Harold Harefoot

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Modern Impression of Harold Harefoot.
King of England
Reign12 November 1035 – 17 March 1040
HouseHouse of Denmark
FatherCnut, King of Denmark and England
MotherÆlfgifu of Northampton
Bornc. January 1015
Northampton, England
Died17 March 1040 (aged 24–25)
Oxford, England
BurialSt. Clement Danes, Westminster, England
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Modern Impression of Harold Harefoot.
King of England
Reign12 November 1035 – 17 March 1040
HouseHouse of Denmark
FatherCnut, King of Denmark and England
MotherÆlfgifu of Northampton
Bornc. January 1015
Northampton, England
Died17 March 1040 (aged 24–25)
Oxford, England
BurialSt. Clement Danes, Westminster, England

Harold Harefoot or Harold I (c. 1015 – 17 March 1040) was King of England from 1035 to 1040. His cognomen "Harefoot" referred to his speed, and the skill of his huntsmanship.[1] He was the younger son of Cnut the Great, king of England, Denmark, and Norway by his first wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton.[2]



The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that Harold said that he was a son of Cnut the Great and Ælfgifu of Northampton, "although it was not true". Florence of Worcester (12th century) elaborates on the subject. Claiming that Ælfgifu wanted to have a son by the king but was unable to, she secretly adopted the newborn children of strangers and pretended to have given birth to them. Harold was reportedly the son of a cobbler, while his brother Svein Knutsson was the illegitimate son of a priest. She deceived Cnut into recognizing both children as his own. Harriet O'Brien doubts that Cnut, the shrewd politician who "masterminded the bloodless takeover of Norway" could have been deceived in such a way. She suspects that the tale started out as a popular myth, or intentional defamation presumably tailored by Emma of Normandy, the other wife of Cnut and rival to Ælfgifu.[3][4]

Harthacnut's reign

Upon Cnut's death (12 November 1035), Harold's younger half-brother Harthacnut, the son of Cnut and his queen Emma of Normandy, was legitimate heir to the thrones of both the Danes and the English. Harthacnut, however, was unable to travel to his coronation in England because his Danish kingdom was under threat of invasion by King Magnus I of Norway and King Anund Jacob of Sweden. England's magnates[5] favoured the idea of installing Harold Harefoot temporarily as regent or joint monarch, due to the difficulty of Harthacnut's absence, and despite the opposition of Godwin, the Earl of Wessex, and the Queen, he eventually wore the crown. There is some dispute in primary sources (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) about Harold's initial role. Versions E and F mention him as regent, the others as co-ruler.[6][7]

Ian Howard points that Cnut had been survived by three sons: Svein, Harold, and Harthacnut. The Encomium Emmae Reginae also describes Edward the Confessor and Alfred Aetheling as the sons of Canute, though the modern term would be step-sons. Harold could claim the regency or kingship, because he was the only one of the five present at England in 1035. Harthacnut was reigning in Denmark, Svein had joined him there following his deposition from the Norwegian throne, Edward and Alfred were in Normandy. He could reign in the name of his absent brothers, with Emma rivaling his a candidate for the regency.[7]

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ignores the existence of Svein, or his claim to the throne, which Howard considers as evidence of the relative entries being unreliable, of failing to give a complete picture. The Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson claims that Svein and Harthacnut had agreed to share the kingdom between them. This agreement would include Denmark and (probably) England. Snorri quotes older sources on the subject, and could be preserving valuable details.[7]

Assumes the throne

The runestone Sm 42, in Småland, Sweden, mentions Harold Harefoot.[8]

Harold reportedly sought coronation as early as 1035. According to the Encomium Emmae Reginae, though, Æthelnoth. Archbishop of Canterbury refused to crown Harold Harefoot. Coronation by the Archbishop would be a legal requirement to become a king. Æthelnoth reportedly placed the sceptre and crown on the altar of a temple, possibly that of the Canterbury Cathedral. Offering to consecrate Harold without using any of the royal regalia would have been an empty honor. He refused to remove the items from the altar and forbid any other bishop from doing so.[9][10] The tale goes on that Harold failed to sway Æthelnoth, since both bribes and threats proved ineffectual. The despairing Harold reportedly rejected Christianity in protest. He refused to attend church services while uncrowned, preoccupying himself with hunting and trivial matters.[10]

The Encomium stays silent or an event reported by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other sources. Harold was accepted as monarch in a Witenagemot held at Oxford. His chief supporter in the council was Leofric, Earl of Mercia, while the opposition was led by Godwin, Earl of Wessex.[11] There is evidence that Ælfgifu of Northampton was attempting to secure her son's position through bribes to the nobles.[9] In 1036, Gunhilda of Denmark, sister to Harthcanut and half-sister to Harold, married Henry III, King of Germany. On this occasion Immo, a priest serving at the court of the Holy Roman Empire, wrote a letter to Azecho, Bishop of Worms. It included information on the situation in England, with messengers from there reporting that Ælfgifu was gaining the support of the leading aristocrats through pleas and bribery, binding them to herself and Harold by oaths of loyalty.[3] [12]

