Medieval mysteries: One in the Eye for Harold?

History is all about solving mysteries – discovering the truth about what really happened in the past, and why. For historians, this entails extensive and painstaking research and usually a fair amount of arguing among themselves as to whose version of events is right. A good example of a much debated story comes from one of the most famous battles in history that gave us England’s best-known date: 1066. On 14th October of that year, the Norman Duke William ‘the Bastard’, soon to be known as ‘the Conqueror’, together with his formidable army, defeated King Harold Godwinson on a field in Hastings and changed England forever. The Saxons put up a good fight that day, but the battle came to an end in the afternoon as Harold famously looked up and was hit by an arrow in the eye. Or that’s what we’ve been told by the iconic representation in the Bayeux Tapestry. But hidden away in the Belgian national library there’s a precious contemporary source that says otherwise. And that tells us Harold suffered a much nastier death.

Harold

The iconic image – and what we were all taught at school – of Harold’s death at the Battle of Hastings

The Bayeux Tapestry shows Harold’s end twice, firstly in the famous image, clutching the arrow in his eye, and this is followed by another representation of him having fallen, minus the arrow, his leg being cut at by a mounted Norman. One theory states that after the Saxon king was killed, they cut his leg off and waved it around to show the battle was over, so the tapestry seems to be telling us that this was the order of events. However, we know the arrow was stitched on much later, and that there was no written mention of the arrow in the eye story until around 60 years after the battle. So what really happened? According to other sources, it’s quite likely that the legendary way Harold died was, in fact, a big fib.

Tucked away in the Royal Library of Belgium in Brussels there’s an extraordinary medieval document, our earliest account of the battle. The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, the poem or song of the Battle of Hastings, was written just months after that fateful day in 1066. Openly biased towards William, and possibly even created for him, it recounts the events leading up to the battle and its aftermath, and gives a detailed description of events. According to the Carmen, it wasn’t a stray arrow that killed Harold. Instead, it tells us that our last Saxon king was the victim of a dedicated death squad sent in by William himself to seek out and kill him. In a shockingly violent attack, Harold was seized, cut down and – without going into too much gory detail – he was hacked to pieces. If this account is true it would be one explanation as to why, when it came to finding his body on the battlefield, his wife, Edith Swanneck, was the only one who could identify him by ‘certain marks known only to herself’.

Harold twice.png

The bigger picture: the arrow followed by what supposedly happened next.

So why the arrow story? One reason could be that, being a work of such size and magnificence, the Bayeux Tapestry would have been periodically displayed in either a cathedral or secular building, so would have been seen by a much wider audience than the Carmen. But in the Middle Ages, the killing of an anointed king was a heinous offence against God. It wasn’t the done thing to kill the man chosen and raised up by the Almighty to rule over his land. Such a dark deed would have made people anxious and fearful of divine reprisals, so for the purposes of PR for the wider audience, it would look much better if Harold’s death had been an unfortunate accident rather than a pre-arranged murder. A much more acceptable story would have been:  ‘Oops, he just looked up at the wrong moment, and we don’t know whose arrow it was that killed him’. Then, if he was already dead, it would have been more acceptable to cut a piece of him off to declare that God had decided in favour of William. Sending death squads into the thick of battle to find a specified target wasn’t uncommon in medieval times, so the indomitable and vengeful William may well have planned a brutal end for the man he considered had stolen his rightful crown. It’s a topic of perpetual debate among historians, but for my money, I reckon poor old King Harold suffered the Carmen’s version of his death, a brutal end that would have been shocking even to battle-hardened medieval minds.

We don’t know where Harold is buried. Some say he was laid to rest on a cliff top near the battlefield looking out to sea, while others think he was interred at Waltham Abbey, which he had built and endowed. But wherever he lies, whichever location contains his mortal remains, that small pocket of our green and pleasant land also marks a sea change in English history: the death of Anglo Saxon England.

 

35 thoughts on “Medieval mysteries: One in the Eye for Harold?

  1. Another great post Alli, I find amazing how this ‘knowledge’ we grew up can so easily be questioned. I’m totally on board with the death squad theroy, it makes much more sense than a random arrow – besides how unlucky would you have to be for that to happen?

    I love the fact that they chose to wave his leg around… why!?!!! How many of Harold’s men were likely to recognise his leg?????

