Harold I “Harefoot” of England: A Reassessment by Brandon M. Bender
Harold I “Harefoot” of England: A Reassessment
Brandon M. Bender
Brandon M. Bender is a writer whose recent work focuses on medieval English history, with an emphasis on the Danish Conquest of England and the wider pre-Norman era. His peer reviewed work can be found in The Year’s Work in Medievalism Volume 34 and Rounded Globe. Brandon’s writing has also appeared in Camedieval – a publication affiliated with the CALM and GEMS programs at Cambridge University – and Lancaster University’s Epoch History Magazine. Brandon’s first book, England’s Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready, debuted in 2019 and was the subject of the Rex Factor episode “Æthelred the Ready.” Brandon has also written about US history. He lives in the Kansas City metropolitan area.
Although it is rarely remembered today, eleventh-century England was ruled by four kings from the House of Denmark: Swein Forkbeard, Cnut the Great, Harold I, and Harthacnut. The third king in that list, if he is remembered at all, is often seen as “less-than” the others – a usurper, a villain, and an illegitimate interruption to the rightful order of succession. Harold was apparently so distasteful that after his death, his body was exhumed and thrown into the Thames. As if the scandalous treatment of his body was not bad enough for his legacy, Harold’s reign is typically ignored or viewed as an epilogue to Cnut’s or a prologue to Edward the Confessor’s. Harold, known by the nickname “Harefoot,” unfortunately remains one of England’s most obscure and misunderstood monarchs.
While Harold has occasionally been discussed in some formidable scholarship, he is usually only examined as he relates to others. Some academic works that discuss Harold include biographies of Cnut and Edward the Confessor.1 Harold usually has a higher profile in work discussing Emma of Normandy and Harthacnut, as it is simply not possible to tell either of their stories without Harold.2 If Harold is important enough that he cannot be omitted from studies of important figures like Emma and Harthacnut, then he deserves a closer look in his own right. While there is not enough source material to warrant a book on Harold, my intention is to put the spotlight on him directly, retracing his life as best as possible and reassessing some of the more distasteful views about him.
Sources for Harold
Unlike Æthelred II, whose poor reputation took centuries to develop fully, Harold is portrayed negatively even in relatively early sources.3 These include, but are not limited to, eleventh-century sources like entries of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) for 1035-40 and the Encomium Emmae Reginae, as well as twelfth-century sources like John of Worcester and the Liber Eliensis (LE).4
These sources question Harold’s parentage, and thus his legitimacy, and show him grasping for the English throne while the rightful successor, Harthacnut, is busy in Scandinavia. The ASC laments Harold’s popularity, which “was not right.” The Encomium, written in honor of Harold’s enemy, Emma, portrays him as an “unjust tyrant” who “turned from the whole Christian religion.” He is also implicated in acts of cruelty, such as exiling Emma in the cold of winter and possibly luring a rival claimant to his death. However, Harold’s claim and reign were symptoms of English succession practices in the tenth and eleventh centuries, where the consent of the nobility mattered most. Consequently, it became necessary for his rivals to blacken his reputation.
As for his nickname, its origins are late and unclear. He is first called something resembling Harefoot in the LE (“harefoh” and “harefah”) with no explanation, although it is traditionally thought to refer to his quickness or skill as a hunter.5
Birth and Early Life: c.
Harold’s father was Cnut, who ruled what has been called the North Sea Empire. At its greatest extent, it included England, Denmark, Norway, and parts of Sweden. Cnut ruled England in particular from 1016-35. Harold’s paternal grandfather was Swein Forkbeard, the Danish king who had briefly conquered England in 1013, and his great-grandfather and possible namesake was Harald Bluetooth, king of Denmark. Cnut also had a brother named Harald, which is another possible source for the name.
Harold’s mother, on the other hand, was from a noble English family that had recently seen hard times. Her name was Ælfgifu of Northampton. Her father, Ælfhelm of York, was slain in 1006 and her brothers were blinded. This seems to have been the act of Æthelred II, the ruthless and long-reigning English king (ruled 978-1013, 1014-16).6 Ælfgifu had every reason to be afraid of the English king and his allies, so it is little wonder that she, despite being English, threw her lot in with the Danish invaders who plagued Æthelred’s kingdom at this time.
