King Harold II of England (ca. 1022 – October 14, 1066) was the last crowned Anglo-Saxon king of England. He was the son of Earl Godwin of Wessex, succeeded St. Edward the Confessor to the throne of England, but served as its king for less than a year, dying on the field of battle at Hastings in southern England in 1066, when England was invaded by William the Bastard (“the Conqueror”), Duke of Normandy. He ruled from January 5, 1066 to October 14, the day of his death. Though he has never been formally canonized, he is regarded by some Orthodox Christians as a passion-bearer or even martyr and as the last Orthodox king of England.
Harold’s father was Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex. Godwin was himself a son to Wulfnoth Cild, Thane of Sussex, and had married twice. His first marriage was to Thyra Sveinsdóttir (994 – 1018), a daughter of Sweyn I who was king of Denmark, Norway, and England. His second wife was Gytha Thorkelsdóttir who was a granddaughter to the legendary Swedish viking Styrbjörn Starke and great-granddaughter to Harold Bluetooth, King of Denmark and Norway, father of Sweyn I. This second marriage resulted in the birth of two sons, Harold and Tostig Godwinson, and a sister, Edith of Wessex (1020 – 1075) who was Queen consort of St. Edward the Confessor.
Created Earl of East Anglia in 1045, Harold accompanied Godwin into exile in 1051 but helped him to regain his position a year later. When Godwin died in 1053, Harold succeeded him as Earl of Wessex (a province at that time covering the southernmost third of England). This made him the second most powerful figure in England after the king.
In 1058 Harold also became Earl of Hereford, and he replaced his late father as the focus of opposition to growing Norman influence in England under the restored Saxon monarchy (1042 – 1066) of Edward the Confessor, who had spent more than a quarter of a century in exile in Normandy.
He gained glory in a series of campaigns (1062 – 1063) against the ruler of Gwynedd, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, who had conquered all of Wales; this conflict ended with Gruffydd’s defeat (and death at the hands of his own troops) in 1063. About 1064, Harold married Edith, daughter of the Earl of Mercia, and former wife of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. By Harold, Edith had two sons – possibly twins – named Harold and Ulf, both of whom survived into adulthood and probably ended their lives in exile. Harold also had several illegitimate children by his famous mistress (or wife, according to Danish law), Ealdgyth Swan-neck (or “Edith Swan-neck” or “Edith Swanneck”).
In 1065 Harold supported Northumbrian rebels against his brother Tostig who replaced him with Morcar. This strengthened his acceptability as Edward’s successor, but fatally divided his own family, driving Tostig into alliance with King Harald Hardrada (“Hard Reign”) of Norway.
Upon Edward the Confessor’s death (January 5, 1066), Harold claimed that Edward had promised him the crown on his deathbed, and the Witenagemot (the assembly of the kingdom’s leading notables) approved him for coronation as king, which took place the following day, January 6.
However, the country was invaded, by both Harald of Norway and William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, who claimed that he had been promised the English crown by both Edward (probably in 1052) and Harold, who had been shipwrecked in Ponthieu, Normandy in 1064 or 1065. It was alleged that, on the latter occasion, William forced Harold to swear to support his claim to the throne, only revealing after the event that the box on which he had made his oath contained holy relics. After Harold’s death, Normans were quick to point out that in accepting the crown of England, Harold had perjured himself of this oath.
Invading what is now Yorkshire in September, 1066, Harald Hardrada and Tostig defeated the English earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria at the Battle of Fulford near York (September 20), but were in turn defeated and slain by Harold’s army five days later at the Battle of Stamford Bridge (September 25).
Harold now forced his army to march 240 miles to intercept William, who had landed perhaps 7000 men in Sussex, southern England three days later on September 28. Harold established his army in hastily built earthworks near Hastings. The two armies clashed near Hastings on October 14, where after a hard fight Harold was killed and his forces routed. According to tradition, and as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye. Whether he did, indeed, die in this manner (a death associated in the middle ages with perjurers), or was killed by the sword, will never be known. Harold’s wife, Edith Swanneck, was called to identify the body, which she did by some private mark (the face being destroyed) known only to herself. Although one Norman account claims that Harold’s body was buried in a grave overlooking the Saxon shore, it is more likely that he was buried in his church of Waltham Holy Cross in Essex.
