Did Edward the Confessor choose Harold Godwinson as his successor?

Did Edward the Confessor choose Harold Godwinson as his successor?

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It has been claimed that King Edward the Confessor chose Earl Harold Godwinson as his successor on his deathbed in January 1066.

I googled "did Edward the Confessor name Harold his heir?" and got about 651,000 results.

On the first page that came up:

1) Wikipedia: Edward the Confessor.

Edward probably entrusted the kingdom to Harold and Edith shortly before he died on 5 January 1066. On 6 January he was buried in Westminster Abbey, and Harold was crowned on the same day.1

In Stephen Baxter's view, Edward's "handling of the succession issue was dangerously indecisive, and contributed to one of the greatest catastrophes to which the English have ever succumbed."[38]

2) "The Death of Edward the Confessor and the Conflicting Claims to the English Throne".

Some English sources claimed that on his deathbed, King Edward designated Harold as his heir. Other sources are more equivocal; the famous deathbed scene in the Bayeaux Tapestry, for example, shows Edward reaching out and touching Harold, who is kneeling beside him, but the text does not explain the meaning of this gesture. As we have seen, in the early days of 1066 the kingdom was recovering from a crisis and Harold was in pole position - did Edward believe that his succession would be best for the kingdom? We simply cannot say for sure whether the deathbed bequest took place - and even if it did, it does not mean that Harold 'should' have been king, or that Edward may not have designated someone else as his heir earlier in his reign.

3) Norman Invasion. Biography of Edward the Confessor.

The Normans claimed that Edward had named a Norman as his successor to the English throne. Harold Godwinson claimed that on his death bed Edward had named Harold as the next King of England. There is no mention of Edward favouring the rightful heir to the English throne, Edgar the Aethling. And to make matters even more complicated the Viking King Hardrada also believed that he had a claim to the English throne.

4) BBC - History - Edward the Confessor.

Consequently, shortly before his death, Edward named Harold as his successor even though he may already have promised the crown to a distant cousin, William, Duke of Normandy.

5) - Does not discuss whether Edward named Harold his heir.

Websites are notorious for jumping in where angels fear to thread, and claiming something is certain when historians are uncertain.

But only one out of the first five sites claimed that it is certain that Edward the Confessor named Harold as his heir, thus indicating that historians are uncertain about that.

What do historians of Anglo Saxon England and the Norman Conquest think about the claim that Edward the Confessor on his deathbed named Harold Godwinson as heir to the English throne?


Or at least, as far as we can know based on available sources. Of course, if one chooses to disregard extant historical records, then all kinds of speculations are possible. Hence, the general consensus of historians is that Edward designated Harold his successor.

Moreover there is no doubt that on his deathbed Edward the Confessor did name Harold Godwinson to succeed him.

Szarmach, Paul E., M. Teresa Tavormina, and Joel T. Rosenthal, eds. Routledge Revivals: Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis, 1998.

This is not new. Even in the 1860s Edward Freeman wrote in his influential (if tedious) magnus opus, the History of the Norman Conquest of England, that::

But what the last dying wisehs of Eadward were we know beyond a doubt. His last wishes, his last hopes, were the same as the wisehes and the hopes of every faithful Egnlishman. His last earthly desire was that Harold should wear his crown.

Freeman, Edward Augustus. *The History of the Norman Conquest of England: Its Causes and Its Results Clarendon Press for Macmillan and Company, New York, 1873.

Now, not all historians write about this in such absolutely certain terms, but few outright argue the deathbed grant. John S. Beckerman, writing on English and Norman testamentary customs, reasons that the balance of probability favours the bequest to Harold. He then point blankedly blames Edward for provoking the Conquest by designating Harold his heir:

According to the Vita Ædwardi Regis, however, Edward left the kingdom to Harold just before his death, and there is no inherent reason for doubting the chronicle's veracity on this matter… By regranting the kingdom on his death-bed, Edward laid the grounds for the dispute which was to find its bloody resolution at Hastings.

Beckerman, John S. "Succession in Normandy, 1087, and in England, 1066: The Role of Testamentary Custom." Speculum 47.2 (1972): 258-260.

Similarly, after a careful review of all the primary sources on the succession, Stephen Baxter ended his treatment of the subject by castigating Edward for his indecisiveness and last minute bequest.

Having spent about half of his adult life in Normandy and half in England, Edward must have known that these customs differed over the crucial question as to the revocability of bequests; yet it would appear that one of his last acts on earth was to put this difference to the test, thereby setting two of the most powerful and ambitious men in north-west Europe on a collision course.

Baxter, Stephen. “Edward the Confessor and the Succession Question.” Edward the Confessor: The Man and the Legend, edited by Richard Mortimer, Boydell and Brewer, 2009, pp. 77-118.

Even those who argue that Edward has always wanted William to succeed him do not consistently deny that the bequest happened. Eric John wrote a famously pro-Norman article defending William's claims, advancing a couple of arguments on the topic of Edward's last wishes. The first is based on Norman sources:

It is sufficient here to note that William did not deny Edward's deathbed donation but in effect says that it belies everything that had gone before.

John, Eric. "Edward the Confessor and the Norman succession." The English Historical Review 94.371 (1979): 241-267.

So here John does not disputed Edward named Harold his heir; he simply relays the argument that the promise to William takes priority. Another argument John advanced is semantical: he reasons that word choices in some of the chronicles implies Edward gave Harold the kingdom only temporarily for safe keeping until William arrives. So John does not so much argue against the bequest, as he attempts to rationalise it to fit the pro-William stance.

Ultimately, it appears only one historian of note is know to deny outright that Edward's bequest happened:

Only Trggvi J. Oleson has chosen to deny its occurrence… most historians studying the 1066 succession to the English throne simply accept the fact that Harold had been the designated heir to Edward for a very long time.

De Vries, Kelly. "Harold Godwinson in Wales: Military Legitimacy in Late Anglo-Saxon England." Abels, Richard P., and Bernard S. Bachrach. eds. The Normans and their Adversaries at War. Boydell Press, 2001.

