The fact that there were resistance movements after Hastings and that none of them evoked the name of Harold is, presumably, the most conclusive proof, if any were needed, that he died on the battlefield. There were problems, it is true, about identification: the face of the body shown as his was so badly wounded as to be unrecognizable. There are differing traditions about the place of burial. It is said that his mother, Gytha, offered William the body’s weight in gold to receive it for burial, which at least is a tribute to the fabled wealth of the Godwine family. The Conqueror refused and is said to have given instructions for the body to be interred on the seashore. In 1954 building excavations at Holy Trinity, Bosham, the coastal church featured in the Bayeux Tapestry and associated with the Godwine family, but taken into his private estate by the Conqueror, revealed an important tomb with the bones of a tall man with the head, the right leg and part of the left leg missing. These correspond to the dreadful wounds Harold was reputed to have sustained at Hastings. Bosham is certainly near ‘the seashore’, and it is tempting to see these bones as those of the last English king, hidden away by the victor safely under his control to avert the possibility of any popular cult. If this is right, the burial was certainly hushed up, for early tradition held that the body had been moved from the battlefield and buried at Harold’s foundation of Waltham Abbey, where the supposed site of the grave was still pointed out in the late twentieth century.
The church at Waltham Holy Cross had been a place of pilgrimage since the reign of Cnut, when it became home to a great flint cross discovered in the vicinity of Glastonbury and, following miraculous intervention, brought here. In 1060 Harold built a large new church in honour of the cross and founded a college of secular canons to tend the venerable object. If the church was his final resting place, the canons seem to have been uneasy about the possibility of a popular cult developing. Anyway, they fostered legends about the king escaping after the battle and travelling on the Continent. Then about 1204 an anonymous writer at Waltham produced the Vita Haroldi, claiming to have his information from a certain Sæbeorht who had been the king’s servant during his last years, passed in hiding near Chester.
Smuggled from the battlefield more dead than alive, so went the story, Harold spent two years in hiding at Winchester recovering from his wounds in the care of an Arab woman. (Presumably, the superiority of Arab medicine at this time was testified to by returning crusaders.) Restored to health, he journeyed incognito through Germany looking for support to recover his crown. Unsuccessful, he continued his travels as a pilgrim, finally returning to England where he took refuge in a cave near Dover. After ten years he moved to Wales before settling at Chester, where he was associated with the local hermit attached to the church of St John. The mysterious stranger rarely left the hermit’s cave and when he did wore a veil over his face. When the hermit died the disguised king took his place; he was said to wear a mail shirt next his skin. And so the last native king of England ended his days an obscure recluse on the marches with a country that in his young days he had harried to submission. Some say that he revealed his identity shortly before his death. In the thirteenth century it was said that a royal body was unearthed in St John’s, uncorrupted and wearing leather hose, golden spurs and a crown.
The historical Harold did have a link with Chester, in so far as his second wife, Alditha, sister of Earl Morcar, gave birth to their son Harold there. The association of the city with the Mercian earl and the dead king’s family ties in with the rebellion in the area of 1069–70, so ruthlessly suppressed by the Conqueror. In his article ‘The Cult of King Harold at Chester’, on which much of the foregoing is based, Alan Thacker surmises that the Vita Haroldi was commissioned by the Augustinian community of Walthamstow Abbey (reformed by Henry II) to the glory of the divine cross, through describing the merits and virtues of its most celebrated worshipper. Whatever its provenance, the Vita is an interesting addition to the theme of nostalgia for Anglo-Saxon England in English thirteenth-century culture.