Harold's father was Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex. Godwin was himself a son to Wulfnoth Cild, Thane of Sussex, and had married twice. His first marriage was to Thyra Sveinsdóttir (994 - 1018), a daughter of Sweyn I who was king of Denmark,
king of Norway and England. His second wife was Gytha Thorkelsdóttir who was a granddaughter to the legendary Swedish viking Styrbjörn 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 Godwinson, and a sister, Edith of Wessex (1020 - 1075) who was Queen consort of St. [[Edward the Confessor]].
Created Earl of East Anglia in 1045, Harold accompanied Godwin into exile in 1051 but helped him to regain his position a year later. When Godwin died in 1053, Harold succeeded him as Earl of Wessex (a province at that time covering the southernmost third of England). This made him the second most powerful figure in England after the king.