Blogtober has been a lot of fun for us at @Histwriters and I’ve met a lot of amazing new characters along the way. It wasn’t hard for me to choose my favourite character for he is at the centre of the saga I am writing, the Sons of the Wolf series.

Most of us know Harold Godwinson as being the chap who usurped the English throne, which should rightfully have gone to William the Conqueror, right? And that he was killed by an arrow that pierced his eye and then hacked down as he was dying? Well, he probably deserved it for stealing another man’s crown, didn’t he? Not only was he a usurper, but he was also a womaniser, a breaker of oaths, betrayer of brothers, and an avaricious, greedy man, who amassed his wealth through deceit. We’re told that he and his troops spent the night before battle carousing and drinking so loudly they heard it in the Norman camp all the way in Hastings! No wonder they lost. So just why am I a Haroldite? What qualities make me ignore all the negative facts about him and put him forward for my favourite character in history?

I am about to tell you.

Many people still buy into the myth that Harold was felled by the arrow in the eye, however I am not one of them. Unfortunately, we have no written account from anyone who was actually present at the battle, and even if they were, how much of the battle would they have been able to see. If we could have had several eyewitness accounts, we might have been able to put them together. As it is, we don’t, and therefore we can only rely on what we have in terms of what was considered contemporary or near contemporary. Nonetheless we can objectively make a study of the primary sources and the Bayeux Tapestry, and then subjectively piece together what we think really happened as best we can. The Bayeux Tapestry is the main contemporary source that appears to portray the arrow in the eye story but written sources tell a different story and I believe that the death of Harold, which more-or-less ended the battle, was far more gruesome than a mere arrow in the eye. Lets taken an overview of Harold’s life.

Harold felled by an arrow on the Bayeux Tapestry, but was this all that it seemed to be?

Harold was born, circa 1022, to parents Gytha Thorkelsdóttir and Godwin son of Wulfnoth. His mother (aforementioned) was of noble Danish blood and Godwin, his father, was the son of a Sussex thegn whose lineage some say might have descended from the Royal House of Cerdic. He was the second eldest of a vast brood of 6 brothers and 2 sisters, one of whom became Queen of England when she married Edward the Confessor. There was also a grandson, Hakon, said to have been the son of Swegn. Hakon plays only a small part in the tale of the Godwinson’s downfall, along with the only son to survive the destruction of his family, Wulfnoth.

Harold’s early career is not known until, like his brother Swegn, he was invested with an earldom. Swegn drew the short straw because he ended up in charge of the troublesome Welsh border lands while Harold got East Anglia which covered a swathe of lands from Norfolk southwards to Essex. Harold went on to command a fleet of ships for King Edward, and was engaged in some conflicts with foreign pirates who were using European coastal regions to launch their raids. Harold would also have been the king’s representative in his earldom, doling out the king’s law and justice in the shire courts of his jurisdiction. He would collect revenue, oversee transfers of land, witness charters, and attend the king on a regular basis.

Harold with William in Normandy

It seems that around this time, he met the rich heiress, Edith Swanneck – her name was actually Eadgifu the Fair, and Edith Swanneck was a misspelling in a later chronicle. She and Harold probably married in an equivalent to a civil ceremony, known as a more danico, or handfasting. She brought Harold much wealth, land, and power and he was also gifted land by those wanting to curry favour with their earl. Land and wealth equalled power in Medieval times and Harold was no different to any other ambitious man wanting to improve his standing in life.

What was life like amongst such a huge brood of boys like back then? One can imagine the household was probably very boisterous and fraught at times. Godwin, their father would have had to have been a strong disciplinarian when at home to keep some sort of order in the household. I suspect poor Gytha was at home managing the family and household on her own quite a lot with Godwin’s responsibilities as Earl of Wessex. They may have employed a strict childemaester, because we know that Godwin and Gytha educated their children; Harold was known to be a keen reader and he and Tostig were referred to as ‘intelligent’ in the Edwardi Vita.

School tools: whale-bone writing-tablet and styluses from the middle Anglo-Saxon period

There are anecdotes about the family, though perhaps not from a reliable source, and Tostig and Harold were once chastised as boys, for fighting at the dinner table in front of the king. Tostig was said to have grabbed Harold by the hair. Ouch! Later, Harold was to find it difficult to support Swegn when he was in trouble with the king for numerous offences, including carrying off and deflowering an Abbess, and the murder of his cousin, Beorn. Harold retrieved Beorn’s body from where it had been dumped at sea and had him properly buried. Harold was not able to forgive Swegn and called for Swegn’s exile. Godwin disagreed and begged the king for mercy for his eldest, even though Swegn denied he was his father, claiming to be Cnut’s son. Godwin obviously thought the sun shone out of Swegn’s backside and I wonder how Harold felt about that! Swegn eventually died during a pilgrimage in Constantinople.

Harold and Tostig go at each other in front of the king

These insights (if accurate) into the family dynamics make them an interesting bunch, their issues so like today’s. If Swegn, the black-sheep-of-the-family with narcissistic anti-social traits, was alive today, he’d probably have been on drugs, fathered several illegitimate kids, been in prison for domestic violence, and in numerous rehabs before overdosing to death on smack.

