The Death of King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings

14 October 1066, Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, fell at the Battle of Hastings.

"The two brothers of the King were found near him and Harold himself, stripped of all badges of honour, could not be identified by his face but only by certain marks on his body. His corpse was brought into the Duke's camp, and William gave it for burial to William, surnamed Malet, and not to Harold's mother, who offered for the body of her beloved son its weight in gold. For the Duke thought it unseemly to receive money for such merchandise, and equally he considered it wrong that Harold should be buried as his mother wished, since so many men lay unburied because of his avarice. They said in jest that he who had guarded the coast with such insensate zeal should be buried by the seashore" ( William of Poitiers)

Harold’s death from the famous Bayeux Tapestry (ca 1070), the scene bearing the inscription Harold Rex Interfectus Est: "King Harold is killed".

The situation in England before the conquest was, in fact, a chaos and, ironically enough, it was the Dane Cnut the Great who gave the island the resemblance of political order when it became part of his North Sea Empire in 1016. After his death 20 years later, the confusion went off properly again. Traditionally, the King of England was appointed by the Witangemot, a council of noble advisors, rather than by birthright alone, since the days of Athelstan, when old Wessex essentially became the Kingdom in 927. Nonetheless, who fathered whom and marriage politics began to play an increasingly important role when King Edward the Confessor, who succeeded Cnut after the short-lived reigns of Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut, felt that his life drew to a close. Possible successors were the mighty Earl of Wessex, Harold, Harold’s brother Tostig, allied with the Dane Harald Hardrada who claimed to be a heir of Cnut, and William of Normandy, a relation of Cnut’s predecessor Æthelred the Unready. On top of it, William, called “the Bastard” because his was born out of wedlock, allegedly received the promise to be Edward the Confessor’s heir after the King of England visited Normandy and tried to reorganise his country after the Norman example.

James William Edmund Doyle’s imagination of Harold Godwinson swearing fealty to William the Conqueror (A Chronicle of England: B.C. 55 – A.D. 1485, 1864)

If Edward promised the throne or not to William before, he laid the fate of the kingdom in Harold’s hands, the Witangemot agreed and Harold was crowned as King Harold II on 6 January 1066. According to the sources, those written by his enemy as well, he was a tall, handsome man, witty and brave. As Earl of Wessex since 1051, he had proven himself to be an able war leader in his campaigns against the Welsh and a politician with his hands full opposing the growing influence of Norman nobility after Edward attempted his reforms. In 1064, he was on his way to the continent, why is unclear, the Normans claim to swear fealty to William as successor of Edward, others that he tried to find relatives on the continent, in captivity since the days when his father was exiled, however, he was shipwrecked, captured by a local nobleman and released by William. After accompanying him on a raid against local rulers from Brittany, Harold is supposed to have sworn an oath of fealty to William – whether this was a genuine act or as random as Edward’s promise to William, remains open as well, William took both Anglo-Saxon promises serious and when Harold took the crown for himself, he accused him as a traitor and prepared for invasion.

Horace Vernet: “Edith Swanneck (Harold's consort) discovering King Harold's corpse on the battle field of Hastings“ (1828)

In the days when political leaders found themselves directly in the battle lines of the conflicts they had contributed to, October 14th in the year of 1066 saw King Harold II in the shield wall between his housecarls, his lifeguards, on Senlac Hill, facing the Norman onslaught. Harold had at least kept his word to the other pretender, Harald Hardrada, to yield no more than seven feet of English ground to him – which he did. He defeated Harald’s and his brother Tostig’s army at Stamford Bridge in the North, where both were killed, just a couple of weeks before and had force-marched his troops back to Sussex to meet William. The Battle of Hastings was a close-run thing for both sides, but in the end, William prevailed, after Harold was either hit by an arrow in the eye or hacked apart by four Norman knights, during a rearguard action, at the Malfosse, the Evil Ditch, where today a stone marks the place where he allegedly fell, once the site of the high altar of Battle Abbey, donated by William, now the Conqueror, after his victory in the Battle of Hastings.

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