Harold Godwinson

Last King of the English

By Geoff Boxell

Harold Godwinson was the second son of Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Godwin had been a prime mover in getting Edward, later known as the Confessor, accepted by the English Witan as the new King of the English. Godwin then supported King Edward in his stand against his mother, Emma the Queen Dowager. In addition Godwin gave his backing to Abbott Siward for the post of Archbishop of Canterbury; Siward being the king's choice. Part of his reward for this support was in 1044 to have his eldest son, Swein made Earl of South Mercia, and his younger son, Harold, made Earl of East Anglia.

There had been no Earl of East Anglia since Knute removed Thorkell the Tall in 1021. Knute needed no Earl in this vital area as he controlled Denmark, and dominated Norway. Edward, in contrast, faced the threat from Magnus, King of Norway, who had a strong claim to the English throne, and at the time controlled Denmark. The need for a powerful leader in the area was shewn the following year when Harold led the fleet in moves designed to discourage Magnus from making any moves against England.

Harold was around 25, and a younger son, albeit of a powerful father. He was now the local representative of the king with wide powers to act on his behalf in matters of law, and lead the men of the earldom in war or emergency. With the position went extensive land holding that were designed to cover the great costs of the earldom's administration. These were in addition to his personal possessions. This young man had now to forge links with the other earls, Leofric of Mercia, and Siward of Northumberland, who together with Harold's father, Godwin of Wessex, Harold's brother Swein of South Mercia and cousin Beorn of Northampton, formed the elite of the land and the movers and shakers of the Witan.

Sometime after becoming Earl of East Anglia, Harold took a local heiress, Edith Swanneshals (Swan neck) as his hand-fast (Common Law) wife. It may be that Harold was seeking to establish himself with the local thegns. However, the amount of time he appears to have spent with her over the next 20 years and the fact that they had at least 7 children, seems to suggest that they got on very well together. Perhaps it really was a love match, for she was frequently noted as being beautiful as well as rich. This type of marriage, often referred to in Royal Circles as a 'Danish marriage', was not uncommon at the time, and the legitimacy of the children would have been no more questioned than that of Knute's son by Ælfgifu of Northampton, King Harold Harefoot.

In 1046 Harold's brother, Earl Swein, abducted Edith the Abbess of Leominster. It took almost a year, and the full weight of king and Witan to make him release her. Swein was exiled for this ill-considered episode. His earldom was split between Beorn and Harold, possibly to compensate Earl Godwin for his son's punishment. This incident, and Godwin's support for Swein eroded the relationship between the earl and the king. It also shews the consensus rule of king and Witan; the most powerful man in the land, the father-in-law of the king, uncle of an earl and father of another could not prevent his eldest son from judgement and punishment.

1048 saw Harold again in charge of the nation's fleet, this time seeking German raiders. However, the raiders slipped past the ships and raided Essex, part of Harold's earldom. The raiders may well have been using Flanders as a base. The Count, Baldwin, had been exploiting the German Emperor Henry's preoccupation with preserving his borders from incursion by Magnus of Norway. The latter's death saw Harald Hardrada claim the throne of Norway and then fight Swein Ulfson for control of Denmark. In 1049 Henry formed an alliance with King Edward. The English fleet, part of which was led by Harold Godwinson, were to contain the pirates by sea, whilst the Emperor applied pressure by land to clean out the pirates nest at Bruges. In the midst of this campaign Swein Godwinson returned, having worn out his welcome with his cousin Swein Ulfson of Denmark.

Swein sought peace with the king, but found himself still opposed by the Witan including his brother Harold, and cousin Beorn, who may have been reluctant to give back the land and power they had gained on Swein's disgrace. Seeing the Godwinson family divided, and with the backing of the other earls, Edward refused to budge. Swein was given 4 days safe conduct to leave the land and he withdrew to the family holding of Bosham in Sussex. Whilst he was there information was received of enemy shipping in the Channel. The king ordered Earl Godwin to take a fleet of 42 ships, some of whom were commanded by Harold, others by Beorn, to intercept them. Weather bound at Pevensey they were joined by Swein, who had ridden there with some followers from Bosham. Swein persuaded his cousin Beorn to accompany him to a meeting with King Edward. Once there, Swein had Beorn seized, bound, and taken on board his ship. It may have been Swein's intention to use Beorn as a hostage, but the end result was Beorn's death and burial in an unmarked grave. On hearing what had happened the king and the fleet all named Swein 'nithing', that is a person of no value. Swein's men must have had similar feelings as six of his eight ships deserted him. Swein went back into exile in Flanders. Harold found his cousin's body, and buried him at Winchester, alongside his uncle, King Knute the Mighty.

Godwin must have loved his son, Swein, despite his erratic and unacceptable behaviour. Over the winter Godwin worked on King Edward to allow his son back, and with his earldom to boot. The earlier problem of the land had disappeared with Beorn's earldom being split between Harold and the king's nephew, the half-Norman Ralf to compensate for that lost to Swein. The earl did not get away scot-free though, as he undertook to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Meantime, either through infertility or celibacy, Edward remained childless.

