Harold II was born in about 1021, the second son of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, who had been raised by King Cnut (1016-1035). His mother was Gytha, Cnut’s sister, which explains why the first four sons of Godwin bore Danish names.
When Godwin died in 1053 his eldest son was already dead and Harold inherited Wessex. Harold’s brother, Tostig, ruled Northumbria before being turned out by the people. Two other brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, ruled earldoms, while their
younger brother, Wulfnoth, had been a hostage in the Norman court since Godwin’s revolt in 1051. Harold’s sister, Edith, was Edward’s queen; presumably Godwin hoped that through her his family would put a king on the English throne.
There is not a great deal of evidence for Harold’s physical appearance. The 13th-century chronicler, Snorri, makes King Harald Hardrada of Norway observe the English king as a small man who stood well in his stirrups, but then Hardrada was apparently very tall.
Harold seems to have been a skilful commander. In 1055 he led an army to stop the privations of King Gruffydd of North Wales, building a burh round Hereford and organising the burghers for military service. In 1062 he led a force from Gloucester in mid winter, crossing the Dee and seizing Gruffydd’s headquarters at Rhuddlan. He followed up the next year by leading a fleet from Bristol while Tostig brought forces round from the north. Noting the way the Welsh dressed, Harold ordered his men to use javelins and lighter armour rather than mail coats, in order to negotiate the rugged terrain better. This pressure caused Gruffydd to be killed by his own men and his head to be brought to the Earl. Harold had shown his flair for swift action, which he used again in 1066. Faced with the invasion by Harald Hardrada and Tostig in September of that year, he abandoned his south coast watch and marched 190 miles in five days, before beating the Vikings at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire. He then marched his men
back to London, resting only a few days before marching into Sussex and his confrontation with the Normans, who had meanwhile landed. Though he may have intended to charge into William’s camp at Hastings, his choice of a ridge with steep flanks as a defensive position nearly proved too much for William’s army.
Godwin obviously had pretensions for his family but Harold, not being of English royal blood, may not have planned to take the crown even during his visit to Normandy. The chroniclers dispute whether Edward finally chose him. However, nomination by the monarch was not the sole criterion for becoming king. The assent of the witan was also required, and Harold was the best man to staunch any attempts at invasion by other claimants.