The Life of Edward the Confessor

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The son of Ethelred the Unready, Edward the Confessor was one of the last Anglo-Saxon Kings of England.

Edward came to the throne following the death of Harthacnut in 1042, restoring the rule of the House of Wessex until the Norman Invasion under William the Conqueror in 1066.

Edward’s Childhood

Edward was born sometime in 1003, in Islip, Oxfordshire. During the reign of Canute the Great, Edward and his brother Alfred were sent into exile in Normandy. Scandinavian tradition states that Edward and Alfred invaded England with the intent of deposing Canute. Edward is said to have distinguished himself on the battlefield by nearly cutting Canute in half. Historians reject this account as apocryphal, arguing that Edward would have been 12 or 13 at the time.

Following this, Edward returned to Normandy, where he became deeply pious. Edward’s familiarity with the Normans would later have a direct influence on the way he ruled England. Edward was grateful for the refuge that the Normans gave him, but was also bitter toward the Normans as a result of their general disdain for Edward and Alfred. However, when Duke Robert went on pilgrimage to Rome, he left Edward as one of the guardians of his son, William the Conqueror.

Following the death of Canute the Great, Harthacnute became the legitimate successor to the English crown. However, the threat of war with Sweden and Norway prevented him from claiming the English crown. In 1037, Harthacnut’s half brother, Harold Harefoot, unexpectedly claimed the English throne, setting himself up as a usurper. Around the same time, Edward and Alfred unsuccessfully tried to invade England, with the intent of deposing Harold. Edward was able to return safely to Normandy, but Alfred was captured by Harold and turned over to Godwin, the Earl of Wessex, who had Alfred blinded. Alfred died of his wounds shortly afterward. Alfred’s murder would eventually lead to Godwin’s banishment by Edward in 1051.

In the wake of Harthacnute’s death, in 1042, the Anglo-Saxon nobles invited Edward to take up the Kingship. Edward was crowned in Winchester Cathedral on April 3, 1043.

Edward’s Reign

Edward’s reign was marked by peace and prosperity. However, effective control of the kingdom required coming to terms with three powerful nobles, Godwin, the Earl of Wessex, Leofric, the Earl of Mercia, and Siward, the Earl of Northumbria. Edward’s Norman sympathies caused deep divisions between himself and the English nobility, which was mostly Danish and Anglo-Saxon. This led to the formation of an Anti-Norman faction, which was led by Godwin, who became the King’s father-in-law in 1045.

Matters reached a breaking point following a riot in Dover. When Edward chose not to punish the rioters, he was opposed by Godwin, who was exiled by Edward in 1051. However, Godwin returned in 1053 with an army, demanding the return of his land and title. Following his death, later that year, Godwin’s lands were inherited by a Norman named Ralph the Timid. Godwin’s son, Harold Godwinson, would eventually hold all the Earldoms in England except for Mercia. This along with a number of successful raids against the Welsh in 1063 would allow Harold Godwinson to claim the English throne following Edward’s death in 1066.

Prelude to the Norman Invasion

The details of the succession after Edward’s death in January, 1066 have always been hotly debated. After Edward’s death, the Normans claimed that Edward had declared William to be his successor. However, even William’s biographer, William of Poitiers wrote that Edward had declared Harold Godwinson to be his legitimate successor, on his deathbed. Additionally, Harold was also confirmed as King of England by the Witengamot, a select group of Anglo-Saxon nobles without whose approval, it would have been very difficult for Harold to claim the crown.

Edward’s nearest direct heir was Edward the Exile. Born in England, but raised in Hungary, Edward the Exile was considered to be unsuitable for Kingship, as he was only 14 years old. Because of this, Harold Godwinson was able to secure his hold on the throne.

During a visit to England that occurred while Godwin was in exile in France, William claimed that Edward had promised him the English throne. When Harold claimed the crown, William denounced him as a usurper and raised an army, planning to invade England.

Edward’s Legacy

Historically, Edward’s reign marks the transition between the rule of the West Saxon kings and the Norman monarchy that was established by William the Conqueror in 1066. In addition to building Westminster Abbey, which eventually became the permanent seat of the British government under Henry II, Edward is credited with creating the British royal seal and the coronation regalia. Edward’s crown is thought to have survived until the English Civil War, after which Oliver Cromwell had it melted down. Gold from Edward’s crown is thought to have been incorporated into the St. Edward Crown, which has been used in every coronation since Charles II in 1651.

Edward was canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1161.

Sources

Barlow, Frank (1997). Edward the Confessor. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ashely, Mike (1998). A Brief History of British Kings and Queens. Philadelphia: Robinson

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