Life of the Last Englishman

The Anchorite's Cell, Chester

Men die. Heroes do not.

Andrew had received hundreds of confessions from dying men but he would never forget this one. He had seen the old hermit on and off, wandering around the graveyard of Saint John the Baptist but he had never spoken to him. The old hermit never spoke to anyone, except his companion, Moses. In fact, few people had even seen him. He spent most of his time inside the chapel of Saint James overlooking the River Dee and on the rare occasions when he went outside he always wore a white veil over his face. Some pious folks said that it was to prevent him from being seduced by seeing the pleasures of this world. Others had a more gruesome explanation.

Even his name was a mystery. He called himself Christian but Andrew had always suspected that that was just a bit too perfect. It must be a name that he had adopted since he had found religion. Faceless, nameless, almost friendless, the old man was a fascinating enigma. For these reasons Andrew knew, when he was summoned to Saint James’s chapel to administer the last rites to the hermit, that this confession would be special.

Moses admitted him to Christian’s cell. The aged ascetic was lying on the bare stone, his veil rippling with his feeble breaths. Andrew knelt beside him and Moses announced his presence. At a shaking wave of the man’s hand, Moses lifted the veil and Andrew sucked in his breath.

Christian’s face was horribly scarred. Red gashes ran up and down and side to side across it, like an exchequer cloth and a livid gash was ripped through his left eye socket. These were not the ravages of time or beast. These were the marks of battle. The man’s remaining eye, glassy and grey, flickered back and forth before settling on Andrew. He opened his mouth and Andrew unconsciously clenched his fists. How many men had the hermit slain? What deeds of blood had the humble Christian committed? What grisly secrets did this chapel hold? He withheld his questions and listened, as the confession began.

Christian had been born long before the Conquest, when Cnut was King. His family was rich and landed and he had served as a solider under Harold Godwinson. He had fought alongside him against the Welsh in Gwynedd, against the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge and against the Normans at Hastings.

“You knew Earl Harold?” Andrew asked excitedly.

The old hermit smiled. “No man was closer to Harold than I.”

Hastings had nearly been the death of Christian. He was severely wounded and would have died had it not been for the ministrations of an Arabess well skilled in physic. He spent two years recuperating in a cellar in Winchester, before travelling first to Saxony and then to Denmark, trying to raise support for an invasion of his own country, to oust the Norman usurper and restore the true English royal line. Unfortunately, the bastard Duke of Normandy and thief of the English crown had already sent envoys to these nations to secure their alliance.

Defeated, the penitent exchanged his soldier’s dress for a pilgrim’s garb, his sword for a staff, his buckler for a scrip and walked to Rome and Jerusalem. By the time he returned to England, he had become disillusioned with war and politics. He now wore his mail on the inside of his clothes, right against his skin and had abandoned his real name, calling himself simply “Christian”. He made a hermitage in a grotto near Dover, where he spent ten years, before deciding that it was insufficiently self-punishing.

He now transferred to the village of Cheswardine in Shropshire, at that time considered to be on the border between England and Wales. Here he could deliberately expose himself to his old enemies, though he did take the precaution of veiling his face, so that he would not be recognized by his scars. He lived there for seven years and it was during this time that Moses became his attendant.

Moved by the Spirit, Christian decided to re-locate again, this time to the chapel of Saint James outside the walls of Chester. Shortly after his arrival, he had Moses remove his mail, which had become too rotten even for penance. Here he had lived for another seven years and here he lay dying, receiving the viaticum from the hand of Andrew.

“Do you absolve me?” the old man asked. His aged voice had remained calm throughout his narration but now it was wracked with anxiety. “Do you absolve me of my sins?”

Andrew raised his hand in benediction. “ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis, in Nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sanci,” he said, making the sign of the Cross. “I absolve you of all your sins, even the one you have still not confessed.”

The one grey eye blinked.

“The sin of lying,” Andrew replied, laying his hand on the old man’s brow, “Harold.”

Saint Swithin’s Church, Cheswardine

The legend that King Harold II survived the Battle of Hastings and lived a second life as a hermit is first mentioned in a brief note by Gerald of Wales and then elaborated on in an anonymous life written in the first decade of the thirteenth century at Waltham Abbey. The book is extremely badly written. Its language is so verbose that, rather than clever, it is barely intelligible and its chronology is labyrinthine, telling the story of Harold’s pre-Hastings life through flashbacks, arranged (if “arranged” is the word) in a random order.

Nonetheless, the idea that Harold had survived the Battle of Hastings proved irresistible and re-appeared in several other works, even including three Icelandic sagas. The legend had an obvious resonance for a country that, nearly two hundred years after the Norman Conquest, was still suffering the consequences of that defeat. The ruling class were still French in language, landholdings and sympathy. Although the Royal Family did have English blood (Henry II was a great-great-great-grandson of Æthelred the Unready), it was their descent from William of Normandy that was emphasised and Earl Harold (he was not acknowledged to have been king) was dismissed as a perjurer and usurper.

Interestingly, the writer of the anonymous Life was of a different view and boldly asserted the legitimacy of Harold’s rule, calling him “a most famous and lawful king, rightfully and lawfully crowned” in his opening sentence and labouring his innocence and right to rule repeatedly throughout his discourse. This is partly the wounded pride of a patriot but is also part of an ultimately abortive attempt to encourage a cult of Saint Harold.

For this reason, his heremetical life involves several ironic twists. The defender of England initially lives as a hermit near Dover, perhaps by implication in the White Cliffs themselves, the defiant bastion that England presents to Europe. He later moves to Shropshire and Cheshire, where he is at the mercy of his erstwhile enemies the Welsh.

Perhaps the most interesting point of all is that the writer expressly denied that Harold was buried at Waltham Abbey. By insisting that he had died at Chester, the writer of the legend was claiming that his own church was not the tomb of the country’s hero whose cult he was trying to encourage. Such self-denial has caused some people to suspect that the writer was not just salving national pride but genuinely believed that the legend was true.

It is not. William faced several rebellions, some of them led by Harold’s sons and brothers-in-law. It is unbelievable that Harold, soldier and king, would not have involved himself in them if he had been as active in trying to raise resistance as the legend claims. Yet the fact that some people, even today, want to believe that he survived, want to believe that the Norman Conquest was not quite as total as it seemed, proves how much England’s worst defeat still stings. Some wounds never heal, even after a thousand years.

Photo credits: The Anchorite’s Cell, Chester (Jeff Buck) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Church of Saint Swithin, Cheswardine (Tony Grant) / CC BY-SA 2.0

The White Cliffs of Dover falling away at Crab Bay (Marathon) / CC BY-SA 2.0