The Death and Exhumation of Harold Harefoot

Cover image: Harold Harefoot depicted in a genealogical roll of English monarchs with (what else?) a hare. From BL Royal 14 B VI.

Perhaps no royal body suffered a fate worse than that of Harold I, otherwise known as Harold Harefoot. Harold died on this day (March 17th) in 1040. His body was exhumed several months after his death and, depending on which source you consult, was thrown into a fen, thrown into the Thames, publicly beheaded, or some combination of these. This was the act of Harthacnut, Harold’s successor and half-brother, who obviously had little love for his predecessor. After this, Harold (or at least part of him) was fished out and honorably re-buried by those willing to defy Harthacnut. In any case, the sources more broadly agree that Harold’s corpse was exhumed and dishonorably disposed of – a shocking way to treat a royal body.

A little background on Harold: he was the third ruler from the Danish dynasty of English kings, sometimes called the house of Knýtlinga (meaning the house of Cnut’s descendants). This dynasty ruled England from 1013-14 and from 1016-42. After a protracted succession dispute between Harold and his half-brother Harthacnut, Harold emerged victorious. He ruled over England for five years, from 1035-40, and I have discussed his interesting accession and reign in more detail for The Historian Circle (view the original here, or view and download it from academia.edu).

The Death and Burial of Harold I

Harold was not a well man, though. Despite coming to power at a young age – possibly as early as his late teens – he would not enjoy a long life. His debilitating illness was written into a diploma from his reign, which records that Harold was “so very sick that he lay in despair of his life,” in Oxford while somehow still managing to conduct official business.i He died on March 17, 1040 in Oxford. He was probably in his mid-20s at the oldest.

Oxford was the site of his death, but his body was to be interred in London. His corpse was carried for sixty miles and laid to rest in Westminster Monastery, a predecessor of Westminster Abbey. The decision to inter Harold in London is an interesting one, considering that many previous English monarchs (including his father) were buried in Winchester, while others were interred in Glastonbury Abbey (Edmund I, Edgar, and Edmund II). London makes more sense when considering the events of Harold’s life, though. After his father died, Harold faced stiff opposition in Wessex and the south, which was more favorable to Harthacnut. It is possible that Harold never enjoyed overwhelming support there, even after he became king.

Where a monarch was buried said a lot about how they wished to be remembered. Cnut, for example, had needed to work hard to show himself as a legitimate “English” monarch after his conquest in 1016. Accordingly, Winchester was his burial site – a traditional location for a West Saxon king. On the other hand, Harold’s grandfather, Swein Forkbeard, supposedly wished to be buried in Denmark rather than England because he knew he was hated by the English. Perhaps Harold similarly wished to be buried someplace where he could be remembered fondly, rather than hatefully, and that London was the most prestigious site that fit the bill. It had, after all, given him much support in 1035 when its fleets declared their allegiance to him, and it is one of the few places specifically mentioned as a location for his court.

Aside from his possible lack of supporters in Wessex, Harold may have eschewed a Winchester burial for other reasons. Unlike his father, Harold had no need to show himself as an overtly English king. He was the third monarch from his line to rule England, and it is telling that in 1035, the succession dispute was between Harold and Harthacnut, not between them and any claimants from the old West Saxon dynasty. A West Saxon burial was not needed to memorialize Harold’s status as a “real English king” – that was already inherent. In other words, after two decades of Danish rule, it was obvious that a son of Cnut would rule the English.ii The only question had been which one.

Harold was not the first monarch to be interred in London, though. A seventh-century king named Sebba was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral, for example. More recently, Æthelred II had been interred there in 1016, perhaps more out of practicality than anything – the city was under siege at the time – but it had also been fiercely loyal to him in his most desperate moments. Æthelred’s body was laid to rest in St. Paul’s Cathedral, but Harold’s was taken to Westminster.iii It is possible that St. Paul’s was an ill-fitting place for Harold given that Æthelred and his family had been nothing but hostile toward him and his kin: Æthelred had killed or mutilated many of Harold’s relatives in 1006, while Æthelred’s son Alfred died during an ill-advised incursion against Harold in 1036. Burying Harold alongside Æthelred was probably not a wise choice for those who wished to honor Harold’s memory, so perhaps that is one reason Westminster was chosen rather than St. Paul’s.