After the Conquest, some of Harold’s family fled to Kievan Rus’, where his illegitimate daughter Gytha of Wessex married Vladimir Monomakh, Grand Duke of Kievan Rus’, and is ancestor to dynasties of Galicia, Smolensk and Yaroslavl, whose scions include Modest Mussorgsky and Peter Kropotkin. Consequently, the Russian Orthodox Church allegedly recently recognized Harold as a martyr with October 14 as his feast day.
A cult of hero worship rose around Harold and by the 12th century legend says that Harold had indeed survived the battle, had spent two years in Winchester after the battle recovering from his wounds, and then traveled to Germany where he spent years wandering as a pilgrim. As an old man he returned to England and lived as a hermit in a cave near Dover. As he lay dying, he confessed that although he went by the name of Christian, he had been born Harold Godwineson. Various versions of this story persisted throughout the Middle Ages, and have little claim to fact.
Literary interest in Harold revived in the 19th century with the play Harold by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1876) and the novel Last of the Saxon Kings by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1848). Rudyard Kipling wrote a story, The tree of justice (1910), describing how an old man who turns out to be Harold is brought before Henry I of England. E. A. Freeman wrote a serious history in History of the Norman Conquest of England (1870-1879) in which Harold is seen as a great English hero. By the 21st century Harold’s reputation remains tied, as it has always been, with subjective views of the rightness or wrongness of the Norman conquest.
The Basis for Sainthood
The question of Harold’s sanctity is a bit complex. History records that he led a moral life and was an honest and dutiful ruler for the English people. There probably is not, however, enough evidence of his personal sanctity based on the general conduct of his life in order for him to be numbered publicly among the saints.
Another question with regard to many western saints is the period in which they lived. That is, do they count as Orthodox saints of the old western Church based on living before the Great Schism? Regarding the British Isles, what is known about the state of the Church there at that time is that subsequent to the Norman Invasion in 1066, church life was radically altered. Native clergy were replaced, liturgical reform enacted, and a strong emphasis on papal church control was propagated. As such, it is probably safe to say that, prior to 1066, the church of the British Isles was Orthodox, and the Normans brought the effects of the Great Schism to British soil. As such, it is probably proper to regard Harold as having been an Orthodox Christian.
The principle question regarding Harold’s sanctity is whether he died as a passion-bearer (one who faces his death in a Christ-like manner) or even a martyr at Hastings. The defense of England was certainly being undertaken for political and nationalistic reasons—Englishmen had no desire to be ruled over by a foreign king (having experienced it before), so they gladly followed their native monarch in defense of their homeland. Yet did they also die for their faith?
Papist Invaders versus Orthodox Christian Natives
Before he set out from Normandy, William had had a difficult time in getting his own Norman barons to follow him in his quest to gain the English crown. Most considered it suicide, if only because of the difficulty in making the crossing over the English Channel in the relatively primitive boats that they used. Thus, William had a problem in terms of gaining military assistance in his campaign. The solution to that problem was presented by one of his advisers, Lanfranc, a Lombard abbot and monastic teacher who had previously helped gain papal approval of William’s uncanonical marriage to his wife, Matilda.
Lanfranc’s solution (for which he was eventually awarded the position of Archbishop of Canterbury after the Conquest) came in the form of casting the invasion as a crusade to bring the English church into submission to the papacy. David Howarth, in his 1066 The Year of the Conquest, explains: The invasion should not be seen as a merely secular conquest; its highest aim should be, or appear to be, the reformation of the English church. It should become a crusade, a holy war to bring back an errant church to Rome. Lanfranc himself, or the Norman church as a body, was willing to bring accusations against the church of England (p. 100).
Whether the English church was indeed errant can be debated. As with much of the Church at the time, corruption was certainly present, but that was by no means unique to England or therefore deserving of military invasion. Indeed, even considering how remote England’s church was from Rome, it had for nearly 200 years collected and sent to Rome the offering known as Peter’s Pence, and it had always encouraged pilgrimage to Rome by English Christians. As such, the church in England had been remarkably loyal to Rome. Howarth continues: Perhaps its principal sin was merely to be different: much of its scholarship and all of its pastoral work were in English instead of Latin, and it was easy for other churchmen to suspect that schisms and heresies were hidden by such a barbarous language. But finally, whatever was said against it, the fact remained that the English then were a devoutly religious people and were satisfied on the whole that their church provided for their spiritual needs (ibid.).
