The Mysterious Death of Harold Godwinson at Hastings
The Death or Life of King Harold
It is commonly believed that Harold Godwinson, last Saxon King of England, died at the battle of Hastings with an arrow in his eye. What is less well known is that this version of his death was questioned at the time; many believed that King Harold did not die at Hastings but survived to die naturally many years later.
Such notions that a prominent personality did not die but survived his supposed demise is as old as the myths surrounding Cain and Abel. In modern times doubts have been raised about Hitler, James Dean and Elvis, who has left more buildings since his funeral than he left when he was alive.
The mysterious death of Harold Godwinson, is a conspiracy theory from the middle ages, a mystery that may never be truly solved. Rudyard Kipling, in his book “The Tree of Justice” mentions the legend but apart from that this is a tale not widely known.
The person who discovers the truth will have a place in history. Who is up for the challenge?
The British and Anglo-saxon Kingdoms
The Saxon kingdoms of what is today known as England had become united under the Kings of the West Saxons, (Wessex) There had been a short hiatus when Danish Kings ruled but the supremacy of Wessex was restored by Edward who succeeded Harthacnut, son of Cnut or Canute, the last of the Danish Kings. (In 1161 Edward was canonized by Pope Alexander III. In those days saints were divided into two groups, those who were killed because of their faith were called Martyrs, and those who died naturally but had lived a pious life were titled Confessors, hence Edward the Confessor.)
In 1045 Edward married Edith Godwinsdottir but the marriage was childless. It is generally held that both of them wished to live a pious life and had vowed chastity. How true that is remains speculative but the childlessness of Edward meant there was no obvious successor. Before discussing the claimants to the throne there is one other body to consider; the Witenagemot. This was a Saxon parliament of sorts. All members were appointed by the King however a King may not depose any member, so the current monarch was stuck with those his predecessor appointed until one died and he could appoint his own. These were the chief advisors to the King and he would call the Witan for the purpose of determining actions and presenting laws. The Witan also had the power of ceosan to cyninge, (To choose the King)
Edward the Confessor
The Contenders for the English Throne
First contender; Duke William of Normandy: Prior to his coronation Edward had lived in exile amongst his mother’s kinfolk in Normandy. Indeed there was a great deal of Norman influence in his reign including the controversial appointments of Norman Bishops. While in Normandy he had become acquainted with his mother’s great nephew, William. On Edwards’s death William claimed that Edward had named him successor to the crown.
Second contender; Tostig Godwinson and Harald Hardrada. These two had joined forces, Harald was King of Norway and planned to unite England and Normandy after the fashion of the Danish Kings, Tostig was the brother of the third contender.
Third contender; Harold Godwinson. Harold, on the death of his father, had inherited the Earldom of Wessex. Prior to that time he and his brother Tostig had led a successful campaign against the Welsh defeating Gruffudd ap Llewelyn and proving himself to the nobility that he was an able leader and general. The claim to the throne of both Harold and Tostig was that their sister was Edith, wife of Edward.
Though all of these contenders claimed that Edward had, at one time or another, promised them the succession, it was never Edward’s to give. The ultimate decision, especially when there was no obvious heir, rested with the Witenagemot.
William the Conqueror
Harold Godwinson and the Official Story
On January 5th 1066 Edward fell into a coma and died. Just before his death he regained consciousness enough to ask Harold to protect his wife and England. Shortly thereafter the Witenagemot assembled and declared Harold Godwinson King of England and he was crowned by Archbishop Aldred. William immediately set about raising an army for invasion. Harold, on discovering this arranged for the defense of the south coast. Bad weather delayed William’s invasion and by September 8th with the harvest season upon them, large numbers of the Saxon army were disbanded. Harold then heard that Harald Hardrada and Tostig had landed in the North of England and were besieging the city of York. Harold set his fleet to guard London then led a forced march northwards to meet the invaders. A fierce battle was held at Stamford Bridge. Tostig and Harald Hardrada were killed. That took place September 25th; on September 27th William finally launched his invasion landing on the south coast of England with a force of approximately 7,000. Harold again force marched his army south to meet the Normans at Hastings. The battle took place on October 14th and lasted nine hours. Mediaeval rules of combat were that fighting would cease at sunset. Had the English lasted another half hour they could have rested, re-enforcements including cavalry were on the way and the morning might well have seen a different result but just before sunset Harold was slain and William claimed the throne of England by right of conquest. The official story is that during the fighting Harold received an arrow in his eye, he was then set upon by four nights, one of them Duke William himself. They killed him and mutilated his body.
