Many codexes or codices survive in a single manuscript (like Beowulf). These often give us unique insight into the past we would not otherwise have. Yet where they contradict orthodox history, they languish in obscurity, dismissed academically as fabrications - unless some more adventurous scholar becomes intrigued, and dares to publish an accessible version. Such is the case with the strange tale, preserved in one 12th-13th Century codex in the British Museum, of “the man in the cloth mask.” I call him this as the controversy is over his identity. For if he was indeed who he claimed to be, then English history is wrong on a key point.
The tale is reminiscent of the folk-tale of the king who went about disguised as a beggar to discover some home truths about his kingdom. Historians also class it with romantic folk legends of some national figure who is not really dead, but slumbers on in a cave, awaiting the moment to return. Thus many historians dismiss it as a concoction, although it was preserved in an English monastic library as a true story of the Vita (Latin "Life") genre we see in Saint’s Lives. Yet one of the most respectable mediaeval scholars, Richard Barber, points out many of its details do not fit the pattern of such stock tales. These details are curious - if true, would mean English history would need some rewriting.
The conventional view has meant the work is little known. It was left aside at the time other such works were being translated, and was only translated into English in 1885 by an assistant in the British Museum manuscripts department, with a modern translation by Michael Swanton in 1984 in his compendium Lives Of The Last Englishmen. The most recent published version seems to be in the Folio Society's 1998 anthology British Myths & Legends, now out of print (Amazon UK has one copy for sale for £35.) It is edited by medievalist Richard Barber, who says “this is a different kind of survival story.”
In summary, the tale of “the man in the cloth mask” is this. In the decades after the Battle Of Hastings, he spent his life as a pilgrim and a hermit. He went about in simple pilgrim's garb, including staff and hat. Yet his face was always kept covered by a cloth veil or mask, so that he depended on a servant or guide to lead him by the hand. Questioned about this wherever he went, he would only say his name was simply 'Christian' - as if he were a character out of the sort of mediaeval allegory plays John Bunyan later drew on for his Pilgrim's Progress. While Norman fire and sword swept the kingdom, he went on pilgrimage to Rome and other shrines. Homesick, he returned to live in a cave near Dover. He then went up to North Wales, where he persevered in his devotions for a number of years despite rough treatment from the locals. He spent his declining years at Chester, living at a chapel outside the city walls.
So far, we have a conventional pious ‘saint’s life’ type of story. But when dying and making his last confession, ‘Christian’ gave his real name as Harold Godwinesson and his ‘station in life’ as “formerly the king of England.” In other words, he was King Harold II, once the wealthiest man in England, previously Edward Confessor's army commander, who was elected king (the Saxon practice) in 1066, but proved last of the Saxon kings, ruling only 9 months before being cut down at Hastings by William The Conqueror's Norman knights.
The manuscript survives in a single copy now in the British Museum, known as the Vita Haroldi, and translated as The Life Of Harold Godwinson. Dated to circa 1205, it was copied and preserved for generations at Waltham Abbey outside London. Harold had become its patron after the monks nursed him following a 'stroke' that left him temporarily paralysed, and he was officially buried there.
The manuscript's anonymous author (presumably a monk at Waltham) gives its sources. He says some of it came from Harold's former servant (named Sebricht), who in his old age also became a hermit, and whom he visited regularly for years. He also cites other 'equally trustworthy authorities' who 'had known Harold after he had become a man of religion.' One seems to have been the priest who heard the deathbed confession, for the tale tells he broke his vow and went about telling people. The Vita Haroldi itself seems to have two authors or narrators: what the Waltham monk calls his book is followed by an account by another hermit. Some of the detail seems to derive from Harold himself.
Of course, as every schoolboy knows, Harold was slain at Hastings in 1066, transfixed with an arrow through his eye - which would have made his corpse easy to recognise even if he was stripped of his gear, as happened after the battle. Yet contemporary accounts of the battle don't mention an arrow in the eye - this comes from the misleading way the Bayeux Tapestry images are crammed together. The earliest version has him ridden down by four Norman knights, who hacked off his leg and head, and threw the scattered the parts to prevent proper burial.
Regarding the identification of his corpse, the orthodox version says this was done by his consort Edith The Fair alias Edith Swan-Neck, who said she saw on his chest birthmarks or tattoos with the names "Edith" and "England" (!) The Vita Haroldi says he was misidentified by a woman despatched by Waltham Abbey to recover the body for proper burial. (This sounds odd, but the traditional account clarifies it: Waltham Abbey had already sent two monks, who had no luck finding the king, and so they asked for Edith.) The Vita adds the woman was called Edith, and she knew him well from frequenting 'the secret places of his chamber.' This would fit Edith The Fair, who was in the eyes of the clergy his mistress rather than his wife. (Though he had 6 children by her, he had put her aside when he became king to make a marriage that was more ‘politic.’)
