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The House of Godwin
The House of Godwin: The Rise and Fall of an Anglo-Saxon Dynasty by Michael John Key

Harold Godwinson

Introduction

Harold Godwinson, also known as Harold II, stood as the final crowned Anglo-Saxon English king. Born around 1022, he held the throne from 6 January 1066 until his fateful demise at the Battle of Hastings. In a valiant effort, he faced the Norman invaders led by William the Conqueror during the momentous Norman conquest of England. With his fall, Anglo-Saxon rule over England came to a close.

A Noble Heritage and Rise to Power

Harold Godwinson hailed from a prestigious Anglo-Saxon lineage intertwined with the reign of Cnut the Great. Following the passing of his father, Godwin, Earl of Wessex, he ascended to great influence as an earl. Upon the demise of his brother-in-law, King Edward the Confessor, on 5 January 1066, Harold emerged as the chosen successor, duly elected by the Witenagemot. It is believed that he became the first English monarch to receive the ceremonial crown within the hallowed walls of Westminster Abbey.

Defying Rivals and Repelling Invaders

In a remarkable display of fortitude, Harold Godwinson thwarted a rival claimant’s invasion in York in late September 1066. Harald Hardrada of Norway, vying for the English throne, met a resounding defeat at Harold’s hands. Following this triumph, Harold swiftly returned south, rallying his forces to face the imminent arrival of William the Conqueror at Hastings just a fortnight later.

Background

Harold’s Ancestry: The Powerful Lineage of Godwin and Gytha

In the annals of English history, the figure of Harold II emerges from a lineage deeply rooted in power. Born to Godwin, the influential Earl of Wessex, and Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, Harold’s bloodline intertwined with prominent rulers. Gytha’s brother, Ulf the Earl, was married to Estrid Svendsdatter, daughter of King Sweyn Forkbeard and sister to King Cnut the Great. Their son, Sweyn II of Denmark, would ascend to the Danish throne. This intricate web of connections bestowed upon Harold a heritage worthy of a future king.

Godwin’s Political Career: Shifting Loyalties and Earlship of Wessex

Godwin, the son of Wulfnoth, a likely thegn hailing from Sussex, embarked on a political journey that would shape his family’s destiny. Initially aligning himself with King Edmund Ironside, Godwin’s allegiance took a momentous turn when King Cnut ascended the throne in 1018. Recognizing Godwin’s talents, Cnut bestowed upon him the coveted title of Earl of Wessex. This appointment marked the beginning of Godwin’s enduring earldom, a feat only achieved by a select few who survived the entirety of Cnut’s reign.

Godwin’s Involvement: The Murder of Alfred Aetheling and Harold Harefoot’s Succession

The intricacies of Godwin’s political maneuverings became more entangled with the passing of King Cnut in 1035. Initially favoring Harthacnut as the rightful successor, Godwin soon found himself entwined in a grim episode—the murder of Alfred Aetheling, Harthacnut’s half-brother and the younger sibling of the future King Edward the Confessor. Godwin’s swift shift in allegiance to Harold Harefoot, Cnut’s initial successor, carried its share of suspicions and whispers. However, fate seemed to favor Godwin, for when Harold Harefoot passed away in 1040, Harthacnut ascended the English throne, and Godwin’s position teetered on the precipice. Yet, through a combination of oaths and substantial gifts, Godwin managed to secure the favor of the new king, safeguarding his standing and influence.

Godwin’s Influence: Securing Favor with Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor

The year 1042 witnessed the demise of Harthacnut, and once again, Godwin found himself entangled in the delicate threads of power. This time, his role as kingmaker emerged, as he played a significant part in securing the English throne for Edward the Confessor. Godwin’s political acumen and astuteness earned him the trust of Edward, solidifying his position as one of the most influential figures in the kingdom. The pinnacle of Godwin’s authority materialized in 1045 when the King married Godwin’s own daughter, Edith. Through this union, the Godwin family attained an unprecedented level of influence, positioning them at the heart of English politics.

The Height of Power: Godwin’s Daughter Edith’s Marriage to the King

The marriage of Edith, Godwin’s daughter, to King Edward the Confessor not only fortified the familial bond between the Godwins and the royal lineage but also elevated their prominence to unprecedented heights. Edith, originally named Gytha but renamed Ealdgyth (or Edith) upon her marriage, became an integral figure at court. Her connection to the King further solidified the Godwins’ grip on power, granting them unparalleled access to the inner workings of the monarchy.

