Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Did Harold die at Hastings? by Teresa Cole

Although it was a turning point in British history we don’t actually know exactly how King Harold died. Two different stories have come down to us. The traditional one, known to every schoolchild probably from that day to this, is that he was fatally struck in the eye by an arrow in the final stages of the battle of Hastings. The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio (Song of the Battle of Hastings) however, gives an altogether different version.

This Carmen is probably the earliest account of the events of 1066, a poem in Latin prepared rather hastily in 1067 for presentation to King William on his return to Normandy. The only manuscript copy of the poem disappeared some thirty years after it was written and was only rediscovered in 1856 leading to suspicions that it was a forgery. Now, however, it is generally accepted as authentic and the author is named as Guy, Bishop of Amiens.

In this version of the story, as the English shield wall is finally weakening and beginning to break up, William himself spots a chance to dispose of his rival once and for all. Getting together a group of knights, he deliberately targets Harold, still in the thick of the fighting, and sets out to hack him to death. Gruesome descriptions are given of how Harold was pierced through with a lance and ‘drenched the earth with a gushing torrent of blood,’ at the same time being beheaded and disembowelled and even having his leg cut off.

Which of these stories is true, we really don’t know. William of Poitiers, a Norman monk who had previously been a soldier himself, gives an account of the conquest full of detail on everything else, but says nothing at all about how Harold met his end. It has been suggested that he might have found the deliberate ganging up on Harold and the subsequent butchery to be a shameful act, and did not want to tarnish his hero William with such a deed, particularly when the victim was a consecrated king.

the-norman-conquest-3 The death of Harold seems to cover two alternative versions of this as contained in the different accounts. Most take the figure on the left to be Harold, but the caption covers both. (By special permission of the City of Bayeux, The Norman Conquest, Amberley Publishing)

The other almost contemporary record, the Bayeux Tapestry, is as unclear as usual. The caption, ‘Harold is slain’, is spread over two different deaths. One under the word Harold shows a man clutching an arrow apparently stuck in his eye, while the other has a man cut down by the sword of a horseman. The suggestion that both are Harold in a kind of cartoon sequence, can probably be discounted. In the first picture he is shown with a shield, but in the second this has disappeared and instead he is dropping a battle axe as he falls. It has also been pointed out that if both were intended to be Harold he seems to have had time to change his socks in between.

Wace, born on Jersey and brought up at Caen in Normandy, wrote his Roman de Rou some hundred years after the event, intending it more as an entertainment than a serious history, but he also has the story of an arrow. He places it, however, towards the start of the battle and has Harold pluck it out and carry on fighting. In fact he flatly declares, ‘I do not indeed know … and have not heard say, who it was that smote down King Harold, nor by what weapon he was wounded.’ This suggests that a century after Hastings neither version of events seemed to be regarded as definitive, at least in Normandy.

The uncertainty about the mode of death extends even more to the disposal of the body. By the time William finished his pursuit of the fugitives and returned to the battlefield it would probably have been quite dark. In the meantime, as depicted in a whole series of cartoons along the lower frieze of the Tapestry, others had been busy gleaning everything they could from the fallen, leaving the corpses, and no doubt others who were merely wounded, lying naked as they were born. How then was the dead king to be recognised among the pile of bodies?

There is a story that when women came to claim husbands, fathers and brothers from those left on the battlefield Harold was so disfigured that it was left to his long time mistress Edith Swan-neck to identify the body by some mark known to her alone. Next we hear that Harold’s mother, Gytha, came asking for the body. She is said to have offered his weight in gold in exchange but was flatly refused. Instead we are told William gave the body to one William Malet, telling him to bury it secretly on the seashore and adding that since he had guarded the coast so devotedly in life he could go on guarding it in death.

A strong tradition, however, claims that, although William refused money for Harold’s body, he did in fact turn it over to Countess Gytha, or at least to two canons from Waltham Abbey who may have supported her claim, and who then brought it back to the abbey and buried it before the high altar. The basis of this claim comes from William of Malmesbury writing in 1125, and he is backed up by Wace in the 1160s, though Wace adds, ‘I do not know who it was that bore him thither, neither do I know who buried him.’ In the abbey grounds today there still stands a memorial to Harold, reputed to mark the site of his grave, and this is certainly the nearest the last consecrated Saxon king has ever come to a gravestone. It is recorded, though, that when on one occasion the grave was excavated it was empty.

Perhaps that would not be surprising if we were to believe another legend, recorded in a ‘Life of Harold’ also written at Waltham that gives a completely different end to the story. According to this Harold survived the battle of Hastings and in fact lived for many years after.

This Vita Haroldi or The Life of Harold was among a collection of ancient documents known as the Harley Collection, preserved after the dissolution of the monasteries and eventually sold to the newly founded British Museum in 1753. It appears to be an early fourteenth century copy of an original work from the late twelfth century, written by a secular canon of Waltham Abbey. This in turn claimed to be based on a shorter primary source from someone with direct personal knowledge of the facts alleged.

The story it tells is quite simply that Harold survived Hastings, that another body was wrongly identified as his, and that he was slowly nursed back to health over a period of two years. He then went abroad to try and raise help to dislodge William, failed in that, became a pilgrim and eventually returned to England to live out his life at Chester as a hermit.

Hastings, Chester or Waltham? 1066 or sometime between 1090 and 1150? Harold, last Anglo-Saxon King of England died and was buried, but how, when or where we may never know.

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Teresa Cole's new book The Norman Conquest is available for purchase now.