Ælfgifu married Cnut sometime around 1013.7 It was a match that gave her some protection against Æthelred and afforded Cnut a connection with an established English family. Ælfgifu and Cnut’s first son was named Swein. Harold followed shortly thereafter, possibly sometime between 1015 and 1017. Despite some modern assertions that Harold was born in Denmark, he could have been born almost anywhere in his father’s vast empire; his parents spent time in both England and Scandinavia throughout their adult lives and Harold’s year of birth is unknown.8
The family situation grew more complicated in 1017 when Cnut married Emma of Normandy. Queen Emma was the widow of Æthelred and had been English queen since 1002. Following Cnut’s conquest of England in 1016, Emma retained her title of queen by becoming Cnut’s new wife. The traditional view is that Cnut set aside Ælfgifu when he married Emma, a view that can still be found in fairly modern publications.9 Cnut, however, did not set aside his first wife, despite Emma’s later attempts to denigrate Ælfgifu as a mere “concubine.”10 He was a bigamist who kept Ælfgifu in his circle, going so far as to entrust her with the regency of Norway and show favor to their son Swein, making him co-regent.11 Cnut also had a son by Emma, Harthacnut, who was involved in political events from a young age.12 Harold, meanwhile, does not seem to have been given any place of prominence. That would all change upon his father’s death.
Harold in Power: 1035-37
When Cnut died on November 12th, 1035, Harold’s main advantage was his presence in England. Swein, if he was still alive, was probably in Scandinavia. In any case, he did not live long enough to play any role in English affairs after Cnut’s death. Meanwhile, Harold’s half-brother Harthacnut was already established as king of Denmark and remained there due to tensions with Norway, which had broken free under its new king Magnus. The speed of Harold’s reaction shows that he could not have been far away when Cnut died in Shaftesbury; the ASC indicates that Harold gained control within two weeks of Cnut’s death.13 He then deprived Emma, his chief rival in England, of all Cnut’s “best treasures.”14
This is when the concerns about Harold’s legitimacy became relevant. The C and D texts of the ASC, which are the most biased against Harold, bluntly say that his claim to be Cnut’s son “was not true.” The C manuscript does not even call Harold a regent or king, only recording that he seized power. The E and F versions of the ASC are less biased against Harold, and they also provide more information about his backers. They say that Harold was chosen as regent due to his support from “almost all the thegns north of the Thames and the shipmen of London.” One of Cnut’s biographers even wonders if Harold brought this fleet to London himself to press his claim, although this is only speculation.15 The E and F manuscripts also record doubts about Harold’s parentage, but they put more distance between author and allegation by saying that “it seemed incredible to many men” that Harold was Cnut’s son. “And yet he was full king over England,” the entry continues, using the same phrase, full king, from when Swein Forkbeard had subdued the English by military force in 1013; Harold is portrayed as a powerful outsider seizing control.
Doubts about Harold’s parentage are found in more extreme forms in the Encomium, which was written to promote Emma and Harthacnut while disparaging Harold. The Encomium claims Harold was the child of a servant and had been placed in Ælfgifu’s bed. Later sources like John of Worcester are even more specific, saying Harold was allegedly the son of a cobbler, while his brother Swein was the son of a priest. Another tactic in the Encomium, used in tandem with the previous story, is claiming that Ælfgifu was a concubine. The myth of marrying “in the Danish fashion” has also been used to diminish Ælfgifu’s status (and by extension, Harold’s).16
Medieval propaganda aside, the succession crisis that followed Cnut’s death was a byproduct of a deeper structural issue. There were no “acts of succession” that codified what would happen when the king died. Sometimes a son of the previous king was chosen, but brothers were commonly selected in the tenth century, and on at least one occasion, a nephew was chosen.17 Royal blood seems to have been a prerequisite, but the selection of Harold II Godwinson in 1066 shows that even this standard could be suspended in extreme circumstances. What mattered most was that the claimant had support from the kingdom’s most powerful nobles and ecclesiastics. Emma knew that since Harold was the son of Cnut and his other wife, he was not ruled out from succession if he could garner enough support. The solution was to downgrade Ælfgifu and Harold’s royal status. This also explains the drastic measures taken in the Encomium to claim that Harold was not Cnut’s son at all. Only by completely denying Harold’s royal blood could Harthacnut’s faction be confident in its superiority.
Is this purely propaganda, or is it an exaggeration of valid concerns about Harold’s paternity? Even by the twelfth century, John of Worcester admitted he had no way of knowing, and we are in no better position today. However, it is worth remembering that Harold was obviously not regarded as illegitimate by those who knew him best: the powerful families north of the Thames, who would have known him and Ælfgifu well.
