Harold II, King of England

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Reign: January 1066 to October 1066. From his deathbed in January 1066, Edward the Confessor (r. 104266) designated his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson his successor. More than one man had looked covetously at the throne the childless Edward would vacate, including his cousin William, duke of Normandy, and Harold's cousin Swein Estrithson, king of Denmark. Edward's sudden choice of Harold met with immediate approval by nobles and church magnates who had gathered around the dying king for the Christmas court and dedication of the newly completed abbey church of Westminster. Harold was duly crowned the same day Edward was interred.

Despite having won Edward's designation and the court's confidence, Harold lacked a royal genealogy linking him to the ruling House of Wessex. Although English preference dictated that a successor be connected by blood to the royal family, election outside it was not without precedent, most notably, for English magnates, the Danish kings who had come to power earlier in the 11th century. Harold had the further advantage of wide support because of the vast amounts of land that he controlled in England.

Harold was well qualified to assume the reins of government. Edward's subregulus by 1065, Harold had been an earl since his first appointment to East Anglia in 1045. In 1053 Harold had taken over the administration of the key earldom of Wessex, held by his father Godwin until his death in that year. Able to count on the loyalty of two younger brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, also earls, Harold could not be as certain of his sister Edith, Edward's widow and queen. She apparently had sided with their brother Tostig when Edward, upon Harold's advice, had removed Tostig from the earldom of Northumbria in the fall of 1065. Harold had recommended that Edward allow the Northumbrians their earl of choice, Morcar, the younger brother of Edwin, who administered Mercia. Tostig, angry and convinced that his loss of Northumbria was Harold's fault, entered exile at his father-in-law's court in Flanders.

Harold had gained a reputation as a formidable opponent in battle that complemented his administrative abilities. He had challenged the Welsh more than once, the last major campaign having occurred in 1063. The outcome brought Harold unprecedented prestige when the Welsh turned against their own King Gruffydd ap Llewelyn and presented Harold with his head to underscore their oaths of loyalty to both Edward and Harold. At some time following Gruffydd's death, Harold married Gruffydd's widow Ealdgyth, sister of Edwin and Morcar. Clearly a political marriage, it probably took place early in 1066. With his brother Tostig no longer earl in Northumbria, Harold needed to forge firm ties with the northern magnate. An alliance through marriage was a well-tried form that had been used before by several of his predecessors, including Aethelred II (r. 9781016), Edmund Ironside (r. 1016), and Canute (r. 101635).

Although Harold was the patron of waltham Abbey, where tradition claims he is buried, his relationship with the Church was of mixed report. As his father before him, Harold may have held some of his lands at the expense of the Church. While Domesday Book describes some of these as disputed or illegally held, without records of the competing claims, Harold's culpability is difficult to assess. He did have the support of leading churchmen including Ealdred, Archbishop of York, and Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester. Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, also was his friend, but since Stigand's legitimacy as archbishop had been questioned, his friendship may have cost Harold as much as it gained. During a pilgrimage to Rome, probably in 1058, Harold had also earned recognition for his generosity to the church.

Those who coveted Harold's crown arrived on England's shores in the fall of 1066. Surprisingly his cousin Swein had stayed at home, but the redoubtable Viking king of Norway Harold III (r. 104566) had not. Accompanying him was the still angry Tostig. Harold met and defeated them at Stamford Bridge on September 20. Then, with the knowledge that William, Duke of Normandy, had landed at Hastings, Harold and his men marched across the country to meet this second invader, who, with his troops, carried a papal banner endorsing William's cause. Edwin and Morcar did not arrive in time to participate in the fateful, day-long battle between Harold and his Norman adversary that October 14. At dusk Harold lay dead on the battlefield surrounded by his fallen, loyal troops, including the faithful Gyrth and Leofwine. The very short reign of Harold was over, and William, soon to be called "the Conqueror," was crowned king at London on Christmas Day, 1066.

Bibliography: g. n. garmonsway, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Rutland, Vt. 1992) 163200. r. r. darlington and p. mcgurk, The Chronicle of John of Worcester (Oxford 1995) 543607. f. barlow, Vita Edwardi Regis (London 1962) 555. h. r. loyn, Harold, Son of Godwin (The Hastings and Bexhill Branch of the Historical Assn. 1966) 319. i. w. walker, Harold, the Last Anglo Saxon King (Sutton, Eng. 1997).

[p. torpis]

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