The Wessex Wyvern with the early Dragon banner, symbols of military strength in Britain from early post-Roman days
The Greatest Pretender
As a warrior leader Harold Godwinson was a strategist without equal. With his brothers Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwin he had helped his father Earl Godwin regain his earldom in 1052. He had checked Gruffyd ap Llewellyn's raiding in the Welsh Marches - succeeding in cornering him in Snowdonia (north-western Gwynedd, Wales) in 1064, forcing the prince's underlings to surrender his severed head. And he had taken his own brother Tostig and ally Harald Sigurdsson off-guard at Stamford Bridge near York, defeating them.
His greatest gamble was in hastening too quickly to the South Coast to halt William on his way to London. That gamble might have paid off but the timing of his advance told against him. This, his last gamble cost him his life and that of his brothers Gyrth and Leofwin, and some of the flower of English nobility - although by far not all.
Ancestry and Predecessors:
The son of a Sussex thegn, Wulfnoth Aethelmaerson, possibly great-grandson of the 10th Century Wessex king Aethelred I, Harold's father Godwin was born in the last decade of the 10th Century. Godwin Wulfnothson had been raised to the earldom of Wessex by Knut Sveinsson shortly after Knut's accession to the throne of England, despite his support of Knut's opponent Eadmund 'Ironside', son of Aethlred II. Knut admired Godwin's loyalty to Eadmund, and knew he'd have to earn Godwin's trust. The newly appointed earl finally swore support for Knut, and had been taken to Denmark along with other English nobles to test their mettle in putting down a rebellion. Godwin impressed the new king so much he was offered first the hand of one of the new king's sisters. The marriage would not prove long-lasting, the young woman dying soon after - possibly in childbirth - and the earl was given the hand of Gytha, sister of Knut's brother-in-law and senior noble Jarl Ulf Thorgilsson.
Gytha first gave Godwin a son, Svein, named after Knut's father, Svein Haraldsson, nicknamed 'Forkbeard'. Harold followed a year or two later, with Eadgytha, Tostig, Gyrth, Gunnhild, Aelfgifu, Leofwin and Wulfnoth coming in fairly quick succession.
Path to the Godwinsons' downfall:
Svein was spoilt by his father, believing that almost whatever foolishness he got up to would be forgiven. He was wrong, repented, tried to win forgiveness by going on pilgrimage to the Holy Lands and was murdered by robbers on his way home through Byzantium. That is the received story. Eadward may have breathed out on learning of the detested brother-in-law Svein's death. There would be one less of Godwin's clan to endure. He was married to one of them, Eadgytha, and the next son would become more powerful than his father had been, almost eclipsing the king himself and finally succeeding him by 'slight of hand', or so it would seem to the Godwinsons' rivals.
Tostig was the one member of the Godwin clan to strike a note with Eadward, and he had the ear of his sister Eadgytha. He was given the earldom of Northumbria on the death of Earl Siward because the old man's surviving son Waltheof was too young to take the reins of such a great and potentially savage earldom. But he was a flawed diamond. Yet in AD 1064 Tostig had assisted his older brother with his land forces, riding across Northumbria and over the north-west corner of Mercia past Chester, into north Wales over the River Dee. Between them they had forced Gruffyd into a corner in a pincer movement, Harold taking his forces by ship around Wales through the Irish Sea. They had gone to Rome together on behalf of Eadward, by then considered too frail for long, arduous overland journeys.
However Tostig had crossed the wrong nobles in Northumbria, when he returned to take over the reins. His sister Eadgytha had colluded for him, arranging the murder of one of the young nobles of the house of Bamburgh whilst he visited Eadward. What with his sister Eadgytha's complicity and his 'friend' Copsig's graft, Tostig was figuratively held on a short leash when the nobles put forward the Earl of Mercia Eadwin's brother Morkere to replace him. Harold was seen by his brother as being unhelpful in the extreme, going as far as to marry Eadwin and Morkere's widowed sister Aelfgifu (she had been married off to Gruffyd ap Llewellyn by her father Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia after his father, the famed Leofric, whose wife Godgifu had ridden naked through Coventry to prove a point).
King Eadward was pained to see his favourite son of Godwin ousted in this fashion and Eadgytha ceased to communicate with Harold.
