As the Lee Navigation leaves London and heads into the Hertfordshire countryside, it passes the historic site of Waltham Abbey in Essex. This remains a site of great archaeological importance and is also the location of the Harold Stone – a stone that is said to mark the spot where the last Anglo-Saxon king of England was buried following his defeat at the Battle of Hastings. Harold had a long association with Waltham Abbey. He had large estates in Essex and rebuilt the church at Waltham Abbey, believing that the site’s Holy Cross, a black crucifix brought to Waltham from Somerset in 1030, had cured him of childhood paralysis.
The Lee Navigation is a river that has been straightened and improved at various times over the centuries to make it easier for boats to use. It’s always been an important route to the Thames and then the sea, and archaeological evidence of its use for transport goes back to the Bronze Age. The Lee runs from Hertford through Essex and into London where it joins the Thames, and much of the route forms a linear park called the Lee Valley Park. Waltham Abbey is one of the most significant ancient historical sites along the course of the river, having been a place of worship since the seventh century. After it became a site of pilgrimage following the arrival of the Holy Cross, the estate was owned by King Edward the Confessor and then passed to Harold Godwinson – Harold II – who rebuilt the church in 1060. Harold prayed – ineffectively it seems – at Waltham on his way from the Battle of Stamford Bridge to Hastings, and it was said his body was then buried at Waltham beneath the floor of the church.
Harold’s church was destroyed by the Normans, who rebuilt it in the Norman style in around 1090, albeit reusing the Saxon foundations and some of Harold’s stonework. A memorial stone for Harold’s resting place was placed on what is believed to be the site of his tomb in 1964 and this is the location of a regular Harold Day memorial event every year in October. The site’s long history as a place of worship makes it a popular spot for archaeologists, and digs were held in 2017 by local societies with the agreement of the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority. Some archaeologists are still hoping to one day discover the tomb of Harold himself.