Harold Godwinson Biography (1022-1066)

Harold Godwinson, was the second son of Earl Godwin of Wessex, the most powerful nobleman, and his wife, Gytha Thorkelsdottir. His exact date of birth is not know but it is believed to be around 1022.

Harold Godwinson

 

Harold Godwinson – Early Life

Details of Harold’s early life are not documented, but as the son of a high ranking nobleman, it is likely he had an appropriate education. He was a skilled swordsman and also loved to hunt.

In 1042, King Harthacnut died and Edward the Confessor, son of Aethelred the Unready, who had been exiled in Normandy since 1016, returned as King. King Edward was a stranger to the English and needed the support of the nobility. Earl Godwin gave his support in return for the marriage of his daughter Edith to the King.

In 1051 a number of Norman knights visited King Edward the Confessor. On their return journey, they travelled to Dover to take a boat across the Channel. Before they sailed the Normans visited the local taverns and soon a fight broke out with local people. A number of Normans were killed in the brawl and King Edward insisted that Godwin punish the people of Dover for the deaths.

However, Godwin defied the King and refused to punish the people of Dover. In retaliation, King Edward exiled the Godwin family and took Harold’s brother Wulfnoth and nephew Haakon as hostage. The two boys were sent to Normandy and it is thought that King Edward may have promised William of Normandy the English throne at this point.

 

Harold Godwinson – Earl of Wessex

In 1052, the Godwin family raised an army and invaded England. Edward the Confessor was unable to raise a large enough army to defeat them and was forced to allow the Godwin family to return. Their titles and possessions were restored but Wulfnoth and Haakon remained in captivity. Harold’s elder brother Sweyn decided not to return but went on Crusade and died on the journey. The death of Sweyn meant that Harold Godwinson was now his father’s heir and when Earl Godwin died in 1053, Harold became Earl of Wessex. He offered his undivided support to the King and exiled his brother Tostig in 1065 after uprisings by the people of Northumbria against his harsh rule.

It is known that in 1064 Harold set sail from Bosham. The journey is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, but the reason for the voyage is not known. Some historians believe, due to the presence of a hawk and a dog, that he may have been embarking on a hunting expedition.

Harold Godwinson leaves Bosham - Bayeux Tapestry
Harold Godwinson leaves Bosham – Bayeux Tapestry

 

Others believe Harold Godwinson was sailing to Normandy to secure the release of his brother and nephew who were held hostage by William of Normandy. Whatever the reason for his voyage, he was shipwrecked off the coast of Ponthieu and brought before William of Normandy.

Harold Godwinson remained in Normandy for some time – whether this was due to time needed to repair his ship, or whether he was negotiating the release of the hostages or whether he was held under house arrest is not known. It is known that while in Normandy, Harold rode into battle with William and, after the defeat of Conan of Brittany, Harold was knighted for his service. Some time after the battle, Harold returned to England with his nephew Haakon. William later claimed that before Harold Godwinson left Normandy, he had sworn an oath to support William as successor to Edward the Confessor. This is depicted on the Bayeux tapestry but Anglo-Saxon sources do not record this oath.

Harold Godwinson Oath
Harold swearing to uphold William’s claim to the throne – Bayeux Tapestry

 

Harold Godwinson – King Harold II of England

Edward the Confessor died on 5th January 1066, Harold Godwinson and his sister, Edith, who were with the King when he died, both stated that Edward had nominated Harold as his successor. Harold Godwinson was backed by the Witan and he was crowned King Harold II on 6th January. He knew that William of Normandy would not be happy that he had been crowned and would almost certainly mount an invasion to challenge his position. Harold duly stationed men along the south coast.

Although Harold had married Edyth the Fair, known as Swanneck, in 1045, the Danish hand-fasting ceremony they had participated in was not recognised by the Church. As a new king, faced with the prospect of an invasion by William of Normandy, Harold needed the support of the northern earls. To secure that support he married Ealdgyth, the sister of Earl Morcar of Northumbria and Earl Edwin of Mercia in March 1066. They had two children, possibly twins.

In September 1066 Harold determined that William of Normandy would not invade that year and allowed the men stationed on the south coast to return home in order to help with the harvest. Just a few days after dismissing the men, they were recalled as Harold had received notification that Harald Hardrada of Norway, supported by Harold’s exiled brother Tostig, had landed at the mouth of the river Humber. The invaders pushed inland and defeated the Anglo Saxons at the Battle of Fulford on September 20th 1066.

After a forced march north, Harold took the Vikings by surprise and defeated them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25th September 1066. Both Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson were killed.

Battle of Stamford Bridge
Battle of Stamford Bridge 25th September 1066

 

While the Anglo Saxons were celebrating their decisive victory at Stamford Bridge, William of Normandy landed on the south coast. When Harold heard the news he and his housecarls rode south to London calling for men to join his army and muster on Caldbec Hill.

Harold may have intended to march south to Hastings and take William of Normandy by surprise using similar tactics to Stamford Bridge. However, William had other ideas and by 7am on 14th October 1066, was marching north from Hastings towards Harold’s camped army. It is thought that Harold believed he did not have enough men to defend  Caldbec Hill and so moved his men to Senlac Hill and formed a shield wall at the top of the hill to wait for William’s arrival.

The battle began with a fanfare of trumpets followed by a volley of arrows fired by the Normans. The Anglo-Saxon strategy was to hold the shield wall at all costs while the the Normans made cavalry and infantry attacks. At around 11am there were shouts that Duke William had fallen. A large number of Breton soldiers, attacking the shield wall turned and fled down the hill. A party of Anglo-Saxons led by Harold’s brothers Leofwine and Gyrth chased after them. William, however, was not dead and sent additional soldiers to surround the Anglo-Saxons. All those that left the shield wall, including Harold’s brothers were killed.

Despite the death of his brothers and those that had been killed, Harold managed to quickly fill the gap in the shield wall and the battle continued. The battle lasted all day but in the late afternoon King Harold II was killed. The traditional story that he was killed by an arrow in his eye is now thought to be false, evidenced by the fact that the arrow depicted in the Bayeux tapestry was added in the 19th century. Rather, it is thought that he was cut down by a Norman knight.

Harold Godwinson Arrow
Harold Godwinson hit by an arrow – Bayeux Tapestry

 

After Harold’s death, some of his housecarls tried to continue the battle, but with Harold dead, many soldiers abandoned the battlefield and those that remained were killed. By December 1066 William of Normandy had subdued the south and was crowned King of England on 25th December 1066. However, this was just the beginning of his attempt to conquer the rest of the country.