Occasionally royal bodies were translated to new sites or lost to time; overall, though, nothing particularly noteworthy should have happened to Harold’s body after this. But this is just where things start to get interesting.

With Harold dead, Harthacnut would get another shot at the throne that he thought was rightfully his. In the minds of Harthacnut and his mother, Queen Emma, Harold was an unjust usurper. Emma commissioned a work called the Encomium Emmae Reginae at about this time, which portrays Harold as a wicked, tyrannical apostate – accusations that don’t line up well with other early evidence, which suggests Harold was actually a conventionally pious and largely hands-off ruler.iv But the point here is not about Harold’s alleged personality flaws, but that Emma and Harthacnut loathed Harold. Emma had also been exiled by Harold in 1037, giving her one more reason to oppose him. She is the only member of the English political establishment that Harold is known to have punished.

Harthacnut arrived in England several weeks after Harold’s death, near midsummer, armed with over 60 ships. His mighty fleet sent an intimidating message to his new subjects, but it also hints at the new king’s insecurity. How welcome would he be in a kingdom that had recently driven his mother into exile and chosen Harold Harefoot over him?

The Grisly Exhumation of Harold Harefoot

Harthacnut soon made it clear to everyone that he had no respect for Harold. He ordered that his half-brother’s body be exhumed from Westminster. John of Worcester, writing in the twelfth century, even claims that Harthacnut had some of Harold’s chief supporters take part in the exhumation: Harold’s main supporter, Earl Leofric, and Harold’s steward, Styr, are named among those tasked with digging up Harold’s corpse. The most significant among them was Earl Godwin, who had originally supported Harthacnut but then switched to Harold and allegedly even killed Alfred Ætheling (the rival claimant from the old West Saxon dynasty) for Harold’s benefit. It’s unclear how seriously we should take John of Worcester’s late and surprisingly specific roster of gravediggers, but it is true that Harold’s supporters now found themselves in a tight spot. One story even has Godwin presenting Harthacnut with a spectacular ship to smooth things over.

Once Harold’s body was out of its tomb in Westminster, it was intended for a watery grave. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that Harthacnut had the body thrown into a fen, while John of Worcester says it was thrown into a fen and then the Thames, and William of Malmesbury says that only Harold’s head was tossed in the Thames (according to William, Harold’s corpse had been executed just prior to this). Whatever the exact chronology, this was a disturbing event for those who had to witness it. It’s true that medieval people were more intimately involved in burial rituals than we are today. That said, it’s clear that Harold’s exhumation was viewed as disgusting and inappropriate. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example, names it as the final entry in a list of Harthacnut’s bad decisions. The Encomium, which often attempts to spin more negative events, makes no attempt with Harold’s exhumation and disposal – it is simply omitted. Apparently it was too distasteful for even the encomiast to salvage. Modern historian Nicole Marafioti even points out in The King’s Body that at this point, with Harold dead for months and being exhumed in the summer, the body may have been in an advanced state of decomposition that only sped up when exposed to the humid summer air.

Why would Harthacnut do such a thing? The Encomium says that Harthacnut was deeply moved by Alfred’s death during his incursion of 1036, when Alfred had been captured and blinded by forces loyal to Harold, so was Harold’s exhumation a way to avenge Alfred Ætheling? While the Encomium is hoping to build a picture of unity – Emma’s son by Æthelred aligning with her son by Cnut – it’s unlikely that Harthacnut and Alfred had ever met. It’s also hard to imagine that Harthacnut had overwhelming sympathy for an older half-brother whose claims could be used against his own – he already had one of those in Harold!

While we cannot rule out some level of sympathy for Alfred, the exhumation was primarily a political move designed to frame Harold as a false king and de-legitimize his lawful accession to the throne. Painting Harold as a false king had the additional benefit of neutralizing the claim of his son Ælfwine, who went into exile at some point and became an abbot on the Continent.v Removing Harold from consecrated ground also had implications for Harold’s soul, since a consecrated resting place was seen as “a step toward salvation.”vi This is an even more extreme action than Harold (or Godwin, acting for his benefit) had taken against Alfred. Alfred was blinded and later died of his wounds, and this punishment allowed for the possibility of repentance before death. Only the Encomium claims that Alfred’s death was immediate, perhaps to make Harold seem more ruthless than he really was.vii Alfred was laid to rest at Ely Monastery.