Tostig would probably have been the jealous, resentful, secretive one, who reckoned his problems had nothing to do with himself and everything to do with Harold. He would have seen Harold as his enemy, and no amount of persuading him otherwise would have shifted him from that view in 1065 when Harold’s failure to support him against the Northerners, was seen as betrayal. He probably felt he’d long lived in Harold’s shadow, despite being his sister’s apparent favourite. Towards the end of his life, he must have despised his brother, and I can’t help but wonder what they had fought about, if true, that day at court when they were younger.

The Godwinson brothers, Leofwin and Gyrth, are depicted being killed on the Bayeux Tapestry

We know very little of Gyrth and Leofwin, though the Vita suggests they were considerably younger. There is evidence that Harold and Leofwin may have been close, as they were in Ireland together when the family were exiled in 1051/2. Godwin, Gytha, Tostig, and Gyrth fled to Flanders whilst Harold and Leofwin went to Ireland to drum up support from the Irish king. Later on, Gyrth apparently offered to lead the troops into battle at Hastings, so that Harold could wait in London for the rest of his army, which suggests that along with their differences there was also great loyalty.

Godwin must have been a huge influence on his sons, especially Harold, who stepped into Swegn’s shoes when he died in 1052, and then succeeded his father as Earl of Wessex. Godwin was a formidable administrator who had served six kings. He was loyal to Edmund Ironside, and after his death, joined Cnut’s service. Godwin had little choice but to accept the new king, as there was no real English contender. Cnut favoured Godwin over men like Streona who had switched sides and betrayed Edmund at the battle of Assandun, suggesting that Cnut valued loyalty

Cnut has Eadric beheaded

Godwin was not as loyal to the kings who followed Cnut and Edmund, his allegiance wavering between Cnut’s two sons, Harthacnut and Harold Harefoot. During Harefoot’s reign, Godwin handed over Prince Alfred, Edward the Confessor’s brother, to Harefoot’s henchmen who had him blinded. Godwin swore an oath that he did not cause his death, but when Edward the Confessor burst onto the scene in 1042 as king, Godwin for the first time, found himself at odds with a reigning monarch and the death of Alfred seems to have been an important factor in Edward’s dislike for Godwin.

In 1051, Godwin rebelled against King Edward when the monarch, his father-in-law, demanded that he punish the men of Dover for their not so friendly behaviour towards Edward’s brother-in-law, Eustace of Boulogne and his French retinue on their way home after a visit to the king. Godwin was not about to harm his own people by burning their homes and was prepared to risk the wrath of the king for their sakes. Because of this, the whole family was sent into exile. In the summer of 1052, Godwin returned to England, reunited with his sons and took back his lands and titles. The following year, Godwin died and Harold became Earl of Wessex

Attack on Dover, llustration by Edouard Zier from a History of England, 1903

Harold might have inherited Godwin’s characteristics: determined and single minded, ambitious and wily; patient, compassionate, forgiving, loyal, and honourable; but also ruthless when necessary. Orderic, the chronicler, wrote of Harold that he “was distinguished by his great size and strength of body, his polished manners, his firmness of mind and command of words, by a ready wit and a variety of excellent qualities. But what availed so many valuable gifts, when good faith, the foundation of all virtues, was wanting?” Where Orderic got his information is not known. Given that he had been born in 1075, it was not possible that he had ever met Harold, although he may have met somebody who had.

We can only glimpse historical personages, especially in preconquest England where much of what was known has been lost. The chronicles are often written as propaganda, or very subjectively. Sometimes, we can imagine what a man was like by what we know of his deeds. It seems to me that many of the negative accounts of Harold’s character come from Norman propaganda and outside of that, it is hard to judge. Harold appears to have been amiable, much liked, fair and just, although he could also be ruthless, as his actions in Wales have proven. Then again, Gruffudd, King of Wales, caused havoc in English border lands and gave harbour to recalcitrant English earls.

Harold had been involved in negotiating with the Welsh king and was very patient, even after Gruffudd broke the treaties time and time again. Eventually Harold lost his patience and made a spectacular lightning strike with mounted troops into Wales, bringing death and destruction to the countryside. It took a second, large scale two-pronged invasion along with Harold’s brother Tostig to finally defeat the Welsh, who handed over their king, minus his body.

A few years later, Harold, by then in his forties, was to repeat the impressive feat of covering territory at speed when he marched his huscarls 200 miles northwards, gathering an army on the way, to surprise Tostig and Harald Hardrada and to defeat them at Stamford Bridge. It required strength and stamina to carry out such fatigues and to then march back to fight a battle at Hastings within three weeks was remarkable, not only for Harold but for his huscarls who must have been powerful, strong, fit men. One can’t help but think of Orderic’s description of Harold’s strength of body and his singlemindedness.

