10 Facts About Harold Godwinson: The Last Anglo-Saxon King

Adam Dalrymple

3 mins

23 Sep 2019

Harold Godwinson was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England. His reign lasted only 9 months, but he is famous as a central character in one the seminal chapters of British history: the Battle of Hastings. Harold was killed on the battlefield and his army was defeated, ushering in a new age of Norman rule in England.

Here are 10 facts about King Harold Godwinson.

1. Harold was the son of a great Anglo-Saxon lord

Harold’s father Godwin had risen from obscurity to become the Earl of Wessex in the reign of Cnut the Great. One of the most powerful and wealthy figures of Anglo-Saxon England, Godwin was sent into exile by King Edward the Confessor in 1051, but returned 2 years later with the support of the navy.

2. He was one of 11 children

Harold had 6 brothers and 4 sisters. His sister Edith married King Edward the Confessor. Four of his brothers went on the become earls, which meant that, by 1060, all the earldoms of England but Mercia were ruled by sons of Godwin.

Schoolchildren Beth and Ned give us a masterclass in the events of 1066. Why did the battle last so long? Why were Harold's army so tired? Why could William's victory be put down to luck? And why should we still care today?Watch Now

3. Harold became an earl himself

Harold became Earl of East Anglia in 1045, succeeded his father as Earl of Wessex in 1053, and then added Hereford to his territories in 1058. Harold had become arguably more powerful than the King of England himself.

4. He defeated an expansionist King of Wales

He undertook a successful campaign against Gruffydd ap Llewelyn in 1063. Gruffydd was the only Welsh king ever to rule over the entire territory of Wales, and as such posed a threat to Harold’s lands in the west of England.

Gruffydd was killed after being cornered in Snowdonia.

5. Harold was shipwrecked in Normandy in 1064

There is much historical debate over what happened on this trip.

William, Duke of Normandy, later insisted that Harold had sworn an oath on holy relics that he would support William’s claim to the throne upon the death of Edward the Confessor, who was at the end of his life and childless.

However, some historians believe this story was fabricated by the Normans to legitimise their invasion of England.

The Bayeux Tapestry shows Harold swearing an oath to support William’s claim to the English throne.

6. He was elected King of England by an assembly of noblemen

After Edward the Confessor’s death on 5 January 1066, Harold was chosen by the Witenagemot – an assembly of nobility and clergy – to be the next King of England.

His coronation in Westminster Abbey took place the very next day.

7. He was victorious at the Battle of Stamford Bridge

Harold defeated a large Viking army under the command of Harald Hardrada, after taking them by surprise. His traitorous brother Tostig, who had supported Harald’s invasion, was killed during the battle.

8. And then marched 200 miles in a week

Upon hearing that William had crossed the Channel, Harold swiftly marched his army down the length of England, reaching London by around 6 October. He would have covered around 30 miles a day on his way south.

Medieval historian Marc Morris answers the key questions about 1066.Watch Now

9. Harold lost the Battle of Hastings to William the Conqueror on 14 October 1066

After a hard-fought battle that lasted all day, the Norman force defeated Harold’s army and the King of England lay slain on the battlefield. The Norman cavalry proved the difference – Harold’s force was made up entirely of infantry.

10. He was killed by an arrow in the eye

Harold is killed by an arrow through the eye. On the Bayeux Tapestry.

A figure is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry as being killed at the Battle of Hastings by an arrow in the eye. Although some scholars dispute whether this is Harold, the writing above the figure states Harold Rex interfectus est,

“Harold the King has been killed.”