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By the duke's commands, O Harold, you rest here a king, that you may still be guardian of the shore and sea.
— Song of the Battle of Hastings

Harold II Godwinson was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, reigning in the few months leading up to its eventual conquest by William the Conqueror, and his own death at the Battle of Hastings.

The son of Godwin of Wessex, Harold was born into one of the most influential families in England. He quickly lived up to his family's reputation, becoming the Earl of East Anglia and leading English forces in a war in the Holy Roman Empire at a young age. When he inherited his father's territories and titles, he essentially became the second most powerful man in the kingdom, after King Edward the Confessor.

Harold led several military campaigns against England's enemies, further enhancing his reputation. Edward also appointed Harold as the emissary to his ally William of Normandy, whom Harold fought alongside during a war against the Bretons.

Edward died in 1066, prompting a succession crisis, with Harold, William, and Harald Hardrada of Norway all vying for the throne of England. The Anglo-Saxon witan convened and chose Harold to be king, but he still had to contend with the other claimants on the battlefield. Harold initially had the upper hand in the conflict, defeating Hardrada when he attempted to invade England at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. However, his luck ran out when he fought with William at the Battle of Hastings. William manipulated Harold's exhausted forces with feigned retreats, slowly thinning out his enemy's army until Harold himself was killed by a Norman arrow. Now leaderless, Harold's forces were easily defeated. William was crowned king later that year.

Battle vs. Roland (by El Alamein)[]

"What shall I tell them, sire?" Count Roland looked down from his horse, the noble Veillantif, onto the messenger standing anxiously below. The runner's face was pale and drawn tight--sweat trickled plainly down his face. Though Roland sympathized with the man's fears, he himself remained composed and resolute. His eyes flickered up, up past the treetops that dared span over the road and swallow up the sunlight.

"When the time comes, you will know precisely what to say." Nodding to his messenger, Roland watched as he bolted off, back for friendly lines, back for safety... back for his life. Urging his steed onward, the count noted that even his mount seemed uneasy. A looming pall of uncertainty had plagued his endeavor thus far, but riding alone, Roland knew that he must honor the arrangements he had made previously. Letting his hand drop to rest on the hilt of Durendal, the sword imbued with the righteous strength of the saints looking down from Heaven above, he relaxed. The dirt road was crudely made but well-maintained. It led out into a clearing, where sunlight streamed down in bright, proud shafts. Roland squinted, shielding his eyes as he adjusted to the light. His horse's speed dwindled to a stop. Dismounting, Roland froze when he heard the sound of rustling behind him. There was a slight quivering as Roland turned--followed by a sharp twang. Rolling to the side, he evaded the arrow fired his way and looked up at an imposing mustachioed figure blocking his path, clad in armor and holding a bow. A smile played across the face of King Harold Godwinson as he cast the hunting bow aside and beckoned to a figure who emerged into the clearing, holding a massive two-handed axe. The soldier gave the king the weapon and just as quickly retreated. Roland turned and sprinted back to his horse as Godwinson watched, advancing slowly. Grabbing his Francisca axe, Roland turned and hurled the weapon wildly, interrupting the Saxon's advance and forcing him to jump sharply to the side to avoid the attack. Just as quickly, Roland had retrieved his Angon spear, holding it out defiantly with two hands. Harold broke into a charge, gaining momentum as he raised his Dane axe overhead. Roland slid under the swing and turned with a grunt, jabbing the spear-tip at Harold. It nicked off his mail armor, but the tip got stuck and bent. Breathing heavily, Harold stood up, encumbered by the useless weapon now protruding from his backside. Shaking himself in an effort to dislodge the Angon, he quickly ran backwards, turning sharply, swinging the shaft of the spear against a tree. The wooden shaft splintered with the force of the blow, but Roland was now on top of Harold with his longsword, swinging forcefully with an attack Harold only just managed to avoid by raising his axe's handle in front of his face. The blade got stuck halfway through the wood--Roland struggled to pull it out right as Harold, holding the weapon by the shaft, pushed forward forcefully and slammed the shaft into Roland's face. Durendal fell to the grass, but there was a crack as the blow shattered the Frank's nose. Blood streamed freely as Roland grunted in pain, reaching a hand up to the injury and gingerly touching it, before holding it out in front of him to see the extent of the bleeding.

Picking up Durendal, Roland turned as Harold unsheathed his own longsword. The Saxon king laughed as Roland spit blood in his direction, before the two charged. Harold's forward thrust hit Roland's mail and failed to pierce the armor, while Roland's sideways swing winded the king through his byrnie. Stumbling backwards, Harold reached a hand out as he fell to the ground. Roland held his sword out and knelt, keeping it pointed at Godwinson's throat. Before the Frankish count could react, though, Harold had reached out, picking up a rock that lay nearby, and swung it up at Roland's helmet. With a clang, it was now Roland who was at the mercy of Harold, his ears ringing and his vision spinning. By the time he had recovered, it was all but too late for Roland. Disarmed and with Godwinson blocking the path to any of his weapons, Roland had but one course of action left. His faithful steed had remained, standing calmly while the duel had raged, and Roland had enough strength to make it back to Veillantif and search his satchel. Finding what he needed, Roland ran his hand down his horse's mane. "Vigilant until the end," whispered Roland, and he turned and faced Harold Godwinson, the king of England, face-to-face, raising his oliphant to his lips in a last act of defiance as the Saxon warrior swung his sword full-force.

The melancholy sound of the oliphant danced across the treetops, sending birds flying and overpowering the desperate, ragged breathing of the sweat-drenched messenger, as he burst, wild-eyed and frenzied, into the tent of his commander. The captain inside looked up, concerned, as the runner took one enormous gulp of breath before crying out.

"Captain! The count! He is dead!"

Expert's Opinion[]

arold Godwinson's superior battlefield experience, weapons, and tactics enabled him to prevail over Roland. The bow vastly overpowered the throwing axe at a long range, but also (and perhaps most importantly), Harold's defeat at Hastings, while just as catastrophic a loss as Roland's defeat at Roncevaux Pass, was a much closer call and not as much a strategic blunder. Roland fought valiantly, but in the end, Harold Godwinson hit harder and hit smarter, giving him the victory.

To see the original battle, weapons, and votes, click here.