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The Death of Harold

It not certain that Harold was struck by an arrow or even whether the figure depicted on the left is the same one being hacked down by a Norman knight.

No arrow is mentioned in the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, attributed to Guy of Amiens and written sometime before 1068. Nor is it referred to by William of Jumièges, who wrote early in 1070 and says only that "Harold himself was slain, pierced with mortal wounds." Rather, the king is attacked by William, Eustace of Boulogne, Hugh of Ponthieu, and Giffard; "these four bore arms for the destruction of the king."

"The first, cleaving his breast through the shield with his point, drenched the earth with a gushing torrent of blood; the second smote off his head below the protection of the helmet and the third pierced the inwards of his belly with his lance; the forth hewed off his thigh and bore away the severed limb: the ground held the body thus destroyed" (545-550).

In the Gesta Guillelmi, which probably was written between 1071 and 1077, William of Poitiers indicates that the dismembered body was so bloodied that "He himself was recognized by certain marks, not by his face, for he had been despoiled of all signs of status" (II.25). (Orderic Vitalis, who used William as a source, says much the same thing: that "Harold was recognized by some tokens, not by his face," Ecclesiastical History, II.151). These Anglo-Norman chroniclers all supported Duke William and were, in differing degrees, panegyrists. They may not have thought the death of the king, possibly blinded and set upon by men on horseback, the most glorious of the Conqueror's victories.

William of Malmesbury later relates the same incident in the Gesta Regum Anglorum, written about 1125. There, he does refer to an arrow.

"This alteration of fortune, now one side prevailing and now the other, held as long as Harold lived; but when his brain was pierced by an arrow and he fell, the English fled without respite till the night….One of the knights hacked at his thigh with a sword as he lay on the ground; for which he was branded with disgrace by William for a dastardly and shameful act and degraded from his knighthood" (III.242-243).

Intriguingly, the "severed limb" referred to in the Carmen may be an euphemism and represent a more private part of the body, which would explain why William was so appalled at the disfigurement

Henry of Huntington, writing about 1130, also mentions an arrow. In the Historia Anglorum, he states that "Duke William instructed the archers not to shoot their arrows directly at the enemy, but rather into the air, so that the arrows might blind the enemy squadron….Meanwhile the whole shower sent by the archers fell around King Harold, and he himself sank to the ground, struck in the eye" (VI.30). William and Henry may have been inspired by the scene depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, perhaps made for the cathedral there, which was dedicated in 1077. Too, writing well after the death of the Conqueror a decade later, they simply may have been less circumspect than their predecessors.

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