On the 5th January 1066 King Edward the Confessor died. His death was a catalyst for a series of extraordinary events that resulted in the Norman Conquest, which changed the face of England forever.
So, who was Edward?
Edward was born in 1003 to King Æthelred the Unready and his second wife Emma of Normandy. He was born during a tumultuous time as the Vikings, an ever present threat, managed to find a footing again on English soil with “two successive conquests…by Swein Forkbead (1013-1014) and his son Cnut (1015-16)”. These events were disastrous for Æthelred who history has not remembered kindly. Upon his death in 1016 his son Edmund Ironside, from his first marriage, succeeded him as king only to die a few months later leaving the path clear for Cnut. Cnut created an empire that spanned England, Denmark and Norway, an incredibly impressive feat. Cnut was to rule England for the next 19 years, with Edward remaining in exile as a claimant to the throne. His mother Emma was a “significant political figure in her own right” and married Cnut in 1017. The motivations for Cnut are clear, as this marriage was likely to prevent people supporting Edward’s claim. From Emma’s perspective, maybe she saw this as a way to protect her offspring who were a threat to Cnut’s rule? Regardless of her motivations, Edward remained resentful towards her actions. Emma and Cnut would go on to have two children; Harthacnut and Gunnhilda.
Events took a turn for Edward in 1035 when Cnut died. This led to a succession crisis as Edward’s half-brother Harthacnut, who was heir to the throne, was away in Denmark at the time. Emma wasn’t able to hold the vacant throne for him as Harthacnut’s half brother Harold Harefoot, from Cnut’s first marriage, took the throne in 1037. During this period of instability, Edward and his brother Alfred set out to England to join their mother. This was a disaster, with Alfred “the blameless atherling” being taken by the Earl Godwin and given to Harold who then had him blinded to take him out of the political equation. Alfred died of his injuries, and this later explains Edward’s animosity towards the powerful Godwin family.
Harold Harefoot died as Harthacnut came to England in 1040, so Harthacnut was now king without contest. This changed Edward’s position yet again as Emma, fearful for Harthacnut’s ill health, persuaded them to be co-rulers in 1041. In the Encomium Emmae Reginae, commissioned by Emma herself, this moment is recorded with Edward, “Obeying his brother’s command, he was conveyed to England, and the mother and both sons, having no disagreement between them, enjoy the ready amenities of the kingdom”. Harthacnut died shortly after in 1042 and now finally Edward, who was by now in his late 30s, was King of England.Edward would go on to rule for 24 years. Despite not being considered “a skilled warrior nor a statesman” his rule oversaw “a peaceful and prosperous England”. The Godwin family, who Edward despised, were too powerful to ignore. Earl Godwin had helped secure Edward’s throne, and he persuaded Edward to marry his daughter Edith Godwin in 1045. From here on in the tricky legacy of Edward the Confessor begins.
One of the key roles for a monarch was to secure the succession, and this meant having children. Now infant mortality was sadly incredibly high during this period, and even having one son alone was risky. The ideal was an heir and ‘spare’ who could step in if the elder son did not survive. There was no legal reason why a woman could not inherit the throne in England, as they followed the rules of primogeniture where the first child inherited, but in practice England was patriarchal and it was the sons who would usually inherit. Yet for undetermined reasons Edward and Edith had no children. We can only guess why, but possibly Edward and Edith never consummated the marriage or there was a medical reason why they couldn’t conceive. Edward’s supposed chastity increased his pious image, and Edith said their marriage was unconsummated “in order to portray Edward as a saint”. Edward would eventually become a saint in 1161.
Edward certainly wasn’t a fan of his wife and her family. In 1051 Edward finally got his revenge and banished the family including his wife. He publicly accused his father-in-law of involvment in his brother Alfred’s murder, and sent Edith unceremoniously to a convent. During this exceptional rift, Edward met with William Duke of Normandy, the future William the Conqueror. They were kin, as William was the great nephew of Emma of Normandy, and it’s thought Edward may have made William his heir during this time. The Godwins were a powerful force though and after they came back with an army Edward was forced to concede his position and reinstated them. Earl Godwin died in 1053, with his sons Harold and Tostig Godwinson remaining chief advisors to Edward. In 1064 Harold visited William in Normandy. This event is missing from the Chronicles, but is explored in the Bayeux tapestry “the implication is that Edward sent earl Harold to confirm that he was making William his heir and that Harold pledged his own support for William at the same time”. Harold and William would meet 2 years after this meeting on the battlefield at Hastings, both vying for the kingdom.
After it became obvious Edward wasn’t going to have children, he should have made a plan for the succession. It probably wouldn’t be wise to name his successor too early, and give rise to a rival faction, but he still needed to know who he wanted to hand the kingdom to and make this public knowledge at some point. Instead it appears that he dangled the throne in front of William Duke of Normandy, Edgar Ætheling and maybe even Harald Hardrada King of Norway as well. On Edward’s deathbed, surrounded by Edith, Harold and other dignitaries, it was claimed Edward asked Harold to protect the kingdom. Considering Edward’s animosity towards the Godwin family we’ll never know if this was true or not. Ultimately Edward died without having ever publicly named an heir which meant anyone with a claim could come forward to fight for the crown.
When Edward died on the 5th January he sparked a succession crisis that scarred 1066. His legacy was one of disorder and conquest. There were four key contenders for the throne: Harold Godwinson, Harald Hardrada, William Duke of Normandy and Edgar Ætheling. Their fight for the throne and William’s ultimate victory on the 14th October at the Battle of Hastings would make 1066 one of the most significant years in English history. It saw the beginning of the Norman dynasty and the end of serious Viking invasion in England.
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England’s Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York by Elizabeth Norton
Æthelred the Unready by Levi Roach
Kings & Queens: The Story of Britain’s Monarchs from Pre-Roman Times to Today by Richard Cavendish and Pip Leahy
Oxford DNB: Edward [St Edward; known as Edward the Confessor] by Frank Barlow
Oxford DNB: Cnut [Canute] by M. K. Lawson
Oxford DNB: Alfred Ætheling by M. K. Lawson
British Library: Encomium Emmae reginae
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: The Authentic Voices of England From the Time of Julius Caesar to the Coronation of Henry II. Translated and Collated by Anne Savage.
Wikipedia: Edward the Confessor, Emma of Normandy, Æthelred the Unready, Cnut, Alfred Aetheling, Edgar Ætheling