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date: 30 September 2022

Edward [St Edward; known as Edward the Confessor]free


Edward [St Edward; known as Edward the Confessor]free

  • Frank Barlow

Edward [St Edward; Edward the Confessor] (1003x55–1066)

embroidery (Bayeux Tapestry) [seated, centre]

by special permission of the City of Bayeux

Edward [St Edward; known as Edward the Confessor] (1003x5–1066), king of England, known as ‘the Confessor’ after his canonization in 1161, was born between 1003 and 1005 at Islip, near Oxford. He was the seventh son of King Æthelred II, but the first from his father's second marriage, to Emma, sister of Richard (II), duke of Normandy. A younger full brother, Alfred, died unmarried in 1036 or 1037 and a sister, Godgifu, who married Drogo, count of the Vexin, and, after his death in 1035, Eustace (II), count of Boulogne, may likewise have predeceased Edward. Although the ambitious Emma indubitably had high ambitions for these children, and her marriage contract may have stipulated that her issue should have precedence over the king's existing offspring, Edward's eventual acquisition of the crown was, indeed, 'miraculous'.

Background and youth, 1003–1043

The son of a warrior king, Edward's youth was conditioned by warfare. The kingdom had become the target for viking raids, colonization and, in the end, conquest. And Æthelred's marriage to Emma, designed to secure the support of established Scandinavian raiders and settlers against the new wave, in the event only added an even more lethal Norman involvement to the Norwegian and Danish interest in England. It was an age of military heroes, such as the vikings Olaf Tryggvason and Thorkill Hávi (the Tall) and the English Edmund Ironside, Edward's half-brother. And, although neither Æthelred nor Edward was quite in that class, they were of that world and culture. The warfare and political instability were particularly dangerous for the nobility; and in the struggle for survival bravery was not always the most useful quality.

Edward's early years are not well recorded. It was not until the close of his relatively successful reign and, even more, after a movement had developed to get him recognized as a saint, that monastic writers began to take an interest. In 1065–7 an anonymous author, probably a monk of St Omer, wrote an account of Edward's life for his widow, Queen Edith, designed, it would seem, to advance the claims of her family to provide a successor to the childless king. This Vita Ædwardi regis, although it was to serve as the basis for the hagiographical legend, is, in its earliest form, almost completely free from hagiography and has some historical value. But, unfortunately, the author was probably both ignorant of and uninterested in his subject's 'viking' background. The legend itself, since it has little historical basis, is completely unhelpful. And not much trust can be put in the few references to Edward's youth in later chronicles composed during or after the canonization process. Among these is the claim in the twelfth-century Ely chronicle that Edward's parents gave him as a child to the monastery to be educated as a monk. Even if there is a grain of truth in this story—and it was produced to validate a relic and a charter—Edward did not become a monk, never had a reputation for literacy, and in his lifestyle would seem to have been that of a typical member of the rustic nobility.

In the first eight years of Edward's life viking pressure intensified. Between 1006 and 1012 much of southern England was ravaged and in 1013 the king of Denmark, Swein Forkbeard, accompanied by his younger son, Cnut, invaded in person. In the autumn Queen Emma, followed by her children and then her husband, fled to her brother's court in Normandy. When Swein died unexpectedly in February 1014 Æthelred sent Edward with ambassadors to England to negotiate for his return to the throne. While the crown was disputed severally by Æthelred, his sons from his first marriage, led by Edmund Ironside, and Cnut, Edward, according to Scandinavian saga, fought at Edmund's side with conspicuous bravery. When Æthelred died on 23 April 1016 and Edmund on 30 November, Cnut took possession of the whole kingdom. Edward returned to his mother, brother, and sister and was to remain in exile for twenty-five years. Emma, however, had no taste for the sidelines, and represented a potential source of legitimacy for the new, Danish, king of England. In July 1017 she returned to England to marry Cnut, who had already ‘married’ Ælfgifu of Northampton with whom he had children, including Harold Harefoot. Emma gave her new husband a son, Harthacnut, and a daughter, Gunnhild, later Queen Kunigund of Germany.

