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 Harold II (1022/3?–1066), embroidery (Bayeux Tapestry) [enthroned, with (right) Stigand, archbishop of Canterbury] Harold II (1022/3?–1066), embroidery (Bayeux Tapestry) [enthroned, with (right) Stigand, archbishop of Canterbury]
Harold II [Harold Godwineson] (1022/3?–1066), king of England, was probably born in 1022 or 1023, and was the second son of the most powerful nobleman in England, , and his wife, [see under ].

Family background

Godwine had been earl in Wessex for four or five years by the time Harold was born. The origins of this parvenu are extremely obscure. In spite of his brilliant marriage and important office, Godwine was the quintessential new man, described as such even by his family's apologist, the author of the life of King Edward. There is some evidence to suggest that Godwine was the son of the late tenth-century renegade and pirate Wulfnoth of Sussex, who had rebelled spectacularly against Æthelred the Unready and had purloined his fleet; and judging from the location of Godwine's estates it does appear that the family had long been established as thegns in Sussex and Hampshire. Harold's mother, unlike her husband, came from a distinguished Danish family. She was the sister of Cnut's loyal follower Earl Ulf, who was himself the husband of Cnut's sister Estrith. The union between Gytha and Godwine produced at least eight children who survived to adulthood, and almost all of them came to hold important positions at court and large tracts of land in the shires. Harold's sister , born either just before or just after him, became wife in 1045. His elder brother was earl of the south-west midlands in 1043; his younger brother became earl of Northumbria in 1055; was made earl of the south-east by 1057; and was earl of East Anglia and Oxfordshire by 1057 or 1058. Only two of Harold's siblings could not be found at the centre of the kingdom's court and politics. One was apparently a nun and the other a professional hostage at the ducal court in Normandy.

Earldom and rebellion

During Harold's childhood his father was positioned at the heart of politics, helping, along with two of Cnut's other favourites—Earl Siward of Northumbria and Earl Leofric of Mercia—to govern England during the king's extended absences. The three together were centrally involved in keeping the kingdom and its administration intact during the short and lacklustre reigns of Cnut's sons. Godwine himself was the supporter of Cnut's youngest son, King Harthacnut, and it was Godwine who engineered and smoothed the way for the return in 1041 of King Æthelred's son Edward the Confessor, an atheling long exiled in Normandy. Godwine subsequently supported the Confessor's succession to the throne in 1042 at Harthacnut's death; and he proved himself more than willing to manage the Confessor's affairs when the new king began his rule as a returning exile. As a result of these circumstances Godwine's family prospered. Within twenty months his eldest son was made an earl, and his eldest daughter was married to the new king. And Harold himself, now a man in his early twenties, came into an earldom in eastern England, probably extending across East Anglia, Essex, Huntingdonshire, and Cambridgeshire. While Harold acted as earl in eastern England, he formed important lifelong relations with the region's ecclesiastical establishments and prelates, its great thegns and middling sokemen. It was during this period that Harold doubtless took as his concubine Edith Swanneck (Swanneshals). She is probably identical with , also known as the Rich, one of the largest landholders in eastern England. Such relationships, in spite of increasing pressures from a reforming church, were common. Cnut himself had had a concubine, and William the Conqueror was a product of just such a union. Harold and Edith had at least five children. This ‘Danish marriage’, as contemporaries called it, must have bound Harold closely through ties of kinship and marriage to many Anglo-Scandinavian lords settled in his earldom. Stigand and his brother Æthelmær, who both, in their turn, served as bishops of Elmham, were also allies of Harold, although these bonds may have been fostered as much in the royal court as in the shire-courts of Norfolk and Suffolk. Harold also cultivated ties with some of the religious communities of his earldom. He was a patron of Peterborough Abbey, and Peterborough's abbot, Leofric, fought with him at Hastings. Harold also had proprietary interests in a newly founded community at Waltham Holy Cross in Essex. Ely Abbey, too, seems to have had ties with the earl, and it may have given Harold a gift of relics as a token of friendship or gratitude. But it was not only with the region's élites that Harold formed bonds of association. By 1066 Harold and his brother Gyrth, who followed him as earl in East Anglia, had freemen commended to them in almost two hundred East Anglian villages.

