1902 Encyclopedia > Harold II of England

Harold II of England
King of England and the last of the Saxon rulers
(c. 1022 - 1066)




HAROLD II., king of the English, was the second son of Earl Godwine and his Danish wife Gytha, the sister of Earl Ulf. The year of his birth is not accurately fixed, but it must have been about 1022. The choice of his name, like that of some others of his brothers and sisters (see GODWINE), witnesses to the influence of his Danish mother. Both he and his elder brother Swegen were appointed to earldoms while still very young, seemingly about 1045. Harold's earldom was that of the East-Angles. In 1046 Swegen, having carried off Eadgifu, abbess of Leominster, and not being allowed to marry her, threw up his earldom in disgust, and his possessions were divided between his brother Harold and his cousin Earl Beorn, the nephew of Gytha. In 1049 Swegen came back and sought the recovery of his lands, which was refused by Harold and Beorn. Harold now appears for the first time in command, holding a ship in the fleet commanded by his father. For some unknown cause his ship was transferred to Beorn, which most likely saved Harold's life ; for Swegen presently came and entrapped and slew Beorn, who was buried by Harold. We next hear of Harold in 1051 as accompanying Godwine when he appeared in arms in Gloucestershire. He shared his father's outlawry and banishment in that year, but he chose a different place of shelter, going with his brother Leofwine to Ireland, while Godwine went to Flanders. In 1052 Harold and Leofwine came back. They were opposed by the men of Somerset and Devonshire, whom they defeated at Porlock, and plundered the country. Then they joined their father, and were with him at the assembly which decreed the restoration of the whole family. Harold was now restored to his earldom of the East-Angles, and, on his father's death in 1053, he succeeded him in the greater earldom of the West-Saxons.

Harold was now the chief man in the kingdom, and when the older earls Leofric and Siward died, his power increased yet more, and the latter part of Ead ward's reign was virtually the reign of Harold. But he was the minister of the king rather than his personal favourite. This last place rather belonged to his younger brother Tostig, who on the death of Siward in 1055 received the earldom of the Northumbrians. Two other of Godwine's younger sons, Gyrth and Leofwine, also received earldoms in 1057. This last date would seem to have been about the time when the prospect of the crown began to open to Harold. The iEtheling Eadward, the son of Eadmund Ironside, who had been brought home from Hungary as the intended successor, died that year. So did Eadward's nephew Balph, who, though not really of the kingly house, might possibly have been looked to for lack of a nearer candidate. There was now no one of the old stock but Eadgar son of Eadward and his sisters. If then the king should die while Eadgar was still a child, there would be no qualified candidate in the royal house. It would seem as if, from this time, men began to look to Earl Harold as a possible successor to the crown. He is spoken of in a way, and his name is joined with that of the king in a way, which is unusual in the case of an ordinary earl.

The chief events in which Harold appears personally during this time are the wars with the Welsh under their king Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. In 1055, in alliance with the banished Earl iElfgar of Mercia, Gruffydd defeated Earl Ralph and burned Hereford. Harold now drove back the Welsh and restored Hereford, but allowed the restoration of ^Elfgar to his earldom. In 1058 he made the pilgrimage to Rome : in 1060 he completed the building of his church at Waltham, and completed the foundation of the college in 1062. In 1063 came the great Welsh war, in which Harold, with the help of his brother Tostig, crushed the power of Gruffydd, who was killed by his own people. Harold now gave Wales to two vassal kings, Bleddyn and Rhiwallon. Both of his wars were accompanied by an extension of the English frontier toward Wales. In 1065 the Northumbrians revolted against their earl Tostig, and chose in his place Morkere, the son of iElfgar. Harold now acted as mediator between the king and the insurgents, and at last, as the Northumbrians were fully prepared not to receive Tostig agaiu, he agreed to their choice of Morkere and to the banishment of his brother.
Besides these there is one very important event in Harold's life the date of which can only be guessed at. At some time or other between William's visit to England in 1051 and Eadward's death at the beginning of 1066, Harold was the guest of Duke William in Normandy, and took some kind of oath to him. This oath the Normans represented as an act of homage, with a further oath to procure William's succession to the English crown. The tale is told only by the Norman writers, and it is told by them with such contradictions of every kind that no reliance can be placed on any detail. But that there is some truth in the story is proved by the strongest negative evidence. While the contemporary English writers take care, directly or indirectly, to deny all those Norman charges against Harold which were sheer invention, they say not a word as to his alleged oath to William. It seems on the whole most likely that Harold was wrecked on the shore of Ponthieu, imprisoned by its Count Guy, and released by the interference of William. He then helped William in a war with the Bretons, and promised to marry one of his daughters. This was most likely accompanied by an act of homage, such as was often made to any superior or benefactor. Such an oath might, in the ideas of the times, be made to mean a great deal or very little, according to circumstances. The most likely date is 1064. But there is a remarkable statement that Harold took a journey in Gaul with a political object, seemingly that of making alliances with some of the princes of the country, most likely William's enemies in France, Anjou, and Aquitaine. This was in the year of his Roman pilgrimage. And, as there is no direct evidence for the date of the oath, it is open to any one to put the two things together.





