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. This well known ‘fact’ is, however, not at all certain.

William of Jumièges, in his brief record of the fighting, which started around 9 a.m. and carried on till nightfall, asserts that Harold:

… fell in the first shock of battle, pierced with lethal wounds.
(VII, 15)

Orderic Vitalis repeats William of Jumièges’ highly unlikely claim (since the battle lasted the whole day) that Harold was killed in the opening clash, but gives no indication at all as to the manner of his death.[*]

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle simply reports that Harold was “slain” (Manuscript D); “fell” (Manuscript E). Florence of Worcester, though, notes:

… about twilight the king, alas! fell.

According to the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio:

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 [Duke William] called Eustace [count of Boulogne] to him … Hugh, the noble heir of Ponthieu, escorted these two … fourth was Gilfard, 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 flee into the gathering darkness.

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 …
(II, 25)

But the Bayeux Tapestry (which places Harold’s death just before the remaining Englishmen flee the battlefield) clearly shows Harold clutching an arrow in his eye –

HIC HAROLD REX INTERFECTUS EST i.e. “Here King Harold is slain”.
In the lower margin, as mentioned by the Carmen, “the spoils of war” are being stripped from dead Englishmen.
Benoît drawing
Montfaucon engraving
Engraving taken from Stothard drawing
Bayeux Tapestry

– well perhaps not. It isn’t actually clear which figure represents Harold. It may well be that the Englishman being hacked to the ground under the words INTERFECTUS EST (“is slain”) represents the king, and not the one beneath the name HAROLD,[*] who is gripping the shaft of an arrow that seems to project from the right side of his face – supposing it really is an arrow!  When the Tapestry’s historical importance was noticed, in the 18th century, it was considerably more threadbare than it looks now. A drawing made by one Antoine Benoît, for Bernard de Montfaucon, who published engravings based on the drawing in 1730, indicates that the feather flights, which identify the shaft as belonging to an arrow (rather than a spear about to be launched at the approaching Norman horsemen), were not discernible. However, in 1816 the Society of Antiquaries of London directed their historical draughtsman, Charles Stothard, to make a drawing of the Tapestry, coloured engravings of which were subsequently published, and he apparently noticed the stitch-holes of arrow fletchings.[*] It is not impossible, though, that Stothard interpreted such evidence as he found as an arrow because that is what he expected to find. Later in the 19th century the Tapestry underwent major ‘restoration’, and it now shows an Englishman grasping a gold-coloured arrow, that is seemingly stuck in his right eye.

Benoît drawing
Montfaucon engraving
Engraving taken from Stothard drawing
Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry, then, does not itself provide conclusive evidence that Harold was shot in the eye. However, William of Malmesbury, who wrote six decades after the battle of Hastings, evidently adopts elements from the story told by the Tapestry into his own narrative (he could have seen the Tapestry itself, or maybe he had access to the account on which it was based), and he says that Harold:

… 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.
(GR III §§242–243)

Assuming William of Malmesbury really is referencing the account of Harold’s death depicted in the Tapestry, then a couple of things are indicated – that the fellow in the Tapestry is indeed clutching an arrow, and that William of Malmesbury understood both him and the chap being hacked at from horseback to represent Harold.[*]

Henry of Huntingdon, writing just a few years after William of Malmesbury:

… Duke William instructed the archers not to shoot their arrows directly at the enemy, but rather into the air, so that the arrows might blind the enemy squadron.… the whole shower sent by the archers fell around King Harold, and he himself sank to the ground, struck in the eye. A host of knights broke through and killed the wounded king, and Earl Gyrth and Earl Leofwine, his brothers, with him.[*]
(VI, 30)

Later, Master Wace (Roman de Rou), who was a canon at Bayeux, developed this scenario:

