Home ~ Our Ancestors ~ Contact us

HAROLD II Godwinson and Edith Swan-neck

HAROLD II Godwinson. (Harold Godwinson or Harold II). [CHART A43].
Born about 1022, the son of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, and Gytha Thorkelsdóttir.

He was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England before the Norman Conquest.[S1a]. Harold reigned from 5 January 1066, until his death at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October of that same year, fighting the Norman invaders led by William the Conqueror. Harold is one of only three Kings of England to have died as a result of battle, alongside Richard the Lionheart and Richard III.

Godwin and Gytha had several children, notably sons Sweyn, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwine and a daughter, Edith of Wessex (1029–75), who became Queen consort of Edward the Confessor.

As a result of his sister Edith's marriage to king Edward the Confessor, Harold, became Earl of East Anglia in 1045. Harold accompanied his father into exile in 1051, but helped him to regain his position a year later. When Godwin died in 1053, Harold succeeded him as Earl of Wessex, a province at that time covering the southernmost third of England. This arguably made him the most powerful figure in England after the king.

In 1058, Harold also became Earl of Hereford, and replaced his late father as the focus of opposition to growing Norman influence in England under the restored monarchy (1042–66) of Edward the Confessor, who had spent over twenty-five years in exile in Normandy.

He gained glory in a series of campaigns (1062–63) against Gruffydd ap Llywelyn of Gwynedd, the ruler of Wales. This conflict ended with Gruffydd's defeat, and death at the hands of his own troops, in 1063.

In 1064, Harold was apparently shipwrecked in Ponthieu. There is much speculation about this voyage. The earliest post-conquest Norman chroniclers report that at some prior time, Robert, Archbishop of Canterbury had been sent by the childless king to appoint as his heir Edward's maternal kinsman, William of Normandy, and that at this later date Harold was sent to swear fealty. [S1b]. Scholars disagree as to the reliability of this story. William, at least, seems to have believed he had been offered the succession, but there must have been some confusion either on William's part or perhaps by both men, since the English succession was neither inherited nor determined by the sitting monarch. Instead the Witenagemot, the assembly of the kingdom's leading notables, would convene after a king's death to select a successor. Other acts of Edward are inconsistent with his having made such a promise, such as his efforts to return his nephew Edward the Exile, son of king Edmund Ironside, from Hungary in 1057.[S1c].

Later Norman chroniclers suggest alternative explanations for Harold's journey, that he was seeking the release of members of his family who had been held hostage since Godwin's exile in 1051, or even that he had simply been travelling along the English coast on a hunting and fishing expedition and had been driven across the channel by an unexpected storm. There is general agreement that he left from Bosham, and was blown off course, landing on the coast of Ponthieu, where he was held hostage by Count Guy. Duke William arrived soon after and ordered Guy to turn Harold over to him.[S1d].

Harold then apparently accompanied William to battle against William's enemy, Conan II, Duke of Brittany. While crossing into Brittany past the fortified abbey of Mont St Michel, Harold is recorded as rescuing two of William's soldiers from the quicksand. They pursued Conan from Dol de Bretagne to Rennes, and finally to Dinan, where he surrendered the fortress's keys on the point of a lance. William presented Harold with weapons and arms, knighting him. The Bayeux Tapestry, and other Norman sources, then record that Harold swore an oath on sacred relics to William to support his claim to the English throne. After Harold's death, the Normans were quick to point out that in accepting the crown of England, Harold had perjured himself of this alleged oath.

The chronicler Orderic Vitalis wrote: "This Englishman was very tall and handsome, remarkable for his physical strength, his courage and eloquence, his ready jests and acts of valour. But what were these gifts to him without honour, which is the root of all good?".

Due to an unjust doubling of taxation instituted by Tostig in 1065 that threatened to plunge England into civil war, Harold supported Northumbrian rebels against his brother, Tostig, and replaced him with Morcar. This strengthened his acceptability as Edward's successor, but fatally divided his own family, driving Tostig into alliance with King Harald Hardrada ("Hard Reign") of Norway.

For some twenty years Harold was married More danico (Latin: "in the Danish manner") to Edith Swannesha and had at least six children by her. The marriage was widely accepted by the laity, although Edith was considered Harold's mistress by the clergy. Their children were not treated as illegitimate. Among them was a daughter Gytha, later wife of the Kievan Rus prince Vladimir Monomakh. Through descendants of this Anglo-Rus marriage, she was a progenitor of English Queen Isabella of France, and hence Harold is the ancestor of subsequent English monarchs.

According to Orderic Vitalis, Harold was at some time betrothed to Adeliza, a daughter of William, Duke of Normandy, later William the Conqueror; if so, the betrothal never led to marriage.[S1e]

About January 1066, Harold married Edith (or Ealdgyth), daughter of Ælfgar, Earl of Mercia, and widow of the Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Llywelyn an enemy of the English.

At the end of 1065, King Edward the Confessor ailed and fell into a coma without clarifying his preference for the succession. On 5 January 1066, according to the Vita Ædwardi Regis, he died, but not before briefly regaining consciousness and commending his widow and the kingdom to Harold's "protection". The intent of this charge is ambiguous, as is the Bayeux Tapestry, which simply depicts Edward pointing at a man thought to represent Harold.[S1f] When the Witenagemot convened the next day, they selected Harold to succeed,[S1g] and his coronation followed on 6 January, the first coronation in Westminster Abbey. Although later Norman sources point to the suddenness of this coronation, it is possible that it took place because all the nobles of the land were present at Westminster for the feast of Epiphany, and not because of any usurpation of the throne on Harold's part.

