King Edward was born sometime between 1003 and 1005 at Islip in Oxfordshire. His father was the unfortunate Ethelred the Unready. It should be “Unraed” which means ill counselled or sometimes he’s described as “the Redelss” which means more or less the same thing. If Edward has a reputation for saintliness then his poor old father has a reputation for being the most incompetent king in English history – which is saying something. He had the misfortunate to be king at the time when the Scandinavians were flexing their muscles again and after a long period of peace the English were not in any state to resist. The Anglo Saxon Chronicles of the period talk a lot about flight and being beaten.
The policy of buying off hairy Viking brutes with large axes is called paying Danegeld. The Saxons had used the method before but after the Battle of Maldon in 991 it became much more commonplace. And, of course, in paying off one bunch of raiders it didn’t mean that another independent group would arrive or that the first lot wouldn’t turn up for another bite of the cherry. It went from bad to worse when a Dane called Sweyn Forkbeard arrived with the intention of invading rather than looting.
Ethelred was understandably feeling somewhat harried but it was perhaps a little bit excessive to order the death of all the Danes living ins kingdom especially as the Wantage Code of 991 had been agreed so that the Danes who lived in England would feel greater loyalty to the Saxon rulers. On 13 November 1002 there was an attack on all the Danish settlers in the kingdom. This is known as the St Brice’s Day Massacre and had the obvious effect of making all the surviving Danes rally towards Sweyn as averse to the monarch of their adopted country. Sweyn took the opportunity to destroy Exeter – a stronghold of the Saxons.
More sensibly in 1002 Ethelred had arrived at an agreement with the Normans to prevent the Danes from using the Normandy coast as a harbour and jumping off point for their endeavours. As you might expect this agreement was cemented by a royal marriage. Emma of Normandy was sent to become Ethelred’s wife.
In 1011 the Danes captured Canterbury and its archbishop. They carted the unfortunate archbishop to Greenwich where they had their encampment. Archbishop Aelfheah refused to allow himself to be ransomed so the Danes killed him by throwing discarded ox and cattle bones at him. Eventually someone put him out of his misery by hitting him over the head with the butt of an axe.
In 1013, the area known as Danelaw decided that Swyn and his son Cnut would make excellent rulers. This freed up the way for the Danes to invade Wessex at which point Aethelred fled to the Isle of Wight in the first instance leaving Emma to take her two small sons Edward and his younger brother Alfred home to Normandy (shown pictured left) – a young Edward is seated behind his mother.
Sweyn Forkbeard died in 1014 leaving Cnut to rule. Ethelred returned at this point in proceedings to try and retrieve the situation but he also died in 1016. Emma remained in England despite the fact that her children were in her brother’s kingdom. Emma now married Cnut – ignoring the fact that Cnut had a wife called Aelfgifu who he had married on 1006. So, Emma became queen for a second time. She had a son called Harthacnut and set about forging a more united kingdom for the Saxons and the Danes.
All this time Edward was in Normandy where his cousin Robert was now the duke. It was Robert who demanded that Edward should be allowed to return home and that with Ethelred dead that Edward was the rightful king – although this did bypass the fact that Edward and Alfred were the product of a second marriage and that other older sons were available. It was only when Robert died andWilliam became Duke of Normandy that the political situation changed. The Normans did not now have the leisure to interfere in English affairs and it looked as though Edward and Arthur would be left kicking their heals.
In 1035 Cnut died. Emma had negotiated as part of her marriage alliance with Cnut that any sons she might have would have a better claim to the kingdom than sons by other women. She took the precaution of commandeering the treasury. Unfortunately Harthacnut was in Denmark when Cnut popped his clogs so whilst Emma waited in Winchester for the arrival of her son, Cnut’s other wife Aelfgifu lobbied for her own son Harold Harefoot to become king. Ultimately there was a meeting in Oxford as both sons had a claim to the throne and both of them had their own group of supporters. Harthacnut still had not returned to England – so inevitably Harold Harefoot had the upper hand simply because he was on the scene.
It was a period of uncertainty. This was the time that the sons by her first marriage to Ethelred, Edward and Alfred, returned to England to see if they could snaffle a kingdom whilst Cnut’s sons were busy. Edward made landfall in Southampton and then went to Winchester where he met with his mother. Alfred arrived in Kent.
Unfortunately Earl Godwin had his own vested interests to consider and they did not involve the sons of Ethelred the Unready. He met with Alfred and said that he would escort Alfred to Winchester. Instead he captured Alfred and blinded him. Edward seeing which way the tide had turned fled back to Normandy.
In 1037 Emma was forced to leave England. Harold Harefoot was king. Ultimately Harthacnut did not have to worry about invading England because after three years as ruler Harold Harefoot died rather unexpectedly whilst celebrating a wedding.