The Children of Godwin and Gytha: Sons and Daughters of the Illustrious Couple

Within the union of Godwin and Gytha, a union forged by both political calculation and shared affection, a brood of children emerged, destined to leave their indelible marks on history. The couple was blessed with six sons: Sweyn, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine, and Wulfnoth (in birth order), each carrying the weight of their father’s legacy. Additionally, Godwin and Gytha welcomed three daughters into their noble household: Edith of Wessex, Gunhild, and Ælfgifu. Though the precise birth dates of these children are lost to the annals of time, it is believed that Harold, the future King Harold II, was born around the year 1020, making him approximately 25 years old in 1045, a crucial turning point in his family’s ascent to power. This remarkable brood of offspring would go on to shape the course of English history, with Harold himself destined to become the last Anglo-Saxon king to wear the crown. Their combined presence and influence within the Godwin family created a formidable force that would leave an indelible mark on the tapestry of England’s monarchy.

Harold's Journey: Marriage, Earldoms, and Power Struggles

Harold Godwinson, from the Bayeux Tapestry

Harold Godwinson, from the Bayeux Tapestry

Marriage and Rise to Earldom

Harold’s journey begins with his marriage to Edith on 23 January 1045, coinciding with his appointment as Earl of East Anglia. His status as an earl became evident in documents by 1045, potentially prompted by the need to protect England from the Norwegian King Magnus the Good. Harold’s involvement in sending ships to Sandwich in 1045 further suggests his active role in defense. Interestingly, his elder brother Sweyn had already been named an earl in 1043. During this time, Harold’s relationship with Edith the Fair flourished, tying him to the lands in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, and Essex, which were part of his new earldom. Their unconventional union, known as More danico, garnered acceptance among the laity and likely aimed to solidify support in his newly acquired territory.

Family Turmoil and Military Exploits

Family upheaval struck in 1047 when Sweyn abducted the abbess of Leominster and was subsequently exiled. Sweyn’s lands were divided between Harold and their cousin, Beorn. In 1049, Harold took charge of a fleet dispatched to aid Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor, against the rebellious Baldwin V, Count of Flanders. Sweyn returned to England during this campaign, seeking pardon from the king. However, Harold and Beorn refused to relinquish their holdings, leading to Sweyn’s drastic measures. He held Beorn hostage, and later, resorted to murdering him after departing from the royal court.

Rise to Power and Conflict with the Godwins

In 1051, Edward, the reigning monarch, appointed an adversary of the Godwins as Archbishop of Canterbury and subsequently exiled the family. Nonetheless, the Godwins rallied their forces, forming an army that compelled the king to reinstate them a year later. Following the death of his father, Earl Godwin, in 1053, Harold inherited the title of Earl of Wessex, making him the most influential secular figure in England, second only to the king himself. Harold’s military prowess was evident in 1055 when he successfully repelled the Welsh, who had ravaged Hereford. His strategic acumen earned him the additional title of Earl of Hereford in 1058.

Meanwhile, Harold became a focal point of opposition against the growing Norman influence in England, which thrived during the restored monarchy (1042-1066) of Edward the Confessor, who had spent a significant period in exile in Normandy. Harold’s notable triumph came during his campaign against Gruffydd ap Llywelyn of Gwynedd, the Welsh king, in 1062-1063, ultimately leading to Gruffydd’s defeat and demise.

Harold's Mysterious Voyage

HAROLD, KING OF THE ENGLAND, DIES HERE. ARCHBISHOP STIGANT

HAROLD, KING OF THE ENGLAND, DIES HERE. ARCHBISHOP STIGANT

Harold’s Mysterious Shipwreck and Speculated Voyage

In the year 1064, a significant event unfolded in Harold’s life as he found himself shipwrecked near Ponthieu. The details surrounding this voyage have sparked extensive speculation among scholars, giving rise to multiple theories and narratives. Delving into the accounts of post-conquest Norman chroniclers, we encounter tales of King Edward’s previous endeavor to appoint Duke William II of Normandy as his heir, sending Archbishop Robert of Jumièges on his behalf. It is suggested that Harold’s later journey was to pledge his allegiance to William. However, the reliability of this story remains a subject of scholarly debate.