In early January of 1066, hearing that Harold had been crowned King, William Duke of Normandy began plans to invade by building 700 warships and transports at Dives-sur-Mer on the Normandy coast. Initially William could not get support for the invasion but, claiming that Harold had sworn on sacred relics to support his claim to the throne after having been shipwrecked in Ponthieu, William was given the Church's blessing and nobles flocked to his cause. In anticipation of the invasion, Harold assembled his troops on the Isle of Wight but, claiming unfavourable winds, the invasion fleet remained in port. On 8 September with provisions running out Harold disbanded the army and he returned to London. On the same day Harald Hardrada of Norway, who also claimed the English crown[S1h] joined Tostig and invaded, landing his fleet at the mouth of the Tyne.

Invading what is now Yorkshire, Harald Hardrada and Tostig defeated the English earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria at the Battle of Fulford near York on 20 September. They were in turn defeated and slain by Harold's army five days later at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold having led his army north on a forced march from London in four days and caught them by surprise. According to Snorri Sturluson, before the battle a man bravely rode up to Harald Hardrada and Tostig and offered Tostig his earldom if he would but turn on Harald Hardrada. When Tostig asked what his brother Harold would be willing to give Harald Hardrada for his trouble, the rider replied that he would be given seven feet of ground as he was taller than other men. Harald Hardrada was impressed with the rider and asked Tostig his name, Tostig replied that the rider was none other than Harold Godwinson.[S1i] According to Henry of Huntingdon, "Six feet of ground or as much more as he needs, as he is taller than most men," was Harold's response. It is, however, unknown whether this conversation ever took place.

On 12 September William's fleet sailed.[S1j]. Several ships sank in storms and the fleet was forced to take shelter at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme and wait for the wind to change. On 27 September the Norman fleet finally set sail for England arriving it is believed the following day at Pevensey on the coast of East Sussex. Harold now again forced his army to march 241 miles (386 kilometres) to intercept William, who had landed perhaps 7000 men in Sussex, southern England. Harold established his army in hastily built earthworks near Hastings. The two armies clashed at the Battle of Hastings, at Senlac Hill (near the present town of Battle) close by Hastings on 14 October, where after nine hours of hard fighting and less than 30 minutes from victory Harold was killed and his forces routed. His brothers Gyrth and Leofwine were also killed in the battle.

According to tradition, Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye, but it is unclear if the victim depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry is intended to be Harold, or whether indeed the tapestry's scene depicts that particular type of wound. Historians are divided over whether the Bayeux Tapestry depicts Harold being shot in the eye (the figure that has his name above) or whether Harold is actually the next figure being mutilated beneath a horse's hooves. Also, Harold was surounded with his own men, for maximum protection, and as we can see on the tapestry, the person being trampled is surounded, which further puts forward the arguement. Older etchings made of the tapestry made c. 1730 show the standing figure holding what appears to be part of a spear shaft, rather than clutching an arrow.

The contemporary account of the battle "Carmen de Hastingae Proelio" (the Song of the Battle of Hastings), written shortly after the battle by Guy, Bishop of Amiens, says that Harold was killed by four knights, probably including Duke William, and his body brutally dismembered. Examination has shown that the second figure once had an arrow in its eye that had later been unstitched, but this may have been the work of overenthusiastic nineteenth century restorers which was soon removed. Harold's wife, Edith Swannesha, was called to identify the body, which she did by some private mark known only to herself.

Harold's strong association with Bosham, his birthplace, and the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon coffin in the church in 1954 has led some to speculate that King Harold was buried there. A request to exhume a grave in Bosham church was refused by the Diocese of Chichester in December 2003, the Chancellor ruling that the chances of establishing the identity of the body as Harold's were too slim to justify disturbing a burial place. A prior exhumation had revealed the remains of a man, estimated at up to 60 years of age from photographs of the remains, lacking a head, one leg and the lower part of his other leg, a description consistent with the fate of the king as depicted in the Carmen. The poem also claims Harold was buried by the sea which is consistent with it being at Bosham Church which is only yards from Chichester Harbour and in sight of the English Channel.

There were legends of Harold's body being given a proper funeral years later in his church of Waltham Holy Cross in Essex, which he had refounded in 1060. There is a legend that Henry I of England met an elderly monk at Waltham Abbey, who was in fact a very old Harold. King Harold had a son posthumously, called Harold Haroldsson, who may have been this man, and may also be the occupant of the grave.

Edith Swan-neck (Edith Swannesha)(Ealdgyth)(Aldth).
Daughter of Aelfgar, Earl of Merciar. She married (1) Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. she married (2) Harlod Godwinson about January 1066. Edith had two sons — possibly twins — named Harold and Ulf (born c. November 1066), both of whom survived into adulthood and probably lived out their lives in exile. [But then when was Gytha born?].

After her husband's death, she is said to have fled for refuge to her brothers Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria but both men had made their peace with the Conqueror initially before rebelling and losing their lands and lives. She probably fled abroad, possibly with Harold's mother, Gytha, and with Harold's daughter, Gytha, who is said to have fled to Russia.

CHILDREN of HAROLD II Godwinson and Edith Swan-neck:
  1. Gytha of England. (Gytha of Wessex). After the Battle of Hasting in 1066, she fled in exile to Russia, where she married the Kievan Rus prince Vladimir II Monomakh.
  2. Harold. (a twin?) born about November 1066. He probably lived out his life in exile.
  3. Ulf. (a twin?) born about November 1066. He probably lived out his life in exile.