How different it had all been in the summer of 1051, when Godwin and his sons Tostig, and Gyrth raided on the south coast and Wight, whilst Harold and Leofwin came over from Ireland with Dublin Danes and ships willingly given by King Diarmuid of Leinster as a token of friendship. With their father Godwin the sons had shown how powerful they really were with the almost universal support of Wessex. Eustace, Count of Boulogne on his way home through Dover had roused the ire of the townsfolk by having the guests of one of the inns near the harbour turfed out to accommodate him and his retinue. In the fracas that followed Eustace was pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables and some of his men were hauled from their mounts and killed. Eadward wanted Godwin to punish the dover townsfolk but he refused to do the king's bidding. Eadward next demanded Godwin let another of the king's nobles punish them and he was stubbornly opposed in this too. An impasse was reached and Earls Leofric and Siward sided with the king, even many of Godwin's own men refusing to fight against the king. A meeting was arranged in Southwark, across the river from the City of London, hostages were demanded for Godwin's good conduct. His youngest son Wulfnoth and Svein's son Hakon were chosen to be hostages and taken into Eadward's custody. On Godwin's triumphant return to power and with the appointment of Stigand to the Archbishopric of Canterbury Robert of Jumieges - Eadward's choice for the post - fled to Normandy taking the boys with him.
Godwin died suddenly at Eadward's Easter Feast in 1053 and Harold was raised from Earl of East Anglia to Earl of Wessex to fill his father's shoes. In 1055 Tostig was given Northumbria in recognition of his military prowess. The two brothers stood unassailable at the pinnacle of their power. Only Eadwin of Mercia, Leofric's grandson, stood between the Godwin clan and complete domination of England under Eadward's kingship. Gyrth was given East Anglia and Leofwin took over part of Harold's earldom, Essex, Herfordshire and Kent. With Eadgytha at Eadward's side the king could not breathe out too freely...
A decade or so on, in 1064 Harold sailed to the continent with a retinue of his huscarls, some say for fishing. Another version has it he was on a mission for Eadward, as envoy to William. Both versions agree he was shipwrecked of the coast of Pointhieu, taken as hostage by Count Guy and 'rescued' by Guy's overlord William. Harold was taken on campaign into Brittany, rescued one of his men from quicksand and went hunting with the Norman duke. Unwittingly Harold swore an oath to uphold William's accession to the throne of England on the bones of two saints, one of them being Saint Denis. Breaking this oath was going to cost, dearly.
On again, to 1065, and Tostig is deposed as Earl of Northumbria. His men in the Earlsburgh in York are killed, as are others in his Northampton estates. Eadwin's brother Morkere is the preferred choice and Harold is obliged to support their claims, much to the anger of Eadgytha. She breaks off all communication with her brother hereafter.
Fast track again to January, 1066. Harold and several other members of the Witan attended the old king on his deathbed. Eadward is said to have beckoned Harold to his side, and in his dying breath nominated Harold to follow him into the kingship. This is one version. Another is damning, that Harold almost squeezed Eadward's dying breath from him to claim he had been named successor. History is written by the survivors. The Witan supported his claim over that of the youth Eadgar the aetheling because the kingdom needed a strong leader. Harold had the connections, he knew the right men and held their respect. Nevertheless eight months elapsed, during which Harold reigned well, a model of kingship. He did have the common touch, was not overbearing as Eadward had been from time to time, and was genuinely popular!
The writing was on the wall, however, and the waters were running fast under the bridge. Time was not on Harold's side. Men took sides against him in the question of the succession. Senior churchmen such as Ealdred, Archbishop of York. He had the support of Stigand, but the Archbishop of Canterbury was 'tainted' with simony. In Eadward's time as bishop of Winchester he had accepted the nomination of Canterbury without giving up his bishopric, and was therefore refused his pallium by Rome. Harold had therefore been crowned by Ealdred to keep his kingship 'clean'.
Still, in the eyes of many Harold was a usurper. Those of the Witan, the king's council, saw the aetheling Eadgar as the old king's heir, whether or not he was ready for the throne. Eadgar was a grandson of Eadmund 'Ironside' through his younger son Eadward. As such his claim would have been stronger - as great-grandson of Aethelred II through his second wife Aelfgifu, ahead of Aethelred's son by Emma - than the man later dubbed 'the Confessor' through his piety.
King Harold hunted in Normandy with, and as 'guest' of Duke William - from the Bayeux Tapestry
A watch was kept on the South Coast during the summer of 1066 for William's ships. The exercise would prove to be fruitless, as William's fleet was a long way from readiness and the first time it set out in early September it was hit by a Channel storm. News of this disaster reached Harold's ear and he stood his fyrd down to allow the men home and attend the harvest.
Others were called on to fight off Tostig's attacks on the south and east coasts and Tostig lost many of his Flemings, Danes and renegade Englishmen to his brother's well-trained fyrdmen. Before long he was back again with the help of King Malcolm 'Canmore' of Scotland in the company of Harald Sigurdsson.