Uncertainties and Alternative Explanations

The succession process in England was not based on direct inheritance or the sole decision of the reigning monarch. Instead, the Witenagemot, an assembly of prominent figures in the kingdom, would convene after a king’s demise to choose a successor. This fact raises doubts about the veracity of claims regarding Edward’s alleged promise to William. Furthermore, Edward’s actions, such as his efforts to repatriate his nephew Edward the Exile from Hungary, seem incongruous with the notion of a predetermined heir.

Later Norman chroniclers propose alternative explanations for Harold’s journey. One theory suggests he aimed to secure the release of family members held hostage since the exile of Godwin in 1051. Another conjecture suggests that Harold was merely engaged in a coastal expedition for hunting and fishing when an unexpected storm forced him across the Channel. It is widely agreed that his departure originated from Bosham, but he was ultimately blown off course, landing in Ponthieu.

Harold’s Captivity and Encounter with William

Upon his arrival, Harold fell into the hands of Count Guy I of Ponthieu and was taken captive to Beaurain, the Count’s castle located up the River Canche. Shortly thereafter, Duke William arrived on the scene and demanded Harold’s surrender. It is believed that Harold accompanied William in a subsequent battle against Conan II, Duke of Brittany. During their journey, Harold’s bravery shone through as he rescued two of William’s soldiers from perilous quicksand near the fortified abbey of Mont Saint-Michel.

The Sworn Oath and its Consequences

The historical accounts, including the renowned Bayeux Tapestry, depict a pivotal moment when Harold swore an oath on sacred relics to support William’s claim to the English throne. However, after Edward’s passing, the Normans were quick to accuse Harold of breaking this alleged oath, thereby questioning his legitimacy as the King of England.

Harold’s Character and Political Maneuvers

Orderic Vitalis, a chronicler of the time, portrays Harold as a man of exceptional physical stature, refined manners, unwavering determination, eloquence, wit, and a multitude of admirable qualities. Yet, in the absence of good faith, the foundation of all virtues, these attributes were ultimately rendered futile.

The Northumbrian Rebellion and Family Discord

In 1065, a critical development unfolded as Harold supported the rebels in Northumbria against his own brother, Tostig, leading to his replacement by Morcar. This decision not only solidified Harold’s alliance with the northern earls but also sparked a tragic rift within his own family. Consequently, Tostig sought an alliance with King Harald Hardrada of Norway, setting the stage for further tumultuous events.

The Ambiguous Succession and Harold's Triumph

Gyrth and his brother's death at the Battle of Hastings, scene 52 of the Bayeux Tapestry.

Gyrth and his brother’s death at the Battle of Hastings, scene 52 of the Bayeux Tapestry.

The Ambiguous Succession

In late 1065, King Edward the Confessor’s coma left the succession unclear. On 5th January 1066, he passed away, briefly regaining consciousness to entrust his widow and kingdom to Harold’s “protection.” The intent behind this charge remains enigmatic, as depicted by the Bayeux Tapestry, which shows Edward pointing at a figure believed to be Harold. The following day, the Witan convened and selected Harold as the successor. His coronation took place on 6th January, most likely at Westminster Abbey.

William’s Plans and Papal Support

Upon learning of Harold’s coronation, William of Normandy began plotting his invasion of England. He meticulously built a formidable fleet of 700 warships and transports at Dives-sur-Mer. Initially facing difficulties in garnering support, William’s cause gained momentum when he accused Harold of breaking a sacred oath sworn on relics. The Pope officially declared William the rightful heir to the English throne, attracting nobles to rally behind him.

Harold’s Preparations and the Invasion Delay

In early January 1066, Harold assembled his troops on the Isle of Wight upon hearing of the impending invasion. However, unfavorable winds kept William’s fleet docked for nearly seven months. With provisions running low, Harold disbanded his army and returned to London on 8th September. On the same day, Harald Hardrada and Tostig, with their invasion force, landed at the mouth of the Tyne.

Battles and Harold’s Tactical Triumph

Hardrada and Tostig’s forces clashed with English earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar at the Battle of Fulford on 20th September 1066, emerging victorious. In response, Harold swiftly marched his army from London to Yorkshire, surprising Hardrada. The Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25th September witnessed Harold’s triumph, resulting in the deaths of Hardrada and Tostig.