King Harold Godwinson
The Lord's Prayer in old Anglo-Saxon. This is how King Harold would have said it
In the town of Stanton in Oxfordshire, there lived a hermit, Sebricht by name. He took very few into his innermost confidences but those who were so privileged heard a remarkable story. He stated that he was, for many years the servant of Harold. After the great battle at Hastings some women walked the battlefield among the dead and dying. He said it was out of pity that they wished to bind the wounds of the injured. Some say that they sought wealth among the dead. Whatever the case they found Harold, sorely beaten with many blows. They carried him to a nearby hut and after binding his wounds as best as they were able, two men took Harold secretly to the city of Winchester. There he was cured by a certain woman skilled in healing. Little is known of whom she is but the tale of Sebricht is that she was Moorish. That was what they called people from Africa in those days. By the time he regained his strength the country had already been subdued by William. Almost all of the ancestral Earls had either been killed or driven from the country, their lands given over to the Norman barons who had supported William. According to Sebricht Harold first tried to gain support for a campaign against William. He crossed over to Germany, the ancestral home of the Saxons, and begged for their help. William had already forestalled this by making alliances with the King of Denmark and neighboring countries. Realizing at last that he had no hope for regaining his Kingdom he had, according to Sebricht, a complete change of heart. He believed that what had happened was the will of God and so he should be nothing more than God’s servant. He began a pilgrimage to the Holy places of the Middle East. After many years of wandering he decided to return home. He wore a veil over his face to hide his disfigurement from his wounds and also to hide his identity. He landed at Dover and lived as a Hermit in a cave. News of this Holy man spread and he decided to leave before too much attention came his way. He journeyed to Wales and lived there for a number of years though his life there was by no means easy. It was in Wales that Sebricht became his attendant and was with him the rest of his life. Sebricht states that the Welsh were most unkind to Harold but he forbear with such kindness that their hearts were turned and they began to honor him, so much so that Harold again felt the need to leave until he and Sebricht came to the city of Chester. There a venerable Hermit had recently passed away. Harold was welcomed in his place and lived there for the rest of his days.
According to Sebricht, if Harold was asked if he was present at the battle where the King was killed he would answer “I was certainly there” If anyone suspected he might be Harold Godwinson and questioned him more closely, he would reply “When the battle of Hastings was fought, there was no one more dear to Harold than myself.”
The body of Harold had been identified by his mistress, or wife under Danish law, Aeldgyth Swanneck (Edith Swan-Neck). Harold had been a patron of Waltham Abbey and after the battle of Hastings the clergy of the Abbey sent her to identify Harold among the dead. The women who had carried Harold away put out the story of the wound to the eye and the subsequent mutilation to hide their removal of him. This was the story that Edith heard and, being unable to identify bodies that were already turning black and had been so mutilated she took another man’s body back to Waltham to satisfy the priests. The body was taken without question, given due reverence and buried at the Church of the Holy Cross.
Harold had a younger brother named Gyrth. He and the other brother, Leofwine, were said to have been killed at Hastings also but this was disputed by many others including Henry II. At the time of the battle Gyrth would have been little more than a boy. When he was a man of great age he was presented at the court of Henry. He was asked if indeed his brother’s body lay at Waltham. He replied “You may have some country-man, but you have not Harold.” The chamberlain at Holy Cross, a man named Michael, relates that Gyrth visited the coffin and said, in his presence as well as in the presence of others, “Harold lies not here.”
When Harold was sick with old age he asked for his final confession. The priest, Andrew, asked him of what status in life he was. He replied “If you will promise me, on the Word of the Lord that as long as I live you will not divulge what I tell you, I will satisfy the motive of your question.” The priest solemnly promised and the dying man said “It is true that I was formerly the King of England. Harold by name, but now I am a poor man, lying in ashes, and that I might conceal my name I caused myself to be called Christian”
Shortly after this he died and the priest faithfully reported what he had heard.
History or Fable?
So there it is the History and the legend. Did Harold die at Hastings or did he live on in the service of his God? other questions raise their heads: The Bayeaux tapestry is the only evidence that Harold took an arrow to the eye. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, a contemporary record, make no mention of it. There are conflicting stories of the disposal of Harold's body. The one mentioned above regarding Edith Swanneck is probably the most popular. Another version, just as well attested is that William had the body of Harold brought to him. Harold's mother offered William Harold's weight in gold if he would release the body to her. William refused but gave Harold a Viking funeral, So the body was cremated. If there are questions regarding the disposal of the body, it seems fair to question whether or not there was a body at all.
The mystery is almost a thousand years old, the Diocese has repeatedly refused requests for exhumation. Can the truth be established without question?