Poleaxed on the wapentake upon hearing about Harold

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The Independent Online
TODAY I am bringing you some extracts from a remarkable new book, 'The Day Harold Was Shot]', which is being rushed out for the Christmas market. It is a collection of genuine historical first-hand memories of how people were informed of the news that King Harold of England had been shot at the Battle of Hastings.

Ulf Wulfstayne, peasant: 'I'll never forget it. I was doing tillage in the fields when this churl rushed up to me and said, 'Have you heard the news? King Harold's been killed]' And I said, 'King Harold of where?' And he said, 'King Harold of England]' And I said, 'I thought King Ethelred was the king of England'. And he said, 'No, you idiot, he died years ago'. And I said, 'Oh. So the new bloke's dead already, is he?' And he said, 'Yes.' That's how fast news travelled in those days.'

Wolf Oilstayne, villein: 'I was dumbstruck. Absolutely dumbstruck. I was poleaxed. Our new leader, from whom we had expected so much. Dead. With an arrow through his eye. What a stupid way to die.

'I remember exactly where I was, to this day, when I heard that Harold had been shot. I was standing on the wapentake that belonged to old Edgar the Unsteady, who had a bit of a drink problem, and Ethanol, my neighbour, rushed up to me and said, 'Harold's been shot]' And I said, 'Oh my God, where's he been shot?' And he said, 'In the eye,' and I said, 'No, where was he shot?' And he said, 'In Hastings,' because we Saxons always liked a bit of a joke. So I said, 'Hastings? Where's that?' Because geography travelled very slowly in those days, you know. And he said, 'Well, you take the old coast road from London out along by Sheerness, and you keep going for about a fortnight right along the seashore, and you come to Hastings.' It seems rather a long way to go just to get an arrow in your eye.'

Dame Ethel Smythe of Mercia, Saxon do-gooder: 'I had always campaigned hard for bow-and-arrow control laws, you know. You wouldn't believe how many people were killed unnecessarily by arrows in the old days. Anyone could go out and buy an arrow] Well, actually, they could just go to the nearest yew tree and cut one out] So when I heard that King Harold had been shot through the eye with one, I thought, 'Ah ha] Surely now they will bring in anti-arrow legislation] Or at least make the wearing of safety helmets obligatory]' But, of course, they didn't, and not 30 years later William Rufus was shot dead by an arrow and serve him jolly well right, too. I can remember to this day where I was when I heard that William Rufus has been shot . . .'

King Macbeth of Scotland: 'I'm afraid I can't remember exactly where I was when I heard the news, but I can remember exactly what I thought when I heard that Harold had been shot. I thought, 'Hold on - England beaten at home by the Normans] That's England out of the European Cup, then, unless they can scrape an away victory by two clear battles against the Holy Roman Empire] No chance]' So I decided to declare a national holiday in Scotland.'

Wilf Sinkstayne, Saxon local government planning officer: 'I heard about Harold's death during working hours, so, of course, I didn't allow myself to read about it until we had finished work for the day and I was in my own free time and then I thought, 'Good] Now at last perhaps we'll have someone in charge who will approve my plan for a nationwide survey of England]'

'You see, it was absolutely hopeless in those days trying to get any forward planning done because nobody knew how big England was, or who owned what, or anything, and even the roads were old Roman highways running downhill very fast, so I had this big idea for what I called a Doomsday Survey, of course, the idea was stolen later on and I got none of the credit, but that's local government planning for you . . .'

Dirk Beaugarde, Norman artist: 'I was the official war artist for the Norman troops at the Battle of Hastings. Count William always liked to have a painting of his battles afterwards, and I had been covering his campaigns for 20 years. Later, he got into tapestry in a big way and had these gangs of women do the Bayeux thingy. Personally, I can't stand that modern stuff, but that's probably just me.

'Anyway, I was sketching away during the battle and afterwards King William, as he was by then, came up and said, 'Have you got any footage on how Harold died?' I was about to reply, 'Non, je regrette . . .' when I suddenly realised that without knowing it, I had actually drawn the moment when the arrow hit King Harold] Extraordinary, isn't it? Do you know, this grainy black-and- white drawing is the only actual visual recording of the death of Harold] Amazing . . .'