Did Harold die from an Arrow in the Eye?

The Bayeux Tapestry gave us an iconic image of Harold pulling an arrow from his eye. It must be Harold: the name is embroidered around his head and spear. And since the Tapestry is created so close in time to the actual event, it is considered one of the major sources of documentation and hence to be trusted. But somehow, even the identification of the wounded hero is questioned by some, and further investigation raises more questions than it answers. Why?

Well, one thread of discussion is the identity of the figure at Harold’s right, falling to the ground in the process of getting his leg cut off. As we learned from the 11th century Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, Harold was hacked up by four attackers (one of them might have been William). From 12th century Wace we learned that Harold was wounded in his eye by an arrow, then felled while still fighting, struck “on the thick of his thigh, down to the bone”. So many historians think the second figure is Harold. A third opinion is that both figures are Harold, since the Tapestry could be read like a long cartoon, where one scene leads to the next.

I recently learned about evidence that gives credence to the third theory, but only a close-up view will enlighten: a row of holes next to the second figure’s eye, that looks suspiciously like stitches that have been removed! An arrow? If so, Harold Arrowholesthen clearly this is the same figure as the other. As historian David Bernstein tells us in a thoroughly investigated “The Blinding of Harold and the Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry”, there are three possible explanations for this row of holes: 1. They are traces of original stitches, which must have indicated an arrow above his eye (not in it). 2. Traces of an arrow sewn in by a later “inspired” restorer, that were subsequently removed by that person or someone else, or 3. Traces of an unrelated repair. Bernstein pretty much discards the third possibility. But what of #2?

from bayeux-tapestry.org.uk

I should have realized that the Bayeux Tapestry was subjected to a few major restorations during its 900+ year-old existence. From what I can gather, it was restored in 1730, 1818, 1842 and most recently in 1982. It is recorded that the Victorian-era restorations are fairly easy to determine because the wool used for the embroidery left stains on the edges of the holes. But how many figures were altered considerably beyond their original form? And does Harold’s death scene count among the alterations? Sketches drawn by Antoine Benoît before the 18th century restoration do not indicate the row of holes next to the prone Harold’s eye, so it is apparent they might have been added later.

Bernstein tantalizingly reassured us in his manuscript that the 1982 restoration was bound to enlighten us through scientific analysis, but so far I haven’t been able to find the results of this event. Meanwhile, he gave us a theory as to why the Tapestry shows an arrow in the eye when not one of the six contemporary accounts mention it at all. He theorized that the arrow represented the hand of God in retribution for Harold’s oath-breaking. After all, the Tapestry was a Norman creation (propaganda tool?) and it is possible that William saw this supernatural intervention as an expression of God’s approval.


Death of Edward the Confessor, Jan. 5 1066

Cambridge University Library MS. Ee.iii.59
Cambridge University Library MS. Ee.iii.59 CREDIT: Wikimedia

We think of King Edward as an old man by 1066, and I suppose by 11th century standards, 63 years of age was getting on there. However, his health declined so precipitously the previous month that Duke William of Normandy was caught unawares, and by the time the Normans got the news, Harold was crowned as a fait accompli.

It was thought by many that Edward’s sudden illness was caused by the revolt of the Northumbrians in October of 1065. This rebellion resulted in the enforced exile of his favorite, Tostig, and the King’s realization that his commands were ineffectual. Edward wanted to call up the fyrd and compel his rebellious subjects to capitulate and accept Tostig back. Alas, because of the lateness of the year and the general abhorrence for civil war, he couldn’t gather enough support for this course of action. Even Harold was unwilling to cooperate, and Edward was obliged to accept the Northumbrians’ terms and acknowledge Morkere as their new Earl, even though their hastily called election was illegal. It was thought that Edward was so humiliated that he suffered a number of strokes as a result.

Whether or not this was the true cause of Edward’s decline, he was noticeably ill by Christmas Eve. He managed to stumble through the next couple of days but took to his bed on the 28th of December, unable to attend the consecration of his great Westminster Abbey. For the next week, he slipped in and out of unconsciousness, but rallied enough to give a long and drawn-out account of a dream he had, predicting the fall and misery of England. It was said that Archbishop Stigand whispered to Harold that this was the babbling of an old man worn out by sickness.

