Harold II Godwinson

King Harold II Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England (c 1022 – 14 October 1066)

Harold was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England and was killed by William, Duke of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings.

Harold was born in the early 1020s, the son of Godwine, Earl of Wessex. He succeeded to his father’s titles in 1053, becoming the second most powerful man in England after the monarch. He was also a focus for opposition to the growing Norman influence in England encouraged by the king, Edward (known as ‘the Confessor’ for his piety).

Read Harold’s brief biography at the BBC.

Additional reading:

Today in Medieval History: The Battle of Hastings

William of Malmesbury recounts the battle:

The courageous leaders mutually prepared for battle, each according to his national custom. The English, as we have heard, passed the night without sleep, in drinking and singing, and in the morning proceeded without delay against the enemy. All on foot, armed with battle-axes, and covering themselves in front by the juncture of their shields, they formed an impenetrable body which would assuredly have secured their safety that day had not the Normans, by a feigned flight, induced them to open their ranks, which till that time, according to their custom, had been closely compacted. King Harold himself, on foot, stood with his brothers near the standard in order that, so long as all shared equal danger, none could think of retreating. This same standard William sent, after his victory, to the pope; it was sumptuously embroidered with gold and precious stones, and represented the figure of a man fighting.

On the other hand, the Normans passed the whole night in confessing their sins, and received the communion of the Lord=s body in the morning. Their infantry, with bows and arrows, formed the vanguard, while their cavalry, divided into wings, was placed in the rear. The duke, with serene countenance, declaring aloud that God would favor his as being the righteous side, called for his arms; and when, through the haste of his attendants, he had put on his hauberk the hind part before, he corrected the mistake with a laugh, saying “The power of my dukedom shall be turned into a kingdom.” Then starting the Song of Roland, in order that the warlike example of that hero might stimulate the soldiers, and calling on God for assistance, the battle commenced on both sides, and was fought with great ardor, neither side giving ground during the greater part of the day.

Read more of William’s account

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions the battle only briefly, no elaborate details or examinations like Malmesbury’s account. It basically says it happened and then moves on:

Meantime Earl William came up from Normandy into Pevensey on the eve of St. Michael’s mass; and soon after his landing was effected, they constructed a castle at the port of Hastings. This was then told to King Harold; and he gathered a large force, and came to meet him at the estuary of Appledore. William, however, came against him unawares, ere his army was collected; but the king, nevertheless, very hardly encountered him with the men that would support him: and there was a great slaughter made on either side. There was slain King Harold, and Leofwin his brother, and Earl Girth his brother, with many good men: and the Frenchmen gained the field of battle, as God granted them for the sins of the nation. Archbishop Aldred and the corporation of London were then desirous of having child Edgar to king, as he was quite natural to them; and Edwin and Morkar promised them that they would fight with them. But the more prompt the business should ever be, so was it from day to day the later and worse; as in the end it all fared. This battle was fought on the day of Pope Calixtus: and Earl William returned to Hastings, and waited there to know whether the people would submit to him.

Secrets of the Norman Invasion

Secrets of the Norman Invasion - Norman Conquest - Medieval England - Medieval History - Middle Ages History - Medieval Britain - Battle of Hastings - William the Conqueror - King Harold IISecrets of the Norman Invasion by Nick Austin is an analysis that proves beyond all reasonable doubt that the Battle of Hastings could not have been fought at the traditional battle site, nor could the Normans have landed or camped at the town of Pevensey.

This site used to be Nick’s collection of research available to the public, but now it’s in book form, so you have to buy the book if you want to read his analysis. His work is comprehensive and compelling, though I never had a chance to read all of it to fully form an opinion.

Featured Medieval Historical Fiction Novel

The Chosen King - Helen Hollick - Medieval History - Medieval Historical Ficiton - Battle of Hastings - 1066 - Harold Godwineson - William the Conqueror - Edward the ConfessorI Am the Chosen King by Helen Hollick

Paperback: 592 pages
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark (March 1, 2011)
ISBN-10: 140224066X

Editorial Review from Publishers Weekly:

Hollick (A Hollow Crown) constructs a magnificent epic in this unabashedly pro-Saxon recounting of a turning point in English history. Twenty-two years before the Battle of Hastings, Harold Godwinesson lives happily with his wife in the turbulent era of Edward the Confessor, but as a member of the most powerful noble family in England, Harold is drawn into a political drama that will eventually lead him to assume the rule of England as the last of the Saxon kings. While Edward’s Norman associates stir resentment in England, an enemy is consolidating his position across the channel: the ruthless William, duke of Normandy, who considers himself heir to Edward’s throne. Hollick’s enormous cast and meticulous research combine to create a convincing account of the destructive reign of the hapless Edward and the internecine warfare that weakens England as William prepares to invade. Thanks to Hollick’s masterful storytelling, Harold’s nobility and heroism enthrall to the point of engendering hope for a different ending to the famous battle of 1066.