In the summer of 1051, Edward was visited by former brother-in-law, Eustace Count of Boulogne. At the end of the visit, Eustace went to Dover to take ship. On his arrival he demanded free board and quarter for himself and his men. This was contrary to the common law of England, and the folk of Dover refused and a fight ensued with several deaths on both sides. Eustace returned to the king and complained about the folk of Dover. Edward summoned Godwin and ordered him to ravage Dover as a punishment. Godwin, aware of his folk's rights, refused. Edward called the Witan to stand in judgement of Godwin. For good measure, Edward raised the hoary old chestnut of Godwin being implicated in the murder of his younger brother Æþeling Ælfred in the reign of Harold Harefoot. The fact that Eustace and his men had entered Dover armed indicates that they had planned mischief. Eustace was being threatened by an alliance of his neighbours, William of Normandy and Baldwin of Flanders. If he could do Edward of England a favour, such as bringing down an over powerful earl, he would have an alliance of his own to counter the threat, and Edward would be freer to rule England as he saw fit.

Godwin felt the trap closing, gathered the Wessex Fyrd, and summoned his sons, Swein and Harold with their hearth troops and supporters. He also made arrangements to marry his son Tosti to Judith, daughter of Baldwin of Flanders. If all fell apart in England, Godwin had a safe bolt-hole, and a son-in-law only too happy to give support to an enemy of Eustace of Boulogne.

Edward gathered his own supporters, Eustace, Archbishop Robert, his nephew Ralph the half Norman (later know as 'the Timid"), and the Normans he had settled in the Hereford Marcherlands. Also supporting him were the English earls, Leofric of Mercia and Siward of Northumberland who, no doubts were happy to see the rival house of Godwin get its wings clipped.

On 01 September, Edward was at Gloucester when he was informed that Godwin and his armed host was at nearby Beverstone. Godwin demanded the opportunity to refute the charges made against him in regards to Ælfred's murder. He also wanted Eustace to stand trial for his actions in Dover. Edward stalled, summoned the northern earls and cried treason! Godwin's bluff was called when the earls with their shire Fyrds arrived. Civil War loomed. The fact that did not occur may shew that both sides well remembered the dark days of Æþelræd Unræd. Negotiations took place, hostages given (Godwin's youngest son, Wulf and Sweign's son Hakon for two) and a meeting arranged to be held at London to resolve the crisis. The Godwins were at Southwark. There, their army began to melt away as those who held land from the king or church had their loyalty swayed. Others followed and soon the Godwins had only their hearth troops left. Edward, seeing their diminishing power, now declared Swein Godwinson 'outlaw'. He then commanded Godwin and Harold to appear before him. Godwin asked for guarantees, Edward refused. Godwin was now in an impossible position: if he went to Edward, his safety was at risk, if he stood his ground it could come to armed conflict. He had been out manoeuvred and prepared for exile. Earl Godwin had to give his youngest son, Wulf, and nephew, Swein's son Hakon as hostages. Interestingly, Harold did not have to give hostages, despite the fact that by then he had at least one son.

In early October Godwin and the rest of his sons were declared outlaws and given five days to leave the country. The men of Dover were left unpunished. Godwin, his wife Gytha, and his sons Swein, Tosti and Gyrth boarded ship at Bosham and left for Flanders. Harold and Leofwine Godwinson sailed from Bristol for the Norse stronghold of Dublin in Ireland. There, after a stormy crossing, they were welcomed into the court of Diarmait Mac Mæl-Na-Mbo, King of Leinster. The Irish Diarmid, who dominated Dublin, welcomed them into his court. During Harold's time with the Diarmid, the king, possibly with help from the Godwinsons and their followers, expelled the Norse-Irish King Eachmargach from Dublin and replaced him with his son, Murchad. Dublin was full of Viking mercenaries, and the new king allowed the Godwinsons to freely recruit them for the coming struggle with King Edward.

Edward knew that Godwin and his cubs were gathering forces and sharpening their claws. To curb any attempt to land in England, Edward gathered a fleet of 40 ships under the command of Ralf and Odda. However, the professional fleet had been laid off in 1050 and most of the ships came from Wessex and East Anglia, the power bases of Godwin and Harold, and neither Ralf, nor Odda were known seamen.

On 24 June 1052, Godwin made a sortie across the Channel, possibly to test the defences, more likely to see what support he could count on from the men of Wessex. After recruiting in Dungeness and Hastings he retreated to Pevensey when the royal fleet sailed from Sandwich seeking him. A violent storm sent the fleet to seek shelter; Godwin used the storm as cover for his return to Bruges. Edward was not happy, called out the fleet to London and dismissed the earls and paid off the ships and crews. He may have intended to assemble a new fleet whose loyalty and skills were less suspect, but before he could, Godwin, with his enlarged fleet, possibly containing ships that had earlier been in the royal fleet, landed at the Isle of Wight. Here he gathered support and supplies and ravaged the lands of those who would not turn to him. From there he sailed to Portland where he did the same, re-imposing his authority as Earl of Wessex.

