Who was Harold Godwinson?
History is told by the victors so often the story of the last Anglo-Saxon King goes unrecognized. Harold Godwinson was born in the 1020s, the son of Godwine Earl of Wessex. When he was twenty-three he became the Earl of the East Angles and began commanding naval troops along the south coast of England (believe it or not England had a great navy even during the Anglo-Saxon days). His father and King Edward the Confessor fell into disagreement and the whole family of the Godwins were exiled in 1051. In 1052, Harold led an invasion to force the King to restore their family’s power and in 1053, after Godwin’s death, Harold became Earl of Wessex (the most powerful office in England after the King). Throughout the next eleven years Harold consolidated his power and became the most powerful and wealthiest man in England. He granted his brothers the most powerful earldoms in England and I believe only one section was not ruled by a Godwinson. Harold’s sister Edith, married King Edward the Confessor and that is where Harold is able to get his connection to make a claim for the throne. Harold was handsome, he was an extremely successful military leader, a good friend to the church, and well traveled. He was likeable as well and was honorable.
As we move on to the next scenes on the tapestry, we shall see the depiction of the death of Edward the Confessor. He had reigned for years of peace and was known as a very pious king. Possibly, even a virgin when he died due to remaining childless his whole life (though this is just speculation). He commissioned and built Westminster Abbey, which becomes on of the most important buildings in English history. To his people, he was a great King, but left a great mess to clean up after possibly offering the succession to too many people.
The details of his death bed are interesting. The tapestry shows a weak Edward on his deathbed surrounded by four people. They are unnamed on the tapestry, but the female figure is most likely Queen Edith and one will have to be Harold. Queen Edith writes about what occurred at the deathbed of King Edward in the Life of King Edward book that she commissioned. This confirms the people who were there and appear on the tapestry (Harold, Edith, Archbishop Stigand, and Rodbert a steward). At this time King Edward tells those present of a dream he had about two monks he had known bringing him a warning from God. They told him “within a year and day of Edward’s death…God would punish the whole of England by delivering it into the ‘hands of the enemy’ and that ‘devils shall come through all this land with fire and sword and the havoc of war…” Bridgeford notes that since this was written after the events of the Conquest the author already knew how history would play out, but this was how the Conquest appeared to the people of England. They did not want William and they were the devils who invaded their land. But, the most important part of the deathbed is who Edward names for his successor.
According to multiple sources (Life of King Edward, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and William of Poitiers (a supporter of the Normans) King Edward appointed Harold Godwinson to be the next King of England. “This woman [his sister, Edith] and all the kingdom I commend to your charge…” was what Edward was supposed to have said. He died on January 5th, 1066. The next scene on the tapestry shows the nobles giving Harold the crown followed by Harold on the throne. The king’s nominee had to be elected by the witan (a council of nobles) in order to be legitimate. He was elected pretty easily as most of the people of England did not want William to be King. It is interesting to note that in this part of the tapestry (though Norman commissioned) does not depict Harold as a usurper or shows William at all. Harold immediately is crowned the next day, Jan 6th, which is also the day of old King Edwards funeral. This was a smart move, especially due to all the claimants to the throne. This begins his short, but tumultuous, nine month rule. Throughout this time Harold must deal with his rebellious brother in the north, he is forced to marry for political reasons, and while preparing to deal with William he must defeat the last legendary Viking at the Battle of Stamford Bridges (Stamford Bridge: The Last Victory of Harold II).
It did not take long for Duke William to receive word in Normandy that King Edward was dead; he was expecting it. However, he also learned that Harold had already been crowned. Naturally, this enraged William who felt a sacred oath had been broken. He sent an embassy to Harold, an act of war which demanded that “Earl Harold to fulfill the terms of the agreement between them, by the oath he had made.” (Butler, 48). From this point on William would be planning his invasion.
A comet, now known as Halley’s Comet, appeared flying through the sky. According to Bridgeford, it would have been a lot brighter than it is now. It is recorded as being seen throughout contemporary European sources and is featured on the Bayeux Tapestry. The people of this age viewed the comet as an omen. It was a sign of the downfall of Kings.
Food for Thought:
How does a contemporary author’s hindsight affect the primary sources that are available to historians?
1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry by Andrew Bridgeford
1066: The Year of Conquest by David Howarth
1066: The Story of a Year by Denis Butler