Edward's resentment at his mother's neglect of his interests (although it could be argued that she did her best in the circumstances) was long-lasting. And, although the duke, her brother, and his successors up to, and including, William the Bastard, maintained and protected the athelings, the Norman court was divided in its sympathy. It is, therefore, likely that Edward, whose sister was soon at Mantes in the Vexin and had many other relatives in north-west France, moved around. To judge by his behaviour when king, he would have lived like any other nobleman, engaged in hunting if not in war; and, although he did not marry while in exile, this was probably simply because he lacked an estate and good expectations. An ambiguous sexual orientation and a late marriage were not unusual among the aristocracy. But the ecclesiastical legend of a vow of celibacy is obviously absurd. In 1035 Edward's prospects took a turn for the better. On 12 November Cnut died in England and his empire, comprising England, Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden, collapsed. Harthacnut, on whom Emma doted, was in Denmark defending the Scandinavian lands against Magnus of Norway, and his mother was unable to sustain his claim to the English throne against the growing popularity of her stepson, Harold Harefoot. She had to appeal to her English sons. Probably in 1036 first Edward and then Alfred crossed the channel. Edward, according to Norman sources, sailed up the Solent, presumably in order to join his mother on her dower lands at Winchester, won a battle near Southampton, and returned to Normandy with the booty. Evidently he was intercepted and driven out. Alfred sailed from Wissant or Boulogne, was captured by Earl Godwine near Guildford, handed over to Harold Harefoot, and blinded in order to destroy his king-worthiness. He did not survive this treatment and a brief cult of the ‘martyr’ appeared at Ely Abbey where he was buried.

In 1038 Harold expelled Emma, who took refuge at Bruges in order to await Harthacnut's arrival. In the meantime, according to her own story (Encomium Emmae Reginae), Edward, when summoned to meet her, disclaimed interest in the throne. However that may be, Harthacnut was the only one who could mount a military invasion. In 1039 he arrived in Flanders with ten ships and looked round for more. On 17 March 1040 Harold died opportunely and in June Emma and her favourite son crossed unopposed with sixty ships and recovered their inheritance. Next year Edward, presumably by invitation, joined them, and seems to have been appointed joint king. Then, on 8 June 1042, Harthacnut died, like Harold apparently childless. Once again the English crown was there for the taking. Although Swein Estrithson (of Denmark), Harthacnut's cousin, considered himself a claimant, and although it was rumoured that Emma thought of Magnus of Norway, Godwine of Wessex (perhaps the most powerful of the English earls, an Englishman married to a Dane) opted for Edward. On Easter day (3 April) 1043 this atheling of Anglo-Norman stock was crowned at Winchester, where both Cnut and Harthacnut were buried, by the archbishops of Canterbury and York. Death had served him well. The survivor began to rule at an age, at least thirty-eight, that no recent English king, save his father, had even reached; and he was to rule with some success for almost twenty-three years.

The struggle for power, 1043–1051

Edward started from a position of unusual weakness. He followed two insecure rulers, the sons of a usurper. Loyalty to the house of Cerdic had been eroded by a new Scandinavian aristocracy. The ancestral province of Wessex was ruled by Godwine, an Englishman but one of Cnut's new men. The royal demesne was doubtless diminished. After twenty-five years in exile, he returned as a stranger. That he was able to restore the traditional strong monarchy proves his mettle. In his first years as king he showed that he was a vigorous and ambitious man, a true son of the impetuous Æthelred and the formidable Emma. The famous description of him near the beginning of Vita, illustrated on the Bayeux tapestry—rosy cheeks, milky white hair and beard, and long translucent fingers—is a stereotype for a good old man, appropriate for 1065–6. It should not be applied to his middle age, still less to his youth. The anonymous author also considered him of outstanding height and, in his anger, as terrible as a lion. His career proves that he enjoyed a strong constitution and good health.

Edward's main initial tasks—and to some extent they were standing problems—were to establish his authority over the English nobility and church and to withstand threats from external enemies. Of the three great provincial earls, Godwine of Wessex, Siward of Northumbria, and Leofric of Mercia, only the last was a scion of a family which had served Æthelred. Most of the bishops and abbots had likewise been appointed by Cnut. But the church, committed to peace and authority, looked for a strong and just ruler, especially one untainted by Scandinavian heathenism. And the earls, although probably slower to rally to Edward, had no good reason to reject him. The most independent, Siward, a Dane, had his eye on Scotland. Godwine had decided to take Edward under his wing. The first indication of Edward's accommodation with the earls is their riding together on 16 November 1043 from Gloucester to Winchester in order to punish Emma. She was deprived of her possessions and her adviser, Stigand, recently made bishop of East Anglia, was likewise disseised. It was an admonitory gesture; and both were soon readmitted to the royal favour. In the course of the next few years Edward punished some other members of the nobility and he must also have paid for allegiance by gifts of land and office.

