We found Dick, now let's find Harry: After Richard III's remains were found in a Leicester car park, the hunt is on for King Harold

One man's hopes of proving that Harold II did not die at Hastings would be one in the eye for the Normans

Serina Sandhu
Sunday 12 October 2014 07:40 BST
A section from the Bayeaux Tapestry
A section from the Bayeaux Tapestry

Is the Bayeux Tapestry about to unravel? Every schoolchild knows that King Harold II was felled by an arrow to the eye at the Battle of Hastings. But the thousand-year legend could be shot down by a new scientific examination which suggests that the last Anglo-Saxon King of England lived to fight another day.

The geological survey company used to find the remains of Richard III is launching a search for the body of King Harold II in the grounds of Waltham Abbey Church in Essex, where the fallen monarch was supposedly given a burial.

The scan, to be performed by the Stratascan team on Tuesday, the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, will be filmed for a documentary exploring an alternative theory of Harold's death.

The history books record that on 14 October 1066, Harold was brutally hacked to death by four Norman knights, after being struck by an arrow to his eye. The scenes of Harold gripping the arrow were later depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Archaeologists will now explore a claim that the king survived the battle and lived as a hermit until he died of natural causes in his eighties – about 40 years after the battle.

The alternative explanation, contained in a 12th-century document housed in the British Library called Vita Haroldi, is championed by Peter Burke, an amateur historian from Waltham Abbey who has been studying an alternative English version of events for the past five years.

"We have the Norman story put through the Bayeux Tapestry – the English story is a different one," said Mr Burke, 64. "You put things together and it begins to build a picture that is quite solid. If everything backs you up in history, you should look at it. You shouldn't just leave it," he said.

Mr Burke, who is a stonemason and fiction author, said that he was "absolutely convinced" that the scan would find King Harold's body and he has funded the search with £2,000 of his own money.

He will lead the scan to a site near the east wall where there are thought to be some symbol markings. This site is roughly 15 yards away from King Harold's reputed tomb at the High Altar.

English Heritage granted permission for a ground-penetrating radar to scan the area. Debbie Priddy, the inspector of ancient monuments in the East of England, said they "were happy to give consent for this work which involves no disturbance to the nationally important archaeological remains of the abbey church".

If the scan does provide evidence, excavation may still be a while off due to the consecrated nature of the site. English Heritage would need to advise the Secretary of State to consent to excavation, in an effort to "conserve archaeological remains for future generations".

"I'm very hopeful we will find something," said Mr Burke. "I've always thought you should question things. You shouldn't just take history at face value. [The Battle of Hastings] is one of the biggest events in English history. Whether it will go as far as rewriting history books, I suppose they'll have to," he said.

Although Mr Burke said that he expected criticism over the search, members of the Waltham Abbey Historical Society have said the king's remains are unlikely to be found because the site has been frequently disturbed for building works.

The account by Guy, Bishop of Amiens, of the East Sussex battle, which delivered a decisive Norman victory, says that Harold was killed by four knights, probably including Duke William II of Normandy, and his body dismembered.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in