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HAROLD II , KING OF ENGLAND (...blessed father of your country,
Harold marked out by your merits, you, our shield, fist and sword....)

Mention King Harold to anyone and 9 times out of 10 you'll get the response,
"isn't he that geezer with the arrow in his eye"; well to me and many other
people he is without doubt the greatest  unsung English Hero in history.
After all, he gave his life for our country and came within a whisker of
becoming one of, if not the greatest  Mediaeval General; unfortunately fate
conspired against him.

Now the Scots have William Wallace; and they can keep him; because if anyone
ever gets round to making a film about the life of our King Harold it would
make the exploits of old William look like a Sunday afternoon stroll, and
what's more; if the film was ever made you could tell the story exactly how
it was without having to pad out the story with a load of crap made up by
some script writer in Hollywood (thanks for that Mr Gibson).

He was born around  the year 1020  during the confusion surrounding the
crowning of Cnut. This was followed by much
bloodshed until eventually Edward the Confessor was sent for and offered the
crown. Edward despite being the only
candidate descended directly from the English royal line had spent virtually
his entire life in exile at the Norman Court. The fact that Edward had spent
so
much of his time at the Norman court and to a great degree was very heavily
influenced by them was to sow the seeds of later discontent.

Harold rose rapidly through the ranks of royal service first
becoming Earl of East Anglia and then Wessex but it wasn't all plain
sailing. Many of the English nobility became increasingly to resent the way
in which Edward; who was always a very weak king  who never led his troops
into battle; appointed Frenchmen to key posts in the English hierarchy.
Things came to a head when in July 1051 Count Eustace of Boulogne, King
Edwards former brother in law landed in Dover and "caused much offence to
the
people of Dover by their high handed manor". On the return journey after
speaking with King Edward at Gloucester the people of Dover offered  him no
hospitality and Eustace in turn ordered his men to don their chain mail,
after which the Normans  set off rampaging through the town demanding food
and lodgings. After a small skirmish a local and a soldier lay dead and
Eustace ordered his men to charge cutting down in the process children and
babies. The local citizenry gathered together an armed posse and after a
running battle, in which 20 of the local militia of Dover lay dead along
with an
unknown number of women and children, eventually managed to expel the
intruders. Count Eustace licking his wounds after 19 of his best men lay
dead with an unknown number injured, raced back to King Edward at Gloucester
to demand retribution.

Because Dover was part of Godwin's Earldom many chroniclers at the time saw
the whole incident as a pre-meditated plan by King Edward to
wrestle some power away from the English nobility. The most powerful of the
English nobility at the time was Godwine (Harold's father) who was even more
convinced of the Norman plot against him when King Edward immediately ordered
Godwin to punish the town and its inhabitants, to which Godwin flatly
refused.

Egged on by his Norman advisors the King raised his army to crush Godwine.
Harold and his other brothers rode swiftly to the side of his father along
with their own retinue of elite household troops or housecarls. Eventually
their was a standoff  at the river Thames with the King bolstered by many
Norman soldiers on the North bank and the Godwinsons on the south bank.
Godwine by now had a large numerical disadvantage due to many of the English
nobility; despite the presence of so many Norman troops; refusing to face
their King in battle. With the refusal of safe conduct to put
his case even after the King had taken Harold's younger brother and nephew
hostage, Earl Godwine and his sons, with no other option open to them
saddled up and
rode away, to all intents as outlaws. Many of the pursuing army had split
loyalties and
allowed the Godwine family to escape. The Godwine family split into two
party's with the
aging Godwine and most of his family embarking for Flanders and Harold and
one of his brother Loefine setting sail along with their housecarls for
Ireland. They would be back.

With Harold, his father and the rest of the family in exile the King divided
up their land between himself and his French friends but the party wasn't
going
to last.

 While in Ireland Harold, after being joined by more disenchanted
Englishmen,
kept himself busy by helping the local Irish chieftain take complete control
of
Dublin by kicking out the Vikings. After this he gathered his forces and set
sail back
to England. He landed at Porlock and defeated in battle a force sent by the
King before
joining up with his father and the rest of his brothers and heading back to
London. At London the King, deserted by virtually the whole of the English
army had no option
but to negotiate.
The status quo was re-established with the English once again taking
precedence in the English court and many of the Normans banished. The only
downside
being that Eustace of Boulougne, who had started the whole drama had escaped
back to
France with Harold's younger brother and nephew.

With the French gone everything settled down. Harold's father died and he
was promoted, by the King to the earldom of Wessex. He was now the most
powerful earl in the country and with the mis-trust that had existed between
Harold's father and the King now gone, Harold became his trusted lieutenant
and advisor.

