14 October 2014

Where Lies Harold?

On this day, 14th October 1066, there was a unique for its time battle at a place that, then, had no name. The battle raged from around 9 a.m. until dusk and was bitter and bloody.
Since that day the location has been known by various names – Senlac Hill, the Battle of Hastings – and just Battle, which is the name of the present town which came into existence when the Abbey was built to commemorate the event by the victor – Duke William of Normandy, or William I of England as he became on Christmas Day 1066.

Battle - Senlac Ridge

Since then, a lot of conjecture – and heated argument - has passed back and forth by various sides for or against the Normans or the English (or others). We all have our own personal beliefs and argue like mad to defend them.

Since a few archaeologists dug up a certain King in a certain car park, though, there has been quite a bit of speculation about another King whose remains have not been accounted for. Harold II, Harold Godwineson – who fought and died that day on that battlefield.

Or did he?

Apparently a licence has been granted to explore his possibleburial place at Waltham Abbey – which was, back in the 11th Century founded by Harold, who was then Earl of Wessex, so it is, in a way ‘his’ church.

photo Cathy Helms www.avalongraphics.org
Speaking personally this news irritates me. For one thing there is overwhelming evidence that Harold is buried beneath the Chancel Arch at Bosham’s Holy Trinity Church (pronounce it Bozzum) in Sussex – which was the site of the Godwin’s main family manor, and where Harold’s mother, Gytha, lived in 1066. Very briefly: a grave was discovered beneath the Chancel Arch. In it, the torso of a man. No skull, one leg missing. No marker. BUT only very important people were buried in this position. Kings and Archbishops, for instance. There have been claims that this was Earl Godwin, Harold’s father – but why would only part of his body be there – and anyway it was well documented that he was interred at Winchester.

Holy Trinity Church. Bosham
HERE lies Harold Rex
Secondly, if you read the news reports carefully, all they are doing is a geophysics search sponsored by a man who has a book coming out soon, (which always makes me  bit suspicious (she said cynically as an author always on the look-out for some extra marketing *grin*) !) – which will show…. What? How will this find Harold’s remains? As far as I’m aware – although perhaps my mind is playing senility tricks on me in my old age of 61 years – I thought an extensive dig of the old layout of Waltham Abbey had been carried out a few years ago. They found nothing. No grave, no bones. No Here Lies Harold marker.

Also as far as I was aware, legend has it that he was buried under or near the High Altar – which is a spot still very clearly marked today. And very clearly quite empty.

The Harold Stone, Waltham Abbey
(myself with some members of my Australian Fanclub)

And even if this survey DID find an anomaly of some sort – a pit or a hollow which could be a grave, what will it prove? Unless it has Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Harold   – (here lies interred the famous King Harold) it will be meaningless. The remains could belong to anyone.

But what annoys me even more is the additional claim that Harold survived the Battle of Hastings and was buried at Waltham Abbey years later.
Annoys me? No I am furious!

Harold died in battle. He died attempting to defend his kingdom and his people from foreign invasion, in this instance, whether he or Duke William had the right or wrong of it is immaterial. What is relevant is that we KNOW Harold was cut to pieces. He was decapitated, castrated, disembowelled and his body cut up. (And no, he was not killed by an arrow in the eye.) There is plenty of written evidence to support his horrific death - and “cartoon” evidence for the Press of the Day – the Bayeux Tapestry. We also know that William was furious because he needed the body to prove Harold was dead – Harold’s mistress Edyth Swanneck had to identify what was left of her lord.
His mother offered the body’s weight in gold so she might take it for Christian burial.

This story of Harold surviving is just that - a story. It was written down in 1177 soon after Waltham became an Augustinian foundation. The new incumbents published the Vita Haroldi (The Life of Harold) which records that he survived the battle and retired as a hermit, and was eventually returned to rest at the Abbey. Funny how these sort of stories always emerged at times when the abbeys were in dire need of cash. The finding of King Arthur’s grave at Glastonbury is another good example of remarkable co-incidence.

