King Harold of Wessex

Harold, the son of Earl Godwin of Wessex, and the brother of Swegen, Tostig and Gyrth, was born in about 1022.

By the time Edward the Confessor became king in 1042, Earl Godwin was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon in England. To maintain Godwin's loyalty Edward married his daughter, Edith. Godwin hoped that his daughter would have a son but Edward had taken a vow of celibacy and it soon became clear that the couple would not produce an heir to the throne.

Harold became Earl of East Anglia. In 1046, his brother, Swegen, was sent into exile for seducing the abbess of Leominister. Harold and his cousin Beorn, shared his earldoms of Hereford, Gloucester and Oxford. Harold opposed the restoration of Swegen in 1049. Swegen killed Beorn and was forced to flee to Flanders.

Robert of Jumieges became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1050. He now tried to use his new position to destroy Godwin's influence with Edward the Confessor.

In 1051 a group of Normans became involved in a brawl at Dover and several men were killed. Edward the Confessor ordered Godwin, as earl of Wessex, to punish the people living in the town for this attack on his Norman friends. Godwin refused and instead raised an army against the king. Godwin marched on Gloucester but a war was averted when it was agreed that the Witan would sort out the dispute.


The earls of Mercia and Northumbria remained loyal to the king and the Witan eventually declared that Earl Godwin and his sons had five days to leave England. Godwin and his sons, Tostig and Gyrth, joined Swegen in Flanders. Harold went to Ireland and spent the winter with Dermont, king of Leinster. The following year Harold sailed from Dublin with nine ships. After landing at Porlock in Somerset, Harold plundered the neighbourhood. He then joined up with his father and brothers and sailed up the Thames.

Earl Godwin now forced Edward the Confessor to send his Norman advisers home. Godwin was also given back his family estates and was now the most powerful man in England. The following year, Godwin died, and Harold succeeded to his father's earldom of Wessex. His brother, Tostig, became the Earl of Northumbria.

Harold of Wessex

Over the next ten years Harold remained a loyal supporter of Edward the Confessor. This included leading the English army against the Welsh in 1063. His infantry pursued the Welsh into the rocky and wooded districts. The Welsh found that their natural strongholds no longer protected them from the enemy. It is said that Harold's army killed every adult Welsh male they could find. The country was almost completely depopulated.

Harold's status increased with this victory and he became a strong candidate to become king of England when Edward died. His positioned was further strengthened by the deaths of Leofric of Mercia and the king's nephew, Ralph, the Earl of Herefordshire.

Harold married Eadgyth Swanneck, who bore him five children. During this period he organized the building a large church at Waltham. He formed a collegiate chapter consisting of a dean and twelve canons, together with various officers. He wanted to make Waltham a place of education and appointed a chancellor, Adelard of Liege, to deliver lectures.

William of Normandy

In 1064 Harold was on board a ship that was wrecked on the coast of Ponthieu. He was captured by Count Guy of Ponthieu and imprisoned at Beaurain. William of Normandy, demanded that Count Guy release him into his care. Guy agreed and Harold went with William to Rouen. Later the two men went into battle against Conan of Brittany. On his return Harold was knighted by William at Bayeux. During the ceremony Harold took an oath that he would do his best to help William to become king when Edward the Confessor died. Harold also agreed to marry William's daughter, Eadmer. In return, William promised Harold half the realm of England.

Section 23: Harold swears fealty to William of Normandy, Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1090)
Harold swears fealty to William of Normandy, Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1090)

Harold now returned to England. It soon became clear that he was not going to keep his promise to William of Normandy. He abandoned Eadgyth Swanneck and married Edith, the sister of Edwin, the new Earl of Mercia. This was done in order to gain the support of the powerful Earl of Mercia in his attempt to succeed Edward the Confessor when he died.

In 1064, Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, had a meeting with two important thegns, Gamel and Ulf, who wanted to complain about his heavy taxes. During the meeting Tostig ordered their arrest and execution. Later that year he arranged the murder of a noble named Gospatric.

