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Harold Godwinson, 1022 – October 14, 1066 was the Earl of Wessex, later Earl of East Anglia, and as Harold II, was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England. Harold reigned from January 5, 1066 until his death at the Battle of Hastings on October 14 of that same year, fighting the Norman invaders, led by William the Conqueror.

Early Life[]

Harold's father was Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex believed to be a son of Wulfnoth Cild. Godwin married twice, both times to Danish women of high rank. His first wife was the Danish princess Thyra Sveinsdóttir, one of the daughters of Sweyn I of Denmark and Norway. His second wife was Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, whose cousin Ulf was the son-in-law of Sweyn I and the father of Sweyn II of Denmark. Gytha and Ulf were allegedly grandchildren to the legendary Swedish Viking Styrbjörn the Strong (a disinherited prince of Sweden) and great-grandchildren to Harald Bluetooth, King of Denmark and Norway. This second marriage resulted in the birth of several children, notably two sons, Harold and Tostig Godwinson, and a daughter, Edith of Wessex (1020–75), who became the Queen consort of Edward the Confessor.

Earl of Wessex[]

When Godwin died in 1053, his son Harold took over. It was he, rather than Edward, who subjugated Wales in 1063 and negotiated with the rebellious Northumbrians in 1065. Consequently, shortly before his death, Edward named Harold as his successor. He died on January 4, 1066 and was buried in the Abbey he had constructed at Westminster.

As a result of his sister's marriage to the king, Godwin's second son Harold was made 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 arguably the most powerful figure in England after the king.

In 1058 Harold also became Earl of Hereford, and replaced his late father as the focus of opposition to growing Norman influence in England under the restored English monarchy (from 1042–66) 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 (1062–63) 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. One explanation was that Harold was seeking the release of members of his family who had been held hostage since Godwin's exile in 1051. Another is that he was on his way for a meeting with allies.

According to the Norman version, his vessel was blown off course, and he was held hostage by Count Guy I of Ponthieu. Duke William arrived soon after and ordered Guy to turn Harold over to him. Harold then accompanied William to battle against William's enemy, Conan II, Duke of Brittany. While crossing into Brittany past the fortified abbey of Mont St Michel, Harold rescued two of William's soldiers from the quicksand. They pursued Conan from Dol de Bretagne, then to Rennes, and finally to Dinan, where he surrendered the fortress's keys on the point of a lance. William presented Harold with weapons and arms, knighting him. The Bayeux Tapestry, and other Norman sources, then record that Harold swore an oath on sacred relics to William to support his claim to the English throne. By this time, William considered himself to be the successor of the childless Edward the Confessor.

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 of Norway.

Marriages and children[]

For some twenty years Harold was married 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 Edith (or Ealdgyth), daughter of Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia, and widow of the Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. Edith had two sons, twins named Harold and Ulf, born in November 1066, both of whom survived into adulthood and ended their lives in exile.

After her husband's death, the queen 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 King[]

When Edward the Confessor died in 1066, his great nephew and heir Edgar Aetheling was widely regarded as too young to become King. Edward the Confessor pointed towards Harold Godwinson, as he lay at his deathbed. This sign was taken, by the other present noblemen, to mean that Edward chose Harold as his successor, though some say it was merely a curse. On January 5, 1066, the Witenagemot (the assembly of the kingdom's leading notables) approved him for coronation, which took place the following day. It was the first coronation in Westminster Abbey.

England was then invaded by both Harald Hardrada of Norway and William, Duke of Normandy, both of whom claimed the English crown. William claimed that he had been promised the English crown by Edward, and that Harold had sworn to support his claim after having been shipwrecked in Ponthieu. Harald Hardrada formed an alliance with Harold's rebellious brother Tostig.

Invading what is now Yorkshire in September 1066, Harald Hardrada and Tostig defeated the English earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria at the Battle of Fulford near Jorvik on September 20. They were in turn defeated and slain by Harold's army five days later at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25), Harold having led his army north on a forced march from London in four days and caught them by surprise.

It is said that 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 "six feet of ground or as much more as he needs, as he is taller than most men." Harald Hardrada was impressed with the rider and asked Tostig his name, Tostig replied that the rider was none other than Harold Godwinson himself.

Harold now again forced his army to march 241 miles to intercept William, who had landed 7000 men in Sussex, southern England three days later on September 28. Harold established his army in hastily built earthworks near Hastings. The two armies clashed at the Battle of Hastings, near the present town of Battle close by Hastings on 14th October, where after a hard fight Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye and his forces routed. His brothers Gyrth and Leofwine were also killed in the battle. Harold's first wife, Edith Swanneck, was called to identify the body, which she did by some private mark known only to herself.

Harold's body was buried in a grave of stones overlooking the shore, and was only given a proper funeral years later in his church of Waltham Holy Cross in Essex, which he had refounded in 1060.


Harold's daughter Gytha of Wessex married Vladimir Monomakh Grand Duke of Kievan Rus' and is thus ancestor to dynasties of Galicia, Smolensk and Yaroslavl. Isabella of France (consort of Edward II) was also a direct descendant of Harold via Gytha, and thus the bloodline of Harold was re-introduced much later to the Royal Line.

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. 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 the Irish King Diarmait mac Mail na mBo. They raided Cornwall as late as 1082, but died in obscurity in Ireland.