King Harold II, or Harold Godwineson is one of the best known monarchs in British History, mainly because of the infamous events surrounding his succession to the throne, the near constant warfare that plagued his short reign, and his ignominious death on the field of Hastings as the last of the Saxon kings who had ruled in England for 500 years.
Since that time, our knowledge of Harold has been shaped by the works of Norman and Anglo-Norman Historians, writing in the decades and centuries after Hastings. In the last few decades however, modern Historians have begun to re-examine the life and career of Harold, and, through examination of oft ignored English sources, reveal a radically different picture of the Last English King, that goes far beyond the events of that fateful October day in 1066.
Harold the Man
William of Poitiers, a near contemporary Norman source described Harold as “the basest of men, insane, an enemy of justice and good” who “caused the whole English people to be faithless to the Duke”. Whilst Poitiers is perhaps most vociferous in his condemnation of Harold, most of the Norman sources agree on the matter of Harold’s usurpation of the throne, they, they claim rightfully belonged to Duke William of Normandy, and that Harold was guilty of perjury for breaking his oath guaranteeing William the throne. This issue will be examined more later.
English sources, however, tell a different story. Most significant of these is the Vita Eadwardi or ‘life of King Edward’ an anonymous and somewhat partisan Eleventh century account of the Life and reign of Edward the Confessor. Here Harold is described as “wise, patient, merciful, courageous, temperate, and prudent, but ruthless with opponents” Whilst this source does lean heavily in favour of the Godwins, the most powerful family in Pre-Conquest England, its examination of Harold can be backed by some events in Harold’s career.
Harold the warrior
Even in his own day, Harold seems to have been known as a renowned and successful warrior, as well as a courageous fighter. Even the otherwise antagonistic Poitiers remarks upon his courage. Harold proved his skill as a commander in campaigns in Wales, since the 1050s the Welsh princes had been raiding the borderlands between England and Wales, and in 1056 killed the man whom Harold had installed to run the territory, one of his clerks named Leofgar. By 1063, his patience exhausted, Harold launched an invasion of Wales, a combined assault in which his Brother Tostig assisted him. This proved extremely successful and effective, as the Welsh rulers soon sued for peace, and Harold’s most formidable enemy in Wales Prince Llewelyn, was apparently killed by his own men soon after.
During this assault Harold is said to have made use of small, lightly equipped and extremely mobile fighting forces who could move fast, and raid deep into Welsh territory, a tactic that he would utilise again in 1066.
Harold showed himself to be an astute diplomat, however, as well as a warrior. On more than one occasion he was able to prevent hostilities and conflict through negotiation with the enemy or injured party, the redress of their grievances, and concessions wherever possible. He also proved merciful to enemies he had defeated, most notably after the Battle of Stamford bridge, when he spared the Norwegian troops who survived the battle, and allowed them to return home.
Harold and King Edward
From 1053, when he succeeded his father as Earl of Wessex, the evidence suggests that Harold consistently proved to be a loyal and faithful in his service to Edward the Confessor, indeed, in later part of his career he emerges as one of the Kings closest and most trusted subjects, his right hand man, helping to serve his interests, and maintain the security and peace of the Kingdom.
Sometime in the 1050s King Edward appears to have sent Harold on a diplomatic errand to Hungary. The purpose of this was apparently to repatriate Edward’s nephew, Edward the Exile, the son of his Older half Brother Edmund Ironside, and closest relative on his father’s side. Edward had lived in Hungary since he was a child, having fled there in the reign of King Canute, and had even married a Hungarian princess. Historians argue that the Edward intended for his younger namesake Nephew to succeed the throne on his death, and he certainly seems to have been the strongest candidate because of his West Saxon descent. Significantly, it is also asserted that there is no evidence to show Edward ever considered William of Normandy as his heir.
Edward died shortly after his return to England, but left a young son named Edgar, known as Atheling Edgar, who was apparently adopted by King Edward and Queen Edith, and regarded as the new heir and successor the throne in his father’s stead.
The Norman Oath
Possibly the most notorious incident in Harold career took place circa 1064, when Harold went to France, and whilst there, swore fealty to William of Normandy, and allegedly promised to uphold his claim to the throne of England.
