Did Harold really get it in the eye?

Patrick Wormald

  • The Battle of Hastings, 1066 by M.K. Lawson
    Tempus, 288 pp, £16.99, October 2003, ISBN 0 7524 1998 6
  • The Normans: The History of a Dynasty by David Crouch
    Hambledon, 345 pp, £25.00, July 2002, ISBN 1 85285 387 5
  • Domesday Book: A Complete Translation edited by Ann Williams and G.H. Martin
    Penguin, 1436 pp, £18.99, October 2003, ISBN 0 14 143994 7

‘You had your 1917 in 1066,’ a Russian diplomat was once said to have told his British counterpart. The ruling class of England, and much of the rest of Britain, was re-created by the Norman Conquest. Most of the nobly born have at one time or another sought to find progenitors among the Companions of the Conqueror, and the words ‘noble’, ‘gentle’ and ‘aristocrat’ themselves come from French. Within two decades, the Conquest had been commemorated by two astonishing historical artefacts. The Bayeux Tapestry (pre-1082) must be the only artistic masterpiece that is also a crucial source for a major historical event. Domesday Book (1086) provides a cross-section of a society centuries before such information could be extracted from any other source, in England or anywhere else. Then, and since, it has furnished the ruling classes with their title-deeds.

A little over a century ago, the Battle of Hastings was the subject of a scholarly dispute of a virulence not seen again until the Storm over the Gentry or the Condition of England Question in the 1960s. One protagonist, the polymathic E.A. Freeman, echoed some famous words of Macaulay, celebrating the ‘cause for which Harold died on the field and Waltheof on the scaffold’ (Waltheof was the last survivor of the Old English aristocracy: he was executed for treason in 1076 after a rebellion which, according to the sources, was fomented by leading members of the Norman nobility). The other, the acid-penned J.H. Round, found the patronage denied to him by the academic circles that favoured his opponent by supplying the aristocracy with lineages going back to 1066. Soaring effortlessly above the mêlée, F.W. Maitland, a greater historian than either (or anyone then or since), asked to be updated on the progress of ‘the battle’ from his winter resort in the Canaries. We know more about what happened on the field of Hastings that October Saturday than about any battle anywhere since Ammianus Marcellinus chronicled the destruction of the East Roman army by the Goths nearly 700 years before. Yet the price paid for good sources at this stage of history is that they rarely agree.

Take King Harold’s arrow in the eye, a central icon of English history. We have a number of accounts of his death, all of which differ. What may well be the earliest version (though not all historians agree) has him cut down by William himself, together with the author’s local lord and his nephew. This is the least likely to be true. The second earliest source contradicts all the others by recording Harold’s fall in the battle’s first phase. This is almost certainly because the source or his copyist misread the Latin abbreviation for ‘last’. Within 15 years, a writer as far away as Montecassino reported that Harold had been hit in the eye. He is echoed (hardly copied) by a classicising poet writing for the Conqueror’s daughter, who has him killed by an arrow. Contemporary English texts have nothing, but the two best historians of the early 12th century, William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon, say that Harold’s eye was pierced by an arrow, one making this his death-wound, while the other has him sinking to the ground, where he is finished off by horsemen; William adds that a cavalryman was disgraced for hacking at the corpse’s thigh. The trouble is that both these writers may have seen or known of the Bayeux Tapestry’s portrayal of the event.

The tapestry’s last main scene shows, from left to right, cavalry charging an infantry group comprising a soldier brandishing a spear, a white-bearded standard-bearer who is also shown biting the dust, and a third – the central and most prominent figure – clutching a missile one end of which disappears behind his nose-guard. Then come a horseman striking at the knee of a prostrate man who seems to have let go of an axe, and finally another group of infantry falling victim to cavalry. Along the top of the scene runs the legend ‘Here King Harold is killed’; the word ‘Harold’ is bisected by the helmet of the missile-clutching figure, and the words ‘interfectus est’ are squeezed in above the prone axeman.

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