Edward the Confessor bestowed Waltham and the lands thereabout on Godwin's son, Harold, the king having married his sister, Editha; and Harold immediately built a monastery on it, and richly endowed it. Each canon had one manor appropriated for his support, and the dean had six - in all, seventeen.
As might be supposed, William the Norman had small liking for Harold's abbey. He robbed the Church of Holy Cross of its plate, gems, and rich vestments, but fortunately left it its estates and revenues.
Henry II. dissolved the foundation of dean and eleven canons for their bad conduct, and settled regular canons there; declaring the church then exempt from episcopal jurisdiction, and granting the use of the mitre, crozier and ring to the abbot. Waltham is still exempt from the archdeacon's visitation.
Favoured by succeeding sovereigns, the abbey grew very rich, and the monks were said to be jovial, and keep a good table. Rumours of this reached the ears of Henry VIII. The monarch, then a young and merry prince, determined to try the hospitality of the reverend fathers. He disguised himself in the dress of one of his guards, and contrived some excuse for arriving at the abbey about dinner time. He was at once invited to the abbot's table, and a fine sirloin of beef was put before him. He ate so heartily of it that the abbot said, "Well fare thy heart, and here's a cup of sack to the health of thy master. I would give a hundred pounds if I could feed so heartily on beef as thou dost, but my poor queasy stomach can hardly digest the breast of a chicken."
The king pledged him in turn, and having dined, thanked the abbot for his hospitality and departed.
A few days after the abbot was sent for to London, and on his arrival was committed to the Tower, and for some time fed only on bread and water. At length one day a sirloin of beef was placed before the half-starved abbot, who attacked it at once, and ate as heartily of it as a ploughman might. In the midst of his feast the king burst into the room from a private closet, and demanded his hundred pounds for restoring the abbot's appetite.
The worthy Churchman, delighted to find his incarceration only a joke, readily paid it, with many a compliment and laugh at the king's trick played on him, and went thankfully back to his abbey.
There may have been some memory of the wealth of Waltham Abbey in Henry's mind, when in 1539 he dissolved the house, and the last abbot, Robert Fuller, surrendered it to his commissioners The site was granted to Sir Anthony Denny for thirty-one years. His grandson, created
Earl of Norwich by Charles 1., was the next possessor; from him it passed to his daughter, who married James Hay, Earl of Carlisle, and next it went to the family of Sir William Wake, Bart.
Scarcely any part of Waltham Abbey remains but the nave, which is now the parish church; the Lady Chapel on the south side; some ruinous walls, a small bridge and gateway near the abbey mill; but it was once a magnificent building, the earliest specimen of the Norman style of architecture in England.
The present stone tower at the west end of the church is eighty-six feet high, and was built in 1558.
But that which has rendered Waltham most memorable to Englishmen is the belief entertained that it is the burial place of Harold. There are, however, very differing accounts of it. William of Malmesbury says that Githa, Harold's mother, begged the corpse of her son from the Conqueror, and had it buried in the Abbey of Holy Cross (Waltham), but the chaplain of the Norman duke declares that a body supposed to be Harold's was found between his dead brothers, Gurth and Leofric, and that though Githa offered its weight in gold for it, William was deaf to her prayers and tears, and ordered the dead king to be buried in the sands of the sea-shore, saying, scornfully, "Let him guard the coast that he so madly occupied." For Harold had been excommunicated by the Pope, and it was against the duke's opinions that- an excommunicated man should sleep in consecrated ground.
The two monks of Waltham who had followed Harold to the battle-field tell a different story.
They assert that they sought Duke William when the strife was over, and offered him a purse containing ten marks of gold, for permission to find the body of Harold. The Conqueror refused the purse, but gave them permission to search for the corpse. But their search was vain, and they had to ask the assistance of the king's beloved Editha - the swan's neck - to discover amongst the slain her royal lover's body. They assert that the eyes of love were keen; she found the slain prince, and the faithful monks bore him back with them to Waltham Abbey, and buried him at the east end of the choir, with royal pomp and solemnity. His tomb bore only the touching epitaph:-
HIC JACET HAROLD INFELIX.
There is yet another legend. Near the fine old church of St. John, at Chester, close beside the Dee, there stood - the very spot marked by the tradition has been pointed out to the writer by the dwellers there - a cell or hermitage, where, about 1066, and many years after, an anchorite dwelt, who lived to a great age. He was blind in the left eye, and his face was deeply scarred. On his death-bed he declared to the monks surrounding him that he was King Harold. The two monks of Waltham and Editha had found him not quite dead, had borne him to a hiding place, and buried one of his slain nobles in his supposed grave. As soon as it was safe to do so, he was removed to Chester, where he buried his grief and repentance in a living grave. Henry I. had once a long private interview with the anchorite, and is said to have been encouraged by him to invade Normandy. The day of vengeance for Hastings came at last, when at Tenchebraye, Henry I. conquered Normandy, and "God so disposed it," says William of Malmesbury, "that Normandy should be subjected to England the very same day (Michaelmas Day) wherein England was subdued to Normandy."
That was forty years after the brave struggle on the Sussex hills, and if Harold did really survive Hastings, he may possibly have lived to hear of the English victory...