A meeting in Oxford resulted in a division of the kingdom – Harthacnut’s faction would control Wessex, while Harold directly controlled areas north of the Thames – although this arrangement was only supposed to last until Harthacnut arrived. The numismatic record reflects this division. Coins with Harold’s name were minted north of the Thames, Harthacnut coins were minted in the south, and some areas, like London, hedged their bets by continuing to issue Cnut coins.18 There was good precedent for dividing the kingdom this way. A similar division occurred in 957-59 during a messy factional dispute between King Eadwig and his younger brother Edgar. Another briefly occurred in 1016 between Cnut and Edmund II, within living memory of the division of 1035. The kingdom’s elite had a fluid and pragmatic concept of kingship that could be altered or modified when expedient. Unfortunately for his supporters, Harthacnut would not arrive during his half-brother’s lifetime.
Shortly after this arrangement, Harold was allegedly involved in his most notorious act – the blinding and subsequent death of Alfred Ætheling. Ætheling was a title meaning “throne-worthy,” denoting that one was the son of a king or, rarely, the grandson of one.19 Alfred was the exiled son of the former king Æthelred, and, in 1036, he arrived in England with “many Norman knights.”20 Sources diverge on the precise details of what happened next, but all agree that Alfred was caught by forces loyal to Harold and blinded, dying shortly thereafter. The ASC and LE regard the murder as a great tragedy, calling Alfred an “innocent” ætheling who wished to see his mother Emma, even though he was older than Harold and had arrived in the latter’s territory with a small army. In the ASC, the C manuscript does not directly accuse Harold of wrongdoing. Rather, it is Earl Godwin who acts against Alfred “because feeling was veering very much toward Harold.” D omits Godwin’s role. The E and F versions of the ASC, which are less hostile to Harold, do not contain the story.
The Encomium, on the other hand, gives Harold a leading role in the murder while downplaying Godwin’s role, even accusing Harold of forging a letter in Emma’s name that lured Alfred to England in the first place. Virtually no historian takes the forgery accusation at face value. It is likely that there was such a letter, but that it was genuinely from Emma, or perhaps the entire “letter” was fabricated to make Harold look bad.
Shocking as it sounds, blinding was a normal royal punishment. It was the same thing that Alfred’s father did to Harold’s family. Even Cnut had mutilated hostages following a defeat to Æthelred in 1014. It was not rare in times of political turmoil.21 Even if Harold had orchestrated everything – and that is a big “if” – he was doing exactly what was expected of someone in his position by ridding himself of a disinherited claimant who sought to stir up trouble in his kingdom.22
Harold’s alleged actions should not be surprising, but his main supporter should be. Most accounts, even the Encomium, report that Godwin was involved somehow. He had previously been Emma’s “most loyal man,” but was now implicated in the murder of her son, apparently for Harold’s benefit.23 More importantly for Harold’s reputation, this shows that even the sources meant to smear him accidentally imply that he had a degree of magnetism: he had gone from unimportant son of Cnut, to claimant, to regent, and would soon be king, accumulating support every step of the way.
King Harold: 1037-40
According to the Encomium, Harold sought formal recognition as king as soon as he had been “chosen” – probably referring to the agreement of 1035 – but Archbishop Æthelnoth had dramatically sworn not to consecrate him. The C and D versions of the ASC more plainly report that Harold became king two years later, in 1037, before Æthelnoth died, so apparently the archbishop was not opposed to the idea entirely.24 The more sympathetic E and F texts backdate Harold’s reign to 1035. The situation in Scandinavia was still too unstable for Harthacnut to leave, and England would no longer tolerate an absentee claimant.
Harold then moved against his biggest enemy by exiling Emma. She was driven out of Wessex “to face the raging winter,” the ASC (C and D) adds disapprovingly. None of Harold’s other opponents were punished, a peculiarity that caused nineteenth-century historian E. A. Freeman to remark that “a certain amount of either generosity or of policy must have found a place in his character.”25 Once Harold formally becomes king, the ASC mainly returns to its usual preoccupation, namely church affairs. The succession crisis was over.
