Harold and the Arrow
The battle of Hastings is arguably the most popularly known
event in English history, and it is common knowledge that King Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye. That is, however, far from certain.
"Harold himself fell in the first shock of battle, pierced with lethal wounds."
agrees with the highly unlikely claim, given that the battle carried on throughout the whole day, that Harold "was slain in the first assault" ....
Florence of Worcester
: "At last, after great slaughter on both sides, about twilight the king, alas! fell."
.... but gives no indication at all as to the manner of his death.
"Now the victor, joyful France almost ruled the field; already she was seeking the spoils of war when the duke sighted the king far off on the steeps of the hill, fiercely hewing to pieces the Normans who were besetting him. He [William] called Eustace [of Boulogne] to him ... Hugh, the noble heir of Ponthieu, escorted these two ... fourth was Giffard, known by his father's surname: these four bore arms for the destruction of the king... The first, cleaving his [Harold's] breast through the shield with his point, drenched the earth with a gushing torrent of blood; the second smote off his head below the protection of the helmet and the third pierced the inwards of his belly with his lance; the fourth hewed off his thigh
and bore away the severed limb: the ground held the body thus destroyed."
On hearing of Harold's death, the remaining English forces take to flight.
William of Poitiers
doesn't implicate Duke William in Harold's death, nor does he mention the manner of it:
"The king's two brothers were found lying beside him. He himself, all dignity lost, was recognized not by his face but by certain indications ..."
The Bayeux Tapestry
, however, clearly shows Harold clutching an arrow in his eye ....
.... well perhaps not. It is not incontrovertibly the case that the 'arrow' is actually in the figure's eye. When the Tapestry's historical importance was first noticed, in 1729, it appears that this figure was somewhat threadbare. A drawing made at the time indicates that the feather flights, which define the gripped shaft as an arrow, were not discernible. Nevertheless, 19th century restorers stitched in the absent fletchings.
"... fell, from having his brain pierced with an arrow ... receiving the fatal arrow from a distance, he yielded to death. One of the soldiers with a sword gashed his thigh, as he lay prostrate; for which shameful and cowardly action he was branded with ignominy by William, and expelled from the army."
Henry of Huntingdon
agrees that Harold was, indeed, wounded in the eye, but says that this was not the fatal wound:
"... a shower of arrows fell round king Harold, and he himself was pierced in the eye. A crowd of horsemen now burst in, and the king, already wounded, was slain."
"... an arrow which had fallen from the sky struck Harold right in the eye, removing one of his eyes. Harold pulled it out violently and threw it away, but breaking it before he did so. Because of the pain in his head, he leant on his shield... The Normans had pushed forward so much that they reached the standard. Harold was with the standard, defending himself as best he could, but he was suffering great pain from his eye, as it had been put out. While he was suffering pain from the blow to his eye, which was hurting him, an armed man came through the fighting and struck him on the ventail, knocking him to the ground. As he was trying to get up again, a knight, who struck him in the thigh, through the fleshiest part, knocked him down again and the wound went right through to the bone... The Normans knocked the standard to the ground, killed King Harold and the finest of his allies and captured the golden pennon; there was such a throng when Harold was killed that I cannot say who killed him... I cannot say, and do not say, nor was I there and did not see it, nor have I heard any authority say who felled King Harold or with which weapon he was wounded. But he was found dead along with the other dead bodies."
What became of Harold's body is also unclear.
The 'Carmen de Hastingae Proelio':
"After the glorious light of the sun began to shine and cleanse the world of brooding darkness, the duke surveyed the field, and taking up the bodies of his fallen, he buried them in the bosom of the earth. The corpses of the English, strewn upon the ground, he left to be devoured by worms and wolves, by birds and dogs. Harold's dismembered body he gathered together, and wrapped what he had gathered in fine purple linen, and returning to his camp by the sea, he bore it with him, that he might carry out the customary funeral rites."
In exchange for the body, Harold's mother offers to give William its weight in gold, but an "infuriated" William refuses:
"... swearing that he would sooner entrust the shores of that very port to him - under a heap of stones! ... he commanded the body to be buried in the earth on the high summit of a cliff; and forthwith a certain man, part Norman, part English, Harold's comrade, willingly did his behest; for he swiftly took up the kings body and buried it, setting over it a stone, and he wrote as epitaph:
By the duke's commands, O Harold, you rest here a king,
That you may still be guardian of the shore and sea."
William of Poitiers denies the assertion that Duke William left the English dead to become dinner for wild animals, and says, though the duke could legitimately have done just that, he actually chose to allow the bodies to be collected for burial. William of Poitiers does, however, agree that Duke William refused to accept Harold's body-weight in gold from his mother:
"... he held Harold to be unworthy of burial as his mother wished, when his greed was the cause of so many others lying unburied. It was said in mockery to be appropriate to leave him as the keeper of the shore and sea which he had so recently sought to defend in his insanity."
He names the man to whom Duke William entrusted Harold's burial as "William surnamed Malet".
William of Malmesbury, though, claims that Duke William:
"... sent the body of Harold to his mother, (who begged it), unransomed though she proffered large sums by her messengers. She buried it, when thus obtained, at Waltham; a church he [Harold] had built at his own expense, in honour of the Holy Cross, and which he had filled with canons."
Wace too says Harold was taken to Waltham:
"... but I do not know who took him and I do not know who buried him."
According to the, so called, 'Waltham Chronicle', produced soon after 1177
, it was two canons of Waltham, Osgod Cnoppe and Æthelric Childemaister, who transported the body. On his way south from Stamford Bridge, Harold is said to have paused to pray at Waltham. Osgod and Æthelric joined his retinue. After the battle they obtained Duke William's permission to take Harold's body (William refused payment) back to Waltham. They were unable to recognise the king, however, and so Osgod fetched Harold's former concubine, Edith Swanneshals ('Swan-neck'), who, from "secret marks", identified the corpse.
There were also stories in circulation that Harold had actually survived the battle. In 1163 Ailred of Rievaulx
"... Harold himself was deprived of the kingdom of England, and either died wretchedly or, as some think, escaped to a life of penitence."
Indeed, some thirty years after the 'Waltham Chronicle', the, fanciful, 'Vita Haroldi' (a Waltham commission) claimed that Edith Swan-neck had made a mistake; that Harold, though seriously wounded, did survive the battle. He was nursed to health by an Arab woman in Winchester. After travels in Europe, he returned to England - eventually ending his days as a hermit at Chester.