Norman Conspiracy with the Pope
Despite the rather shaky grounds on which accusations of English ecclesiastical disloyalty were founded, this was the reason for the invasion which was submitted to the Pope. It was probably something of an afterthought for William’s plan, and certainly neither William nor Lanfranc were in a position to judge the English church. Yet the excuse was precisely what the invaders—and the Pope—needed to further their cause, as Howarth says: To William, it gave a chance of solving the problem of raising an army: he could promise land and booty to men who took part, but in a holy war the church could promise something more—salvation. To Lanfranc, it gave a chance to offer the Holy See an expansion of power it had been seeking in vain… Lanfranc could therefore ask for papal blessing of William’s invasion and offer something in return: William’s claim could be submitted to the judgement of the Pope. This would be the first time a pope had been asked to adjudicate a disputed royal succession, and would create a precedent of enormous importance to [Cardinal] Hildebrand… And the present Pope, as it happened, had once been [Lanfranc’s] student at [the monastic college of] Bec (p. 101).
Hildebrand had previously been at the head of efforts to disentangle the election of popes from secular politics, thus bolstering the power and solidity of the papacy. (He was eventually elected pope himself, styled Pope Gregory VII, and is a saint in the Roman Catholic Church.) Such an opportunity as Lanfranc’s proposal presented to increase the papacy’s influence over secular politics could not be missed. Being the most skilful politician at the Vatican, he saw to it that a papal court was held in Rome (“without the slightest reference to the facts,” says Howarth on p. 102) at which Harold was entirely unrepresented. As Howarth says: It is not recorded whether he was invited to send an advocate, but it is very unlikely. To ride from Rome to Bosham [where Harold was in England] and back again to Rome suggests a month on the road, and nobody was prepared to waste as much time as that. If he had been invited, he and the witan would certainly have answered, quite correctly, that the choice of a King of England had nothing to do with the Pope (p. 102).
The court ruled against Harold, and the Pope accepted that William’s purpose was to reform the church, he sent his blessing on this holy endeavour, a papal banner to carry into battle, and a ring for William to wear on the expedition which contained a relic of St Peter himself. There was one condition: it was understood that William would hold England as a vassal of the Pope. William had not the least intention in the world of doing anything of the sort; but he accepted the ring and the banner and said nothing. And those, as things turned out, were the most powerful weapons he took to England (ibid.).
Harold Rex Interfectus Est: Harold’s Defeat at Hastings
After Harold had returned from his brilliant defeat of Harald of Norway in the north of England, he learned quickly of the Norman invasion. He’d been suspecting it for some time, but it fell hard on the heels of victory at Stamford Bridge that he would have to defend his country in the south, as well.
Upon his return to southern England, he soon received word from William’s forces that he had been excommunicated by the Pope and that the Normans carried papal blessing to invade England. All evidence suggests that this news utterly demoralized King Harold. While he had been a powerful commander against the Norsemen, upon hearing news of the alleged excommunication, he declared, “May the Lord now decide between William and me” (Howarth, p. 164), and before going to battle, “the terrible rumour was starting to spread that the King was excommunicated and the same fate hung over any man who fought for him” (ibid., 165).
Records of how the battle actually went suggest that instead of the dynamic fighting force Harold had inspired just days before, the English mainly stood in one place and were slaughtered. Harold had been transformed by his betrayal by the Pope, and his defeat by William (which from a purely military standpoint was by no means assured) marked the end of the ecclesial distinctiveness of the English church and its subsequent capitulation to Rome under Norman rule. Lanfranc himself, as Archbishop of Canterbury, led the Latinization and Normanization of the English church, while William brutalized the English people.
Although history’s record of Harold’s defeat can be interpreted to suggest that King Harold and his men died in defense of the Orthodox Christian faith, aside from the undocumented allegation that the Church of Russia has glorified him, there is no record of a cultus developing around Harold. This fact is not necessarily evidence against his place among the saints, especially since the Norman domination of the English church would have utterly squelched the liturgical veneration of the fallen Saxon king.
In our own day, however, some Orthodox Christians—especially those who venerate the saints of the British Isles—have begun to regard Harold as being truly a saint, that he and his men died defending their land from invasion by a foreign faith. Perhaps we may someday see a service written to him and popular veneration grow in the Orthodox Church, especially among English-speaking Orthodox Christians.