The Mythical Encounter

According to Snorri Sturluson’s account, deemed “plainly mythical” by Edward Freeman, an unidentified rider approached Hardrada and Tostig before the battle. Speaking to Tostig, he offered the return of his earldom if he would betray Hardrada. Curious, Hardrada inquired about the rider’s identity, to which Tostig claimed it was Harold Godwinson himself. The rider, claiming that Harold would grant Hardrada “seven feet of English ground,” rode back to the Saxon host, leaving an impression on Hardrada.

Battle of Hastings

William’s Fleet Sets Sail for England, Battling Storms

On 12 September 1066, William the Conqueror’s fleet departed from Normandy, embarking on a perilous journey. The treacherous seas unleashed fierce storms, causing several ships to sink. Seeking refuge, the fleet sought shelter at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, anxiously awaiting a change in the winds.

The Arrival at Pevensey: Normans Land on English Shores

After enduring the challenges of the stormy seas, the Norman fleet finally set sail for England on 27 September. Their destination was Pevensey, a coastal town in East Sussex. By the following day, they reached their intended landing site, where William and his approximately 7,000 men disembarked onto English soil.

Harold’s March: A Race to Intercept the Invaders

Reacting swiftly to the Norman invasion, Harold rallied his forces and embarked on a grueling march covering a distance of 240 miles (390 kilometers). With urgency in their steps, Harold’s army aimed to intercept William and halt his advance. The stage was set for a momentous clash on English soil.

The Battle Unfolds: Earthworks and Determined Warriors

Harold’s army, driven by necessity, hastily constructed earthworks near the town of Hastings. Positioned strategically, they prepared to defend against the Norman onslaught. As the two armies faced each other, the Battle of Hastings commenced on 14 October. The field of Senlac Hill, situated close to the present-day town of Battle, became the battleground that would decide the fate of England.

Tragic Demise: Harold Falls, Defeat Looms

For nine arduous hours, the opposing forces clashed in a brutal struggle for supremacy. Amidst the chaos, tragedy struck as Harold, the valiant Anglo-Saxon king, fell on the battlefield. His demise marked a turning point, leading to the ultimate defeat of his forces. The battle claimed the lives of his brave brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, sealing a sorrowful chapter in English history.

Death

Harold's death depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

Harold’s death depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

The Mysterious Demise of Harold II

In the realm of historical speculation, the fate of Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, remains shrouded in ambiguity. Traditional narratives attribute his demise to an arrow piercing his eye, yet this interpretation has sparked fervent scholarly debate. Delving into the annals of history, conflicting accounts emerge, challenging the conventional wisdom. The Norman epic “Carmen de Hastingae Proelio” depicts Harold’s body being dismembered by knights, while Anglo-Norman chronicles of the twelfth century speak of a fatal arrow wound to his head. However, a striking discovery in Amatus of Montecassino’s “L’Ystoire de li Normant” adds another layer of intrigue, suggesting a different timeline for the arrow incident. As we navigate through these contrasting perspectives, we begin to discern the intricate web of historical truth and the lingering mysteries surrounding the death of Harold II.

The Enigmatic Depiction of Harold II’s Death in the Bayeux Tapestry

Intriguingly, the Bayeux Tapestry panel bearing the inscription “Hic Harold Rex Interfectus Est” has puzzled historians for centuries. Depicted below the inscription is a figure gripping an arrow lodged in his eye. However, it is debated whether this portrayal was an 18th or 19th-century alteration. Some scholars question if this figure represents Harold himself or if the panel captures two distinct moments of his demise. The Tapestry shows a standing figure to the left, commonly associated with Harold, and a nearly supine figure being trampled by a horse to the right. Notably, early etchings of the Tapestry depict the standing figure with different objects. The sketch by Benoît in 1729 merely indicates stitch marks, while Bernard de Montfaucon’s engraving in 1730 suggests a spear-like object. Interestingly, it was Charles Stothard’s reproduction in 1816 that introduced the arrow for the first time, when he restored previously damaged or missing sections. However, speculation remains that overzealous restorers of the 19th century may have added the arrow, which was later removed. While some argue that the figure with the arrow must be Harold due to the inscription above, others contend that identifying named figures in the Tapestry relies on visual cues rather than inscription placement. An alternative interpretation suggests that both the eye wound and the mutilation occurred, with the Tapestry depicting these events in sequence. The enigma surrounding Harold II’s portrayal in the Bayeux Tapestry continues to captivate historians, leaving the truth of his death shrouded in uncertainty.

