Great Englishmen - M. B. Synge

Harold (Died 1066)

Edward the Confessor was king of Saxon England. He was a good man, very soft-hearted and anxious to act for the best, but too gentle for such a rude and violent age. He had been a great deal in France, and loved the French people and their ways; he brought over many Norman friends from France too, and gave them high offices in England, and castles to live in.

This displeased the English people, who did not like to see the Normans placed before them, and none was more angry than Earl Godwin, an old Saxon ruler in Kent, who had expected to be noticed by Edward. Hearing that Earl Godwin was about to raise an army against him, Edward was angry, and, for the sake of peace, told Earl Godwin that he and his sons must go right away across the sea for a long time. Earl Godwin was obliged to go, and take his big and high-spirited sons with him.

It is about one of these sons I am now going to tell you. His name was Harold. Very beautiful was Harold to look upon: he had long fair hair reaching to his shoulders in one thick curl, deep blue eyes, which flashed brightly, and a smile which had already won the hearts of the English people.

Earl Godwin did not stay long in exile. He heard how the Saxon England became more and more Norman, and how William, Duke of Normandy, had been to visit Edward, King of England. So the old earl returned and landed quietly on the southern coast with some of his sons. He was welcomed back with cries of joy. "Life or death with Earl Godwin!" rose on all sides, while above the tumult the words "Harold, our Harold!" rang through the air.

It was useless for Edward to try and oppose Earl Godwin; many of the Normans left England, and the earl was once more in favour. Harold, the beloved of the people, was also in higher favour than before.

At last Earl Godwin died, and, to the joy of all, Harold became earl.

Edward, the king, became very fond of the young and handsome earl, and Harold helped him make the laws and rule the people. All this he did very well and wisely, and was soon the greatest man in England under the king. Now Edward was in very bad health, and the question uppermost in every mind was "Who shall succeed?"

Edward had only one relation, a baby grandson named Edgar, too young to reign. All eyes turned to Harold, and on the lips of all were the words:

"If Edward dies before Edgar is of age to succeed him, where can we find a king like Harold?"

William the Norman soon heard how fond the Saxons were of Harold, and how they were wishing to make him king if Edward should die soon. Soon after this, Harold when out in a ship with his brother, was driven to the coast of France, and taken prisons. When Duke William heard he was in France he had him set free and brought to the Norman court. William was very friendly with the Saxon Harold, for he knew how popular he was in England, and William had made Edward half promise to leave him the throne of England. So he made Harold swear that he would not allow himself to be made king after Edward's death, but would help the Norman Duke. Harold made a faithful promise to support William, and then was allowed to go home again. But he was never the same man again; he had made a promise that he knew he should not keep, he grew thoughtful and downcast, his light merry step became slow and heavy, his bright eyes became more dull and grave, and he shuddered when he thought of that terrible promise.

On his return Harold found Edward the king was worse and not expected to live long; the country was in a disturbed and unsettled state. "But all would go well now Harold, the great earl, Harold the wise, the loved, had come back to his native land. All eyes, all hopes, all hearts turned to him, to him alone!"

Soon after this Edward the Confessor died in the arms of Harold. Whether he appointed Harold or William of Normandy to succeed him as king is uncertain, but certain it is that when the news spread, a cry rose, "We choose thee, O Harold, son of Godwin, for lord and king!" and the earl was crowned amid shouts of "May the King live for ever!"

When Tostig, Harold's brother, heard of his coronation, he was very jealous and angry, and resolved to fight against him.

"Ere the sun is an hour older," he cried, "I am on my road to Duke William."

The Norman Duke was in the forest trying some new arrows with some of his knights. Suddenly a rider came up full speed and drawing William aside, whispered excitedly, "King Edward is dead, and Harold is king of all England!"

"Edward dead! Then England is mine!" cried William, hardly taking in the case.

But England was not his yet!

Tostig, for such indeed was the rider, had a long interview with the Duke, and they resolved to fight against Harold, to try and conquer Saxon England and make the Norman Duke William king instead.

So great preparations were made. Tostig went over to England to try to raise an army against Harold, while William collected men and ships to invade the coast.

Meanwhile King Harold had made himself very dear to his people, he did away with some taxes, he gave higher wages, he trained men for soldiers to defend the land, and spared no pains to make his people happy. But he did not rule over England long. For very soon he heard that his brother Tostig had collected a large army in the north, and with the King of Norway to help him, was going to attack Northumberland.

Harold marched against them and met them at York. Before the battle, Harold, not wishing to fight against his own brother, sent a message to him offering him peace and lands and honour if he would give in.

"And what shall my ally the King of Norway receive?" asked Tostig.

"Seven feet of English ground for a grave, or a little more, seeing he is taller than other men," was Harold's stern answer.

Tostig angrily refused the terms, and a fierce battle was fought, in which Tostig and his ally the King of Norway were slain.

Four days after this battle, Duke William landed in Sussex, near Hastings, with an enormous army. As soon as Harold heard of it, he marched to London and prepared a large army, with which he went to Hastings. He vowed that he would give battle in person, and prove to his subjects that he was worthy of the crown which they had set upon his head. He was encouraged by his late victory, and hope was mixed with fear.

The night before the battle which was to decide the fate of England, was spent by the Saxons over their fire, singing merrily, eating and drinking,—spent by the Normans in prayer. At last morning dawned, and the dim morning light found Harold and his army on the hill above Hastings ready for the attack. The Normans rushed up the hill, but were soon forced down by the English; again and again they charged up, and again and again they were beaten back. Then a panic arose that William was slain, but the Norman Duke was unhurt, and throwing off his helmet that all might see him, cried, "Strive, and by God's help we will yet win."

[Illustration] from Great Englishmen by M. B. Synge


Again they charged up the hill. Then William thought of a plan to make the English leave their post. He ordered his men to pretend to flee, as if they were retreating. When the English saw it, they raised a cry, and disobeying their brave leader and king, rushed down the hill after the Normans. The Norman trick had done its work. A terrible slaughter took place. The Normans turned on the English. Bravely they fought and bravely fought Harold, the English king. Suddenly William ordered his men to shoot their arrows up into the air. As Harold raised his blue and flashing eyes, an arrow struck one and he fell. One of his brothers knelt over him.

"Fight on!" gasped the king, "conceal my death." He struggled to his feet, tried to raise his battle-axe and deal one more blow for his country, but in vain. He fell down dead, and

"Every man about his king

Fell where he stood."

The battle was over, the victory was William's, and the Norman Duke spent the night among the slain in feasting and merriment.

And Harold? Harold, the son of Earl Godwin, the last of the Saxon kings, the man who had died fighting for the land and the people he loved so well, was buried beneath a heap of stones on the "waste sea shore."

For "he kept the shore while he lived, let him guard it now he is dead," said William.

And the English wept long and bitterly for their king.

"Oh Harold, Harold!

"Our Harold—we shall never see him more!"