Harthacnut would not have won a popularity contest. He died unexpectedly as well.
Earl Godwin now decided that Edward was a better bet than some of the other possible claimants to the Crown. Edward was crowned on 3rd April 1043 in Winchester. The price for Godwin’s support was marriage to his daughter Edith – who had originally been named after her mother but changed to the more Saxon sounding Edith upon marriage – something that occurred in 1045 when Earl Godwin was at the height of his powers. Edith was about twenty-two whilst Edward was somewhere close to forty as we aren’t totally sure which year he was born. Rather unusually Edith had her own coronation. Anglo-Saxon kings don’t seem to have crowned their spouses very much.
Godwin had done very nicely from the rule of Cnut. He also had a Danish wife called Gytha who just so happened to be Cnut’s sister through marriage and a brood of sons – something which Edward the Confessor lacked. His sons Swein and Harold both became earls in their own right and they were brothers-in-law of the king just as Godwin was the king’s father-in-law. The trouble was that Edward did not look towards Scandinavian countries for alliances. He turned to Normandy. Matters came to a head in 1051 when Edward insisted on appointing a Frenchman to the archbishopric of Canterbury. There was then a spot of trouble in Dover which Godwin refused to put down followed by a stand off at Gloucester when Godwin had a rant about foreigners.
Edward who was not always the saintly but weak man that history often portrays him called out the militia which meant that Godwin and his sons found themselves on the wrong end of an army – including some of their own tenants. Edward then outlawed Swein who had some very questionable attitudes to women and property. He demanded that Harold and Godwin explain themselves or face the consequences. Godwin fled and was declared an outlaw – I’m not sure if any of this enhanced Edward’s relationship with his wife- especially when he confiscated Godwin’s property and sent Edith to a nunnery where she remained until 1052.
There is some evidence that by 1051 Edward had agreed to William becoming the next king of England but it is also true to say that Edward contacted the exiled son of Edmund Ironside, who was Edward the Confessor’s older half-brother by Ethelred’s first wife, and invited him to return from Hungary. His name was also Edward. History tends to call him Edward the Atheling or more pointedly Edward the Exile. Edward the Atheling received his letter from his uncle inviting him home in 1056 having sent someone to find him on 1054. He arrived with his wife Agatha, his daughter Margaret and his son Edgar. This exiled family was a way for Edward the Confessor to get one over on Earl Godwin because not only did the king want to support his own family but the Witan (England’s council) liked the idea of England being ruled by the Saxon ruling house rather than a power hungry Godwin who’d done very nicely thank you out of Cnut’s reign. Unfortunately Edward the Atheling died unexpectedly on 19th April 1057 without ever meeting Edward the Confessor. The inevitable suspicion is that some unscrupulous person must have poisoned the Atheling leaving Edgar who was too young to be of political signficance.
Which brings us back to Earl Godwin and his brood. Godwin had returned from exile in 1052 along with his son Harold who’d spent the time in Ireland. Together they were able to march on London and force Edward to reinstate them. Godwin died the following year but Harold was now nicely positioned to make a claim on the crown assuming that athelings dropped like flies whenever they came near his brother-in-law King Edward.
Meanwhile Edith was allowed to return to court when her father and brother regained the upper hand as Edward lacked the men or will to overcome them a second time. Clearly the time spent contemplating her situation hadn’t improved the relationship between husband and wife. Historians speculate as to the nature of their marriage. It has been suggested that Edward refused to consummate the union because the bride was forced upon him by the family who had betrayed his brother, blinded him and left him to die.
From 1055 onwards the Godwinsons – Harold in the south (he had inherited his father’s Sussex estates) and Tostig in the North were more or less responsible for the running of the kingdom. Edith can be found issuing charters and patronising monastic houses – in particular Wilton where she was educated and spent her time in exile from court.
In 1064 Harold made a mysterious trip to Normandy. It might have been a bid to ransom members of his family or it might have been a bid to sort out who would wear England’s crown after Edward died. Either way, Harold ended up taking part in a campaign against Conan II of Brittany and apparently swearing to support Duke William to become Edward the Confessor’s successor.
When Edward the Confessor died on 5 January 1065 he had just finished work on Westminster Abbey which is featured in the Bayeux Tapestry – a workman is in the middle of affixing a weather vane to it to indicate how complete it was. These days he has a reputation for holiness thanks in part to William of Malmesbury who wrote, in the 1120s, about Edward and miracles associated with him either in his life time or at his tomb. It was from texts like this that the concept of the king being able to cure scrofula or “the king’s evil” is derived.
Inevitably Edward the Confessor is usually remembered as the king who died and triggered the Norman Conquest.
Morris, Marc. (2013) The Norman Conquest. London:Windmill Books