Recently there has been a revelation that necessitates a slight addition to British History text books… Archaeologists found the remains of king Richard III under a car park in Leicester. Unfortunately all the discovery has done is only confirm most of what was already known or speculated. Now it seems that the Scottish are jumping on the bandwagon and trying to find/rehabilitate Macbeth. But again, the only thing that will really prove is what is already known. Whatever is found will be nothing new. The truth is, as great as the discovery is, it doesn’t really blow history apart. However there is one potential discovery that, although again not really a secret, really could blow history apart… King Harold…
I first wrote about this strange historical anomaly a year ago here, but if you can’t be bothered to read through all that I’ll summarize. There is ‘pro-Anglo Saxon’ documentary evidence supporting the fact that King Harold survived the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and eventually ended up at the church of St John the Baptist (then the cathedral) in Chester. Historians usually ignore this source completely. On the surface you can see that it is probably a load of rubbish but you’ve got to admit that it’s certainly intriguing. Never being one to turn down a good investigation (or to jump on a bandwagon for that matter!) I decided it was high time I went to Chester and saw what kind of physical evidence there was.
Now Chester is a city I know very well indeed, especially considering its proximity to both my alma mater of Bangor and my current location in Hell. It’s less than an hour by train either way so it’s no surprise that I’ve visited it quite regularly over the years. I’m more than familiar with the rigmarole of Chester train station. It’s got all the charm of a small town station but its actually fairly large… And for some reason permanently cold, even in warm weather. The whole station seems to suck in cold air and trap it there like a giant freezer… But as I’m only here for a few minutes it doesn’t really matter. Outside the station the weather is reasonable, if a little bit gloomy. I’m afraid to say though that the exterior of Chester station is one of my least favourite in the whole country so that doesn’t help one iota. The station is built onto this ridiculous three way ‘junction’ with no road markings and people come hurtling along with no indication as to which way they’re going… So sometimes just getting out of the station can be something of a minor assault course.. Thankfully this is one of those occasions where it was relatively easy as there was little traffic about… Though the place is still seriously dangerous and could do with some markings if you ask me.
From the train station it’s fairly easy to get into the centre of the city. There’s a free bus, for instance, that runs the route but I often find that walking is a much better option as the main city is only five minutes away. However, I’m not actually going into the city centre just yet as that isn’t where I’ll find King Harold. I head down the road opposite the station and instead of turning right in the subway at the far end to go into the city centre I follow the sign for the park and the river:
This is an area of Chester I do know and one I’ve visited before but not one I have ever really explored. Since I was there, I thought I might as well take the opportunity to look. Allegedly, somewhere in Grosvenor park there is a ‘magic well’ and I decided that I would try and eke out this supposedly ‘magic well’ even though I could never hope use it as the magic supposedly only works on virginal women, of which I am neither. Still I thought it was worth having a look for. And as is usual when I go in search of something I miss it completely as it turns out its not in the park at all it’s on the road running along the park by the river, which I didn’t walk along.
Still Grosvenor park was well worth the walk around and even though the weather was quite frankly miserable there was still a good half an hour to be had exploring the place and trying to get hold of a photograph of one of them snobbish b*st*rd squirrels…
Grosvenor park also acts as a good run up to the Church of St John the Baptist which sits peacefully at the far end. From this angle the first part you see are part of the old ruins. Presumably if Harold was here then he may have known this part of the church in the days when what is now ruin was complete. Walking into these ruins is like something from the Lord of the Rings and to be honest I felt a bit like Gandalf… But suddenly every single one of my extra perceptory archaeological senses kick in and not just because of the fact I’m standing in a large ruin. Every instinct was telling me that at some point Harold must have been here. Somehow it just felt true… Either that or my Archaeo-sense is broken and in need of repair.
I continued to walk around the outside of the church and these feelings continued to grow… especially when I found a strange protuberance on the side of the building that I thought might have been a hermitage at some point. Despite the fact that logic dictated my evidence was slim, (A curious protuberance in the correct location that may or may not be a hermitage, some instinct, and one Pro Anglo Saxon source) i still had the feeling at this point that the story about King Harold had a strong chance of being true.
There was another building nearby though and at the time I simply passed it off as being a vicarage or something similar. I certainly thought it was a little on the large side to be a hermitage. You can see it on the left side of the picture below, mostly obscured by tree’s I’m afraid but you can still just about see it. According to some extra research I did whilst trying to work out if the protuberance was in fact a hermitage (it was actually the stairwell of the crypt!) it turns out this building is actually the hermitage and it’s known as the anchorite cell. Unfortunately it is now a private residence so getting close to it is not really an option.