We know a few details about England as a whole during Harold’s reign. A clash with the Welsh in 1039 saw the deaths of “many good men,” including a brother of Harold’s ally Earl Leofric. Duncan III of Scotland was defeated while trying to take Durham.26 A raid from Normandy by Edward, another exiled son of Æthelred, also amounted to nothing more than some spoils for the ætheling.27 There was a “great wind” in 1039. Harold’s nobles were not unduly burdened by taxes compared to other reigns.28
The inner workings of Harold’s administration are obscure, but he seems to have favored Oxford as his base. It is the site of the 1035 agreement, a Harold-related diploma called S 1467, and Harold’s death. Historian Frank Stenton calls Ælfgifu Harold’s “power behind the throne,” although this is problematic.29 It makes sense to view Ælfgifu the most important early organizer for Harold’s candidacy, but in the medieval sources that discuss the reign, Harold acts autonomously after formally becoming king, and there are no undisputed references to Ælfgifu’s involvement after 1037.30
In all, the scarcity of information in the ASC gives the impression that Harold’s England was, on the whole, fairly peaceful and prosperous. At worst, it was uneventful, and the king himself rarely appears to interfere in events. It makes sense, then, that Stenton regarded Harold as a “dim figure,” even for this murky era of history, but there are some glimpses of Harold’s hand in English politics from 1035-40. John of Worcester, although writing later, says that Harold appointed bishops himself: Harold gave Bishop Lyfing an extra see while appointing Stigand, one of his chaplains, to another. These details align well with Harold’s personal priest, Eadsige, becoming archbishop in the earlier ASC, so it does appear that Harold had a habit of promoting his personal priests to high positions.31
Looking beyond the chroniclers, a diploma called S 1467 records a church dispute in Harold’s reign, where the king is accused of appropriating church property for his own benefit. At first, this may appear to confirm the Encomium’s portrayal of Harold as a tyrannical and irreligious ruler. However, Harold denies any wrongdoing, swearing “by Almighty God and all the saints that it was neither his advice nor his decision.” The anonymous writer of the diploma was convinced: “it was clearly evident that it was a scheme of other men, not of King Harold.” This is followed by Harold reaffirming the church’s rights to collect its dues and fines. Harold, according to this diploma, was a conventionally pious king who was willing to listen to those who accused him of wrongdoing and could be friendly, or at least benign, toward the church. Harold is also mentioned in the will of Bishop Ælfric, where he appears as a standard “royal lord” worthy of a monetary gift, a hint that despite the Encomium’s theatrics, Harold’s bishops regarded him as an ordinary king and treated him as such.32
Even Harold’s family situation is clearer than it once was. In the nineteenth century, Freeman was confidently able to say that Harold left no wives, mistresses, or offspring, a view also found in modern sources.33 However, an important but often overlooked 1913 article drew attention to Ælfwine, a son of a former English king named Harold, who was living in France in the early 1060s with his mother Ælfgifu. The source is too early to be referring to Harold II Godwinson, meaning it must be Harold Harefoot.34 Although Ælfwine’s “mother” Ælfgifu could be his famous grandmother, she might actually be a missing wife or mistress of Harold. Ælfgifu was a ubiquitous name for royal women, and from the 980s until 1052, there was nearly always a royal wife or mother named Ælfgifu.35 It is possible, then, that the mother of Ælfwine really did bear the name. Had Harold lived to his father’s age, perhaps he, his wife, and their son would have ensured Cnut’s dynasty lived on in England.
The Death and Exhumation of Harold
Although Harold’s cause of death is unknown, the church dispute diploma refers to the king being “so very sick that he lay in despair of his life” in Oxford and says that he “turned quite black” while being told of misdeeds committed in his name.36 However, the diploma does not record Harold’s death, even though the ASC says the king died in Oxford. The impression is that the king survived the events of the diploma. The Encomium says that Harthacnut had a dream that correctly predicted Harold’s impending death. Perhaps Harold’s ill health was well-known and written into the Encomium, albeit with more dramatic flair.37 While we cannot know how Harold died, these accounts might indicate that he had been in poor health for some time.
The ASC says Harold died on March 17th, 1040. He was about 24. He was initially buried at Westminster Monastery in London.38 Harthacnut was finally able to succeed to the throne, and the ASC says he punctuated the event by having Harold’s body dug up and thrown into a fen. John of Worcester adds that from there, Harthacnut had the body retrieved and thrown into the Thames, but then “the Danes” – perhaps the London shipmen who had been some of Harold’s first supporters – rescued the body. They reburied it at their church in London, which later writers said was St. Clement Danes.39 John of Worcester claims that Harthacnut had some of the kingdom’s leading men, including Godwin, take part in the exhumation, perhaps to punish them for transferring their allegiance to Harold.
