Harold Godwinson in Wales: Military Legitimacy in Late Anglo-Saxon England
By Kelly DeVries
The Normans and their Adversaries at War: Essays in Memory of C. Warren Hollister, edited by Richard P. Abels and Bernard S. Bachrach (Boydell, 2001)
Introduction: On January 6, 1066, Harold Godwinson ascended the throne of England. He succeeded King Edward the Confessor who had died after reigning for twenty-three years over the English people. Edward had left no direct descendent as successor, but Harold was his most powerful earl and also his brother-in-law. Thus, it would seem that the crowning of Harold was to have been expected. Yet this crowning became one of the most provocative of all medieval historical events, for not only did it arouse two invasions of the island kingdom by claimants to the throne it ushered a millennium of historical speculation on why Edward, who, it seems, had promised the English throne to Duke William of Normandy, the man who would eventually acquire it, so easily turned his back on that promise and awarded the crown to his brother-in-law.
Modern historians have confronted the granting of Edward’s crown of Harold with confusion. Only Tryggvi J. Oleson has chosen to deny its occurrence, while others are convinced that as William of Poitiers, whose loyalty to his duke is irrefutable, even records it, such a bequest must have indeed happened. Perhaps, the king was “out of his mind when he bequeathed the throne to Harold,” suggests Frank Barlow, although in saying this he must also admit that “words spoken in articulo mortis were the most solemn that medieval man could imagine.” While the situation certainly is a possibility, most historians studying the 1066 succession to the English throne simply accept the fact that Harold had been the designated heir to Edward for a very long time and that promises and oaths made to a foreign duke meant nothing when compared to the political power held by the earl of Wessex.
But how had Harold acquired this political power that he was able to convince Edward the break his promise to William, so much political power that he was known as “subregulus” at the time of Edward’s death, so much political power that he was also supported by the people who, in the guise of the witenagemot, easily elected him as king?