I’ve covered the story of King Harold and his possible survival after the battle of Hastings before. Now, according to news reports, the same archaeologists who discovered the remains of Richard III are to use ground penetrating radar in an attempt to locate Harold’s body and prove the cause of death once and for all. They are guided by amateur historian Peter Burke, who is making the claim that Harold did indeed survive Hastings, as has been previously suggested. His evidence? Well he doesn’t appear to have any… Not according to the news sources anyway. He does mention that much of what we know of Hastings is based on Norman propaganda, which is true enough, but that is all he seems to have.
Meanwhile, the real historian in the ITV report pooh-pooh’s the whole idea of a survival, pointing out that there are plenty of ‘English’ sources that claim Harold died. He fails to mention, however, that many of the supposed ‘English’ sources were actually pro-Norman, including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, at this point. Most people (including source writers) would have just taken what they were told about the death to be true, even if they wanted to believe he survived. Why would they assume otherwise unless they knew for certain?
Other than the claim of Norman propaganda there is little substance to this amateur’s claim. He doesn’t back his claim with evidence, he doesn’t use any hard facts. He just makes assumptions.
And if Harold did survive they are looking in the wrong place anyway, at least according to the sources that back up claims of Harold’s survival anyway. Both Gerald of Wales and the Life of King Harold biography (The Vita Haroldi) make the assertion that after (if) Harold survived Hastings he spent his last remaining years in Chester as a hermit. This is backed up, not only by the sources mentioned above, but by the evidence that after his death Harold’s mistress, Edith Swan Neck, retired to Chester as a nun and (possibly, unless this was Harold’s wife, also called Edith, it is unclear) gave birth to his son, also Harold, there.
The trouble is that the archaeologists are looking in Waltham Abbey, Essex, which to be fair is one of the rumoured places Harold was buried (he also may have been buried in Bosham or on the sea shore somewhere). BUT… The story goes that the Normans buried Harold in Waltham Abbey immediately after his mistress identified his body based on markings known only to her. But if, as is claimed, Harold did survive, then according to the sources this was the same body that was really just some random, mutilated corpse picked out to fool William the Conqueror into believing Harold was dead. If Harold did survive then he will not be buried in Waltham. It is more likely that he is buried in Chester, if he survived at all. The evidence of the sources tells us as much. There is no proof that a surviving King Harold is buried at Waltham. A King Harold killed at Hastings, by all means, but not a surviving King Harold. This amateur historian, if he had done his research, would know this. He would know that the best place possible for a surviving King Harold to buried is not Waltham Abbey but Chester. He would be able to point to ‘proof’ of Harold’s survival, to Gerald of Wales and to the Life of Harold. He would know that, as he claims they will, archaeologists will not find the body of an eighty year old man with scarring to the face.
A part of me kind of hopes they actually do find proof that King Harold was killed at Hastings down there. Whatever those archaeologists find however, it definitely won’t be an eighty year old King Harold.