More to the point, the moment had come where Edward was to declare his heir. As with just about everything else, no one knows exactly what happened. If we take the Bayeux Tapestry literally, there were only four witnesses: Queen Editha, Harold, Archbishop Stigand, and Robert the Staller, Edward’s Norman friend who held the King in his arms. It is possible (and I think probable) that there were other witnesses. Nonetheless, the King was apparently  conscious and alert by now, and he addressed the Queen, who he compared to a beloved daughter. Then, according to the Vita Aedwardi Regis, he stretched his hand to Harold and said, “I commend this woman and all the kingdom to your protection.” He exhorted Harold to care for her and any Normans who chose to stay, or give safe conduct to those who decided to leave. Perhaps wisely, he also commanded that they announce his death at once, so the people could pray for him. Did he fear that Harold would keep his death a secret so he could properly arrange for the succession?

Were his words really so ambiguous? It’s curious that the venerable Edward A. Freedom chose to interpret the statement as “To thee, Harold my brother, I commit my Kingdom” and justified his decision in a footnote. Edward could just as easily have been assigning the regency to Harold rather than the crown, but obviously Harold chose the latter. Interestingly enough, most contemporary documents—even those from Normandy—seem to accept that the King had declared Harold his heir.

It is possible that Harold brought the issue to the Witan that very night, since the following day saw both a funeral and a coronation at Westminster Abbey; I don’t see how there could have been time for a Witenagemot in between the two ceremonies. Without the Witan’s approval, Harold’s kingship would have been unlawful. King Edward’s wishes were secondary, and everybody knew it (except, perhaps, for Duke William). In times of trouble, the country needed a strong hand at the helm and Harold had proven himself a good administrator and a formidable warrior.

William the Conqueror’s Landing, 1066

The Landing of William the Conqueror at Hastings by Charles Edward Dixon 1910 (sourced from Christies.com)

I remember my first trip to England somewhere around 1990 or so.  I headed directly south to Hastings, for I had been studying about the great event and wanted to see the battlefield for myself.  Of course, travel itineraries were much harder to plan in those days, but I saw no reason to doubt that I would find what I was looking for as long as I had a good map. Well, I was certainly in for a surprise!

As I recall, Hastings was a sleepy little city.  Yes, there are castle ruins there, but no battlefield.  As I was soon to discover, much to my embarrassment, the battle was fought about 7 miles north of Hastings at a place called Battle (no wonder!).  Nor did William the Conqueror land at Hastings; his ships touched land about 10 miles to the west at a spot known to history as Pevensey and to locals as Normans Bay (there’s even a train stop).

William had quickly assembled a great fleet, since he only started planning the invasion that very year.  Mostly built for transport (unlike the great warships of the Vikings),  they were single masted open boats with a sail and many were attached to smaller boats.  Wace numbers the fleet at 696, though others state he brought over 3000; the larger number possibly included all sized crafts.  Sir Charles Oman estimated that the Norman force numbered 12,000-14,000, though others estimated as many as 60,000.  It’s probably safer to stay with the lower number, considering the size of the battlefield.

William had planned to invade England months earlier; in August of that year, the Norman ships had gathered at the mouth of the river Dive.  If he had succeeded in crossing the Channel when he wanted to, Harold would have been on hand to contest his landing, for the King was diligently guarding the southern coast with his Saxon levies.  But the winds were against the invaders and William was delayed a month at Dive, then after an aborted attempt to cross, he spent another couple of weeks up the coast at Saint Valery.

Finally, on the 27th of September, the winds changed and the Normans raced to their ships, although it took all day to load supplies and horses.  Edward A. Freeman paints a picture of celebration while they were preparing: “The ships resounded with music; the pipe, the zittern, the drum, the cymbals, all were heard, and the voice of the trumpet sounded proudly over all.” (Vol. 3, p. 399). When William boarded it was already dark, so he ordered all the ships to put a light on their mast and he placed a huge lantern atop his own Mora to be the guiding star of the fleet.

William’s was one of the few ships that did not carry horses, and this is probably the reason he outstripped the rest of the fleet while crossing the Channel.  When the sun arose the next day, he was stunned to see himself all alone; not another ship was to be seen.  Undaunted, the Duke ordered that they drop anchor and he cheerfully sat down to breakfast, though he encouraged his sailor to climb back up to the mast head and keep watch.  Before long the sailor saw four ships, and soon, “he saw such a multitude that their masts looked like a forest upon the waves.”