Within a few years Harold's earldom and his responsibilities were broadened. His brother Swein, a reckless man, abducted the abbess of Leominster in 1046, and within a year, for this and other, more obscure, crimes, he fled to Bruges and then to Denmark. His earldom was divided between Harold and his cousin , and eventually a share was given to the Confessor's nephew Ralph of Mantes. When Swein returned to England in 1049, in hopes of a pardon and the restoration of his earldom, Harold and Beorn opposed him. Swein, in unclear circumstances, retaliated by murdering his cousin. This was a shocking crime. He was declared a nithing by the king and the army and was forced once again into exile. Although he was pardoned the next year and back in England, it was Harold who was now his father's most important son and chief lieutenant. In 1050 and 1051 Godwine had need of a steady son, because relations between the family and the king had chilled. Both the monks of Canterbury and the Godwinesons supported the candidacy of one of Godwine's kinsmen for archbishop of Canterbury, but in the spring of 1051 the king appointed Robert of Jumièges, the Norman bishop of London. Robert was one of the family's implacable enemies, and once he became archbishop he accused Godwine of stealing Canterbury land and of murdering, many years before (1037), the Confessor's younger brother Alfred. Then, in September 1051, the king's brother-in-law, Eustace, count of Boulogne, came to England. As he passed through Dover, one of the most important urban communities in Godwine's earldom, the count and his men got into a deadly altercation with some of the burgesses there. When Eustace complained, the king ordered Godwine to punish the town. Godwine, however, refused, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, to ‘carry war into Kent’ (ASC, text E, s.a. 1048, recte 1051). Godwine was called to court to answer for his actions. In the weeks that followed Godwine and his sons on the one hand, and the king and his remaining earls on the other, gathered their armies; but Godwine's men in the end lost their nerve. The family was outlawed and deprived of its lands and offices. Harold's parents and three of his brothers fled to Flanders. Harold, accompanied by his brother Leofwine, sailed from Bristol to Ireland to the court of Diarmait mac Máel na mBó, king of Leinster. His sister the queen, who had not produced an heir, was put into a nunnery. In their year of exile, the family (except for Swein, who instead walked barefoot to Jerusalem and died on the journey home) recruited ships' crews from around the northern world—in Scandinavia, Flanders, and Ireland; and in 1052, with their newly raised fleet and the aid of their English allies at home, they forced the king to take them back. The queen was returned to court, Harold and his father were given back their earldoms, and their greatest enemies, including Robert of Jumièges and a number of Edward's other Norman favourites, were driven from the kingdom. The king never challenged the family's power again. The following year, at the king's Easter court (1 April), Earl Godwine died of a stroke. Harold, now thirty, succeeded his father as earl of Wessex. In the next few years, with Harold as the most important secular lord at the royal court, his family, long rich and powerful, became both the dominant office-holding kindred in England and its dominant landholder. Three of Harold's younger brothers, over the course of the next half-decade, received earldoms, twice at the expense of the families of earls Leofric and Siward.

Harold's family, rich since the 1020s, became enormously wealthy over the course of the 1050s. Much is known about their landed resources during these years, because they were systematically recorded in the great 1086 survey, Domesday Book. The bulk of the family's holdings, and the bulk of Harold's, lay in the south-west and south-east of the kingdom, but they had, none the less, substantial interests in English Mercia, East Anglia, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire. Together their land produced something like £8500 a year. They controlled over twice the amount of land held by the family of Earl Leofric, the next wealthiest kindred in England, and twenty times as much as the kingdom's wealthiest thegnly families. More disturbing for the king, the value of the Godwinesons' estates dwarfed his own. In all, the Confessor's lands rendered almost £2500 less revenue each year than those of his brothers-in-law.

