‘Arold ‘ad an arrer in ‘is aye (except he didn’t)

I seem to have been writing very angrily lately, and it would probably be a good idea to dial that back. So, let me attempt to comment on a historical debate that I have an opinion on without savaging any of the participants. Duller, I know! But I’m really too old for starting fights on the Internet now. So. Two separate sources have put the same question before me and their shared subject this time is the death of King Harold II of England at Hastings. The first of them was an article mentioned at News for Medievalists, which they report uses the Carmen de hastingae prœlio as evidence for Harold being cut down by a group of Norman cavalrymen rather than the legendary death by bowshot in the FACE for which he is, well, legendary.1 Now, I raised my eyebrows at this but not because it is controversial, indeed I think it’s very likely to be right. I was just surprised that this counted as news, because the Carmen, while there are debates over its date, is very far from an unknown source and I ran across this aspect of its testimony in the 1972 translation I read as an undergraduate.2 The first source that attributes the death to an arrow appears to be Baudri of Bourgeuil, writing around 1100 [edit: in fact, as the article in question points out, there is an earlier instance c. 1080 in the History of the Normans of Amatus of Monte Cassino, a work of which I have to confess I'd not heard] and the Carmen is probably earlier than that, though it is undeniably florid and reads like a tall tale to me. So this argument is perfectly viable, I think, and indeed has been for some while, but it is beyond the evidence to decide which is true. Maybe Mr Dennis knows something I don’t, I hope so, but I wonder if NfM have not somewhat distorted his article’s focus; the title (which they don’t give) appears to lead elsewhere than this.1

King Harold II's death in the Bayeux Tapestry

King Harold II's death in the Bayeux Tapestry

But when you dig into the question, up comes this scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, and an entirely more unlikely scenario emerges, and this was why I had to write, because I came across it in the basically-grand textbook I’m currently evaluating and it seems very odd there.3 And then, in looking for the Carmen testimony mentioned above I found it on the useful website from which I link the above image. So I just want to point up a problem with it. As you can see from the above image the Tapestry appears to show both cases; there is someone with an arrow in their eye, whose head actually breaks the caption “hAROLD: REX: INTERFeCTVS: EST”, ‘King Harold is killed’, but also a man under that caption being felled by a horseman’s sword. Since there were evidently two stories around before long (in fact three, as both William of Jumièges and Orderic Vitalis say Harold was killed in the first stages of the battle, which even if they don’t say how he died is clearly at variance with the Tapestry’s chronology) I wonder if the Tapestry-makers were deliberately including both as alternatives.

I don’t think it can show, however, what that textbook and the Dot to Domesday website both say it shows, which is that Harold is both figures in sequence, that is, he was shot then cut down. This is, admittedly, pretty much what Henry of Huntingdon and Wace said, but Wace was presumably, here as elsewhere, trying to synthesize accounts that may have included the Tapestry4, and one presumes that similar things could be true of Henry; they are both late enough to have seen the problem. Anyway, this possibility was dealt with by none other than Simon Keynes in the first-year undergraduate lectures I went to about Anglo-Saxon England, and he pointed out the obvious reason why it is unlikely to have been what the Tapestry makers meant: if both figures are the same Harold, he has found time to change his hat and socks in between the attacks. In a work otherwise so carefully planned and subtly expressed, this seems a very unlikely slip to make and I think we can forget this ‘double whammy’ idea. Which of the two or three stories about Harold’s death is really true, however, I’ve no idea; if I can get hold of Mr Dennis’ article I’m sure I shall enjoy reading it. However, if the NfM report is all of what the article’s about, which seems unlikely from the title I admit, then its argument is already 900-plus years old I’m afraid.

[Edit: thanks to commentator Kath's 'mad webz skilling' the comments now contain a link to Mr Dennis's article, and I've read it. His position is that the arrow story is a later fabrication to shroud the rôle of William himself in the death of Harold at a time when Harold's position in William's claim to the throne was still being worked out. I'll let readers more expert than me decide what they think of this, which seems to involve arguing for a Carmen which is early, semi-official and authentically untrustworthy, but I will note firstly that he makes great play of the fact that the arrow in the Tapestry may be a restorer's imagination, which I forgot to mention but the Dot to Domesday website covers, and secondly that actually NfM have more or less reported him accurately. So if it seems above that I'm pouring doubt on their summarising abilities I would like to evaporate that doubt right now.]


1. Presumably Chris Dennis, “The strange death of King Harold II: Propaganda and the problem of legitimacy in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings” in The Historian no. 101 (London 2009). I haven’t yet found anywhere I can get this but if, when I do, I find it substantially alters what I say here I shall post accordingly and pingback here. So check the comments!

2. Catherine Morton & Hope Muntz (edd./transl.), The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio of Guy, Bishop of Amiens, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford 1972), now available in 2nd edn. rev. & transl. Frank Barlow (Oxford 1999), which obviously I didn’t have at the time because I’m ancient.

3. Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran Cruz & Richard Gerberding, Medieval Worlds: an introduction to European history 300-1492 (Boston 2004), p. 326.

4. For example, Wace’s account of the Harold’s voyage to Normandy in 1064 includes the following example of proper scholarly reticence: “So at least I have found the story written. But another book tells me [otherwise]… How the matter really was I never knew, and I find it written both the one way and the other.” (Master Wace, His Chronicle of the Norman Conquest, from the Roman de la Rou, transl. Edgar Taylor (London 1837), pp. 76-78.)

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20 responses to “‘Arold ‘ad an arrer in ‘is aye (except he didn’t)

  1. Hi Jon,

    Found the pdf here: http://www.history.org.uk/resources/general_resource_2530_14.html

    I was just thinking that about the socks…!

