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Following the death of Edward the Confessor on January 5, 1066, he was buried in Westminster Abbey on January 6. The Witan met that day and elected Harold Godwinson as the new King of the English; Harold is crowned the same day, sparking a succession crisis that will eventually lead to the Norman conquest of England.

Harold was a son of Godwin (c. 1001–1053), the powerful Earl of Wessex, and of Gytha Thorkelsdóttir the daughter of Danish chieftain Thorgil Sprakling (also called Thorkel).

Gytha was also the sister of the Danish Earl Ulf Thorgilsson who was married to Estrid Svendsdatter, the daughter of King Sweyn I Forkbeard of Denmark (died 1014) and sister of King Cnut the Great of England and Denmark. Ulf and Estrid’s son would become King Sweyn II of Denmark.

In 1045 Godwin reached the height of his power when the new king married Godwin’s daughter Edith. Godwin and Gytha had several children—six sons: Sweyn, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine and Wulfnoth (in that order); and three daughters: Edith of Wessex (originally named Gytha but renamed Ealdgyth (or Edith) when she married King Edward the Confessor), Gunhild and Ælfgifu. The birthdates of the children are unknown. Harold was aged about 25 in 1045, which makes his birth year around 1020.

Powerful nobleman

Edith of Wessex married King Edward on January 23, 1045 and, around that time, Harold became Earl of East Anglia. Harold is called “earl” when he appears as a witness in a will that may date to 1044; but, by 1045, Harold regularly appears as an earl in documents. One reason for his appointment to East Anglia may have been a need to defend against the threat from King Magnus I the Good of Norway.

Harold Godwinson, King of the English

In 1064, Harold was apparently shipwrecked at Ponthieu. There is much speculation about this voyage. The earliest post-conquest Norman chroniclers report that King Edward had previously sent Robert of Jumièges, the archbishop of Canterbury, to appoint as his heir Edward’s maternal kinsman, Duke William II of Normandy, and that at this later date Harold was sent to Normandy to swear fealty.

Scholars disagree as to the reliability of this story. William, at least, seems to have believed he had been offered the succession, but there must have been some confusion either on William’s part or perhaps by both men, since the English succession was neither inherited nor determined by the reigning monarch.

Instead the Witenagemot, the assembly of the kingdom’s leading nobles, would convene after a king’s death to select a successor. Other acts of Edward are inconsistent with his having made such a promise, such as his efforts to return his nephew Edward the Exile, son of King Edmund Ironside, from Hungary in 1057.

Later Norman chroniclers suggest alternative explanations for Harold’s journey: that he was seeking the release of members of his family who had been held hostage since Godwin’s exile in 1051, or even that he had simply been travelling along the English coast on a hunting and fishing expedition and had been driven across the Channel by an unexpected storm.

There is general agreement that he left from Bosham, and was blown off course, landing at Ponthieu. He was captured by Count Guy I of Ponthieu, and was then taken as a hostage to the count’s castle at Beaurain, 24.5 km (15.2 mi) up the River Canche from its mouth at what is now Le Touquet.

Duke William II of Normandy arrived soon afterward and ordered Guy to turn Harold over to him. Harold then apparently accompanied William to battle against William’s enemy, Conan II, Duke of Brittany. While crossing into Brittany past the fortified abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, Harold is recorded as rescuing two of William’s soldiers from quicksand.

They pursued Conan from Dol-de-Bretagne to Rennes, and finally to Dinan, where he surrendered the fortress’s keys at the point of a lance. William presented Harold with weapons and arms, knighting him.

The Bayeux Tapestry, and other Norman sources, then record that Harold swore an oath on sacred relics to William to support his claim to the English throne. After Edward’s death, the Normans were quick to point out that in accepting the crown of England, Harold had broken this alleged oath.

The chronicler Orderic Vitalis wrote of Harold that he “was distinguished by his great size and strength of body, his polished manners, his firmness of mind and command of words, by a ready wit and a variety of excellent qualities. But what availed so many valuable gifts, when good faith, the foundation of all virtues, was wanting?”

William II, Duke of Normandy

Due to a doubling of taxation by Tostig in 1065 that threatened to plunge England into civil war, Harold supported Northumbrian rebels against his brother, and replaced him with Morcar. This led to Harold’s marriage alliance with the northern earls but fatally split his own family, driving Tostig into alliance with King Harald III Hardrada (“Hard Ruler”) of Norway.

At the end of 1065, King Edward the Confessor fell into a coma without clarifying his preference for the succession. He died on January 5, 1066, according to the Vita Ædwardi Regis, but not before briefly regaining consciousness and commending his widow and the kingdom to Harold’s “protection”.

The intent of this charge remains ambiguous, as is the Bayeux Tapestry, which simply depicts Edward pointing at a man thought to represent Harold. When the Witan convened the next day they selected Harold to succeed, and his coronation followed on January 6, most likely held in Westminster Abbey, though no evidence from the time survives to confirm this.

Although later Norman sources point to the suddenness of this coronation, the reason may have been that all the nobles of the land were present at Westminster for the feast of Epiphany, and not because of any usurpation of the throne on Harold’s part.