This story that Harold escaped with dreadful wounds and was nursed back to health by a Saracen women is a good tale, akin to Presley still being alive, or Princess Diana… But do we seriously believe that a man like Harold – with his sense of honour and loyalty, with his determination of leadership and his legitimate crowning as king, would merely have shrugged and said “Oh well, I didn’t want the crown anyway”, and buggers off to live a life of ease as a hermit?
Absolutely no way! 
(More details about the sources here on Wikipedia )

The Conquest did not happen overnight. Yes William won at Battle – but it took him YEARS to consolidate his position. Almost up until his death he was fighting rebellion after rebellion. Rebellion from people like Edgar the Aethling (who would have been crowned King, not Harold, had he been older and more experienced); like Harold’s sons, like the Earls of the North, like Hereward…. The only way William could – eventually – put an end to nearly having his arse soundly kicked out of England was to virtually destroy the land. He decimated the North. Not only was the population slaughtered, but all the livestock – all of it, from chickens to oxen. The land was then torched. So bad was the damage those left alive starved to death, and the land itself took many, many, years to recover. (There are some who say it never did!)

So? Does it really seem likely that the King who fought all day, who was passionate about defending his crown and his throne would not try his best to at least rally and support these ongoing rebellions? Even if he could not lead them himself because of injuries all England needed during those first few years was a leader strong enough I mind and spirit to unite them. The majority of the Anglo-Saxon/English/ Danish nobility had been wiped out. Do we really think that their legitimate King, Harold, would not have stepped in?
The quote in the news story about this “archaeological dig” is:

If we find the complete remains of an old man in his late 70s with scarring to his temple from a battle wound then we need to do a DNA test.”

My answer to that is an unprintable rude word.
 But I am open to opinion. Feel free to add your comment below. I can’t guarantee I’ll agree with you though.

(note – plot spoiler…. In my Novel Harold doesn’t survive...)


  1. I agree with you about the 'rediscovering' of a hero when an abbey was in need of money - it happens in other countries too. Poor Harold, what a ghastly end to his life. And my admiration for his mother. That to me is the big proof.

    1. Good to know it was happening all over, not just in England... I guess it is still happening now though.... a certain king found in a certain car park has boosted tourism for a certain cathedral.... LOL Only difference is that find was genuine!

  2. It reminds me of the story you mentioned, of King Arthur being "buried" at Glastonbury Abbey. It also reminds me of "Paul is dead" and Elvis sightings after his death. People don't want to let their heroes go even after they're gone.

    1. Except what people haven't thought about.... if Harold did survive and just cleared off to become a hermit, leaving his kingdom to fend for itself under the Normans, that makes him a coward, not a hero. Hence I am so against this story!

  3. Agreed! If history is to be believed (and if it's not, what have we got?), it's not something he would have done.

  4. And I wanted to say: How delightful that you have such a big fan club!

    1. I honestly cannot understand why some people believe this story - yes as a story it is OK, but it so undermines Harold's integrity.

      And yes I have some absolutely wonderful people in my Australian Fan Club!

  5. I am glad you put the foolish notion about Harold surviving his battle right - and very succinctly, too (not his survival, I mean, your rebuttal).

  6. As to the possibility of King Harold,s remains being found in the church at Bosham,could they be carbon dated to possibly establish if indeed it could be him?

    1. Yes that could be possible, but no one can get permission to investigate the grave, unfortunately

  7. As usual your post makes me think and gives me interesting information even if it's debatable. Thanks, Helen. I love that great historical novelists add so much to our view of history today. Of course that can work to the detriment of the true story if the research is not as complete as one would like. Yet another of your books which is now on my list.
    BTW is there any chance of DNA testing? In other words are there any verifiable surviving relatives?

    1. Thanks Elaine - I think even non-factual novels serve a purpose as they can start debate as well. Yes there is a chance of DNA through the Royal Family for one, and surviving descendants of the Tzars.If only Bosham would allow the bones to be inspected. What would be more significant at Bosham with DNA though - there are four _possible_ graves there. One beneath the chancel Arch (Harold) and three along the nave: Harold's two brothers and his nephew I wonder? There really needs to be an excavation to see whether these are graves and if there are any remains whether the DNA matches. If it does. We've found Harold.


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