Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Who Are All These Kings?: Edward the Confessor

[An image showing Who Are All These Kings?: Edward the Confessor]Edward the Confessor is one of our most famous pre-Conquest kings, with a reputation for sanctity which might not be wholly justified.

Edward was born in 1004 at Islip in Oxfordshire, the son of Ethelred the Unready and his second wife Emma of Normandy. When Ethelred fled the country and Sweyn briefly became king, he took Emma and his younger children with him, while his elder sons carried on fighting against the Danes.

Before Ethelred returned to England as king, he sent his young son Edward first, to make sure that the coast was clear.

Edward was educated, partly at Ely and partly in Normandy, where he lived for a good many years. He never expected to become king, as Cnut was a strong ruler with sons of his own, and accounts at the time said that he was an idle and dissolute young man.

Two Norman accounts claim that towards the end of Cnut's reign, Edward attempted an invasion of England at Southampton with forty ships, but withdrew when he realised that his force would be inadequate. It was this, it is said, that led to his brother Alfred's subsequent murder.

When his half-brother Harthacnut became king, Edward was sent for from Normandy, as it was realised that the unmarried Harthacnut might well die without having produced an heir.

This duly happened in 1042. Cnut's cousin Sweyn believed himself to be the heir to England, but everybody ignored this, and Edward, by this time a middle-aged man of 38, succeeded to the throne, being crowned at Winchester in 1043.

Edward's first decision as king was to confiscate his mother's property, believing that she had too much control over the nation's Treasury. There was no doubt that Emma was the most powerful and richest woman in England, being after all the widow of two kings, Ethelred and Cnut.

Edward accused Emma of involvement in the murders of her sons by her first marriage, as well as encouraging Magnus of Norway to invade England, but she is said to have proved her innocence by ordeal.

Early in his reign, Edward is said to have promised Sweyn Estrithson, King of Denmark and grandson of Cnut, that he would succeed him. This may well be true, as he seems to have been happy to make such promises without being particularly interested in keeping them.

One of Edward's chief supporters in acquiring the kingship was the powerful Earl Godwin, who further cemented his position by securing Edward's marriage to his daughter Edith in 1045.

Much has been made of the claim that the marriage was never consummated. This may well be true, and certainly there were no children. It was popularly believed that Edward felt, as so many female saints had done, that sex was a dirty and disgusting matter which nobody remotely holy would indulge in.

But in reality, the marriage was one of political convenience, and the pair were probably not particularly attracted to each other. Edward in any case was much more concerned with hunting, the church, and surrounding himself with the knowledge, scholarship and culture which he personally lacked.

Edward knew that he needed Godwin's support, but had no reason to like or even trust him. Godwin had been implicated in the horrific blinding of Edward's brother Alfred at Ely, which led to his death, and very likely had carried out the deed himself. He also had a track record of changing sides to suit his own purposes.

The two men had opposing ideas about the government of England. Although Edward was part of the old Royal family of Wessex, he was really a Norman in his attitude, and filled his court with Norman advisers. Godwin, on the other hand, felt that important government positions should go to members of the old Anglo-Saxon and Danish nobility.

Their differences were not helped by the fact that Godwin's eldest son Sweyn was particularly wild. Among other acts, he abducted Edgiva, the Abbess of Leominster, having two children by her, and murdered his cousin, Earl Beorn. He died in exile, returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, in 1052.

Matters came to a head in 1051, when a group of Normans were involved in a fight with the inhabitants of Dover. Edward instructed Godwin to punish the town, and he refused. Edward thereupon banished Godwin and his sons, and despatched Edith to a convent at Wherwell. This was not a popular move, as Godwin was held in high regard by the English. Edward tried to put this right by abolishing the Danegeld, which had been levied since the Battle of Maldon in Ethelred's time.

During this period, Duke William of Normandy visited England. He was distantly related to Edward, and obviously felt that he might stand a chance of being nominated as Edward's successor. It was later claimed that Edward did in fact so nominate him.

Emma, Edward's mother, who had been living in retirement in Winchester, finally died in 1052.

In the same year, Godwin and his sons invaded England, and trapped Edward's fleet in the River Thames at London. The outraged Edward was prepared to defend his kingdom, but the Witan refused to sanction any fighting. Edward had no option but to pardon Godwin and restore him and his sons to their Earldoms, which made them even more powerful than before. Edith was also brought back to court from the convent.

This led to Harold, son of Godwin, being elevated to the king's chief adviser, and in 1053, on Godwin's death from a stroke, Edward effectively passed over the administration of England to Harold, leaving him free for hunting and the church.

At this point, Edward declared his support for Malcolm Canmore in his claim for the Scottish throne, and for an invasion of Scotland by Siward, Earl of Northumbria, to depose Macbeth. Malcolm later became King of Scotland in 1058.

Harold Godwinson from this point started to look more and more like a future king. It was Harold who led the assaults on the Welsh, who had been harrying what they saw as a weak kingdom, demonstrating his skills as a general.

As Edward was advancing in years, the question of the succession became more pressing. He may have promised William of Normandy that he would succeed, but anti-Norman feeling made that a distinctly unpopular option. Harold would be more popular, but Edward was loath to hand over even more power to Godwin's family.

In 1054, Edward heard that Edward the Exile was alive and well and living in Hungary. This Edward was the son of Edmund Ironside, and thus the king's half-nephew, and an obvious choice for the new king. He was sent for, and although his journey met with delays, he finally arrived in England in 1057.

However, Edward the Exile's stay in England was a short one, as he died soon after, probably murdered on the orders of Harold.

The outcome of this was that his son, Edgar the Atheling, who was four years old at the time, was raised by the king as his successor, but with the understanding that if he succeeded before coming of age, Harold would act as regent.

In 1065, Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, another of Godwin's sons, was banished after many complaints about his tyrannical misrule. Harold did not support his brother, believing in this instance that Edward had been right to banish him.

Tostig threw in his lot with the Norwegian king, Harald Hardraada, who believed that he should himself be King of England.

It is to this period that the mysterious oath that Harold is said to have sworn to William belongs. Harold was on board a ship in the English Channel, and was blown off course and shipwrecked on the coast of Normandy. It was said later that Harold had sworn, on holy relics, to support William's claim to the throne of England. This seems unlikely, in view of Harold's character, and could well have been invented, but there is no proof either way.

Edward died at Westminster Palace at the beginning of 1066, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, the rebuilding of which he had personally financed, as a penance for breaking a vow to go on a pilgrimage to Rome.

He left a kingdom in turmoil, with five serious contenders - Edgar the Atheling, the last of the old Royal line of Wessex, who was however only 13; Harold Godwinson, the experienced general and popular choice; William of Normandy, favoured by the dead king; Harald Hardraada, the King of Norway, who was prepared to invade, and who had the support of Harold's brother Tostig; and Sweyn Estrithson, the King of Denmark.

All except Sweyn, who tried later, had an important part to play in 1066, but the one who immediately took over as king was Harold.

Edward the Confessor was canonised in 1161, becoming the only King of England to be made a saint. He was a well-built man, not particularly feeble, and not particularly pious, but his legend tells a different story.