Visit King Harold's Grave For His 1,000th Birthday... It's On The Tube Map

By M@ Last edited 24 months ago

Last Updated 27 June 2022

Visit King Harold's Grave For His 1,000th Birthday... It's On The Tube Map
A lone gravestone rises from turf, with slabs of stone in front of it.
Image by Shakti reproduced under creative commons licence

The famous King Harold was probably born around 1022. A full millennium later, you can visit his possible burial site with a swipe of your Oyster card.

Harold Godwinson is pretty famous considering he only reigned for nine months. According to school teachers everywhere, the last Anglo-Saxon king fought off some Vikings before hot-footing it down to Hastings, where he was fatally shot in the eye with an arrow*. Enter William the Conqueror, stage right. 1066, and all that.

But what happened to the late King Harold? His remains do not, as you might expect, repose in Westminster Abbey beside his illustrious predecessor Edward the Confessor.

To find him, we have to seek out another Abbey, on the very edges of London

The King at Waltham Abbey

A sandstone statue of King Harold. His mighty broadsword is positioned at 5 O'clock. Blue sky in the background.
Image by the author

A life-size statue of King Harold stands guard over the churchyard of Waltham Abbey. His mighty broadsword points the way around the south side of the church. Follow his somewhat threatening directions and you'll find yourself standing beside a weathered, lichen-encrusted grave.

It's not much to look at — especially if you choose late afternoon when the whole plot is in shadow — but this may well be the final resting place of our defeated English king.

A lichen covered grave, with two stepped slabs in front and an upright marker behind, all in shadow.
Image by the author... who chose a rotten time of day to visit.

The stones were placed here in the 1960s as a memorial. They've been cleaned up a little since the above photo was taken. Now it's easier to read the inscriptions, which say: "Harold King of England. Obit 1066" and "This stone marks the position of the high altar behind which King Harold is said to have been buried 1066".

Why here?

Waltham Abbey is a pretty little town on the edge of the Lea Valley. You'll have passed nearby if you've ever been to the Royal Gunpowder Mills or White Water Centre. The town grew up around its medieval abbey, which was the last one to be dissolved during the Reformation.

Harold had strong links to the site. His family owned the local manor, and he provided money to rebuild the abbey church in 1060 (parts of which survive within the slightly later building we see today). He also prayed here. A lot. The conduit for his devotion was a supposedly miraculous cross that had been unearthed in Somerset a generation earlier. It's said that Harold was cured of paralysis after genuflecting before the object.

That's the kind of service that gets you coming back for more. And he did. Harold supposedly stopped off at Waltham Abbey during his fast march down from Yorkshire to meet the Norman invaders. This time, the cross miraculously bowed down to Harold. This was either an ill omen, or else Harold had been eating the wrong kind of mushroom. Either way, he was dead a few days later.

A view of an ancient church with sticky outy bits that suggest former walls have long since gone missing.
One look at the church tells you that bits have gone missing over the years. The supposed Harold tomb is not quite visible, to the far right. Image by the author.

According to local legend, Harold's body was brought back to Waltham Abbey and buried beside the Holy Cross that had meant so much to him. It may remain there to this day, even if half of the church has vanished, leaving the tomb and the site of the high alter open to the elements. The multi-talented Holy Cross disappeared without trace 500 years ago.

But is Harold really here?

The quick answer is: "Who knows?". We're dealing with the intersection of myth and second-hand accounts, reverberating through the echo chamber of a thousand years. The area certainly meant a lot to Harold, and it's quite possible that he wanted to be buried here.

Rival theories abound. Some historians think the king was interred in Bosham, West Sussex — hidden by Norman soldiers so that the grave could not become a shrine. Another recent claim has Harold spending eternity in Bishops Stortford — there are worse places. One intriguing retcon has the king surviving the Battle of Hastings and living on to old age in Germany — a medieval equivalent of 'Elvis is alive and well and living in Cleethorpes'.

There have been many calls to scan or excavate the rival graves, given impetus by the 2012 discovery of Richard III beneath a car park in Leicester. So far, though, the king's whereabout remain guesswork. Waltham Abbey just outside London remains the leading contender. Head on over in his millennial year, and get your eyeful.

Waltham Cross is a short walk from either Theobald's Grove Overground station, or Waltham Cross on the East Anglia Mainline.

*Or so the story goes; the arrow thing is doubtful, the battle was several miles from Hastings, and Harold had a sort-of successor by the name of Edgar who, as only a boy, quickly submitted to William the Conqueror.