Initially the Kingdom of England was divided between the two half-brothers. Harold ruled the areas north of the River Thames, supported by the local nobility. The southern nobility under Godwin and Emma continued to be ruled in the name of the absent Hartthacnut. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle points that Godwin and the leading men of Wessex opposed the rule of Harold for "...as long as they could, but they could mot do anything against it. "[13] With the north at least on Harold's side, in adherence to the terms of a deal, which Godwin was part of, Emma was settled in Winchester, with Harthacnut's huscarls. Harold soon "sent and had taken from her all the best treasures" of Cnut the Great[14]

The situation could not last for long. Eventually Godwin switched sides. William of Malmesbury asserts that Godwin had been overwhelmed "in power and in numbers" by Harold.[13] In 1037, Emma of Normandy fled to Bruges, Flanders, and Harold "was everywhere chosen as king".[15] The details behind the event are obscure. The account of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, version E, jumps from Harold being a mere regent to Harold being the sole king. Versions C and D do not even make a distinction between the two phases. Ian Howard theorises that the death of Svein Knutsson could have strengthened Harold's position. He went from being the second surviving son of Cnut, to being the eldest living, with Harthacnut still absent and unable to press his claim to the throne.[7]

Harold himself is somewhat obscure; the historian Frank Stenton considered it probable that his mother Ælfgifu was "the real ruler of England" for part or all of his reign.[16] Kelly DeVries points that during the High Middle Ages, royal succession in Northern Europe was determined by military legitimacy. The eldest son of a throne occupant could have a superior right of inheritance, but still lose the throne to a younger brother or other junior claimant, provided said rival mastered superior military support. Harold managed to win the thone against the superior claim of Harthacnut due to mastering the superior support. The 11th century provides other similar examples. Magnus I of Norway (reigned 1035–1047), who wasn't a warlord, had reigned for more than a decade when his uncle Harald Hardrada (reigned 1047–1066) challenged his rule. With Harald being a famous military leader, his claim would end Magnus' reign early. Baldwin VI, Count of Flanders (reigned 1067–1070) was effectively succeeded by his brother Robert I (reigned 1071–1093), rather than his own sons. Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy (reigned 1087–1106) lost the throne of England to his younger brothers William II (reigned 1087–1100) and Henry I (reigned 1100–1135).[17]

With the Kingdom of England practically owned by Harold, Harthacnut could not even approach without securing sufficient military strength. His decision to remain in Denmark probably points to him lacking sufficient support, though he would certainly wait for an opportunity to forcefully assert his claim and depose his half-brother.[13] Harold reigned as sole king from 1037 to 1040.[6] There are few surviving documents about events of his reign. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mostly covers church matters, such as the deaths and appointments of bishops and archbishops. There is, however, a record of a skirmish between the Anglo-Saxons and the Welsh in 1039. The named casualties were Eadwine (Edwin), brother to Leofric, Earl of Mercia, Thurkil and Ælfgeat. But there are no other details concerning this event. Also in 1039, there is mention of a great gale, again with no details.[18][19]

Alfred and Edward's invasion

Cnut, king of England, Denmark, and Norway, and his sons Harald Harefoot and Harthacnut

In 1036, Ælfred Ætheling, Emma's son by the long-dead Æthelred, returned to the kingdom from exile in the Duchy of Normandy with his brother Edward the Confessor, with some show of arms. Their motivation is uncertain. William of Poitiers claimed that they had come to claim the English throne for themselves. Frank Barlow suspected that Emma had invited them, possible to use them against Harold.[14][20] If so, it could mean that Emma abandoned the cause of Harthacnut, probably to strengthen her own position. But that could have inspired Godwin to also abandon the lost cause.[7]

The Encomium Emmae Reginae claims that Harold himself had lured them to England, having sent them a forged letter, supposedly written by Emma. The letter reportedly both decried Harold's behavior against her, and urged her estranged sons to come and protect her. Barlow and other modern historians suspect that this letter was genuine.[21] Ian Howard argued that Emma not being involved in a major political manoeuvre would be "out of character for her" and the Encomium was probably trying to mask her responsibility for a blunder.[7] William of Jumièges reports that, earlier in 1036, Edward had contacted a successful raid of Southampton. Managing to win a victory against the troops defending the city, then sailing back to Normandy "richly laden with booty". But the swift retreat confirms William's assessment, that Edward would need a larger army to seriously claim the throne.[20]

