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Did King Harold die at Hastings?

Updated on August 18, 2017
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Peter is an amateur historian and a student of languages. Retired he spends much of his free time writing historical books and articles.

Harold Godwinson

Source

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 is questioned. Evidence has emerged from the past and present to suggest that King Harold did not die at Hastings but survived, to die naturally many years later.
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 let us not forget Elvis, who has left more buildings since his funeral than he ever 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

At this time Wales, West Wales or Cornwall, along with the kingdoms of Strathclyde and Cumbria were indigenous British. The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms divided up England until the Kings of Wessex united them.
At this time Wales, West Wales or Cornwall, along with the kingdoms of Strathclyde and Cumbria were indigenous British. The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms divided up England until the Kings of Wessex united them. | Source

Background

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.) Edward became the Patron Saint of England until the crusades when the knights brought home the tale of *saint* George. A mythical figure never officially canonized by the church.
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 members his predecessor had appointed until one died and he was then free to replace that member with one of his own choosing. These were the chief advisers to the King. He would call the Witenagemot for the purpose of determining actions and presenting laws. The Witenagemot also had the power of ceosan to cyninge, (To choose the King)

Edward the Confessor

Edward ruled successfully for 24 years but his death left the Saxon Kingdoms without an obvious successor.
Edward ruled successfully for 24 years but his death left the Saxon Kingdoms without an obvious successor.

The Contenders for the English Throne

First contender; Duke William of Normandy: Prior to his coronation Edward had lived in exile among 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 Norway 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

Duke William of Normandy
Duke William of Normandy

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.
A point to consider here is that the Bayeux tapestry apparently depicts Harold being wounded in the eye during a cavalry charge. The archers would not be firing while their own cavalry was advancing.

The Lord's Prayer in old Anglo-Saxon. This is how King Harold would have said it

The legend

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 sold into slavery. TYheir lands were 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, when 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. Edith stated that she recognized Harold by a mark upon his body. Her account was believed by the Abbey without further question. Harold was given due reverence and buried at the Church of the Holy Cross in Essex.
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.

Vita Haroldi

Vita Haroldi: The Romance of the Life of Harold, King of England; From the Unique Manuscript in the British Museum (Classic Reprint)
Vita Haroldi: The Romance of the Life of Harold, King of England; From the Unique Manuscript in the British Museum (Classic Reprint)

For those interested in a further exploration of this fascinating puzzle more information and possibly clues,can be gleaned from this fascinating book.

 

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?

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    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 3 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Interesting idea, Peter. I've read this and one or two others like it. How do you explain Eadgytha 'Swan-neck' identifying Harold by a birthmark only she and Harold's mother Gytha knew of? It would have been unthinkable for Harold to let his huscarls die around him and scurry away unseen. Aside from which there were other witnesses, William being one of them, who knew of his being taken for burial after he turned down Gytha's offer of Harold's weight in gold and one of his barons bought the body from him to give to Eadgytha for burial. Dean Wulfwin and the canons of Harold's college at Waltham (now the town of Waltham Abbey in NW Essex) would have known who he was when he was embalmed for entombment near the high altar in the college church. That end of the church was destroyed during Henry VIII's dissolution and a marker shows the location of the tomb in the garden to the east of the present church building.

      Also only Wessex, Middlesex, Essex, Sussex and Surrey were Saxon. Kent and Wight were Jutish, most of the kingdom being Anglian - which is why the kingdom is called England (Aengla Land). Harold was half-Danish and his huscarls were mostly Danes and Half-Danes from Knut's time [1016-1035].

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      zoetropo 17 months ago

      Speaking of myths, Geoffrey of Monmouth drew on many sources for his stories, but his King Arthur is based largely on Count Alan Rufus: even Alan's family appears as Arthur's, with a few but not all names changed. (Intriguingly, Alan's own epitaph employs the star Arcturus as a metaphor for him. This has all manner of historic and religious implications that I won't go into here.)

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      zoetropo 17 months ago

      William wasn't one of the four knights: when he found out what had been done to Harold, he was furious: just think of the precedent! The family of one of the knights, Guy of Ponthieu, wrote the Song of Hastings (Carmen Proelio Hastingae) as a penance.

      The fall of Gyrth is more intriguing. Stephen Morillo wrote that Gyrth may have been leading the Saxon attack that made the Normans retreat, when something stopped him dead in his tracks and halted the Saxon advance. The Norman absentee propagandists claimed it was William who rose from the mud where his slain horse had thrown him and killed Gyrth, but Domesday shows a major anomaly: William shared Gyrth's estates with many of his conpanions, especially his Breton cousin and bodyguard Alan Rufus.

