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Harold II of England

Harold II
Ruled: January 5, 1066 - October 14, 1066
Predecessor: Edward the Confessor
Date of Birth: c. 1022
Place of Birth: Wessex, England
Wives: Ealdgyth Swan-neck ("handfast" marriage
not approved by the Church), Edith
Date of Death: October 14, 1066
Buried: Waltham Abbey
Parents: Godwin, Earl of Wessex and Gytha Thorkelsdóttir

Harold Godwinson, or Harold II (c. 1022 - October 14, 1066) was England's last Saxon king. He ruled from January 5 to October 14 1066. His father was Godwin,the powerful Earl of Wessex. Godwin was himself a son to Wulfnoth Cild , Thegn of Sussex and had married twice. First to Thyra Sveinsdóttir (994 - 1018), a daughter of Sweyn I who was King of Denmark, Norway and England. His second wife was Gytha Thorkelsdóttir who was a granddaughter to the legendary Swedish viking Styrbjörn Starke and great-granddaughter to Harold Bluetooth, King of Denmark and Norway, father of Sweyn I. This second marriage resulted in the birth of both Harold and Tostig Godwinson. Their sister Edith of Wessex (1020 - 1075) was Queen consort of Edward the Confessor.

Created 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 the second most powerful figure in England after the king.

In 1058 Harold also became Earl of Hereford, and he replaced his late father as the focus of opposition to growing Norman influence in England under the restored Saxon monarchy (1042 - 1066) 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 - 1063) 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. About 1064, Harold married Edith, daughter of the Earl of Mercia , and former wife of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. By Harold, Edith had two sons - possibly twins - named Harold and Ulf, both of whom survived into adulthood and probably ended their lives in exile. Harold also had several illegitimate children by his famous mistress (or wife, according to Danish law), "Ealdgyth Swan-neck " or "Edith Swan-neck."

In 1065 Harold supported Northumbrian rebels against his brother Tostig who 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 ("Hard Reign") of Norway.

Upon Edward's death (January 5 1066), Harold claimed that Edward had promised him the crown on his deathbed, and made the Witenagemot (the assembly of the kingdom's leading notables) approve him for coronation as king, which took place the following day.

However, the country was invaded, by both Harald of Norway and William, Duke of Normandy, who claimed that he had been promised the English crown by both Edward (probably in 1052) and Harold, who had been shipwrecked in Ponthieu, Normandy in 1064 or 1065. It was alleged that, on the latter occasion, William forced Harold to swear to support his claim to the throne, only revealing after the event that the box on which he had made his oath contained holy relics.

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 York (September 20), but were in turn defeated and slain by Harold's army five days later at the Battle of Stamford Bridge (September 25).

Harold now forced his army to march 240 miles to intercept William, who had landed perhaps 7000 men in Sussex, southern England on September 28. Harold established his army in hastily built earthworks near Hastings. The two armies clashed near Hastings on October 14, where after a hard fight Harold was killed and his forces routed. According to tradition, and as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye (though some contemporary historians have questioned this). Edith Swan-neck was called to identify the body, which she did by some private mark (the face being destroyed) known only to herself. Harold's body was buried at Hastings, but was later moved to Waltham Abbey in Essex.

His illegitimate daughter Gytha of Wessex married Vladimir Monomakh Grand Duke (Velikii Kniaz) of Kievan Rus' and is ancestor to several Russian rulers. Consequently the Russian Orthodox Church recently recognised Harold as a martyr with October 14 as his feast day.

Preceded by:
Edward the Confessor
King of England Succeeded by:
Edgar Ætheling


Biography by P. Compton (1961); F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (3d ed. 1971).

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Harold II of England

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45