There's a good reason for the consensus that Edward named Harold. All the contemporary sources of the time said Edward designated Harold - including both English and Norman records. In addition to the various Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, it appears in William of Poltiers' records. There as even an account of Edward the Confessor's deathbed words: the Vita Ædwardi Regis

Even the Norman sources do not deny the designation. If they address the issue directly, they accuse Harold of perjury for breaking his oath to support William's right to the crown, rather than of usurpation of the throne.

Szarmach, Paul E., M. Teresa Tavormina, and Joel T. Rosenthal, eds. Routledge Revivals: Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis, 1998.

The Normans were supporters of William's claims, and tried hard to airbrush Harold's kingship out of history after the Conquest. Harold's claim to the crown was principally based on being nominated as heir by the last king, which helped him win the election. If Edward's bequest had not happened, why wouldn't the Normal writers call it out? Why would they even admit Edward designated Harold?

"[Most historians] are convinced that as William of Poitiers, whose loyalty to duke is irrefutable, even records it, such a bequest must have indeed happened.

De Vries, Kelly. "Harold Godwinson in Wales: Military Legitimacy in Late Anglo-Saxon England." Abels, Richard P., and Bernard S. Bachrach. eds. The Normans and their Adversaries at War. Boydell Press, 2001.

The simplest explanation is that Edward did name Harold to succeed him.

Of course, in the absence of a tape recorder, nothing is proof beyond a shadow of doubt. Yet, history is the study of the recorded past. To dispute Edward's bequest, an argument should at least address what the primary sources say and explain any differences. Not just conjectures based on random websites.

Excellent Question…

Short Answer…

It is not settled history and calls for both knowledge of King Edward the Confessor's relationship with the Godwin clan, and who that relationship had profoundly impacted his family, his life, and his reign. ** Given these facts, I seriously doubt King Edward would have reversed his life's work to keep the Godwin's from the throne, forgiven their terrorism, betrayal and murders perpetrated against his closest family members and endorsed their ascension to the throne.

On his death bed, to say Edward the Confessor wasn't close to the Godwin's clan who had long sought to control the throne was an understatement. The Godwin's were a powerful family and a political necessity for King Edwards rule. King Edward ended his exile in France which had begun when his father was overthrown when Edward was a child, by agreeing to take Godwin's daughter(Edgitha / Edith) as his queen. Godwin believing this agreement ensured the Godwin's bloodline would eventually control the throne, supported Edward's line being re-established to the monarchy. Beyond the marriage agreement however Godwin favored appointing a weak king such as Edward because it left his hands free to consolidate power, which he did. King Edward who agreed to the political marriage, is said to have never consummated the marriage; thus denying Godwin his prize. On his deathbed King Edward reportedly told Harold Godwinson his would be successor, that he gave his sister Edgitha back untouched, still a virgin. Such was Edwards discipline to deny the Godwin's the throne.

Godwin's had betrayed and helped to brutally torture and murder King Edwards younger brother Alfred Atheling. in 1036 They may have had a hand in imprisoning and torturing Edward's mother. During Edward's reign the Godwins harassed and intimidated Edwards advisors and ministers forcing them to flee court, dictating who King Edwards advisors and ministers were. King Edward had exiled the entire clan from the kingdom, after the Godwin's tried to appoint their ally to become Arch Bishop of Canterbury over the King's objections. The Godwin's military strength however allowed them to return the following year. The facts are the Godwin clan had been in open rebellion several times during King Edwards rule. King Edward was especially distant from Harold Godwinson who was in open rebellion of the throne just months before the king died. Harold Godwinson had attacked a then rival earldom over the King's excess orders not to, and installed his brother inlaw as earl, thus ensuring Harolds control over all three earldoms.

King Edward entire reign was spent trying to defend his authority and deny the Godwin bloodline his throne at great personal sacrifice. Why after all that would Edward have endorsed Harold or any Godwin to his throne?

Beyond that Harold Godwin did not need Edward's endorsement to become King. Harold Godwin had consolidated his power and had effective control over all three earldom's when King Edward died. The King was not a hereditary title back then, he was chosen by a wicken of his bannormen. Harold control of all three earldom's ensured his control over the wicken. The only reason for Harold to proclaim Edward's timely endorsement upon Edwards deathbed, was to delegitimize Edward's cousin William of Normandy ( William the Conquerer ). It was widely believed William had King Edwards endorsement, so much so that Harold had traveled to France the previous year to be knighted by William and pledge his loyalty.

Why would Edward who spent his entire reign defending and denying the Godwin's numerous attempts to claim the throne with his dyeing breath given the throne to his most hated nemesis, the Godwin's. The answer is he wouldn't. The facts are historians are mixed along cultural lines (largely because the partisan English and Norman sources disagree.) as to whether Edward the Confessor appointed his most powerful rival, some might say mortal enemy and nemesis; on his deathbed without any creditable witnesses or documentation his successor.

Longer Answer…

Edward the Confessor had good reason to hate the Godwin's.
see Edwards Early Years in Exile

  • The Godwins had helped to torture and murder his brother.

    Alfred (King Edwards younger brother) was captured by Godwin, Earl of Wessex who turned him over to Harold Harefoot. He had Alfred blinded by forcing red-hot pokers into his eyes to make him unsuitable for kingship, and Alfred died soon after as a result of his wounds. The murder is thought to be the source of much of Edward's later hatred for the Earl and one of the primary reasons for Godwin's banishment in autumn 1051.

  • They may have had a hand in imprisoning and torturing his mother (Queen Emma)

    He (King Edward the Confessor) therefore suffered the bishops to take cognizance of the cause in an assembly which they held at Winchester; and, in the mean time, the bishop was confined in that city, and Emma (the kings mother) in the royal nunnery of Farewell in Hampshire.

    Queen Emma walked blindfold and barefoot over nine red-hot ploughshares, laid in St. Swithin's church in Winchester, without receiving the least hurt, so that when she was gone over them she asked how far she was from her purgation? Upon which her eyes were uncovered, and looking behind her upon the ploughshares which she had passed over, she burst into praises of God

  • Controlling King Edwards Advisors

    At home Earl Godwin, and some other ambitious spirits, complained he kept several Normans, whom he had brought over with him, about his person. But the holy king with great prudence brought them to reason, or obliged them to leave his dominions for a time, without bloodshed; so that the little clouds which began to gather in his time, were immediately scattered without embroiling the state.

