We all know that Richard is directly descended from William the Conqueror, who is his eleven times great grandfather. Here is Richard’s pedigree to William in three parts – follow the yellow dots left to right. (N.B. the first few generations have the yellow combined with red and blue which lead to other ancestors).
But did you know that he is also directly descended from William’s enemy, Harold Godwinson, also Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England and Richard’s twelve times great grandfather? This time follow the blue dots.
So, who did he have more in common with? Looking into this, I found that there are many similarities between Richard and Harold.
Battles and Death
Obviously, both died in battle, valiantly defending their country. In fact, Richard was the last English king to die in battle and the first (and only other) was Harold himself. Richard was the last Plantagenet king and Harold the last Anglo Saxon one.
Both could be impatient and impetuous. Richard charged Henry Tudor to try to end the battle and refused to take a horse and leave the battle. Harold joined battle with William quite hastily. He might have succeeded if he had waited a little while. Also, both men did not attempt to wait for contingents of their armies who were late arriving; Richard’s York men did not reach the battlefield until the battle was over and Harold’s brothers-in-law, the Earls of Mercia and Northumbria had not yet arrived when the battle of Hastings began.
Both were hacked to death fighting their enemies, Henry “Tudor” and William of Normandy respectively. Both of these enemies were of bastard stock and both invaded from France. Neither of them had any legal right to the throne of England. And both Henry Tudor and William of Normandy had attempted a previous invasion, only to have been thwarted at that time. The battles of 1066 and 1485 were both pivotal in English history and, arguably, in both cases, England would have been much better off had the defending king prevailed.
Richard was the youngest son of the Duke of York, with no expectation of becoming king. Many of us believe he took the throne out of duty, not ambition. One of the reasons may have been the fact that Edward V was just a boy of thirteen and no-one wanted a king who was a minor.
Harold, too, was a younger, if not the youngest, son of his family. He never expected to be king either – when he was young, Edward (the Confessor) was on the throne and was expected to have heirs.
As it happens he did not, but there was another claimant, Edgar Ætheling (sometimes known as Edward Ætheling), Edward’s nephew, who was, at the time of the Confessor’s death, aged about thirteen. Sound familiar? The Witenagemot (English assembly of nobleman and clergy, etc) decided that Harold was the better prospect as king to defend the country, since it was known that William of Normandy was also planning to claim the crown. So, both Richard and Harold were elected king, after an Edward had died and by putting aside thirteen-year-old claimants, possibly both also called Edward.
Both Richard and Harold had troublesome brothers. Richard had his older brother, George, with whom he had to debate to claim a share of the Neville sisters’ inheritance and whom Edward IV ended up executing for treason.
Harold had Tostig, a younger brother, who rebelled against both Edward the Confessor and Harold himself and ended up siding with Harald Hardråda, a Norwegian claimant to the throne, thus also committing treason. Harold had to take his army up to York to oppose them and won, taking the Norwegians and Tostig by surprise. Tostig was killed in the battle of Stamford Bridge, but this battle was probably one reason for Harold losing at Hastings a few day later. It seems both George and Tostig were ‘problem’ middle children.
Richard had to twice go into exile with members of his family; with George when he was eight and with Edward when he was eighteen.
Harold accompanied his father, Earl Godwin, into exile in 1051, and helped him to regain his position a year later.
In 1483, Richard, as Duke of Gloucester, was the most powerful noble in the country and the senior adult male heir. He also held many titles such as Constable of England, Admiral of England, Ireland and Aquitaine, Chief Justice of North Wales, Great Chamberlain of England, Steward of the Duchy of Lancaster and Lord Protector.
Likewise Harold was, by 1066, the most powerful man in the country after the king. As well as being Earl of East Anglia from a young age, he became Earl of Wessex after the death of his father in 1053 and later Earl of Hereford. In addition, his sister (another Edith!) was Edward the Confessor’s queen.
Richard is known to have suffered with scoliosis, which would have been the source of great challenges for him. Perhaps partly because of this, he was very pious and is known to have founded and built many religious houses and chapels.