The exhumation of Harold stood in stark contrast to how previous English kings had been treated. For example, Cnut allowed the grave of his enemy Æthelred to remain undisturbed in St. Paul’s Cathedral, and he also honored the memory of Edmund II, one of his main opponents.40 Harold’s exhumation was viewed with disgust: the C and D texts of the ASC, despite their hatred of Harold, place it at the end of a list of Harthacnut’s tyrannical decisions. The act arguably helped emphasize the now-common image of Harold as a false king, but it also helped seal Harthacnut’s own reputation as an uncaring and brutal ruler. Harthacnut himself died just two years later, also in his mid-twenties, paving the way for Æthelred’s dynasty to return to power under Edward the Confessor from 1042-66.
Although the slanderous accounts written after Harold’s death make him seem like an illegitimate ruler, Harold was a typical claimant and king who did everything someone in his position was expected to do: press his claim, garner support from the nobles, obtain military backing, and neutralize his rivals. In this sense, he is no different than any other early English monarch. Earlier succession disputes, like Eadwig versus Edgar or Edward the Martyr versus Æthelred, had been just as messy.
Harold’s accession may have been full of intrigue, but the reign itself appears ordinary. His realm withstood foreign attacks and was free of serious political turmoil. Although Harold will always be a murky figure, intriguing details have emerged: he likely had his own burgeoning royal family, may have played a direct role in promoting ecclesiastics, and suffered from debilitating illness on occasion. Bishops regarded him as a worthy royal lord, and those who were originally his opponents, like Godwin, ended up being fiercely loyal to him. Harold was clearly far different than the illegitimate, tyrannical apostate that his enemies made him out to be.
“Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.” English Historical Documents: Volume 1 c. 500-1042. Edited and translated by Dorothy Whitelock. Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1968 reprint.
Barlow, Frank. Edward the Confessor. Yale English Monarchs, 1997 reprint.
Bender, Brandon M. “Æthelred the Unready and William of Malmesbury: The Death of a Reputation.” The Year’s Work in Medievalism 34 (2021): 32-41.
Bender. England’s Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready. Rounded Globe, 2019.
Bolton, Timothy. Cnut the Great. Yale English Monarchs, 2019 reprint.
The Chronicle of John of Worcester: Volume II. Edited by R. R. Darlington and P. McGurk. Translated by P. McGurk and Jennifer Bray. Oxford University Press, 1995.
Encomium Emmae Reginae. Edited by Alistair Campbell and Simon Keynes. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Freeman, Edward A. The History of the Norman Conquest of England: Its Causes and Its Results, Volume 1. Oxford University Press, 1870.
Howard, Ian. Harthacnut: The Last Danish King of England. The History Press, 2008.
John, Eric. Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester University Press, 1996.
Lavelle, Ryan. Cnut: The North Sea King. Allen Lane, 2017.
Lavelle, “The use and abuse of hostages in Later Anglo-Saxon England.” Early Medieval Europe 14, no. 3 (2006): 269-96.
Laynesmith, J. L. “Queens, Concubines and the Myth of Marriage More Danico: Royal Marriage Practice in tenth and eleventh-century England.” Medieval Marriage: Selected Proceedings of the 2013 Postgraduate Conference, 2013.
Liber Eliensis: A History of the Isle of Ely From the Seventh Century to the Twelfth. Translated by Janet Fairweather. The Boydell Press, 2005.
Licence, Tom. Edward the Confessor: Last of the Royal Blood. Yale University Press, 2020.
Marafioti, Nicole. The King’s Body: Burial and Succession in Late Anglo-Saxon England. University of Toronto Press, 2014.
Meehan, Bernard. “The Siege of Durham, the Battle of Carham and the Cession of Lothian.” Scottish Historical Review 55, no. 159, Part 1 (1976): 1-19.
Rex, Peter. Edward the Confessor: King of England. Amberley, 2013 reprint.
“S 1467.” The Electronic Sawyer. https://esawyer.lib.cam.ac.uk/charter/1467.html.
“S 1489.” The Electronic Sawyer. https://esawyer.lib.cam.ac.uk/charter/1489.html.
Stafford, Pauline. Queen Emma and Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh-Century England. Blackwell Publishers, 1997.
Stafford. Unification and Conquest: A Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries. Edward Arnold, 1989.
Stenton, Frank M. Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford University Press, 2001 reprint.
Stevenson, W. H. “An Alleged Son of King Harold Harefoot.” English Historical Review 28 (1913): 112-17.
Van Houts, Elisabeth. “Cnut and William: A Comparison.” Conquests in Eleventh-Century England: 1016, 1066. Edited by Laura Ashe and Emily Joan Ward. The Boydell Press, 2020.