He repaid one great debt on 23 January 1045 by marrying Edith (Eadgyth), the daughter of Earl Godwine and his wife, Gytha [see under Godwine], Cnut's former sister-in-law. Edith, from the highest Anglo-Danish nobility and no more than twenty-five at the time, was, on political grounds, eminently suitable. She was also, according to Vita, a paragon of all the virtues. Beautiful and intelligent, educated in the fashionable nunnery at Wilton, she was highly literate, spoke several languages, and practised many arts. In addition, she was modest, religious, and chaste. When queen, she became devoted to her husband's comfort and image. Edward, accustomed to the lifestyle of a bachelor knight, was, apparently, uninterested in royal splendour. But when Edith had fitted him out with embroidered garments adorned with gold and jewels, he shone like Solomon in all his glory. His walking stick was encrusted with gold and gems and even his saddle and horse-trappings were hung with little beasts and birds fashioned out of gold. His throne was resplendent in a hall strewn with precious carpets from Spain. Edith was also a wise counsellor, but always behind the scenes. Presumably, unlike Emma, she never pushed herself forward. In these several activities, her encomiast remarks, 'she seemed more like a daughter than a wife, not so much a spouse as a good mother' (Barlow, Life, 24). The hagiographers subsequently read a great deal into these words. They became, indeed, the text on which the whole case for Edward's sanctity was based. It may be that in Vita there is a subtext. Edith was at least fifteen, and possibly twenty, years younger than Edward; and she adored her father. But the marriage was intended to secure the dynasty by producing sons; no contemporary even hinted at unusual features; and there is no evidence for any overt anxiety over the couple's childlessness before 1051. It was by no means an unusual occurrence.

There is an amusing glimpse of the couple, accompanied by Emma, on a visit to Abingdon Abbey, probably not long after the marriage. Edith, because she was a sophisticated lady, was surprised to find the children taking lunch in the refectory at an unfashionable early hour and having only bread to eat. She drew Edward's attention to their plight and asked him if he would provide some revenue so that, as a result of their attendance at this 'banquet', the boys could be better fed. Her husband replied with a laugh that he would be only too pleased to give something if only someone would provide him with a bit of property he could give away. And when his wife said that she had just acquired a village and would be delighted if Edward would consent to its gift, he agreed that it was a splendid idea. But not all observers viewed her so favourably. To some, she seemed a scheming and venal woman; the monasteries came to fear her passion for collecting relics; and she was even suspected of procuring the assassination of enemies of her family. Her own kin certainly did well out of her royal marriage. In 1043 her eldest brother, Swein, was given an earldom in the west midlands, and, shortly afterwards, Harold, the next in line, one covering East Anglia, Cambridgeshire, Essex, and Middlesex. When Beorn Estrithson, her Danish cousin, was, in 1045, made earl of the territory lying between that of Harold and of Swein, the family ruled, subordinately, all the kingdom south of the Humber except for Leofric's Mercia, Siward of Northumbria's outpost at Northampton, and, by 1050, Ralph of Mantes's small marcher earldom of Hereford. This last was the only piece to fall to Edward's side, although, since Beorn was also Emma's nephew from her marriage to Cnut, his allegiance was uncertain. Indeed, his primary loyalty may have been to his brother, Swein Estrithson, king of Denmark, Harthacnut's replacement.

Since the royal demesne was scattered unequally through the southern earldoms Edward had no great power base. Nor was his private household a source of strength. His remembered early companions are a rather miscellaneous group: one kinsman, Ralph of Mantes, one Norman abbot, Robert Champart of Jumièges, and two clerks educated in Lotharingia, Herman and Leofric, the last probably an expatriate from Cornwall. Besides Edith's femme de chambre named Matilda, the Normans in the household are almost invisible. Two Bretons, Ralph the Staller and Robert fitz Wimarc, received small grants of land. Such a group of servants offered no threat to the old order except through intrigue and influence over their master. But they became unpopular.

There was, however, one sphere in which Edward was able to exercise the king's traditional rights—the church. He appointed to the bishoprics and royal abbeys and, as in Capetian France, royalist bishops and abbots served as some counterweight to the earls. Different interests clashed whenever a vacancy occurred. There were local concerns and a curial perspective, and rivalry between the monastic and the clerical orders. But there can be little doubt that Edward and his closest advisers normally had their way. They had a strong bias against a local connection. For example, in 1051 the election to Canterbury of Æthelric, a Christ Church monk and a kinsman of Earl Godwine, was refused. And although Edward appointed as a whole about equal numbers of monks and royal clerks to bishoprics, clerks tended to get the richer and more important sees. The situation between 1051 and 1057 when there were only four monk-bishops may be thought to be Edward's ideal. Moreover, it was through royal clerks that most foreigners, especially reforming 'Germans', entered the episcopate. The only foreign monk promoted, admittedly to the two most important sees, London in 1044 and Canterbury in 1051, was Robert of Jumièges. The history of the monasteries during the reign is extremely obscure. But since the rule produced by the great tenth-century monastic reformers, the Regularis concordia, exalted the role of the king and queen in order to check the power of local 'tyrants', it is likely that Edward and Edith exercised their rights over and within at least the royal abbeys and nunneries, and that these in general were centres not only of English patriotism but also of a royalist cult. The royal bounty also attracted visitors from foreign, mostly Norman, abbeys to the English court; and some modest gifts of land, for example to Fécamp, have been interpreted, probably wrongly, as providing future bridgeheads for a Norman invasion. A sporadic intercourse with the papal curia has, similarly, been attributed to Edward's continental leanings. But the causes were largely Stigand's irregular position at Canterbury, the memory, on both sides, of an ancient special relationship, and the popularity of pilgrimages.