      Alan's father, Count Eudon of Brittany, was an older maternal first cousin of Edward the Confessor, during whose reign Wyken Farm in Suffolk (in the parish of St Edmund) was given to Alan.

      After Hastings, Alan was given a great many of Countess Eadgifu's properties, in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. It's been suggested that she was Harold's widow, Edith (Ealdgyth) Swannesha, who may have been King Edward's niece, but the two ladies' names are distinct, so I suspect Countess Eadgifu might have been Gyrth's widow, as he was Earl of East Anglia.

      There were only so many Earls/Ealdormen in late Anglo-Saxon England, I think one for each of the four former great kingdoms: Northumberland, Mercia, East Anglia, Wessex (Wessex having absorbed Essex, Kent and Sussex quite early). So that greatly narrows down where Eadgifu could have been Countess of.

      Alan was renowned for his prowess and acuteness of mind (he was a jurist as well as a knight) and led William's household knights in many of their battles over the next 25 years. Moreover, Almaer of Bourn, probably the royal thane Almaer who served Gyrth, became one of Alan's men soon after the battle, indicating that Alan's may have saved some of the Saxons from slaughter by capturing them during the height of the battle, a behaviour fully consistent with his later conduct but not conducive to Norman appreciation.

      Indeed, in 1088 the royal foundation of Alan's St Mary's Abbey York, at which Alan made a point, not for the first time, of Norman guilt, immediately preceded the plot to overthrow William II (and by extension, Alan). The English Fyrd answered the call and, after three or four months of fighting, the rebellion failed. Alan intervened with the king to spare the lives of the rebels.

      In late January 1091 Alan was with the king at Dover. A few days later English soldiers were in the army that successfully invaded Normandy to the cheers of the Norman public.

      Several laudatory statements have survived from contemporary commoners, clerics and a princess, attesting to Alan's propriety, generosity, protectiveness, and calm under pressure.

      Alan seems to have died in the London fire of 1093 (his epitaph uses the word "cineratur"). He was interred at St Edmunds by Baldwin, physician to the king. It was claimed that England was distraught at losing him. We know from two letters of St Anselm that Harold's daughter Gunhild felt this loss keenly.

    • iantoPF profile image
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      Peter Freeman 4 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Hello nerdy; I'm glad you got some extra info. It's true that the popular theory is that Harold died, but it ain't necessarily so.

      Best Wishes for you project.

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      nerdy 4 years ago

      Hi I'm doing a project for history and we have to write an election campaign thing for the people who wanted to be king after Edward the Confessor. I researched a bit and found out that he was died in war against William the Conqueror. But this gave me the extra info so thanks.

    • iantoPF profile image
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      Peter Freeman 5 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Hello Hazel; Thank you very much for taking the time to read and comment. Yes! I am cute, (Blushes)

      I hope this does give you inspiration. I also hope you enjoyed the read. Mostly, that's what I write for.

      Best Wishes and good luck with the A levels.

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      Hazel 5 years ago

      Both you Peter's are so cute!

      I'm doing a project for my history A level and it's on any controversial historical debate and this is just fantastic! Thanks so much for the inspiration! :)

      I hope the time team thing works out.

    • eade t profile image

      eade t 5 years ago from Waltham Abbey Essex, England.

      Ianto- Peter. That's just weird, good on your son, kids should stand up and debate. I think we should set up a rebel group and encourage youngsters to check out the information the teachers just speel out by rote. That's made my week Peter. The book is out on Amazon.uk but I don't want you to send for it, I've got a few copies of the pre pub; editions, I'll send you one.send your address on peterbuilder@googlemail.com

    • iantoPF profile image
      Author

      Peter Freeman 5 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Hello Peter! Congratulations, that is terrific news. I would love to read the book please let me know how I can get a copy. Well done.

      Here's an interesting coincidence. Ianto is a nickname I have my name is Peter and my son,who is just as precocious as your grandson it seems, got into trouble with his teacher for telling her she had the story of King Arthur all wrong. His name is Rhys.

      Good to hear from you.

    • eade t profile image

      eade t 5 years ago from Waltham Abbey Essex, England.

      Hi ianto, the books out- The Kings Sword- first article published in the Waltham and Cheshunt Mercury this week. I'm waiting for a reaction to the Vita Haroldi a/c. My grandson Rhys(14) stood up in history class and declared. 'The history books are wrong! Harold did not die at Hastings but as an old man in Chester, me and my granda researched it'. The Mercury published this and the fact that the history teacher told the class this was 'Poppycock'. I'll keep going with this. Hope you are in good health ianto. Peter Burke.