The Norman soldiers told her Harold was slain, based on what Saxon survivors were saying. In a pit (or a pile) of dead, she identified a mutilated corpse as his, and this was taken away by the Normans. The Vita says the real Harold was found, 'half dead' by several women come to minister to the wounded, and taken to a local hut, and from there in secret to Winchester. The conspirators put out the rumour the king had been found dead to prevent the Normans searching for him to finish him off. At Winchester, he was nursed back to relative health by a Saracen woman 'very skilled in the art of surgery' (Arab medicine was much more advanced than European), a process that took two years. This suggests serious injuries, and if he remained distinctively disfigured, that would explain the need for the mask or veil.
For the burial, the conventional story is William refused to release the body to the family, despite an offer of his body-weight in gold. This suggests the family knew nothing of the misidentification, which might have been discovered when they prepared the corpse for burial. However they were refused access. Supposedly William had the body buried Beowulf-style in a cairn-type tomb somewhere on the shore, complete with 'Viking funeral' pyre and on the cairn with his ashes, a kingly epitaph, which was perhaps meant to be ironic. (In reality, William must have known any such tomb would attract hero-worship, making this story seem more Norman propaganda.)
This, and a family link to a church by the sea not far from Hastings, at Bosham, has led to a modern campaign lasting nearly fifty years to have a stone coffin there excavated and the remains DNA-tested. The coffin had been opened in 1954 during renovations and was said to hold a skeleton with comparable injuries to the battle account cited above. The church court was petitioned in 2003 for an excavation to be financed by a TV company. The court ruled the whole notion was scientifically unlikely, even if there were any remains left. (A 2nd coffin, said to contain Canute’s daughter, had held only dust.) As the find has been cited to discredit the ‘survival’ scenario, the church court’s judgement is reproduced in full online here.
The judgement notes the 1954 find showed the coffin held only “the thigh and pelvic bones of a powerfully built man of about 5ft 6ins in height, aged over 60 years and with traces of arthritis” (Harold was 44 in 1066). It found the petitioners’ “argument so tortuous as to be almost self-defeating.” The whole argument about matching injuries of course becomes circular if the 4 knights hacked up the wrong man (the Tapestry shows Harold was dressed in a standard Saxon chain-mail outfit). One interesting aspect was the DNA was to be compared not only with that of bones in the Godwin family funerary chests in Winchester Cathedral, but with claimed living descendants known as ‘the Cheshire Godwins.’ (Cheshire was where our hermit spent his last years.)
According to the official annals of Waltham Abbey, his remains were transported there to be given a Christian burial, originally behind the high altar. As his remains are referred to as ashes, it seems that William's men did burn the corpse. The Vita says that “hacked about as it was, covered with blood, already becoming black and decomposed,” nobody noticed they had the wrong corpse. (The Bayeux Tapestry makes it clear kings then did not wear identifying insignia in battle.) Interestingly, when the grave under the official plaque was excavated not long ago, the tomb was empty. Legally of course, Harold could not be openly buried on consecrated ground as the Pope had excommunicated him for oath-breaking, so there may have been some pre-Reformation subterfuge here to get around this. However, the whole story of his death, the identification of his body, and interment remains full of discrepancies.
The Vita says when he recovered, Harold left Winchester in 1068 for the Saxons' ancestral homeland in Denmark and Old Saxony to raise support for a comeback, but discovered the canny William had already forged alliances with these kingdoms. After a while he decided his downfall was God's will. The Pope had authorised the 1066 Conquest as a crusade as Harold was charged with breaking an oath, made over a box of holy relics, that he would accept William as the next king. Harold always said he had been tricked, the box of relics being hidden under a cloth. His father Godwin of Wessex had evidently dropped dead from Divine retribution: immediately after making one of those may-God-strike-me-dead-if-I'm-lying remarks, he choked on a crust of bread. Chroniclers also depicted the defeat at Hastings as God's punishment for the sins of the English nation. (There’s a “Vatican conspiracy” theory of course: that this was all part of a Papal drive to move Britain one step farther away from its original Orthodox church – Celtic, then Saxon. There’s a lengthy discourse on this here.)