Featured Image

Harold swearing oath on holy relics to William, Duke of Normandy

Harold swearing oath on holy relics to William, Duke of Normandy

In the grand tapestry of history, few moments have captured the essence of political intrigue and religious symbolism as vividly as the depiction of Harold swearing an oath on holy relics to William, Duke of Normandy, in the Bayeux Tapestry. This pivotal event, immortalized in thread and stitch, stands as a testament to the complex web of power, loyalty, and divine authority that characterized the eleventh-century landscape.

The scene unfolds with meticulous attention to detail, woven with the skilled craftsmanship that has made the Bayeux Tapestry a treasure of historical artistry. Harold, the renowned English nobleman, stands before William, his sworn enemy turned ally. Both figures are resplendent in their regal attire, signifying the gravity of the occasion. The central focus of the composition is the sacred reliquary, radiating a sense of divine sanctity as it rests upon a cushioned pedestal.

Harold’s hand reaches out to touch the holy relics, signaling his commitment to the solemn oath. This gesture carries profound implications, as the relics represent the spiritual connection between heaven and earth. By placing his hand upon them, Harold binds himself to the sacred authority they embody, binding his earthly aspirations to the divine will.

The figures surrounding the central scene further enrich the narrative. William, with a stern countenance, watches intently as Harold takes the oath, his eyes fixed upon the English nobleman. The presence of clergy and witnesses on either side adds a layer of solemnity and authenticity to the act, amplifying its significance. They bear witness to this momentous event, ensuring that the oaths sworn will not be easily forgotten or broken.

The intricate Latin inscription above the scene provides an additional layer of historical context, elucidating the gravity of the moment. It translates to “HIC: HAROLD: DUX: ANGLORVM: IURAVIT: WILLELMO: DVC:,” meaning “Here Harold, Duke of the English, swore an oath to William, Duke.” These words serve as a permanent record, memorializing the pact forged between these two powerful figures.

The portrayal of this event in the Bayeux Tapestry has sparked scholarly debates over its historical accuracy. Some argue that it symbolizes the moment when Harold swore an oath of allegiance to William, promising to support his claim to the English throne. Others suggest that the scene represents Harold’s vow to uphold William’s succession to the duchy of Normandy. Regardless of the precise nature of the oath, the tapestry encapsulates the critical turning point in their relationship and the subsequent impact on English and Norman history.

The inclusion of this event in the Bayeux Tapestry demonstrates the tapestry’s role as a visual chronicle, providing invaluable insights into the events and mindset of the time. It serves as a testament to the power of artistic expression in capturing historical moments that might otherwise have faded into obscurity.

Today, as we gaze upon the remarkable embroidery of the Bayeux Tapestry, the image of Harold swearing an oath on holy relics to William, Duke of Normandy, captivates our imagination. It reminds us of the intricate tapestry of human aspirations, religious devotion, and political alliances that shape the course of history. It serves as a tangible reminder of the complex interplay between power, religion, and fate, forever etched in the threads of time.

Sources

  • The History of the Norman Conquest of England. (2023). Google Books. https://books.google.com.mt/books?id=u7JSAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA756&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

  • Handbook of British Chronology. (2023). Google Books. https://books.google.com.mt/books?id=zcgxEvGAK_kC&pg=PA29&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false‌

  • Harold II (r. Jan – Oct 1066). (2017). The Royal Family. https://www.royal.uk/harold-ii-r-jan-oct-1066

  • BBC – History – Historic Figures: Harold II (Godwineson) (c.1020 – 1066). (2014). Bbc.co.uk. https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/harold_ii_godwineson.shtml

  • King Harold II (Harold Godwineson) – National Portrait Gallery. (2023). Npg.org.uk. https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person.php?LinkID=mp02053‌

  • ‌Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, June 23). Harold Godwinson. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Godwinson

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, June 19). Bayeux Tapestry. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayeux_Tapestry

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, May 23). Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin,_Earl_of_Wessex

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, July 4). William the Conqueror. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_the_Conqueror

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