The tragedy of
once king of england

Hugh Bibbs, B.A.


There is an ancient manuscript in the British Museum which tells the story, firsthand, of the last years of Harold Godwinesson.  It is a manuscript which has been ignored by historians for the simple reason that it tells a story contradictory to the official history.  All other sources from the same period which deal with King Harold II state that he was killed at the Battle of Hastings in A.D. 1066.  This manuscript tells that he survived the battle, barely, and was able to live under an assumed identity for the rest of his life. This text will examine the merits of the official history, and offer the reader an opportunity to know the unofficial story, and to choose between the two.


The Fate of King Harold II

In studying the life of King Harold II, we rely upon the accounts recorded in medieval manuscripts and, usually, the earlier the manuscript, the more credibility it has. There are just a handful which survive, and these only in copy form, to remain available to us at the beginning of the third millenium.

In addition to copies of the AngloSaxon Chronicle there are copies of other manuscripts written by AngloNorman historians living in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

The most quoted of these scribes has been William of Malmesbury, whose History of the Kings of England was compiled from all available source material in the twelfth century. Malmesburyís sources were not all that good, however. He found it impossible to sort out chronologies correctly from his sources, and so his own edited version of English history contains frequent errors. He was not an eyewitness to what he wrote of, and he admits readily his own difficulty as an objective historian with the contradictions in his sources.

The writings of John of Worcester also refer to the story of King Harold, but are largely dependent upon the same small repository of documentation used by Malmesbury.

Where the AngloSaxon records are concerned, much of what the later English medieval editors relied upon can be found in the AngloSaxon Chronicle itself. The annual Chronicle, being one of the few contemporary accounts of events in the early English middle ages, can be relied upon as definitive. When secondary sources contradict it, the Chronicle is the undisputed authority. In addition to the AngloSaxon sources, however, there are two very good Norman sources. They both have an account of the aftermath of the battle of Hastings.

William of Poitiers' Gesta Guillelmi (circa A.D.1075) reports that after the battle Harold's body was brought into the Duke's camp, and that Duke William may have buried the remains at seaside.

Additionally (with our confirmation after referring to English Historical Documents Vol.II 1042-1189), reader Mike Mallett correctly writes the following...

The account of the contemporary chronicler William of Poitiers, states that the body of Harold was given to William Malet for burial: "The two brothers of the King were found near him and Harold himself, stripped of all badges of honour, could not be identified by his face but only by certain marks on his body. His corpse was brought into the Duke's camp, and William gave it for burial to William, surnamed Malet, and not to Harold's mother, who offered for the body of her beloved son its weight in gold. For the Duke thought it unseemly to receive money for such merchandise, and equally he considered it wrong that Harold should be buried as his mother wished, since so many men lay unburied because of his avarice. They said in jest that he who had guarded the coast with such insensate zeal should be buried by the seashore"

The Carmen of Hastingae Proelio by Bishop Guy of Amiens (circa A.D.1066) provides the best account of the Battle of Hastings. He confirms the story found in Poitier's version, but adds significantly to the detail.

"Harold's dismembered body 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."

When Lady Gytha offered the Conqueror its weight in gold for her son Harold's body, "the Duke, infuriated, utterly rejected both petitions, 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..." A memorial stone was inscribed as follows:

"By the Duke's commands, O Harold, you rest here a king, That you may still be guardian of the shore and sea".

As the medievalist Nick Austin of Crowhurst has pointed out, Harold was given a full-blown Viking burial.

The only other source for Harold which exists in an Anglosaxon manuscript which is not a much later copy, but is an original late twelfth or early thirteenth century copy, is from the Abbey of Waltham.

This manuscript is entitled Vita Haroldi.




The Vita Haroldi


The Vita Haroldi manuscript was kept by the Abbey of Waltham in honour of their royal patron, King Harold, who survived a terrible sickness under their care during the reign of Edward the Confessor. Haroldís personal religious conversion occurred during his convalescence there. Haroldís father, Earl Godwine of Wessex, was the power behind the throne during Edward's reign. The patronage of Earl Harold kept the Abbey at Waltham going.

