Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Friday, March 17, 2006

Dead King Watch: Harold I 'Harefoot'



Harold I was King of England for three years from 1037 until his death in 1040, 966 years ago today.

Harold was born in Denmark in 1012, the son of Canute and Canute's first wife, Aelgifu of Northampton, an Anglo-Saxon woman who Canute had met while he was busy helping his father conquer England around this time. When Canute himself became King of England in 1016, one might have thought things would be looking good for the young Harold.

However, Canute now left Aelgifu and married the old English King Ethelred's widow, Emma of Normandy, (daughter of Richard the Fearless, duke of Normandy) in order to strengthen his claim to the English throne and neutralise the possibility of an invasion from Normandy (where Etherlred's sons were in exile). This also helped to strengthen political and commercial ties between England and Normandy - though it left Harold no longer the main heir to the throne after Emma gave birth to Harthacanute in 1017. Nevertheless, Harold grew up quite skilled in hunting, and he was known as 'Harefoot'* for his speed.

In 1035, Canute died, having established his reign over not just England but Denmark and Norway as well. Harthacanute took over running the show, but soon Norway rebelled and so, with Harthacanute busy with affairs in Denmark, in 1036 Harold was made regent in England.

However, effective control was still in the hands of Harthacanute's mother, Emma of Normandy - and so Harold, together with his mother Aelgifu and the English Earl Godwin united to install Harold King of England in 1037 in a sort of coup. Now at last, aged 25, he had some real power!

However, if taking power was one thing, he now had to hold onto it. First, Emma's other two sons Alfred and Edward invaded to try and regain the throne but Harold outmanouvred them, blinding and then killing Alfred. In 1039, Harthacanute finally forced a peace in Scandinavia and could at last turn his attention back to English questions. Harthacanute prepared an invasion fleet set for England to depose Harold, arriving at Bruges in Flanders, where his exiled mother was.

However, at this point, in March 1040, Harold died in Oxford - leaving only an illegitimate son, Elfwine, who fled to became a monk on the continent. This must have been quite gutting - Harold was only 28 years old. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Harthacanute then landed at Sandwich on June 17 ('seven days before Midsummer'), with a fleet of 62 warships. Being unable to exact vengeance upon his treacherous half-brother while he had been alive, Harthacanute had the dead Harold exhumed, beheaded and then 'thrown into a fen'.

* 'Harefoot'. The story of Harold's short life actually reminds me a little of the legendary rabbit folk hero in Richard Adam's novel, Watership Down, 'El-ahrairah', the 'Prince with a Thousand Enemies'. 'All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you'.

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