Edgar the Etheling

Edgar the Etheling (1051 – 1126) was born in Hungary. His father, Edward the Exile, spent most of his life there after the Danish king Cnut conquered England and defeated Edward’s father King Edmund II Ironside. Edgar was the last member of the house of Cerdic of Wessex. After Edward the Confessor’s death in 1066, Edgar had a legitimate claim to the throne over Harold Godwineson and William the Conqueror, but he was never crowned King of England.

After Harold’s death, we find in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that there were prominent people in England who wanted Edgar to succeed Harold as king:

There was slain King Harold, and Leofwin his brother, and Earl Girth his brother, with many good men: and the Frenchmen gained the field of battle, as God granted them for the sins of the nation. Archbishop Aldred and the corporation of London were then desirous of having child Edgar to king, as he was quite natural to them; and Edwin and Morkar promised them that they would fight with them.

And later in that same section…

The monks then chose for abbot Provost Brand, because he was a very good man, and very wise; and sent him to Edgar Etheling, for that the land-folk supposed that he should be king: and the etheling received him gladly. When King William heard say that, he was very wroth, and said that the abbot had renounced him: but good men went between them, and reconciled them; because the abbot was a good man.

In 1067, Edgar along with his mother, Agatha, and two sisters, Margaret and Christina, and others fled to Scotland seeking protection at the court of King Malcolm III. Malcolm welcomed them, and in turn, he later married Margaret.

In 1068, it is noted in the Chronicle that King William gave Northumbria to Robert Comine. The people of Northumbria rebelled against Robert and killed him in the town of Durham, along with 900 other men. Edgar Etheling then came with all the Northumbrians to York, but William the Conqueror, learning of this, set out with a large army and routed Edgar’s army. Edgar then returned to Scotland.

The following year in 1069, King Sweyne of Denmark invaded England. According to the Chronicle:

Soon after this came from Denmark three of the sons of King Sweyne with two hundred and forty ships, together with Earl Esborn and Earl Thurkill, into the Humber; where they were met by the child Edgar, and Earl Waltheof, and Merle-Sweyne, and Earl Gospatric with the Northumbrians, and all the landsmen; riding and marching full merrily with an immense army: and so all unanimously advanced to York; where they stormed and demolished the castle, and won innumerable treasures therein; slew there many hundreds of Frenchmen, and led many with them to the ships; but, ere that the shipmen came thither, the Frenchmen had burned the city, and also the holy minster of St. Peter had they entirely plundered, and destroyed with fire. When the king heard this, then went he northward with all the force that he could collect, despoiling and laying waste the shire withal; whilst the fleet lay all the winter in the Humber, where the king could not come at them.

In 1074, Edgar had been in Flanders but returned to Scotland when William sailed across the channel to Normandy. King Malcolm and Margaret received Edgar fondly and gave him many gifts. Around that same time, King Philip of France sent a letter to Edgar promising to give him the castle of Montreuil, and so Edgar headed back to France, but on his way down the coast of England, a storm shipwrecked his crew, and Edgar had to return to Scotland. He lost most of the treasure Malcolm had given him, and some of his men were captured by the Normans.

After this incident, Edgar sent a request to William for a treaty, and William accepted. Edgar then traveled to William’s court in Normandy, where the King of England received him.

Due to the sake of time, I will skip forward to Edgar’s later life.

In 1106, King Henry I of England, the youngest son of William the Conqueror, defeated his older brother, Robert Curthose, and Edgar at the Battle of Tinchebray. Robert was imprisoned for the remainder of his life, while Edgar was released and pardoned. Edgar’s niece, Edith (or Matilda), the daughter of Malcolm and Margaret, married Henry in 1100, which might have had something to do with Henry’s pardoning of Edgar. It is generally believed Edgar died sometime in 1125, though the location of his grave is unknown. The last mention I could find of him in the Chronicles related to his defeat at the Battle of Tinchebray:

Edgar Etheling, who a little before had gone over from the king to the earl, was also there taken, whom the king afterwards let go unpunished. Then went the king over all that was in Normandy, and settled it according to his will and discretion. This year also were heavy and sinful conflicts between the Emperor of Saxony and his son, and in the midst of these conflicts the father fell, and the son succeeded to the empire.