Edward the Confessor the only king of England to be canonised, was a militarily weak king compared to his nobleman. Godwin, Earl of Wessex(Harold's father) was a power in the kingdom. So Edward and Godwin in an attempt to form an accommodation and avoid war, made a marriage agreement.


Earl Godwin, whose immoderate power and wealth seemed to raise him above the level of his fellow-subjects, moved every engine to make the choice fall upon his daughter Edgitha, a lady totally unlike her father, being most remarkably virtuous and abstemious; for beauty, understanding,

King Edward the Confessor had the bloodline, would marry Godwin's daughter Edith of Wessex, and in that way Godwin's blood would rule England. This was a forced marriage because Edward would have been unlikely to become king without Godwin's support. Edward had also lost several brothers while his family had been out of power. For the Godwin's who were not strong enough to take the throne on their own, it was a good match because they favored a weak king who could not check their authority without significant aid. The marriage included the unprecedented step at the time of having the Queen actually crowned, this had not been done in hundreds of years, clearly an attempt to cement her on the thrown.

Only Edward following the letter of the agreement saw a loop hole in this forced marriage, declined to sleep with the queen Edith of Wessex and the marriage was childless. Thus Edward the Confessor goes down in history as a very religious man so religious, he declined to sleep with his own wife for his entire 19 year marriage. At one point Edward put his wife Edith in a nunnery only to have her restored to the thrown by the Godwin's by force of arms..


The marriage produced no children. Later ecclesiastical writers claimed that this was either because Edward took a vow of celibacy, or because he refused to consummate the marriage because of his antipathy to Edith's family, the Godwins.


(King Edward the Confessor on his death bed)Commending her(Queen Edith) to her brother Harold, and certain other lords, he (the king) declared he left her an untouched virgin. He calmly expired on the 5th of January, in 1066, having reigned twenty-three years, six months, and twenty-seven days, in the sixty-fourth year of his age. How would you feel if on his deathbed your brother in law returned your sister to your care, proclaiming she's still a virgin, I never touched her after two decades of marriage?

Anyway… Godwinson clan fractured after the death of the father Godwin in 1053.


The following year was remarkable for the death of Earl Godwin, who fell down dead whilst he was at supper with the king at Winchester, 12 or, according to Brompton, 13 at Windsor, in 1053. Ralph of Disse, Brompton, and others say, that, thinking the king still harboured a suspicion of his having been the contriver of his brother Alfred's death, he wished that if he was guilty he might never swallow a morsel of meat which he was putting into his mouth; and that he was choked with it.

Edith the fourth wealthiest person in the Kingdom in 1066 behind the king, Archbishop of Canterbury, and her brother Harold according to the Doomsday book. So she had become a political force, who potentially started to favored her other brother Tostig Godwinson, over brother Harold Godwinson. At least King Edward and Queen Edith sided with Tostig in a confrontation with Harold.

Edith's brother Tostig, 1055 had been appointment as Earl of Northumbria with Edith's and Harold's help. 1065 just months before King Edward would die, Harold unseated his brother Tostig in favor of his brother in law, Morcar. When Tostig got this news he was reportedly hunting with King Edward.


Tostig charged Harold with conspiring with the rebels(who had unseated him as Earl of Northumbria), a charge which Harold purged himself of with a public oath. King Edward demanded that the rebels be suppressed, but to his and Queen Edith's fury Harold and the English thegns refused to enforce the order. Harold's brother in law, Morcar was confirmed as earl and brother Tostig forced into exile.

So why is it important historically whether or not Edward the Confessor tapped his brother in Law Harold Godwinson as his successor. Harold didn't need the endorsement. The english throne was not passed down through heredity, nor were kings allowed to name their successors. English monarchs were chosen by an assemblage of lords in the kingdom. The most powerful of these lords were the earls. When King Edward had become king their were three powerful earldoms in the English Kingdom. The Godwin's controlled only one. When King Edward died in 1066, the Godwins had used their position close to the throne to placed loyalists in the other two earldoms. So Harold always had the votes to be come king. Indeed the Wicking voted Harold Godwinson in as king the very next day after King Edward the Confessor died unanimously.

The reason why the King Edwards donation was important was because there was a very inconvenient historical rumor going around that King Edward had already named William of Normandy, his cousin as his successor. Why would he do this?(*) In fact Harold Godwinson had traveled to Normandy years before Edwards Death, some have said to swear allegiance to William of Normandy. The historical truth is that Harold Godwinson while in Normany was knighted by William, and also did take a pledge of fidelity to William of Normany, the exact wording being lost to history though. Truth or not of Williams claim / donation by Edward the Confessor, Harold needed it as a way of superseding whatever belief Edward of Normandy did have in 1066. Especially after Harolds perjury.

So Harold needed the Donation of Edward not to be king, but to cast doubts on the legitimacy of his rival.

(*) King Edwards family lost the throne to invaders when his father Harold the Unready was invaded. King Edward was round 10 years old at the time. Edward and the Kings family fled England for Normandy where his mother's family ruled. Edward likely spent most of the next 20 years in Normandy with his mother's people until his eventual return to the throne. So Edward had spent about the same amount of time living with the Normans in France as he had on the Throne.

I think King Edward was a pretty crafty man. He realized in life he wasn't strong enough to be king without some serious sacrifices and political accommodations. I don't think such a man who got what he wanted through self discipline and pragmatism; would have deluded himself that he was strong enough to determine his successor other than denying the Godwin clan a legitimate successor.

I think King Edward didn't care for the Godwin's. They had tortured and murdered his family members. They had been the threat and obstacle to his reign. I think King Edward would have thought it poetic justice for William the Bastard( soon to be Conqueror) to come and smite Harold Godwinson(1/51066 - 10/14/1066), the last Anglo Saxon King of England.

If you are interested in reading more about King Edward the Confessor and the Godwin/Godwinsons. Read about the crisis of (1051-1052) The Godwin's tried to put their man in as the Archbishop of Canterbury and Edward rejected him, and banished the Godwin's for a time. They came back though the next year and jammed it down his throat.

