Harold Godwinson was an important Anglo-Saxon nobleman in the 11th century. He is most famous for succeeding King Edward the Confessor in 1066 and briefly ruling England, as King Harold II, before his defeat and death at the battle of Hastings at the hands of Duke William of Normandy.


The manner of his demise at Hastings is also notable, as he is famously said to have been killed by an arrow in the eye. That fatal ocular blow appears to be portrayed in the Bayeux Tapestry, the contemporary visual source that shows the events of 1066.

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Who was Harold Godwinson?

Harold’s father Earl Godwin rose to prominence during the reign of King Cnut (r1016-35), the Danish ruler who led a Viking army into England and went on to win the crown in 1016.

Godwin became Earl of Wessex under Cnut, and he married Gytha, who came from a noble Danish family. This meant that Godwin, and his sons, were well-placed to prosper in the Anglo-Danish court and they became important players in the politics of England from then until 1066.

We don’t know precisely when Harold was born, but it was likely in the early 1020s. Harold became Earl of East Anglia in the 1040s, after his father had supported the return from exile and later succession to the throne of Edward the Confessor in 1042 (Edward’s father Aethelred the Unready had also been king).

Harold’s sister, Edith, married Edward the Confessor, and several of his brothers also became substantial landowners. After an incident in Dover in 1051, Godwin and his sons were exiled by King Edward, but the family raised troops and forced the king to take them back, which made the Godwins even more powerful.

On the death of Earl Godwin in 1053, Harold became the Earl of Wessex, and thus a very important figure. During the 1050s, he showed his military and political skills in fighting against the Welsh and protecting the Marches.

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What was Harold’s claim to the English crown?

King Edward the Confessor and his wife were childless, so there was no clear heir to the kingdom.

He may have wanted his closest blood relative, his great-nephew Edgar Aetheling, to succeed him, but when Edward died at the start of 1066, Edgar was still considered a boy and didn’t have the support of the English lords.

According to Caitlin Ellis, the expert in our Life of the Week podcast on King Harold, Harold’s claim to the throne was based principally on the standing of his family.

There is a possibility that Edward entrusted Harold with the kingdom on his deathbed, but that, says Ellis, is “something that the medieval sources disagree about, and which historians continue to debate”.

Harold Godwinson and Edward the Confessor in the Bayeaux Tapestry
Harold Godwinson and Edward the Confessor in the Bayeaux Tapestry (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When was Harold crowned?

Harold’s coronation seems to have followed very quickly after Edward the Confessor’s death.

“It was just a day or couple of days after Edward died” notes Ellis, “so maybe there is that sense that they need to act quite swiftly and create a sense of order if there are questions over the succession”.

The coronation took place in the newly built Westminster Abbey, so Harold was the first English king to be crowned there.

Harold’s short reign

The problem for Harold was that he was not the only figure to have designs on Edward’s vacated throne.

In Normandy, Duke William pressed his claim. Norman sources report that Edward had promised William the throne, and there is also a story that Harold made an oath to support William on a visit to Normandy in the early 1060s.

This ill-fated Normandy trip is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, the embroidery that gives a visual account of the events of the Norman Conquest. The Tapestry also shows William building up his fleet and forces through 1066, readying for invasion.

The Normans were not the only threat to Harold. His own brother Tostig had fallen out with Harold and joined up with the militaristic Norwegian King Harald Hardrada.

The pair gathered a fleet and invaded England in the North. They beat the English defenders at the battle of Fulford on 20 September 1066 but Harold himself then led an army to face, and defeat, them at the battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September. Both Hardrada and Tostig perished.

Three days later, William had brought his forces across the Channel from Normandy and so Harold had little choice but to march south from this victory to face the Normans at Hastings on 14 October.

How did Harold die?

The battle of Hastings was a brutal all-day affair. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts terrible bloodshed, with men and horses dying, including Harold’s two brothers Gyrth and Leofwine.

The Normans had the upper hand and Harold made a last stand but was killed on the field. This is where we encounter the idea that he died from an arrow in the eye, but there are conflicting accounts of the manner of his death.

The death of Harold Godwinson in the Bayeaux Tapestry
The death of Harold Godwinson in the Bayeaux Tapestry (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

According to Ellis, “The Song of the Battle of Hastings [Carmen de Hastingae Proelio] says instead that Harold was attacked by four knights, including William himself, and that he's basically hacked to pieces, and one of them cuts off his head”.

At first glance, the Bayeux Tapestry appears to unequivocally show a man with an arrow in his eye. However, it has been argued that the arrow was not the work of the original 11th-century embroiderers but has been stitched in much more recently.

It has also been suggested that in the Tapestry death scene, “that more than one figure is actually Harold and it's almost like two stages”, says Ellis, with the king being both shot in the eye and hacked down.


Whatever the manner of his death, what is definite is that his vanquisher Duke William won the day, and went on to become King William I and to usher in a period of Norman rule in England, with significant consequences for the course of English history.

Life of the Week: Harold Godwinson

Member exclusive | Explore the lives of some of history’s most intriguing figures. In this episode, Dr Caitlin Ellis, associate professor in medieval nordic history at Oslo University, discusses Harold Godwinson.

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Dr David MusgroveContent director, HistoryExtra.com

David Musgrove is content director of the HistoryExtra.com website and podcast, plus its sister print magazines BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed. He has a PhD in medieval landscape archaeology and is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.