Did King Harold get shot in the eye?

As the Battle of Hastings was nearing its climactic end in 1066, the tall and mighty English King Harold, who was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, stood his ground, surrounded by his bodyguard of housecarls*.

His army had dwindled. While the remainder around him, continued to beat off one Norman assault after another.

William, Duke of Normandy, who was the adversary of King Harold ordered his archers to shoot their arrows so that they could attack and kill those people who were densely packed around King Harold.

William, Duke of Normandy

A stray arrow pierced Harold’s eye and, as apparently depicted in the famous Bayeux Tapestry, he fell, and in the next charge was slain by the Normans.

Image result for battle of hastings

This notion that Harold was shot in the eye is popular belief to this day and is subject to much scholarly debate.

According to historian Lewis Thorpe, this account of Harold’s death is false. In his book The Bayeux Tapestry and the Norman Invasion, Thorpe argues that Harold was hacked to death by a Norman soldier, who was possibly one of the four soldiers who had simultaneously attacked the king.

It is possible that the story of Harold’s death may have become confused because at the place where the tapestry says, in Latin, Harold rex interfectus est (Harold the king is killed) there are two figures, either of which could be assumed to be Harold. One on the left of the Norman horse, is standing, armed with a shield and apparently trying to pluck an arrow pierced into his eye. The other, falling to the right of the horse, is being attacked by a Norman with a sword.

The arrow-in-the-eye story appears in the accounts of the battle by historians such as William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon and Robert Wace. These date back to 12th-century. But Thorpe took the account of a Norman historian, Guy of Amiens, into serious consideration as he believed it to be the most acceptable. This account was recorded in 1068, just two years after the battle, in a book called Carmen de Hastingae proelio (The Song of the Battle of Hastings).

According to this account, William ‘called Eustace of Boulogne to his side and moved up to give all the relief that he possibly could to allow those who were being slaughtered by Harold’.

In the attack, Eustace was joined by Hugh de Montfort, Ivo, heir to Ponthieu, and Walter Gifford the younger. ‘By the use which they made of their weapons,’ the Amiens version goes, ‘these four between them encompassed the king’s death. With the point of his lance the first pierced Harold’s shield and then penetrated his chest, drenching the ground with his gushing blood. The second used his sword to cut off his head. The third disembowelled him with his javelin. And the final member hacked at his leg and hurled it far away.

Struck down in this way, it is thought that the king’s dead body lay on the ground.

A further suggestion is that both accounts are accurate, and that Harold suffered first the eye wound, then the mutilation, and the Tapestry is depicting both in sequence

*-a member of the bodyguard of a Danish or English king or noble.


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