Even more, perhaps, than ecclesiastical affairs, the kingdom's security and foreign policy were under the king's personal control. His youthful adventures had given him a wide first-hand knowledge of princely courts and dynastic business; and the political insecurity in northern Europe made successful diplomacy a necessity. Edward was determined not to go on his travels again. According to Vita, he was not without important friends at his accession, for the emperor and all the rulers of ‘Gaul’ sent congratulatory embassies after his coronation. Named are Edward's brother-in-law, the German emperor Heinrich III, Henri I of France, called, probably erroneously, 'another close kinsman', and an unnamed king of the Danes. If this was Swein Estrithson, who 'submitted himself to Edward as a son' (Barlow, Life, 16), it was because Denmark was being conquered by Magnus of Norway and wanted English help. Swein also, like Magnus, had claims of various kinds on the English throne and seems even to have believed that Edward regarded him as his heir. Edward, however, was no lover of vikings. In 1044 he banished Cnut's niece, Gunnhild, and her children and in 1046 Osgod Clapa, a Danish landholder in the eastern shires. In 1044 and 1045, fearing an invasion by Magnus, he took command of the fleet at Sandwich. But in 1047, although Swein was in desperate straits, Edward refused Godwine's demand that he should be sent aid; and it was only Magnus's death on 25 October which saved Swein and also England from attack. Harald Hardrada became king of Norway; but it was not until 25 September 1066 that he met his death at Stamford Bridge on the River Derwent. All the same, in 1048 a viking fleet of twenty-five ships, commanded by the otherwise unknown pirates Lothen and Yrling, sailed from Flanders and raided some south-east ports, including Sandwich and Thanet, and perhaps the Isle of Wight.

Flanders and Normandy were the traditional forward bases for the vikings against England. Normandy, since Emma's marriages, had been less welcoming, but Flanders under Count Baudouin (V) (1034–1067) seems to have been open to all enemies of the kingdom. The basic purpose of every prince's foreign policy was to make and keep friends. Since most of the princes in northern Gaul were, as a result, interrelated, foreign relations were a complicated business. In the furtherance of his basic policy, the containment of Flanders, Edward could count on the emperor, Eustache (II), count of Boulogne (his brother-in-law), and Walter (III), count of the Vexin (his nephew). But Henri I of France, although generally friendly, was also Baudouin's brother-in-law and, until 1052, the protector of William, duke of Normandy, who, about 1051, married Baudouin's daughter. When Baudouin in 1047 joined in the Lotharingian rebellion against the emperor, Edward and Swein of Denmark, at the emperor's instigation, in 1049 mobilized their fleets against the rebel and risked the resentment of Henri of France and William. Osgod Clapa, whom Edward had banished in 1046, also arrived in Flanders with twenty-nine ships and promptly raided Essex. Moreover, into this already complicated situation intruded Swein, Earl Godwine's eldest son, the former earl who had been banished in 1047 and replaced by Ralph of Mantes for having abducted the abbess of Leominster. He too returned from Denmark with some ships and, when pardoned by Edward, went off and at Dartmouth murdered his cousin Earl Beorn. He then sailed for Bruges and was given asylum by Baudouin. But after all this excitement 1050 was a peaceful year. In mid-Lent the royal council decided to pay off nine of the fourteen foreign ships which Edward had kept as a standing navy and to offer only a one-year contract to the rest. Even more imprudently, it would appear, the king once more, probably under pressure from his wife's family, pardoned Earl Swein. He was, however, coming to believe that he had become strong enough to cut this family down to size.

