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Do you believe this tall story from English history?

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A small building on top of a sandstone outcrop in Chester has an interesting – if unlikely – legend attached to it. This is known as the “Anchorite’s Cell” or “The Hermitage”, and it has that name because it was once occupied by reclusive monks who lived there cut off from the outside world so that they could devote their lives entirely to prayer.

The building seen today probably dates from the mid-14th century, although there is no definite information about this. It is, however, certain that if there was an anchorite cell here any earlier than this, it could not have been the current building.

There is a legend that the cell was occupied in the 11th century by a very well-known person. This was the former King Harold II, whom history relates lost his life at the Battle of Hastings, being replaced on the throne of England by William the Conqueror who then reigned, from 1066 to 1087, as King William I. Tradition has it that Harold died after being struck in the eye by an arrow that then pierced his brain

So how could Harold have been a hermit living in Chester after apparently being killed at Hastings? You may well ask!

The legend was originally put about by Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) who lived from 1146 to 1223 (or thereabouts). It also appears in a document entitled “Vita Haroldi” from roughly the same time. There are real doubts over the trustworthiness of both sources, which flatly contradict accounts from much closer to the date of the Battle of Hastings.

The legend relates that Harold, despite being seriously wounded – including the loss of an eye! – was taken in by the monks of Waltham Abbey, healed of his injuries and allowed to wander far and wide until he ended up at Chester.

It is quite possible that that an elderly monk turned up much later at the same abbey and claimed to be the long-lost Anglo-Saxon king. The abbey authorities, being no friends of the Norman succession, might have welcomed the chance to spread some “fake news” and gleefully committed the hermit’s story to paper. The same might well be true of Gerald of Wales.

After Hastings, the Normans swept north in a brutal campaign to eliminate all opposition. This included building castles to show the locals that resistance was futile. One such castle was built in 1070 less than a mile from where – apparently – the former King Harold was living as a hermit. If this were so, could he really have escaped detection?

It does sound like a very tall story!

  • Question /

    Do you think this story could be true?

    • Yes
    • No
  • Question /

    Do you think that stories like this usually have an element of truth to them, even if generally false?

    • Yes
    • No
  • Question /

    Would you like this story to be true, even if it is not?

    • Yes
    • No

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What do you think?

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Written by Indexer

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5 Comments

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  1. these are always interesting, I don’t know if I believe or don’t believe. The reality is someone in the modern era can disappear unless they have had their DNA on file.

    So if you can still disappear now, back then without photos or permanent records it would be possible.

    • The only possible truth that could allow for the story would be that Harold did not die at Hastings, and that the body that was buried with full Anglo-Saxon honours was that of someone else. It was said that Harold’s widow had to identify the body, and that she could only do so by recognising certain marks that only a wife would have known about. Again – that’s the story from nearly 1000 years ago!

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