Harold Godwinson

(Harold II of England)


Harold Godwinson was the last Saxon king of England, but he ruled only nine months, before being killed at the Battle of Hastings. Although Harold was king for a short time, he had inherited the estates and vast influence of his father, Earl Godwin, upon his death in 1053, and so had been the most powerful man in the realm for much of the reign of Edward the Confessor.

The Goodwin family rose in power during the reign of Canute, and by the time Edward came to the throne, they possessed not only vast holdings themselves, but wielded great influence over the other Saxon nobles. Edward's relationship with the Godwin Family, and particularly Earl Godwin himself, was antagonistic. A marriage had been arranged between Edward and Godwin's daughter Edith, in an attempt to repair the breach, but it produced no children, so Godwin began to groom Harold for the Saxon throne, although he had no hereditary right to it. Meanwhile, Edward and his Norman advisors, favored the cause of William of Normandy, believing Edward's grand-nephew, the rightful heir, was not strong enough to resist influence of the Godwin family. Sure enough, on the death of Edward, the Saxon nobles bypassed the hereditary heir and elected Harold as king, but he was unable to hold his throne in opposition to the Duke of Normandy, the most renowned warrior in all of Europe.

Before the death of his father, the great Earl of Wessex, Harold lived largely in his shadow. He received his first earldom, when his father arranged for the marriage of his sister Edith to king Edward. He followed his father into exile when he came into direct conflict with Edward, and then returned the following year with an army, intent on restoring the fortunes of the Godwin family. This effort was successful, largely because many of the Saxon nobles were loyal to the Godwins, rather than Edward, whose court was largely administered by Normans. Shortly after the restoration of the Godwins, the Earl died, and his influence over the Saxon nobles devolved to Harold, who proved himself a worthy successor in several campaigns.

One of Harold's brothers was Tostig, and he was something of a troublemaker. Tostig was made earl of Northumbria, but abused his power to such a degree that Harold had no choice but to banish him from England. Just about this time, Edward the Confessor died and Harold was officially recognized as king of England. Meanwhile two armies were being raised against him—one in Normandy under William the Conqueror, and the other in Scandinavia under Tostig and Harald III of Norway. Both armies descended on England at about the same time. Tostig arrived first and conquered the city of York, but in a surprise attack, Harold defeated the army of Vikings at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. He had hardly returned to London before word of the Norman invasion at Senlac came. He recalled his army and bravely faced the new invaders at the Battle of Hastings, but died in battle. With no other obvious Saxon candidate ready to put forward, most of the country submitted to the rule of Normans, and William the Conqueror was crowned King of England.

Key events during the life of Harold Godwinson:

Harold is born to Godwinson
Death of Canute
Appointed Earl of East-Angles
Banished, along with his father, by Edward the Confessor.
Returned with an army in order to restore fortunes.
Death of Godwin. His vast influence passes on to Harold.
Tostig granted the Earldom of Northumbria.
Led a series of campaigns against they Welsh ruler of Gwyneed.
Shipwrecked and held captive by William of Normandy. Coerced into supporting his claim.
Tostig is banished from the realm for misgovernment.
Elected King of England on the death of Edward the Confessor.
Defeats Tostig and his viking allies at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
Killed at the Battle of Hastings. The crown passes to William the Conqueror.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
King Harold  in  William the Conqueror  by  Jacob Abbott
Harold the Earl  in  Stories from English History  by  Alfred J. Church
Harold  in  Our Island Story  by  H. E. Marshall
End of Saxon England  in  Historical Tales: English  by  Charles Morris
English and Norman  in  Stories from English History  by  Hilda T. Skae
How the Northmen Conquered England  in  The Discovery of New Worlds  by  M. B. Synge
Harold  in  Great Englishmen  by  M. B. Synge
Hastings  in  The Boy's Book of Battles  by  Eric Wood

Image Links

Harold receiving news of the Norman invasion
 in Famous Men of the Middle Ages

Harold taking the Oath
 in Stories from English History

The death of Harold
 in Stories from English History

The Death of Harold
 in Great Englishmen

The Wounding of Harold at the Battle of Hastings
 in European Hero Stories

Will you promise me?'
 in In the Days of William the Conqueror

Short Biography
Edward the Confessor Last Saxon king of the Wessex line. Raised in Normandy, befriended William the Conqueror.
Tostig Godwinson Brought an army of Vikings to fight his brother, Harold Godwinson, at Stamford Bridge.
William the Conqueror Claimed the crown of England and won it at the Battle of Hastings. Ruled forcefully but justly.
Harald III King of Norway who joined with Tostig against Harold at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.