King Harold's Family's Fate


Geoff Boxell

After the Battle of Hastings, William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy sent William Mallet, who had befriended Harold when he was Earl of Wessex, to find Harold's body. Mallet identified it, with the help of Harold's hand fast wife, Edith, by the marks on his body (probably tattoos). Despite an offer by Harold's mother, Gytha, to buy the body for its weight in gold, William had it buried under a cairn overlooking the seashore. To quote the Norman chronicler, William of Jumieges: 'It was said in mockery to be appropriate to leave him as keeper of the shore and sea which he had sought to defend in his insanity.'

No doubt William did not wish Harold's grave to become a focus for English devotion. Later, if the tradition and records of Harold's personal church, Holy Cross Waltham Abbey in Essex, are true William relented and the body taken and reburied in front its high altar. In 1120 it was moved to a nave in as the number of pilgrims was becoming an embarrassment to England's new nobility. When the abbey was dissolved in Henry VIII's time the church was considerably reduced in size and the nave demolished. The assumed site of Harold's body now lies in the church grounds.

Recently there have been claims that Harold was in fact buried in the Godwin family church at Bosham. The claims mainly come from the finding of bones and hair in a grave near the altar that date from the period. The bones and hair colouring match Harold's. However, as Harold's father, Godwin, and Harold's cousin, the murdered Beorn, were both buried there it is more likely to be either of their bodies, rather than Harold's. There is not much known of the fate of King Harold's family after 1066.

Of his hand fast wife Edith, nothing further is written, and no legends are told of her fate. The Godwin family did have ties with the nunnery at Wilton, where Harold's daughter, Gunnhild was after the Conquest, and she may have retired there. Alternatively she may have retired to the nunnery of St Omer in Flanders. His wife, Queen Alditha, gave birth to King Harold's son, Harold at Chester in 1067. The revolts against William, now crowned King of England, led by Alditha's brothers, Edwin and Morcar, led to William's nightmare winter march from Yorkshire in the winter of 1069/70 that led the brother's defeat at Stafford, the fall of the Chester and the harrowing of land about. Alditha fled with her infant son to Dublin, and disappeared from recorded history.

King Harold's mother, Gytha had earlier held out against the Norman invaders when, during William's return to Normandy in 1067, she fortified and held Exeter in Devon, the fourth largest city in the land. When William returned, he faced many revolts led by local English leaders, but it was to Exeter that he first turned. The mid winter siege lasted 18 days and a large part of the Norman army perished in the process. The city finally capitulated when the expected support from local thegns did not eventuate. Whether King Harold's sons by Edith, Godwin, Edmund and Magnus, were present is not recorded. Gytha fled before the surrender and sailed with Harold's daughter Gytha and his sister, Gunnhild to the island of Flatholme in the Bristol Channel.

The setback at Exeter did not curb Harold's cubs and they went to Dublin with their huscarls to seek aid from King Harold's friend, King Diarmait. In the summer 1068 they were back with a force of Dublin Norse mercenaries. They attempted to make Bristol their base, but the locals proved to be unsympathetic, so they were forced to try and take it by storm. The reason for the resistance may have been a fear of William's known wroth, or a dislike of the Hiberno-Norse mercenaries rather than disloyalty to the Godwin family. The city held, and the brothers sailed off with the booty they had taken from the surrounding countryside. They landed in Somerset near land that had been held by the Godwins for years, they might have intended to raid the Taunton mint. The local Fyrd led by Eadnoth Staller met them. Eadnoth had been a loyal supporter of their father but after his death at Senlac had submitted to William. The battle was hard fought with big casualties on both sides and Eadnoth's death. It is thought possible that Magnus Haroldson also died on the battle field as he is never heard of again. There is, however, at St John in Lewis, Sussex, an inscription dated from the time that records the presence of a Magnus a prince of the royal northern race. As Sussex was the homeland of the Godwin clan it may be that Magnus, possible crippled, spent his remaining life there as an anchorite.

Godwin and Edmund were back the following year of 1069 with a fleet of 60 ships. Their attempt to retake Exeter was foiled by the Norman garrison in their newly built castle and strengthened city walls. Frustrated, the brother raided Somerset and Cornwall. Rounding Lands End they headed for the Godwin holdings of Nettlecombe and Landford Budville. The lack of local opposition made the brothers incautious and they were caught and defeated by a large Norman force under Count Brian. In the battle and subsequent encounters the brothers suffered heavy losses and only a remnant returned to Ireland.

