Edward the Confessor

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Edward, King of England, commonly known as Edward the Confessor (1003 - January 6, 1066) was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England (in his paternal line).

His most notable achievement was the rebuilding of St.Peter's Abbey at Westminster, between 1042 and 1052, in order to provide himself with a royal burial church. Westminster Abbey was not completed until around 1090 but was consecrated on December 28, 1065, only a week before Edward's death. A week later he was buried in it, and nine years later his oft-estranged wife Edith was buried alongside him.


Edward was the son of King Ethelred "The Unready" (d.30 Nov 1016) by his Queen, Emma (d.6 Mar 1052), daughter of Richard I Duke of Normandy, 'The Fearless' (d.996) by his Danish wife Gunnor of Secheville.[1]

On December 18, 1075, Edward married Eadgyth (Edith) (d.18 Dec 1075), daughter of Godwin (d.1053), Earl of Wessex (who had murdered Edward's brother Prince Arthur in 1036), by his Danish wife Gytha. They soon separated and had no issue.

Edward resumes rule

Edward lived abroad in exile during the Danish conquests and rule of England, notably by King Cnut. Upon Edward's return he welcomed servants from Normandy and its environs, and made modest attempts to endow some of his foreign friends with offices and land. An Earldom in the west was given before 1050 to his nephew Ralf, the son of his sister Godgifu by her husband Drogo, Count of the Vexin (d.1035); large but not extravagant estates in East Anglia were bestowed on two Bretons, Robert FitzWimarc (a relative of the king) and Ralf 'the staller'; and smaller grants were made in the usual way to others of his servants. the promotion of Normans within the English Church, which followed naturally from the composition of Edward's chapel, was on a similar small scale.[2]

The Godwinsons

Edward's big problem from the first years of his reign was the House of Godwinson, beginning with Godwin (d.1053), son of Wilfnoth, probably a Sussex thegn.[3] It is unclear whether Godwin was an Anglo-Saxon or a Dane. However, given that his wife was Danish[4] it seems likely he was too. Also, the Danish King Cnut granted Wessex to "his upstart favourite, Godwin" about or before 1018, firstly as a Thegn then as Earl.[5] By Godwin's second marriage, to Gytha, there were several children: Svein (eldest son), Harold (second son), the notorious Tostig, Leofwine, Gurth, and a daughter, Edith. Godwin was at the height of his power in 1045 and his son Svein was soon made an Earl of the Mercian shires of Hereford, Gloucester and Oxford. Harold was made Earl of East Anglia at the same time. It was also then that Godwin 'arranged' the marriage of his daughter to the weak King Edward (although separation followed).[6] But almost the same year Svein outraged religious sentiment: in 1046 by seducing the Abbess of Leominster, and military honour in 1049 by murdering his cousin Earl Beorn. He suffered exile for both offences, passing through Flanders to the Scandinavian wars. Godwin, however, said he had done nothing wrong, and used his influence to have him recalled in 1050, and his Earldom restored.

There were serious clashes of interest between Edward and Godwin over the appointments to bishoprics between 1042 and 1051, Godwin bitterly opposing the promotion of Normans within the English Episcopate. Edward nevertheless continued with his appointments and nominations. The appointment of a Norman, Robert of Jumieges, as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1051, brought matters to a head. After a violent military and murderous brawl at Dover, Godwin and his sons raised an army in rebellion. Edward, however, with loyal forces supporting him, triumphed before a full civil war could occur, and Godwin was arraigned to stand trial, at last, for his complicity in Prince Alfred's murder. Edward's triumph seemed complete. But Godwin, his wife and all his sons fled from England; and were outlawed. All except two went to Bruges; Harold (the future king) and Leofwine went to the Norwegian port of Dublin, in Ireland, and stayed there the winter.[7]

In June 1052 the outlaws returned with a vengeance, with a small fleet and men-at-arms. Edward, this time, did not have adequate forces in the south at his disposal. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Dorchester escaped abroad. Edward had to accept terms, and the Godwinsons were restored. Queen Edith was also recalled to Court. Stigand, Godwin's friend, was given the Canterbury & Winchester Bishoprics. However, less than a year later, Godwin died on April 15, 1053, while dining with the King,[8] and this once more changed matters. Harold succeeded to all his father's lands and Earldom, resigning East Anglia to his nephew. Tostig was given Northumbria, which he ruled for a decade before the Northumbrians drove him out on 1065.

