As beautiful as Waltham Abbey Church is and it’s impressively large gardens and ruins outside it; for myself at least it is not the main reason to have always wanted to visit the place. For Waltham Abbey is said to be the final resting place of the final crowned Anglo-Saxon king (see my post for the uncrowned King Edgar The Ætheling – The last and uncrowned Anglo-Saxon King of England).
King Harold II of course is famous for his spectacular and history changing victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Stamford Bridge before having to march hundreds of miles back to London and beyond to face the tyrannical William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings in one of the most bloody battles in history.
As many will know it is said that the Normans were on the edge of defeat as it was rumoured William had been killed. Anglo-Saxon forces rather broke their lines against the wishes of their king and gave chase down the hill only for William take off his helmet and reveal he was very much alive which inspired his men to give it one last effort and cut down the pursuing English before taken advantage of the broken formations ti win an astonishing last gasp victory with King Harold reputedly being hit in the eye by an arrow.
Though Anglo-Saxon reinforcements were not far away, they were just that bit too late and despite various fightbacks, resistance and rebellions, the scene was set for the Norman Conquest which in many ways is still with us today.
The battlefield was littered with thousands of dead who were hurriedly buried and cremated but what about the body of King Harold?
It is said that after the Kings mother, Countess Gytha, pleaded with William to exchange her son’s remains for their weight in gold but was turned down. However after some petitioning, his common-law wife Edith Swanneck was given permission for his body to be reburied.
The main problem is that no-one can be quite sure where that spot is. Some Norman accounts state he was buried under a simple cairn on the south coast but that seems a little unlikely as despite his many moral shortcomings, William The Conqueror would probably not choose to show such disrespect to a nobleman and esteemed opponent.
For many the natural spot seems to be Waltham Abbey and it has long been reported that the body of King Harold was buried by the High Altar of the Abbey and relocated multiple times as the building grew in importance and expanded.
Though there are written accounts and statements galore of King Harold being buried here, the one fly in the ointment is that his skeleton has never been recovered which may well be understandable given how many times it has been relocated.
Another possibility is that only his heart and perhaps head was buried at Waltham Abbey. The practice of burying various body parts in different locations was relatively widespread in those times and some believe the majority of King Harold may be buried in Bosham parish church which not only is close to Hastings but also has strong connections with King Harolds family at that time. In 1954 workmen in the church found a skeleton from that time in what was intended to be a royal vault… albeit it missing a leg and a head and these are wounds King Harold is reported to have suffered.
Despite all of this, like most other people, I take Waltham Abbey to be in some way the resting place of King Harold and to me it’s important as I am a direct descendant from his blood-line. So unexpectedly finding myself in Waltham Abbey, I just had to go and find him.
There were various indicators that I was heading to the right place around and about Waltham Abbey Church. Behind the present building you can see in in the turf, the outline of the old buildings and a little further on, a footpath leads to the site of the old High Altar on which there is an inscription relating to Kind Harold and 1066 as well as a small, simple memorial stone.
To a degree, it doesn’t really matter how much of King Harold is here at all. Sometimes faith is more important than facts and I was glad to visit the resting spot of my brave and heroic ancestor from 40 or so generations ago.
There are quite a few other little things to see if you are in Waltham Abbey including the chance to stand on the Prime Meridian without the crowds of Greenwich.