Harold Godwinson was born to Godwin, Earl of Wessex
of Denmark, sister-in-law of King Cnut. He was the couple’s second son. His brother Sweyn
had been born around 1020.
Harold’s sister, Edith
, was born to Earl Godwin and his wife Gytha.
Harold’s brother, Tostig
, was born to Earl Godwin and his wife Gytha.
Harold’s brother, Gyrth
, was born to Earl Godwin and his wife Gytha.
Harold’s brother, Leofwine
was born to Earl Godwin and his wife Gytha.
Harold’s brother, Wulfnoth
, was born to Earl Godwin and his wife, Gytha
Harold’s elder brother, Sweyn became Earl of an area that included Berkshire, Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire and Somerset.
1045 (23rd January)
Harold was created Earl of East Anglia.
Harold married Edith the Fair also known as Edith Swanneck. They were married by the Danish handfasting ceremony which was not recognised by the Church. The couple had five children, Godwin
, Gunhilda and Gytha but there are no records of the exact dates of their birth.
Harold’s brother, Sweyn, was exiled for abducting the abbess of Leominster. It is thought that he intended to marry her and take control of the abbey estate, but he was denied permission.
Harold’s brother, Sweyn, returned to England to ask for forgiveness. Harold and his cousin Beorn did not support the return as they had been allocated Sweyn’s lands in his absence. Beorn eventually agreed to support Sweyn but while accompanying Sweyn to meet the King he was murdered by Sweyn’s men. Sweyn was again exiled.
Harold’s brother, Sweyn, was pardoned and returned to England.
A group of Normans including William Duke of Normandy, had visited Edward the Confessor in London. On their return journey they had been involved in a conflict with the people of Dover and some were killed. Edward the Confessor asked Harold’s father, Earl Godwin to punish the townspeople of Dover. Earl Godwin refused to carry out the King’s demand and instead raised an army against the King. Not wanting civil war, the Witan intervened and the Godwin family were exiled. Earl Godwin, Gytha, Sweyn, Tostig and Gyrth went to Flanders while Harold and Leofwine went to Dublin. His brother Wulfnoth and Sweyn’s son, Hakon
were taken hostage. It is believed that Edward may have told William that he would nominate him to be his successor.
Harold and his family returned to England at the head of an army. King Edward was unable to raise a force that would defeat them and was forced to sue for peace terms. It was agreed that the Godwin family could return and their former lands would be restored to them. A large number of King Edward’s Norman supporters at court had fled to Normandy in the face of the Godwin invasion. It is likely that Harold’s brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon were taken to Normandy as hostages.
Harold’s brother, Sweyn chose not to return to England. He embarked on a Crusade instead, possibly seeking atonement for the crimes he had committed.
1052 (29th September)
Harold’s brother, Sweyn became ill on Crusade and died.
1053 (15th April)
Harold became Earl of Wessex and the most powerful nobleman in England when his father Earl Godwin, died.
Earl Siward of Northumbria died and Harold’s brother, Tostig was appointed to the Earldom.
Harold was created Earl of Hereford.
Harold led a series of campaigns against the Welsh King Gruffydd ap Llywelyn supported by his brother, Tostig. The conflict ended after a year of fighting with the death of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn.
Harold took a boat journey, setting sail from Bosham on the south coast. The purpose of the journey is not known but it may have been to try to secure the release of his brother Wulfnoth and nephew Hakon. Harold’s ship was blown off course and he was shipwrecked off the coast of Ponthieu. On hearing of the shipwreck, William, Duke of Normandy
ordered that Harold be brought to him. Some sources claim that Harold was kept under house arrest but it may have been that his ship was badly damaged and needed extensive repairs or he may have remained in Normandy to secure the release of the two hostages. It is known that Harold willingly rode into battle with William and helped to defeat Conan II of Brittany
. William knighted Harold for his part in the battle. Afterwards, Harold returned to England with his nephew Hakon. The Normans later claimed that before leaving Harold swore an oath to support William’s claim to the throne of England after the death of Edward. The oath is not recorded in any Anglo-Saxon sources.
The people of Northumbria rebelled against the rule of Harold’s brother Tostig. Harold was sent to deal with the situation and after listening to the thegns of Northumbria realised that his brother could not continue as Earl. In the interests of peace in England he sided with the Northumbrians and sent his brother into exile. Tostig never forgave Harold for this action.
1066 (5th January)
King Edward the Confessor died. It was claimed that he nominated Harold as his successor.
1066 (6th January)
Harold was crowned King Harold II of England.
1066 (mid January)
William learned that Harold had been crowned King of England and began preparing an invasion.
appeared in the sky. It was seen as a bad omen by the Anglo-Saxons.
Harold Godwinson married Edith, sister of the Earl of Mercia. This was likely a political marriage to strengthen ties with Mercia and ensure Harold had support in case his rule was challenged. Harold’s two sons by Edith, Harold and Ulf, were born after his death.
It is believed that Harold’s brother, Tostig, attempted to form an alliance with William Duke of Normandy but William was not interested.
