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Harold Godwinson’s Posthumous Reputation, 1066-c.1160
By Steffen Hope
Published Online on My Albion (2013)
Introduction: When William Bastard, duke of Normandy, invaded England in 1066 he was very concerned that this would have the bearings of an enterprise that was legitimate according to contemporary norms. After William had been crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Eve that same year, he made severe efforts to persuade the surviving high-born members of Anglo-Saxon society that he truly was the king of England, and that he was the true deserving subject of their loyalty. As a part in this campaign the writing of history was an important tool, and various Norman and Anglo-Norman chronicles were to argue that William’s invasion was not a usurpation, but, quite the contrary, an expedition to rid England of the usurper Harold Godwinson. This text will show in which ways Harold’s posthumous reputation was constructed to cement the Norman claim to legitimacy and how this legacy lasted well beyond William the Conqueror’s death.
Harold Godwinson was born early in the 1020s. His father was one of the most powerful nobles of the Danish empire, and his mother belonged to another Danish house of nobles. During the reign of King Edward the Confessor, the house of Godwin was among the greatest political dynasties in Anglo-Saxon England, and Godwin gave his daughter Edith as the king’s wife.
In 1051 England was heading towards a civil war between the forces of the Godwin family on one side and those of King Edward on the other. One of the key reasons for this was that King Edward had brought bishops and nobles from the continent, presumably owing to his childhood exile in Fécamp in Normandy. This was met with protestations from the native nobles, and it was a particularly grave matter that the Norman Robert of Jumièges was appointed to the See of Canterbury. Robert had already served as bishop of London and during his rule he had established a hostile relationship with the Godwin family. In the early days of the unrest Robert set out a rumour that Godwin had authored the death of King Edward’s brother, Alfred, several years earlier. This made matters worse for the Godwin family and they had to flee into exile. They returned, however, already in 1052 and made peace with the king. The following year Godwin himself died from a stroke during the Easter meal of the royal celebration at Windsor, and this was to have great ramifications of Harold Godwinson’s posthumous reputation, as we shall see.