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Harold II failed to stem Norman tide
By R.W. Julian
February 15, 2017

One of the most famous dates in English history is 1066 when William the Conqueror invaded England and seized the throne. What is not remembered, however, is that Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king, came very close to defeating William and keeping the nation under his control. Harold died at the Battle of Hastings, however, and the English nation would be forever changed with the new Norman rulers.

In the year 1042 Edward (the Confessor) became king and ruled with justice and honor for nearly 24 years. Anglo-Saxon England was famed throughout Europe for the prosperity of its people; under King Edward the quality of the English silver penny – the only coin struck on a regular basis – was strengthened and the engravers produced increasingly better die work.

More than 70 mints, both large and small, contributed to the ever-growing quantity and quality of silver coin in Edward’s realm. The King saw to it that the designs were the same at all the mints; each mintmaster obtained the necessary dies from a central authority. Some of the designs were outstanding for the era and perhaps worth considering even today.

In some ways the peaceful kingdom was a façade behind which power struggles were continually erupting; there were ambitious men who wished to succeed Edward when the appointed time came.

There were two principal forces seeking the throne. The powerful Godwinson family had long been important in Anglo-Saxon affairs, but in 1052 Harold Godwinson had been exiled to Normandy, in the northwest corner of France, for political intrigues against King Edward. While in Normandy, Harold was forced by the other main contender for the English throne, Duke William, to swear allegiance to his (William’s) cause.

Harold soon was able to return to England and promptly renounced the oath he had taken to William as it had been made under duress. King Edward retreated more and more into matters of faith; worldly cares had ceased to interest him. Still, however, he saw to it that peace was upon the land. Throughout the remainder of the 1050s and into the 1060s Harold Godwinson and his equally powerful brother, Tostig, saw their influence in matters of state increase greatly. Then, on Jan. 5, 1066, Edward the Confessor died.

As the result of a deathbed wish by Edward, Harold was crowned king the following day. It was to be one of the most fateful years in English history. In late March came a brilliant comet (Halley’s) which was visible for many days and caused fear throughout the land as an omen of evil yet to come.

The new king lost little time in putting his personal stamp on the English money. Silver pennies soon appeared  with his well-made portrait. The forceful legend, “Harold, Rex Angl[orum],” or “Harold, King of the English,” was clearly designed to present to the English people, as well as Duke William in Normandy, the accomplished fact of his being king. He was then 39 years of age.

On the reverse of all of his coins will be found the hope that peace would remain in the land as it had under Edward the Confessor. The Latin word “Pax” (“Peace”) is seen in the center while the circular legend records the name of the moneyer and the town in which the coin was minted.

Harold’s money is of the same high technical quality that had been the standard under Edward the Confessor. Although, for economic reasons, some of the smaller mints did not operate at all times, scholars have identified more than 45 towns at which Harold’s coinage was minted. The more important mints were at London, York, Lincoln and Winchester.

Duke William of Normandy was understandably angry that his claim to the throne had been ignored and swore to invade England at the first opportunity. At the same time Harold II’s brother, Tostig, equally upset that he had not been made king, went abroad to raise troops.

Tostig struck first, shortly after the comet had appeared, but Harold’s luck held and Tostig was easily defeated and driven out of England. Tostig then went to Scandinavia where he joined forces with Harold Hardrada (King Harold III of Norway). Preparations were made for a full-scale invasion of England by Viking troops. Meanwhile, Duke William of Normandy was also gathering his forces. Harold II now faced an ever-increasing danger on two fronts.

In September 1066 Tostig and Harold Hardrada landed on the northeastern coast of England and quickly advanced inland. The important city of York was soon seized. This town was a major minting center for Harold II, but the invaders did not have time to issue their own coins because local troops immediately attacked them in force.

The English levies were beaten off with difficulty by Hardrada, but King Harold II soon arrived with fresh troops, launching a surprise attack on the Scandinavian forces at Stamford Bridge and overwhelming them. The result was a complete victory for the English forces, with Hardrada and Tostig being casualties of the intense fighting. The invasion promptly collapsed.

Stamford Bridge was fought on Sept. 24 and four days later Duke William landed on the southern coast. Harold learned of the invasion on Oct. 1 and made rapid forced marches with his troops towards the south, raising additional men on the way.

At Hastings, on Oct. 14, a tired English army faced the fresh troops of Duke William. At first, despite the odds, the battle favored the English, but King Harold II was killed by a stray arrow and English resistance suddenly collapsed. William had won the day and the kingdom. Hastings was the site of one of Harold’s mints; it was the first to be seized by The Conqueror.

Recovering from the battle, English authorities in London quickly selected a new king, a boy named Edgar, but matters moved too quickly and William soon overwhelmed the hastily formed army and forced Edgar to swear allegiance to him. Within a few months William the Conqueror was master of the entire country.

Those areas which managed to hold out against William for several weeks used the old dies of Harold II to strike coins in order to pay the troops still fighting for English independence. It was a losing cause but Harold’s coins continued to support the unequal struggle until the last village surrendered.

The coins of Harold II have long been a favorite with numismatists, both in England and the United States. Because of this interest, quality specimens are difficult to acquire and when one appears at auction, especially from one of the smaller mints, a high price is realized. The collector can expect to pay a strong price for a well-struck Very Fine coin from even one of the common mints, such as London or Lincoln.

The coin illustrated with this article is in uncirculated condition, something rarely seen for coins of this era. The obverse reads HAROLD REX ANGLO[RUM], or “Harold King of the English,” while the reverse has PULFGAR ON LVNI meaning “Wulfgar at the London Mint.” The word PAX (“Peace”) is in the center of the reverse.  

Those owning one of these coins are truly holding history in their hands; they not only mark the death of a brave man but also a way of life. England would never again be the same after the fateful events of the year 1066.

(Images courtesy Ira & Larry Goldberg Auctioneers)

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