Everything was fine, until the Welsh started raiding, first around the
borders and then further and further into the English heartlands. Up until
now every English army which had tried to pursue the Welsh back into Wales
had been ambushed and then slaughtered in the Welsh mountains. Harold was
having none of it and attacked using his navy along the coast before pushing
inland and meeting up with his brother who had simultaneously invaded from
the east. After having the heads of some of his loyal housecarls, who had
been captured sent to him by the Welsh, he met violence with violence and
eventually,
after destroying every Welsh army sent against him the Welsh turned on their
King and sent his head to Harold. Harold had achieved the hitherto
impossible and conquered Wales using combined navy and infantry forces. With
the fighting over Harold showed mercy to the defeated and called a halt to
all reprisals and after having the Welsh nobility swear allegiance to King
Edward even  lifted the ban on Welsh women marrying English men.

With the Welsh subdued Harold returned home and now put his thoughts to
retrieving his brother and nephew from Normandy who by now had been held
hostage for many years. He set sail for Normandy with a small force to some
how bargain for their safe return. The reason for this journey is very
important because Norman propaganda i.e. The Bayeaux Tapestry likes to show
Harold as someone who usurped the throne for his own selfish purposes and
suggests that the real reason for this journey was to take a message from
King Edward to William the Conqueror that the Frenchman was his chosen heir
to the Crown of England. Historians now dispute this; after all Harold was
now the most powerful man in England, he was at his peak of his powers, he
basically ran the country and the army for King Edward and basically could
have taken the Crown if he had wanted it but instead stayed loyal to his
King. After all the trouble that had previously happened over Norman
dabbling in English affairs, would Harold or the rest of the English
nobility really have so meekly accepted a foreign King? The answer has to be
no.

Fate once again dealt Harold a bum hand and he was shipwrecked off the
French coast and eventually came into the hands of William the Conqueror. He
was received well by William as a head of state and even went into battle
with William against his enemies and fought so well that he was awarded a
knighthood by William. The Bayeux Tapestry shows Harold rescuing two of
Williams men from a swamp by carrying one on his shoulder and dragging the
other with his spare hand. It was around this time that the Norman
historians say that Harold had gave an oath to William that he would make
good his
claim to the crown. This again cannot have been true. In Norman society
unlike English society oath giving was almost unheard of. Instead the
Normans would normally have taken hostages in order to compel Harold to
make good on any promise. Instead  of  taking more hostages William actually
released Harold's nephew into his care. Also both Harold and William would
have known that it was beyond even his power to offer the crown to anyone as
the new King was always voted for by the Witan (parliament). The matter of
the oath has to be seen as more of Williams attempts to justify his
forthcoming invasion.

After returning home Harold had more trouble contend with. His brother
Tostig who was the earl of Northumbria had brought trouble onto himself by
basically killing anyone who he didn't like and the men of the north had
rebelled and were heading south to forcibly put their case to the King. With
so many enemies just waiting for their chance to invade England Harold new
that they could not afford a costly civil war between North and South and so
eventually the King gave in to many of the rebels demands. In a rage Tostig
set sail for Norway and the Court of Harold Hardrada.

King Harold Hardrada was a this time the most renown and feared warrior in
the whole of Europe. He stood 6 feet 6 tall and had fought and won battles
everywhere from the Orkneys to Byzantium where he had been the leader of the
Emperors elite Varangian Guard. Tostig eventually persuaded Harold Hardrada
that he could invade England and no one there would have the force to stop
him. The year was 1066 and at home King Edward had died and
named Harold as his successor. This decision was then rubber stamped by the
witan and Harold was crowned king.

In Normandy after hearing of the Witan's decision William began to put
together
an invasion fleet. Through his spies Harold knew that William would be
coming
and gathered together a huge army backed up by the navy on the southern
shores
of England. On one side of the channel sat the Normans and on the other sat
Harold and
the English. Both sides waited for the change in wind that would allow the
Normans
to sail to England but the change never came. Yet again at a crucial time
Harold's
luck had deserted him. The southerly winds which kept the Normans in France
and away
from Harold's army were welcomed by Harold Hardrada who immediately set sail
for England
and landed near York with a massive army of Viking warriors. They were
immediately met by
the Northern Earls at Fulford gate where the English army was quickly
routed.

On the south coast Harold heard the news of the invasion and immediately
marched the 190 miles
north with his army; completing the entire journey in under four days. The
Norwegian army was at
this time camped at Stamford Bridge when they first become aware of dust
cloud coming towards
them. Not believing that a second English army could have travelled from the
south so soon they
take no immediate action until Tostig recognises the two banners; the Dragon
of Wessex and King
Harold's own personal banner The Fighting Man.