The failure of the Haroldsons to re-establish a base in England caused Gytha and the family with her on Flatholme to seek refuge with Count Baldwin VI of Flanders. Baldwin and the Godwin kin were tied by the marriage of Tostig Godwinson to Baldwin's aunt, Judith. Whilst Gytha and her daughter Gunnhild entered the nunnery of St Omer, where Gunnhild died in 1087 after performing many good works, the brothers Godwin and Edmund journeyed to the court of their cousin, King Swein of Denmark.

Swein had already made an attempt on claiming the English throne for himself, lending aid to both Earl Waltheof and the northern thegns, and Hereward the Wake in the fens. In the confusion following Swein's death in 1074 all track of the brothers is lost and they are heard of no more. Their sister, Gytha, had been sent by Swein before his death to marry the Russian Prince of Smolensk, Vladimir Monomakh.

The marriage proved fruitful and Gytha gave Vladimir a large brood of offspring, possibly as many as eight sons and three daughters. Gytha died on 07 May 1107 before her husband had achieved the pinnacle of his power as Grand Prince of Kiev. Their eldest son was Msistislav, known to the Norse world as, Harold. This Russian Harold had a daughter, Ingibiorge. She had a son who became King Valdemar of Denmark.

Another of King Harold's daughters by Edith, Gunnhild, was a nun at Wilton. She may have fled there after the defeat at the Battle of Hastings, but more likely she had been sent there originally to be educated as her aunt, King Edward the Confessor's wife Edith, had been. Initially she remained there as a refugee from the Normans, using the veil as her protection. With her was Edith, Edgar Æþeling's niece, later to be the wife of King Henry I of England. Gunnhild may have sought refuge from the Normans, but later they seem to have used the nunnery as a prison to prevent her from being involved in any threat to their power. The threat and controversy did in fact arise, but from a Breton rather than an English source. Alan the Red, Earl of Richmond, abducted Gunnhild in August 1093.

Alan had been given lands that had belonged to Edith Swan Neck. Alan must have felt that, being married, though maybe only in the hand fast manner, to Edith's daughter, would help him gain the co-operation of the locals. Gunnhild seemed happy with the arrangement. Whilst living with Alan the Red she defied the attempts of Anslem, Archbishop of Canterbury, to get her to go back to the nunnery, saying that she had never formally taken the veil. Anslem later found out that she had in fact taken vows. Meantime Alan the Red had died and Gunnhild had taken up with his brother and successor, Alan the Black! Despite the strong terms he used in trying yet again to unsuccessfully get Gunnhild to return to being a nun, Anslem remained very respectful acknowledging her noble and royal lineage.

The Normans had early on captured King Harold's other son by Edith, Ulf. He spent the whole of the reign of King William I in prison. His uncle, Wulfnoth Godwinson, who had been one of the hostages taken by Archbishop Robert to Normandy following the return of the Godwin kin to power in England during 1052, had spent his life from then until his death in 1094 as a prisoner. Despite being included in the amnesty of the dying King William I, Wulfnoth had continued a prisoner under William II (William Rufus), Ulf was more fortunate and gained his freedom as a result of the same amnesty. William I's eldest son, Robert Curthose who had been given Normandy as his inheritance, knighted him. His later fate is unknown for certain, but many think that he fought with Robert in the First Crusade.

King Harold son, Harold, by his Queen, Alditha, was born in 1067 after his father's death. When Chester fell to William I, Alditha fled to Dublin taking Harold with her. Ultimately young Harold journeyed to Norway. Here, so the chronicler William of Malmesbury tells us, he was received well by King Magnus. The reception we are told, was the result of King Harold's mercy to Magnus after the defeat of the Viking army at Stamford Bridge. Harold next appears amongst the followers of King Magnus off the Isle of Anglesey. Here a battle was fought against the Norman earls of Shrewsbury and Chester. A great historical irony was Earl Hugh of Shrewsbury being killed by an arrow!

Of young Harold no more is known. However, there were many tales that told that King Harold had survived the Battle of Hastings. One of these, the Norse saga Jatvarþar, has King Harold as a hermit living near Chester. It says that it was there that King Harold spoke to King Henry I, a fact attested to by two Latin chronicles. It may well be the hermit King Harold that Henry I spoke to was in fact Harold Haroldson.

If you can remember back to middle school history class you might remember that the current English Royal family traces their decent from William I (the Conqueror). Through the marriage of William's son Henry I to Edith, the niece of Edgar Æþeling, they are also descended from the Royal House of Wessex, and thus the old kings of the English. However, through their decent from Valemar of Denmark, both Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Phillip, have the blood of King Harold II, last King of the English also flowing through their veins!