On the other hand, Harold’s posthumous removal from an honorable site associated him with the most deviant members of society, such as criminals and pagans. Harthacnut and his mother obviously shared the view that Harold was an outlaw of a king whose reign had been illegitimate. Harthacnut would have seen similar exhumations and spectacles in Denmark, but this was not something an English monarch was supposed to do or be subjected to.viii

St. Clement Danes and the Fate of Harold’s Body

Amazingly, there is one final twist to this story. Harold’s body, according to John of Worcester, was rescued from its fate and reburied with honor in another London church. John says that the corpse was retrieved from the Thames by the “the Danes” and buried in their cemetery in London. William of Malmesbury reports a similar story, saying that a fisherman caught Harold’s head in his net and that it was buried in London’s Danish cemetery. Whether the entire body or just the head was retrieved, the more significant point is that some Londoners viewed the disposal of Harold’s body as so disgraceful that they took immediate action and defied their new king. By placing Harold in a cemetery (John specifically says this was done “honorably”), these Londoners had restored some dignity to their former king and possibly even helped his cause in the afterlife.

Another twelfth-century chronicler, Ralph de Diceto, clarifies that Harold’s London reburial was in “St. Clement’s,” today known as St. Clement Danes. Ralph would have been particularly well-informed on this matter given that he was a canon at St. Paul’s, which is just a short walk from St. Clement Danes. The name of the church also provides an obvious link to John and William’s accounts, which specifically state that Harold was laid to rest in a “Danish” church or cemetery. While the modern church of St. Clement Danes does mention Harold Harefoot on their website, there is unfortunately no modern memorial or plaque in his honor.

So, with St. Clement Danes solidified as Harold’s final resting place, is there any chance that Harold’s remains are still there? Could Harold Harefoot, like Richard III, be discovered under a car park? It is unlikely. Harold would most likely have been buried in the church’s crypt or somewhere else inside the church, perhaps near its altar. St. Clement Danes does have a crypt, but the church has been significantly refurbished at least twice since Harold’s internment. It was first rebuilt in the reign of William I. This version of the church survived the Great Fire of London in 1666, but was in such a state of disrepair that it was rebuilt by Christopher Wren anyway.

More recently, the church was bombed in the blitz and was refurbished in the 1950s, giving us the modern version of St. Clement Danes. The modern church also stands on a traffic island, with nearly all of the surrounding area (which could have included parts of the early medieval cemetery) built over. This is less of an issue for Harold, who probably would be interred much closer to (or within) the church, but with so many rebuilds (and a bombing!), there is a lower chance that any recognizable remains from the eleventh century have survived. To make matters more complicated, the modern crypt was cleared out in the 1800s and its grisly soup of human remains was allegedly so foul that it would extinguish the candles of anyone who tried to enter. Today, the crypt is cleaned out and is used as a chapel.

In summary, anything left of Harold’s body (which may have already been in a state of advanced decay in the summer of 1040) was probably disturbed or cleared out at some point. Even if the intact skeleton of an eleventh-century, 20-something year-old Anglo-Scandinavian male were located in or around the church, this would be interesting, but not conclusive. It would only prove that the church called “Danes” did indeed have Danes in it. It would take a genetic link to definitively prove it was Harold.

So, unfortunately, it does seem unlikely that anything recognizable remains of the third Danish king of England. However, perhaps a small modern marker or plaque would be a fitting way to honor the memory of the only king interred in St. Clement Danes. I do hope that the church adds one in the coming years.

Notes

i This diploma is known as S 1467 and can be accessed here.

ii This point was recently made by Levi Roach on the Talking History Podcast, “The Life and Times of Cnut the Great,” and I think it’s highly relevant here (at 40:40).

iii Nicole Marafioti, The King’s Body: Burial and Succession in Late Anglo-Saxon England (University of Toronto Press, 2014), 107.

iv Brandon M. Bender, “Harold I ‘Harefoot’: A Reassessment,” The Historian Circle (2022).

v W. H. Stevenson, “An Alleged Son of Harold Harefoot,” English Historical Review 28 (1913): 112-17.

vi Marafioti, 148.

vii Marafioti, 131.

viii Marafioti, 144-60.

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