Harold and the Beginning of the End

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With the accomplishments and death of Edward the Confessor, the final piece of the puzzle that is the Norman Conquest is now ready to be inserted.

As it has been seen, Edward did a remarkable job of holding his people together, no matter that he alienated a few powerful English along the way. Two of those powerful English whom he offended, just happened to be two of the most powerful English he could possibly offend: Godwin of Wessex and his son Harold. The two of them pioneered a nonviolent and then violent resistance campaign that ended in their being restored to favor so much that Harold was named Edward’s successor.

Remembering that Edward was quite infatuated with the Norman way and had installed many Normans in top posts of his government, one can see that the ascension of Harold, an avowed Norman-hater, might not sit well with some of the government that was remaining after Edward’s death. One can also imagine how Edgar the Aetheling, Edward’s legitimately gotten grandson, must have felt after being passed over for someone not even related to the throne.

The most troublesome factor in Harold’s ascension to the English throne, however, he might not have even known about: According to Norman sources, Edward, on one of his many trips to Normandy, had promised the English throne to William of Normandy. This was said to have happened in 1051, when Edward was scheming to turn back the influence of Godwin and Harold. (It should be remembered here as well that Edward couldn’t really have done this legally. According to English tradition and law at this point in history, the king’s successor was approved by the witan. It just so happened that the witan had approved Edward’s choice of Harold, mainly because Harold was pure Anglo-Saxon and not some Danish or Norman outsider.)

Harold wasn’t just merely Godwin’s son. He was an experienced general and leader who could have ably ruled his people if given half a chance.

He had become the Earl of East Anglia in 1044 and kept his people happy for a good two decades before he became king. He added to his resume the title of Earl of Wessex when his father died in 1053. Their differences being patched up, Harold and Edward worked closely together from that point on.

A mere two years after Godwin died and Harold became Edward’s right-hand man, another nobleman’s death had a different effect on a Godwinson. Tostig, Harold’s younger brother, had stood with his father and his brother when they supported Edward. He had also stood with them when they opposed Edward, fled into exile, and returned. A powerful man in both stature and military ability, Tostig was waiting for his chance to get a position like his brother had. Tostig got his wish in 1055, when Siward, the Earl of Northumbria, died and Edward named Tostig to replace him.

Northumbria at this time was not a place where parties and picnics usually took place. Unlike Wessex and East Anglia, Northumbria was a rough-and-tumble place; at this point in history, it was increasingly full of bands of men who liked to make their own laws. With the support of the king and the army, Tostig set about putting his earldom to rights, passing new laws and ordering robbers to be punished with mutilation or death. Not surprisingly, he was successful at restoring order.

This was the situation, then, as Edward’s rule approached its end:

– Harold Godwinson was Earl of Wessex.
– Tostig Godwinson was Earl of Northumbria.
– Edward had shifted his allegiances back to Anglo-Saxons, for the most part, although Normans did continue to hold some key posts.
– William of Normandy had in his memory a promise from Edward that the throne of England would be his.
– Harald Hardrada was the new king of Norway. He also had a claim that the throne of England belonged to him, as promised to him by Hardacanute, who had indeed sat on the English throne as late as 1042.