1066 (5th May)
Harold’s brother Tostig had been provided with ships by Count Baldwin V of Flanders and made a series of raids along the South Coast and landed on the Isle of Wight.
1066 (20th May)
William appealed to the Pope stating that Harold had sworn on holy relics to support his claim to the throne and had broken the oath. He was successful and gained papal backing for his invasion. The Pope sent him a banner to carry into battle.
1066 (late Spring)
Anticipating a challenge to his Kingship by William of Normandy, Harold stationed militia along the South coast and on the Isle of Wight.
Tostig Godwinson tried to invade Mercia but was defeated by Earls Morcar
, Tostig then spent time in the court of King Malcolm III
of Scotland. He made contact with King Harald Hardrada
of Norway and may have sailed to Norway to meet the Viking. Tostig successfully persuaded Harald to invade England.
1066 (4th August)
William’s fleet of around 700 ships was ready to sail but he delayed sailing; possibly due to unfavourable winds or possibly because he was waiting for the harvest season in the hopes that some of the men stationed along the South coast would go home. While waiting to sail William had to provide food and provisions for up to 14,000 men and 3,000 horses.
1066 (8th September)
With food provisions and morale running low Harold took the decision to send his troops home.
1066 (8th September)
, King of Norway, supported by Harold’s brother Tostig invaded England. They sailed through the Humber estuary and into the River Ouse.
1066 (11th September)
Harold Godwinson learned of Harald Hardrada’s invasion. Having just disbanded his army he was forced to recall his troops.
1066 (20th September)
Battle of Fulford
Harold’s earls Morcar and Edwin were defeated by the Viking forces of Harald and Tostig at this battle. The two earls fled the battlefield.
1066 (after 20th September)
After learning of the defeat at Fulford, Harold Godwinson marched rapidly north calling for men to join him along the way.
1066 (24th September)
Harold Godwinson reached Tadcaster, 15 miles south of York.
1066 (25th September)
Battle of Stamford Bridge
Harold Godwinson’s English army reached the north and surprised Harald Hardrada and Tostig who were completely unprepared for battle. The English had to cross a small bridge which legend states was defended by a very large Viking. The English had to get under the bridge and kill him by thrusting a sword upwards. Once the bridge was cleared the English army defeated the Norwegians, many of whom had not put on their protective chain mail or armour. Harald Hardrada was killed around midday. Tostig Godwinson was offered a pardon but he refused and the fighting continued until Tostig was killed in the early evening.
1066 (28th September)
William, Duke of Normandy sailed overnight and landed at Pevensey on the South coast of England in the morning. He was surprised to find no army waiting for him.
1066 (1st October)
Harold learned of the Norman invasion. He immediately made plans to return South.
1066 (6th October)
Harold Godwinson reached London. He sent out a call to arms for men to join his army.
1066 (10th October)
Harold ignored the suggestion that he should remain in London and let his brother Gyrth lead the army into battle and told his army to prepare to leave London.
1066 (11th October)
Harold left London at the head of the Saxon army. He ordered that his men should muster at Caldbec Hill just north of Hastings.
1066 (13th October)
Harold reached Caldbec Hill. He had hoped to make a surprise attack on the Norman camp at Hastings but he found out that William knew of his presence and had to change tactic.
1066 (14th October)
Battle of Hastings
Harold Godwinson knew that he didn’t have the manpower to defend Caldbec Hill and so at first light he moved his men to Senlac Hill where they formed a shield wall and waited for the Normans.
William arrived and set up his forces at the bottom of the hill. He had three groups – Normans, Flemings and Bretons, both cavalry and infantry. William opened the battle with a barrage of arrows which, because of the hill flew over the heads of the Saxons. Next William sent in his infantrymen but they were unable to break through the shield wall. A group of Breton infantrymen turned and ran down the hill. The Saxons that had been withstanding that group broke the shield wall and ran down after them. William ordered that they become the focus of the next attack and although some managed to return to their line most were cut down. It is thought that Harold’s two brothers lost their lives at this point.
Having seen how the Bretons fleeing down the hill broke the shield wall, William changed tactic and ordered his men to do the same thing. Although the shield wall did not break so spectacularly again it did begin to weaken. With the light beginning to fade William ordered his archers to fire again but to angle them higher so that they hit the men just behind the shield wall. It is thought that one of these arrows went through the eye slit of Harold’s helmet and struck him in the eye or near to the eye. It is thought that while reeling from this injury he was cut down by a sword, possibly to his thigh, or an axe and died of his injuries.
Harold’s body was so mutilated that it could only be recognised from marks on the body and may have been identified by his long term mistress, Edith Swanneck. Harold’s mother offered William her son’s weight in gold for the body but William refused. The exact burial place of Harold’s body remains a matter of dispute but a body found at Bosham in 2003 which was lacking a head and leg is a likely candidate.
1066 (after 14th October)
William of Normandy went on to take the South of England and then London. He was crowned King William I
on 25th December 1066.
First published 2015; updated and re-published Aug 09 2020 @ 1:04 pm – Updated –