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Harold II

(c. 1022—1066) king of England

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B. c.1022, 2nd s. of earl Godwin and Gytha; acc. 6 Jan. 1066; m. Ealdgyth, da. of earl Aelfgar, 1066; issue: Harold; also (illeg.) 4 s. 2 das. by Eadgyth Swanneshals (‘Swanneck’); d. 14 Oct. 1066; bur. Waltham abbey.

Though Harold was king for less than a year, he is one of the best-known monarchs. Before 1066 his reputation was as a trusted supporter of Edward ‘the Confessor’, prominent in council, resolute in battle, tall and strong. It is often said that he had no royal blood, but he was cousin to Sweyn Estrithsson, king of Denmark, and the nephew of Cnut. The marriage of his sister Eadgyth to king Edward in 1045 strengthened his position and he was made earl of East Anglia. The escapades of his elder brother Swegen, which included the murder in 1047 of his cousin Beorn, and the Godwins' dislike of the king's Norman friends led to a breach in 1051, which forced the family into exile. Harold fled to Dublin, returned to harry the coast of Somerset, and helped to force Edward in 1052 to reinstate them. On the death of his father the following year, he succeeded as earl of Wessex. Two years later he was sent to Wales to deal with Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, who had sacked Hereford; in 1062–3, a further campaign ended when Gruffydd was killed by his own men. Harold then married Gruffydd's widow, the daughter of the earl of Mercia and an heiress.

Meanwhile, the question of the succession had come to the fore, since the royal marriage had produced no children. William of Normandy later insisted that, on a visit in 1065, Harold had sworn an oath to support his claim to the throne. The episode has been much discussed. It is far from obvious why Harold should have committed himself, unless he was acting under duress, or what he had to gain by doing so. If Edward sent him, it is odd that he should have chosen such an envoy, and that within a few months he should have changed his mind and left the crown to Harold on his deathbed. The incident which started the train of events leading to Harold's death at Hastings was a revolt, late in 1065, by the Northumbrians against the rule of their earl, Tostig, Harold's younger brother. Harold could not, or would not, protect him and, deprived of his earldom, Tostig stormed off into banishment, determined on reinstatement and revenge. Edward lasted only a few weeks after the Northumbrian revolt, dying in January 1066 and naming Harold as his successor. He was crowned the following day in the new Westminster abbey. It was clear that he would have to fight to retain his throne. The first move came from Tostig who, with the help of William of Normandy, crossed to the Isle of Wight and began harrying the coastal towns. Harold chased him off to Lindsey, where Edwin and Morcar, the new king's brothers-in-law, chased him off to Scotland. There Tostig joined forces with an enormous expedition led by Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, to whom he paid homage. Landing in the Humber estuary, they defeated Edwin and Morcar at Fulford but, five days later, were in turn defeated and killed by Harold at Stamford Bridge. While Harold was in York regrouping, news came that William had landed at Pevensey.


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