Harold II, Godwinsson|
Harold II, Godwinsson was King of England for a short time in the memorable year,1066. He had become the Earl of East Anglia in 1044. Upon his father's death in April, 1053, he succeeded to the Earldom of Wessex and from then on, was at the
right hand of the king. In 1063, supported by his brother, Tostig, Earl
of Northumbria, he commanded a brilliantly conducted campaign against the
Welsh. He was successful in bringing them into submission, and by doing
so, solidified his reputation as an able general.
Harold acted as an emissary from Edward the Confessor to the court of William
of Normandy in 1064, during which time he allegedly swore an oath of fealty
to William, relinquishing any personal claim to the throne. This oath, which
may have been given lightly, or possibly under duress, would figure directly
in William's own claim, two years later. He would claim that the promise
Harold made to him had been broken, giving William the right to challenge
Harold in the battle for the crown.
While on his deathbed, the Confessor named Harold as his successor, overlooking
his grandson, the rightful heir, Edgar the Ætheling, and ignoring
a promise that he allegedly made (according to French sources) to William
of Normandy. Upon Edward's death, Harold wasted no time securing ecclesiastical
blessing on his claim by having himself crowned immediately.
Harold's brother, Tostig, had been exiled since the autumn of 1065 and had
joined together with Harald Hardrada of Norway. A combined force landed
in Yorkshire in September of 1066. Until this time, Harold's attention had
been directed toward the south and the invasion that he knew would come
from Normandy. But, now, Harold had to break away and march north to meet
the new threat that had come. He defeated the forces of his traitorous brother
and the King of Norway decisively at the battle of Stamford Bridge on the
25th of September.
Meanwhile, the favorable winds that the Normans had been waiting for had
come and they had set sail across the channel, landing at Pevensey on the
28th. As soon as Harold heard this distressing news, he marched his force
at top speed to the south. He reached London on October 5, and stopped to
give his weary troops a rest and to gather reinforcements for the battle
which lay ahead.
The story of these events and the decisive Battle
of Hastings has been presented exquisitely in the Bayeux Tapestry and it need not be repeated, here. Suffice it to say that William won the day, and with it, the kingdom. The English fought fiercely and well, since they understood that not only their lives were at stake,
but their country, also. Perhaps, if the English had been fresh and at full
strength, they might have won easily, but they were tired and depleted after
Stamford Bridge and the subsequent march south.
During his brief reign, the government continued to function as before,
but there is no reliable way to judge what Harold might have been like as
a king. He was certainly a capable field commander and a leader who inspired
loyalty and confidence. His death has been recorded as coming in the midst
of the final battle by way of a Norman arrow that penetrated his eye. Whether
or not that is true, his memory lingers on as the last of the Anglo-Saxon
kings, and the last monarch of England to suffer defeat at the hands of
a foreign invader.