Custom Search


King Harold

Pevensey Bay. The Normans came ashore here in 1066

King Harold played a starring role in perhaps the most famous episode in English history, the Norman invasion of 1066. And yet in a sense Harold has been written out of history, as a king who only reigned for a few months before being swept away by a great historical tide which began with William The Conqueror. The rhyme that helps school children remember the sequence of British monarchs "Willy, Willy, Harry..." etc begins with William of Normandy. Harold, and for that matter all of his Anglo Saxon predecessors are ignored. Reading history you do wonder whether things are actually destined to work out as they do. So many factors come together that the story often seems inevitable. But is that inevitability put in later by writers with a vested interest in the way things worked out? There is no reason to begin the monarchs rhyme with William, but the fact that he is considered England's first king is a credit to the power of his invasion and subsequent hold on England. A military invasion on the scale of the Norman conquest is always going to be backed up by an equally vigorous propaganda campaign. And propaganda, if it is anything is a way of making people accept what happened to them as inevitable. The tide of history may have turned against Harold of England, or we might have been persuaded that it did. The story of Harold is Shakespearian in the way it makes us think about fate and freewill.





The Quay at Sandwich

A good place to start Harold's story is in 1009. It was during this year Brithtric, brother of a powerful noble from the Midlands, and Wulfnoth, a Sussex landowner were given command of a fleet of one hundred ships by King Ethelred, "the Unready". These vessels, built at great expense, were gathered at Sandwich in Kent to oppose Viking raids. Unfortunately Brithtric and Wulfnoth fell out, over accusations of corruption. Wulfnoth was exiled, and reacted by taking a force of twenty ships with him, which he used to raid the south coast of England for supplies. Brithtric was sent after the renegade with his remaining eighty ships. But a storm blew up during the chase, and while Wulfnoth, the more experienced sailor, got his ships through safely, Brithtric trying to give chase lost all of his. So England lost its fleet, and the family of the future king Harold enters the record for the first time. The renegade Wulfnoth was his grandfather.


Wulfnoth's son Godwine remained in England and attempted to recover his family's ruined reputation. Godwine established himself as a loyal retainer of the royal family. However, in the confused world of English monarchy, loyalty was always going to be a difficult business. King Ethelred was losing ground rapidly to Danish invaders led by Canute. Ethelred's son Edmund was moving against his father even before Ethelred's last illness began. Godwine remained loyal to Edmund rather than the ailing incompetent king. Once Ethelred died on 23rd April 1016, Godwine was to gain an impressive reputation in Edmund's many battles with Canute. Inspite of Edmund's brave fight, which gained him the title Ironside, Edmund was forced to negotiate with Canute. Following a conference on the Isle of Athelney in the river Severn, Edmund saved his authority in Wessex, only to die suddenly on 30th November 1016. Canute was then in full control of England. Godwine had remained loyal to Edmund, even when others had changed sides once it was obvious he could not win. Surprisingly Canute turned out to be the sort of man who despised turncoats who switched sides to him, and admired those who remained beside their fallen leader to the end. The professional traitor Eadric Streona who had helped Canute defeat Edmund was executed for his trouble. In contrast, Godwine, who had been Edmund's resolute ally, was raised to the rank of earl by 1018. By 1023 he was one of Canute's most trusted aides. Godwine named his first son Swein after Canute's father, and his second son Harold, after the king's grandfather and brother. A third son, Tosti took his name from a famous Danish sea captain, and his daughter Gunnhild took her name from that of Canute's daughter. Godwine was now in charge of large areas of England. When Canute went overseas, it was Godwine who was left in charge. At this point there does seem to be an inevitability to events. Godwine had stood by Edmund and accepted his fate, which surprisingly turned out to be an earldom and the favour of Canute.


A stable and happy time for Godwine's family came to an end in November 1035 when Canute died. Canute's two sons by two different wives, Harold Harefoot and Harthacanute, disputed the succession. Godwine supported the elder brother Harthacanute, but Harthacanute left for Denmark to fight a potential invasion from Norway. Harold Harefoot seized control in England, which left Godwine in a difficult position. He could either remain loyal to his original candidate, or switch to the new king. By now Godwine seemed to have largely grown out of the youthful idealism which had seen him remain resolutely loyal to the defeated King Edmund. When Edmund's younger brother Alfred arrived in England looking for support for his own claim to the throne, Godwine captured him and handed him over to Harefoot. Harold Harefoot, well known for his cruelty, blinded Alfred at Ely, the young man dying soon afterwards. Godwine's show of support for a cruel king was an embarrassment when Harold Harefoot died in 1040. The returning Harthacanute wanted to know why Godwine hadn't shown more loyalty. Things got even worse when Harthacanute died in 1042. He was succeeded as king by none other than Edward, younger brother of Alfred, who Godwine had sent to his death. Fortunately for Godwine the new king Edward, later known as Edward the Confessor, had little wealth, and no battle fleet to back him up. Distasteful as it may have been, Edward was forced to accept the fact that he needed Godwine's support. Godwine was now the most powerful earl in England, and Edward simply could not afford to alienate him. Edward married Godwine's daughter Edith, and placed Godwine's sons in positions of power. Harold was made Earl of East Anglia.