What was King Edward the Confessors mindset on his death bead… We can't tell of coarse. But one thing which does cast a little light on it, would be his death bed vision. the Vita Edward Regis which if it is to be believed, Edward has an apocalyptic vision where the evil corrupt English kingdom which he had ruled, is consumed in fire by a foreign invasion, which according to the document; Brings a smile to Edwards face right before he dies.

First about the claim there is a consensus on what happened at Edwards death bed.

Dr Nelson - Medieval records specialist at U.K.'s The National Archives, specialists in the records from 11th-13th centuries biography source

The death of Edward the Confessor and the conflicting claims to the English Crown

(1) We simply cannot say for sure whether the deathbed bequest took place

(2) The question of Edward's intentions has troubled historians for centuries - largely because the partisan English and Norman sources disagree about what happened at certain crucial moments. Thus to a great extent, historians have chosen which sources they agree with, or tried to synthesize the arguments in some way…

Brandon Huebner

(3) Some believe that Edward promised William the throne, since William continued to push for his own succession. Edward, however, was unclear as to who his successor should be, an omission that had an enormous effect on England's history.

A Companion to the Early Middle Ages: Britain and ireland c.500 - c.1100

(4) Edwards death in 1066 was ultimately so disastrous for the English kingdom because the lack of consensus and the fragmentations of English identity meant that there were so many possible kings after him.

Asked by Orangesandlemons **@JMS that's a contradiction: if it weakened Williams,, it by definition strengthened Harold's. And if it didn't strengthen Harold's why wouldn't Edward make it if he wanted to weaken William's? **


I said it didn't strengthen Harold's claim to the throne. Harold controlled all three English Earldoms and thus controlled the whicken which selected who would ascend to the throne. Harold was going to be the next king whether King Edward endorsed him or not.

Yes King Edward's deathbed flip flop endorsement of Harold, suspect as it was, was directed at Edward's substantial claim to the throne.

  1. Harold had traveled to Normandy the previous year and pledged his loyalty and allegiance to William as the rightful King. Now Harold was going back on that pledge claiming his previous pledge of fidelity was coerced.

  2. It was and still is widely believed King Edward favored William of Normandy his cousin to succeed him.

  3. William, a bastard cousin of King Edward was still a closer blood relation than Harold Godwinson, King Edward's brother in law.

  4. Also unlike the history of the Godwin family torturing, betraying, rebelling, and murding King Edwards family members, and of coarse open rebellion against Edward's rule; Edward's Norman cousins were loyal.

  5. King Edward's Normand cousins sheltered, protected and supported King Edward and his family when they were forced to live in Exile after the death of Edwards father for years. They had demonstrated their friendship and loyalty to Edward in his time of greatest need.

  6. Finally Harold Godwinson had attacked and dispossessed a rival earl against the King's command just months prior to King Edward's death.

10 Little-Known Facts About Edward The Confessor

Edward the Confessor, son of Æthelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy, was the penultimate Anglo-Saxon King of England.

After his death, the English throne was claimed by not one, but three successors: Harold Godwinson, Harold Hardraada and William, Duke of Normandy.

The battles that emerged from this are well known, but following are 10 little-known facts about the king whose death initiated them.


Edward the Confessor (1042&ndash66), who had probably been present at his predecessor&rsquos death, was to have a lengthy and relatively secure reign. The drawing of him in the manuscript of the Encomium Emmae, written by a cleric of St-Omer for Queen Emma, is the best likeness we have. In it he appears with trimmed hair in a fringe and a short, wavy beard with perhaps the hint of a moustache. While in the Vita, written for his wife, Edith, he is described as &lsquoa very proper figure of a man &ndash of outstanding height, and distinguished by his milky white hair and beard, full face and rosy cheeks, thin white hands and long translucent fingers &hellip Pleasant, but always dignified, he walked with eyes downcast, most graciously affable to one and all&rsquo.1 He could also be thought &lsquoof passionate temper and a man of prompt and vigorous action&rsquo, but Edward was no soldier. The medieval writer who said &lsquohe defended his kingdom more by diplomacy than by war&rsquo had it right but failure to act as a commander of men was a grave disadvantage in this period.2

We should be under no illusion but that the Scandinavian conquest and the frequent switches of dynasty during the first half of the eleventh century had greatly weakened the kingdom. There were no other surviving sons of either Aethelred II or Cnut, but there were too many with claims and interests in England for its good. For example, Sweyn Estrithsson was the grandson of Sweyn Forkbeard he was to become king of Denmark, and was not keen to see the old Saxon dynasty replacing that of his own line in England. Meanwhile, Magnus of Norway still saw possibilities for his own expansion. Later he was succeeded by the famed adventurer Harold Hardrada, who also dreamed of bringing Scandinavian rule back to England. Nor was Edward&rsquos reign free from Viking raids of the old kind.

The northern earls, Leofric and Siward, accepted Edward, but cannot have been enthusiastic about his succession. The north had never been firmly under southern control, and would continue to offer threats to the peace of England under Edward. Nevertheless, given the difficult period before Edward&rsquos accession and the long-term weaknesses displayed by the troubles, the Confessor&rsquos reign was better than one might have expected. The view of Edward as &lsquoa holy simpleton&rsquo is not easy to maintain.3 At least some historians now are prepared to be more respectful to the Confessor.

He could expect renewed attacks from Scandinavia, hopes of reward from Normandy, which might be difficult to satisfy, and opposition from at least some of the English magnates. His new realm was divided between English and Scandinavian populations, and into politically powerful earldoms. His most powerful earl, Godwin of Wessex, had been implicated in the murder of his own brother, Alfred.

At the same time, Edward possessed an advantage which most had lacked during the century: he was indisputably king and, unlike his immediate predecessors, he came from the old house of Wessex. He was also wealthy. His own possessions were valued at about £5,000, with an additional £900 coming through his wife. This made him wealthier than any of his magnates, including Godwin, though royal landed wealth was unevenly distributed, and in some areas of the realm the king held very little.4

Edward&rsquos position was helped further by the death of Magnus, king of Norway and Denmark, in 1047. The Confessor&rsquos Norman mother and Norman upbringing &ndash he had received an education at the ducal court and it is said was trained as a knight &ndash gave him the probability of a good relationship with that emerging power.5 His sister, Godgifu, had married from the Norman court into the French nobility, and this gave Edward a number of noble relatives on the continent. But in any case, in the early years of the reign England could expect neither aid nor opposition from Normandy, which was undergoing much internal turmoil during the minority of William the Bastard.