    Liked by 2 people

    • Who knows? Maybe he was wearing distinctive hose! It’s probably more likely that it may have been something else they cut off, like his head, but the leg is one story, and I guess it goes with the tapestry. Either way, I’m certain the Carmen is more accurate as to how he died, and I’m glad others can see it too. Thanks for reading. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A very thoughtful post Alli. It argues both possibilities with the background stories to support each one. Although the arrow in the eye story is one that we were all taught, the Carmen seems more plausible somehow. Thanks for another super tale of yore. I really enjoyed reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the kind comments, Malc, welcome as always. Yes, the Carmen does seem to fit the picture better, poor Harold. Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed my ‘tales of yore’ (love that!) 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Robyn. Yes, the death squad version of the Carmen does make more sense. An unfortunate ending indeed. Thanks for reading, and for commenting. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the investigative approach to this. That in depth scholarship, to me, is so much fun. When I studied art history, I always thought the Bayeux Tapestry was fascinating as an historical record, but it was always given such a cursory review. So I truly enjoyed learning more than I’ve ever known – and I studied the thing! I’ve never heard of the Carmen take. I totally think that one the more accurate. Especially given that it was done so soon after the battle and the arrow was sewn later??? How interesting. And just following the tapestry, it seems right. In school I did nature semester on the two versions of Supper at Emmaus paintings by Caravaggio. It was the most intriguing research. My favorite aspect of art is how much it tells us about the people and the time. But more to the point, I think art can teach us more when we look at the way they choose to depict the story and especially by the things they leave out. I see all of this in this story and you’ve laid it out beautifully. Thank you so much for sharing. It feels so cool to have that new insight. I feel enlightened. And that’s an awesome thing you did! 😃 And I think the change from “the Bastard” to “the Conquerer” quite interesting in and of itself! Thank you so much, Alli!

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    • Oh wow – so you did art history? That’s amazing! I only did a small amount in my first year of study, but it is really interesting. We did a Caravaggio too, and his work is stunning, but I have to admit I found his life more interesting. One of the things I love best about history is the detecting aspect. It’s very exciting to delve into a subject like this and put the pieces together to come up with an answer. William was originally known as the Bastard because he was the illegitimate son of the Norman Duke, so he was promoted to the Conquerer after the Conquest, as you can imagine. The Bayeux Tapestry is coming over here on loan next year, so I’ll be down to the British Museum like a shot – first in the queue. Thanks for reading, Lindsay, and for taking the time to write to me of your experiences in art history. It all adds to the picture! Glad you found this nugget of the story of Hastings interesting. 🙂

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      • Oh man! Seeing the tapestry would be amazing – particularly after all your study. That’s cool. And , again, it’s so fascinating – the idea that they altered history. I guess quite literally with the arrow. Lol. It’s just such a neat snapshot of the beliefs of the times to understand how important religious beliefs were and to alter perhaps the greatest event to suit them. I think that’s so cool! And yes, again it’s the people who enliven these things, isn’t it! And even here, William the Conqueror has always been billed as arguably the most important person in British history. But in all the times his name popped up in history class, I don’t ever remember knowing he was a bastard son. Maybe I’m letting George rr Martin influence me too much lol but I think that’s interesting. I would think that would have been both a barrier and a motivation? Anyway, all very interesting as usual! I learn so much from you and as everyone points out, you make it fun. So thank you!

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      • Yes, it’s true William was an illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy and a local tanner’s (or some think an embalmer’s) daughter called Herleva. A legend says that she had a dream the night she conceived William of a tree growing from her abdomen and growing so big it’s branches stretched across the channel to England. Weird – but a good story to foreshadow William’s future success in the Conquest and rule of England. They say history is written by the winners, so I guess that also goes for painting or stitching by the winners too. And as you rightly say, religion was vitally important in those days – the centre of life for many centuries. And indeed, that would affect the spin people put on their actions for posterity. I’m so glad you enjoyed this aspect of the tapestry and it’s message. I’ll let you know what it’s like when I see it ‘in the flesh’ – for me it’ll be the equivalent of most people meeting a film star – I expect I’ll be all of a quiver! Thanks again for reading and for your welcome conversation. 🙂

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    • Yes, it is sad that we’ll never really know. I think too many royal graves have been lost to history, and I’d like to see more found, like Henry I, who is supposed to be at Reading Abbey. You’d think if they could find Richard in a car park they could locate Henry I in the ruins of the abbey he was buried in!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Of course, yes, he’s another one. I do think it would be good to find them all, and give them the dignity of a marked grave. It would be a special thing to be involved in. Thanks for commenting John, as always.

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    • That’s one of the great things about being an historian – you get to be a detective too! Much of what we had always held to be true doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I guess history, as they say, is written by the winners. I’m so glad you found this interesting, Clare, and thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh thank you, Albert, I’m more than happy to oblige with new stories – and old – from the Middle Ages. I’m really pleased you enjoyed this. Thanks for reading. You’re always welcome! 🙂

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