Secular and ecclesiastical patronage

Harold's vast territorial interests allowed him to alienate property to thegns and housecarls (household troops) hungry for land; and his central role in the governance of the realm enabled him to proffer aid in court and help his dependants stave off attacks from neighbours and competitors. Men flooded to his affinity during these years. Many were the wealthiest thegns in England, men like Asgar the Staller, Æthelnoth Cild of Kent, Eadmær Atre, Eadnoth the Staller, Leofwine Cild, and Thorkill the White. All of these thegns were powerful men of at least regional importance and all held lands valued at over £40 per annum, the amount according to the Liber Eliensis that set apart lesser thegns from the more important magnates. Furthermore, some of these men, such as Æthelnoth Cild, Asgar the Staller, and Eadmær Atre, held hundreds of hides of land and had large retinues of their own, and attended the Confessor regularly at court. Harold also formed close alliances with important ecclesiastics during these years. His family had long-standing relations with the sees of Worcester, York, and Canterbury, and Harold continued to foster them. Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester, was a friend and confidant of the earl, and the author of the life of Wulfstan says that Harold often journeyed miles out of his way to see the saintly bishop. Harold and Ealdred, first bishop of Worcester and later archbishop of York, often worked in concert, and Ealdred travelled to the continent on more than one occasion in the company of Harold or his brothers. Ealdred also gave Harold an impressive collection of relics. Stigand, the former bishop of Elmham, now bishop of Winchester and archbishop of Canterbury, was also an ally of the family, and he allowed Harold to maintain advantageous leases on large tracts of archiepiscopal land that his father, Godwine, had held.

Anglo-Norman historians often portray Harold as an impious man and as the despoiler of monks; and it is true that Harold, by 1066, was holding an unseemly amount of church land—estates belonging to the bishops of Exeter, Hereford, Rochester, Wells, and Worcester, the archbishop of Canterbury, and the nuns of Shaftesbury. Some of these holdings were the result of predation pure and simple, but others represented loans of land by religious communities in return for political favours. Such sharp practices were not Harold's invention, but were common English custom. On the eve of the Norman conquest many great lords, both lay and ecclesiastical, could be found operating in a similar fashion. And in spite of some angry claims and a handful of lawsuits, the memory of Harold and his family was cultivated after the conquest by monks and canons in Abingdon, Canterbury, Durham, Peterborough, Winchester, and Worcester.

Harold's particular locus of benefaction, however, was the small community of Waltham Holy Cross that he refounded in these years. He built a beautiful stone church for the community and its wonder-working stone crucifix, and he was at its dedication on the feast of the Invention of the Cross in 1060. King Edward, as a mark of his favour, lent Harold support in this endeavour: he, too, was present at the dedication, and two years later the king gave Waltham a golden-lettered confirmation of Harold's donations that was kept, in the later middle ages, with the community's other relics. The king also sent the clerks of Waltham a blue cloak, which they remade into a chasuble. While there may have been more logical places for the earl of Wessex to build a church, Harold still had wide interests in Essex. King Cnut's follower Tovi the Proud, from whom Harold had inherited Waltham, had had woods for hunting there and an impressive hall, and Harold probably continued to travel to Waltham to hunt, to pray, and to visit both the dean and the master of the canons, men Harold admired. Waltham, moreover, was only a day's journey from London, a place of increasing importance to the royal court, and a centre of Godwineson power and influence. Harold's interest in the community was also doubtless an indication of his devotion to the cult of the cross. This was particularly strong in Anglo-Scandinavian court circles across the eleventh century and from Cnut's time on there are many indications that the king, his great men, and their wives did much to sponsor and encourage it. By the mid-eleventh century many communities had life-sized crucifixes and large collections of crosses which had been given to them by Anglo-Danish noblemen, and Harold's brother Tostig and his brother's wife, Judith, were major patrons of the cult.