William’s luck was with them.  Not only was the crossing almost without incident (two ships were lost, including one that carried a soothsayer who prophesied that England would fall without a blow), they were astounded to discover the long beach deserted.  No Saxon host stood ready to repel the invaders because unbeknownst to William, King Harold had hastened north to defend his country against a totally different threat: the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada.

The battlefield at Battle Abbey (my photo)

As the story goes, Duke William was the first warrior to set foot on land — though his foot slipped out from under him and he fell forward on both hands.  Horrors!  A loud cry went up around him, for his men saw this accident as a terrible omen.  But William kept his wits about him.  Grabbing two fistfuls of sand, he cried out, “By the splendor of God I have taken seizen of my kingdom; the earth of England is in my two hands,” thus transforming bad luck into good fortune and saving the day.

Encouraged, the Normans disembarked in good order, still expecting resistance from the English.  But none was forthcoming and the invaders most likely drew their ships onto the beach.  It is thought a small garrison was left to guard the ships, utilizing the ruins of a Roman fort on the site.  It is possible that the Normans build one of their portable wooden fortresses there, but this is debated. They did not bring many provisions with them, and Pevensey was not the ideal site for foraging.  The Normans probably only spent one day there before moving their force east to Hastings, which was set as William’s permanent camp.  They dug a trench, formed an earthen mound and erected a wooden fortress at their new location.  It was now September 29 and William had plenty of time to set about terrorizing the locals in earnest so as to draw King Harold back to meet him in fateful battle.

Battle of Fulford 1066

Source: dariusz-bufnal-imaging-battles.blogspot.com
Source: dariusz-bufnal-imaging-battles.blogspot.com

The battle of Stamfordbridge is well-known as the turning point in King Harold’s fortunes.  But if it wasn’t for a lesser known battle that had taken place just a week before, Harold might not have fared as well: the Battle of Fulford was fought with great loss of life on both sides.  And Harald Hardraada was the winner, though his forces were somewhat depleted.  In a year packed full of great events, the Battle of Fulford seems to have sunk into obscurity, yet its importance cannot be underestimated.

Fulford is, very literally, a ford on the River Ouse just south of York. There may or may not have been a village nearby that found itself to be the host of an unwelcome invasion of Norsemen. They sailed up the Humber to the Ouse and finally anchored their fleet of 300 ships at Ricall a short march away.  Because the invaders started at Scarborough and pillaged their way south, Earl Morcar of Northumbria and his brother Edwin of Mercia had enough notice to assemble their armies and block the way to York, though many said later that they should have waited for King Harold to arrive.

The ford was Morcar’s choosing, with good ground on the defenders’ side and marsh on the other side of the river. The Anglo-Saxon army lined up their shield wall about 1000 men wide and five ranks deep, facing about 6000 Norsemen, including Tostig and his small force.   Around mid-day the invaders launched their attack, crossing the ford and assaulting the shield wall in many places.

Eventually, the English were drawn downhill and across the river, and as the fierce fighting continued for hours, the wily Hardraada managed to send a sizeable contingent secretly around Morcar’s flank.  Suddenly the Northumbrians found themselves beset on three sides, and the shield wall started to break down as men were forced to turn and defend their rear.  The English were forced to retreat – Edwin back to York, and Morcar east toward Heslington.  The Norse had won the day, though loss of life was considered exceptionally high, even for such a violent age.  It was said that the English had lost a third of their men, and the Norwegians at least a quarter.


Harald Hardraada and Tostig entered York but did not sack the city; Harald had come as a conqueror, not a marauder. The city came to terms and agreed to exchange 150 hostages with Harald.  The ensuing four days were taken up with caring for the dead and wounded, repairing weapons and armor, arranging hostages and preparing for York’s formal submission to its new ruler.  On the fifth day after Fulford, Harold Godwineson burst upon the scene, taking Hardraada totally by surprise at Stamfordbridge. Had the Norwegian king been less complacent and more prepared for battle, things might have gone differently.