With his bodyguard, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ælfred intended to visit his mother, Emma, in Winchester, but he may have made this journey for reasons other than a family reunion. As the "murmur was very much in favour of Harold", on the direction of Godwin (now apparently on the side of Harold Harefoot), Ælfred was captured. Godwin had him seized and delivered to an escort of men loyal to Harefoot. He was transported by ship to Ely, blinded while on board. He died in Ely soon after due to the severity of the wounds, his bodyguard similarly treated. The event would later affect the relationship between Edward and Godwin, the Confessor holding Godwin responsible for the death of his brother.[6][14]

The event points that Harold Harefoot, as a son and successor to Cnut, had gained the support of Anglo-Danish nobility, which violently rejected the claims of Ælfred, Edward, and (by extension) the Aethelings. The House of Wessex had lost support with the nobility of the Kingdom.[7] It might also have served as a turning point in the struggle between Harold and Emma, resulting in the exile of Emma.[7]


Harold died at Oxford on 17 March 1040,[15] just as Harthacnut was preparing an invasion force of Danes, and was buried at Westminster Abbey.[9] His body was subsequently exhumed, beheaded, and thrown into a fen bordering the Thames when Harthacnut assumed the throne in June 1040.[22] The body was subsequently recovered by a fishermen, and resident Danes reportly had it reburied at their local cemetery in London.[23] The body was eventually buried in a church in the City of Westminster, which was fittingly named St. Clement Danes.[24] A contradictory account in the Knýtlinga saga (13th century) reports Harold buried in the city of Morstr, alongside his half-brother Harthacnut and their father Cnut. While mentioned as a great city in the text, nothing else is known of Morstr.[25][26] The Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson reports Harold Harefoot buried at Winchester, again alongside Cnut and Harthacnut.[25][27]

The cause of Harold's death is uncertain. Katherine Holman attributes the death to "a mysterious illness".[28] An Anglo-Saxon charter attributes the illness to divine judgment.Harold had reportedly claimed Sandwich for himself, depriving it from the monks of Christchurch. Harold is described as lying ill and in despair at Oxford. When monks came to him to settle the dispute over Sandwhich, he "lay and grew black as they spoke".[29] The context of the event was a dispute between Christchurch and St Augustine's Abbey, which took over the local toll in the name of the king. There is little attention paid to the illness of the king. Harriet O'Brien feels this is enough to indicate that Harold died of natural causes, but not to determine the nature of the disease. The Anglo-Saxons themselves would consider him elf-shot (attacked by elves), their term for any number of deadly diseases.[18][29] Michael Evans points out that Harold was only one of several kings of pre-Conquest England to die following short reigns, and lives, including Edmund I (reigned 939–946), Eadred (reigned 946–955), Eadwig (reigned 955–959), Edmund Ironside (reigned 1016), and Harthacnut (reigned 1040–1042). He wonders whether the role of king was dangerous in this era, more so than in the period after the Conquest, or whether hereditary diseases were in effect, pointing that most of these kings were members of the same lineage, the House of Wessex.[30]

It is unclear why would a king be buried at the Abbey. The only previous royals supposedly buried there were Sæberht of Essex and his wife Æthelgoda. Emma Mason speculates that Cnut had build a royal residence in the vicinity of the Abbey, or that Westminster held some significance to the Danish Kings of England, which would also explain why Harthacnut would not allow a usurper to be buried there. The lack of detail in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle implies that, for its compilers, the main point of interest was not the burial site. But the exhumation of the body.[23] Harriet O'Brien theorises that the choice of location might simply reflect the political affiliation of the area, the area of Westminster and nearby London being a powerbases for Harold.[18]

A detailed account of the exhumation appears in the writings of John of Worcester (12th century). The group tasked with the mission was reportedly led by Ælfric Puttoc, Archbishop of York and Godwin, Earl of Wessex. The involvement of such notable men would have a significance of its own, giving the event an official nature and avoiding secrecy. Emma Mason suspects that this could also serve as a punishment for Godwine, who had served as a chief supporter of Harold, and was now tasked with the gruesome task.[23]


Harold may have had a wife, Ælfgifu and a son, Ælfwine,[31] who became a monk on the continent when he was older. His monastic name was Alboin. Ælfwine/Alboin is recorded in 1060 and 1062 in charters from the St. Foy Abbey Church in Conques. The charters mention him as son of "Heroldus rex fuit Anglorum" (Latin: Harold, who was king of the English People). Harold Harefoot is the most likely father. The only other king Harold was Harold Godwinson, who would not rise to the throne until 1066. It is unclear whether Ælfwine was a legitimate or illegitimate son. Either way, an underage boy would be unable to claim the throne in 1040. His possible hereditary claims would not be enough to gain the support of the leading nobles, against the adult Harthcanut.[3][9][23]

