Harold II – a summary

The last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, Harold Godwinson, or Harold II, born around 1022, met his death against the forces of William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066.

Harold Godwinson was the second son of Earl Godwin, the most powerful man in England. By his early 20s, Harold held an extensive earldom in eastern England and took as his concubine, Edith Swan-neck. In 1051 the family were exiled after an altercation with the king, Edward the Confessor, and all their lands and wealth were confiscated. With the help of their allies at home, the Godwines returned in 1052, forcing the king to take them back and reinstating their lands and titles. With the death of his father in 1053, Harold became the new Earl of Wessex and had ascended to become the most powerful nobleman in the country.

The Oath of Fealty

After a series of successful campaigns against the Welsh ruler, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, in 1052-1053, Harold earned a reputation as an excellent military commander and his victories were celebrated throughout England. It is alleged that in 1054 he was sent by King Edward on a diplomatic errand to William, Duke of Normandy. The voyage began badly; Harold was shipwrecked and captured by the Guy, Count of Ponthieu. After being rescued by Duke William, Harold accompanied him in battle against Conan, the Duke of Brittany, and was knighted shortly after. According to Norman sources, Harold then swore an oath of fealty to William over holy relics, promising that he would support his claim to the English throne when King Edward died. He then returned to England, only to become embroiled in a rebellion against his brother, Tostig Godwinson. This resulted in Tostig’s exile and, soon after, King Edward became seriously ill.

On Edward the Confessor’s death on 5 January 1066, Harold was elected as the new king of England and was crowned the following day. Much of Harold’s reign was spent in defending the realm from foreign invasion. On 25 September he defeated his brother, Tostig, and fellow claimant, King Harald Hardrada, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. On 1 October, after hearing that the Normans had landed on the south coast, Harold marched the 240 miles to Hastings to face Duke William.

The Battle of Hastings

On 14 October, a few miles from Hastings, the two armies came face to face. The Battle of Hastings that raged all day, leaving Harold II dead, possibly by an arrow to the eye, as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry (pictured), or cut down by the sword, and Duke William emerged victorious.

There is some disagreement over what happened to Harold’s body after Hastings. The Song of the Battle of Hastings states that William had the body wrapped in purple linen and taken back to base camp. Harold’s mother, Gytha, “in the tolls of overwhelming grief, sent to the Duke and prayed him to surrender to her” and offering to pay its weight in gold.  William refused and said that he would rather “put him in charge of the shore of that very port – under a heap of stones”. If this is to be believed, then Harold was buried under William’s instructions with the inscription: ‘You rest here, King Harold, by order of the duke, so that you may still be guardian of the shore and sea.’

Alternatively, it has been suggested that Harold’s concubine, Edith Swan-neck, searched the battlefield for her lover’s body, recognising him only by an intimate birthmark. From there she took his body to Waltham and buried him in the Holy Cross church.

Kaye Jones
Read more about the Normandy Invasion in 1066: History In An Hour

See articles on the Battle of Hastings, the Battle of Stamford Bridge, William of Normandy, the Bayeux Tapestry and Edward the Confessor.