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
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.)