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The Death of Harold II
After 15 years of Harold II rule England was one of the most prosperous countries in Europe, a great trading nation whose ships ranged from Al Andalus to the Baltic, to Greenland. Her King seemed in rude health, despite his age, and it appeared that England's prosperity was assured.
In February 1081 Harold was hunting with Edmund of Mercia and his son Harold Godwine MacHarold near Knutsford, Cheshire when his horse stepped in a mole hill and threw him head first. He was taken to Knutsford where he died two days later, of head injuries. Harold was able to communicate for part of the first day, during which time he spoke alone for an hour with Harold Godwine MacHarold.
Upon the King's death, riders were sent out to summon a Witanmoot at Northampton, to be held one month later. Many there would have valid claim to the throne, but a compromise would have to be reached which would be acceptable to everyone.
The Godwin family were by this point the unchallenged masters of England. Though Northumberland and a reduced Mercia remained outside their direct control, the rich southern lowlands of England were under their full control, and the new standing army, nominally under the control of the Witan, was commanded by men who were loyal to the family. All the brothers, sons and nephews of Harold were members of the Witan, along with many Bishops and minor lords who were loyal to them. This meant that only a descendant of Godwin had any chance of becoming King. Unfortunately, there were several to choose from.
Harold Godwin MacHarold:
Harold Godwinson's eldest son by Eadgylth Swan-neck. The powerful King of the isle of Man, in 1082 he controlled the Walruss ivory trade from Greenland and the rich trading port of Douglas. Probably the richest man in the kingdom and therefore able to purchase the services of large numbers of Irish and Scandinavian mercenaries. Widely respected for his intelligence but with a reputation for cruelty. Not liked by his younger brothers, the Haroldsons. Two factors stand against him: He would almost certainly centralise power in his own hands, and is seen as too Irish, speaking that language as fluently as English and dressing in the Irish manner whilst in his own kingdom. His two sons even speak English with an accent.
Edmund (alternatively Eamon or Evan) MacHarold, earl of Cornwall:
Younger twin brother of Harold Godwin MacHarold. He had a reputation as an excellent administrator, having introduced wide-ranging economic and legal reforms in Cornwall, and was the most battle tested of Harold's sons. As the junior twin, he was somewhat in the shadow of his older brother, and few expected him to challenge in his own right. He also suffered from the same disadvantage as his twin, he ruled a peripheral Earldom and was married to a foreigner, a Breton noblewoman. Therefore he was viewed by some as not sufficiently Saxon to rule England.
The youngest of Harold Godwinson's three sons by his first marriage. A well liked and comparatively pious man who had just turned 30, he was Ealdorman of Sussex. He was viewed as somewhat unwordly, but his good relationship with all branches of the Godwinson family meant that he had an outside chance as a compromise candidate, especially since he didn't suffer from the perceived foreigness associated with his older brothers. He may have been considered too weak to be king.
Harold Haroldson, Earl of the Welsh March:
At 15, Harold's oldest legitimate son (a few hours older than his identical twin Ulf), he was an accomplished horseman and displayed all the qualities necessary to become a great War-leader. Indeed, it appeared that his father had been grooming him for that exact purpose. The wishes of Harold were seen as crucial by many members of the Witan who were outside the Godwinson family, given the stability and prosperity the country had enjoyed during that time. There was also a movement towards primogeniture amongst the bishops and abbotts in the Witan, both for religious and practical reasons, a more orderly transfer of power was, they felt, good for the country. A young and impressionable King would also suit the Earls of Mercia and Northumberland who were suspicious of Harold Godwin MacHarold's power and cunning.
Leofwine Godwinson, Earl of Kent
Aged 46 and overweight, Leofwine no longer resembled the athletic figure who had fought against William the Bastard with his brother Harold. He was the titular head of the Godwinson family, being the oldest surviving male, and his seniority was respected within the family. However, he was not well, he was recorded in contemporary chronicles as being "past his days as a crow feeder". He also had four sons, meaning that if he died in a few years, there would probably be three MacHarolds, four Godwinsons and ou Leofwinesons with credible claims, along with the King of Scotland (who now had a son descended from Harold, via Gyrtha of Wessex) and possibly his brother Gyrth, who, by contrast, was in fine health.
Gyrth Godwinson, Earl of East Anglia
A battle-tested and gnarled old soldier, at the age of 45 he still looked every inch a fighting man. He was widely liked for his unconditional loyalty to Harold, and his respect for the family. Indeed so honest was he that his father, the devious Godwin, is said to have suspected the boy was not his. He was a plausible candidate for the Kingship, but he had spent so many years doing the bidding of his older brother that he perhaps couldn't see his own suitability. His own high regard for his family, and his trusting nature perhaps left him vulnerable to others within the clan whose motives were not so pure. More succinctly, Maelcun of Exeter describes him as "a good man," before snidely adding "and what danger is a good man, when he is also a damn fool with an army." (from "Memories of the wars of the Godwinsons")