edward his cousin. Utilizing this Godwin free period, William managed to persuade Edward that he would be the obvious choice as is successor. This would have made sense to Edward because he was childless and the only other possible claimants had been exiled. Whatever conversations were undertaken, William returned home thinking that he would be the next king of England. Godwin’s two sons had agreed to meet up with their father in the English Channel after a period of softening up of the southern English coast. Unfortunately their acts were not going unnoticed by Edward. He summoned his fleet to counteract this new threat. Godwin never met up with his sons due to bad weather. He was blown back to the French coast. When the weather abated, he eventually did meet up with Harold and Leofwin, and sailed to the Isle of Wight. The Godwin’s continued to plunder the southern coastal regions. They were beginning to gain support, especially from the Cinque Ports who still admired Godwin for his support of the people of Dover.
Edward the king continued his imports of Norman advisers and positioning them in high office. These actions were beginning to annoy the population. The support for the Godwins began to grow. They eventually sailed up the river Thames to Southwark where the loyal kings forces of Mercia and Northumbria were stationed. Demanding a meeting with the king, who immediately refused, another stand-off occurred. Eventually Edward relented. After an exchange of hostages, the Witan was convened. Edward realised that he had no choice because the tide was turning against him. He was trying to turn England into another province of Normandy. Godwin and his sons argued well. Being accused of harbouring and being traitors, they fought their case. All titles and property removed from them was returned. Even his exiled wife was reinstated as queen. Sweyn on the other hand was killed on a crusade. Godwin did not get away absolutely free, he was required to allow his son, Wulfnot and Sweyn’s son Harkon, held hostage in Normandy subject to Duke William becoming king of England. .
One act that Godwin never forgave Edward for, was the appointment of Robert of Jumieges as Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1052 he removed him from office and appointed Stigand. An act that was condemned by the Pope. He was immediately excommunicated because under the Catholic faith you cannot replace a Archbishop without the express permission of the Pope whilst the incumbent is still alive. Godwin’s action did not seem to worry him that much. The trials and tribulations of Godwin’s exile must have taken its toll however. He became very ill and died the following year.
Harold, who had always been the dominant son, succeeded his father. A political move was made when he gave up his earldom of East Anglia in favour of the son of Leofwin of Mercia. Sward of Northumbria died in 1055 which left the door open for Tostig. When Leofwin died, Alfgar, now in East Anglia, returned to Mercia to take over. This vacancy in East Anglia was taken by Gyrth, Harold’s younger brother. The Godwin children now were becoming all powerful.
Earl Of Wessex
Harold became a good sub-regulus, acting for the good of the country. He worked well with the king and managed the administration of the kingdoms under his control. Although Harold was king for only a few months, people seem to forget that he was a soldier for many years. He was responsible for maintaining his kingdoms defences by using tactics which had not really changed since Alfred the Great. The defence of the country or kingdoms, still relied on the fyrd or militia. The only change was the introduction by Canute of housecarls. These professional soldiers were mounted, but fought on foot. He had always found Mercia to be a problem especially when they allied themselves to the Welsh. He managed to inflict a heavy defeat on them. By 1065, with the help of Tostig, who led the fleet, he invaded North Wales. By defeating Gruffyd ap Llewellyn he ended his aggression.
In 1064, Edward the Confessor ordered Harold to make a voyage to Normandy to confirm Edward’s promise of the throne to William on his death. This must have been a humiliating exercise for him. I am sure he felt that the kingdom should be his. Harold must have known that this was a difficult and dangerous expedition. He also had other ideas.
His brother, Wulfnot and Harkon (Harkon) were still being held as hostages and he saw that this may be a way to get them released. Setting off from the Sussex Coast they run into storm which forces them off course. Thanks to the Danish sailors who were used to sailing in bad weather, a forced landing was made. Unfortunately, bedraggled and half drowned they waded ashore, only to the captured by Guy, Count of Ponthieu. Guy, who was a vassal of Duke William held them to ransom. He sent a messenger to William with his demands. William refused the offer and called Guy’s bluff. Guy decided to give Harold up, possibly because of disguised threats or fear of invasion. Whatever the reason, Harold was handed over to Duke William.
By all accounts, Harold and William became reasonable friends during this time. Obviously it was in Harold’s interests and health to keep it this way. Harold was involved in a campaign in Brittany during this time and was noted for saving a Norman knight from quicksand. It could almost be said that these two powerful men actually liked one another eventually. Political expediency may have given the wrong impression. Whilst they gave onlookers that impression, each had other ideas. Both however, wanted to be king of England.
A Battle of Minds
As was expected the subject of Wulfnot and Harkon was introduced into their conversation. A battle of words and deeds followed. William for some time would have been expecting an oath of allegiance from Harold but Harold found it difficult to comply with his orders from Edward. Finally Harold mentioned the release of the two. Without doubt, William was expecting it. Now was his chance to force his hand. Harold stated how there could be an Anglo Norman empire, William would have none of this.
William knew he had the upper hand as well as the hostages. He used his advantage to attempt a oath of allegiance from Harold. Harold knew he could not leave without the hostages, so he agreed. To make sure he honoured his pledge, the marriage was mooted between William’s daughter Adelisa and a reluctant Harold. He managed to escape this fate, but Harold was made to swear the oath of allegiance over religious relics.
Expecting Wulfnot and Harkon to be released, William informed him that Wulfnot would be held until such time that he became king. Harold and his remaining brother returned to England with Harkon only. Harold went through a period of soul searching, knowing he had sworn over holy relics. By the same token he was also reminded that he had made this pledge under duress.
Harold returned to his duties. Sward, Earl of Northumbria died in 1055 to be replaced by Harold’s brother Tostig. Northumbria was the wild West of England at this time but Tostig ruled with a rod of iron. He took law enforcement to extremes, using his position to eliminate, usually by murder, anybody who got in his way. His mentor as she had always been was his elder sister Edith. His policy seemed to emanate from her. He taxed the people heavily and was generally very hard on them. By 1065, they had had enough. They attacked his residence and destroyed it along with the murder of his chosen housecarls. Tostig was removed from office for his own safety to be replaced by Morcar, who was the brother of Edwin the Earl of Mercia. Tostig did not take kindly to being extricated from his earldom. Harold persuaded the king to exile Tostig. As Tostig was one of the Godwin’s favourite children, he was loath to do so. Tostig departed for Flanders to the understanding Count Balduin.
He Asked Me To Be King
On the 5th of January 1066, Edward the Confessor died. On his deathbed he was alleged to have said to Harold, “I commend my wife to your care and with her my whole kingdom”.
Without further ado, Harold was coronated in Westminster, in the abbey that his predecessor had built. England was a prosperous country and it did not go unnoticed by others, especially the Danes. When William heard what had happened, he must have been incensed. England was on a collision course.
Harold had 9 months and 9 days to live from the day of his coronation.
During these 9 months Harold had to worry not only about invasion from William but also from his brother Tostig and the king of Norway Harold Hardrada.
The Vikings and Tostig invaded the north of England in late September 1066 and Harold was victorious at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
A few days later William invaded the south coast of England. Harold died after being shot by an arrow in the Battle of Hastings.
William claimed the throne of England and began the Norman dynasty.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "King Harold II (Harold Godwinson)" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/king-harold-ii/, February 7, 2022