Sussex legend of Harold, the last Saxon king

The last moments of King Harold? Detail from the Bayeaux Tapestry
The last moments of King Harold? Detail from the Bayeaux Tapestry

Leicester made news the world over when King Richard III’s body was found buried under a council car park, writes Robert Stevens.

Sussex too could have its own ‘Midlands’ moment because no-one knows where the body of King Harold lies - and it could be Sussex.

There is little doubt Harold II was killed at the Battle of Hastings. Traditionally he died when an arrow hit his eye, but its now believed he may be depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry as another Saxon being mutilated and trampled under a horse’s hooves. William of Poitiers says he ‘could not be identified by his face but only by certain marks on his body’.

His corpse was brought into the Duke’s camp where Harold’s mother offered William his weight in gold for the body, but William did not see this as fit so rejected the idea. According to the ‘Carmen de Hastingae Proelio’ (song of the Battle of Hastings by Guy Bishop of Amiens) he said ‘that he would sooner entrust the shores of that very port to him - under a heap of stones. Therefore, even as he had sworn, he commanded the body to be buried in the earth on the high summit of a cliff’.

But where was he buried? The common assumption was he was taken to Waltham Abbey (refounded in 1060) where an alleged grave lies to the east of the present church. Others say he was buried at Bosham in Sussex. This is where Harold was born, where his father refounded the church and where, in 1954, a mysterious Anglo-Saxon coffin was found.

The coffin allegedly contained the body of a man aged about 60 with one leg missing together with his head, which might tie in with Harold’s injuries. Requests to have the body exhumed have been rejected by the Diocese of Chichester because they claim there is too slim a chance of proof to merit disturbing the remains. Incidentally the body of King Canute’s daughter, who drowned in the Mill Stream, is also said to be buried there.

There are other theories - he was buried at Bishop Stortford and some claim he even survived the battle and lived the rest of his life as a hermit before dying in Chester or Canterbury.

After the battle one legend has his wife Edith Swannestia (Swanneck) searching for his dismembered corpse and only finding it by some ‘private mark’. Every October on the anniversary her ghost is said to wander the Abbey looking for her husband’s body, although she does not need to look too far as he is also said to appear with an arrow in his eye!

So was Harold buried on the beach? At the moment there is an art installation in Pevensey Castle by Alice Shyler Mallet (who claims to be related to William Malet whom William the Conquerer entasked with burying Harold) Harold’s Grave – His Weight In Gold recounting the story of his burial.

If the Normans arrived at Pevensey and William decreed ‘By the duke’s commands, O Harold, you rest here a king, That you may still be guardian of the shore and sea’ was he simply left under a pile of stones at Pevensey where the invasion began?

At that time the waves lapped the south slopes of the castle and the beach would now be part of Anderida Park, so could there be the remotest chance dog walkers, tourists and passers by might all be walking over the mortal remains of the last Saxon King of England as they pass under the castle?

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