This last Godwinson affair nevertheless destroyed the King's confidence, and he never fully recovered from the shock of Godwin's return and the overthrow of his policies. This family had become the leading power in the land and Harold Godwinson now established himself as the foremost general in the kingdom by virtue of his repeated victories over the Welsh Prince, Gruffyd.[9]

The Succession

Edward the Confessor, being childless, planned to recognise his young cousin (once removed), William II Duke of Normandy as his heir. "Historians are generally agreed that until shortly before his death Edward, who was educated in Normandy and had personal leanings towards their manners, wished his successor to be William, Duke of Normandy."[10] Negotiations with William seem to have been opened by Archbishop Robert when travelling to Rome in the spring of 1051. Edward's magnates, including Godwin, swore to accept him as king on Edward's death, and hostages were given in support of Godwin's oath particularly, he being untrustworthy.[11] Eighteen year-old William then made a State Visit to England in the winter of 1051-2, a chance for Edward to show his gratitude to Normandy for having sheltered him as an exile.[12] Edward had no near kinsmen living in England; he had little interest in his Scandinavian relations; and it was natural that he should turn to William, the son of his protector and champion, Duke Robert I of Normandy. Edward was also a grandson of Richard I Duke of Normandy, their common ancestor. And there was certainly an active Norman party in England. Whilst William was never formally invested with the kingship, the mention in the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio that Edward sent William a sword and a ring goes some way in this direction.[13]

By 1054 Edward was however considering recalling Edward 'The Exile' or 'Aetheling', the surviving son of King Edmund II 'Ironside', and the last representative of the line of Cerdic,[14] and Ealdred the Bishop of Worcester was sent to the Court of the Emperor Henry III to enquire about the Aetheling (who had lived in Hungary for 40 years) and to negotiate for his return. But the Bishop returned, after a year, alone. Finally, Edward again sent a recall message to 'The Exile' who this time returned to England, in 1057, but suddenly died soon after his arrival and before he had even reached Edward's Court.[15] The succession question was again thrown completely open. The Aetheling left a son, Edgar, and two daughters, with one of them, Margaret, marrying Malcolm Canmore.[16]

About 1064 Edward sent Harold Godwinson across the channel to the Court of Duke William, where he fought for the Duke in Brittany and accepted Arms from the Duke, which involved an oath of allegiance, and this was before he publicly swore his famous oath upon holy relics to support William's claim to the English throne. Despite the "ruthless intriguers" which made up much of his reign, when Edward died on January 5, 1066, he had done all he could to arrange for the succession in the way he wanted. Harold then declared himself as a candidate for the throne and moved fast to get the Witan's approval. Contemporaries stressed the almost indecent haste with which Harold's Coronation followed Edward's funeral.[17] This usurped rule would only last months.


  1. Onslow, The Earl of, F.S.A., F.R.Hist.Soc., The Dukes of Normandy and their Origin, London, 1945, p.105-6.
  2. Barlow, Professor Frank, The Feudal Kingdom of England 1012 - 1216, London, 1955, p:57.
  3. Barlow, 1955, p.56.
  4. Barlow, 1955, p.56: She was the sister of King Cnut's brother-in-law, Earl Elf, a Danish family said to descend from a bear!
  5. Barlow, 1955, p.55.
  6. Barlow, 1955, p.61.
  7. Barlow, 1955, pps:63-5.
  8. Humble, Richard, The Saxon Kings, BCA, London, 1980, p.196.
  9. Humble, 1980, p.196.
  10. Barrow, Professor G.W.S., Feudal Britain, London, 1956, p.30.
  11. Williams, Ann, "Some Notes and Considerations on Problems Connected with the English Royal Succession 860 - 1066" in Proceedings of the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies 1978 vol.1, London, 1979, p.165.
  12. Humble, 1980, p.193.
  13. Williams, A., 1979, p.165.
  14. Williams, Ann, "Some Notes and Considerations on Problems Connected with the English Royal Succession 860 - 1066" in Proceedings of the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies 1978 vol.1, London, 1979, p.164.
  15. Humble, 1980, p.196.
  16. Barlow, 1955, pps:67-9.
  17. Humble, 1980, p.199-200.