Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Harold II of England
("handfast" marriage, not approved by the Church)
|Place of Birth|
Waltham Abbey, body now lost
Harold's father was Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex. Godwin was himself a son to Wulfnoth Cild , Thegn of Sussex and had married twice. First to Thyra Sveinsdóttir (994 — 1018), a daughter of Sweyn I who was King of Denmark, Norway and England. His second wife was Gytha Thorkelsdóttir who was a granddaughter to the legendary Swedish viking Styrbjörn Starke and great-granddaughter to Harold Bluetooth, King of Denmark and Norway, father of Sweyn I. This second marriage resulted in the birth of two sons Harold and Tostig Godwinson, and a sister Edith of Wessex (1020 - 1075) who was Queen consort of Edward the Confessor.
Created Earl of East Anglia in 1045, Harold accompanied Godwin into exile in 1051 but helped him to regain his position a year later. When Godwin died in 1053, Harold succeeded him as Earl of Wessex (a province at that time covering the southernmost third of England). This made him the second most powerful figure in England after the king.
In 1058 Harold also became Earl of Hereford, and he replaced his late father as the focus of opposition to growing Norman influence in England under the restored Saxon monarchy (1042 - 1066) of Edward the Confessor, who had spent more than a quarter of a century in exile in Normandy.
He gained glory in a series of campaigns (1062 - 1063) against the ruler of Gwynedd, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, who had conquered all of Wales; this conflict ended with Gruffydd's defeat (and death at the hands of his own troops) in 1063. About 1064, Harold married Edith, daughter of the Earl of Mercia , and former wife of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. By Harold, Edith had two sons - possibly twins - named Harold and Ulf, both of whom survived into adulthood and probably ended their lives in exile. Harold also had several illegitimate children by his famous mistress (or wife, according to Danish law), "Ealdgyth Swan-neck " or "Edith Swan-neck" or "Edith Swanneck".
In 1065 Harold supported Northumbrian rebels against his brother Tostig who replaced him with Morcar. This strengthened his acceptability as Edward's successor, but fatally divided his own family, driving Tostig into alliance with King Harald Hardrada ("Hard Reign") of Norway.
Upon Edward the Confessor's death in (January 5 1066), Harold claimed that Edward had promised him the crown on his deathbed, and made the Witenagemot (the assembly of the kingdom's leading notables) approve him for coronation as king, which took place the following day.
However, the country was invaded, by both Harald of Norway and William, Duke of Normandy, who claimed that he had been promised the English crown by both Edward (probably in 1052) and Harold, who had been shipwrecked in Ponthieu, Normandy in 1064 or 1065. It was alleged that, on the latter occasion, William forced Harold to swear to support his claim to the throne, only revealing after the event that the box on which he had made his oath contained holy relics. After Harold's death, Normans were quick to point out that in accepting the crown of England, Harold had perjured himself of this oath.
Invading what is now Yorkshire in September, 1066, Harald Hardrada and Tostig defeated the English earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria at the Battle of Fulford near York (September 20), but were in turn defeated and slain by Harold's army five days later at the Battle of Stamford Bridge (September 25).
Harold now forced his army to march 240 miles to intercept William, who had landed perhaps 7000 men in Sussex, southern England three days later on September 28. Harold established his army in hastily built earthworks near Hastings. The two armies clashed near Hastings on October 14, where after a hard fight Harold was killed and his forces routed. According to tradition, and as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye. Whether he did, indeed, die in this manner (a death associated in the middle ages with perjurers), or was killed by the sword, will never be known. Harold's wife, Edith Swanneck, was called to identify the body, which she did by some private mark (the face being destroyed) known only to herself. Although one Norman account claims that Harold's body was buried in a grave overlooking the Saxon shore, it is more likely that he was buried in his church of Waltham Holy Cross in Essex.
Harold's illegitimate daughter Gytha of Wessex married Vladimir Monomakh Grand Duke (Velikii Kniaz) of Kievan Rus' and is ancestor to dynasties of Galicia, Smolensk and Yaroslavl, whose scions include Modest Mussorgsky and Peter Kropotkin. Consequently the Russian Orthodox Church recently recognised Harold as a martyr with October 14 as his feast day.
A cult of hero worship rose around Harold and by the 12th century legend says that Harold had indeed survived the battle, had spent two years in Winchester after the battle recovering from his wounds, and then traveled to Germany where he spent years wandering as a pilgrim. As an old man he returned to England and lived as a hermit in a cave near Dover. As he lay dying, he confessed that although he went by the name of Christian, he had been born Harold Godwineson. Various versions of this story persisted throughout the Middle Ages, and have little claim to fact.
Literary interest in Harold revived in the 19th century with the play Harold by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1876) and the novel Last of the Saxon Kings by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1848). Rudyard Kipling wrote a story, The tree of justice(1910), describing how an old man who turns out to be Harold is brought before Henry I. E. A. Freeman wrote a serious history in History of the Norman Conquest of England (1870-79) in which Harold is seen as a great English hero. By the 21st century Harold's reputation remains tied, as it has always been, with subjective views of the rightness or wrongness of the Norman conquest.
Godwin Wulfnothson, Earl of Kent and Wessex =Gytha Thorgilsdottir | |___________________________________________________________________________ | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | Harold Sven Tostig Gyrth Leofwine Wulfnoth Waeltheow Morcar Edwin Herbert Alfgar =Edith & sisters Edith, Elgiva, Gunhilda, Gytha | |________________________________________ | | | | | | | | | | Godwine Edmund Magnus Gyda Gunhild b.1047? b.1049? b.1051? 1053-1107. 1055-97 two sons died in Ireland
Biography by P. Compton (1961); F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (3d ed. 1971).
- A pedigree of him ; not necessarily reliable
- Another profile of him
- A chart including him among the descendants of King Cerdic of Wessex
- A short profile of him among other related persons
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