Edward had to rely on his own wits, and had at least learned some tricks of survival and diplomacy from his years as a relatively insignificant figure at a foreign court. The exchange of status from pawn to king was rather sudden, but at least he had some experience of the game. Edward also received the blessing of the Church, and both the archbishops of York and Canterbury were present at his coronation on Easter Day 1043. The recognition of Europe was underlined by the presence at the ceremony of representatives from the German Emperor and the kings of France and Denmark.

As Edward&rsquos reign progressed, relations with Normandy did indeed prove generally amicable. Not surprisingly, he had forged bonds with Normans during his youth in the duchy, and a number of Normans were invited to his court. Indeed, several continentals had come to England with Edward in 1041. Among those in his household was the later Archbishop of Canterbury Robert of Jumièges, and Edward&rsquos nephew Ralph of Mantes, who was to become earl of Hereford. Some received lands and some received appointments in the Church. It became one of the points of dispute with his English earls, and especially with Godwin of Wessex.

The lands and wealth of the Godwin family made it outstandingly the strongest in England, with about twice the income of any other family in the land. The author of the Vita gives a more restrained picture of the great earl than we expect, and it has a ring of truth about it. He thought Godwin &lsquothe most cautious in counsel and the most active in war&rsquo, with an &lsquoequable temperament&rsquo and a penchant for hard work, eloquent, courteous and polite to all, treating inferiors kindly.6 In 1019 Earl Godwin had married Gytha, sister of a Danish earl and related by marriage to Cnut. In 1045 the Godwin family held four of the six great earldoms in England. They had moved within a couple of generations from obscure if respectable origins to the fringes of royalty. The writer of the Vitasaw Godwin as &lsquovice-regal, second to the king&rsquo.7

To confirm the status of the family, Edward the Confessor took as his wife Edith, the eldest daughter of Earl Godwin and Countess Gytha. He was in his forties and she was about twenty-five. They married in January 1045, and Edith was crowned as queen. Edward&rsquos motives for taking her as a wife are not clear. Some have thought that Godwin pressured the match, but Edward had already shown that he could act independently and had been tough with his mother. No one was in a position to make him marry. The liaison was clearly intended to seal an alliance between king and earl, and probably we need to look no further for its reason.

There would be problems with the marriage, but it endured for twenty-one years. That there was some affection in the match seems likely. There is a contemporary description of the couple, with Edith content to sit at his feet. The suggestion that it was never consummated seems unlikely though not impossible. Edward&rsquos pious nature, their failure to produce children, and his later alienation from her, all give the story some credibility, but the main evidence for it comes from later attempts to give Edward a saintly character.

It was then claimed that Edward spent &lsquoall the days of his life in the purity of the flesh&rsquo, and that he treated Edith as a daughter rather than a wife: &lsquoshe called him father and herself his child&rsquo. The tone of the Vita, written for Edith, is affectionate towards Edward and does not suggest a failed marriage, though it does say that in a vision the king was marked out by St Peter for &lsquoa life of chastity&rsquo, and that he &lsquolived his whole life dedicated to God in true innocence&rsquo.8

In 1043 Edward was seriously at odds with his own mother. Her behaviour had always been geared to her own profit rather than to his, and some think that he harboured resentment for her neglect of his interests in the past. The D writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle wrote &lsquoshe formerly had been very hard to the king her son, in that she did less for him than he wished both before he became king and afterwards as well&rsquo.9

Now suddenly Emma was accused of treason. The earls Leofric, Siward and Godwin were with the king at the time, and may have been implicated in her fall. Her protégé, Stigand, who was at the time Bishop of East Anglia, was deposed and his possessions seized. The accusation of treason was quietly forgotten, and later Stigand was restored. Possibly Emma had been involved in some conspiracy, possibly Edward simply sought to show her who was now master.

The Godwin family was powerful, but not everything went as it wished. The oldest son, Sweyn, who had been given an earldom in the west midlands, brought about his own downfall by going off the rails in a spectacular manner when he kidnapped and seduced (or possibly raped) Eadgifu the abbess of Leominster. He found little support, even from his family, and fled to Bruges and then on to Denmark. He returned to England in 1049, landing at Bosham. He sought pardon from the king, coming to him at Sandwich. But he received little sympathy even from his brothers or from his cousin Beorn, and Edward banished him again.

When Beorn then changed his mind and agreed to meet Sweyn, he soon had reason to regret his decision. Sweyn made him captive and killed him when they got to Dartmouth, presumably because he would not give the assistance Sweyn desired. Harold Godwinson disowned his brother&rsquos action and brought his cousin&rsquos body to Winchester for honourable burial. Sweyn was now declared nithing an object of scorn and legally able to be killed by anyone. Even some of his own men and ships deserted him, and two of his ships were captured by the men of Hastings. He fled to Bruges, where Baldwin V (1035&ndash67) demonstrated his hostility to Edward the Confessor by giving shelter to the fugitive. Perhaps through his father&rsquos intervention, and with the aid of Bishop Eadred of Worcester, Sweyn was pardoned by the king in 1050. It suggests that at this time Edward was prepared to go to almost any lengths to keep on good terms with the Godwin family.

A test of the powers of the king and Earl Godwin came when the archbishopric of Canterbury fell vacant on the death of Archbishop Eadsige in 1050. Godwin supported a relative, Aelric, for the post, but Edward favoured the Norman, Robert of Jumièges, already appointed Bishop of London with his backing. In 1051 Robert became archbishop and, in the conflicts which followed, was loyal to Edward against the Godwin family. The writer of the Vita suggests that English clerics also resented the appointment, and protested against it.10 Other Normans were given bishoprics, at Dorchester and London, and other continentals won favour.