*Main source: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Review of William the Conqueror by David C. Douglas

William the Conqueror by David C. DouglasWilliam the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England
By David C. Douglas

Paperback: 488 pages
Publisher: University of California Press (May 1, 1967)
ISBN-10: 0520003500

In this scholarly work, David C. Douglas takes an exhaustive look at the life of Duke William II of Normandy.  The book is broken out into four parts: The Young Duke, The Duke in His Duchy, The Establishment of the Anglo-Norman Kingdom, and The King in His Kingdom.

The first part tells of William’s birth and inheritance, his accession to his position as duke, and his war for survival in his duchy. From 1047-1060, William was in a constant state of warfare against those in and surrounding his duchy, including the King of France.

Part II underscores the rule of Duke William after he solidified his position as duke. While the duchy of Normandy was never entirely safe from outside threats–or inside threats for that matter, as can be seen in William’s own son’s rebellion later–there was a brief period where the state of his administration was more firmly established along with a strong group of noble supporters surrounding him. Most of these nobles would continue to support him for his entire reign as duke of Normandy and king of England.

Part III moves into the conquest of England and the defense of this kingdom after it had been conquered. Defending the kingdom was not an easy task for William, as he faced a series of rebellions within England, along with outside threats from Scandinavia and the continent.

The last part of the book deals with William’s royal administration and the end of his reign.

When I say this book is exhaustive, I’m not exaggerating. In fact, I felt Douglas spent too much time in certain areas, such as the Ecclesiastical Revival in Part II, which could have been told in a more concise fashion. The main takeaway from that chapter was that William was a supporter of the Church, and he helped establish a strong ecclesiastical presence within Normandy, which in turn helped him throughout his lifetime. For example, a common thread in many historical accounts of the invasion of England was the Pope’s support for William in this endeavor. While it is important to know the foundations of William’s relationship with the Church, the chapter is around 30 pages long, when Douglas probably could have related this information in half the space.

I don’t want to turn people off from reading this book, though, just because of its length. If you’re interested in the subject of the Norman invasion of England, Douglas’s account is essential in understanding the background to the person of Duke William II. It’s certainly a must-read; it will just take a while to read through it.

Also, one other point in which I felt Douglas could have made a stronger argument. Most historians I’ve read take the side of William the Conqueror in his invasion of England. The brief story is that King Edward the Confessor appointed William to be his successor long before his death. Harold Godwineson, the actual direct successor to Edward, supposedly swore fealty to William after a trip he made to the continent years earlier, but he claimed that on Edward’s deathbed, the dying king appointed him, not William, to succeed to the throne.

Historians, such as Ian Walker, author of the Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King, claim Harold likely swore fealty to William under duress, and that Edward never intended for William to be his successor. Both historians make good arguments, even though after reading both biographies, I felt Walker made a stronger case for Harold as the legitimate successor than Douglas did for William. Douglas, in my opinion, could have made a stronger case, though I have always found it peculiar that William would have risked so much to invade England had a promise of succession not been made to him earlier. On this point, I give credit to the historians who favor William as the legitimate successor. My recommendation would be to read both Douglas’s book and Walker’s book, and form your own opinion.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Secrets of the Norman Invasion

Secrets of the Norman Invasion is the work of an independent scholar, Nick Austin, to detail the events associated with the Norman invasion, especially the actual landing site of the Normans upon crossing the channel to England. According to the author:

Over the last six years I have tried to read everything important associated with Norman landings and the battle and have spent many months carrying out detailed searches of the documents contemporary with the battle. I have become increasingly alarmed at the discrepancies between the texts and the lie of the land where the landings were supposed to have taken place. In this work I attempt to explain how all these discrepancies can be reconciled only if the contextual references are applied to a landing site different from Pevensey.

The text that follows is divided into two parts. The first part deals with the clues to the landing site contained in the contemporary source documents, whilst the second part looks at the physical evidence thrown up by surveys, aerial photographs, field walking and archaeological work.

There is lots of information here, and the author does a nice job with referencing actual contemporary accounts of the event. I’ve only read bits and pieces so far. It will take me a while to get through it all. Just thought I would share with others that might be interested in the Norman invasion of England.