    • iantoPF profile image
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      Peter Freeman 5 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Peter; So good to hear from you. Yes, almost a year, if we count time by the number of times we circle the sun, I think we're picking up speed.

      Interesting research you are getting into. will we get closer to the mystery? I can't help thinking that the mystery is more intriguing than historical fact, myth is more powerful than truth. Please keep in touch, I'm still interested in how it all turns out and your take on the puzzle.

    • eade t profile image

      eade t 5 years ago from Waltham Abbey Essex, England.

      iantoPF, has it been 11 months? On the King Harold front, progress is being made as I have had an e mail from the Time Team, (a ch4 tv program on archaeological discoveries in England) who have expressed interest in penciling in the Waltham Abbey site of the original church to search for the grave of Harold. Not confirmed yet but, fingers crossed. I have been asked to help revamp the old stone marker to the supposed tomb of Harold as I am a stone mason as well as a writer of historical fiction. Might just have a peek though, just in case there's the complete remains of an old pilgrim with a scar to his temple!! Peter Burke

    • sunbeams profile image

      sunbeams 6 years ago from Cairns , Australia

      Great story ! But can the body be exhumed even now ?

    • Storybailey profile image

      Paul Bailey 6 years ago from Aylesbury, England

      Hi ianto, I am also of the opinion that Harold did not die on Senlac Ridge. I am writing a book 1066: Rebellion! that suggests exactly this. I have written a hub with the opening scenes from my new book if you are interested. Great hub.

    • iantoPF profile image
      Author

      Peter Freeman 6 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Hello Peter; I am very glad you found this article and thank you very much for reading and commenting. That is very interesting about the trilogy, I look forward to reading it. Please keep in touch.

      Best Wishes...........Ianto

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      Peter Burke 6 years ago

      Hi ianto, I am from the Abbey, no more than three hundred yards from the grave. I am about to finish the second book of a proposed trilogy and it contains this myth about Harold. I have just chanced on this story of yours and it confirms my view that Harold got away. My publishers are wanting to stir things up when it's published so hold on, lets see what happens. Peter.

    • iantoPF profile image
      Author

      Peter Freeman 6 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Thank you Eiddwen for taking the time to read and comment on my Hubs. I haven't yet got to your historical Hubs but be assured I soon will.

      Diolch yn fawr iawn.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 6 years ago from Wales

      Helo Ianto! Thank you so much for sharing this hub again, so interesting. I love history now much more than when I was younger. I don't know if you've read my hub A Step Back in time, but it's about St.Govans in Pembrokeshire. My next one is Devils Bridge. Carry on the good work. Ardderchog eto!!

    • iantoPF profile image
      Author

      Peter Freeman 7 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      allpurposeguru; Thank you, interesting name by the way, it's these little known stories from the past, almost like side roads off the main thouroughfare that make history so interesting for me. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      Best Wishes.........Ianto

    • allpurposeguru profile image

      David Guion 7 years ago from North Carolina

      What a fascinating story! It sure beats any modern conspiracy theory I ever heard. Well done.

    • iantoPF profile image
      Author

      Peter Freeman 7 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Hello Satomko; Thank you for reading and commenting. I have a couple of historical Hubs and a number dealing with Welsh myth and legend. I hope you have the time to read and enjoy them. Mostly enjoy.

    • satomko profile image

      Seth Tomko 7 years ago from Macon, GA

      I'm always a fan of these historical hubs.

    • iantoPF profile image
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      Peter Freeman 7 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Hello Scarytaff; You are right, legends don't alter anything. In the end it was William who triumphed and the Saxons never did reclaim the throne of England. History, ancient and modern is full of these defining moments and their intriguing what ifs. It captures my imagination to explore them and i hope you found it enjoyable.

      Best Wishes...........ianto.

    • iantoPF profile image
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      Peter Freeman 7 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      hello Aneesh; how did you do that? I just published and I was actually editing a couple of typos then saw you had commented. Congratulations on being so fast. Thank you also for your comments.

      Best Wishes.........Ianto

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      Derek James 7 years ago from South Wales

      Great hub, Ianto. Well researched and very intriguing. As you say, stories abound of people who die but are held in such esteem by their admirers, that some cannot let them go. Unfortunately the legends do not change the course of history.

    • Aneesh3 profile image

      Aneesh3 7 years ago from India

      Interesting hub Jantopf.