Shortly after Godwin's departure from the Isle of Wight, Harold and Leofwine left Dublin with nine ships. They entered the river Seven and ravaged Porlock to provoke Odda, who now had responsibility for the area. The local Fyrd was called out, but they were easily defeated, leaving over 30 dead. This was Harold's first military action, and it was successful, albeit on a small scale. The Godwinsons then sailed round Lands End and joined their father off of the Isle of Wight. From there the combined fleet sailed up the Channel and onto London, gathering men and ships as they went.

Edward summoned the earls and their hosts. Whilst Ralph and Odda responded, Leofric and Siward were noticeable by their absence. It may be that they were uncomfortable with the way in which Edward had dealt with Godwin and his kin. Or it may have been that they were concerned at the increased power of Edward's French and Norman friends. Thus, Edward found himself out numbered.

On arrival at his holding of Southwark, Godwin talked directly to the men of London and persuaded them to support him. After sailing under London Bridge, Godwin's forces disembarked and, as in 1051, two armies faced each other across the Thames. Again there appeared to be little desire for Englishmen to shed English blood. With Bishop Stigand acting as intermediary, a truce was made and a meeting of the Witan called. Before it could meet, the Norman bishops Ulf and William, led by Archbishop of Canterbury Robert, fled their flocks, taking with them Edward's hostages, Godwin's son Wulf and grandson Hakon.

The Witan, when it met, included Leofric and Siward. Godwin cleared himself, on oath, of involvement in the Æþeling Æfred's death and of treasonable intent by himself and family in 1051. The Witan and the reluctant King accepted the oath. Godwin and his family, except Swein, still returning from pilgrimage at that time, were restored to their lands and positions. This affected Leofric considerably, but an arrangement was held that, should Harold be appointed to Wessex on his father's death, Leofric's son, Ælfgar, would take over East Anglia. The Witan held that the crisis of 1051 had been caused by 'bad counsellors', and thus Archbishop Robert, Bishops Ulf and William and the Frenchmen of Herefordshire were outlawed. Stigand's reward was to be made Archbishop of Canterbury, replacing Robert, who had abandoned the post.

Godwin did not have long to enjoy his returned good fortune. On Easter Monday 1052, during a royal feast, he suffered a stroke, and died three days later.

King Edward then did an amazing thing. With Godwin dead, he was free of the power and influence of the most powerful man in the nation. Swein was also dead having died on his return, barefoot, from Jerusalem. As earldoms were not hereditary, Edward could appoint whom he wanted to the vacant earldom of Wessex; he could have kept the earldom for himself. He made the astonishing decision to appoint Harold as the new Earl of Wessex. He even created a new title for him: Die Gratia, Dux Anglorum. Until now no one had been Duke of England, and no one but the king had ever been said to hold his position till now, 'By the Grace of God'. Harold was King Edward's right hand man and trusted counsellor.

With the nation settled again, and Harold as his main advisor, King Edward turned his thoughts to a successor. Edward's closest relative was his nephew, Ralph the Timid, Earl of Hereford. However, his line of decent was through his mother, and his military shewing was poor, having been an ineffectual leader of the fleet against Godwin and his sons. Ralf was also half French. So was another close relative, Walter of the Vexin. Rather than nominating William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, as post Conquest sources would have us believe, Edward sought out Edward Æþeling, the brother of King Edmund Ironside. Edward Æþeling the Exile, had fled with his family to Hungary, where he had prospered. Bishop Ealdred of Worcester set out in 1054 to track down the Æþeling at the edge of the Holy Roman Empire. However, internal politics in the Empire meant that he was unsuccessful. In the meantime, Earl Siward of Northumberland had died.

Siward's eldest son, Osbeorn, had died helping Malcolm Clanmore evict Thorfinn MacBethog (McBeth) from the Scottish throne. His only remaining son was Waltheof, a child. The north needed a firm hand, so Edward appointed Harold's brother, Tosti, to the empty position. Earl Ælfgar of East Anglia thought that the earldom should have been his, especially as Tosti had not held a position of importance before. His complaints upset Edward, who outlawed him! The fact that the Earl of East Anglia's father, Leofric, did nothing to save his son, indicates that there may have been justification in the sentence of outlawry. It would also indicate that Ælfgar's disgrace was not a plot by the Godwinsons.

Ælfgar fled to Ireland where he raised a force of mercenaries, which sailed to Chester to await payment. The exiled earl also spent time persuading the King of North Wales, Gruffiðð, to join him in an attack on England. The Welsh king, however, had a more pressing problem; Gruffiðð ap Rhyððerch of South Wales. With the help of Ælfgar's 18 ships of mercenaries, Gruffiðð made a raid into South Wales, which resulted in his killing of his rival. The allies now turned on Hereford. The choice of target was probably dictated by Ælfgar's need to avoid armed conflict with his father, Leofric Earl of Mercia. Opposing them was the Earl of Hereford, the king's nephew Ralf. Ralf decided to make the defending English force fight on horseback. This break with normal English military tactics, where horses were only used for transport, led to a monumental defeat. With the shire Fyrd shattered, King Edward looked elsewhere for a force to defend England's borders. He called on Harold, Earl of Wessex.