On 3rd October 1065, over 200 senior thegns met in York and chose Morcar, the brother of Edwin, Earl of Mercia, to become their new leader. After plundering Tostig's treasury and killing more than 200 of his followers, the army headed south.

When Edward the Confessor heard the news he called a meeting of his nobles at Britford. Several made complaints about Tostig's rule claiming that his desire for wealth had made him unduly severe. The king sent Harold to put down the rebellion. Harold disagreed with this policy as he was convinced it would result in a disastrous civil war. At a meeting at Oxford on 28th October, Harold yielded to their demands. Tostig was banished from the country and Morcar, Harold's brother-in-law, became the new Earl of Northumbria.

King Harold

In 1065 Edward the Confessor became very ill. Harold claimed that Edward promised him the throne just before he died on 5th January, 1066. The next day there was a meeting of the Witan to decide who would become the next king of England. The Witan was made up of a group of about sixty lords and bishops and they considered the merits of four main candidates: Harold, Edgar Etheling, Harald Hardrada and William of Normandy. On 6th January 1066, the Witan decided that Harold was to be the next king of England.

In May 1066 the king heard that Tostig and his army had landed on the Isle of Wight and forced the inhabitants to give him money and provisions. He then sailed had along the coast and did some plundering, including an attack on Sandwich. Harold and his army marched north but by the time he arrived Tostig's forces had been chased away by Morcar's army.

Harold was fully aware William of Normandy would try to take the throne from him. He believed that the Normans posed the main danger and he positioned his troops on the south coast of England. Harold's soldiers were made up of housecarls and the fyrd. Housecarls were well-trained, full-time soldiers who were paid for their services. The fyrd were working men who were called up to fight for the king in times of danger.

Stamford Bridge

On 8th September 1066, Harold decided to send his soldiers home. He had run out of provisions and he knew that his men had to harvest their crops. Harold travelled to London and soon after arriving heard the news that King Harald Hardrada of Norway and his brother Tostig had entered the Humber. When the messenger told the king that Hardrada of Norway had invaded with the intentions of conquering all of England, it is said that Harold replied: "I will give him just six feet of English soil; or, since they say he is a tall man, I will give him seven feet!"

Harold quickly assembled his army and headed north. On 20th September Hardrada's army defeated Morcar's forces at Gate Fulford. Four days later the invaders took York.

On 24th September Harold's army arrived at Tadcaster. The following day he took Tostig and Hardrada by surprise at a place called Stamford Bridge. It was a hot day and the Norwegians had taken off their byrnies (leather jerkins with sewn-on metal rings). Harold and his English troops devastated the Norwegians. Both Hardrada and Tostig were killed. The Norwegian losses were considerable. Of the 300 ships that arrived, less than 25 returned to Norway.

While Harold had been fighting against King Hardrada, William of Normandy had been completing his preparations for the attack on England. To make sure he had enough Normans to defeat Harold, he asked the men of Poitou, Burgundy, Brittany and Flanders to help. William also arranged for soldiers from Germany, Denmark and Italy to join his army. In exchange for their services, William promised them a share of the land and wealth of England. William also managed to enlist the support of the Pope in his campaign to gain the throne of England.

These negotiations took all summer. William also had to arrange the building of the ships to take his large army to England. About 700 ships were ready to sail in August but William had to wait a further month for a change in the direction of the wind.

While celebrating his victory at a banquet in York on 1st October, Harold heard that William of Normandy had landed at Pevensey Bay. King Harold immediately assembled the housecarls who had survived Stamford Bridge and marched south. He travelled at such a pace that many of his troops failed to keep up with him. When Harold arrived in London on 5th October and there he waited for the local fyrd to assemble and for the troops of the Earl of Mercia and the Earl of Northumbria to arrive from the north.

