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|Small Cross Type Silver Penny of Harold II Godwinson|
Last of the Anglo-Saxon Kings of England. Harold was born in 1022 to Earl Godwin of Wessex, one of the most powerful nobles in England. In 1052, Earl Godwin and his sons were powerful enough to dominate the court and more or less control King Edward the Confessor, compelling him to marry Harold's sister Edith.
The following year, in 1053, Earl Godwin died and Harold succeeded his father to the Earldom of Wessex. He was already the Earl of East Anglia. Together with his brother, Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, Harold effectively ruled England. Harold demonstrated on several occasions his effectiveness as a military commander, and with Tostig fighting by his side, he led an English Army that crushed and subdued the Welsh in 1063.
Harold's power and influence in England by this time appeared to be virtually unassailable as England's most powerful noble with the King under his thumb, however, in the following couple of years, two key events occurred which would eventually prove instrumental in his later downfall.
The first happened in 1064, when Harold found himself shipwrecked on the Normandy coast. As the guest of William the Bastard*, Duke of Normandy, he was 'persuaded' to swear an oath of fealty to the Duke and to forswear any claim he might have upon the throne in the event of the Confessor's death. Although he later repudiated this oath and claimed he had been tricked, the fact that he had taken this oath was enough to persuade many, including the Church, to back William's claim to the throne later. The second fateful event happened after his return to England in the following year. Harold was compelled to exile his brother Tostig, who had driven Northumbria into rebellion with his oppressive taxation. By doing this, Harold had turned a powerful familial ally into a powerful enemy, and this was to have fatal consequences a year later when Harold took the throne of England when Edward the Confessor died in 1066.
Although Harold II was at this point undoubtedly the most powerful man in England, his position was far from secure. He was not, strictly speaking, the legitimate heir to the throne, which should have gone to Edgar the Aetheling, the Confessor's grandson, but this 10 year old boy was a very minor threat compared to the two other rival claimants to the English throne in the form of Harald Hadrada, King of Norway, and William the Bastard.
King Harald Hadrada was supported and encouraged in his aims by Harold's alienated brother Tostig, and when they landed on the Northern Eastern Coast of England, Harold II was forced to march an army north to defeat them, which he did at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, slaying both Harald and Tostig in the process. Although victorious, the Harold's army was depleted by the fighting, tired from the long journey, and was now over 200 miles from where it needed to be to face the threat posed by William the Bastard, who landed in Pevensy in East Sussex on the 28th of September, 3 days after the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
Harold now had to march his weakened and exhausted army back down south quickly in order to stop William. They met near Hastings, and the subsequent battle lasted all day, but shortly before nightfall, Harold's battered army finally broke and Harold was killed, according to the famous legend by an arrow through the eye. William the Bastard, now known as William the Conqueror, took the throne of England for himself and replaced the Anglo-Saxon nobility with his own supporters from Normandy, who had been promised land in England as a reward for their military assistance. The era of Anglo-Saxon rule in England thus came to an end, and it would be centuries before England's own ruling class would even consider itself English again, as opposed to a Norman-French elite ruling over a conquered foreign land.
Our featured coin is a 'Pax' type penny. Reflecting what turned out to be an overoptimistic and unfulfilled ambition for his brief reign.
*This unflattering moniker was the result of him being the offspring of one of his father's mistresses.
The only coins issued for Harold II were silver pennies, as for most Anglo Saxon kings.
Portrait of Harold II, left, with sceptre
Spink catalogue #1187
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