After Canute’s untimely death in 1035, Queen Emma, backed by the powerful Earl Godwine of Wessex, strongly supported her son Harthacnut’s claim to the English throne. Unfortunately, Harthacnut’s position in Denmark at that moment was very insecure, and much though he would have loved to claim the crown of England, he just couldn’t get away.
Enter his elder half-brother Harold, son of Aelfgifu of Northampton, nicknamed Harefoot. First of all, Harold was living in the country; it is thought that Earl Godwine’s rival Earl Leofric of Mercia had given him shelter for many years. Secondly, the Northerners saw him as one of their own, and favored him over Harthacnut, who had been in Denmark since he was six. Since Anglo-Saxon England used the Witan to elect the next sovereign, the previous king’s candidate did not necessarily follow.
Earl Godwine campaigned hard for Harthacnut, but in the end only won the support of his own Wessex. The Witan decided once again to split the kingship into two and declared that Harold Harefoot would be king of all England except Wessex, and that Godwine and Emma would act as regents over Wessex for Harthacnut.
This uncomfortable situation did not last very long, and within two years Harold was declared king of all England. He called on Queen Emma, installed at Winchester, and despoiled her of all Canute’s treasures; soon she fled to Flanders, where she awaited the return of Harthacnut. Earl Godwine accepted the inevitable and swore fealty to King Harold I, but was never really in favor; in 1036 Godwine became the scapegoat for Alfred Aetheling’s capture and murder during the exile’s ill-fated invasion of England (more on that later).
We know of little else about Harold Harefoot’s reign. In 1040 he died of an undisclosed illness at Oxford and was buried at Winchester. This saved England the indignity of yet another invasion which was in the process of being arranged by Harthacnut.
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