Almost everything on the internet concerning this building makes a brief mention of the fact that the building has an association with King Harold. This is also where I hit on several other intriguing pieces of evidence that supported this theory. Firstly was that at some point Henry I visited Chester where he came across an ‘ancient one eyed hermit.’ The single eye may be an indication that it was Harold. Unfortunately I couldn’t find an official source for this but there may be one somewhere and if there is it could be used to support the idea that Harold survived Secondly there was the matter of King Harold’s son ‘Harold’ being born in Chester in 1067 though according to the first source on Harold’s survival this might just be coincidence as he was possibly recuperating at this point. It is still an intriguing connection nonetheless. Thirdly there is the case of King Harold’s wife Ealdgyth (who I don’t think was the mother of his son but i could be wrong) ending up in Chester as a nun. I believe Orderic Vitalis can back me up on this one. Fourthly sometime in the early nineteenth/late eighteenth century two skeletons were found nearby. Although much of this is not direct evidence it can still be used to indicate that King Harold may have been in Chester after all. It’s not conclusive by any means though.
Finally there is something else and I’m ashamed to say that it’s been sitting under my very nose the whole time. It’s another near contemporary source supporting Harold’s survival. It’s hidden deep in the writings of Gerald of Wales, the last place I would have ever expected to find evidence. In his ‘Journey through Wales’ he makes brief mention of the fact that King Harold might have survived and ended up in Chester. It’s short, but it’s there and that’s what matters. He also mentions another similar case involving Holy Roman Emperor Henry V (who supposedly died in 1125.) By my reckoning the story about Henry V is more unlikely than that of Harold’s survival. Henry, although married to Matilda daughter of Henry I and later mother of Henry II, spent most of his life in Europe and died in Utrecht, so therefore the idea of him ending up in Chester is a little mad. It strikes me however that as Harold’s story is earlier perhaps the story of Henry is a warped version of the former, perhaps put about some Pro-Normans who wanted to cover up the idea… Or, possibly, it was just Gerald making it up to make Henry II look illegitimate and therefore ineligible to the throne (Gerald did have some sort of antipathy towards Henry after all so it does seem likely). Again, it’s not conclusive and it can be argued that Gerald was simply using the story to further his own agenda, but the fact that it exists (in a text dating to the late 1100s,) supports the idea that King Harold really did survive Hastings and end up in Chester.
This leaves us with something rather interesting. There’s the original source (The Life of Harold), + The supporting source of Gerald. Then you have the theoretical implications posed by the presence of Harold’s wife becoming a nun in Chester (Orderic Vitalis) as well as the possible indication that Henry I came across a one eyed man in Chester. Then you have the hermitage itself, which definitely exists, and the fact that local tradition links it with King Harold. Finally you have the two skeletons nearby, which on their own are nothing. However, the church presumably has records concerning what happened to these two skeletons and all it would take is a quick exhumation and some analysis to discover if one of them just so happened to have battle scars, dates to the late eleventh/early twelfth century, with the right indicators as to where Harold grew up and maybe even had a serious eye injury at one point you would have a further strong indication that the story about Harold is true. All of this points towards at least something that was going on here at the period.
There has to be an origin point for much of the local myths and traditions (such as Ealdgyth giving food to the Hermit) and there are a few possible conclusions i can draw. Firstly is the idea that it all comes from the life of Harold, which means they could have a basis in something that may have been completely made up or possibly based on the word of a man who only claimed he was King Harold. If it doesn’t come from the Life of Harold (which given that Gerald also mentions the story seems likely) then the indirect evidence is clear that there at least was a hermit who at one point claimed to be King Harold. If his claim is true or not we’ll probably never know but his presence is enough to warrant at least an extra and intriguing amendment to the History books. For the past 900 years it’s been primarily told that he died on the battlefield, but the evidence of this Hermit and the supporting evidence is enough to cast that ‘confirmed fact’ into doubt. There is a real chance that Harold made it out of Hastings alive, if only just, and that chance is enough to send at least a huge shudder down the spine of History.
The rest of my visit to Chester wasn’t so eventful really. I mainly spent my time walking around, looking through some of the shops and generally taking the place in. At one point I did end up taking a photo for a couple of Japanese tourists but that was all. I was merely being nice. I did wander off pieste a little and explore some other places i hadn’t been before, down by the canal for instance. Alas, i did manage to get a little lost and confused when I tried to return to the train station. I made an erroneous judgement and thought I had to go down one street when I really needed to go down another. Unfortunately I didn’t realize my mistake until I had gone quite a way down this street and came to a massive roundabout that I definitely didn’t recognize. Still, it was an interesting street and I came across a nice pub I wouldn’t mind trying out at some point. Unfortunately i did also manage to trip up a pavement and do my knee in for the next week at the same time. I did eventually catch my train though… With about ten seconds to spare!