That this particular manuscript was kept there is curious. The fact that their twelfth century copy of the Vita Haroldi was copied from another edition, perhaps the original edition, means that they actually went out of their way to obtain the text and ensure its survival. Interestingly, for centuries after Haroldís death, Waltham Abbey made its income from the patronage of AngloSaxons who came there to visit the tomb of the last AngloSaxon King. But, if their manuscript Vita Haroldi tells a true story, Harold was not buried at Waltham Abbey in 1066, as the English people have always supposed. And the monks of the Abbey could have had no self-interest in recording that as a fact, unless they knew that he was buried there, but years later.

It may be supposed that devotion to their last royal patron gave them the motive to preserve his story in the face of official lies.  On the other hand, it may be that they found the story both compelling and an inspiration to read. It is a simple and tragic story, like Asserís Life of Alfred without the happy ending. It is not like other classical romance fiction of the thirteenth century, which tends to be overlong on the fantastic. It has more in common with Asserís Alfred, that other devotional biography, plainly written, apparently with first hand knowledge.

When the prolific nineteenth century editor and translator of the medieval English manuscripts, J.A.Giles, edited his version of the Vita Haroldi, he left it in latin. The first, and only, usable English translation was published in 1885 by a senior assistant in the department of manuscripts in the British Museum, Walter Birch.

Birch was dead keen on the ancient manuscript under his care, and knew that there would be others interested in the story it told. His own interpretation of its origins was simple enough. He took it at face value.  It is a story originally written down by a scribe prior to the late twelfth century (when the existing manuscript was made at Waltham Abbey).  That author references a shorter primary source which had itself been written by someone with first hand knowledge obtained directly from the last person to have had dealings with Harold Godwinesson: his confessor.

Even as fiction, it is a brilliant story.  It contains clever turns of plot and character which anticipate Sir Walter Scott's great novel Ivanhoe. Tremendous emphasis on religious devotion is the readerís constant companion.  Christian devotion is the linchpin of all medieval literature, providing both plot and characters with motivation and fulfillment.  Such religious emphasis can be tiresome to the modern reader, but it must have been relentlessly interesting to an audience one thousand years ago.



Evidence and Conjecture


What is the evidence supporting the official version of Haroldís death at Hastings Field in 1066, apart from the repetition of hearsay?

The usual acceptance of that story is based entirely upon the official record, as found in the AngloSaxon Chronicle and in the Bayeaux Tapestry. The Chronicle tells us only that Williamís army fought Haroldís near Pevensey, and that Harold fell and was slain, along with his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine. Nothing further, not even an arrow through the eye, is mentioned in the AngloSaxon Chronicle, the only contemporary AngloSaxon record we have of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. But, it can be stated without question that the scribe who recorded that event in the annual entry did not know from personal firsthand knowledge that King Harold had died at Hastings Field. He accepted current wisdom as fact.

There would have been no reason for him to doubt the official version of Harold's death. Chief among the proofs was the fact that the dead King had been buried; where, though, nobody could agree on. Was it on a Hastings cliff top, or at Waltham Abbey, or neither of these places? Was Harold even recognisable in death? Few of the Norman host would have known what he looked like, even before his face was mutilated in death. If his alleged corpse had been dismembered and the face mutilated, only his clothing identified him to them.





The Unofficial History


According the Vita Haroldi, King Harold secretly survived the Battle of Hastings, although terribly wounded.

Even if fictional, the tale in the Vita Haroldi was possibly playing upon actual doubt.  

What is interesting here, is the fact that in the official Norman version of this history, Harold's corpse was reportedly dismembered, and the Duke caused it to be "gathered together, and wrapped what he had gathered" in royal purple. Who hacked the corpse into pieces? Was it possible that the Saxon's own royal housecarls hastily improvised the faked remains of a not-quite dead Harold? Was the injured King actually whisked from the battlefield incognito by his personal bodyguard?

If the King had not been mortally wounded in the field, there is absolutely no doubt that his loyal troops would have concealed that fact, if it was within their power to do so, to preserve him from assassination. According to the Vita Haroldi, when Lady Gytha, the dowager Baroness of Wessex, demanded her son's body for burial, the Conqueror would not, or could not, consent. The alleged body had been disposed of somehow. If indeed King Harold yet survived, it was no longer as King, but as refugee.