The king, supposedly the most powerful of men found himself at the mercy of circumstance. This situation continued when it become clear that Edith would not be able to have children. This meant there would be no heir to the throne. Edward needed to divorce Edith and find a new wife, but for the divorce to go ahead, her protective father Godwine would have to be dealt with. Gathering crisis erupted around July 1051, when Edward's brother-in-law Count Eustace of Boulogne visited England. On his way back to the continent Eustace and his party got into a fight with the townspeople of Dover. As Dover was in an area administered by Godwine, the earl was told to ravage the town in retribution. Godwine refused. Edward summoned a meeting of the royal council for 8th September to deal with Godwine. The riot in Dover which caused such problems for Godwine, has the appearance of an unfortunate turn of fate. In reality it is quite possible that Edward engineered rioting in Dover, making a desperate effort to control events which until now had controlled him. Eustace and his men, for some reason, put their armour on before entering Dover, as though they were expecting trouble. What seemed to have been a twist of fate could actually have been planned. If it was a plan it worked well, with Godwine being forced into appearing to defy the king.





Bosham quay

Godwine now realised that he was in real trouble, and decided to call out his forces. His sons Swein and Harold did the same. Both sides, however, shied away from civil war, and support for Godwine started to dwindle. Godwine was forced into exile, leaving England from his estate at Bosham in Sussex and heading for Flanders. Harold made for Ireland. Free of Godwine's influence Edward quickly sent his wife Edith to a nunnery at Wilton. This action was obviously motivated by Edward's desire to find a new wife and secure the succession with a son of his own. It's at this point that propagandists try to present different inevitabilities Going to all the trouble of trying to get rid of Edith makes it unlikely that, as claimed in some sources, William of Normandy now visited Edward and was offered the crown of England. The volume of the Anglo Saxon Chronicles known as Chronicle D mentions this visit and the offer of the crown to William, as do later Norman writers. Contemporary Norman writers, however, do not mention any visit, and David Douglas, in his book William the Conqueror thinks such a visit very unlikely. The historian Ian Walker suggests that reference to the visit in Chronicle D of the Anglo Saxon Chronicles was added after 1066 to bolster William's claim to the English throne. What we see here then is probably an effort by later writers to bring a sense of inevitability to chaotic events which had no such certainty.





The Thames at London Bridge - photo by Julian Jones

Meanwhile Godwine in Bruges and Harold in Dublin prepared their forces for a return. Godwine used his wealth to hire mercenaries to bolster the ranks of his supporters. Harold recruited mercenaries in Ireland. To counter the growing threat Edward gathered a fleet of forty ships at Sandwich in Kent, but found support for it was not strong. The people of Dover, who Godwine had saved from attack in 1051, were no doubt particularly luke warm. On 24th June 1052 Godwine landed undetected at Dungeness and set about recruiting seamen from Hastings and other parts of Kent. When news of this finally reached King Edward at Sandwich the fleet sailed, but Godwine was warned and moved on to Pevensey. Edward could not give chase because his unenthusiastic fleet simply fell apart. Edward sacked the commanders and crews, but could not find any replacements. Godwine heard about this and seized his opportunity. Combining his forces with Harold, he sailed up the Thames on 14th September 1052. The invasion fleet had to wait for high tide to allow them past London Bridge, and Godwine used this period to negotiate with Londoners, who were generally sympathetic. In an image much used to indicate the shifting patterns of destiny, the tide came in, and Godwine moved beyond London Bridge. Edward saw that his position was hopeless. In the talks that followed Godwine was restored to all his lands, and Edith returned from Wilton nunnery. Now all hope of a son was gone, and Edward the Confessor retreated into his famous quiet reflection and prayer, accepting that life had more control over him than he had over it.


