Today is the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, the military contest in the autumn of 1066 which saw England and its besieged king, Harold Godwinson, fall to the Norman-French armies of William the Conqueror (or, Bastard), the ambitious Duke of Normandy. In fact that year saw two great armed clashes on the island of Britain, one at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in the north-east of England where Harold and a northern English host defeated an invading Scandinavian force led by Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, and Godwinson’s estranged brother, Tostig Godwinson, the rebellious Earl of Northumbria. Some nineteen days later most of that same victorious army, exhausted by conflict and travel, would suffer virtual annihilation at Hastings on the south-eastern coast of England.
When Harold Godwinson faced the Norman-French on the 14th of October 1066 he did so with an almost entirely English force. In contrast the armed hosting led at Stamford three weeks earlier had included a significant number of Scandinavian-Irish and Irish mercenaries who helped sway the battle his way. Those auxiliaries had come through the English ruler’s personal connections with the Irish seaport of Dublin and its overlord, Diarmaid mac Maoil na mBó, the formidable king of the Uí Cheinnsealaigh and ruler of the province of Laighin. Many years earlier in 1051 a younger Harold had followed his father, Godwin the Earl of Essex, into temporary political exile, choosing Ireland as his place of refuge along with his brother Leofwine (later Earl of Kent and Essex, who fell by his brother’s side at Hastings) and some of his children, while the rest of the Godwin family fled to Bruges. There he seems to have struck up a friendship with Murchú mac Diarmada, the youthful king of Dublin, and his father Diarmaid, who reigned at the populous fortress-town of Fearna Mór Maedhóg, over a hundred kilometres to the south. In 1052 Harold led a small Dublin naval fleet back to Britain in support of his father’s return from the Continent with Diarmaid’s approval. Meanwhile his sister, Edith of Wessex, the later wife of Edward the Confessor, the penultimate king of England, became a noted speaker of Irish, the lingua franca of the Irish Sea region.
Following the crushing defeat of the English at the Battle of Hastings, three of Harold Godwinson’s adult sons by his common law wife – Godwin, Edmund and Magnus – sought refuge in Ireland at the court of the family’s old sponsor, the king of Laighin and his aristocratic kin. They may have been proceeded by Harold’s legal wife, Edith of Mercier, the possible if unproven mother of his infant son and likely heir, Harold, born some months after the king’s bloody death. With Diarmaid’s support they organised several unsuccessful seaborne expeditions from the Scandinavian-Irish towns of Dublin and Wexford to liberate England, raiding some distance into the south-west of the country in the summers of 1068 and 1069 to the great alarm of the new and still insecure Norman-French occupiers (Magnus is never mentioned again after the first expedition perhaps indicating his loss). One of their main targets was the affluent seaport of Bristol, whose mercantile classes would later become associated with the Norman-British campaigns against Ireland in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries.
With the unexplained death of Murchú in Dublin during the winter of 1070 and Diarmaid’s slaying in battle in early 1072 (while upholding his contested claim to be the “King of Ireland”), the surviving sons of Harold seem to have lost much of their Irish support. The last firm reference to the two siblings was in 1074 when they are said to have been present in the company of Sweyn II Estridsson, king of Denmark, presumably seeking his aid. After that date their fate is unknown, some speculating that they returned to Ireland, possibly blending into the Medieval aristocratic families of the island. Their much younger half-brother, Harold, was also mentioned in relation to Scandinavia in the 1080s before he too disappeared from the pages of history.
Given the later relationship of Ireland and Britain there is some irony to be derived from the thought that the descendants of the last recognisably English king of England may be still living in modern Ireland, albeit in ignorance of their illustrious ancestry.