Did Harold Godwinson Really Die on the Battlefield at Hastings as the Records Suggest?
The reign of Harold Godwinson, the last Saxon King of England, is mostly remembered for its ignoble end, a victim of war at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when William of Normandy came to conquer. Some records have William ‘gouging out’ Harold’s eye with an arrow, which is supported by the representation of his demise on the Bayeux tapestry. Other records miss out on this detail. What do we know of the life and death of Harold II of England?
Who Was Harold Godwinson?
Harold Godwinson was born around 1020 to 1022, half Saxon and half Danish. He was the son of Godwine, Earl of Wessex, and Gytha, daughter of Danish King Harold Bluetooth. He was the first cousin of Canute, a Danish interloper and king of Denmark and Norway who ruled England from 1016 to 1035.
Harold Pays Homage to the Witan 1064. (Archivist / Adobe)
The Witan, an assembly of clergymen and king’s men or thanes, may have elected Harold Godwinson king in January 1066. His reign would not last long. William the Conqueror of Normandy invaded the same year and brought a new order, the Norman rule, to England. They supplanted the Anglo-Saxon rulers who had earlier invaded from northern Germany after the Romans withdrew in the 5 th century.
What Claim did Harold Godwinson Have to the Throne?
The Witan may have been involved in the succession because Edward the Confessor did not have a direct heir. Harold was Edward’s brother-in-law. Some say it is a myth that the Witan or Witenagemot was involved. Rather, people say, Harold was the true power in England and simply took the throne. He was quickly crowned, which was usually just a rite without much significance. Some historians say Harold needed to prove his claim, so he had a coronation almost immediately.
King Harold places the crown on his own head. (Anonymus / Public Domain)
Banished, Then Reestablished by Force
Edward the Confessor had banished Earl Godwine and family in 1051 because he thought he was involved in the murder of his brother. The Godwines went to Ireland. In 1053, Harold Godwinson gathered a force and attacked. The Godwine family forced Edward to restore them to power, which led the way to Harold II’s ascension to the throne years later.
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Harold meeting Edward the Confessor shortly before his death. (Ulrich Harsh / Public Domain)
Harold succeeded his father in 1053, when he became the second-most powerful man in England. Wessex, along with several other earldoms, had been separate kingdoms until Egbert unified England in the 9 th century.
Harold was Edward’s lieutenant in a battle with Gruffyd ab Llywellyn of Wales. Harold then took Gruffyd’s widow, Aldgyth, as his wife.
Given the history between Edward the Confessor and Harold’s family, it may be surprising that Edward elected Harold, a mere brother-in-law to succeed him. Edward had no children. One historian (see link to M. Morris in references below) suggests that Edward had merely nominated him as a regent (appointed to govern until the legitimate monarch was of age). Edward had a great-nephew who had more of a familial claim to the kingship, but he was considered too young for the throne.
William the Conqueror Invades
The end of King Harold Godwinson and the Anglo-Saxon reign over England came just a short while after he and his men repelled an invasion by Norwegians under King Harold Hardrada, who were allied with Harold Godwinson’s brother Tostig.
Harold had offended Tostig the year before when the men of Northumbria revolted against Tostig’s unjust rule and Harold supported them in replacing him. Tostig burned with resentment and hatred over Harold’s perceived betrayal.
After Harold and his men put down the invasion by Harold Hardrada, news came that William of Normandy was invading on the southeast coast. Harold Godwinson and his troops sped there, where the two sides met at the Battle of Hastings.
King Harold Godwinson receiving the news of the Norman invasion. (C.R. / Public Domain)
The Normans won the battle and ruled England thereafter but the reports of the circumstances of Harold’s death are in conclusive.
The first existing record we have comes in the year 1080 by Amatus, a monk from the abbey of Monte Cassino, which clearly describes William as having ‘gouged out his (Harold’s) eye with an arrow.’ This depiction is then repeated in some later descriptions (eg. William of Malmesbury in 1118).
Others claim that the arrow in the eye story was actually added by the Normans after the 1066 battle to reinforce William’s claim to rule, and that the story is based on the death of Harold Hardrada by an arrow in the throat at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in September of the same year.
Others claim the death of Harold Godwinson came many years later. They say he spent two years recovering from wounds sustained in battle and then went on a pilgrimage in France and England. He returned in his old age and lived as a hermit at Dover and Chester. Just before he died, he revealed his true identity.
Horace Vernet’s 1828 painting Edith Swanneck discovering King Harold's corpse on the battle field of Hastings (Horace Vernet / Public Domain)
What Drama Transpired During King Harold Godwinson’s Reign?
Harold did not seem to have as many of the intrigues and murders as many other monarchs from almost any other time and place in world history. Of course, he did not have a long time as king to build a history of drama and intrigue, but he was the powerful Earl of Wessex for 13 years before becoming king.
The coronation of Harold Godwinson on the Bayeux Tapestry. (Myrabella / Public Domain)
Encyclopedia Britannica says, “Despite his brief reign, Harold was a key figure in English history and a talented leader in peace and war.”
Top image: Bayeux Tapestry - The death of King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings. Source: Public Domain
By Mark Miller
British Monarchs website, Harold II: 1066, [Online] Available at: http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/saxon_17.htm
Encyclopedia Britannica website, Harold II: King of England, [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Harold-II
Morris, M., Why Was Harold Godwinson’s Coronation So Unusual? History Hit Podcast transcript, [Online] Available at: https://www.historyhit.com/why-was-harold-godwinsons-coronation-so-unusual/