Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Most Famous Fact in English History is Not True

By Mark Colenutt

Every country has a famous date. In the US it’s 1776 and the declaration of Independence, the rest of the world knows the day for some reason but can’t remember the year. In France it’s 1789 and the Storming of the Bastille. In Spain it’s 1492, not only the year that the centuries-long Reconquista was finalized, but it was also the discovery of the New World by the Crown of Castile. And in Australia it’s probably 1882 when they beat England at Cricket for the first time, but the less said about that the better.

In the case of England it is 1066, the Norman invasion of England. But why 1066? Why commemorate a defeat? The Spanish don’t ingrain 1588, The Spanish Armada, on the impressionable minds of their students as the most significant year in their history, especially when 1571 and the battle of Lepanto would be a more influential naval battle. The Scots commemorate Bannockburn in 1314, a resounding victory for them, over celebrating 1707 with the Act of Union. The Italians, to be even more specific, all know the date 25th April, 1945, which pays tribute to the liberation of Italy during the Second World War and the overthrow of the fascist regime.

It is true that 1066 was a fundamental shift in the direction of old England. It introduced feudalism and castle building, thus safeguarding the nation against future invasion and making the Norman feat unrepeatable. They introduced cavalry as a new military tactic and ended slavery in England. They also tied the nation fatefully for centuries to royal intrigue and conflict with France. And the French connection gave rise to Norman French being used at court and its influx of Latin gradually transformed the dulcet tones of Olde English, for better or for worse. They even introduced the need for surnames when they commissioned the Doomsday Book.

It was not the first time in the history of southern Britain where a foreign invader had changed the cultural direction of a people and with it their identity. The Romans had achieved this a millennium before, almost to the day, when they suppressed the last-ditch attempt by Boudicca and her allies to end Roman hegemony. At the battle of Watling Street the ancient world confronted the modern with the resulting defeat of the Britons carving their descendants a different character and aesthetic.

So, it is for these reasons that modern England looks back to 1066 as an equally radical shift in cultural identity and political ideology, and not just for the unprecedented cathedral building project that the Normans engaged in. And this is why every child, old enough to remember four digits and suffer detention, has to learn this all-important date. In fact, even the most stubborn student will have internalized this date despite their most dogged efforts not to learn anything at all in their history classes. So forceful is this date in the English classroom that those that choose to snooze the hour away have absorbed it via hypnopædia. In short, there is no escape. One of the most famous history books written in England is even titled 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates, published in 1930, it is a parody of the style of history teaching in English schools at the time and “punctured the more bombastic claims of drum-and-trumpet history.” But 1066 is only one half of the equation.

There are only two historical facts that every school child knows about England. And those that wish to undermine the subject would go as far as to say they are the only facts you need to know, but that is only if you hold examinations above understanding. The first indispensable fact, as we have already admirably established, is the year 1066. The second is the manner in which the Anglo-Saxon King Harold met his end.

The traditional dragon banner of Wessex

Everyone knows he died with an arrow through the eye at the battle of Hastings. But here comes the shocking admission… it’s not true.

The Normans would have us believe as much, because it fed into their narrative, it was perfect propaganda. Halley’s Comet was sighted shortly after Harold usurped the throne.

The most powerful Thane in the land had, apparently, sworn to support Duke William of Normandy’s rightful claim to the throne but then went back on this holy oath, an oath sworn upon holy relics so the Bayeux Tapestry goes to lengths to illustrate. Such omens were strong currency at the time and still are when the time is right.

So, how did every history department in England come to propagate a false event? Quite easy in fact, but we will need to take a look at prime source material and the scene of Harold’s death during the drawn out battle to explain further. The Latin inscription, called tituli, above Harold in the Bayeux tapestry (which is actually an embroidery) reads: HIC HAROLD REX INTERFECTUS EST – meaning: Here King Harold is slain. However, there is reason to doubt that this is correct.

In order to shed light on this, we will need to take a closer look, literally. There is indeed a figure right below the name ‘Harold’ with an arrow in his eye and the name above a figure would normally be indicative of that person. But what catches my attention is the falling figure just to his right. It is not the same man. They are clearly two different people, which can be discerned from the differing leg ‘warmers’ that both men are wearing.

Now, comes the history. The first known recounting of the events surrounding Harold’s death comes from the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio - ‘Song of the Battle of Hastings’, which was written just months after the battle. It says that four knights cut him down and there is no mention of the arrow at all. This seems to fit in with the image in the tapestry. The arrow would have been a great lyric, but it isn’t even in the song.

In fact, the first reference to Harold and the arrow was the Italian monk Amatus of Montecassino, some thirty years after the event! That is no eyewitness account and must be approached cautiously, if at all. It makes for a great story, admittedly, but it doesn’t mean there’s a grain of truth to it, especially when the writer is based in some far off land.

Again, when Harold’s wife Edith the Fair had to identify his body, due to it being badly mutilated, there was no mention of the arrow then either.

Another account has William killing Harold, a further account has Harold dying in the morning as fighting began while the Chronicle of Battle Abbey says no one knows how Harold died.

So, while it could be true there is no proof that it is, and just because there is a man with an arrow in his eye in the embroidery, sorry tapestry, is not definitive either. I imagine many men lost their lives with an arrow through the eye during these times. The character in the tapestry could quite easily be one such victim. In fact, the man with the arrow in his eye is not dead but injured, while the figure cut down by the Norman knight is already dead as he falls. It is once again the latter image that fits in with the first account we have of Harold’s death.

One must therefore conclude that we can no longer teach with any certainty that Harold was most surely killed with an arrow to the eye. If we do this we continue doing the Normans’ bidding for them, centuries later, by ensuring the mysticism of a bad omen is proof of God’s will. It will of course lessen the weight of a great story and make it less ingrained upon our collective imagination but we must stay true to the facts.

So, to end we learn anew the advice that haunts all historians, namely ‘check your sources’ and it has a striking precedent here with this well worn history of England. But it does beg the question, while Hollywood continues to powerfully shape our impression of the past like a modern-day Bayeux tapestry, what else are we sure about that probably never happened?


Mark Colenutt as lived in Spain for the past 27 years. He has a BA in Medieval History and MA in Imperial and Social History. He teaches history by day and moonlights as a writer in both fiction and non-fiction. He writes the fictional Chester Bentley Mysteries directed at a young readership with co-author Jacqueline Wood, under the pen name MJ Colewood. The series is a collection of epic mysteries surrounding major events in British history. Each story leads to the discovery of one of the most surprising untouched treasures from Britain’s extraordinary and volatile past. Chester Bentley and the Last Treasure of Ancient England puts the reader on the front lines of the Norman invasion and then brings them back to the present as Bentley hunts down the long lost treasure.
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  1. I thought you were going to tell me that 1066 was wrong, but the arrow story being fiction is almost as good. Thank you.

  2. Good article. These 'facts' are the reason I wrote my novel about Harold and the events that led to October 1066 - from the English point of view, and unravelling as much of the Norman propaganda as I could. Another reason I wrote it was because I was (am!) utterly fed up with history books _starting_ with 1066 as if everything before this date is totally unimportant.
    One thing you do not mention though, Mark... that arrow in the eye in the 'Tapestry' ... it is actually a soldier throwing a spear, but the rest of the thread is missing but the stitch marks are there.


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