William made his conquest irreversible. Through the immediate and repeated taxation of England, using the military hundreds exchequer set up by Alfred the Great, he was able to finance an enormous mercenary army of occupation. The soldiery of France came into his service, and all of his Norman and French underlords received titles to former English manors and earldoms.  They would fight for their own land if not for his.

All across England, each of them built castles with keeps and dungeons from which they would sally forth under arms to terrorise the local English peasantry. Organised revolts were crushed with a scorched earth policy. The rich populations round about York were punished for their revolt: with annihilation. Every man, beast and construction, and even the very vegetation, was removed for hundreds of square miles, and York itself burnt off the face of the earth. The area remained impoverished into the twentieth century.

Meanwhile, according to the Vita Haroldi, King Harold was nursed back to health by a Saracen woman skilled in the medical trade, the Arabs at that time excelling all other peoples both in surgery and in the use of pharmaceuticals. 

Having finally recovered, he secretly went overseas in 1068, to Germany to rally support for a counter-revolution. In this, he failed completely. He found no support forthcoming, either from the Saxons or from the Danes, whose Royal House the Godwine family had once served so well. This retirement overseas in 1068 coincides the sudden departure of his mother. According to the AngloSaxon Chronicle entry for 1068, Lady Gytha also retired overseas that same year, to St. Omer.  It is possible that she would have gotten word of his safe arrival, and gone to meet him there.

For years afterwards, having no choice but to remain in Europe, a furtive exile, Harold Godwinesson kept up a constant pilgrimage from shrine to shrine, eventually reaching Rome itself. Through this exile, he was forced to reinvent his own character from that of the proud AngloSaxon nobleman to that of the humble supplicant of the universal Church.

Eventually, he resigned himself to the life of a penitent, and resolved then to return secretly to England and live quietly there as a religious hermit.  This he did.

In this way, King Harold imitated King Alfredís own internal exile during the height of the Danelaw, when Guthrumís Vikings commanded even Wessex, and Alfred had to assume the identity of a peasant and hide out in the fens.

Harold landed back home in England near Dover, and hid in a cave there.  He decided to head north to the Welsh marcher lands.  They were far enough away from Williamís court, and Harold knew the lay of the land well, having ravaged Wales as the Commander of Edwardís invading army of occupation years before.

He did not find a kind reception inside Wales, and retreated to a hideout near Chester, where he spent the rest of his life as a hermit.

When he went out in public, he wore a veil over his face, as the most extreme religious hermits would do. His motive in imitating that particular habit may have been to protect his identity from accidental discovery. The role of the hermit provided a perfect cover for the fugitive King. Apparently, a few, who got to know the old hermit well, began to suspect who he really was.

He cagily never admitted anything to his friends there. But, he never outright denied his identity, and let them know that he had been at Hastings himself when Harold fell, and that he had been bound to King Harold more than to anything else in this life.

It was on his deathbed, then, and only to his confessor, that the old hermit finally answered the question directly.  He made the priest swear to keep it a secret if he should yet live, and never to tell until he had died. Then he admitted to his confessor that he had once been, and still was in fact, Earl Godwinesson of Wessex, Harold II, the King of England.




Decide for yourself whether or not to accept this version of events. It is of great antiquity, and has no direct contemporary rebuttal specifically attacking its unusual claims. Why did the monks of Waltham Abbey keep this story? Well, why wouldn't they keep it? If it isnít a good enough yarn for the monks of Haroldís Abbey at Waltham to have wanted to have a copy of for themselves, I donít know what is.

It remains a possibility that the monks of the Abbey received the body of the old hermit, having accepted the story of his deathbed confession as the truth. They may have interred him in consecrated ground and then let it be known that the last AngloSaxon King was buried there. Whatever the story was, it soon became an uncontested fact in England that Harold was buried at Waltham Abbey, not in a Viking mound at landís end on the Sussex coast.

The whereabouts of his mortal remains will continue to be a mystery, however, since the marked gravesite at Waltham Abbey was once excavated out of curiosity. It was found to be empty.


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