The mid-term crisis, 1051–1052

A basic theme in Vita is that the English kingdom and Edward were preserved by the efforts of Godwine's family. The author describes the earl as an able, cautious, and popular provincial governor, an English patriot, who was well supported in his aims by his daughter, the queen, and four of his sons, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, and Leofwine. It was only because of some evil counsellors, particularly Robert of Jumièges, that Edward sometimes disregarded Godwine's wise advice and in 1051 tried to destroy the whole family. This is a biased, although tenable, thesis. It disregards, however, Edward's inevitable dislike of the constraints on his freedom of action. He had to live in Godwine's earldom and with the earl's agent, the queen. By 1051 Edward needed only the opportunity to kick over the traces.

A series of events led to a showdown. In the spring Edward promoted his favourite, Robert of Jumièges, from London to Canterbury, and the new archbishop claimed that Godwine was in unlawful possession of some archiepiscopal estates. Then, it seems, on his way to Rome for the pallium, he negotiated an alliance between Edward and William, duke of Normandy, who at the age of about twenty-three was still attempting to marry Matilda of Flanders. As good relations between the two courts, essential for England's safety, were long-standing, their confirmation would seem harmful to no one, unless, as Norman apologists for William's conquest of England, writing long after the event, and ex parte, maintained, Edward at this juncture made William his heir. But, even if this is true, its importance should not be exaggerated. Childlessness gave Edward a diplomatic asset which, it seems, he dangled not a few times in order to make a friend or punish those claimants who were out of favour. At the beginning of September, Edward's brother-in-law, Eustache of Boulogne, visited him on unstated, but probably family, business, and an affray at Dover, caused by his men, had serious repercussions. Edward ordered Godwine as earl of Kent to punish the burgesses, and, when Godwine refused, the king, urged on by Eustache, Robert of Jumièges, and some other Frenchmen, summoned his council and army to meet at Gloucester on 7 September. Earl Ralph, his nephew, brought up his troops, while earls Leofric and Siward sent urgently for theirs. On the other side, Godwine's sons Swein and Harold ordered their vassals to assemble at Beverstone, south of Gloucester. Godwine demanded the surrender of Eustache and perhaps of the French garrisons established by Ralph in Herefordshire. Archbishop Robert accused Godwine of conspiring to kill the king, just as he had killed his brother Alfred in 1036.

Although tempers were rising fast, neither side was eager to fight; and, with Edward standing firm, his position steadily improved, to such an extent that intermediaries were able to arrange that the earl should stand trial, presumably on a charge of treason, in a council summoned to London for 21 September. It would also seem that Godwine and Swein each gave as hostage a son, who were later to be found in Normandy. As the two armies moved on parallel routes to London, Godwine's began to disintegrate. Edward arbitrarily outlawed Swein, for whom there could have been little general sympathy, and by the time Godwine reached his manor of Southwark he was in no position to fight. When Bishop Stigand of Winchester conveyed to him Edward's grim jest that the earl could have his peace and pardon only when he restored to him his brother Alfred and his companions alive and with all their possessions intact, Godwine and his family split up and fled. Godwine, Gytha, Swein, and Tostig embarked at Bosham for Flanders. Harold and Leofwine sailed from Bristol to Ireland in a ship which had been prepared for Swein. The king's court pronounced sentences of outlawry on them all. Edward distributed some of their shires among his supporters and kept some for himself. And Edith was sent to a nunnery, either Wherwell or Wilton, while the archbishop advocated her divorce. One English chronicler believed that ‘earl’ William (of Normandy) visited Edward's court, and it has been suggested that Edward then promised William the succession.

Edward took measures to prevent the outlaws from returning by force. In the summer of 1052 he appointed earls Ralph and Odda to command a fleet at Sandwich. The one had profited from Swein's expulsion in 1047, the other by Godwine's in 1051. Edward also put all local coastal forces on the alert. The Somerset fyrd repulsed Harold and Leofwine's attempt to provision their nine ships at Porlock on their way to rendezvous with their father in the English Channel. And Godwine's first sortie from the River Yser in June was harried by the royal fleet and then driven back by westerly gales to Flanders. But the king's ships also were dispersed and local forces offered little resistance to both sets of invaders when, in August, they resumed their attempt to link up. From Portland Bill in Dorset the combined navies sailed east, receiving a welcome and recruits from several ports as they progressed to North Foreland and the Thames estuary. Meanwhile Edward had decided to base himself in London, and, as in 1051, summoned reinforcements. By the middle of August he had a land army, some fifty ships, and five earls under his command.

