The death of Harold

Nothing arouses greater debate than the circumstances of the death of Harold. The story that Harold died after being hit by an arrow in the eye is first recorded in the year 1080, just 14 years after the battle, when Amatus, a monk of the abbey of Monte Cassino in southern Italy, recorded that William achieved victory at Hastings after he had ‘gouged out his (Harold’s) eye with an arrow’. By 1118, when William of Malmesbury wrote his Deeds of the Kings of the English, the ‘arrow in the eye’ story had become firmly established in the history of the Conquest.

But in the very earliest reports of the battle there is no mention of Harold being hit in the eye by an arrow. William of Poitiers gives the most detailed account of the battle surviving but simply records that by the end of the day 'The king himself, his brothers, and the leading men of the kingdom had been killed'. William of Jumièges stated only that 'Harold, fighting in the front rank of his army, fell covered in deadly wounds.'

While the tapestry itself appears to unambiguously support the 'arrow in the eye' story this is in fact due to overzealous restoration. A series of drawings of the tapestry were made c.1729 by Antoine Benoît for the French historian Bernard de Montfaucon; these formed the basis of two different engravings of the tapestry published by Montfaucon in 1730 and Antoine Lancelot, in 1733. Benoît's original sketch shows only a dotted line indicating stitch marks while the 1730 engraving has a short solid line, again without any indication of fletching, while the 1733 engraving has a longer dotted line resembling a spear being held overhand in a very similar manner of the figure to the left. Neither Montfaucon or Lancelot identified this figure as Harold although both were well aware of the 'arrow in the eye' story. A later water-colour drawing from 1819 by Stothard shows a fletched arrow in the figure's eye sugesting that restoration in the intervening period had brought the tapestry in line with the prevaling legend of Harold's death, although Le Thieullier's near contemporary illustration still shows a long dotted line similar to Lancelot. There is even some debate whether the text 'Hic Harold rex interfectus est' meaning 'Here King Harold has been killed' has been corrupted by the restoration since the word 'interfectus' is not complete on Benoît's sketch or the Montfaucon engraving.

Benoît's original sketch c.1729

Montfaucon engraving 1730

 

Lancelot engraving 1733
Stothard water-colour drawing 1819
Le Thieullier 1824
Reconstrucion of the tapestry prior to restoration based on the 1824 Le Thieullier illustration

 

It has been suggested that the 'arrow in the eye' account was deliberately invented and cultivated by the Normans some time after 1066 in an attempt to increase belief in the legitimacy of William's siezure of the English crown by portraying Harold as having been 'struck down' by God as punishment for his breaking of his oath to William (see The strange death of King Harold II).

In Snorri Sturluson's 'History of the kings of Norway' Harold Hardrada is said to have died having been struck in the throat by an arrow at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in September 1066. It is also therefore possible that the legend of Harold Godwinson being hit by an arrow arose from confusion of the accounts of these two battles.

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