The Norse king was following up a claim according to an agreement on the succession to the throne of England between his nephew Magnus and Harthaknut Knutsson. Svein Estrithsson of Denmark was unwilling to take on his kinsman Harold and had pointed Tostig on to Harald Sigurdsson, 'Hardradi' (the 'Hard Ruler') - possibly hoping to be rid of him at last! Harald was fed up of his own men accusing him of getting fat, old and useless. He was going to show them he still had fire in his belly! At least he convinced his followers of that on September 20th at the battle on the southern outskirts of York at Gate Fulford. He and Tostig entered the city, demanded gold and hostages and retired to the banks of the River Derwent at Stamford Bridge, halfway between York and Riccall, where their combined fleet was drawn up where the Derwent met the Ouse.
Harold Godwinson had already left London with Gyrth and their huscarls, the core of the army, recruiting men on the way through the old Danelaw shires in the east midlands. He reached York only days after the battle, found out where Harald and Tostig were camped and headed there forthwith. Together with earls Eadwin and Morkere and the survivors of Gate Fulford Harold advanced to the Derwent. The Norse king was happy to see the dustcloud in the west over the ridge, but Tostig somehow had the feeling something was not right. His fears were borne out by the size of the dustcloud, followed shortly after by the appearance of men in bright, shining mailcoats, with shiny new weapons, helmets and shields atop the ridge, 'like a field of broken ice' in the bright sunlight.
The Norsemen were at a disadvantage. Much of their equipment had been taken back to the ships, many - like King Harald himself in his long blue overshirt - had neither shield nor chainmail. Riders were sent to the ships for reinforcements and equipment whilst those who had the necessary gear formed a shieldwall and held off the English as best they could. Harald, being taller than most men was hit in the throat by a well-aimed arrow and took a long time to die. Men from the ships under the elderly stallari Eystein Orre came, many died with heat exhaustion before they could fight, having run from Riccall in chain mail, carrying weapons and spare equipment. Eystein himself collapsed and the fight began, back to the ships. Not wishing to die beside his king as was expected of him, Styrkar, Harald's younger stallari made his escape, killing a carter on his flight from the battlefield to steal one of his horses. The rest were cut down by the vengeful Northumbrians and Mercians who had suffered Harald's attack days before. Of the three hundred or so ships that brought the invaders from all over the Norse world, only a score were needed to take the survivors home. Harald's successor Olaf and his younger brother Magnus had to swear that they would never launch another attack on English soil before they were allowed to leave.
News came to Harold whilst he was celebrating victory in York, that William had made a landing one the south coast and his men were plundering the surrounding hundreds to supply his men. There was just time to breathe out again before the long way south to meet the Normans.
'The Last English King" - Julian Rathbone's in-depth analysis of Harold's path to the throne
Juiian Rathbone paints a picture of a fair king, chosen in lieu of one of Edward's bloodline for the sake of unity and strength. As Edward's stand-in for much of the reign from when his father Earl Godwin died AD 1053, Harold knew his leadership qualities would be tested hard. Older brother Svein had been found wanting despite a glorious start fending off the Welsh in Herefordshire. Younger brother Tostig held sway in Northumbria for ten years from AD 1055, and was ousted the year before his unwelcome return with the invading Norse king Harald 'Hardradi' Sigurdsson. Harold had at least two brothers he could rely on, Gyrth and Leofwin, and he ruled ten months without too many problems. "Tiredness kills", as road signs tell us. Harold learned that to his cost in hastily returning to London on hearing William had landed on the south coast. We know the rest... or do we? Julian Rathbone has a few surprises for us. Read on...
The coronation of Harold II and aftermath
The death of Harald Sigurdsson at Staenfordes Brycg near Eoferwic, or Jorvik to Scandinavian inhabitants (Stamford Bridge near York)
The painting above - this is a section from a much larger Victorian era canvas - owes something to Snorri Sturlusson's account of 'King Harald's Saga' in the depiction of horses on the battlefield at Stamford Bridge near York.It is only partly right. Both English and Norse household warriors may have ridden to battle generally, but always fought on foot, in the shieldwall. They prized their horses too much to risk them in a clash of weapons. In this instance, being a ship-borne force the Norsemen with Harald Sigurdsson would not have had horses with them, and Harald himself was in any case much too tall to ride a horse (like Hrolf 'the Ganger' who established a dynasty. on the English Channel coast at the mouth of the Seine). Even nowadays on a Clydesdale, if his height was not exaggerated, his feet would have trailed on the ground.
© 2011 Alan R Lancaster