Ælfgifu of Northampton disappears with no trace after 1040. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Harold Harefoot ruled for four years and 16 weeks, by which calculation he would have begun ruling two weeks after the death of Cnut.[32]


The prose Brut chronicle was an Anglo-Norman work, covering British and English monarchs from Brut (Brutus of Troy) to the death of Henry III in 1272. It was probably written during the reign of Edward I (reigned 1272–1307), though the oldest surviving manuscript dates to 1338. The text often includes notable errors. The original author remains unknown, but there were a number of continuations by different hands. Continuing the story to the Battle of Halidon Hill (1333).[33] The material on Harold Harefoot is rather unflattering. The author considered both Harold and Harthacnut to have been sons of Cnut and Emma of Normandy. He then proceeds to portray Harold as following: "...He went astray from the qualities and conduct of his father King Cnut, for he cared not at all for knighthoodm for courtesy, or for honor, but only for his own will...". He accuses Harold of driving his own mother Emma out of England, by the advice of Godwin, Earl of Wessex. He paints Harthacnut in a more favorable light.[34]

The Knýtlinga saga (13th century) considers Harold Harefoot to be the oldest son of Cnut and Emma of Nomandy. One of its author's frequent misrepresentations are those concerning family relationships. Harthacnut and Gunhilda of Denmark are regarded in the text as his younger siblings. The narrative has Harold and Harthacnut dividing the realms of their father in an agreement. It also features Harold offering hospitality to his half-brother Edward the Confessor. They were actually step-brothers, and Edward only settled in England following the death of Harold. [25]


  1. ^ Bartlett, p. 38
  2. ^ Stafford, Ælfgifu
  3. ^ a b c Cawley 2010, Cawley, Charles, Canute, King of England, Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, http://fmg.ac/Projects/MedLands/ENGLAND,%20AngloSaxon%20&%20Danish%20Kings.htm#_Toc214769434, retrieved August 2012 ,[better source needed].Also covers his wife and children.
  4. ^ O'Brien, Queen Emma and the Vikings, p. 167
  5. ^ "Earl Leofric and almost all the thegns north of the Thames, and the men of the fleet in London"
  6. ^ a b c Douglas, William The Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England, pp. 163–164
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Howard, Harold II: A Throne-Worthy King, pp. 40–44
  8. ^ Pritsak, Omeljan. (1981). The origin of Rus'. Cambridge, Mass.: Distributed by Harvard University Press for the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. ISBN 0-674-64465-4, p. 343
  9. ^ a b c d Tim Bolton, "Reign of King Harold Harefoot", The Literary Encyclopedia, 5 May 2006.
  10. ^ a b O'Brien, Queen Emma and the Vikings, pp. 167–168
  11. ^ O'Brien, Queen Emma and the Vikings, pp. 168–169
  12. ^ O'Brien, Queen Emma and the Vikings, p. 169
  13. ^ a b c DeVries, The Norwegian Invasion of England, pp. 78–79
  14. ^ a b c Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford University Press (1998 paperback), pages 420–421; quoted segments from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
  15. ^ a b The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1035–40, M. Swanton translation (1996).
  16. ^ Stenton, page 421.
  17. ^ DeVries, The Norwegian Invasion of England, p. 40
  18. ^ a b c O'Brien, Queen Emma and the Vikings, p. 186
  19. ^ Swanton, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 160
  20. ^ a b DeVries, The Norwegian Invasion of England, pp. 79–81
  21. ^ DeVries, The Norwegian Invasion of England, p. 81, note 32
  22. ^ This may have been motivated partly in response to the murder of Alfred, Harthacnut's half-brother, and partly for his perceived theft of the crown.
  23. ^ a b c d Mason and Shoemaker, The House of Godwine, pp. 39–40
  24. ^ Saturday Review, article Saint Clement Danes, page 121. Text originally published on January 23, 1869.
  25. ^ a b c Fjalldal, Anglo-Saxon England in Icelandic Medieval Texts, pp. 50–53
  26. ^ Fjalldal, Anglo-Saxon England in Icelandic Medieval Texts, p. 23
  27. ^ Heimskringla, Saga of Magnus the Good, part 18
  28. ^ Holman, The Northern Conquest, pp. 93–94
  29. ^ a b Robertson, Anglo-Saxon Charters, pp. 174–177
  30. ^ Evans, Death of Kings: Royal Deaths in Medieval England, p. 22
  31. ^ Lawson, Harold I
  32. ^ ASC manuscript E, 1039 (1040); for the calculation, see Swanton's translation, page 161, note 18.
  33. ^ Marvin, The Oldest Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle, pp. 40–42, 47–49, 75
  34. ^ Marvin, The Oldest Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle, pp. 223–225


External links

Media related to Harold Harefoot at Wikimedia Commons

Regnal titles
Preceded by
Cnut the Great
King of the English
Succeeded by