When Harold refounded Waltham, he made it into a college of secular canons. Although men of Harold's station in the tenth century had often been drawn to the reformed Benedictine monasticism of their own day, many of the great men of Cnut's and Edward's court preferred the more worldly and pragmatic piety of the secular canons. Many English noblemen, moreover, including Harold himself, had visited reformed communities of canons in Lotharingia and were impressed with what they saw. Siward, earl of Northumbria, for example, founded a church for secular canons in York; Harold's womenfolk appear to have done the same in Exeter, and Harold's friend and ally Archbishop Ealdred was the patron of a house of canons at Beverley. Harold, moreover, had come of age in the royal household, a familia full of clerks. The kind of sophisticated and cosmopolitan piety they sponsored must have appealed to Harold, but so too did their utility. If Harold's own household was modelled on the king's, which seems likely, he would have had use for a college of secular canons to serve as a place to train clerks for his own chapel and for his writing office. Indeed, Harold appointed Adelard, a learned German who had studied at Utrecht, as magister at Waltham.

Harold gave lavishly to his foundation, both at the dedication and after his victory at the battle of Stamford Bridge. In the late twelfth century the community angrily recalled that William Rufus had despoiled the abbey of many of Harold's gifts, including seven jewel-encrusted shrines and four of its books. Two of Harold's other books, however, both gospels, remained at Waltham in spite of their elaborate decorations and valuable covers, because they were written in Old English, and were, therefore, of little utility to Norman monks. Both were still at Waltham in the sixteenth century when the community was dissolved. The large number of beautiful books at Waltham suggests that Harold, like his sister-in-law Judith and a number of other late Anglo-Saxon nobles, was a patron of deluxe manuscripts. Indeed it appears as if Harold himself owned an elaborate book on falconry. Harold also gave Waltham a large number of relics, which he apparently collected himself. A number of these were of English provenance, and had either been taken from monastic communities, or more likely given by them to Harold as payment for support or to ensure his favour. Ely, Shaftesbury, Cerne, Winchester, and Christ Church, Canterbury, all appear to have contributed to Harold's collection. Harold had also been to Rome, and a number of Waltham's relics—including a piece of St Peter's chain and hair from his beard—were probably acquired there. Other relics were probably collected during his trip to Flanders and Germany: they came from Rheims, Noyon, St Riquier, St Amand, Metz, and Cologne. Harold's taste in relics was cosmopolitan and eclectic, and exhibits a fondness both for English saints and for saints whose churches he had visited on his travels. And some, like the relic of St Nicholas, suggest that Harold shared a passion for the same eastern saint that so many of his Norman contemporaries did.

Beyond England

Between 1053 and the Northumbrian revolt late in 1065, Harold, besides consolidating his power at home, spent much of his energy pursuing alliances abroad or punishing foreign enemies, acting, as the author of the life of King Edward puts it, as David to Edward the Confessor's Solomon. Wales in the first half of the 1050s was dominated by two great Welsh princes—Gruffudd ap Llywelyn in Gwynedd and Powys and Gruffudd ap Rhydderch in Deheubarth. Both raided deep into English territory, and both built alliances with the enemies of England. Then, in 1055, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn helped to bring about the death of his namesake, and Welsh power was ominously unified. That autumn Gruffudd routed the Confessor's nephew Earl Ralph (henceforth known as the Timid) and other Frenchmen who had been settled along the Welsh march to protect the kingdom from just such attacks. Harold, as a result, reorganized the march. In early 1056 one of his clerks, the moustache-wearing warrior Leofgar, was made bishop of Hereford, but in less than three months the bishop and his army were defeated and slaughtered by Gruffudd. Gruffudd continued to cause problems. In 1058 he made common cause with his father-in-law, Ælfgar, the exiled earl of Mercia. By 1063 Harold had had enough. In the early months of that year he led a raid deep into Welsh territory in an unsuccessful attempt to capture his nemesis. In May Harold and his brother Tostig assaulted Wales simultaneously from the south and the north. Many Welsh noblemen sued for peace. On 5 August Gruffudd was killed by his own men, and his head and the beak of his ship were sent to Harold. The earl took oaths, hostages, and tribute from the Welsh, and installed two more congenial men as kings in Wales. Harold's victories were stunning, and according to Gerald of Wales large numbers of standing stones could still be found up and down the Welsh march in the late twelfth century, inscribed with the words hic fuit victor Haroldus (‘here Harold was the victor’).