In his first major military campaign, Harold moved cautiously. After a short stab into Welsh territory to draw Gruffiðð back to protect his own, Harold returned to fortify Hereford. He then opened negotiations with the invaders. In view of the many successes that Gruffiðð had had against the English over a period of years, and the fact that he had a doubtful Mercia at his back, this was not a silly thing to do. The terms were that Ælfgar was to be reinstated as Earl of East Anglia, Gruffiðð gained the marcherland of Archenfield, and Ælfgar accepted Tosti as Earl of Northumberland. Although it was not an ideal solution for King Edward, it at least broke the dangerous alliance of Ælfgar and Gruffiðð. Shortly afterwards the Bishop of Hereford, Æþelstan, died. In his place Edward appointed Harold's chaplain, the warlike Leofgar. Unfortunately he was rash, as well as militant. Leading the shire Fyrd in a punitive raid into Wales, he died along with a large part of his force. Earls Harold and Leofric, together with Bishop Ealdred of Worcester, gathered an army. Despite their numerical advantage, they did not venture into the dangerous mountains of Wales. Instead they sat down with Gruffiðð and talked. The Welshman was recognised as King of all Wales in exchange for him recognising Edward as his overlord. Although diffused, the problem remained.

Having proved his ability as a diplomat, Harold was sent in 1056 to make another attempt to persuade Edward Æþeling to return to England as an heir for King Edward. The new German Emperor had settled the dispute with Hungary, and he opened negotiations with Andrew I of Hungary at the Imperial Christmas gathering at Regensburg on the Danube. Neither Andrew nor Edward Æþeling were keen at first. Whilst awaiting their decision it is thought that Harold accompanied Pope Victor to Rome. Certainly Harold collected Edward Æþeling in Bavaria and escorted him back to England. They arrived home just after Earl Leofric died. Edward Æþeling joined him within a matter of days. It was not too disastrous as he had a son, Edgar. Provided King Edward stayed alive for at least 10 years, the English still had an Æþeling. The succession of Earl Leofric was also easily solved; his son, Ælfgar, who had served his apprenticeship as Earl of East Anglia, would succeed him. The replacement in East Anglia was another Godwinson, Gyrth.

There was another important death that year. On 21 December, Ralf the Timid, Earl of Hereford, died. Ralf's son, another Harold, was an infant, the remaining Godwinsons were too inexperienced to be given the marcher earldom, and Ælfgar would not be welcomed by the men of Herefordshire given his activities a few years earlier. The solution was to divide the earldom in three; Harold gained the Welsh border counties, Ælfgar some of the eastern counties and Leofwine the eastern counties. Of all the earls of England, only Ælfgar was not a Godwinson.

 Ælfgar was not happy with the increased power of the Godwinsons, nor possibly the exclusion of his son Edwin from an earldom, even though he was but a boy at the time. In 1057 he turned again to Gruffiðð of Wales, sealing the alliance by giving the Welsh King his daughter Alditha for his wife. Ælfgar may only have been protecting his back on the Welsh border, whilst providing himself with a potential source of military support should he be in dispute with either King Edward or the Godwinsons. Edward saw it as a threat and banished him.

Ælfgar fled to Gruffiðð where the allies gained assistance from a Norwegian fleet under the leadership of King Harald. The Norse raided the north-western coast of England whilst the Welsh raided the border. The Norwegians, ships full of plunder, sailed away, and again Harold arranged for Ælfgar to be given back his earldom and Gruffiðð more English borderlands. The allies were too powerful to ignore, and too strong to upset.

The alliance ended when Ælfgar died sometime after August in 1062. He must have died in December, for as soon as Christmas was over, Harold struck at Gruffiðð, presumably before the news of Ælfgar's death could reach his Welsh ally. Using a mounted force, Harold struck at Gruffiðð's palace at Rhuddlan in North Wales. He missed his prey, but used the opportunity to burn the buildings and the Welsh King's fleet. The king and Harold now determined to smash Gruffiðð once and for all, and regain those lands they had had to concede to him over the years.

Harold and his brother Tosti planned a joint land/sea operation. In the spring of 1063, under Harold's overall command, they struck. Harold led a fleet that sailed from Bristol and raided along the Welsh coast, distracting the Welsh forces whilst Tosti, with a mounted force, entered North Wales from the Chester area. Harold sailed north to take and devastate the Isle of Anglesey, the granary of North Wales. He then sailed parallel to the coast, supporting his brother's land forces. A Welsh chronicle records his light forces devastating all Wales and erecting memorial stones recording his victories. Gruffiðð and his shrinking forces fled inland to the fast of Snowdon, where he continued to harass the English forces.

