Harold II

Harold II (died 1066) was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. During his 9-month reign in 1066 he turned back the invasion of the king of Norway, only to succumb to that of William of Normandy.

Harold II was the second son of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, one of the most powerful men in 11th-century England. When Edward the Confessor returned from exile in Normandy to become king in 1042, reinstating the ancient house of Wessex in England after 25 years of rule by Danish kings, Godwin attempted to retain the power he had accumulated as royal adviser to the Danes. Not until 1051 did Edward feel strong enough to banish Godwin and his sons. Less than a year later, however, Godwin was reconciled with Edward under threat of civil war, and when Godwin died in April 1053, Harold became Earl of Wessex.

After his father's death Harold gradually became Edward's most powerful adviser and general. Between 1055 and 1063 he commanded the English forces in a series of campaigns against the aggressive Welsh king, Gruffydd ap Llewelyn. When Harold finally crushed Gruffydd and stabilized the English-Welsh border, the triumph greatly enhanced his authority and his reputation throughout England. It also established his claim to succeed King Edward, whose only remaining relative was a very young cousin living at the court of Hungary.

Then, in 1064, in a mysterious incident recorded in the famous Bayeux Tapestry, Harold was sent by King Edward on a mission of unknown nature to the Continent but was blown off course and landed in Normandy. There he was imprisoned and taken to Duke William, to whom he swore an oath which probably committed him to helping William secure the English kingship after Edward's death. There is no way of determining whether Harold gave his word freely or under duress; in any case, when Edward died in January 1066, Harold was clearly in the best position to preserve the continuity of rule in England and was at once chosen by the English nobility as Edward's successor.

Harold's brief reign was one of frantic activity in defense of England against invasion both by William and by Harald Hardrada, King of Norway. Harald struck first, in September 1066, landing with a large army in Yorkshire. Harold, who had been in the south awaiting William's attack, raced northward and crushed the invaders at Stamford Bridge on September 25. Two days later William, whose plans had been delayed by unfavorable winds, sailed from Normandy with an army of Normans and mercenaries. Harold had to rush south to face William with an exhausted and undermanned army. The two sides met near Hastings on October 14, and after a day of furious fighting Harold was killed and his army defeated. With Harold's gallant death Anglo-Saxon history comes to an end, and the Anglo-Norman age begins.

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Further Reading on Harold II

The main source of information on Harold II is The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, edited and translated by G. N. Garmonsway (1953; rev. ed. 1954). The "D" version of the Chronicle in particular supplies the fullest detail on the events of 1066. For Harold's encounter with, and oath to, William of Normandy see Sir Frank Stenton and others, eds., The Bayeux Tapestry (1957; 3d ed. 1965). An analysis of the events of Harold's life and reign is in F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (1943; 2d ed. 1947), and in D. C. Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact upon England (1964).

Additional Biography Sources

Three lives of the last Englishmen, New York: Garland Pub., 1984.