Then it was that an arrow, that had been thus shot upwards, struck Harold above his right eye, and put it out. In his agony he drew the arrow and threw it away, breaking it with his hands; and the pain was so great that he leaned upon his shield.…
And now the Normans had pressed on so far, that at last they reached the standard. There Harold had remained, defending himself to the utmost; but he was sorely wounded in his eye by the arrow, and suffered grievous pain from the blow. An armed man came in the throng of the battle, and struck him on the ventail of his helmet, and beat him to the ground; and as he sought to recover himself, a knight beat him down again, striking him on the thick of his thigh, down to the bone. [Gyrth is killed, Leofwine is not mentioned] … The standard was beaten down, the golden gonfanon was taken, and Harold and the best of his friends were slain; but there was so much eagerness, and throng of so many around, seeking to kill him, that I know not who it was that slew him.… I do not tell, and I do not indeed know, for I was not there to see, and have not heard say, who it was that smote down King Harold, nor by what weapon he was wounded; but this I know, that he was found among the dead.

What became of Harold’s body is another area of uncertainty.

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!  Therefore, even as he had sworn, 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 king’s 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 maintains that Duke William, although he could have legitimately insisted the English dead be left on the battlefield to become dinner for wild animals, chose to allow anyone who so wished to take bodies away for burial. William of Poitiers does, however, agree that the duke 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.
(II, 25)

William of Malmesbury, though, claims that:

He [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.
(GR III §247)

Wace too says Harold was taken to Waltham (a dozen, crow-flying, miles to the north of the City of London):

… but I know not who it was that bore him thither, neither do I know who buried him.
(Rou: ii, 286)

According to the Waltham Chronicle, produced soon after 1177,[*] Harold visited Waltham after his victory at Stamford Bridge.[*] Two of the Waltham canons, Osgod Cnoppe and Æthelric Childemaister, joined his retinue. After the battle of Hastings they obtained Duke William’s permission to take Harold’s body (William refused payment) to Waltham. They were unable to recognize the king, however, and so Osgod fetched Harold’s former concubine, Edith Swan-neck, who, from “secret marks”, identified the corpse. It was taken to Waltham and buried “with great honour”.[*]

There were also stories in circulation that Harold had actually survived the battle. Ailred of Rievaulx, writing c.1163, noted:

… Harold himself was deprived of the kingdom of England, and either died wretchedly or, as some think, escaped to a life of penitence.
Vita Sancti Edwardi Regis et Confessoris §21[*]

The anonymous author of the Waltham Chronicle had heard tales (which he knew to be invented, because Harold was certainly buried at Waltham) that Harold had lived in a cave at Canterbury, and when he died was buried at Chester. The anonymous author of the Vita Haroldi, composed some three decades after the Waltham Chronicle, maintains that Edith Swan-neck had made a mistake – the “mangled corpse” buried at Waltham was not Harold. Harold, seriously wounded, had been restored to full-health, over a two year period, by a Saracen woman in Winchester. After travels in Europe, lasting “many years”, he had returned to England, spending ten years living a solitary life in a cave near Dover, then “a long time” in the Welsh borderlands, and eventually ending his days as a hermit at Chester.[*]