If you’d like more information on this battle, there is an excellent book called The Forgotten Battle of 1066 Fulford  by Charles Jones.


Tostig in Exile

Battle of Fulford from The Life of King Edward the Confessor by Matthew Paris Source: Wikimedia

After the 1065 rebellion that sent Tostig into exile, the Northumbrians apparently felt that the Tostig issue was resolved.  No such luck!  Tostig was busy running around Europe looking for support to re-establish his claim to the earldom.  His first stop was Flanders, where he  brought his family for refuge to the court of his wife’s brother, Count Baldwin V. He was treated honorably in Flanders and spent the winter at St.Omer.

As stated in my last post about Tostig, King Edward died shortly after he was forced to leave the country. This means that Harold was already on the throne when Tostig went to Normandy and paid a visit to William the Conqueror.  I can’t image what he could have offered the Duke aside from a small fleet supplied by his father-in-law, but it does seem like the most onerous insult he could have offered Harold.

In May of 1066, Tostig landed on the Isle of Wight with his little fleet, and I wonder if William encouraged him to cross as a kind of forward movement?  By May, William certainly had been well into his preparations to cross the channel.  Did the Norman Duke try to get rid of him?  Tostig gathered supplies on the Isle of Wight and is said to have forced many of the local seamen to join him with ships. He proceeded to plunder eastward around the coast as far as Sandwich.  This means he would have passed his hometown Bosham; I wonder if he paused to say hello to his mother?

Just after Tostig reached Sandwich, Harold approached with naval and land forces to protect the coast (from Tostig, or from William?).  Tostig withdrew, and moved north to ravage parts of East Anglia; some say he unsuccessfully attempted to draw his brother Gyrth (Earl of East Anglia) into his argument. By the time Tostig reached Lindesey in Northumbria with 60 ships, Earls Eadwine and Morcar – his old rivals – drove him away and Tostig was abandoned by most of his followers.

Reduced to 10 small vessels, Tostig took refuge with his good friend and sworn brother Malcolm Canmore of Scotland.  Always happy to cause trouble on his southern border, Malcolm offered Tostig his protection for the whole summer of 1066.

It’s uncertain whether Tostig went in person to consult with Harald Hardrada. The venerable Edward A. Freeman conjectured that this scenario did not give Tostig enough time to sail to Denmark and try to persuade his cousin Swegn to come and claim Canute’s crown (Swegn is said to have offered Tostig a Danish earldom instead). Nor would he have had the time to sail to Norway.  King Harald wouldn’t have had enough time to raise an army at that late date, so Dr. Freeman felt there was a very good likelihood that Hardrada had planned the invasion on his own many months before, and that he fell in with Tostig after he already made his move. Perhaps they had communicated by messenger while Tostig was in Scotland. I’ve read elsewhere that Tostig visited both Swegn and Hardrada during the winter, which I assume could have been possible if he had taken ship and hugged the coast. Snorri Sturluson gave us a lively account of Tostig persuading Harald to take what is his by right. Regardless, after Hardrada landed in the Orkneys and left his wife there he made his way south and joined Tostig at the mouth of the Tyne.  The stage was set for the battle of Stamfordbridge…almost.

The Battle of Hastings did not take place at Hastings

On my first trip to England I was terribly excited to tour the battlefield of Hastings, and we headed to the town of that name in our rented car.  Mind you, this was in the early ’90s, before the internet and easy access to unlimited information.  I had all my sketches of the battle itself, but I was kind of unclear as to exactly where it was fought.  I figured I’d see signs pointing the way, or something…actually, I’m not sure just what I expected to find!  What I didn’t expect was to find the town of Hastings, and no mention of a battlefield anywhere.  What a panic!

Luckily, Brits and Americans DO share a common language, and a kind soul pointed us in the right direction. We eventually found our way to the town of Battle, a little over 6 miles to the northwest of Hastings.  Needless to say, it’s called Battle for a reason!  There is an abbey ruin on the site, aptly named Battle Abbey, the altar of which was built on the very spot that Harold Godwineson was killed (as per King William’s instructions).  And behind the abbey we found the battlefield, appropriately marked with signboards depicting the stages of the battle.

