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Harold, King Of England

      Harold II., the last of the native English kings, was the second son of Earl Godwin by his Danish wife Gytha, the sister of Earl Ulf, and was born about 1022. At an early age he was made Earl of the East Angles and he shared his father's outlawry in 1051, finding a refuge in Ireland. Next year, together with his brother Leofwin, he crossed the Channel with nine ships, defeated the men of Somerset and Devon at Porlock, and ravaged the country, next joined his father at Portland, and shared the triumph of his return. Harold was at once restored to his earldom, and next year (1053) succeeded to his father's earldom of the West Saxons. Henceforward he was the right hand of King Edward, and still more after the deaths of the old Earls Leofric and Siward, he directed the whole affairs of the kingdom, with an unusual union of gentleness and vigor. His brother Tostig succeeded Siward as Earl of the Northumbrians in 1055, and two years later two other brothers were raised to earldoms: Gurth to that of the East Anglians, Leofwin to one formed out of Essex, Kent, and the other shires round about London. Meantime Harold drove back the Welsh marauders of King Griffith out of Herefordshire, and added that post of danger to his earldom. The death in 1057 of the AEtheling Edward, the son of Edmund Ironside, who had been brought back from Hungary as heir to the throne, opened up the path for Harold's ambition, and from this time men's eyes rested on him as their future king. And nature had equalled fortune in her kindness, for his handsome and stalwart figure and his gentle and conciliatory temper were kingly qualities that sat well upon his sagacity, his military skill, and his personal courage. Harold's policy throughout was thoroughly English, contrary to the predominant French influences that had governed the early part of Edward's reign. He was English in everything, even to his preference for secular priests to monks. He made his pilgrimage to Rome in 1058, and after his return completed his church at Waltham, known later as Waltham Abbey. In 1063, provoked by the fresh incursions of Griffith, he marched against him, and by making his men put off their heavy armor and weapons, and adopt the Welshmen's own tactics, he was able to traverse the whole country, and beat the enemy at every point. Griffith was killed by his own people, whereupon Harold gave the government to the dead king's brothers, Bleddyn and Rhiwallon, who swore oaths of fealty both to King Edward and to himself.

      It is impossible to say exactly at what date occurred that famous visit of Harold to the court of Duke William, in Normandy, of the results of which the Norman writers make so much, although with many contradictions, while the English writers, with the most marked and careful unanimity, say nothing at all. It seems most likely that Harold did make some kind of oath to William, most probably under compulsion, when he had fallen into his hands after being shipwrecked on the coast of Ponthieu, and imprisoned by its Count Guy. Mr. Freeman thinks the most probable date to be 1064. It is at least certain that Harold helped William in a war with the Bretons, and in the Bayeux tapestry we see his stalwart form lifting up two Normans at once when they were in danger of being swept away by the river Coesnon, which divides Normandy from Brittany. The Norman writers make Harold formally swear fealty to William, promising to marry one of his daughters, and we are told that additional sanctity was given to this oath by its being made upon a chest full of the most sacred relics.

Edith searching for the Body of Harold.

      In 1065, the Northumbrians rebelled against the rule of Tostig, and Harold found himself compelled, between policy and a sense of justice, to side with them, and to acquiesce in their choice of Morcar and the banishment of Tostig. At the beginning of 1066 King Edward died, his last breath being to recommend that Harold should be chosen king. He was crowned on January 6th, and at once set himself with steadfast energy to consolidate his kingdom. At York he won over the reluctant men of Northumbria, and he next married Ealdgyth, Griffith's widow, in order to secure the alliance of her brothers, Morcar and Edwin. His short reign of forty weeks and one day was occupied with incessant vigilance against the attacks of two formidable enemies at once. Duke William lost no time in beginning his preparations for the invasion of England, and Tostig, after trying the Normans and the Scots, and filibustering along the coasts on his own account, succeeded in drawing to his side the famous Harold Hardrada, king of Norway. In the month of September the two reached the Humber, and Harold marched to meet them, resting neither day nor night. The Icelandic historian, Snorro, in his dramatic narrative of the fight, tells how Harold rode out accompanied with twenty of his housecarls to have speech with Earl Tostig, and offer him peace; and when asked what amends King Hardrada should have for his trouble in coming, replied, "Seven feet of the ground of England, or more perchance, seeing he is taller than other men."

      At Stamford Bridge Harold overtook his enemy, and after a bloody struggle won a complete victory (September 25, 1066), both Tostig and Harold Hardrada being among the slain. But four days later Duke William landed at Pevensey. Harold marched southward with the utmost haste, bringing with him the men of Wessex and East Anglia, and the earldoms of his brothers; but the two earls, Edwin and Morcar, held aloof and kept back the men of the north, although some of the men of Mercia, in the earldom of Edwin, followed their king to the fatal struggle which was fought out from nine in the morning till past nightfall, on October 14, 1066. The English fought with the most stubborn courage, and the battle was only lost by their allowing the pretended flight of the Normans to draw them from their impregnable position on the crest of the hill, ringed with an unbroken shield wall. On its slope, right in front of the Norman army, waved the golden dragon of Wessex, as well as the king's own standard, a fighting man wrought upon it in gold. Here Harold stood with his mighty two-handed axe, and hewed down the Normans as they came. Before nightfall he fell, pierced through the eye with an arrow. His housecarls fought where they stood till they fell one by one; his brothers, Gurth and Leofwin, died beside him. The king's body was found upon the field, recognized only by a former mistress, the fair Eadgyth Swanneshals ("Edith of the swan's neck").

      At first, William ordered it to be buried on the rocks at Hastings, but seems after to have permitted it to be removed to Harold's own church at Waltham. Than Harold, no braver or more heroic figure ever filled a throne; no king ever fought more heroically for his crown. If he failed, it was because he had to bow his head to fate, and in his death he saved all the honor of his family and his race. His tragic story has given a subject for a romance to Lytton, and for a stately drama to Tennyson.

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