Thursday, 13 October 2016

Is King Harold Buried Here? The Ruins at Waltham Abbey, 950 years after The Battle of Hastings


Marking King Harold's Grave. The inscription reads: 'This stone marks the position of the high altar behind which King Harold is said to have been buried 1066'.

'This was a fatal day for England, a melancholy havoc of our dear country brought about by its change of lords'
William of Malmesbury (1125) on the Battle of Hastings

This autumn, I've visited the ruins of Waltham Abbey, where the last Saxon king Harold Godwinson is supposed to be buried. Waltham Abbey and Church have long been on my list of places to visit and because - this week - it's exactly 950 years after the Battle of Hastings (it took place on 14 October 1066), now seems like the right time to do it.

The Abbey Church of Waltham Holy Cross and St Lawrence, Waltham Abbey. 
There is a real mystery around the final resting place of King Harold. The familiar story is that after he was killed at Hastings (by an arrow in his eye? It's more likely he was killed by the swords of Norman knights), his body lay on the battlefield waiting to be identified. So Edith the Fair (also known as Edith Swan-neck) his mistress or second wife (Harold's martial situation is a bit unclear) was asked to do identify him - and she did - from 'marks known only to her'.

Statue of King Harold, Waltham Abbey Church
After this, there are several accounts about the fate of Harold's body. Different historical sources from the 1100s refer to Harold's burial at Waltham Abbey. But other accounts have him buried at sea or buried under a cairn on a cliff top, while from the 1950s there has been a suggestion that he was buried at Bosham Church in West Sussex, where a Saxon grave has been found. It seems that Edith also had a demesne not far from Waltham Abbey and so it's also been said that she may have arranged for the body to have been taken there.

The Church seen over the ruins of the Abbey
But in the Vita Haroldi (1177), Harold is said to have left the battlefield alive and ended his days living quietly afterwards. Historians have suggested, though, that this was written to draw attention away from Harold's grave at Waltham Abbey. A century after Hastings, Harold was still a problem for the Norman rulers and a rallying figure for disaffected, rebellious Saxon folk.


14th Century Gateway and Bridge, Waltham Abbey. The bricks on the left are Essex bricks
and are an example of some of the earliest medieval bricks in the country.
The church at Waltham Abbey was important to Harold because many years before he became king he was miraculously 'cured' from a form of paralysis while visiting there. He then became a benefactor of the church. There have been several churches on the site since the 7th century, and the church was raised to a status of an abbey in 1184, many years after Harold's death.

Rose Window, Waltham Abbey Church, showing the story of Genesis.
It was designed by Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones
So, although there's a stone commemorating Harold at Waltham Abbey, his bones could be anywhere. If he is somewhere within the abbey ruins, he's likely to have been moved several times during the different building work and religious turmoil in the following centuries.  But wherever he is, Harold has become strongly associated with Waltham Abbey. Each year, a group called the Friends of King Harold hold a King Harold Day there. This is a Saxon/Medieval festival that takes place on a weekend close to 14 October - this year, it took place on 8th October.

Scenes from King Harold Day (Medieval musicians and archers).
There has been plenty of interest in looking for the bones of King Harold and this might be the time for finding lost kings - after all, Richard III was recently found in a car park, so Harold Godwinson may well be discovered in a quiet corner of Waltham Abbey.








31 comments:

  1. Do you know pretty much every time we take the "scenic route" to work we find ourselves saying as we pass that we must go and have a proper look at Waltham Abbey church at some stage. I have done - many times, but not for years, but in spite of us living in the area for 13 years now, MrEH never has. My suspicion on the legend is that he's not in fact buried there, but it does make a nice local claim to fame!

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    1. The church is definitely worth a look, Robyn. It's a shame there isn't much left of the abbey, though.
      There is some local pride in the association with Harold, isn't there? It would be a huge boost if it did turn out, through an archaeological find, that he had been buried here.

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  2. It seems quite amazing that Richard III was discovered at all, so I guess we never know who's going to pop up next. When I think of all the building work and excavations going on in London, I wonder who they'll find next!
    Lovely post.

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    2. I agree that there is so much going on in London e.g. Cross Rail that any lost king or queen could be found. I know archaeologists have tried to find Alfred the Great near to Winchester but although they found some Saxon bones they couldn't prove much.