Harold travelled outside Britain during these years as well. He journeyed once to Rome on a pilgrimage and is thought to have gone abroad on two other occasions, on trips which, since the Norman conquest, have generally been characterized as diplomatic missions concerning the English succession. He certainly travelled to Flanders in the autumn of 1056, and then on to Germany. Although there is no explicit evidence for the reason for this journey, it has often been suggested that Harold made the trip to negotiate the return of Edward the Exile, son of Edmund Ironside, who was living in Hungary, and that he may have seen Edward as another Confessor, an adult princeling raised in exile, without much experience of war or governance, and incapable of ruling without the help of Harold's family. Whatever the hopes vested in him, however, Edward died in 1057, soon after his arrival in England, leaving his young son Edgar to uphold a claim to the throne with little or no support from the English aristocracy.

Harold is also said to have gone to Normandy, probably in 1064. While no contemporary or near-contemporary English source records this, the story being picked up there only in the twelfth century, it does appear in Norman sources written immediately after 1066. According to these, Harold was sent by Edward to confirm that the king had made William his heir. The story tells of an ill-fated trip on which Harold was shipwrecked on his way to Normandy and held captive by Guy (I), count of Ponthieu. He was redeemed by William and then joined the duke on his Breton campaign, accepting arms from him and, these Norman sources allege, taking an oath of fealty to William, promising to protect the duke's claim to the English throne: an act vividly depicted on the Bayeux tapestry. A narrative that accepts that this expedition took place might further envisage that it was then, in his only personal encounter with the Norman duke, that Harold determined that William was no Edward the Confessor, and that as king he would neither need nor bear the Godwinesons. A hint that the oath-taking, at least, might be factual appears in the life of King Edward, a not obviously pro-Norman work written in 1066–7, which, albeit in a different context, laments that Harold was ‘rather too generous with oaths (alas!)’ (Life of King Edward, 53). Whatever the truth, any arrangements made in 1064 were certainly disregarded, by both Edward and Harold, when the Confessor lay on his deathbed at the beginning of 1066.

Kingship and death

In October 1065, while Harold's brother Tostig was with the king in Wiltshire, the thegns of Northumbria revolted against Tostig's harsh, or more likely efficient, rule. The rebels wanted Morcar, grandson of the old Mercian earl Leofric, as Tostig's replacement. Harold, at the expense of his brother, struck a deal with , his brother [see under ], and the thegns of Northumbria. Tostig was driven into exile and Morcar was made earl of Northumbria in his place. Probably to solidify their alliance, and in anticipation of the king's death, which now seemed imminent, Harold married , sister of his new Mercian allies and a woman once married to Gruffudd ap Llywelyn. By the time of the battle of Hastings, she had produced a son—Harold Haroldson—a boy both families would have wanted, one day, to become king. After Tostig's exile, the Confessor became ill, so ill that he could not attend the consecration of his life's work, the new abbey of Westminster, on 29 December. The king died on 4 or 5 January. Although bequest of the kingdom to a successor not of the royal line appears to have no place in the English tradition of royal succession, English sources record that on his deathbed Edward designated Harold Godwineson as his heir, and the Norman sources do not dissent. Harold's election by the magnates and anointing, by Archbishop Ealdred of York, on the day immediately following the death of his predecessor also seem to have been unprecedented, as well as having been achieved with unseemly haste, a point noted by one near-contemporary commentator. While the claims of Edgar Ætheling were ignored, Harold became the first English king to be crowned at Westminster Abbey.

