Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Who Are All These Kings?: Harold II

Harold II was King of England for most of the fateful year of 1066.

Harold was born in 1022, the second son of the powerful Earl Godwin, and was created Earl of East Anglia by Edward the Confessor, who had contracted a politically-inspired marriage with his sister. Harold inherited his father's great amibition.

When Godwin quarrelled with Edward the Confessor in 1051, he and his sons were banished, but invaded England the following year. Harold joined his father in London from Ireland, ravaging Somerset on the way. The Witan would not sanction a Civil War, so Edward had to agree to pardon them, which gave them more power than ever.

On Godwin's death in 1053, Harold succeeded his father as Earl of Wessex, as his eldest brother, the wild and wayward Sweyn, had died in exile. Shortly after, Edward effectively handed over the government of England to Harold, which left him clear for his twin passions of hunting and the Church.

Edward the Exile, the heir to the throne who had been brought back from Hungary in 1057, died soon after his arrival in England in mysterious circimstances, almost certainly murdered by or at the instigation of Harold. His son Edgar was taken into the king's household as his successor, with the proviso that if he succeeded while still a child Harold would act as Regent.

In the years when Harold was king in all but name, he showed that he was a formidable general. He led vicious campaigns against the Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Llewellyn, who had been attacking England and who had sacked Hereford.

Harold defeated Gruffydd in 1057, at which point the Welsh prince promised fealty to Edward. But he went back on his word, and in 1063 Harold and his brother Tostig defeated him again. Gruffydd's men killed him and sent his head to Harold.

Harold married Gruffydd's widow Edith, although under Danish law he was already married to Edith the Swan Neck.

The curious episode in Normandy happened in 1065. Harold set sail from Bosham but was shipwrecked, and taken to William of Normandy, who treated him with honour, but later claimed that Harold had sworn on holy relics to help him to succeed Edward as King of England.

It does appear that Edward had promised William that he would succeed, but frankly this king was rather prone to making empty promises that he might or might not keep. In any event, it seems unlikely that the bullish, arrogant and ambitious Harold would make such a promise, which William never mentioned until after Edward's death.

In the same year, Harold's brother Tostig, the Earl of Northumbria, was banished after many complaints about his misrule. Harold agreed with Edward that the banishment was just.

On 5th January 1066, Edward died. The next day, Harold was elected king and crowned at Westminster Abbey.

There is no doubt that, for practical purposes, the proven general Harold, who had been governing England for some years anyway, was the sensible choice. But he was by no means the only choice.

Edgar the Atheling was the rightful successor in terms of the Royal family of Wessex, but was a boy of thirteen. William of Normandy seems to have been Edward's personal choice, and claimed that Harold had promised to support him. Harald Hardraada, King of Norway, claimed that he had the right to be England's king. And so did Sweyn Estrithson, King of Denmark. The waters were also muddied by Tostig's desire to invade and get revenge for his earlier treatment.

William regarded Harold's succession and crowning as treachery, and immdiately started planning an invasion.

At the same time, Tostig was making his own plans. With his own small fleet, he gathered men on the Isle of Wight and started to harry the South coast, but was defeated off the coast of Lindsey and moved to Scotland. Crossing to Denmark, he appealed to his cousin Sweyn, but although he was prepared to offer Tostig an earldom when he himself became King of England, he was not prepared at the moment to offer practical support.

So Tostig crossed to the court of Harald Hardraada in Norway, a throwback to the bloodthirsty Vikings of yore. He was not certain at first, knowing that England's defences under her new king were strong. Tostig managed to convince him, however, and together they started to prepare a fleet.

At the same, William was also preparing a fleet in Normandy, while Harold was strengthening England's defences as much as possible, gathering forces at Sandwich and awaiting William on the Isle of Wight.

In September, Hardraada set sail with a fleet of two hundred warships, stopping at Orkney to pick up more men, as well as Paul and Erlund, the joint Earls of Orkney. At the mouth of the Tyne, they met Tostig with a force drawn from Scotland and Man, and the combined forces sailed down the coast of Northumbria, destroying all it could.

On 20th September, the army of Tostig and Harald Hardraada met the English forces, under the Earls Morcar and Edwin, at Fulford outside York. The invaders inflicted a crushing defeat, and York agreed to surrender. Tostig and Hardraada withdrew to Stamford Bridge where negotiations were to take place.

Meanwhile, Harold Godwinson had raised an army and marched North to Yorkshire, surprising the invasion force as they were celebrating their victory. The resulting Battle of Stamford Bridge was a famous victory for the Englash. Tostig and Harald Hardraada were both killed, and the remains of their army limped home, after Hardraada's son Olaf had promised to maintain peace. Hardraada was given the "six feet of ground" that he had been promised, for his burial.

Two days later, William began his invasion. The wind had been keeping his ships in port, but it suddenly changed, and he was able to cross the Channel, landing at Pevensey near Hastings.

Harold turned around and marched South, and met William's forces at a ridge known as Senlac on 14th October.

It could be claimed that Harold should have let his men rest awhile after their great victory, but he would then have allowed William free rein to devastate the countryside, and probably take London. Whatever else can be said of Harold's character, he showed great determination and sheer guts to engage in battle with another fresh army so soon after his recent victory. And, amazingly, he nearly won again.

The battle (the one we know today as the Battle of Hastings) was a hard-fought one, and eventually won by the Normans. It is popularly believed that Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye, but this is the result of a misinterpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry, which actually shows him being hacked down by an axe.

William later caused Battle Abbey to built on the site of the battle, and a town later grew up around it.

William became king, but not before the English rallied round Edgar the Atheling.

Harold was buried first at Battle, after Edith the Swan Neck had identified his mutilated body as it lay on the battlefield. His body was later transferred to Waltham Abbey in Essex, which he had himself founded. However, a story told at Chester is that he survived the battle and lived as an anonymous hermit in that city for many years

Harold had a number of siblings. Among these were Edith, who was married to Edward the Confessor; Sweyn, who died in exile; Tostig, who was killed in battle against Harold at Stamford Bridge, and buried at York Minster; Gyrth, Earl of East Anglia and Leofwine, Earl of Kent, both killed at the Battle of Hastings. Others were Wulfnoth, Alfgar, Edgiva, Elgiva and Gunhilda.

He married Edith, the widow of the Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, who bore him two children after his death, Harold and Ulf. She is said to have entered a convent, and eventually to have been buried at Bishops Stortford.

He was already married under Danish law to Edith the Swan Neck. Their children were Godwin, Edmund, Magnus, Gunhilda and Gytha.