So Harold decided to dedicate his life to religious devotions, wandering Lear-like around the countryside after a lengthy European pilgrimage to Rome and elsewhere to recover relics, which he donated to Waltham Abbey, whose royal patron had been Harold. He seems to have avoided all contact with his wife, former mistress, and family, or joining in the many revolts of the time. He returned from Europe to live in a cave near Dover for ten years, before going up to Cheswardine in Shropshire, where it is implied he deliberately exposed himself to local ruffian behaviour for self-mortification. (In his earlier life, Harold had 'subdued' Wales, campaigning in this area as King Edward Confessor's commander in the field.) His cloth mask and patently pious symbolic name obviously stirred up local curiosity, and probably hostility, wherever he went. He was repeatedly set upon, beaten, robbed and even stripped of his clothing. Presumably the locals thereby got a look at his face, which must have not too much of a giveaway – unlike the legendary Man In The Iron Mask, whose mask – in reality a velvet one – was thought to conceal some recognisable, perhaps royal, visage. In those days, what a king looked like was only known to a few.
Finally he settled at Chester, where a venerated local hermit's hut had just become vacant, near St James's Chapel in the churchyard of St John The Baptist outside the old Roman city walls. Historians say a rumour Harold had survived became current in the following century, and anecdotal evidence suggests some came to suspect Harold and 'Christian' were one and the same. When questioned about Harold and Hastings, 'Christian' would give cryptic replies full of hints, such as saying that he had been at the battle, and 'there was no one more dear to Harold than myself.'
He seems to have lived a long life. Some reports have him still alive in the reign of Henry I. As Henry was crowned in 1100, while Harold was born in 1022, this would make him 78 if he survived till then. The Waltham monk's account in the Vita is followed by another written by the 'venerable' hermit who, on the death of 'Christian', took his place at the hermitage outside Chester.
The monk-narrator mentions he visited the spot in France where, exactly 140 years before, Harold swore his fateful oath. As that was in 1064, this suggests a date of 1204 for the composition of the manuscript. This is a bit of a stretch for someone who knew Harold's servant Sebricht for years, but is just possible. (Normally you calculate 3 generations per century, but if Sebricht was a youngish man in the late 11th C., he could have lived till the mid-12th, when a monk still alive in 1204 was 50 years or so younger.) The Vita says a younger brother of Harold's, who had been a boy in 1066, was questioned in his old age by Henry.
This may have been what inspired Rudyard Kipling’s 1910 story “The Tree of Justice”, as the final chapter in his sequel to his popular children’s book Puck Of Pook's Hill, Rewards And Fairies. However Kipling evidently did not see the original source, and his use of the tale makes little sense. He presents Harold as a one-eyed, witless old “madman” who wanders about calling himself Harold of England and getting stoned by the locals, and contentedly dropping dead when brought before Henry I for amusement at a tournament. In the Vita, Harold’s now-aged brother tells the Waltham Abbey clergy bluntly “You may have some countryman, but you have not Harold.”
The Vita concludes with an account by his successor at the Chester hermitage, evidently a literate and pious cleric. He says he got the details about Harold from his attendant Moses, as well as “other faithful men.” This included the priest, named Andrew, who heard Harold's deathbed confession of his true identity, whom he says he knew well. Moses himself had served “the Lord Harold” for 7 years at Cheswardine and then Chester, before serving his successor, the narrator, for two years. Moses described the eyeless cloth mask Harold constantly wore over “his gashed face,” saying he did not know why his master wore it - whether it was vanity, to shun worldly sights, or from fear of being recognised by his fellow Saxons and perhaps being subjected to a veneration he felt he did not deserve.
The notion he survived is also alluded to in the official annals of Waltham Abbey, where he was officially buried. The cynical modern view is such claims by abbeys that famous people were buried there were designed to draw pilgrims - as with Glastonbury and the graves of Arthur, St Patrick, etc. But leading mediaeval scholar Dr Marjorie Chibnall says Waltham Abbey made an effort to discourage such traffic, relocating the grave twice to hide it. "I think the Waltham story convincing; there was a continuous tradition of liturgical commemoration there, and far from trying to attract pilgrims of the tomb the canons did all in their power to prevent the growth of a seditious cult so that they moved the body twice to prevent pilgrims coming to adore the Holy Cross passing by it.” The grave of ‘the man in the cloth mask’ remains unknown (was it also at Waltham?)
Despite the lack of proof, this unsentimental tale has an enduring appeal - Christian message balanced by historical irony. It also has elements of the Classical idea of tragedy - "how are the mighty fallen," punished by the gods, with great wealth replaced by the most spartan life imaginable. At the same time there is the tragedy of the man who must cast himself away in the wilderness as atonement, in possession of a great secret he must never speak. The Medieval History website concludes that the Vita Haroldi “is not like other classical romance fiction of the thirteenth century, which tends to be overlong on the fantastic. It has more in common with Asser's Alfred, that other devotional biography, plainly written, apparently with first hand knowledge… It is a simple and tragic story.”