Harold Godwinson: England's Last Saxon King

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Harold Godwinson was the first English king to be crowned at Westminster Abbey. His successor, William the Conqueror, continued the tradition after winning the Battle of Hastings, a result that included the death of Harold.

Young Harold grew up the son of Earl Godwin, a powerful noble who made a name for himself resisting the creeping Norman influence begun with Queen Emma, married to Æthelred II and then to Canute, and carried on through the reign of Edward the Confessor.

Early in his life, Harold was sent to Normandy by his mother to escape the nearly constant fighting between Saxons and Danes. At one point during his stay, he was left in the care of William, Duke of Normandy.

Harold and his brother Alfred tried to stamp out Danish influence in England, including some nasty battles, but Harold came into his own mostly when his father died. Like Earl Godwin, Harold Godwinson was a powerful presence in the reign of Edward the Confessor. Harold was powerful enough that he reported being given the the kingship by a dying Edward. England's ruling nobles named Harold king not long after Edward died.

King Harold II appointed his brother Tostig the Earl of Northumbria and ignored William of Normandy's reiteration of his claim that he was promised the kingship by Edward the Confessor. Both of these decisions by Harold would have tremendous consequences.

Tostig managed to alienate much of the north, and Harold ended up banishing his brother, who promptly fled to Norway and threw himself on the mercy of King Harald Hardrada. Tostig returned to England, a fighting force at his back, and harried coastal settlements for a time before linking up with the main force of invading Norwegians who seized control of York in September 1066.

Not to be outdone, Harold put together a fighting force of his own, adding to it as they marched north from London. The Saxon force covered the 185 miles from London to Yorkshire in just four days, taking Harald's forces by complete surprise. The result was the route that was the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which resulted in the decimation of the invasion force, including its leaders, Harald and Tostig.

The victorious Saxons had little time to rest, however, because three days after their triumph, they received that William and a large force of Normans had landed in the south.

William had been making noises about invading England all year, and Harold had bulked up the defenses in the south, awaiting an invasion. But William took his time, for a variety of reasons, including weather and supply chains, finally putting ashore in late September.

Harold, who had made his reputation as a man of action, especially in his lightning-fast march up to Yorkshire, decided not to wait for William to march his troops to London. It wasn't the four days that the northern journey was, but the movement south was done in relatively quick fashion, including a week or so to solidify the north in the wake of Tostig's uprising. This time, however, some of the northern barons and their military compatriots decided to sit out the fighting. Harold gathered weapons and steam as he marched his troops southward, and they arrived in early October in the vicinity, where William and his troops had decided to wait.

Harold chose the high ground to make his stand, especially because William had brought a host of archers and cavalry that the Saxon army didn't have. Still, the vaunted Saxon Wall, a series of interlocked shields that protected the soldiers who stood in tight formation, proved more than enough for the volleys of arrows that flew uphill on October 14, 1066.

Once the Norman arrow supply was exhausted, with little apparent effect on the Saxon defenders atop the hill, William ordered a cavalry charge. The combination of the heavy horse carrying armored knights and a sharp gallop uphill meant that the Saxon defenders, stationary though they were, could negate the normal advantage of charging cavalry. The Saxon Wall held again, not the least because the defenders were wielding heavy axes that could cut down both horse and rider.

Somewhere along the way, though, William disappeared from view, for long enough that his men thought he was dead. News of his "death" spread throughout the battlefield, and the attack faltered, with dozens of Normans reeling in retreat in fear of losing their will in addition to their leader. Harold's Saxons, who were under strict orders not to give up their high ground, couldn't help themselves and charged after the retreating Normans.

William reappeared, removed his helmet so his troops could see that he was indeed alive, and the result was a renewed attack. Caught rushing downhill or, in some cases, on the flat, the less mobile Saxons found themselves outnumbered and outflanked and, then, cut to pieces. Harold urged his troops to hold their lines, but a few more Norman "attack-retreat-attack" iterations resulted in many more Saxon deaths.

The Normans, mindful of the Saxon Wall and the heavy axes, were cautious in a renewed attack. But another attack came, and another one followed that. Eventually, the Norman charge succeeded, overwhelming the Saxon defenses and resulting in the death of Harold himself, who some sources say was gravely wounded by an arrow to the eye and then the victim of a fierce Norman charge toward the end of the day. Their leader gone, the Saxon force dissolved into full-blown retreat, and the result was the Normans' claiming the hill and victory.

Harold was thus the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. His burial location remains unknown.

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