King Harold rides out with twenty of his Housecarls and is met by the
Norwegian King, his body
guards and Tostig. Snorri Sturluson; a Norwegian who was present at the
battle later wrote that
King Harold rode forward and spoke to Tostig:

"Your brother King Harold sends you his greeting, and this message to say
you can have peace and
the whole of Northumbria as well. Rather than have you refuse to join him,
he is prepared to give you
one third of his whole kingdom"

Tostig replied asking if he accepted this offer what would King Harold offer
the Norwegian King.

"King Harold has already declared how much of England he is prepared to grant
him: seven feet
of English ground, or as much as he is taller than other men"

With the partly finished both armies formed their battle lines. The Norwegian
King asked Tostig
who was the man was who had spoken so well and stood so proudly in his
stirrups. Tostig replied
that that was his brother King Harold of England. The Norwegian King was
annoyed that if
he had been told he could have killed Harold there and then. Tostig replied:

"That would have made me his murderer and I would rather that he was my
killer than I his"

At this point battle was joined and the English army fell on the Norwegians.
The battle lasted for
hours and eventually the Norwegian King was killed. Harold offered quarter to
Tostig and the
remaining Norwegians but they refused this and once again the battle was
rejoined until the
Norwegian army was eventually destroyed.

Harold had won a stunning victory against a foe who up till now had been
considered unbeatable.
The Norwegian fleet which had come to England had been 300 ships strong. The
remnants of
the army that now departed left in only 20 ships, but the English army had
also suffered massive
casualties and many of Harold's housecarls, the core of the army lay dead on
the battlefield.

Word soon reached Harold that once again the winds had changed and William
had landed at
Pevensy. Only pausing to take his brother's body for burial at York Harold
gathered the remnants
of his army together and once again force marched the 190 miles to London.

Once in London Harold tried to bolster his exhausted army with local levies
raised from the surrounding
areas. Harold's brothers, Girth and Leofwine tried to tell the King that he
should wait in London for
reinforcements and they would go and fight the Normans. Harold was having
none of it, saying that
if an English army was going into battle than that army should have it's
King with them. Harold tried
to wait for the Northern earls to arrive with their housecarls but then news
reached him that the Normans
were burning Wessex. This was his land and his people and he would wait no
more. He could and should
have waited.

In a hard fought battle on Senlac Hill the English after 2 forced marches of
190 mile each and 2 major battles
in little more than 10 days were eventually defeated. The battle raged all
day and although the English army
had still not been joined by their archers and were without any form of
cavalry, with the core of their army
dead from the previous battle they came within a hairs breadth of once again
pulling off a famous victory;
until once again fate reared its ugly head and Harold took a severe wound
from an arrow.

The Normans gradually ground down the remaining English by repeated cavalry
charges and using their archers.
 The Kings loyal housecarls died to a man around his banner.

Although he only reigned for 9 months and 9 days during that time he had to
contend with a series of attacks
from his brother and 2 full scale invasions. Any one of these might have
overwhelmed a lesser man but
Harold overcame all but the last. Undaunted by two major invasions in the
space of one month, he
completely defeated the great warier Harald Herdradi of Norway and was
within an ace of defeating
William of Normandy. He took everything that fate could throw at him and
responded with determination,
an iron will and true English courage, but in the end not even this was
enough.

After the battle Harold's sons and daughters fled abroad. His daughter Gytha
had a son, Harold who
went on to become the Grand Prince of Kiev. This Russian Harold had a
daughter called Ingibiorg who
later married Cnut Lavard of Denmark and bore him a son who became King
Valdemar of Denmark
from whom the current queens of both Denmark and Great Britain are descended.
In this way the blood of
King Harold Godwineson, runs again in the veins of the rulers of England.

This man was everything the Scots would love William Wallace to be and more;
he was OUR Braveheart who died at our Alamo, a true patriot who put his
people and his country before everything else and displayed many of the
qualities and attributes that we hold dear in our great nation.

Every year on the anniversary of his death proud English men and women still
show their respect by placing
flowers on the spot where the last truly English King fell in battle,
protecting his country and his people.


Here's a few messages left with the flowers:

In respectful and grateful memory of our King Harold, the last English king,
and all those who died that day defending our island, there homeland.

 King Harold, unconquerable except by death.

Our King Harold; Warrior King, Man above all others; Did his duty before God
and his people. 1000 years on - courage remembered, sacrifice never
forgotten.

Article written by Julian Crighton


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