At the beginning of 1066 Eadward died. His last act was to recommend Harold for election to the crown. He was accordingly chosen on the day of Eadward's death, January 5th, and crowned the next day by Ealdred, archbishop of York. But, though he was crowned by the Northumbrian primate, the men of Northumberland at first refused to acknowledge him. They were won over by the new king, who went to York, accompanied by Saint Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester. To secure Eadwine and Morkere, he married their sister Ealdgyth, the widow of the Welsh king Gruffydd. He thus put it out of his power to comply with that part of his engagement to William which is best attested, namely, to marry one of William's daughters. The rest of Harold's reign was taken up with preparations against the attacks of twro enemies at once. William challenged the crown, alleging both a bequest of Eadward in his favour and the personal engagement which Harold had contracted towards him. This was of course a mere matter of form, and William began to make ready for the invasion of England. Meanwhile the banished Tostig was trying all means to bring about his own restoration. He first, seemingly in concert with William, came in May, and attacked first the Isle of Wight and then Lindesey, but was driven to take shelter in Scotland. From May to September the king kept the coasts with a great force by sea and land; but at last provisions failed, and the land army wras dispersed. Harold then went to London, ready to meet whichever enemy came first. By this time Tostig had engaged Harold Hardrada of Norway to invade England. He accordingly sailed up the Humber, defeated Eadwine and Morkere (September 20th), and received the submission of York (September 24th). Harold of England was now on his march northward; on September 25th he came on the Northmen at Stamfordbridge beyond York, and won a complete victory, in which Tostig and Harold Hardrada were slain. But twro days later (September 27th) William of Normandy landed at Pevensey and (September 29 th) occupied Hastings, and laid waste the land. Harold had then to march southward as fast as possible. He gathered his army in London from all southern and eastern England, but Eadwine and Morkere kept back the forces of the north. The king then marched into Sussex, occupied the hill of Senlac, now Battle, and awaited the Norman attack. After a vain exchange of messages, the decisive battle was fought on October j 14th. As the English were wholly infantry, while the I Normans were strongest in cavalry and archers, Harold's object was simply to hold the hill against all attack. As long as he was obeyed, his tactics were completely successful. But a part of his troops, disobeying his orders, left the hill to pursue, and the English array was broken. The Normans could now get up the hill, and, after a fight which lasted from morning till evening, they had the victory. The king and his brothers Gyrthand Leofwinewere killed. As Harold was condemned by the pope, William at first refused him Christian burial, and caused him to be buried on the rocks at Hastings. But it seems most likely that he afterwards allowed the body to be removed to Harold's own church at Waltham. The tale which represents Harold as escaping from the battle, living a life of penitence, and at last dying at Chester, is a mere romance.

Harold left several children, but there is a good deal of uncertainty as to his marriage or marriages. He had two sons by Ealdgyth, Harold and Wulf; but they must have j been twins born after their father's death. He had also three sons, Godwine, Eadmund, and Magnus, and two daughters, Gytha and Gunhild. It will be seen how strong the Scandinavian element is in these names. These five were not children of Ealdgyth, and the sons were grown up, or nearly so, when their father died. They may have been the children of an unrecorded first wife. But the local history of Waltham represented Harold's body as being found after the battle by a former mistress of his, Eadgyth Swanneshals (Swansneck). Some have thought that this Eadgyth is the " Eddeva pulcra" of Domesday, who appears as the former holder of great estates in the east of England. This, though not unlikely, is quite uncertain ; but there seems evidence enough to show that Eadgyth Swanneshals is a real person, and to connect her with j Harold's East-Anglian earldom. It seems most likely that she was the mother of Harold's earlier children, and that the connexion between them was that intermediate state between marriage and concubinage called the Danish marriage, of which we not uncommonly hear in those days.

