Death of the Last Englishman

View from Saint Michael's Hill

James Lloyd explores the connection between a hill in Somerset and a church in Essex, reputed to be the resting place of King Harold II.

Montacute is tiny village in Somerset, with a population of around a thousand. Its chief tourist attraction is Montacute House, a sixteenth-century manor built by the Phelips family from land acquired after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. On the estate is Saint Michael’s Hill, upon which sits a mid-eighteenth-century tower but which was formerly the site of a Norman castle. The building of the castle was a subject of great controversy with the locals, since the hill was believed to be sacred, the location of a miracle.

In the reign of King Cnut (or so the story goes), a blacksmith in the village had a dream in which a voice instructed him to tell the priest to go to the top of Saint Michael’s Hill (why the voice did not just tell the priest directly tradition does not record). In the morning, the blacksmith decided that it was nothing more than a dream and forgot about it.

A few nights later, he had the dream again and awoke in a state of terror. He roused his wife and explained what had happened but she thought he was being silly and advised him to ignore it. A few days later, he had the dream a third time and on this occasion his visitant scarred his arm. The blacksmith woke up and saw that his arm really was scarred. He went to the priest right away to tell him what had happened and showed him his arm.

The priest and some villagers went to the top of the hill, with spades and shovels, expecting to find treasure. They did but of a very different kind from that they expected. They dug up a stone crucifix, with a smaller crucifix, bell and gospel-book. How they had come to be there no one knew but clearly God willed that they should be recovered and revered.

The discovery came to the attention of local landowner and royal standard-bearer Tofig, who took over the operation. The crucifix was placed on a cart to be transported to its destination but it took twelve oxen, six white and six red, to haul the cart. Various new homes were suggested but the oxen refused to move whenever goaded to any one of them. Eventually, Tofig, who also owned the manor of Waltham in Essex, remembered the little church on the manor, which he pledged to re-build if the crucifix went there.

This time, the oxen moved and they did not stop moving, or turn aside, for the hundred and twenty miles to Waltham. The crucifix was erected in Waltham Church and decorated with sheets of silver. These, however, had to be laid onto it, rather than fixed, for, when they attempted to drive nails into the stone, it bled.

After Tofig’s death, his son inherited his lands but he fell into debt and sold Waltham to King Edward the Confessor, who in turn gave it to Harold Godwinson, earl of East Anglia. Harold had been cured of an illness in his youth by praying to the Holy Cross and “Halga rod” was his battle-cry. In token of his devotion, he re-built and re-dedicated Waltham Church in 1060.

Six years later, Harold was King of England but his throne was built on sand. Two rivals, King Harald Hardrada of Norway and Duke William the Bastard of Normandy, both made claims on his crown. Edward the Confessor had promised William the succession years earlier and the Norman had previously forced Harold to swear an oath to support his claim. Hardarda’s claim was rather more opaque but he had a defector to his cause in Harold’s own estranged brother Tostig, who had been Earl of Northumbria but whom Harold had sacked and driven out of England for his tyrannical administration.

In the event, it was the Norwegians who struck first, invading Yorkshire in September and routing the English defenders. Harold rallied an army and marched north, where he met the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge on the twenty-fifth. Hardrada demanded that Harold hand over England to him. Harold retorted that he would give him seven feet of it, or a little more, since he had heard that he was unusually tall. In the ensuing battle, both Hardrada and Tostig were killed.

The Normans landed three days later.

The English army rushed south but, as they passed through Waltham, Harold made a pit stop at the church of the Holy Cross, to give thanks for his victory and to pray for another, before the miraculous stone crucifix. As he bowed his head, the stone Christ bowed His also. How this sign was to be interpreted was unknown. Was this a gesture of assent from the Most High, or of commiseration?

On the fourteenth of October, at Senlac Hill near Hastings, Harold fended off the Norman advance from dawn till dusk, the longest battle in English history up to that date. The tragic irony is that he did not really need to do any of this. With the Normans trapped in a hostile country with no supply lines or reinforcements, Harold could have drawn or even not engaged them at all and still ultimately prevailed. William, on the other hand, needed a decisive victory. Unfortunately, he got one.

How Harold died is disputed. The famous arrow in the eye, which first appears in the Bayeux Tapestry, is mentioned by none of the witnesses to his death and was a medieval symbol of perjury, so the embroiderers may not have intended it literally. The closest contemporary authority, Guy, Bishop of Amiens, recorded that he was cut down and beheaded by four Norman knights and most subsequent authorities agree that his body was so horribly mutilated that it was identified not by his face but by certain distinctive (but, frustratingly, unspecified) features on his body.

What became of Harold’s corpse is also something of a mystery. According to Guy, the Normans buried him on the seashore, with the ironic quip that he could guard his country from there. A modern argument has him buried at Bosham Church in Sussex, where the grave of a mutilated man from the right period has been recovered and which is indeed on the coast.

A third claim was made by Harold’s own Waltham Abbey. According to their house historian, writing in the late twelfth century from information that he had heard as a boy from old men who could remember the royal obsequies, the church of the Holy Cross had sent priests to watch their benefactor in the battle. It was they who, with the help of Edith Swan-neck, Harold’s common-law wife, found his body and brought it back to Waltham to be buried.

There it lies today, if Waltham’s claim be true. Even so, no one quite knows the spot. The church has been re-built several times in the intervening years. The stone crucifix, the head of which remained bowed ever since Harold’s final prayer before it, is long gone and Harold’s own grave has been repeatedly moved. The reputed site is marked by stones inscribed to his memory. Here, perhaps, are the seven feet of England that William could not take from Harold. England itself would go on but it would be a very different country, so that Waltham (or Bosham, or some unknown beach) may justly claim to be, after a fashion, the resting place of the last Englishman.


Photo credits: View west from the tower on Saint Michael’s Hill, Montacute (Jim Champion) / CC BY-SA 2.0

King Harold’s grave (Richard Croft) / CC BY-SA 2.0