A second cause of conflict between the Wessex family and the king came over the king&rsquos favour to Eustace of Boulogne. Some historians suggest that Edward, now well established, brought on the break with the Godwins deliberately.11 The political links between the powers in north-west Europe at this time form a vital background to events. Political alliances and hostilities between France, Scandinavia, Flanders, Normandy, Boulogne and England governed much that occurred.

In some ways Edward had reason to fear Flanders more than Normandy in the early period of his reign. He certainly paid heed to links with those who might help to counter the power of Flanders. In the clash between Baldwin V and the German Emperor, Edward sided with the Emperor. Edward kept connections with others who might be useful against Flanders, such as the counts of Ponthieu and Mantes, and not least with Eustace II, count of Boulogne, whose first wife was Edward&rsquos widowed sister Godgifu, and who visited Edward in England in 1051.

On his way home Eustace intended to pass through Dover. It may be that Edward meant to make a grant of Dover to Eustace. At any rate, when Eustace came there, apparently looking for somewhere to sleep, he was involved in a brawl with the townsmen. Eustace&rsquos men, according to one version of the incident, &lsquokilled a certain man of the town, and another of the townsmen killed their comrades, so that seven of his comrades were struck down. And great damage was done on either side with horses and with weapons.&rsquo Another version says that twenty men were killed.12 Dover lay within the earldom of Godwin, and Edward ordered his earl to punish the town by ravaging. Godwin&rsquos sympathies clearly lay with the town and he refused. Edward called a council at Gloucester at which Robert of Jumièges put the case against Godwin and even accused him of plotting to kill the king.

The simmering resentment between earl and king now came to a head. Godwin assembled a force, but found that opposition to a crowned king was not easy. The king, probably encouraged by the archbishop, wanted a trial of Godwin and his sons to be held in London, for the earlier killing of the king&rsquos brother Alfred, while the pardoned Sweyn Godwinson was outlawed once more.

Ralph of Mantes and many thegns rallied to the king&rsquos cause. A sarcastic message was sent to Godwin that he would be pardoned if he could restore to life Edward&rsquos murdered brother Alfred. The Vita suggests that it was Archbishop Robert who persuaded the king that Godwin would attack him &lsquoas once upon a time he had attacked his brother&rsquo.13 Godwin&rsquos own people hesitated to use force against their monarch, showing that this incident had not been forgotten. The king also got the support of the northern earls, Leofric of Mercia and Siward of Northumbria.

Godwin backed down. When he received the message about Alfred he was dining. He &lsquopushed away the table in front of him&rsquo, realising that his position was impossible.14 He and his family fled that night, riding to his manor at Bosham, and sailing into exile. His sons Harold and Leofwin made for Bristol, and took ship for Ireland. Godwin himself and most of the family left for Flanders, whose count, Baldwin V, as we have seen was generally hostile to King Edward. The Godwin family had close connections with Flanders, and at about this time Godwin&rsquos son Tostig married Judith, half-sister to the count.

A royal council declared the whole family outlawed. Some of the Godwin lands were granted out to royal favourites, including Edward&rsquos nephew Earl Ralph, known as &lsquotimid&rsquo, and Archbishop Robert.15 Godwin&rsquos daughter, Queen Edith, was sent to a nunnery. Edward had attempted to throw off the hold of the Godwin family, but as a permanent move it proved more than he could manage.

Edward had shown sufficient strength to force the whole Godwin family into exile, but he lacked the power to keep them there. Within a year, in 1052, Godwin was able to return with a force partly supplied by the count of Flanders. Feeling in England had not been united against Godwin and his family. Some whispered against Godwin, &lsquothe malice of evil men had shut up the merciful ears of the king&rsquo, but others sympathised, and few were prepared to take arms against him. Harold meanwhile, also with an armed force, had sailed from Ireland and finally joined up with his father on the south coast. The Godwins advanced on London, and two armies faced each other across the Thames. Stigand negotiated on behalf of the Godwins.

Now Godwin had his revenge, and forced the king&rsquos hand so that he &lsquooutlawed all the Frenchmen who had promoted injustices and passed unjust judgements and given bad counsel&rsquo.16 The earl was insistent that Archbishop Robert give up Canterbury and leave the country, along with a number of Edward&rsquos foreign courtiers. Robert went to Rome to protest, but finally returned to his abbey at Jumièges where he died. The archbishop was replaced at Canterbury by Stigand, bishop of Winchester, at the heart of Godwin&rsquos Wessex. One writer thought that Stigand had &lsquodeceived the innocent simplicity of King Edward&rsquo.17 Leofric&rsquos son Aelfgar had been given East Anglia but now Harold Godwinson was able to recover it as his earldom.

The Godwins were restored in full: the father to Wessex, the sons to their earldoms, Edith to court, &lsquobrought back to the king&rsquos bedchamber&rsquo.18 Only Sweyn was missing, and that was probably a blessing. He had set off for the Holy Land, no doubt seeking the divine pardon he richly needed. He was to die at Constantinople on his return.

At Easter 1053, Earl Godwin suffered a sudden stroke at dinner with the king, and &lsquosuddenly sank towards the foot-stool, bereft of speech and of all his strength&rsquo. He was carried by his sons to the royal chamber, dying a few days later &lsquoin wretched pain&rsquo. The death of Godwin did not lessen the family&rsquos influence. Harold Godwinson &lsquowielded his father&rsquos powers even more actively, and walked in his ways, that is, in patience and mercy and with kindness to men of good will&rsquo.19 Harold succeeded him as earl of Wessex, and a younger brother succeeded Harold. When Siward of Northumbria died in 1055 that earldom also went to the Godwin family, to another of Godwin&rsquos sons, Tostig. However, southern insertions in the northern earldoms were not popular, and Tostig found it difficult to establish himself. But it meant that only one earldom, Mercia, was not held by a Godwinson.

Edward the Confessor had some success as a British ruler. The Scottish king, Malcolm Canmore, came to his court and recognised English overlordship. He married Margaret, the daughter of Edward the Exile, who was the son of Edmund Ironside. There were also successful military expeditions against the Welsh, where Harold Godwinson, described as &lsquostrong and warlike&rsquo, laid the foundations for the later Norman advances with a raid into Wales first in 1055.