Godwine's fleet reached London on 14 September and was allowed by the sympathetic citizens to set up camp on the south bank of the Thames beyond London Bridge. When it became clear that Godwine was prepared to use force, the royalists began to cave in. The Frenchmen, who feared Godwine's vengeance, fought their way out of the East Gate and fled. Among the fugitives were Archbishop Robert and bishops Ulf of Dorchester and William of London. Earls Leofric and Siward gave the king no support. Once again Bishop Stigand was the go-between. Edward raged at his loss of authority but had to submit. On 15 September Godwine and Harold, with a suitable escort, went ashore to attend a large meeting of the king's council held outside London, perhaps at Westminster. Godwine declared his and Harold's innocence of all the crimes with which they had been charged. They were then inlawed and restored both to the king's favour and to all their former offices and possessions, while Edith was brought back to court. Conversely, all those Frenchmen who had brought false charges and caused the trouble were outlawed. But there were no excesses. Stigand, a prelate probably acceptable to all parties, replaced Robert at Canterbury, but retained Winchester, at first no doubt as insurance. The disturbance had rid the kingdom of some disruptive elements and sobered down the survivors.

The ‘rule of Solomon’, 1052–1066

According to Vita Ædwardi regis (Barlow, Life, 6, 18), Edward's reign, like Solomon's after the martial David's, was soon a time of peace, a golden age. In the last thirteen years of the reign death, as usual, worked in Edward's favour. His mother died on 6 March 1052, his brother-in-law, Swein, on 29 September at Constantinople while returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and his father-in-law, Godwine, at the royal court on 15 April 1053. Harold succeeded to the earldom of Wessex; and East Anglia, which he vacated, was returned to Ælfgar, Earl Leofric's son. The resulting balance between the provincial governors could not, however, be maintained for long. When Siward of Northumbria died in 1055 his heir, Waltheof, was too young for such a dangerous command and it was decided that the queen's younger brother, Tostig, should be substituted. As at the same time Ælfgar was banished temporarily, he had probably coveted the appointment. Part of his earldom was then given to Gyrth, the third surviving son of Godwine. Tostig, seemingly Edith's favourite brother, had married Judith of Flanders in 1051. The author of Vita regarded him as more pious than Harold, but also more erratic. When in 1057 earls Leofric and Ralph died, the house of Godwine advanced even further. Although Ælfgar was allowed to succeed to Mercia, Gyrth took over the whole of East Anglia, the fourth brother, Leofwine, was given a new earldom made up of the south-eastern shires, and Harold took Ralph's earldom as compensation. Hence the Godwinesons controlled subordinately the whole of England except for Mercia. Edward cannot be regarded as the architect of this scheme. But he seems to have got on well with the four brothers and been content to leave government at comital level to them. As the author of Vita maintained, with Harold driving off the foe from the south and Tostig scaring him off from the north, Edward could live free from cares.

The king's retirement from active military command after 1052 was not due to a serious reduction in his physical or mental vigour. He continued to hunt indefatigably, his temperament remained bellicose, and he was not completely under his wife's thumb. He and his advisers were also, traditionally, imperially minded. As his obituary poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claims, Edward ruled over the Welsh, Britons, Scots, Angles, and Saxons. He was king over the whole of Britain. In practice, his powers over Welsh princes and Scottish kings were limited and intermittent. While vikings looted Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, English interference in Wales was usually in response to Welsh plundering raids, whereas in Scotland it was to intervene in dynastic disputes. In 1054, on Edward's instructions, Siward invaded Scotland, defeated King Macbeth in a battle north of the Tay in Perthshire and put on the throne Duncan's son, Malcolm (III) Canmore. In 1057 Malcolm killed Macbeth in battle. Although Malcolm visited Edward's court at Gloucester in 1059, he was never a subservient vassal; indeed, he began to aim to annex Northumbria. Wales, however, was closer to the English heartlands. After 1047 Earl Ralph developed Herefordshire as a marcher earldom defended by castles and cavalry. In 1053 Edward ordered the assassination of Rhys ap Rhydderch, prince of south Wales, because of his raids across the border, and the victim's head was duly delivered to him. In 1055 Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, prince of north Wales, extended his rule over the whole area, and since he became the natural ally of the discontented Ælfgar of Mercia, Edward was determined to destroy him. On the earl's death in 1062 the king allowed his young son, Eadwine, to succeed, but also took the opportunity to bring Gruffudd to account. After Christmas Harold invaded north Wales and almost captured the prince at Rhuddlan. And in the spring Tostig tried his hand in the north while Harold sailed with a fleet from Bristol. They obtained the submission of most of the Welsh nobles and, on 5 August, Gruffudd was killed by his own men. His head and the ornaments of his ship were surrendered to Harold who delivered them in person to Edward. Without its charismatic leader Wales again fragmented, and Edward and Harold imposed vassalage on a number of princes. It was a great triumph for the king and his commanders.