Recording the beginning of Harold's ten-month reign, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states ominously ‘he met little quiet in it as long as he ruled the realm’ (ASC, s.a. 1065, texts C, D). Much of it was spent preparing for war against the various claimants to the English throne and his old Welsh enemies. Coins with Harold's likeness were issued from more than forty mints. Romney, Chester, and York, however, were especially productive, suggesting that the king was minting money to prepare himself for war in regions where troublemakers and claimants to the throne were most likely to challenge him: Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, now in league with Tostig, in the north; the Welsh in the north-west; and the duke of Normandy on the south coast. In September Harald Hardrada and Tostig invaded with three hundred ships. They fought the Northumbrians at Gate Fulford and routed them. Harold hurried north, and on 25 September, at the battle of Stamford Bridge, he annihilated the invaders. Harald Hardrada, the greatest warrior of his generation, was killed, and so too was Earl Tostig. Three days later Duke William crossed the channel. Harold, in a strategy that had served him well in the north, immediately moved south, and on 14 October, 7 miles from Hastings, he fought against William and his men. It was the third major battle in a month. Harold's army, fighting on foot behind a wall of shields, turned back the Norman cavalry most of the day under a heavy barrage of Norman arrows, but at the end of a hard day's fight King Harold and his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine were dead. The Bayeux tapestry shows Harold's death—apparently pierced in the eye by an arrow. Whether he did, indeed, die in this manner (a death associated in the middle ages with perjurers), or was killed by the sword, will never be known.

Although one Norman account claims that Harold's body was buried, after Hastings, in a grave overlooking the Saxon shore, it is more likely that he was buried in his church of Waltham Holy Cross. According to Waltham tradition, Harold's handfast wife, Edith Swanneck, brought the king's mutilated body from Hastings to Waltham. Waltham sources, moreover, record that before 1177 the king's body was translated within the church three times, and it is just possible that before the reform of Waltham Abbey by Henry II a cult was developing around Harold's body. Very soon after the conquest the notion emerged—in Norman sources, at least—that Harold had never been king. On the one hand, the Conqueror's biographer William of Poitiers and, following him, the Bayeux tapestry, asserted that Harold had been crowned by Stigand, the usurping archbishop of Canterbury: in reality, Ealdred of York had been selected to crown Harold, as he later crowned William, precisely because of Stigand's unsuitability. On the other hand, ‘with the exception of two slips in proof-reading’ (Garnett, 72), Domesday Book never treats Harold as a king, not even a perjured one. Notions of the illegitimacy of his rule persisted for centuries. Not all, however, had been persuaded that King Harold had died at Hastings. By the twelfth century a number of legends, all no doubt spurious, were in circulation, that Harold had indeed survived the battle. In one version, Harold spent two years recovering from his wounds in Winchester. After he was restored to health he left England for Germany, and spent many years wandering as a pilgrim. As an old man he returned to England, and after living ten years as a hermit in a cave outside Dover, he travelled to Chester, where he lived once again as a hermit. As he lay dying, he confessed that although he went by the name of Christian, he had been born Harold Godwineson.

Apart from various versions of this story, accounts of Harold written in the later middle ages differ only over details (for example, the place where he swore the oath to William and the location of his burial). All agree on the fundamental point, dating from the earliest Norman sources, that in accepting the crown of England Harold had perjured himself. Literary interest in Harold revived in the nineteenth century, with the publication of the historical novel Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1848) and of the play Harold by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1876). Rudyard Kipling wrote a grimly impressive story, ‘The tree of justice’, which concludes his Rewards and Fairies (1910), describing how a very old man who turns out to be Harold is brought before Henry I and his courtiers. Serious revision of the historical Harold began with E. A. Freeman's History of the Norman Conquest of England (1870–79: especially vols. 2 and 3), which put him forward as one of the great heroes of English history. At the end of the twentieth century, his ability and courage as ever unquestioned, Harold's reputation remains bound up, as it has always been, with differing and ultimately subjective views of the rightness or wrongness of the Norman conquest.

Robin Fleming


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Dermon, silver penny, 1066 (after Theodoric), BM, NPG · embroidery (Bayeux Tapestry), Bayeux, France [see illus.]