By David EP Dennis

Strangely, we are about to celebrate our most significant military defeat – the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066. But what really happened to Harold? Did he die or survive? Did someone take his place? What was it like to be the English King in those days, some 955 years ago? We can examine his beginnings and tribulations to try to understand how King Harold felt in those excessively violent last years and days of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom. 

Harold’s grandfather was Wulfnoth Cild, a Saxon pirate, his grandmother, unknown. His father, the notorious murderer Godwin, first Earl of Wessex and chief bodyguard to King Canute. His mother, Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, the daughter of a Danish chieftain. Harold was probably born at his father’s estate at Bosham, near Fishbourne Roman Villa and Chichester circa 1020-22, early in the reign of King Canute. It is said that Canute’s eight-year-old daughter drowned in the Mill stream there – and a child’s remains scientifically dated to Canute’s reign have been found. Bosham is near Church Norton (Cymensora), where the legendary first King of Sussex, Aelle and his three sons landed in 477.

Bosham Harbour
CREDIT: Daved E P Dennis

So Harold was half Saxon, half Danish. He met his first and only real love, Edith Swan-Neck (Swanneshals) and they had a right-hand-fasted Danish marriage (Mores Danico) to show their love forever. Edith was a Dane, the daughter of Thorkell the Tall, a huge Jomsviking mercenary warrior of great fame, whose drunken warrior band had killed the Archbishop of Canterbury. Edith and Harold were both Christians. Harold founded Waltham Abbey – and Edith founded the shrine community of Our Lady of Walsingham. They had six children, but these were all born out of Christian Wedlock, a significant concern as you will see later. 

Earl Godwin brought his sons up to be warriors and they vied with each other for their father’s favour. Eventually Earl Godwin choked to death, and family bonding broke down, turning into hatred. Harold’s traitorous brother spied for the Vikings and the Normans, and his brother Sweyn became a serial killer. Harold’s sister Ealdgyth married King Edward the Confessor. So the whole nightmare circus began.

Modern Copy of Bayeux Tapestry at Bosham Church showing King Harold with his entourage and dogs
CREDIT: Daved E P Dennis

Harold developed rapid SAS-like raiding techniques to attack the unruly Welsh and eventually the King of Wales, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, was assassinated in 1064 at Harold’s request and his head sent in a bag to Edward as a war gift. 

Then began the last journeys of King Harold. He sailed out of Bosham Harbour in 1064, possibly to go to Flanders on a hunting trip, as he had with him (according to the Bayeux Tapestry) hounds and hawks. There is speculation that he may have also wanted to redeem a brother, Wulfnoth, who was being held hostage by Duke William. Harold was shipwrecked, taken hostage himself and given to Duke William as a captive, treated well, enjoined to fight a battle alongside Duke William, and knighted by him. Then, notoriously, he was betrothed to Duke William’s young daughter and forced to take an oath of allegiance should Edward die. Whatever the truth of this, Harold returned to England and confessed events to the Confessor. When the King died in 1066, with his last gasp he gave Harold the kingdom of England, thus beginning that great saga – the end of Anglo-Saxon rule in England. The Christian monks gathered and told Harold that although he was now King, if he died in battle, he could not have any of his children crowned, as they were the children of a Danish marriage. Monks advised him to church-marry a Christian queen and make her pregnant. Remarkably, in January 1066, he then married Edith, the wife of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn whose head had been cut off on his orders. He had to persuade her to sleep with him to make a child, also called Harold. It is hard to imagine Harold’s deeply private conversations with his new church-approved wife and the tearful thoughts of Edith Swan-Neck, his Danish true love at that time.

Holy Trinity Church, Bosham
CREDIT: Daved E P Dennis

Edward the Confessor died on 5th January 1066, and quickly Harold rushed to London to claim the throne – but the Vikings wanted England too. Harold’s brother Tostig went to Norway to stir things up. The Viking King, Harald Hardrada, decided to invade the North, knowing full well that Duke William was planning to invade Sussex. It was a case of divide and conquer. The monks of Norman Fecamp Abbey had spies everywhere including in the Hastings to Rye area, then called Rameslie. At the Battle of Fulford, on 20th September 1066, the Vikings were victorious. Five days later Earl Harold and his army reached the North, and at the Battle of Stamford Bridge killed not only Hardrada but also his own brother Tostig and destroyed the Viking Army almost totally. Then Harold marched south to Waltham Abbey where he spent a week resting and in prayer, until a messenger brought alarming news. Harold had to return rapidly to the South Coast on news of Duke William’s landing on 28th or 29th September. The great Norman fleet of some 770 ships sailed to the coast of England using Anderida – Pevensey Roman Castle ruins (destroyed by Aelle) as a marker, on the Feast of St Michael, and then sailed along the coast to avoid Pevensey Marshes. A likely broad landing was made near or at Bulverhythe, spreading to the Brede estuary and at Old Romney, where a Norman longboat crew were massacred.

On 13th October, Harold’s brother Gyrth remonstrated with him. “Why lead the fight when I could lead it for you?” Would Harold really slink away? After the battle on 14th October 1066, Edith Swan-Neck identified his body from “marks known only to her”. Did she cheat Duke William by pointing to the wrong body? Did Harold survive? There is a document in the British Museum which suggests he did survive, fled to Dover and then overseas, returning in secret and ending his days as a monk in Chester. There is also the story that Duke William ordered that Harold should be buried by the sea. Is this what Geoffrey of Monmouth is really telling us in his famous book, The History of the Kings of Britain – that, like Arthur, he was taken from Hastings along the coast in a barge, to be buried in a stone coffin at Bosham Church – his Avalon, where remains of a tall one-legged man have been found? Is Geoffrey’s book an allegory of the truth? – and is King Harold Godwinson really the Once and Future King who will return when England needs a warrior to lead the nation to safety? It is fun to speculate. Certainly, Bishop Geoffrey of Monmouth was a Welsh-speaking Breton living in Oxford and London around 60 years after 1066. Maybe he really was giving us a clue to the last journey of a mighty king who did so much to try and defend his nation?

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