    :)

    • Thankyou Kath, that’s strange, I ran up against a paywall when I looked. Having now read it I don’t think I’m inclined to change anything I’ve written but I’ll add an edit.

  2. This morning in my lecture on HEL, I’ll be mentioning the death of Harold, and I’ll say he was shot through the eye — not because I hold to that position (I’m perfectly agnostic on the matter), but rather because nothing sets the tone for a class quite so much as someone getting an arrow in the face.

  3. I studied the Norman Conquest as a Special Subject back in 1978 and we used the Carmen as evidence for just this argument back then … not quite 900 years ago, but certainly not new news!

  4. Amatus chronicled the settlement of the Normans in southern Italy.

    I am not sure about the censorship argument myself, and it does put a lot of faith in the Carmen, by no means an undisputed source (though I think it is early myself). The Norman narratives, William of Poitiers in particular, are an extended justification of William’s actions because Harold was a perjurer. I don’t know how Chris Dennis would square his theory about Harold’s death with the tradition (Carmen) that Harold was buried on the seashore, which is also hardly honourable.

    I’d best be brief, before I ramble off on an extended post. This all just underlines how little we know about the actual battle. Fundamentally, it matters not how Harold died, just that he did.

    • I’ve always been intrigued by the story of Harold’s burial at Dover (which may not be the one you mean) because it’s such a repetitive motif. Similar stories come out of the Celtic world, of Bran the Blessed and eventually of Arthur, in a fully Anglo-Norman context by then of course. Except of course, Harold’s case is the inverse, buried there by the invaders he couldn’t keep out, whereas Bran and Arthur are both buried by the defenders and succeed until they’re moved by foolish rulers. I’ve always thought there was more going on with that than meets the eye, and that it might just have a Breton connection.

  5. An arrow in the eye is just more satisfying, as two later versions show:
    a Stanley Holloway monologue from 1937, and the classic Simon Drew version of the Bayeux image.

  6. he pointed out the obvious reason why it is unlikely to have been what the Tapestry makers meant: if both figures are the same Harold, he has found time to change his hat and socks in between the attacks.

    Ha! That was exactly my reaction. :)

  7. Cullen Chandler

    I was at a conference in November–the Haskins Society–where someone pointed out that the arrow in the Tapestry was added later. You can tell by the color and such. Having never really studied the Tapestry, I thought that was kind of interesting. And, if true, it thus shows that somebody went to the trouble of revising the Tapestry to match up with some kind of story in circulation about Harold getting shot in the eye.

    • Indeed, Dennis’s article goes into detail on this and has the supporting illustrations to make it plausible. I didn’t mention it in the original piece—forgot—but I have given it a line in the edit at the end. But the restoration work was nineteenth-century, so the story of the arrow was well-known by then.

  8. Pingback: Well, what would you recommend, Dr Jarrett? No. 1 of an indefinite series « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  9. The Carmen implies at line 542 that credit for Harold’s death is already disputed but that the maimed state of Harold’s body proves the truth of his death by the four horsemen. It seems the Italian contingent of Norman archers and crossbowmen may have wanted credit for the victory against the Saxons and Amatus took their side. Certainly the artillery were critical to defeating the massed Saxon infantry and shield wall.

    I’ve just fully translated the Carmen for Kindle. The new translation makes a lot of changes to received understanding. Consistent with early sources, my translation takes the view that the four who killed Harold did not include William. The latin is confusing because there is no punctuation. I construe the use of “alter” to mean that there were two Hughs among the four, and the further description of Hugh of Ponthieu as “ut Hectorides” as a device to distinguish Guy’s kinsman from the othe Hugh.

    • An interesting achievement and an interesting blog to boot, as it so far exists! I take it you didn’t think Frank Barlow’s revision of the Morton & Muntz version sufficient, then?

      • I frankly haven’t laid hands on Barlow’s Carmen. It is not available at any public lending library in southeast England and costs £170 on Amazon. I can only suppose that it follows earlier translations from extracts I have read. Certainly it misses the bishop of London as the City’s emissary (pedum means bishop’s staff as a sign of office) and I’ve not seen any attempt to reconcile the geography of the Carmen with the topography of Sussex. In these I make new contributions to the Carmen’s understanding.

        • I see that the Institute of Historical Research have it, and that the British Library have it available for inter-library loan. Those might be ways in which you could ensure your novelty for any second edition.

          • Hi Jonathan,

            Many thanks for your efforts in finding the Barlow, but having laboriously translated every Latin word in the Carmen (finding quite a few transcription errors along the way), and contextualised every phrase to make good sense, I’m confident of achieving sufficient novelty. I know what I’ve accomplished. I’ve been dreaming Latin translation for four months!

            Besides, I’m not an academic and have no axe to grind. This was a labour of love, pure and simple. It started accidentally, phrase by phrase, without any other objective than understanding the meaning locked in the Latin. When I began to appreciate just how much meaning remained unrevealed, it became a passion. I’ve never had so much fun writing in my life, and never been so obsessive about any subject before. If anything, I’m suffering withdrawal now that the book is published.

            One reason I used the original 1830s Carmen transcriptions is to avoid being influenced by English mistranslations which get repeated by academics relying on each other’s published works. Ansgardus with the maimed foot who runs the City is the perfect example of this. The Latin really says that a bishop, sorrowful for the City because of the people’s suffering, travelled cautiously to the king to reveal the City’s status as a church livery borough. I’ll let others compare the two English texts and reach their own conclusions. It was to make this easy that I left the Latin in my text and provided line numbers and a table of contents. I don’t claim to have gotten everything right, but I do know that my translation will make a difference.

          • I’ve put up a post on Carmen and Conquest as this isn’t the first time that I’ve been asked about the Barlow Carmen.

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