The royal government was also effective in domestic affairs. Because of Edward's canonization his treatment of the English church is especially interesting. His appointment of Stigand to Canterbury after the expulsion of Robert of Jumièges, his toleration of Stigand's pluralism and failure to obtain a generally recognized pallium, his creation of other 'empires' for marcher-bishops, and his and Edith's probable acceptance of gifts from candidates for bishoprics and abbacies are evidence of a worldly attitude. But in general Edward's appointments were respectable, some of his bishops were reformers and one, Wulfstan of Worcester, was later canonized. Perhaps increasingly as he aged, he took an interest in his monasteries and he rebuilt Westminster Abbey on a scale almost without parallel north of the Alps; the church is shown in all its glory on the Bayeux tapestry. Edward also features in legend as a law-giver, and the Laga Eadwardi ('Laws of Edward') were, indeed, often invoked in the post-conquest period. But the reference was to the corpus of Old-English law, of which Cnut was the latest codifier. All the same, the period from 1052 to 1065 was clearly an oasis of peace and prosperity. If Edward suspended the collection of the land-tax, 'danegeld', in 1050–51, when he paid off the standing fleet, it could not have been for long, for the taxation system was in full working order after 1066. But, even if royal taxation was heavy, there is much to suggest that the kingdom was in this period prosperous, with trade, internal and foreign, lively and the towns and countryside in good heart.

The one unsolved, and seemingly insoluble, problem was the succession to the throne. Edith could not have been more than forty-six when widowed; but it must have been generally accepted after 1052 that, whatever the reason, the couple would remain childless. If Edward had, indeed, in 1051 promised William of Normandy the succession, this engagement remained dormant until at least 1064. In 1054 Bishop Ealdred of Worcester visited the emperor Heinrich III in search of the only surviving English atheling who could be considered Edward's heir. Edmund Ironside's son, Edward Ætheling (also known as Edward the Exile), had married Agatha, a German-Hungarian princess, and obtained a distinguished post at the Magyar court. In 1054 the pair had three children, Margaret, Christina, and Edgar Ætheling. In 1057 the exile arrived in England, only to die almost immediately. The children were brought up at the royal court; but as Edgar was apparently no more than five years old at the time, it is uncertain how the king and queen regarded their grandnephew. The other, even more enigmatic, move to be reported—but not until after the Norman conquest—was Harold's mission to William's court in, perhaps, 1064 or 1065. If William of Jumièges and later Norman writers are to be trusted, the purpose was to confirm Edward's bequest. But whether the queen's family would have colluded in a policy which would seem to be fatal to their own interests, is a moot point. The position of Scandinavian pretenders, such as Edith's nephew, Swein of Denmark, was peripheral, for they lacked any support in England.

The author of Vita believed that the queen and her four brothers had made a pact whereby they would work together and, it would seem, perpetuate in some form their position after Edward's death. But in 1065 Harold and Tostig quarrelled. In August a Welsh prince attacked Portskewett, near Chepstow, which Harold had recently restored and fortified. And in October, while Tostig was hunting with the king in Wiltshire, a rebellion in Northumbria, actively supported by Eadwine and his brother, Morcar of Mercia, and, according to Tostig, by Harold, was completely successful. One cause was Tostig's severe government; the rebels demanded his replacement by Morcar; and, to the fury of the king and queen, neither Harold nor anyone else would fight to restore the unpopular earl. In the following year Harold, when king, is found hand-in-glove with the two Mercian earls and married to their sister. In 1065, as in 1052, Edward had to sanction the banishment of a friend. Tostig and his family took refuge in his wife's country, Flanders.

This humiliation probably caused Edward's death. He seems to have suffered a series of strokes. He was unable to attend the dedication of his new church at Westminster on 28 December and he died at the royal palace at Westminster on 4 or 5 January 1066. His last words were variously reported by several untrustworthy sources; but not even the Norman writers claim that he mentioned William. It is likely that he entrusted the kingdom to Edith and Harold, who were both in attendance. He was buried before the high altar in Westminster Abbey on 6 January; and on the same day, in the abbey, Harold was crowned king.

Conclusion: reputation and cult

Edward's obituary notice, a poem, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is an unqualified encomium. He lived in royal splendour, blithely courageous, a ruler of heroes, lavish with his riches, the master and protector of a wide empire. He was a good man, wise and strong in counsel. At his death he consigned the kingdom to a suitable successor. Angels led his righteous soul to heaven. And so might he have been regarded by posterity had Harold succeeded in holding on to his valuable bequest. Instead, Edward began to be viewed, on the one hand, as a physical and political weakling, and, on the other, in compensation, as unworldly and pious. The ultimate conflation of the two produced a bloodless creature which completely misrepresents the energetic, sometimes ruthless, sometimes rash, resourceful prince, who was not only a great survivor but also a great conservator.