The campaign isolated Gruffiðð from his supporters and forced the Welsh to submit, give hostages and pay tribute. They also outlawed and renounced their king. Harold kept the pressure on and Gruffiðð's own supporters lost faith in him. On 5 August Cyan, son of Iago, brought Gruffiðð's head to Harold, who took it and laid it at the feet of King Edward. In Gruffiðð's place his brothers Bleððyn and Rhiwallon were allowed to rule in North Wales after acknowledging Edward as their overlord and agreeing to pay tribute. South Wales was left for local dynasties to squabble over. The English regained their lost marcherlands and gained some new ones. So great was the devastation suffered by the Welsh that King Edward agreed to let Welsh women marry English men, whilst Harold was able to enact a law to prevent armed Welshmen travelling into England.

In the autumn of 1064 occurred the inexplicable visit of Harold to Normandy. The visit is not mentioned by any English sources. As the Norman sources were written after the events of 1066, their interpretation of what may have happened, are therefore suspect.

The reasons for the visit, if it happened, are open to speculation. It may have been an official embassy from King Edward, confirming William as his heir, though the presence of the falcons and hounds shewn in the Bayeaux Tapestry, and the role of the Witan in deciding who would hold the kingship of the English, are against this. It may have been a fishing and hunting trip gone wrong, though the known expertise of the Anglo-Danish navy would seem against it. It may have been a family visit to Flanders, where Godwin and some of the family had lived in exile and whose’ Count was related via the marriage of his daughter, Judith, to Tosti Godwinson. But there was no apparent reason for the visit. The most likely cause was an attempt by Harold to retrieve his brother Wulf and cousin Hakon, who were still being held hostage at the Norman court. If this is so, Harold may have been doing a little diplomatic snooping on the side. Whatever; the ships were caught in a storm and ended up on the coast of Ponthieu, whose Count kindly made the English all hostage and held them to ransom. William was informed and redeemed Harold and his men by threats and money.

During the time William had Harold at his court there is said to have been talk of Harold marrying Agatha, the Bastard’s daughter, and of Harold’s sister Ælfgifu being married to a senior Norman baron. During this time Count Conan of Brittany made one of his periodic attempts to shrug off Norman overlordship after one of the Breton nobles gave his fealty direct to William. Harold joined William on the campaign, gaining recognition for his personal rescue of some of the Norman contingent from quicksand by lying on a shield and pulling them free. The campaign followed the usual Norman pattern of relieving and setting siege to various strongholds until at Dinan, Count Conan had the town walls burned down around him and submitted.

Harold’s reward was for William to knight him and award him arms. To an English Earl this may have been regarded as no more than gift giving, but to the French Normans it was seen as Harold accepting William as his Lord. The matter was further complicated by the oath on holy bones that Harold was said to have taken to do all in his power to make William king of England. The oath, if it was taken, would under church understanding, be invalid as it was taken under duress, but it would have been sufficient to have rattled Harold. It would also have been enough to ensure his release. Harold returned to England with Hakon, but without his brother, Wulf. Shortly after that King Edward had a prophetic dream of the tree of England being 'split asunder, not to be rejoined'.

The first sign of a split was the revolt in 1065 against Earl Tosti by the Northumbrians. Tosti had spent much of his early time during his ten-year tenure establishing a close relationship with the thegns and churchmen of the earldom. He also made the wise decision of using a local man, Copsi, as his deputy. In his later years, however, it seems he spent too much time attending to the affairs of King Edward, and left the running of Northumberland to his Huscarls. He had also, after the Welsh campaign, become drawn into local politics. The involvement in local blood feuds, which until then he had avoided, came to a head when he had two notable thegns, Gamal Ormson and Ulf Dolfinson, killed in his own chamber whilst they were under a safe conduct. Tosti was also said to be behind the murder of Gospatric Uhtredson at the court of King Edward. Tosti had in his entourage another Gospatrick, a kinsman of King Edward and King Malcolm of Scots. This Gospatric Maldredson, who had acted valiantly during an attack on Tosti's party whilst returning from a visit to Rome, was the head of a rival family to that of his namesake. Both were descendants of Ealdorman Waltheof of Northumberland (not Waltheof the son of Earl Siward of Northumberland, though he was related). These killings were used as the main reason by the northern thegns when they rebelled. But there was another underlying reason: money.

The northern shires had been subjected to a lower tax regime than those in the south. Tosti made the mistake of trying to redress this anomaly. The result was a revolt that involved 'all the thegns of Yorkshire' so the various versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tell us. The reason for Tosti increasing the tax yield may well have been his need to refurbish his coffers after the expense of the Welsh Campaign (the Earl kept 1/3 of the take, the king got the rest). Tosti may well have felt that he would be able to weather any local opposition as in his 10 year rule he had considerably reduced lawlessness in the earldom, curbed the power of local landholders and through intrigue and craft, neutralised the Scots. He seriously miscalculated. The tax, and the fact that his men were using arbitrary justice to enforce collection led that autumn to the thegns of Yorkshire and many others from throughout Northumberland to seize and occupy York and kill Tosti's men, including two of his Huscarls.