Harold seems to have been Edward’s chief negotiator and a loyal servant of the crown. He was referred to as Dux Anglorum which meant that he was Edward’s number one man and the second most powerful man in England, bar the king. In fact, he appears to have had more power than even the king, and was able to influence Edward’s decisions. For example, he refused to back Tostig when the northern thegns, fed up with Tostig’s harsh rule in the north, wanted him out in favour of Morcar, brother of the Mercian earl, Edwin. Such a move was unprecedented around this time and Edward was not having it. He ordered his general to force them to cease their demands using military might. But Harold overruled the king, and Tostig, his own brother, had to go.

Was Harold jealous of his brother because he was the king’s favourite, or was he simply able to put aside brotherly love in order to avert a civil war? I cannot discount the first; Harold was human and may have been concerned for his own position, but with Hardrada and William of Normandy both watching the crown, one would not want to incite a rebellion that would divide the kingdom and make her vulnerable. Ultimately, Harold’s actions, whether those of an angry, jealous brother or not, showed that he would put the interests of the country and the people above that of family and even the king.

And what of Harold’s faithlessness which Orderic refers to? Historians are divided over the two versions of Harold’s trip to Normandy, the Norman and the English. In both versions, Harold is said to have made an oath to William that he would become his loyal vassal in England, and that upon Edward’s death, Harold would support William’s claim to the crown and ease the way for William succeeding to the throne of England. Orderic is not specific when he accuses Harold of faithlessness, but it is reasonable to assume that he was referring to this oath. Orderic, of course, was half-Norman and supported William’s claim.

Eamer, a writer of English history, states that Harold did not go to Normandy to bend the knee to William but to secure the release of the English hostages, his brother and nephew, who had been taken there by the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury in 1052. This seems much more likely than the story he had gone to offer his support to William. Why would he agree to become his vassal in England? Harold was the equivalent to a duke, a Dux Anglorum, second to the king. His status was as high as William’s. Furthermore, Harold could not be William’s vassal whilst Edward still lived.

Eadmer claims that the oath Harold made to William was made under duress, and could honourably be broken. I don’t think Harold betrayed William at all. I think William used his local power to hold Harold hostage in a strange land and to coerce Harold into making that oath. This meant Harold did nothing wrong in using Church law to break an oath that was made under fear for his life and those of his companions and relatives. William had a reputation of making people disappear. Harold was not in any position to refuse him.

Harold making his oath in Normandy to William, swearing on holy relics

Looking at the available evidence, Harold may have been one of the best kings of the era, and possibly one of England’s most promising kings, had he been given that chance. He was ambitious, like many men of his time. He was confident, wily, and not afraid to put himself forward. When Edward lay dying, he would have discussed his manifesto with the other nobles who would have weighed up all their concerns especially the threat to England from other shores. They knew that to safeguard the English people’s interests and way of life, a strong, experienced leader would be needed. Edgar, the atheling, had been Edward’s intended heir, but Edward would have known that the kingdom needed someone like Harold, not an inexperienced boy in his early teens. I believe that is why in the end, he named Harold as his successor and why the witan agreed to elect him as king.

When Harold’s star began to rise in the 1040s, it was plain to see that he was a capable, loyal, general. He did what he could to avoid conflict within the realm on Edward’s behalf as if he had the foresight to conserve what energy England had for the really big event that was to come.

Harold was not just a warrior, diplomat and a king’s administrator, he was a husband and father. He remained loyal to Edith, his first handfasted wife until he wed the sister of the northern earls to bind them to him. It was customary in the 11th century for men in power to wed unofficially, so that they could make political alliances when they needed them. If the story that Edith was on the battlefield looking for his body after Hastings is true, then they must have still remained close enough for her to be there. His other heavily pregnant wife, Ealdgyth, who had been King Gruffudd’s first wife, had been taken to Chester for her safety by her brothers.

Edith Swanneck looking for Harold’s body

Harold could have been a great king if he had lived. It was said, when he became king, that he made laws that would curb the unlawful doings of men and had been making changes in the kingdom for good. When Harold was told that William had landed on the Sussex coast and was ravaging his lands, he wanted to engage the invaders as soon as possible for it was his people’s lands that were being ravaged as well as his own. William would have known the psychological effect this would have had on Harold. William and Harold had been friends and William probably knew his weaknesses. Harold had saved men from drowning when on campaign with William in Normandy, William knew he would not stand by and watch people die.

Some people believe that in taking the throne from Edgar, Harold showed his greed and ambition, and yes. he was ambitious and to be able to make a bid for the throne, a man had to have power. Wealth was power, as I have already said. But why should Harold not be king? Why should he have just settled for regent and perhaps fought the battle for Edgar on his behalf? Over the years, he’d certainly earned it. It should have been his time and when he died at Hastings, set upon by the Normans determined to see him dead, that chance was stolen from him. He died fighting for his land, his people and to keep England free of Norman enslavement. For me that is the epitome of kingship, and that is why he is on my favourite historical character list.

To see the rest of the blog posts that came before Harold’s, just check out these sites! You can also find links to these other participants on our Historical Writers Forum Blog Hoppers Page

The above article relates to research done for my Sons of the Wolf series

5 thoughts on “My Favourite Historical Figure: Harold Godwinson

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