As we were all taught, Harold Godwinson, or King Harold II as he was known to his battle scarred subjects, was killed at the Battle of Hastings. There are differing accounts of this death, but the most widely accepted by historians is that of the eleventh-century churchman, Guy, Bishop of Amiens. His Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, or Song of the Battle of Hastings (which, let’s face it, was never going to be on Top of the Pops), was written shortly after the battle. In it, Guy describes how the King was killed by four knights, probably including Duke William, and his body brutally dismembered.
The first mention of the famous arrow in the eye tale comes from an account written, nearly 30 years after the battle, by the fabulously named Amatus of Montecassino. Don’t go thinking that the Bayeux Tapestry contradicts all this… in the panel below the inscription “Harold Rex Interfectus Est” one poor chap is depicted gripping an arrow in his eye, but some historians have questioned whether this man is intended to be Harold, or if Harold is the next figure, lying to the right, and being mutilated beneath a horse’s hooves. My Latin is on the non existent end of the scale, but I think the translation should be more like ‘Harold the King is killed‘, rather than ‘King Harold gets one in the face.’
Anyway, after the battle the body of Harold was given to one William Malet, at least according to the contemporary chronicler William of Poitiers. (BTW when did we all stop being called ‘Someone of Somewhere’? … I rather like it… perhaps we ought to reintroduce it?) Alternative theories suggest that the body was given to his widow, Edith, which seems much more likely to me. However there is much debate about the final resting place of the king.
The main contender is the small church at Bosham, where Harold was born, and where in 1954 and Anglo-Saxon coffin was inadvertently discovered by workmen. They found a stone sarcophagus and the remains of a man, estimated at up to 60 years of age, lacking a head, one leg and the lower part of his other leg; a description consistent with the fate of the King. Sadly in 1954, DNA profiling was not available, and carbon dating was still a nascent art. The coffin has not been reopened since.
However legends persist that Harold’s body was laid to rest in Waltham, at the Church of The Holy Cross. That old gossip monger, William of Malmesbury, wrote in the Gesta regum Anglorum in 1125, that the refusal by Duke William to accept payment for the body meant that it was handed over without ransom, and taken from the battlefield to Waltham for burial. Harold had re-established the church in Waltham 1060, and by the late middle ages, it was one of the largest church buildings in England and a major site of pilgrimage. In 1540 it was the last religious community to be closed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Sadly however it was locked when I visited on Saturday, so you only get photos from the outside. As luck would have it, Harold is said to have been buried under the old High Alter, now in ruins, and which is now outside!