Archbishop Robert of Jumieges, who had done much to encourage Godwine's exile, fled to Normandy. He may have left behind a hoard of silver coins, buried on his estate in Appledore, Kent. In 1997 this hoard of silver coins was found by a group of metal detector enthusiasts, and is now on display at the British Museum. Archbishop Robert, his position of power gone, with lots of his money buried in the ground near Appledore, was an embittered man. At some point he seems to have visited King William of Normandy to ask for help in opposing Godwine. Robert may have made much of his job of crowning English kings, and could have given the impression that he wanted William on the throne. From such a senior dignitary as the Archbishop of Canterbury this could very well have seemed like a formal offer of the kingship. We do not know what actually happened, but William heard what he wanted to hear, created a sense of destiny for himself, and certainly came to believe in the validity of his claim to the throne of England.




Bosham Church

Within a year of Godwine's victory on the Thames, he collapsed and died at a royal feast, on Easter Monday 1053. King Edward, still with a little fight left in him, now tried to secure the succession by contacting the family of his older brother Edmund Ironside. Edmund had died probably from wounds fighting the army of King Canute, but his son Edward had lived in Hungary for many years. He was now tracked down and tempted back to England with a promise of the throne. Unfortunately the prospective successor died soon after he returned to England in 1057. Attention now switched to the dead man's young son Edgar, but he was a young boy, and not ready to be king. Godwine's son Harold was the next obvious choice. By 1064 he was at the height of his power and seemed England's natural leader in waiting. But then in 1064 circumstances closed in on Harold, as they had on Edward the Confessor. Harold made a trip to Normandy, which would ultimately lead to his downfall. The Bayeux Tapestry shows Harold going into the church at Bosham to pray before boarding his ship. This trip is mysterious and still the subject of controversy, and there is no definitive view. Harold may have been travelling to Normandy to seek the release of members of his family who were held hostage there. The chronicler William of Malmesbury claimed that Harold arrived in Normandy by accident during a storm. Whatever the real reason for the trip, we can say that Harold was caught in a storm and blown ashore on a beach in Ponthieu, a province neighbouring Normandy. There he was captured by Count Guy and imprisoned at Beaurain. William of Normandy heard of this, and knowing how useful Harold would be to his ambitions for the English throne, he demanded that the captive be handed over.


Once in William's hands Harold was treated as an honoured guest, and invited to accompany William on a raid into a neighbouring Breton area. Each man no doubt was sizing the other up. Then after all these preliminaries William got down to business, asking Harold to swear loyalty to him, and to support his claim to the English throne. Harold had been treated as a guest, but it must have been very clear to him that this could change. Members of his family had been held in Normandy for years, and the same possibility now loomed for Harold. If he wanted to go home there was no option for Harold but to swear the oath that William asked for, in front of witnesses. Once this was done William let his "guest" go. But the oath was to hang over Harold. Now if Harold staked his own claim to kingship, he could easily be portrayed as a dishonourable man who broke solemn oaths. Following his return from Normandy Harold encountered more problems, unintentionally making an enemy of his brother Tosti. In 1065, Tosti, Earl of Northumbria, imposed unpopular taxes, which provoked rebellion against him. Harold was asked to mediate, and came to the conclusion that King Edward had a stark choice between supporting Tosti which would bring civil war, or agreeing to the rebels' grievances against taxation. Harold advised accepting the rebel demands, which Edward felt was his only option. Tosti went into exile, to nurse a bitter grudge against his brother.




Westminster Abbey

By Christmas 1065 Edward the Confessor was severely ill. The succession crisis reached the culmination it had been building towards for years. King Edward on his death bed seemed to favour Harold as his successor, as testified by a number of different sources. Edward died on 5th January 1066, and was buried in Westminster Abbey on 6th January. Later the same day Harold was crowned king. Once again there is a suggestion that accounts of this day were manipulated to give a sense of inevitability to later events. While it is usually claimed that William the Conqueror was the first king crowned at Westminster Abbey, creating a traditional crowning place for English monarchs, Ian Walker suggests that Harold's coronation ceremony probably took place at Westminster Abbey. The guests at Edward the Confessor's burial would have been the same group attending the coronation, so it made sense that they stayed where they were, not trek across London to St Paul's. Propaganda might also be evident in the portrayal of Harold's coronation in the enigmatic Bayeux Tapestry. The Tapestry is a mysterious document which may have been produced by English hands, working under Norman masters. There is a mixture of influence in the way events are portrayed. The tapestry shows Harold being crowned by Archbishop Stigand. Stigand had replaced Robert of Jumieges, who we already know had been exiled for his support of Godwine. Controversially Archbishop Stigand did not have proper papal recognition. The idea was to portray Harold as being crowned by a man unqualified to do so, making the coronation invalid. It is actually very unlikely that Stigand presided at the coronation, a man who had not even consecrated bishops. English sources say that Ealdred, Archbishop of York carried out the service, the man who undertook all Stigand's other duties of consecration. This is almost certainly what happened, but history was manipulated later to tell a different story.


