Harold Godwinsson, was born ca. 1022. His reign lasted from 5 January 1066 to 14 October 1066, when he was killed at the Battle of Hastings.
Harold's father was Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex, and thus he was grandson to Wulfnoth Cild, Thegn of Sussex. Godwin married twice, first to Thyra Sveinsd�ttir (994 - 1018), a daughter of Sweyn I of Denmark, who was King of Denmark, of Norway, and of England. His second wife was Gytha Thorkelsd�ttir, who was a granddaughter to the legendary Swedish viking Styrbj�rn Starke and great-granddaughter to Harold Bluetooth, King of Denmark and Norway, father of Sweyn I. This second marriage resulted in the birth of two sons Harold and Tostig Godwinsson, and a sister Edith of Wessex (1020 - 1075) who was Queen consort of Edward the Confessor.
Created Earl of East Anglia in 1045, Harold was sent, with his father Godwin, into exile in 1051, for leading opposition to King Edward but helped him to regain his position by force of arms a year later.
The citizens of Dover had been in dispute with Edward's Norman favourite, Eustace of Boulogne who had attempted to forcibly billet his men in the town. In the resulting riot several Normans were killed. Edward demanded that Godwin punish the citizens by harrying the surrounding area- which he refused to do, resulting in he and his sons going into exile, but only to raise support for a triumphal return.
When Godwin died in 1053, Harold succeeded him as earl of Wessex (a province at that time covering the southernmost third of England), which made him the second most powerful figure in England after the king.
When Edward's nephew (also an Edward) was located in Hungary (he was in exile ever since the time of Canute), he was recalled, arriving back in 1057, as a possible counter-weight to Harold's vaulting ambitions. However Edward the Exile died mysteriously within weeks. He left a four-year-old son, Edgar, but Edward was compelled to declare that, were he to die before Edgar was of age, Harold Godwinsson should be his regent.
In 1058 Harold also became Earl of Hereford, and he replaced his late father as the focus of opposition to growing Norman influence in England under the restored Saxon monarchy of Edward the Confessor, who had spent more than a quarter of a century in exile in Normandy.
Harold sought glory in a series of campaigns, between 1062 and 1063 against the ruler of Gwynedd in Wales, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, who had conquered all of Wales; this conflict ended with Gruffydd's defeat (and death at the hands of his own troops) in 1063. Around 1064, Harold married Edith, daughter of the Earl of Mercia, who was also the former wife of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. By Harold, Edith had two sons - possibly twins - named Harold and Ulf, both of whom survived into adulthood and probably ended their lives in exile. Harold entered into this marriage (which amassed even more power for him) despite that fact that, by the Danish law then pertinent, he was already married to Ealdgyth or Edith, known as the "swan-neck", by whom he had several (possibly 5) children.
In 1065 Harold supported a rebellion against his brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, who was replaced by Morcar. This strengthened Harold's acceptability as Edward's successor, but fatally divided his own family, driving Tostig into alliance with Harald Hardrada, King of Norway.
At about the same time, King Edward had sent Harold as his envoy to Normandy, and to its duke, William, to whom Edward had promised the English throne some 10 years earlier, impressed by the Norman skill of government. In the course of his visit (which began with shipwreck) Harold swore on holy relics to uphold William's right to succeed (although he was later, whilst acknowledging the oath, to say that it had been given under duress and without knowledge of the relics -- a mere spoken promise).
Upon Edward the Confessor's death (on 5 January 1066), however, Harold ignored both William and Edgar's respective claims, as closest blood-kin of the dead king, and, claiming that Edward had promised him the crown on his deathbed, he compelled the Witenagemot (the assembly of the kingdom's leading notables) to approve him for coronation as king, which then took place on the following day.
However, the country was invaded, by both Harald of Norway and William, Duke of Normandy. The first argued that he had an hereditary right (and a strong enough army) to govern England. William also claimed that in accepting the crown of England, Harold had perjured himself of his recent oath.
Invading what is now Yorkshire in September, 1066, Harald Hardrada and Tostig defeated the English earls, Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria, at the Battle of Fulford near York (on September 20), but were in turn defeated and slain by Harold's army five days later at the Battle of Stamford Bridge (September 25).
Harold now forced his army to march 240 miles to intercept William, who had landed perhaps 7000 men in Sussex in southern England three days later, on 28 September. Harold established his army in hastily built earthworks near Hastings. The two armies clashed near Hastings on 14 October, where after a hard fight Harold was killed and his forces routed.
Harold's wife, Edith of the Swan-neck, was called to identify the body, which she did by some private mark (the face being destroyed) known only to herself.
Harold did have one lasting effect on history: his illegitimate daughter, Gytha of Wessex, married Vladimir Monomakh, the Grand Duke of the Kievan Rus', and is ancestor to several Russian rulers. Consequently the Russian Orthodox Church has recently recognised Harold as a martyr with October 14 as his feast day.
A Saxon cult of hero worship rose around Harold (as a focus of anti-Norman sentiment) and by the 12th century legend said that Harold had indeed survived the battle, had spent two years in Winchester after the battle recovering from his wounds, and then had traveled to Germany where he spent years wandering as a pilgrim. As an old man he was supposed to have returned to England and lived as a hermit in a cave near Dover. As he lay dying, he had confessed that although he went by the name of Christian, he had been born Harold Godwinsson. Various versions of this story persisted throughout the Middle Ages, and have little claim to fact. However a visit to the so-called ex-King Harold Waltham Abbey- a monk at by Henry I in 1100 could have had a basis in fact even though Harold Godwinsson would have been 100 years old. When Harold died at Hastings, his wife was pregnant with a son she called Harold, who would have been Harold Haroldsson, who may have given rise to these stories.
This has been adapted from material from Wikipedia , with additions from a variety of sources including Ashley, British Kings and Queens (2002) Constable & Robinson.