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  3. I've always suspected Edith took him away and buried him somewhere secret. I'd like to go to Waltham Abbey. X

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    1. There are accounts that Edith had some sort of responsibility for moving his body, so it would make sense that she could dictate where he was eventually buried. She would have had many sympathisers who could have helped her.

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  4. That looks a really interesting place to visit - I shall try to detour next time we are down that way. A fascinating story - a bit like King Arthur and all the places he is supposed to be buried here in the West country.

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    1. It is worth a visit, Sue. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the truth about King Arthur was finally established? I think it has to be the most intriguing historical mystery of all!

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  5. Fascinating story of the questions over Harold's final resting place. Waltham Abbey looks a wonderful place to visit. I have been following the march from Stamford Bridge to Hastings and look forwad to seeing more about today's recreation of the battle:)

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    1. I've just found out about the battle. It looks great fun. I found out about the march last week but unfortunately I don't live close enough to any point on the route to catch part of it.

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  6. A really interesting post Wendy - I do so wish I lived closer and could visit the Abbey. It really is a fascinating story.

    I am still amazed that they found Richard III so I suppose anything is possible in the future for missing monarchs. I do love the Rose Window - a lovely series of photos and post :)

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    1. The Rose window is lovely. I may do something else on Waltham Abbey in a future post because there is so much more to talk about.
      I suppose there are several graves of kings and queens to find, but most of them will be from so long ago the chances are very slight.

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  7. Waltham Abbey looks like a really interesting place to visit. The stained glass is a stunning colour.

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    1. The church has lots to interest alone. There's so much history there. The abbey, unfortunately, has been dismantled since the Reformation, and only walls and the gateway remain.

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  8. It does sound as if it would have been a logical place to bury Harold. I found your post so interesting. Sarah x

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    1. Early Medieval sources certainly believed this was where he was. I'm surprised there hasn't been a high-profile archaeological attempt to find him (along the lines of the Richard III project).

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  9. Wonderful buildings and I think of how hard it would have been to build them by hand. Your comment about children and nature is so true. There is nothing in today's school curriculum that inspires children to put down their phone and look at nature. I have photos of my grandson a few posts back picking and eating a tomato right from the garden. He will learn to love nature....Michelle

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    1. I can only imagine how impressive Waltham Abbey would have looked. But it must have been such a shock for the local community to see it destroyed overnight.
      I can't think what our society is doing letting its children grow up so disconnected to nature. All children should be having the same experiences as your grandson.

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  10. I wonder if they'll ever find out where he is....poor Harold! I did enjoy this post, you have inspired me to visit, such a historical place!xxx

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    1. As archaeological techniques are advancing so much I wonder if one day it will be possible to identify even the slightest trace of a body in the ground - and to know who it is. Perhaps Harold can then have a proper grave!

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  11. Oh I wish I'd visited Waltham Abbey whilst I was still in the UK it looks like an amazing place with such a rich history

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    1. It took me a long time to go there!

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  12. Hello!:) The church has a most beautiful rose window, and impressive statue of king Harold. It would be interesting to attend the medieval festival as well as visiting the abbey. The only UK abbey I have visited is Woburn, when we took our children to see the Safari park when they were young.

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    1. The church is certainly worth visiting, but there is so little of the abbey now - unfortunately it isn't like the great ruins of some of the other abbeys in the UK. I've never been to Woburn and would like to visit one day.

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  13. I feel so ashamed of myself. How did I not know this about Waltham Abbey? I lived fairly close to it for years - I bought plants there, so was a regular visitor! I found this post fascinating - thank you for increasing my knowledge of the area. I like the way you found a significant date on which to visit.

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    1. The anniversary of the Battle of Hastings did give me that extra push to make a visit! I didn't know what to expect here but I did enjoy looking around it all.

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  14. It would be interesting to know if the story is true, Wendy. I shall have to add Waltham Abbey to my ever-growing 'to visit' list. There is so much beauty and history in our churches and this one looks very special - the rose window is particularly beautiful.

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    1. I have a list like that, too Marianne! There are so many churches worth a visit, many are simply parish churches and not very grand from the outside, but they have such interesting histories and some beautiful features.

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  15. wow
    old church is so fascinating
    statue is wonderful and the rose window is amazing
    thank you for sharing the beautiful experience

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