Ask any English pupil and they will be able to roll off two sturdy facts about the battle of Hastings. Number one: it took place in 1066 and number two: King Harold died from an arrow to the eye. And only one of those facts is true.
The first reference to Harold and the arrow was the Italian monk Amatus of Montecassino around twenty 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.
One account also has William killing Harold, another has Harold dying in the morning as fighting began and the Chronicle of Battle Abbey says no one knows how Harold died. As a point of fact, the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio – ‘Song of the Battle of Hastings’, which was written just months after the battle, says that four knights killed him and there is no mention of the arrow at all, and that seems to fit in with the image in the tapestry. The arrow would have been a great lyric, n’est-ce pas? But it isn’t even in the song.
Let’s check the primary source material ourselves and look between the threads of the Bayeux Tapestry:
‘Harold the King slain is’
There is a figure with an arrow and then a figure being cut down, but is it the same figure? On the face of it it doesn’t appear that way. They have completely different leg coverings (I’ll stop short from calling them ‘leggings’). That cannot be incidental. One figure has plain coverings while the slain figure that is falling has a clearly striped design. The incident of Harold being cut down by mounted knights fits in with the closest ‘eye-witness’ account that we have. In fact, his body was so badly mutilated in the attack that his mistress had to identify him by a birth mark.
The arrow in the eye story served Norman propaganda very well indeed by shoring up the foundations of their claim to the throne as the enactment of God’s will against Harold usurping the throne. Harold had, after all, been sent to Normandy at King Edward the Confessor’s behest to confirm his wish that William take over on Edward’s death. While in Normandy Harold had sworn (evidently coerced) on Norman relics that he would support William in his claim to the throne.
Such omens as an arrow in the eye were taken very seriously at the time, hence the sighting of Hailey’s Comet on Harold’s coronation and the moment when William stumbled when landing at Pevensey.
One thing is certain then, based on the visible evidence and the documentary history, we cannot state as historical fact that Harold was killed by an arrow. After all, how many men do you imagine received an arrow in the eye during battle as the Norman archers unleashed volley after volley upon their Anglo-Saxon counterparts? More than just one, I would say.