When Duke William landed his fleet on the shores of Britain, he chose the bay of Pevensey, which was a welcoming haven with an old Roman fort, improved by Harold Godwineson and just recently vacated when the Saxon army marched north to Stamfordbridge. However, Pevensey was surrounded by marshland and could not support the army, so William moved his army east to Hastings. There he erected one of his portable (prefabricated) fortifications near the little harbor. Intending to alarm the Saxons as well as live off the land, he laid waste to southeast England. After a couple of weeks he progressed northward toward London, where he was confronted by the exhausted Saxons in their last stand.

Why is it called the battle of Hastings?  Well, as recently as the 19th century the battle was referred to as the Battle of Senlac; apparently, the venerable historian Edward A. Freeman created quite a controversy by using (or inventing?) this name, which translates to lake of blood. The town of Battle would have been built around the abbey, so it didn’t exist in 1066; Hastings was probably the closest village to the battlefield. Interestingly, no archaeological evidence has been found at the site for any kind of battle, and historians have speculated alternative locations. Even Tony Robbins did a Time Team episode, and concluded that the battle may have been fought right in the middle of the town rather than the traditional field site.

What happened to Earl Godwine’s family?

Edward the Confessor accuses Earl Godwin of the murder of his brother, Alfred Aetheling, National Archives, UK

Godwine, Earl of Wessex was one of the most powerful Saxons of his day.  At the height of his career, it looked like he was positioned to found a powerful dynasty.  He had six strapping sons: Swegn, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine, and Wulfnoth, and his daughter Edith was married to the King of England.  It is sad and ironic that by the battle of Hastings, his family was either dead or scattered, and of course all the English Earldoms were dissolved by William the Conqueror, who divided the spoils among his followers.

Godwine’s eldest daughter Edith, Queen and wife to Edward the Confessor, survived until 1075—probably restricted to her Winchester estates—although it is difficult to find any reference to her after the Norman Conquest. King Edward is said to have hated Earl Godwine and resented being obliged to marry Godwine’s daughter; he needed the great earl’s support and may have agreed to wed the girl as one of Godwine’s conditions. Nobody knows for sure, but it is rumored he avoided her bed as much as possible (this adds to his saintly repute), though they seem to have had cordial relations.  She never gave birth to an heir, and hence the field was wide open after Edward died in 1066.

Swegn, the oldest son, was a constant source of trouble to his father.  He eventually committed the crime of abducting a nun, and later murdered his cousin Beorn, which precipitated the Witan’s declaration that he was nithing (wretch, coward; good-for-nothing). By the time of his father’s outlawry, he repented his sins and went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem from which he never returned.

The second son Harold succeeded Edward the Confessor, and was crowned King on Jan. 6, 1066.  His reign only lasted nine months, and he was killed at the Battle of Hastings on Oct. 14 in the same year.  His brothers Gyrth (Earl of East Anglia, Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire) and Leofwine (Earl of Kent, Essex, Middlesex, Hertford, Surrey and probably Buckinghamshire) were also killed at Hastings.

Gyrth and Leofwine’s death at the Battle of Hastings, scene 52 of the Bayeux Tapestry. Source: Wikipedia

Tostig, the third son, was fiery and quick to anger.  When his brother Earl Harold was forced to side with his enemies and persuade King Edward to depose him as Earl of Northumbria, Tostig swore to come back and wreak revenge.  He accomplished this retribution by convincing Harald Hardraada to invade England in September 1066, where both the King of Norway and Tostig Godwineson met their deaths in battle at Stamfordbridge. Ultimately, this brought King Harold Godwineson north, leaving the coast unguarded at the moment William the Bastard crossed the Channel; Harold’s absence proved fatal to his kingship and the Saxon cause.

This left poor Wulfnoth, the only surviving son after the Battle of Hastings.  He had been a hostage in Normandy as long ago as possibly 1052, when the Normans fled England upon Godwine’s return from exile.  After Hastings, King William kept him confined, and on his death William Rufus brought him back to England and detained him at Winchester. It was possible Wulfnoth was permitted to join the monastery there, but regardless he was a comfortable prisoner all the way until his death in 1094.

Earl Godwine and Gytha had three other daughters: Gunhilda of Wessex, a nun who died in 1080, Aelfgifu, and Marigard.  It is probable that Gytha returned to her native Denmark after the Norman Conquest.