Early in the new year Harold married Alditha, sister of the two northern earls, Edwin and Morcar, to ensure national unity. His former wife Edith Swan Neck had been a "common-law" wife, a type of marriage seen frequently in Danish society. This left room for a strategic marriage to Alditha. Harold then set about securing his kingdom. Tosti mounted raids on the south coast, but was driven into Scotland. There Tosti waited for his next chance, spending time in Scotland forging an alliance with Harald Hadrada of Norway. Hadrada was a Viking warrior in the old tradition, and did not need the various tortuous justifications that William required for invasion. England was rich, promised lots of potential plunder, and a former English earl had offered an alliance. What more incentive was needed? In the late autumn of 1066 three hundred ships sailed for England, the army coming ashore at Riccall, and immediately making for York. This army defeated the forces of Edwin and Morcar at Fulford on Wednesday 20th September. Back in London, King Harold, with impressive organisation raised an army and moved it north at speed, to take the Norwegians by surprise on 25th September at Stamford Bridge, eight miles outside York. Harold's army pushed the Norwegians back across the river Derwent into an area known as Battle Flats. Here Harald Hadrada and Tosti were killed, and their army defeated. The survivors ran for their ships thirteen miles away at Riccall. Harold gave chase and could have destroyed the entire army. Instead he allowed the survivors to sail away, after making promises never to return. Of the three hundred ships that set out, only twenty four sailed home.

A northerly wind had blown the Norwegian army across the North Sea to England. On 27th September northerly winds, which had been holding William's invasion fleet at St Valery, veered round to the south. This change is described by the expert on Harold, Ian Walker, a calm, analytical civil servant. Ian Walker is not the sort of writer to talk about fate, but like the tide coming in for Godwine at London Bridge, Walker mentions the wind shift to suggest exactly this kind of influence beyond human control. Fate was to be a great focus of later writers who saw judgment in what was about to happen when William's battle fleet used the southerly winds to sail to England. These writers wanted to give the impression that Harold was in the hands of a destiny that would see him defeated. And in a very real sense this destiny was invented. Many details in the records that come down to us are Norman inventions - the idea of William visiting Edward and being offered the throne, the idea that Harold was crowned by an archbishop who was not qualified to do his job, the idea that Harold had made a solemn oath, and deserved to be punished by God for breaking it. Fate in this sense was invented later. And yet... it was October, late in the year, and if that wind had remained blowing from the north for just a little while longer, William may not have risked sailing. That would have given Harold time to recover, and history could have been very different.




Standing on the ridge in front of Battle Abbey, where Harold formed his defensive line in 1066

William landed at Pevensey on the morning of 28th September, after a remarkable night crossing. He then dug in at Hastings and waited for Harold to come. Perhaps news of the great English victory at Stamford Bridge made him cautious. Harold rushed south, paused for a few days in London to gather forces, and then made his way quickly into Sussex. His plan was probably to contain William, cut off his line of retreat, and then move in to destroy him. William knew his only chance was to attack immediately. He told his men the truth, that they were alone in a foreign country and fighting for their lives. If they wanted to live they had to win. At dawn on 14th October 1066 William moved towards Harold's army, which had reached the area of Senlac Ridge near Hastings the day before. The English were not prepared for such a sudden move by the Normans, but they still managed to quickly form an effective defensive position on top of a ridge. The battle began at about 9am and continued all day, fortune moving one way and then the other. William fought with religious relics hanging around his neck, which he hoped would bring him luck. During the course of the battle it is often claimed that William gained the upper hand through such tactics as feigned withdrawals. According to Ian Walker this is not true. In his view this kind of tactic made little overall difference and the battle continued on as before, with the Normans attacking a stubborn English line. With evening coming on, victory was in sight for the English. If they could hold the Normans until nightfall, then William would have to fall back. On the following day fresh English troops would arrive, to face exhausted and beleaguered invaders. William would be finished. Knowing they were in acute danger the Normans launched one last frenzied attack. The English stood firm, until a stray arrow suddenly hit Harold in the face. Once news of this spread through the English army there was a sudden collapse in morale. The Normans broke through, and the English ranks fell apart. And that is probably all that the battle turned on, one stray arrow. ( For a discussion of differences of opinion over the site of the Battle of Hastings click here.)



Possible depiction of the death of Harold in the Bayeux Tapestry. This image is copyright free. A copy of the tapestry can be seen at Reading Museum.

Harold was buried on the seashore, so that his grave could not become a symbol of English resistance in the days and years to follow.

The more I read about the Norman Conquest the more I agree with Forrest Gump:

"I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time."