There is a story that when Edward met Gruffydd, the Welsh prince carried him on his shoulders as a mark of humility, and like the Scots king recognised his lordship.20 But later Gruffydd raided into Mercia, and Harold, &lsquothe vigorous earl of the West Saxons&rsquo, was again sent with an army against him in 1063.21 On the second invasion Harold and his brother Tostig led separate forces into Wales. Harold burned the Welsh prince&rsquos palace and set fire to his ships. The Welsh submitted but Gruffydd escaped by sea. However, his own people murdered him in Snowdonia, and brought his head to Harold, who sent the gory trophy of his triumph on to Edward.

Gruffydd&rsquos brothers swore fealty both to King Edward and to Harold. They divided up their brother&rsquos lands between them. Harold ordered the construction of &lsquoa large building&rsquo at Portskewet (Monmouthshire) in 1065. It would be interesting to know exactly what sort of structure this was and whether it was fortified in any way. It was used to store food and drink, and as a base for the English. But the precarious position of the invaders was soon demonstrated when the Welsh prince Caradoc attacked the new building, killed the &lsquolabourers&rsquo and took the stores. This suggests that it was unfinished.22

The unity of the Godwin family did not endure to the end of Edward&rsquos reign. There was rebellion in Northumbria against Tostig at the end of 1065, partly caused by his attempts to tax the earldom with &lsquoa large tribute&rsquo, and for what some saw as his &lsquoiniquitous rule&rsquo, but it was mainly a chance to demonstrate the latent hostility towards him. It was also claimed that he robbed the church and took land. The comment of the Vita blames both earl and subjects: he &lsquohad repressed with the heavy yoke of his rule because of their misdeeds&rsquo.23 In October, with Tostig at the king&rsquos court, Northumbrian rebels led by thegns attacked his men in York, killing two hundred, including his Danish housecarls Amund and Ravenswart, and seizing his treasure.24

The Northumbrians invited Morcar, the younger son of Aelfgar, whose brother Edwin was earl of Mercia, to be their earl, and virtually everyone bar Tostig was prepared to accept the change.25 It seems likely that his brother Harold thought that Tostig had brought the rebellion on his own head, and believed that restoration was either not possible or not wise. He gave his brother no support. As a result, Tostig became enraged at his brother and did all in his power to oppose his interests he even accused Harold of being involved in the rebellion against him. This rift in the Godwinson family probably did as much as anything to undermine Harold&rsquos position in the long run. It was the division which gave William of Normandy his chance and made the Norman Conquest possible.

Harold and his brother Tostig were a striking pair, and caught the attention of contemporaries: &lsquodistinctly handsome and graceful persons, similar in strength &hellip equally brave&rsquo.26 They were even described as &lsquothe kingdom&rsquos sacred oaks, two Hercules&rsquo. Harold was depicted as taller, more open, more cheerful, more intelligent Tostig as quicker to act, more determined, more secretive and more inflexible.27

How far Tostig&rsquos failure in Northumbria was his own fault is difficult to say. It seems that he did try to introduce southern laws and to impose heavy taxation. Whether he was too harsh is hard to judge. He was accused of three killings, two of men under safe-conduct. However, they might have been involved in a conspiracy against him.28 It may be simply that the imposition of this representative of the leading southern family was unpalatable to the northerners, however able he might be. He did retain power in Northumbria for a decade.

It is also difficult for us to judge Harold&rsquos attitude to his brother. One might have expected more aid than Harold gave. But we cannot know if he believed his brother&rsquos fall was his own fault and his brother not worth aiding, or if politically it was unwise to make such a move, or if already there was little brotherly love between them. One source suggests that Edward&rsquos advisers believed Tostig to be at fault. There is some evidence that Edward preferred Tostig to his brother and was upset by his downfall, which further fuels the idea that Tostig was at fault, since Edward made no move to reimpose him.29

It is not clear that anyone had the power to restore Tostig in Northumbria. What is certain is that after Tostig&rsquos deposition and his brother&rsquos failure to assist him to recover the earldom, he became thoroughly hostile to Harold. It seems likely that Queen Edith, who also favoured Tostig rather than Harold, and who may have influenced her husband&rsquos attitude, thought Harold was at fault in the affair and became cool towards him. Her attitude is revealed by the Vita, in which it has been suggested that Tostig &lsquois the real hero of the story&rsquo.30

The fate of the English kingdom became increasingly open to question in the 1060s. Edward had no heir and seemed now unlikely to produce one. From the several claims made later it would appear that Edward promised the succession to a number of people. It is possible that they invented this later, but it seems more likely that Edward used the succession as elderly modern patriarchs brandish their wills over their heirs. It is likely that he favoured a different heir at different times through the reign. Among those given promises were William of Normandy, Sweyn of Denmark and Harold Godwinson.

Edward also thought about another possible successor, with a better claim by descent than any of those already mentioned, and who might also have been given private assurances about the throne. This was Edward the Exile. The Confessor made contact with Edward the Exile through the German Emperor Henry III, and invited him to come to England: &lsquofor the king had decided that he should be established as his heir and successor to the realm&rsquo. The Exile would hardly have made all the effort to come had he not been given some indication of the likely consequence. But having arrived in England in 1057, Edward the Exile died in London. He did not even get to see his relative the king, and was buried at St Paul&rsquos.

In 1064 Edward the Confessor seems to have sent Harold Godwinson to Normandy. We shall look at the details of this expedition in the next chapter, but we need to consider its significance briefly. It is uncertain what was the purpose of the visit, and the main evidence for it comes from Norman sources. It is unlikely that Harold carried a promise of the throne to William, but the wily Edward may have seen the humour of the situation as the two potential rivals eyed each other up.

The chief puzzle of the situation is to see Harold&rsquos motives for going. One can hardly envisage the Confessor being able to order his premier earl to go on an expedition of this kind, though at this juncture we should not necessarily believe Harold hostile to the duke. It is more likely that Harold saw his status as a kind of ambassador, concerned about the fate of two relatives who were currently held as hostages by the duke. It may indeed have been primarily a goodwill mission to keep warm the friendship between the two powers.

