This article is an edited transcript of 1066: Battle of Hastings – Marc Morris on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 14 October 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
Harold Godwinson was one of the contenders for the English throne in 1066, along with William the Conqueror and Harald Hardrada. However, Harold Godwinson’s claim to the throne was delicate.
According to English sources, on his deathbed Edward the Confessor nominated his brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson, as his successor.
A variety of sources, both English and Norman, argue that Edward the Confessor merely entrusted the crown to Harold or imply that he appointed Harold to something less than the crown itself, suggesting it was only a regency or that Harold was supposed to be a stopgap ruler.
Then Edward died. Edward’s problem was that, despite having been the king of England for nearly a quarter of a century (he was 24 years into his reign at that point), he hadn’t produced any children of his own.
His whole career, but particularly the last few years, had been overshadowed entirely by the question of who would succeed him.
In the meantime, Harold Godwinson had become the most powerful man in England – arguably even more so than Edward himself.
He was the power behind the throne and when Edward died on 5 January 1066 he simply took the throne. The next day Edward was buried and Harold was crowned in his place.
In that period, it was very unusual that a king would be crowned so soon after the death of a predecessor. In fact, it can be seen as the most suspicious act in the whole drama of the Norman conquest.
In the period before 1066, kings were not made by the act of crowning them, they were simply chosen. We frequently see phrases in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle such as, “He was chosen king by the whole people,” or, “All the thanes chose him as king”.
Normally you would be sworn in as king the moment your predecessor died, but you wouldn’t need to be crowned.
Coronation was just a confirmation, and it was unnecessary to hold a big ceremony and have God bless your rule until months later.
A good example was Edward the Confessor himself, who became king in June 1042 but who didn’t have his coronation until Easter 1043. He waited a whole nine months before being crowned.
Harold, very significantly, was crowned the day after Edward died, and on the same day that he was buried. He had nothing to support his claim other than designation by his predecessor; he didn’t have a blood link, so he was keen to have God’s blessing bestowed upon him.
He needed to bolster his rule in any way he could, and he viewed a rapid coronation as his best bet.
An elective monarchy?
There’s a story about the Anglo-Saxons that claims the Anglo-Saxon monarchy was elective, and that the great men would get together in the Witenagemot (an assembly of the ruling class whose primary function was to advise the king) and pick the worthiest among them.
It sounds wonderfully proto-democratic but is likely a myth because it was very rare during that period for the crown to pass to anyone other than a close relative of the former monarch.
Even if you look back a couple of centuries before 1066, to the time of King Alfred, and you look at who took the crown, the line of succession runs from son to brother, to son, to grandson, to son, to son, to brother. The crown was always kept within the royal family. There wasn’t a democratic process to decide on the question of succession.
The only time that the crown wasn’t kept within the royal family was in the 11th century, when there was a Viking conquest just 50 years before the Norman conquest. King Cnut then inherited the throne, which altered the tidy succession from father to son somewhat.
Really, the first person to crash in out of left field without any kind of blood link to his predecessor was Harold himself. Instead, he was married to Edward’s the Confessor sister, so he was linked by marriage but not by blood.
In fact, the rhetoric around the early Anglo-Saxon monarchy being so ahead of its time in its elective nature may have come from the circumstances of Harold’s coronation.
People who seize the throne without any dynastic link are always keen to argue that they have the popular vote and that people are supporting them over any potential rivals.
King Stephen did the same thing in 1135 when Henry I died. He had a blood link but it wasn’t as strong as Matilda’s claim to the crown, and so he claimed that he had the support of the people.
That’s where the urgency around Harold’s coronation comes from, a desperate need to assert his fledgling status as a monarch.