As Edward the Confessor lay dying, even as his great building project of Westminster Abbey came near its completion there was the question of who should inherit the kingdom. There were four possible contenders:
First: Edgar the Atheling son of Edward the Exile, who was the son of Edmund Ironside – Edward the Confessor’s older half brother by their father’s first wife Aefgifu. But Edgar, who was only fourteen, was too young to rule independently and there were troubled times ahead. One source noted that Edward is said to have murmured something about being too young on his deathbed. Despite this, initially, his claim would be supported by Earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria but the Witan preferred an adult to be in charge with William Duke of Normandy across the Channel preparing an invasion fleet. In the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings edgar would be elected king by the Witan. His nominal rule lasted two months until he was captured by William at Berkhamstead. He was never crowned and lived in William the Conqueror’s court as a “guest” until he fled to Scotland in 1068 where his sister, Margaret, was married to Malcolm III of Scotland.
That was fine until 1072 when King William of England and Malcom of Scotland signed the Treaty of Abernathy and Edgar was forced to seek protection from King Philip I in France. He eventually returned to England where he received a pension of £1 a day. In 1097 Edgar led an invasion into Scotland and later still he went on a crusade to the Holy Land. He died in 1125. His sister Margaret, pictured right, is a saint.
Second: Harold Hardrada was a relation of King Cnut. Cnut’s son Hardicnut or Harthacnut, who had no immediate heir, had promised the throne to King Magnus of Norway – Hardrada was Magnus’s son. Hardrada claimed that the pact had devolved to him and now he wanted to claim the kingdom. When Harthacnut died in 1042 Edward was already in England and Magnus was not in a position to make his claim. Harold Hardrada had a reputation for being successfully violent and a large army to go with it so felt that he would be able to succeed in his bid for the crown.
Hardrada also had the support of Harold Godwinson’s brother Tostig. Tostig was the third son of Earl Godwin and had acquired the Earldom of Northumbria but had been forced to hand it back to Morcar (let’s not go there- this post is already quite long enough). Tostig’s role in the north of England had been similar to Harold’s in the south before the death of King Edward but he had not been very popular with the locals. His status can be seen by the fact that he was married to Judith of Flanders. Her mother was Eleanor of Normandy – making Emma of Normandy, Edward the Confessor’s mother, her aunt, demonstrating that once again everybody in History is related one way or another (read Geoffrey Tobin’s very informative comments at the end of the post about Edward the Confessor to find out exactly how intertwined the families of England, Normandy, Brittany and Pontieu were). Tostig, resentful of his demotion from the earldom of Northumbria and irritated by Harold’s promotion decided that he would like to be king so started to create trouble. To cut a long story short the fyrd or militia was called out. Tostig went to Denmark and from there to Norway where he met with Harold Hardrada and came to an agreement.
As it happened the wind favoured Hardrada’s invasion. By the 20th September 1066 Hardrada was in York. By the 25th September King Harold had made a lightening march north and confronted Hardrada’s forces at the Battle of Fulford. Hardrada who had been so confident of success that he’d brought the contents of his treasury with him was killed in a battle which his forces lost. King Harold noted that luck must have deserted the Norwegian.
Third: William, Duke of Normandy. He claimed that not only had Edward designated him to be the next king but that Harold had sworn under oath that he would support William in his claim to the throne. There was also the relationship that existed between Normandy and England. Emma of Normandy was the great aunt of William and Edward had spent most of his early life in exile in the Norman court. When William invaded he carried a Papal flag at the head of his army. The invasion was a crusade – God was on William’s side. He and his wife Matilda had even dedicated one of their daughters to the Church to ensure success.
Fourth: Harold Godwinson – It seems that Edward, to answer the question posed at the start of the post, gave the care of the English into Harold’s hands as he lay dying. Certainly this is what the Bayeux Tapestry suggests (He seems to have forgotten the pact of 1051 that Norman Chroniclers reference as the starting point to William’s claim).
Harold was not part of the Royal House of Wessex although there were suggestions that his mother Gytha had been a bit closer to King Cnut than was entirely proper. Harold’s older siblings all had Danish names and big brother Swein (who died in 1052) claimed that he was Cnut’s son. Gytha had not been overly amused and had produced witnesses to testify that Earl Godwin was Swein’s father.
Just to side track a little bit, Swein was a busy boy with regard to Welsh politics. He also abducted the Abbess of Leominster – a lady called Aedgifu- with the intent of acquiring land. He was made to return the abbess and then he fled to Flanders. He travelled from there to Denmark where he blotted his copybooks and was required to leave in a bit of a hurry so he returned home in 1049. He managed to persuade his brother Harold and his cousin Beorn that he was a changed man. They agreed to take him to King Edward to plead his case. Unfortunately he then murdered Beorn and had to flee again. He was outlawed again but allowed back home in 1050. The following year the entire Godwinson family managed to irritate King Edward and Swein was given his marching orders with the rest of his clan.
Swein ultimately repented of his sins and went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. When he returned someone killed him but he left one son, a lad called Hakon, who managed to find himself in the Duke of Normandy’s custody along with another brother of Harold’s called Wulfnoth. It is thought that Harold was going on a mission either to negotiate their release in 1064 when his boat was blown off course, landed in Ponthieu and was captured by Count Guy of Ponthieu. William, Duke of Normandy demanded that Guy, who was his vassal, send Harold to him in Rouen immediately.
However, back to where I was supposed to be. Harold was the senior earl in the country – no matter what Edwin and Morcar might think- he owned large tracts of land and vast wealth. His sister was Queen Edith, King Edward’s wife. Unusually Edith had been crowned when she became queen – the Saxons don’t seemed to have bothered with that sort of thing much. After King Edward’s dispute with the Godwinsons had been forgiven in 1052 Harold and his brother Tostig had more or less been responsible for running the country. Ultimately the Witan decided that Harold was the man for the job so appointed him as their monarch after Edward the Confessor. He ruled for nine months and nine days until he was defeated and killed in his turn at the Battle of Hastings on the 14th October 1066.