Morton and Muntz, whose translation of the Carmen this is, suggest that “thigh” (coxa) could be a euphemism, that is to say, it might have been Harold’s genitals that were cut-off and carried away.
Historia Ecclesiastica Book III.
In the famous scene: “Where Harold took an oath to Duke William”, it is Duke William who is below HAROLD.
Stothard wrote (Archaeologia Vol.19, 1821): “I believe in a former paper I observed that the work in some parts of the Tapestry was destroyed, but more particularly where the subject draws towards a conclusion. The traces of the design only existing by means of the holes where the needle had passed. On attentively examining the traces thus left, I found that in many places minute particles of the different coloured threads were still retained; a circumstance which suggested to me the possibility of making extensive restorations. I accordingly commenced on a small portion, and found it attended with so much practicability as well as certainty, that I believed I should be fully justified in attempting to restore the whole [in his drawing, not on the Tapestry itself]; more especially when I reflected that in the course of a few years, the means of accomplishing it would no longer exist. I have succeeded in restoring nearly all of what was defaced. Such parts as I have left as traced by the needle, either afforded no vestiges of what the colours were, or such as were too vague in their situation to be depended on. On a comparison with the print in Montfaucon’s work, (if that be correct) it appears that this part of the Tapestry has suffered much injury even since his time.”
Charles Stothard believed that three of the figures in the “Here King Harold is slain” scene represented the king: “A single character in some parts of the Tapestry is so often repeated, almost in the same place, and within so small a space, that the subject becomes confused; there is an example of this in the deaths of Lewine [Leofwine] and Gyrth, the brothers of Harold; and another instance, better defined, in the death of Harold, who appears first fighting by his standard-bearer, afterwards where he is struck by the arrow in his eye, and lastly where he has fallen, and the soldier is represented wounding him in the thigh.”  (Archaeologia Vol.19, 1821).
The Bayeux Tapestry places the deaths of Gyrth and Leofwine earlier in the battle than Harold’s death.
(See The Battle of Hastings.)
Anonymous says Harold received the news that the Normans had invaded whilst he was at Waltham, but he also presents Tostig as Harold’s ally at Stamford Bridge, whereas, in reality of course, Tostig was the enemy. Harold seems to have still been in Yorkshire when he heard of the invasion.
Waltham Chronicle §§20–21.
About 1100, Baudri, abbot of Bourgueil (near Tours), addressed a poem (known as the Adelae Comitissae) to Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror, in which he imagines the magnificence of her luxuriously decorated bedchamber. On the walls are a number of hangings. The one around her bed depicts her father’s conquest of England. As described by Baudri, it is similar in design to the Bayeux Tapestry, but it is much more glamorous, employing silks, gold, silver, gems and pearls. Baudri says that the battle ended after Harold was struck by a “fatal arrow” (the same phrase used by William of Malmesbury). It seems clear that this hanging is a figment of Baudri’s imagination (“If you could believe that this weaving really existed”), but did he get his inspiration directly from the Bayeux Tapestry? Well, scholarly opinion is divided. Baudri is, however, the earliest writer (certainly) to say Harold was killed by an arrow, but he does not suggest Harold was hit in the eye.
(One Amatus of Montecassino wrote a Latin ‘History of the Normans’ c.1080, but it has survived only in an early-14th century French translation. It is clear that the translator has significantly modified his material, and so the statement that the Normans “gouged out his [Harold’s] eye with an arrow” cannot be accepted as certainly original.)
William of Jumièges completed the Gesta Normannorum Ducum (Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans) c.1070–1. He dedicated it to the 7th duke of the Normans, William II, i.e. William the Bastard, who by that time had become William the Conqueror, king of the English.
Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of England).
Henry, archdeacon of Huntingdon, first produced his Historia Anglorum (History of the English) about 1130. He later revisited the work – revising and extending – several times. The final version concludes with the accession of Henry II in 1154.
Volume and page of Frédéric Pluquet’s two volume edition of the Roman de Rou (1827).
In 1177 King Henry II refounded Waltham as an Augustinian priory (later to become an abbey). The Waltham Chronicle (less snappily: De inventione Sanctae Crucis nostrae in Monte Acuto et de ductione ejusdem apud Waltham) was written soon after this by one of the ousted secular canons. The anonymous author names his informant as Turkill, who had been sacristan at Waltham in 1066, and whom the author, as a young boy, had known in the mid-1120s.
Ailred of Rievaulx wrote his ‘Life’ of Edward the Confessor in honour of the erstwhile king’s enshrinement at Westminster Abbey in 1163.
The Vita Haroldi survives in a single 14th century copy (in BL MS Harley 3776). It is part of a collection of texts evidently copied at Waltham Abbey, another of which is the later of the two copies of the Waltham Chronicle (the earlier is in BL MS Cotton Julius D vi). The author of the Vita says he personally visited an oak tree near Rouen, under which Harold had sworn his oath to Duke William, and which was said to have withered immediately Harold broke his oath and took the throne himself (see The Last Anglo-Saxon King), “one hundred and forty years after this event”.  The author also claims to have known an old hermit called Sebricht, who had previously been Harold’s servant.