Harold Godwinson (c. 1022 – 14 October 1066), often called Harold II, was the last crowned Anglo-Saxon king of England. Harold reigned from 6 January 1066 until his death at the Battle of Hastings, fighting the Norman invaders led by William the Conqueror during the Norman conquest of England. His death marked the end of Anglo-Saxon rule over England.
Harold was a powerful earl and member of a prominent Anglo-Saxon family with ties to Cnut the Great. Upon the death of his brother-in-law King Edward the Confessor on 5 January 1066, the Witenagemot convened and chose Harold to succeed; he was crowned in Westminster Abbey. In late September, he successfully repelled an invasion by rival claimant Harald Hardrada of Norway before marching his army back south to meet William the Conqueror at Hastings two weeks later.
Harold was a son of Godwin (c. 1001–1053), the powerful Earl of Wessex, and of Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, whose brother Ulf the Earl was married to Estrith (c. 1015/1016), the daughter of King Sweyn Forkbeard (died 1014) and sister of King Cnut the Great of England and Denmark. Ulf and Estrith's son would become King Sweyn II of Denmark in 1047. Godwin was the son of Wulfnoth, probably a thegn and a native of Sussex. Godwin began his political career by supporting King Edmund Ironside (reigned April to November 1016), but switched to supporting King Cnut by 1018, when Cnut named him Earl of Wessex. Godwin remained an earl throughout the remainder of Cnut's reign, one of only two earls to survive to the end of that reign. On Cnut's death in 1035, Godwin originally supported Harthacnut instead of Cnut's initial successor Harold Harefoot, but managed to switch sides in 1037—although not without becoming involved in the 1036 murder of Alfred Aetheling, half-brother of Harthacnut and younger brother of the later King Edward the Confessor. When Harold Harefoot died in 1040, Harthacnut became King of England and Godwin's power was imperiled by his earlier involvement in Alfred's murder, but an oath and large gift secured the new king's favour for Godwin. Harthacnut's death in 1042 probably involved Godwin in a role as kingmaker, helping to secure the English throne for Edward the Confessor. In 1045 Godwin reached the height of his power when the new king married Godwin's daughter Edith. Godwin and Gytha had several children—six sons: Sweyn, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine and Wulfnoth; and three daughters: Edith of Wessex (originally named Gytha but renamed Ealdgyth (or Edith) when she married King Edward the Confessor), Gunhild and Ælfgifu. The birthdates of the children are unknown, but Harold was the second son, Sweyn being the eldest. Harold was aged about 25 in 1045, which makes his birth year around 1020.
Edith married Edward on 23 January 1045 and, around that time, Harold became Earl of East Anglia. Harold is called "earl" when he appears as a witness in a will that may date to 1044; but, by 1045, Harold regularly appears as an earl in documents. One reason for his appointment to East Anglia may have been a need to defend against the threat from King Magnus the Good of Norway. It is possible that Harold led some of the ships from his earldom that were sent to Sandwich in 1045 against Magnus. Sweyn, Harold's elder brother, had been named an earl in 1043. It was also around the time that Harold was named an earl that he began a relationship with Edith, who appears to have been the heiress to lands in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex, lands in Harold's new earldom. The relationship was a form of marriage that was not blessed or sanctioned by the Church, known as more Danico, or "in the Danish manner", and was accepted by most laypeople in England at the time. Any children of such a union were considered legitimate. Harold probably entered the relationship in part to secure support in his new earldom.
Harold's elder brother Sweyn was exiled in 1047 after abducting the abbess of Leominster. Sweyn's lands were divided between Harold and a cousin, Beorn. In 1049, Harold was in command of a ship or ships that were sent with a fleet to aid Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor against Baldwin V, Count of Flanders, who was in revolt against Henry. During this campaign, Sweyn returned to England and attempted to secure a pardon from the king, but Harold and Beorn refused to return any of their lands, and Sweyn, after leaving the royal court, took Beorn hostage and later killed him.
When in 1051 Earl Godwin was sent into exile, Harold accompanied his father and helped him to regain his position a year later. Then Godwin died in 1053, and Harold succeeded him as Earl of Wessex (the southern third of England). This arguably made him the most powerful figure in England after the king.
Harold also became Earl of Hereford in 1058, and replaced his late father as the focus of opposition to growing Norman influence in England under the restored monarchy (1042–66) of Edward the Confessor, who had spent more than 25 years in exile in Normandy. He led a series of successful campaigns (1062–63) against Gruffydd ap Llywelyn of Gwynedd, the ruler of Wales. This conflict ended with Gruffydd's defeat and death in 1063.