Legend has it that the last Saxon King, Harold II, was killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 after being hit in the eye by a single arrow but historians claim he was horribly mutilated and that his remains are now buried in Bosham Church

Saturday, October 14, 1066. The shield wall has fallen. It is late in the afternoon and the sun is setting on Saxon England. What thoughts pass through Harold Godwinson’s mind as he sees the Norman cavalry finally crest Senlac Hill near what is now known as Battle in East Sussex?

Is he still hoping his brothers-in-law, Edwin and Morcar might turn up as promised and save the day, or has the bitter realisation of their betrayal already set in? Does he have time in the increasing carnage to mourn the loss of his brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine or ponder the recklessness of throwing them and all the senior nobility of Wessex into this one winner-takes-all battle?

Great British Life: The battlefield where Harold was killed. (c) GettyThe battlefield where Harold was killed. (c) Getty

Most likely at this point of the day he has simply resigned himself to hewing away at the enemy until reinforcements or darkness save him, much as Wellington will do 800 years later in a battle of comparable significance.

Further along the hill, William of Normandy, the scent of victory in his nostrils, spies the English King among the disintegrating ranks of the Saxon army that has matched the Norman forces blow for blow since early morning. William, a formidable warrior himself, has at one point proposed fighting Harold in single combat to decide who should take the throne, but with victory in his grasp he isn't going to risk losing it all over a needlessly chivalric gesture. He has seen how Harold can handle himself when, as his reluctant guest in Normandy two years before, they campaigned together; on this occasion discretion will be the better part of valour.

William summons Eustace of Boulogne to assemble a team of the best knights available to finish off the embattled king. Eustace, accompanied by Hugh of Ponthieu, Walter Giffard and Hugh de Montford, force their mounts through the confusion around the royal standard, and surround Harold. Eustace strikes the mortal blow, running Harold through the chest with his lance; what follows is butchery as the Saxon king is beheaded, disembowelled, and one of his legs cut off. William’s subsequent breaking of one of the knights involved also suggests the dead king was castrated - a step too far even for the vengeful Conqueror.

Harold’s remaining House Carls gather around the shattered body of their king and fight to the end, no quarter is asked or given.

Great British Life: The aftermath of the Battle of Hastings 1066. (c) GettyThe aftermath of the Battle of Hastings 1066. (c) Getty

On the morning after the battle, Harold’s mistress*, Edith Swan-neck picks her way across the open abattoir of Senlack Hill to identify his remains (his young, pregnant widow already heading north after her worthless brothers). The horrific nature of the task is almost beyond imagination; the features of her dead partner are unrecognisable and the body only identifiable by ‘certain marks’ known only to Edith. The assembled parts are eventually wrapped in a purple cloak and carried to the Norman camp.

Here begins the strange journey of the body of the last Saxon King. William is not a man to cross; his anger at Harold for claiming the throne and in so doing breaking the oath he had extracted from him two years before still rankles, as do the heavy casualties he has suffered - up to a third of his army according to some estimates. William commands the remains of his rival to be buried on the seashore, denying him a Christian burial. An offer from Harold’s mother for her son’s body in return for its weight in gold is furiously rejected; William is a greedy man but feels bound to stand by his honour in this matter.

A Norman knight, William Malet, is given the task of interring Harold’s body. He does so on the shore, as ordered, under the white Sussex cliffs at Hastings, raising a pile of stones to mark the grave. He also erects a large headstone with the inscription ‘By the Duke’s command, Harold, you rest here to guard the sea and shore’. However, Harold’s body is not ultimately destined to remain in this humble spot...

In the grounds of Waltham Abbey there is a monument to Harold, who had been a generous patron. He had at one time in earlier life been stricken with a form of paralysis and had prayed at the Abbey in Essex for recovery. He had also stopped there on his last journey south to offer prayers for victory in the looming confrontation. His bones are popularly supposed to have been reinterred there sometime in the 12th century - unfortunately no one can say exactly where as another former patron, Henry VIII, tore down the abbey during the English reformation, leaving only the Church itself.

However, there is another serious claimant to being the resting place of the last Saxon King. On the Eastern side of Chichester harbour sits the charming, beautiful and very ancient village of Bosham (say Bozzam).

Harold, a Sussex man, was born here and local custom has it that it was to Bosham that the royal relics were taken from their wretched station on the Hastings sands.

Great British Life: King Harold Godwinson (c) GettyKing Harold Godwinson (c) Getty

In 1954 during structural renovations at the church of the Holy Trinity two stone coffins were uncovered. One contained the bones of a child supposed to be the daughter of King Cnut who had drowned in a river aged eight. The other coffin, elaborately crafted from Horsham stone, contained the remains of a man; the head was missing as was the left leg, corresponding to the injuries recorded in the earliest contemporary account of Harold’s death, Bishop Guy of Amiens’ Carmen de Hastingae Proelio’ (1070-71).

There is also a further fascinating angle to the mystery: Bosham was the only estate in Sussex that the Conqueror took into his personal possession. Could it be that William himself, thinking the better of his original vindictive behaviour, arranged for the bones of his fallen rival to be discretely buried within Church grounds – where he could also make sure they did not become an object of veneration?

More recent submissions to the Church authorities to reopen the grave have so far fallen on deaf ears, there being a general reluctance among the clergy to open up sanctified ground to the prying trowels of archaeologists. In 2003 local historian John Pollock, convinced that the discovery of 1954 was indeed the remains of Harold, persuaded the parish council to apply for a further disinterment of the body.

‘The 1954 investigations were a mess and totally unscientific,’ he declared, ‘One reason for doing this again is to examine the physical evidence surrounding the tomb and make absolutely sure it is from the 11th Century. They didn't have the technology to look at the DNA in the Fifties and carbon dating had only just come in. There's a much more scientific approach now.’

Great British Life: Is Harold buried at Bosham Church? (c) GettyIs Harold buried at Bosham Church? (c) Getty

The Council for the Care of Churches were against the proposal, and at the hearing on 25th November before the chancellor of the Diocese of Chichester, the Worshipful Mark Hill, it was plain that this was going to be an uphill battle, the enthusiastic amateur against the lettered academicians - indeed the first line of the resulting report reads: ‘As every schoolboy knows, King Harold was killed at the battle of Hastings in 1066. He was hit in the eye with an arrow.’

Historians now doubt that. Early sources insist he was mutilated, and the Bayeux Tapestry, the primary source on which many relied, didn’t have a man being struck by an arrow until 19th century restorers made it so. Earlier versions had a man carrying a spear.

Permission to excavate was denied. Mr Hill said there were ‘complex scientific, historic and archaeological issues’ surrounding the request but he said burial of the body should be seen as entrusting the person to God for resurrection.

Exhumation should only be carried out on ‘special and exceptional ground’ or for a ‘good reason.’

‘There may well be, in this case, a legitimate national historic interest in identifying the final resting place of the only English monarch since Edward the Confessor of whom this is unknown,’ he explained. ‘Those wishing to examine the remains have the laudable objective of wanting to prove that they are those of Harold, but I am far from satisfied that their proposal will advance their aim.’

A ground scan of Waltham Abbey in December 2014 by the team who discovered the remains of Richard III underneath a car park in Leicester likewise came to nothing.

And there the matter currently rests. Waltham Abbey even in its reduced post-Reformation state would be a suitably splendid environment for any monarch, but there is a deeply sentimental appeal in the notion of the man born on the Sussex coast, the last Saxon king, coming home to rest in the place of his birth – ‘guarding the sea and the shore’.

* Edith was in effect Harold’s common law wife of twenty years and mother of his children, married under Danish custom.