Childhood & Early Life
Harold was born to Cnut the Great and Ælfgifu of Northampton sometime in 1016.His father, Cnut the Great, was the King of the North Sea Empire comprising of Denmark, England, and Norway, while his mother, Ælfgifu, belonged to a noble family from Mercia.
Harold had an elder brother named Svein Knutsson who ruled Norway with his mother.
Cnut the Great’s other wife, Emma of Normandy, had two sons - Edward the Confessor and Alfred Ætheling from her first marriage to Æthelred the Unready, and Harthacnut from her marriage to Cnut the Great. Thus, Harold had four brothers who were in line for the throne.
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Rise & Rule
After the death of Cnut the Great on November 12, 1035, it was believed that Harthacnut would be the King of Danes and England. However, at that time, he was defending his Danish kingdom from King Magnus I of Norway and King Anund Jacob of Sweden and could not come for the coronation.
Cnut the Great had intended to divide his kingdom between his three sons, but it didn’t go as he had thought.
In Harthacnut’s absence, England’s powerful noblemen wanted to crown Harold as the temporary ‘Regent’ or ‘Joint Monarch.’ Many speculations about him earning their support due to his mother Ælfgifu of Northampton’s intervention through bribes and pleas have been made. Her kin from Mercia also helped her with it.
Based on the Encomium Emmae Reginae written in praise of Emma of Normandy, this coronation was strongly opposed by Æthelnoth, Archbishop of Canterbury. He refused to coronate him by placing the sceptre and the crown on the altar of the Canterbury Cathedral.
The Archbishop also forbade any other bishops from removing them from the altar. Without this official regalia, the consecration would be meaningless. The Archbishop was not swayed by Harold’s bribes or threats.
It has also been speculated that following the Archbishop’s refusal to consecrate him, Harold stopped attending Church, rejected the Christian faith and busied himself in mundane affairs.
Godwin, the Earl of Wessex and Emma of Normandy, who was the Queen at the time, also opposed his coronation because they believed Harthacnut deserved to be crowned.
Harold was crowned the Regent on November 12, 1035, in a Witenagemot held at Oxford, amidst opposition. He was supported by Leofric, Earl of Mercia. His mother, Ælfgifu, was instrumental in gaining support and loyalty for him.
He ruled the north of River Thames, while the south was ruled by Emma of Normandy and Godwin, the Earl of Wessex on behalf of Harthacnut. While Emma was settled in Winchester with Harthacnut’s bodyguards, Harold took all the best treasure she had from Cnut the Great’s treasury.This was seen as an act of selfishness and Harold’s unwillingness to rule without greed.
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Things took a turn after Godwin, the Earl of Wessex, was forced to switch sides after he was overwhelmed by Harold’s military prowess and support. As a result, Emma of Normandy had to flee to Bruges, Flanders.
Harold’s military power was the reason he kept his other brothers at bay from the throne. However, Ælfred and Edward the Confessor came back to the Duchy of Normandy, buttheir intentions were unclear. As mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ælfred and Edward had set out to visit their mother Emma in Winchester. They were captured by Godwin, the Earl of Wessex, who had changed sides.
Ælfred was handed to Harold’s trusted men. They blinded him while transporting him to Ely by ship. He succumbed to his injuries along with his bodyguard. Edward escaped this attack and returned to Normandy. This incident created a rift between Godwin, the Earl of Wessex and Edward the Confessor and kept him at bay from trying to invade Harold’s kingdom. It also resulted in Emma of Normandy’s exile.
Not many records about Harold’s reign were documented, apart from Church matters.
On March 17, 1040, Harold died at Oxford. The cause of his death is not known. He was buried at the Westminster Abbey.
After Harthacnut took the throne in June 1040, he had Harold’s body exhumed, beheaded him and threw it into the Thames river as an act of vengeance.
Fishermen recovered the body and resident Danes reburied it in a local cemetery in London. It was later buried in a church in the City of Westminster. There have been conflicting accounts about his death and burial, some stating that he was buried at city of Morstr.
Harold got the name Harefoot because he was agile and a skilled hunter. Other versions of his name as documented in the history of Ely Abbey are ‘Harefoh’ and ‘Harefah.’
His death has been accounted to a ‘mysterious illness’ or ‘divine judgment’. According to the monks of Christchurch, when they visited him at Oxford to solve a dispute over the claim of a town named Sandwich, he ‘lay and grew black’ as they spoke to him.
According to the Prose Brut chronicle, a manuscript about English monarchs, Harold has been described in poor light as "...He went astray from the qualities and conduct of his father King Cnut, for he cared not at all for knighthood, for courtesy, or for honour, but only for his own will..."
His mother, Ælfgifu of Northampton, vanished from all records after 1040 without any trace.