Harold II

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Harold II ( Harold Godwineson) (c.1022–66), king of England (1066), the last Old English ruler before the Norman Conquest, was defeated and killed by William the Conqueror at the battle of Hastings. Along with the rest of his family, Harold rose to increasing prominence in England during the reign of Edward the Confessor, receiving the earldom of East Anglia in 1044 and succeeding his father Godwine as earl of Wessex in 1053. He was subsequently the most powerful man in the kingdom after the king. His role in the complex politics of the English kingdom in Edward the Confessor's reign, and, in particular, his attitude to the succession, can never be entirely clear. Despite his great power, there is nothing to suggest that Harold was being groomed for the succession or that he coveted it, until he was designated as his successor by the dying Edward. Harold's career passed through a number of periods of crisis. In 1051–2, for example, he was temporarily banished from England along with the rest of his family when they quarrelled with the king. He was in some way involved in the mysterious return to England in 1057 of Edward the Exile, the father of Edgar the Atheling. In 1064 or 1065 (so Norman sources tell us), he visited Normandy to confirm Edward the Confessor's earlier promise of the succession to Duke William, swearing there the fateful oath which enabled William in 1066 to portray him as a perjurer. Late in 1065, he failed to assist his brother Tostig in the (probably) impossible task of crushing a rebellion against Tostig's authority in Northumbria; the embittered Tostig thereafter became his brother's enemy and fought and died with the army of King Harold Sigurdsson (Hardrada) at the battle of Stamford Bridge. The most probable explanation of Harold's career between 1053 and 1066 is that, while remaining essentially the loyal subject of Edward the Confessor, he was also a careful politician who did not take any risks. Edward's death-bed bequest of succession to the English kingdom was probably a recognition that Harold was the only successor likely to be accepted with anything resembling unanimity by the English. After his coronation on the day immediately following Edward's death, Harold's efforts to defend his kingship against his rivals were effective and courageous; he kept an army and navy in readiness for several months in southern England and the main institutions of government appear to have continued to function. The support he received during the great campaigns of 1066 must indicate that he was widely accepted as king, much preferred by the English to any of the alternatives. His march north to win the battle of Stamford Bridge was a remarkable military feat, as was the return to confront William the Conqueror. His generalship can, however, be criticized. He could have delayed confronting William in order to assemble a larger and fresher army and he concentrated his forces too close to William's, perhaps allowing the latter to attack him before the English army was ready. The length and hard-fought character of the battle of Hastings none the less suggests that the English were both well led and well organized. Harold's death occurred late in the battle. Its manner will always be controversial. Was he, or was he not, killed by an arrow through the eye? Interpretations of the crucial scene on the Bayeux Tapestry will always differ.

David Richard Bates


Walker, I. , Harold (2000).

Harold II

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Harold II

Harold II (died 1066) was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. During his 9-month reign in 1066 he turned back the invasion of the king of Norway, only to succumb to that of William of Normandy.

Harold II was the second son of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, one of the most powerful men in 11th-century England. When Edward the Confessor returned from exile in Normandy to become king in 1042, reinstating the ancient house of Wessex in England after 25 years of rule by Danish kings, Godwin attempted to retain the power he had accumulated as royal adviser to the Danes. Not until 1051 did Edward feel strong enough to banish Godwin and his sons. Less than a year later, however, Godwin was reconciled with Edward under threat of civil war, and when Godwin died in April 1053, Harold became Earl of Wessex.

After his father's death Harold gradually became Edward's most powerful adviser and general. Between 1055 and 1063 he commanded the English forces in a series of campaigns against the aggressive Welsh king, Gruffydd ap Llewelyn. When Harold finally crushed Gruffydd and stabilized the English-Welsh border, the triumph greatly enhanced his authority and his reputation throughout England. It also established his claim to succeed King Edward, whose only remaining relative was a very young cousin living at the court of Hungary.

Then, in 1064, in a mysterious incident recorded in the famous Bayeux Tapestry, Harold was sent by King Edward on a mission of unknown nature to the Continent but was blown off course and landed in Normandy. There he was imprisoned and taken to Duke William, to whom he swore an oath which probably committed him to helping William secure the English kingship after Edward's death. There is no way of determining whether Harold gave his word freely or under duress; in any case, when Edward died in January 1066, Harold was clearly in the best position to preserve the continuity of rule in England and was at once chosen by the English nobility as Edward's successor.

Harold's brief reign was one of frantic activity in defense of England against invasion both by William and by Harald Hardrada, King of Norway. Harald struck first, in September 1066, landing with a large army in Yorkshire. Harold, who had been in the south awaiting William's attack, raced northward and crushed the invaders at Stamford Bridge on September 25. Two days later William, whose plans had been delayed by unfavorable winds, sailed from Normandy with an army of Normans and mercenaries. Harold had to rush south to face William with an exhausted and undermanned army. The two sides met near Hastings on October 14, and after a day of furious fighting Harold was killed and his army defeated. With Harold's gallant death Anglo-Saxon history comes to an end, and the Anglo-Norman age begins.

Further Reading

The main source of information on Harold II is The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, edited and translated by G. N. Garmonsway (1953; rev. ed. 1954). The "D" version of the Chronicle in particular supplies the fullest detail on the events of 1066. For Harold's encounter with, and oath to, William of Normandy see Sir Frank Stenton and others, eds., The Bayeux Tapestry (1957; 3d ed. 1965). An analysis of the events of Harold's life and reign is in F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (1943; 2d ed. 1947), and in D. C. Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact upon England (1964).

Additional Sources

Three lives of the last Englishmen, New York: Garland Pub., 1984. □

Harold II

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Harold II (1022–66) Last Anglo-Saxon King of England (1066). He was elected King following the death of Edward the Confessor, despite having pledged to support William of Normandy's (William I) claim to the throne. He immediately had to contend with the invasion of Harold III of Norway, whom he defeated. Three days later, he was defeated and killed by William at the Battle of Hastings.

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