Harold was also known to have had an illness of some kind which must have been quite serious, resulting in a form of paralysis. He was apparently cured and founded an Abbey at Waltham, in thanks for his life.
Richard married Anne Neville and thus helped to secure the North for his brother, Edward IV, since the Nevilles were well-respected there.
Harold had been married more Danico ‘in the Danish fashion’ (i.e. not in a way recognised by Christianity) to Edith Swannesha for many years and had at least six children by her. This may have partly been to gain influence in his new Earldom, when he became Earl of East Anglia, as she had land in the area. He later married another Edith, sister of Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria, probably in order to ensure their loyalty to him and secure the North, so all these marriages were probably at least partly politically motivated.
In addition, when Richard married Anne she was the widow of Edward of Lancaster, who opposed Richard and the Yorkists at Tewkesbury.
Edith, Harold’s second wife had also been previously married to his opponent, the Welsh king, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn.
Both Richard and Harold had previous good reputations. Harold was described by chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, as being:
‘distinguished by his great size and strength of body, his polished manners, his firmness of mind and command of words, by a ready wit and a variety of excellent qualities’.
Richard was of course of no great size but Archibald Whitelaw described him thus:
‘Never has so much spirit or greater virtue reigned in such a small body.’
They were also both proven warriors. Richard had been involved in the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury with his brother, Edward, and had also been successful in repelling the Scots and retaking Berwick.
Harold had quelled the Welsh in a series of effective campaigns against Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, and was later victorious at Stamford Bridge.
Richard was crowned on 6th July 1483. Harold was also crowned on 6th, but of January, in 1066, both in Westminster Abbey. It is thought that Harold was the first to be crowned there. Both of them were criticised for being crowned with unseemly haste, although both had good reason, since in both cases the nobles, clerics and others who needed to be present were already there. In Richard’s case, they had assembled for the coronation of Edward V and in, Harold’s, for the funeral of Edward the Confessor.
Both men had mysteries surrounding their burials. Richard’s we know about – it had been thought by some that his bones had been dug up and thrown into the River Soar, but they were located successfully in 2012.
After the Battle of Hastings, Harold’s mutilated body was identified by his first wife, Edith Swannesha, through marks known only to her, but his final resting place is unknown.
The traditionally accepted location is Waltham Abbey, but this is disputed. Another candidate is Bosham, because of Harold’s strong association with it as his birthplace, and the discovery in 1954 of an Anglo-Saxon coffin in the church there. Also, it is near the sea and William was said to have wanted him buried near the Channel for his impudence in opposing him.
Left: Harold’s supposed burial at Waltham and right: Church at Bosham
A third, more recent, suggestion is St Michael’s Church, in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire. This theory stems from the fact that the ‘remains’ believed to be Harold’s that were found at Waltham Abbey could not have been human bones as they had turned into dust. It is possible that he could have had a ‘heart burial’ there – common for high status individuals – where their heart was buried at a separate location to the rest of their body.
Harold’s first wife is known to have lived in Bishop’s Stortford and the team behind this theory found four surviving, intact Norman stone coffins in a vault under the church, which have not been examined in modern times. The coffins seem too unusual to be for commoners.
After their deaths, both kings had family members who tried to wrest the crown back from the two usurpers, Henry and William. In Richard’s case, these were ‘Lambert Simnel’ and Perkin Warbeck’, probably actually his nephews, Edward and Richard.
Two of Harold’s sons, Godwine and Edmund, invaded England in 1068 and 1069 with the aid of Diarmait mac Máel na mBó (High King of Ireland). We know that Ireland also supported the Lambert Simnel attempt. However, all of these bids for power sadly failed.
I recently read the following as a description of a Facebook page in support of king Harold:
Redressing the balance of Norman propaganda against King Harold Godwinson and the Anglo-Saxons, and the blinkered hagiographies for Duke William…
You could substitute Tudor for Norman, Richard III for Harold Godwinson, Yorkists for Anglo-Saxons and The Tudors for Duke William and there we have our own aims. It’s so true that history is written by the victors.