Having sacked the treasury and taken back what they deemed their's by right, the northern thegns then declared Tosti outlaw and sent for Morcar, the young brother of Earl Edwin of Mercia, to be the new earl. Their choice of an outsider, with no Northumberland connection and little Norse blood, appears to have been dictated by a need to avoid splitting the rebels by picking from the local powerful families with their long running blood feuds. It would also have been influenced by the fact that Tosti was a favourite of King Edward and his brothers ruled most of England. Proclaiming Morcar earl would ally them with the next most powerful family in the land.

Lead by 'Earl' Morcar they were joined at Northampton by Earl Edwin and supporters and some Welsh allies. From there they moved south seeking out Tosti's personal holdings to plunder. Harold, who had been sent by King Edward, possibly at Tosti's instigation, to treat with the rebels, met them; Harold did not have an armed following with him.

Tosti's position, and that of his brother-in-law King Edward, was to get back his earldom, at the risk of civil war if need be. The position of Harold and his brothers and fellow earls, Leofwine and Gyrth, is unknown, but after he spoke with the rebels, he realised that it would be impossible for Tosti to retain Northumberland. The consensus needed by an earl to rule had gone and, rather than being opposed by a faction, Tosti was opposed by all the local thegns. Either Tosti had to give up the earldom, or there had to be a civil war.

Harold returned to the King, who was at Oxford. There, in council, Harold advised against military action and for agreeing to the rebels' demands. The arguments went on for some time. If Harold did make the trip to Normandy, he would no doubt have been aware of William the Bastard Duke of Normandy's ambition to become the new English king. A civil war would have given William an ideal opportunity to become involved in the land's politics, and quite possibly at the head of an army. Edward was finally swayed, but Tosti was furious and accused Harold of fermenting the revolt, an accusation that was patently untrue. For the first time since Swein's death, the Godwinsons were divided with Tosti and Queen Edith on one side and Harold, Leofwine and Gyrth on the other.

With the King's blessing, Harold went to Northampton and told Morcar he was now officially Earl of Northumberland and the rebels that they were pardoned, and the laws and tax assessments of King Knute restored. Meantime Tosti, rather than wait and see what alternative power-base King Edward would grant him argued so much with King Edward that he found himself exiled. He took ship with his wife and family and sought refuge at Bruges with his brother-in-law, the arch mischief-maker, Count Baldwin.

It was now November and the king's health, possibly eroded by the recent crisis, started to deteriorate and it became obvious the he would soon die. The problem arose of who would be the next king of the English. Up till now the heir apparent was Edgar the Æþeling, and under normal circumstance he would have been acceptable with Harold continuing as Dux Anglorum and running the country till the boy was old enough to rule on his own. But circumstances had changed. In addition to rival claims from Harald Hardrada of Norway and William of Normandy, there was now an irate Tosti to deal with.

The traditional Witangamot and celebration held at Christmas saw all five earls, both archbishops, eight bishops and most of the country's leading thegns gathered to attend the king for what was obviously the last time. On 05 January King Edward summoned the Witan to his deathbed. There he commended his kingdom and the protection of his queen to Harold. He then bound his foreign servants to take out oaths of loyalty to Harold. The Witan then acclaimed Harold King of the English, and no one opposed them.

Ealdred, Archbishop of York, crowned Harold the following day. Some time afterwards Harold took Alditha, sister of Earls Edwin and Morcar, and widow of the Welsh king Gruffiðð, as his official wife. He also started to put the kingdom's defences in order.

In addition to ensuring that he had the military might to face those who would try and take away his crown, Harold needed to be sure of the support of Northumberland. Although their earl, Morcar, had been at the Witan that had offered him the kingship, the thegns may have wondered if Harold would bring his brother Tosti back and restore the earldom to him. Harold set out with a small-unarmed party that included Wulfstan, the Bishop of Worcester, and recognised as the holiest man in the land and Harold's personal confessor. It may have been during this trip that he married Alditha. Harold left York and returned to Westminster to celebrate Easter. One of the acts he performed was to create Waltheof Siwardson, Earl of Northampton, thus binding that important northern family to his side. He also confirmed Edward's stallers, one of whom was a Norman (high ranking lay civil servants) in their positions. As the Norman sources later admitted, Harold was accepted all as king and he grew from strength to strength.

In May Tosti returned. After landing on the Isle of Wight to gather supplies, money and possibly men from his estates there, he raided along the south coast to Sandwich in a re-play of his father's earlier successful campaign. The difference was, Tosti faced armed opposition instead of a welcome. Harold called out the fleet and the Wessex Fyrd and, with himself at the head of the army, caused Tosti to retreat. He turned north and raided along the coast of East Anglia. Harold, meantime left elements of the navy and army to guard the Channel against the threat from Duke William.