Battle of Hastings

Harold's brother, Gyrth, offered to lead the army against William, pointing out that as king he should not risk the chance of being killed. Harold rejected the advice and after five days Harold decided to head for the south coast without his northern troops.

When Harold realised he was unable to take William by surprise he positioned himself at Senlac Hill near Hastings. Harold selected a spot that was protected on each flank by marshy land. At his rear was a group of trees. He further strengthened his position with a ditch and a palisade. The English housecarls provided a shield wall at the front of Harold's army. They carried large battle-axes and were considered to be the toughest fighters in Europe.

Section 23: Harold swears fealty to William of Normandy, Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1090)
Norman Knights at the Battle of Hastings, Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1090)

The fyrd were placed behind the housecarls. The leaders of the fyrd, the thegns had swords and javelins but the rest of the men were inexperienced fighters and carried weapons such as iron-studded clubs, scythes, slings, reaping-hooks and hay-forks.

We have no accurate figures of the number of soldiers who took part in the Battle of Hastings. Historians have estimated that William had 5,000 infantry and 3,000 knights while Harold had about 2, 500 housecarls and over 6,000 members of the fyrd. Before the fighting started on 14th October, William of Normandy spoke to his men reminding them they had never lost a battle under his command.

At nine in the morning the Norman archers walked up the hill and when they were about a 100 yards away from Harold's army they fired their first batch of arrows. Using their shields, the housecarls were able to block most of this attack. The Norman infantry then charged up the hill.

The English held firm and the Normans were forced to retreat. Members of the fyrd broke ranks and chased after the Bretons. William ordered his cavalry to attacked the English who had left their positions on Senlac Hill. English losses were heavy and very few managed to return to their place at the top of the hill.

At about twelve noon there was a break in the fighting for an hour. This gave both sides a chance to remove the dead and wounded from the battlefield. William, who had originally planned to use his cavalry when the English retreated decided to change his tactics. At about one in the afternoon he ordered his archers forward.

This time he told them to fire higher in the air. The change of direction of the arrows caught the English by surprise. The arrow attack was immediately followed by a cavalry charge. Casualties on both sides were heavy. Those killed included Harold's two brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine. However, the English line held and the Normans were eventually forced to retreat. The fyrd, this time chased the Flemings down the hill. William of Normandy ordered his knights to turn and attack the men who had left the line. Once again the English suffered many casualties.

William decided to take another rest. He had lost a quarter of his cavalry. Many horses had been killed and the ones left alive were exhausted. William decided that the knights should dismount and attack on foot. This time all the Normans went into battle together. The archers fired their arrows and at the same time the knights and infantry charged up the hill.

Section 23: Harold swears fealty to William of Normandy, Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1090)
Death of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1090)

It was now four in the afternoon. Heavy English casualties from previous attacks meant that the front line was shorter. The Normans could now attack from the side. The few housecarls that were left were forced to form a small circle round the English standard. The Normans attacked again and this time they broke through the shield wall and Harold and most of his housecarls were killed.

The next day Harold's mother, Gytha, sent a message to William of Normandy offering him the weight of the king's body in gold if he would allow her to bury it. He refused, declaring that Harold should be buried on the shore of the land which he sought to guard.

Primary Sources

(1) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, D Version, entry for 1066.

Then came William duke of Normandy into Pevensey... This was then made known to King Harold, and he then gathered a great force, and came to meet him at the estuary of Appledore; and William came against him unawares before his people were assembled. But the king nevertheless strenuously fought against him with those men who would follow him; and there was great slaughter made on either hand. There was slain King Harold and Leofwine the earl... and the Frenchman had possession of the place of carnage, all as God granted them for the people's sins.

(2) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Version D (1066)

Then came William duke of Normandy into Pevensey... This was then made known to King Harold, and he then gathered a great force, and came to meet him at the estuary of Appledore; and William came against him unawares before his people were assembled... King Harold was killed... and the French were masters of the field... God granted it to them because of the sins of the people.

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