1022 – 14 October 1066
After his fathers death in 1053 Harold Godwinson became the Earl of Wessex and was a powerful nobleman in his own right. He became a respected and skilled warrior and leader. One description reads, ‘this Englishman was very tall and handsome, remarkable for his physical strength, his courage and eloquence, his ready jests and acts of valour.’
He had several children and one daughter Gytha, later became the wife of the Russian prince Vladimir Monomachus. Because of this Harolds blood runs in later generations of English Kings. The present Royal Family has such connections.
He died at the Battle of Hastings on Senlac Hill in Sussex (land of the South Saxons.) Trying to resist the invasion of French and Normans (or ‘Norsemen’ as they were of Viking origin.) Struck by an arrow in the eye and subsequently hacked down.
His personal bodyguard of Saxon Huscarles followed the tradition of the Saxon fighting ethos and died around him. The White Dragon standard of Wessex (West Saxons,) and his personal standard of the ‘Fighting Man’ lay with him.
His body was badly mutilated, and it is said that it was the tattoos on his chest that identified him. One was the word ‘England’.
Now many regard him as a true English hero. Fighting and dying for England.
A terrible Saxon death in so many ways.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of his succession to the English throne, his courage in the face of odds, treachery, and misfortune was considerable.
Harold Godwinson surprised, defeated, and killed possibly the most experienced warrior of his generation – the 6’7″ King Harald Hardraada of Norway, along with his Viking hordes, at Stamford Bridge, Yorkshire. Having led an exhausted and depleted Saxon army to Sussex, King Harold was killed during a battle of attrition at Hastings against William of Normandy and his Norman-French invaders.
Had Harold’s treacherous brother Tostig not convinced Harald Hardraada that an invasion of England was possible, William of Normandy would have faced a very formidable Saxon army, and British history might have been rather different (and better e.g. no Hundred Years War with France). The cruel steel pierced the best man this day from what I’ve read about both Harold and William’s actions towards ‘common people’ and prisoners.
Harold is still honoured each year; the day this was taken being the 940th anniversary. The inscribed stone, in fading light, marks the place where Harold is supposed to have fallen as dusk started to fall on October 14, 1066.
The best poem I’ve found so far on the subject is The Song of the Shield Wall and probably the finest painting – certainly the most energetic – is Tom Lovell’s Battle of Hastings.
As for my bad poetry, I’ll keep the saxon verse short:
Nine months nine days reign,
O fickle fate, fortune weeps
For you Harold of haste, hero and fighter.
Close rank, rally and rage huscarls –
We servants will not surrender, son of Godwin
Inspire and strengthen us, our shield and axe.