Tosti's activity rather than inducing his brother Gryth, Earl of East Anglia, to join him, had the opposite effect. Tosti moved on. He raided along the Burnham river in Lincolnshire, an area once under his control and now under Morcar. Together with his brother, Edwin, the Earl of Northumberland led a land force, which expelled Tosti. Deserted by many of his men he now only had 12 ships instead of the 60 he had started with. Tosti fled to Scotland and King Malcolm. There he spent the rest of the summer. His attempt at interfering in the affairs of England had been thwarted by King Harold and the northern earls.

King Harold set about the southern defences by basing the fleet on the Isle of Wight under Eadric the Steersman. Along the Channel coast he based units of the Fyrd. He sent spies across to Normandy, and eliminated a potential nest in his own back yard by appropriating the estate of Steyning in Sussex from Fecamp Abbey.

William the Bastard's preparations for invasion went ahead, despite the problems he was having persuading his nobles to support him in the venture. He was also finding it hard to find the ships he would need, and undertook a building campaign that saw many new ships made of green wood. An area that was going William's way was the diplomatic situation. King Philip of France was a minor under the care of Count Baldwin of Flanders, Tosti's father-in-law. With the other principalities in northern France either under William's control or absorbed with internal squabbles, William's hands were free to try and steal England from it's legitimate ruler.

After much effort, and not a little gold, William's fleet was ready in the mouth of the river Dives in July 1066. Contrary winds kept it confined to harbour for about a month. Subsequently the fleet sailed to St Valery on the Somme. The move may have been deliberate, reducing the sea trip to England. However, as it sailed with men and horses loaded, it was more likely an attempted invasion that got blown off course. It certainly suffered losses of ships and men.

On the other side of the Channel Harold watched and waited. On 08 September, with the autumn equinox approaching with its contrary winds, Harold dismissed the main fleet and reduced his army to a small mobile force. Harold returned to London to await events. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other sources hint at a sea battle between the fleets, which may allow for the Norman losses and losses in the English fleet before it returned to London for decommissioning, but from this point in time it is purely speculative.

Across the North Sea another storm was gathering. Harald Hardrada, the former leader of the Byzantine Emperor's Varangian Guard and now King of Norway was gathering a force from wherever the Norse lived. This man was claimed to be Christendom's best warrior. In addition to his own Norwegians, battle hardened during their recent war in Denmark, he had Danes, Swedes, Irish Norse, Icelanders, Greenlanders, men from the Faeroes, Orkney, Mann, the north of Scotland, Cumberland and the sundry isles.

Joined by Tosti in Scotland, Harald used the very winds that were keeping Duke William in port to sail down the English coast. Sailing up the rivers Humber and Ouse, the fleet landed at Ricall in Yorkshire. Harald lead his force towards York, which for many years had been the capital of an independent Viking state. Outside the city Earl Morcar of Northumberland, his brother, Earl Edwin of Mercia, and Earl Waltheof of Northampton waited for him. With the three young and inexperienced earls were their Huscarls and such elements of the Fyrds of their shires as they has managed to assemble in the short time they had had since the invading fleet had been sighted.

The armies clashed at Fulford on the Ouse, where the English army blocked both road and river, with their flanks protected by marshes. It was a long and bloody battle with successes and failures on both side. Eventually the experience of Harald and his men overcame the resistance of the Fyrd and the English defence collapsed. Although both Edwin and Morcar escaped with their lives, few of their army did. The Vikings, however, had also suffered heavy losses and it was noticeable that men from the Danelaw had not joined them as Harold had hoped. The Viking army then moved on and took the city of York. There they demanded, and received, supplies and hostages.

Whilst they had enough to go on with, the Viking hoard needed more supplies and additional hostages. These were to be brought and handed over at Stamford Bridge. Awaiting the expected hand over, Harald, Tosti, and the army divested themselves of their armour, which they sent back to the ships, and enjoyed the sunshine, some even going swimming. On seeing a dust cloud, they took it to be the men of York. Then the sun glinted on steel, and they realised that this was an army coming towards them.

King Harold and his brother Gryth had gathered their Huscarls and ridden north, collecting elements of the Mercian and East Anglian Fyrd as they went. They covered 320 km in six days. Despite the army marching past York itself, no word had reached Harald Hardrada. Shock at the arrival of the English was soon overcome, and whilst a rearguard held the bridge, the Viking army drew itself up in battle array on the other bank to await the onslaught. Hardrada also sent word back to Eystein Orre, who was in charge of the men left at Ricall to guard the ships.

King Harold rode up and offered his brother, Tosti, his earldom back if he would lay down his arms and join him, possibly knowing that the offer was unlikely to be accepted, but knowing that, if it were that it were, it would damage the Viking army's morale. It is also possible that he may have anticipated later exchanging it for Wessex. Tosti asked what English lands Harald of Norway could expect if he dismissed the army. King Harold's reply was that as Harald was taller than most, he would grant him seven foot of good English soil!

