With William the Conqueror's coronation on Christmas Day 1066 looming, questions always abound concerning Harold's death. How did he actually die? The answer is apparently well known: Harold was killed by an arrow which struck him in the eye. His death is depicted clearly on the Bayeux Tapestry in one of its most famous images: as the battle draws to a close, Harold stands underneath his name in the inscription ‘Hic Harold rex interfectus est', head tilted backwards, clutching a golden arrow which protrudes from his face, as shown on the left. The scene is so celebrated that it has become one of the iconic images of British history and the ‘arrow in the eye' story, for many of us, is synonymous with 1066 and the Battle of Hastings. And so it should be, since Harold's death at Hastings brought about the greatest turning-point in the history of the British Isles.
But is it the actual truth or just Norman propaganda?
Despite the popularity of the ‘arrow in the eye' story, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, historians have not reached a consensus on how Harold was actually killed at Hastings. In fact, some of the greatest historians of the Norman Conquest were less than convinced by the ‘arrow in the eye' tale, and others have rejected it entirely. At the heart of this controversy lies the ambiguity of the earliest Norman sources.
So if Harold wasn't killed by an arrow, how did he die? The answer is in fact depicted on the Tapestry in a scene where a figure underneath 'interfectus est', who has been knocked to the ground by a Norman knight, shown on the right. The knight appears to hack at the thigh of the prostrate king, an image William of Malmesbury depicted of Harold's death. He states that the knight disgraced William the Conqueror because he slashed at the king's thigh after Harold had fallen from his horse after being hit by an arrow. A more dramatic version of thigh story can be found in Henry of Huntingdon's version of history. He refers to a group of twenty knights, who had sworn to each other that they would seize Harold's banner, after managing to break through the Anglo-Saxon line and kill the blinded Harold with his two brothers. And quite early on in history, William of Jumieges' statement is that Harold was hit in the eye with an arrow which he pulled out with his right hand and threw away. Later in the day, as the battle rages, Duke William himself was looking for Harold. As the Normans gained the upper hand, they burst through the line and Harold was hit in the neck and then a knight struck his thigh. From there, Harold meets a grisly end where he is unceremoniously hacked to pieces. Confirmation of that fact can be found in Bishop Guy of Amiens' Song of the Battle of Hastings which has been dated to 1067.
Is it conceivable that the Norman court withheld the actual events of Harold's death during William's reign because his advisors were concerned that the manner of Harold's death would have undermined the legitimacy of William's accession, having usurped the throne after killing an anointed King?
If that is true, then one question remains: why was the hacking incident suppressed? Well, for Duke William, it was a convenient way for the king to have met his end. The problem for the Normans, both before and after the battle, was that Harold had been anointed at his coronation, an important part in the coronation of kings. The anointing of King Harold, therefore, was as good as an official endorsement of his 'regnum' by the Pope and the Church, legitimising his accession. If Harold had been killed by a fateful arrow, his death could be directly attributed to the 'Will of God' not Norman aggression. Duke William could then be exonerated from any blame and the Anglo-Saxons could be appeased to some extent by the portrayal of their new king as a hero, supported by God.
It is yet another story where 'the victor writes the spoils'? We see it here where William the Conqueror has moulded history to exonerate him and we perhaps see it again when Henry VII changed history by changing the date of the Battle of Bosworth by one day. Perhaps he also changed history by pointing the finger of blame at Richard III for the death of the two nephews in prison?