The cult of St Edward the Confessor was a product substantially of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Some 'miraculous' cures seem to have occurred at his tomb shortly after his burial, as had happened with his grandfather, King Edgar in 975 and his brother, Alfred, in 1036 or 1037. And, later, he was credited with some cures during his lifetime, including one of a young woman who was suffering from scrofulous glands of the neck, a disease which became known as the king's evil. In 1102 Gilbert Crispin, abbot of Westminster, had the grave opened and the corpse inspected by, among others, Gundulf, bishop of Rochester, an indication of either a continuing or a renewed interest in Edward, which, apparently, the seniors discouraged as both unseemly and politically subversive. But it was the subsequent championship of Edward's claim to sanctity by a Westminster monk, Osbert de Clare, and the saint's life he composed before 1138, which converted a rather thin popular interest into a movement supported by the English church and monarchy. The first attempt, in Stephen's reign, by the abbey to secure the canonization was shelved by the prudent Pope Innocent II. In 1160, however, a new abbot, Laurence, supported by a new king, Henry II, and seemingly the entire English hierarchy, petitioned the newly recognized Pope Alexander III; and the pope, threatened by a rival and grateful for English support, on the strength of Osbert's book of miracles and a decent set of testimonials, issued the necessary bull on 7 February 1161. Edward was to be inscribed in the catalogue of saints and numbered among the holy confessors.

Edward never became a very popular saint in England or elsewhere. But he was valued by the medieval English monarchy. Henry II's grandson, Henry III, was one of his most ardent worshippers. He rebuilt Westminster Abbey, had a splendid new tomb constructed to which the saint was translated on 13 October 1269, and named his eldest son and successor after the Confessor. He seems also to have been the first English king to have regularly 'touched' for the king's evil, a custom which probably owed something to the miracle attributed to the Confessor, even if more to the virtue claimed by the Capetian kings of France, most immediately by St Louis. In England the practice continued until the accession of the Hanoverian George I in 1714. Thus Edward cast a long shadow. It was, however, but a pale and distorted image of a robust historical figure.


  • F. Barlow, ed. and trans., The life of King Edward who rests at Westminster, 2nd edn, OMT (1992)
  • A. Campbell, ed. and trans., Encomium Emmae reginae, CS, 3rd ser., 72 (1949)
  • F. Barlow, Edward the Confessor, 2nd edn (1979)
  • F. E. Harmer, ed., Anglo-Saxon writs (1952)
  • AS chart., S 998–1162
  • Willelmi Malmesbiriensis monachi de gestis regum Anglorum, ed. W. Stubbs, 2 vols., Rolls Series (1887–9)
  • Magistri Adam Bremensis gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, ed. B. Schmeidler, 3rd edn, MGH Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum, [2] (Hanover, 1917)
  • The Gesta Normannorum ducum of William of Jumièges, Orderic Vitalis, and Robert of Torigni, ed. and trans. E. M. C. van Houts, 2 vols., OMT (1992–5)
  • The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, ed. and trans. R. H. C. Davis and M. Chibnall, OMT (1998)
  • ‘La vie de S. Édouard le Confesseur par Osbert de Clare’, ed. M. Bloch, Analecta Bollandiana, 41 (1923), 5–131
  • F. Barlow, The English church, 1000–1066: a history of the later Anglo-Saxon church, 2nd edn (1979)
  • E. A. Freeman, The history of the Norman conquest of England, 2nd edn, 6 vols. (1870–79), vol. 2
  • S. Körner, The battle of Hastings, England, and Europe, 1035–1066 (1964)
  • T. J. Oleson, ‘Edward the Confessor in history’, Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 3rd ser., 52 (1959), section 2, pp. 27–35


  • attrib. Theodoric, silver pennies, 1065, NPG
  • coin, BM
  • coins, repro. in Barlow, Edward the Confessor, pl. 10
  • drawing (with his mother and Harthacnut), BL, ‘Encomium Emmae reginae’, Add. MS 33241, fol. 1v; see illus. in Emma (d. 1052)
  • embroidery (Bayeux Tapestry), Bayeux, France [see illus.]
  • manuscript, BL, Royal MS 20A. II, fol. 5
  • polychrome carving, Westminster Abbey, London
  • stained-glass window, All Souls Oxf.
  • statue, Canterbury Cathedral
  • wax seal, BM
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