The character of Harold is blackened with many, but mostly very vague, charges by the Norman writers. The English, on the other hand, paint him as the perfect model of a ruler. With regard to his accession to the crown, the common charge of usurpation springs from ignorance of the English law of the time. Harold was beyond all doubt regularly nominated by Eadwai'd, regularly chosen by the witan, and regularly crowned by Ealdred. This last point is of importance in those days, when the rite of coronation was deemed of such moment. The Normans try to represent the ceremony as invalid, by saying that Harold was crowned by Stigand, archbishop of Canterbury, whose canonical position was doubtful. That Harold crowned himself, instead of receiving the ecclesiastical consecration, is a mere fable, arising from a misunderstanding of some of the rhetorical invectives of the Norman writers, ft should be noticed that those contemporary writers who speak of Harold as an usurper do so wholly on the ground of the alleged right of William, and of Harold's oath to William. That Harold's accession was. a wrong done to young Eadgar is an idea which we first hear of in the next century, when the doctrine of hereditary right had taken firmer root. In Domesday the reign of Harold is passed by ; he is regularly spoken of as earl; the doctrine of the Norman lawyers was that William, though of course not full king till his coronation, had the sole right to the crown from the moment of Eadward's death.

The military skill of Harold is plain, both from the Welsh war, when he overcame the mountaineers by making his English soldiers adopt the Welsh tactics, and from his conduct both at Stamfordbridge and at Senlac. He clearly understood the difference between his two enemies, when it was wise to attack and when it was wise to await the attack. At Stamfordbridge his strategy was perfectly successful; it failed at Senlac only because of the disobedience of part of his army. The best witness to his civil government is the general peace and good order of England during that part of the reign of Eadward which was virtually his reign. When the peace is broken, it is always by the act of others, and Harold is always called on to make the settlement. He appears throughout as singularly mild and conciliating, never pressing hard upon any enemy. The later Norman writers indeed have an elaborate tale which represents Harold and Tostig as enemies from their childhood. But this is mere romance, with no ground in any contemporary writer.

The relations of Harold to the church, always an important feature in the character of a prince of that age, suggest several questions. He is charged in Domesday with several encroachments on ecclesiastical property, chiefly in Herefordshire, and the like charge is brought against him in a deed of Leofric, bishop of Exeter. But it must be remembered that this kind of charge is brought against every leading man of the time, and that we very seldom hear more than one side. The most distinct and detailed charge, that which represents Harold as a wholesale spoiler of the church of Wells, can be refuted, not by hearing the other side, but by going back to the charge as brought by the original complainant, Bishop Gisa. We here find that Harold took nothing from the church, but simply hindered the bishopric from receiving a bequest to which there is some reason for thinking that he may have had a right as earl. On the other hand, Harold appears as the friend and protector of several ecclesiastical bodies, and above all as the founder of Waltham. Here we may remark that, when monks were all the fashion, he preferred the secular clergy. He was the firm friend of the best prelate of his time, Bishop Wulfstan, and he appeared on good terms with most of the leading churchmen.

The contemporary authorities are the English Chronicles, the Latin biographer of Eadward in Dr Luard's collection (he gives a splendid panegyric on Harold), and Florence of Worcester, on the English side. On the Norman side are the Bayeux Tapestry, William of Poitiers, William of Jumieges, Guy of Amiens (Carmen de Bella Hastingcnsi). In the next century the book Be Inventions Sanctce Crucis Walthamensis gives Harold's picture as drawn in his own foundation. The book called Vita Haroldi is a mere romance, but contains one or two scraps of authentic tradition; Orderic, Eadmer, William of Malmesbury, and the writers of the 12th century generally, often prove particular facts, and especially show how the estimate of the events of the 11th century gradually changed. The French life of Eadward in the 13th is very bitter against Harold. Of the Scandinavian writers, Saxo Grammaticus is violent against him, while the biographer of Olaf Tryggvesson counts him for a saint. All the statements are brought together and examined in Freeman's History of the Norman Conquest, vols, ii. and iii. The opposite pictures of the earlier writers, Thierry and Palgrave, are also worth comparing. (E. A. F.)







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