As at Fulford, the battle was long, hard fought, and bloody. The Vikings lack of armour would have counted against them. The English were also at a disadvantage having had a 25 km march that morning from Tadcaster to Stamford Bridge. The slaughter on both sides was high and the battle was balanced, when first Harald, and then Tosti fell.

Even though both of their leaders were killed, the Vikings, who were now fighting in small groups, were still defending themselves valorously when Eystein Orre arrived with the reinforcements. However, these troops proved to be of no assistance because the forced march they had been compelled to make on this unusually hot day had spent their energy and they, too, were quickly overwhelmed. Eystein Orre was killed late in the day. The remaining Vikings tried to make it back to the ships, only to be hunted down and slain.

King Harold and his men reached the fleet the surviving Vikings capitulated to Harold. Desiring total victory but not maddened with blood lust to kill the entire enemy, Harold rounded up all the surviving Vikings and let them go. Amongst the captives was Olaf, Harald Hardrada's son. Of the 360 or so ships that brought the invaders, only 36 were needed to take the survivors home!

Before the army could catch its breath, Harold was given the bad news that another challenger for the throne, Duke William the Bastard of Normandy, had landed.

Duke William had been having big problems holding his mercenary army together. The money he had amassed to pay them to prevent their plundering the local countryside was almost gone. Just as it reached the point where he would have to send them home, the winds that held his fleet of green wood ships in port on 27 September veered to the south. Quickly loading men and horses on board, William sailed before the English fleet could be mustered.

William landed near Pevensey and hastily built a castle. The place was not suitable for unloading supplies, so he moved east along the coast to Hastings. There he built another castle on the peninsular and set up an armed camp whilst his men scoured the countryside for food and transport. There he remained for 17 days consolidating and no doubt ruminating on the news of King Harold's victory.

Harold, Gyrth and the remains of their Huscarls returned to London by 09 October and began planning their campaign against the Normans. To London were summoned those elements of the East Anglian and Mercian Fyrds not taken north to Stamford Bridge. The northern earls were not in a position to join with their men yet following the earlier two battles though, with the help of Harold's newly appointed staller, Marlswein, they were gathering a force together to bring south. Refreshed and reinforced Harold, Gyrth and their brother Leofwine, Earl of East Mercia took their Huscarls and those Fyrdmen they had with them through the Sussex Weald to the Hoar Apple Tree on the Sussex Downs. There they waited, blocking the road to London, the principle port of the land, and Winchester, where the royal treasury was kept. Harold needed to contain the Normans, to prevent their horsemen gathering supplies, to stop them moving inland to build castles from which they could raid. All the while men from the Wessex Fyrd flocked to join him.

With the English army blocking them in and effectively stopping their foraging raids the Normans sat with their backs to the sea. Harold sent a messenger to William offering him the choice of either sailing away unmolested, or being destroyed. With an army of mercenaries for whom he had no money, only promises of future plunder, William rejected the offer. He had no option but to fight, and he needed to do so before Harold had gathered enough men to put the stop in the bottle.

On 13 October William heard that the English army was at the Hoar Apple Tree on Caldbec Hill and stood his men to arms in case of a night attack. At first light he moved his already armed army forward whilst the English, tired from their marched to the assembly point slept. Watchers soon alerted King Harold and he moved his men to Senlac Ridge, about 800 metres south. Here, on the best possible defensive ground in the area, the English gathered around the dragon banner of Wessex and Harold's personal banner, 'The Fighting Man', woven for him by Edith Swan neck. The mail coated Huscarls and Thegns formed the shield wall with the more lightly armed Fyrdmen behind. Facing them, downhill, was William's mixed force of infantry and cavalry.

The battle commenced at 09:00 with the Norman infantry attacking. They were rebuffed with heavy losses. Next were the horsemen but, unable to break the shield wall and suffering heavy casualties, especially from the deadly long axes, they too fell back to be replaced by the infantry again. The Bretons on the Norman left wing broke and fled. The English, possibly led by Earls Gryth and Leofwine, followed them, slaughtering as they went, the Norman flank was beginning to fold. Before the advantage could be exploited William rallied the cavalry and charged those of the English who had left the safety of the shield wall. The English counter attack faltered and then failed as the horsemen cut them to pieces.

The battle continued for the rest of the day with the Normans exhausting themselves on the shrinking shield wall. All Harold and his army had to do was hang on till dusk. If they did that William would be forced to withdraw to Hastings where he would have problems holding his forces together, whilst Harold reinforced his army with the armed men who were still arriving at the Hoar Apple Tree. With twilight arriving it was time for a last desperate throw of the dice. William led a final attack of horsemen and archers. A chance arrow struck King Harold in the eye and laid him low. The English reeled as the news spread. The Norman horsemen pressed the attack, striking the line where Harold's banners flew. There they stuck down and killed Harold Godwinson, the last King of the English.