The Battle of Hastings: Uncovering Harold II’s True Fate

Thomas Martin

With the 14th October marking the 957th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, this period provides a time for historical reflection on the events that took place on Senlac Hill, and deliberation over the fate of Harold II.  Thomas Martin, rejects the accepted narrative of Harold’s II’s death, and in doing so, calls for a willingness to undertake greater historical research. 

I know what you are thinking. ‘Did Harold survive?’, ‘He got hit by an arrow in the eye’. Throughout Primary School, Secondary School and GCSEs, the story of the Norman Conquest of England is grounded as a staple in historical education, and illustrated in perpetuity in the Bayeux Tapestry. But what if I were to tell you that these events were a lie, or, at least, the manipulation of a half-truth? Winston Churchill famously stated, ‘history is written by the victors,’ and in the early medieval period of the 11th century, the winner takes all; and then some.

My argument is as follows; King Harold Godwinson of England – the last Anglo-Saxon king – survived the Battle of Hastings and lived for another 40 years, and the Bayeux Tapestry was manipulated centuries later in botched renovations by reconstructed engravings. I suggested this proposition to my GCSE History teacher, who, after a sympathetic smile, told me not to write this in my exam.

The geological survey company carrying out the scan (Oval Films and Stratascan) also famously uncovered King Richard III’s remains under a car park in Leicester.

Where is my evidence for such an outlandish claim? Peter Burke is a historian and novelist who sought to challenge the official ‘arrow in the eye’ narrative. He sponsored an underground scan of Waltham Abbey in Essex, where King Harold’s remains were argued to have been buried (after severe dismemberment by the Norman army). The geological survey company carrying out the scan (Oval Films and Stratascan) also famously uncovered King Richard III’s remains under a car park in Leicester in 2012 (which has since been made into a biographical cinematic release, ‘The Lost King’, featuring Sally Hawkins, Harry Lloyd, Steven Coogan, and Mark Addy). Burke based his theory on the ‘Vita Harold’, a 12th-century document found in the British Library.

In this document, a ‘young novice priest… took the last rites of an old pilgrim called Christian who declared on his death bed that he was Harold Godwin, the last Saxon king’. Burke added, ‘he was hidden in Winchester and brought back to health by a Moorish nurse. He tried to raise an army in Germany but they weren’t interested and he spent his life travelling as a pilgrim’.

Whilst acknowledging my explicit bias, the Battle Historical Society has always disputed the claim that Harold II escaped from Senlac Hill and resigned himself to a religious life. However, having visited Senlac Hill (the site of the battle), and the stone slab that claims to be situated in the exact position where Harold II was slain, it is clear that the Society holds an economic interest in maintaining the status quo.

English Heritage *rejected* the application to exhume the grave, with Burke stating he was ‘very frustrated and extremely gutted.’

The search in 2015 uncovered an unmarked grave close to the area in the grounds of Waltham Abbey Church that Burke had highlighted. Unfortunately, English Heritage *rejected* the application to exhume the grave, with Burke stating he was ‘very frustrated and extremely gutted.’ Burke went on to express, ‘I have been researching this for years and I am convinced that we have found something there that needs looking at. The licence was refused because English Heritage believe my research is not a good enough reason to disturb a grave. I think they are missing the point. There is an international interest behind this search’.

Since then, there has been no clarity on Harold’s true fate. Different claims have been made, such as the Daily Mail suggested that Harold is buried in Bishop’s Stortford in Hertfordshire, and even in recent days, the Great British Life magazine suggested that he is buried in Bosham church. The former claim is due to ‘Edith The Fair, Harold’s common law wife’ being ‘recorded in the Domesday Book as the owner of the Manor of Stortford,’ which has ‘four decorative Norman coffins’. The claim proposes that Harold had a ‘heart burial’ as his bones would have turned to dust since 1066, so he would have been buried at his wife’s Manor. The request for radar tests was denied. The latter, on the east side of Chichester, is based on a 1954 structural renovation finding of a coffin containing the remains of a man with injuries corresponding to Harold’s (missing head/left leg), as described by Bishop Guy of Amien in the earliest contemporary account. Interestingly, William, now King of England, took Bosham as the only Sussex estate in his personal possession. Ultimately, the article goes into more detail on attempts for excavation and DNA testing.

The ‘arrow in the eye’ claim is nonsense. 

Whether the above claims disprove the bedrock belief of his death on Senlac Hill, there is one argument that can certainly be rejected; the ‘arrow in the eye’ claim is nonsense. Contemporaries, on both sides, did not mention an arrow in his death description at the time. Scholars N. P. Brooks and H. E. Walker summarised that the Bayeux Tapestry was renewed in 1842, and the figures in scene 57 were almost completely new. The arrow and most of the body had been added in, as well as the ‘Norman horseman chopping down the dying king’. In fact, in 1729, French Historian Bernard de Montfaucon commissioned a sketch of the Tapestry (pre-renovation). It does not show an arrow near Harold’s figure; his raised arm was likely holding a weapon, rather than clutching a fatal arrow. Further minute details on the fletching of the arrow, and other elements are analysed, but one specific paragraph summarises the renovation faux pas: ‘In 1816, due to increased interest in the embroidery, Charles Stothard was commissioned by the London Archaeological Society to make a colour copy of the Bayeux Tapestry. Published between 1819 and 1823, his reproduction included his own hypothetical reconstructions of parts of the work that were damaged or missing. It is here that an arrow first appears’. It is clear; the arrow was a later addition and not intended to appear.

Challenging authority, backed up with theories and evidence, is something that should never be squashed.

If this information has challenged your understanding of the Norman Conquest, and your confidence in history; good. Yes, history is written by the victors, and there are some things that are simply impossible to find out without a real-life Tardis. However, despite the frustration and disappointment faced throughout the years in an attempt to find out the truth about Harold Godwinson, there is something to be celebrated. As a nation, the technology, built environment, historical awareness, and desire to seek the truth have all been shown. But, most of all, challenging authority, backed up with theories and evidence, is something that should never be squashed. Regulation and denial may have prevented searches and excavations, but that shouldn’t be a barrier to access history.

Therefore, on the 957th anniversary of the fall of Anglo-Saxon Britain, we can finally dispel the myths of the Norman conquest, and if that means turning King Harold II Godwinson into a legend, then so be it.

Thomas Martin

Featured image courtesy of Gioele Fazzeri on Unplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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