William of Poitiers claimed that Harold went to Normandy at the specific behest of King Edward, for the purpose of confirming William’s claim. Others are more ambiguous about the specific circumstances, and one even claims that the oath was Harold’s idea, not the King’s. The general consensus though, that Harold made to oath willingly. Historians today question this, asserting that the oath was made under duress, and even an eleventh century English source suggests that Harold gave way and made the oath because he was in an untenable position and therefore ‘trapped’ by him. Frank Barlow argues that “there was no way Harold could escape from William except by agreeing to his demands… he took an oath of fealty to William… and probably agreed that he would support and advance the Duke claim to the English throne” and Ian Walker asserts “Harold found himself in a position where swearing this oath was the only way to extricate himself from William’s custody”. Barlow goes onto state that Harold could easily have argued that an oath made under such circumstances could not be regarded as legally binding, and Walker suggests the may have sought absolution from it in England.
Harold as King
Harold was crowned King in January 1066, ostensibly after having been named as successor by the late King Edward on his death-bed. Significantly it appears that many in England were in supporter of Harold being made king, especially as Edgar Atheling was too young to reign, and none can be shown to have supported William of Normandy and Harold had apparently ‘acclaimed’ by the royal council.
As is well-known, Harold soon faced opposition, and invasion from the forces of Harald of Norway, alongside his brother Tostig. Contrary to popular opinion, it appears that Harald did not claim the throne on the basis of a promise made by King Edward, but a ‘deal’ made by Harthacnut, the son of Canute. Harald’s forces defeated the armies of the Northern Earls Edwin and Morcar, Harold’s brothers in law, at the Battle of Fulford on September 20th 1066.
Harold, probably informed of the invasion before Fulford assembled a large force, and advanced North with considerable speed. Walker argues that the fact so many rallied to Harold is testament to his widespread support in England. On 25th September Harold won his first battle of the year at Stamford Bridge, a crushing defeat in which both Harald of Norway and Earl Tostig were killed.
Harold at Hastings
Harold had been prepared for in invasion of William of Normandy, as opposed to that of Harald of Norway. To such an extent that he had mustered a force specifically to guard the coast of England that faced Normandy, and even a naval force which could engage the Norman fleet as it crossed the channel. Unfortunately for Harold, and for England, this army had to be disbanded, apparently because their service contracts had expired, before the Normans came.
When the Normans did eventually land, in late September, Harold made his plans of attack. He planned to
“contain the Normans in Sussex and in the peninsula on which Hastings stood, in order to prevent them taking full advantage of their mobility… thus the forces he had gathered rapidly in order to block a Norman break out and … summoned a fleet to destroy their ships and cut off their retreat. Harold intended to deal with William as thoroughly as he had Harald of Norway”
William apparently attacked before Harold had ‘drawn up’ all his troops on Senlac ridge. This was the best defensive position in the area, and being a native of Sussex who knew the area well, it is possible the Harold intended to occupy this position originally.
William used his knights to attack the English line, and there was much close quarter fighting, in which the English defended their position so viciously that “the Breton troops on the Norman left-wing broke…confusion and fear spread through who whole Norman army, fanned by a rumour that Duke William had fallen”
When part of the English force abandoned their position to give chase William was apparently able to regather his forces and slaughter them. There has been much debate over whether this incident was a caused by a lack of discipline, or a direct command, whatever the circumstances it is likely that at least one of Harold’s brother Gyrth, may have perished at this point. Walker states that the battle raged for the several hours after this incident, and so it was not do decisive as has been thought, after which ‘the English appear to have regrouped successfully, perhaps drawing in their flanks to fill the gaps’
In late afternoon William seems to have launched one final assault “combining archers, infantry and cavalry” it has been suggested that this was because William knew he would be defeated if Harold could hold out until nightfall. It may well have been at this point that Harold was killed. Whether by an arrow, or Norman knights is debatable. However, it does seem have been at this point that the English ranks finally ‘wavered and broke’. Harold and his brothers now lay dead. William had won the day.
Far removed from the villain of Norman sources the Real King Harold thus emerges as a loyal subject of his King, a skilled and experienced military commander, and, above all a leader who was popular and respected by his people.
Barlow, Frank, The Godwins: Rise and fall of a noble dynasty (Harlow,2002).
Fleming, Robin, Harold II, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 10th July 2011, http://www.odnb.com.
Hindley, Geoffrey, A brief history of the Anglo Saxons (London,2006).
Walker, Ian, Harold: The Last Anglo Saxon King (Stroud,1997).