The events of the trip certainly increased its significance and gave William a new lever, albeit through some rather underhanded action to force an oath out of Harold. We may believe that when Harold left Normandy, both he and his rival had their own views about how they would act when the English king died. They each had new cause to respect the abilities of a rival seen close up. Events were to catch up on them, perhaps more quickly than they expected. Edward became ill in 1065 and died at the very beginning of the new year. The future of the English crown seemed uncertain.

1. F. Barlow (ed.), Vita Aedwardi Regis, 2nd edn, Oxford, 1992, p. 19.

2. Barlow, Edward, pp. 70&ndash1 Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 42.

3. John in Campbell (ed.), Anglo-Saxons, p. 221, from F. Maitland.

8. Barlow, Edward, pp. 81&ndash4, 130 Barlow (ed.), Vita, pp. 14, 24, 90, 92.

9. Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1043, p. 107 Cubbins (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 67.

11. Barlow, Edward, p. 97: Edward &lsquoprovoked Godwin beyond endurance&rsquo.

12. Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1051, pp. 117, 118.

15. John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 576: &lsquotimidus dux Rauulfus&rsquo.

16. Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 124 Cubbins (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 73.

17. John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 572.

19. Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 46 John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 572.

20. Barlow, Edward, p. 208 John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 578.

21. John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 592.

22. John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 596.

23. Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1065, p. 138 Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 76 John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 598.

24. John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 598.

27. Barlow, Edward, pp. 195, 198 Vita, pp. 48&ndash50, 58.

29. Barlow, Edward, p. 239, Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 78.

King Edward the Confessor's 2 Successors

Edward the Confessor became the only English king ever to be canonized (officially named a saint) and was the builder of one of the most celebrated churches in the Christian world. Edward was next to the last of the Saxon kings. He married Edith, daughter of Godwin. On his deathbed, Edward named Edith's brother Harold to succeed him as king. But Harold could not hold the throne. Ten months after Edward's death, French from Normandy invaded England under William the Conqueror.

William's claim to the English throne was the result of an earlier invasion. When Edward was in his teens, the Danes invaded England and removed his father from the throne. Edward fled to Normandy, which was ruled by Edward's uncle. Edward actually spent a large part of his life in Normandy. He came under the influence of the Norman monks and led a devout life. He vowed to make a pilgrimage to Rome, but his half brother died and Edward suddenly was proclaimed king before he could fulfill his vow.

Edward was not particularly outstanding as a king, but he reduced taxes and lived on the income of his own lands. Despite turbulent times, he kept his nation at peace. However, he favored Normans over Saxons. This led to serious disputes with his father-in-law, Godwin. In anger at Godwin, Edward may have insulted his own wife, Edith.

It bothered Edward that he had not fulfilled his promise to make a pilgrimage to Rome. He asked the pope to release him from his vow, since the troubled condition of his land did not permit him to travel freely. The pope agreed to free Edward but only if he would rebuild the monastery of St. Peter at Westminster. The result--the Collegiate Church of St. Peter--is known today as Westminster Abbey.

The choir and part of the main worship area were dedicated on December 28, 1065. Edward was too sick to attend. The sixty-three-year-old king died just eight days later, on this date, January 5, l066 . Claiming that Edward had passed the throne to him while sheltering in Normandy years earlier, William invaded England. On December 25, he was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey. This famous church, rebuilt by later kings, has ever since continued to be the coronation church of the British monarchy.

Some time after Edward's death, Osbert of Clare and other monks of Westminster made claims that Edward had been a holy man. He was reported to have performed several miracles when touching people to heal them. King Henry II saw political advantages in strengthening the memory of Edward. He petitioned for Edward's canonization. Pope Alexander III obliged in 1161. And so Edward became an official saint of the Roman Church ninety-five years after his death.

Facts about Edward the Confessor 7: coronation

On April 3, 1043, Edward earned his crown at cathedral of Winchester.

Facts about Edward the Confessor 8: later reigns

Edward was capable to repress the dominance of Godwin by structuring his earldoms in the mid 1050s. In 1053, Godwin died. Get Facts about Edward V here.

Edward the Confessor Dies in London – 5 January 1066

This first scene of the Bayeux tapestry depicts Edward the Confessor, along with his brother-in-law, Harold, Earl of Wessex, at the Royal Palace of Westminster.

The death of Edward the Confessor on 5 January 1066 brought an effective end to England’s line of Saxon kings. It also opened the door on a violent succession struggle, a struggle that culminated in the conquest of England by William of Normandy.

Edward was born into the House of Wessex, the same house into which Alfred the Great had been born several generations earlier. Alfred had begun the stability that allowed England to expand and strengthen but Edward would be responsible for effectuating Saxon England’s end. The increasing Danish invasions during the early 11th century had forced Edward’s mother to seek refuge in Normandy, the place where Edward spent at least 15 of his earliest years. When the Danish occupation of England disintegrated during the reign of Harthacnut in 1041, he called for Edward to join him in England. Edward was chosen as the next king. It is most likely that Edward was chosen as king simply because of his lineage: the Danish rule had grown weak, and Edward’s place in the House of Wessex evoked some level of optimism for a return to stability.

The leading earl of the day, Godwin, Earl of Wessex, also hoped for a return to stability – as long as he was in control. In Godwin’s view, Edward provided the perfect solution to the problem. Godwin could consolidate his own power by allowing Edward to take the throne. Both the Saxons and the Danes would be satisfied with the return of a monarch from the Wessex line, and Godwin could quietly gain control of more land and power behind the scenes. Effectively, that is how the story played out for the next twenty-four years. Godwin practically controlled England and Edward sat on the throne, more occupied with pious endeavors. When Godwin died in 1053, his son Harold maintained the same control of England, uninterrupted.

A 1620 rendition of William of Normandy, who would later become known as William the Conqueror.

Toward the end of Edward’s reign, William of Normandy entered the picture. Some historians believe that William had visited Edward and asked to be next in line for the throne, though no one knows Edward’s response. Some believe that Edward promised William the throne, since William continued to push for his own succession. Edward, however, was unclear as to who his successor should be, an omission that had an enormous effect on England’s history.

Godwin’s son Harold also vied for the throne and at Edward’s death on 5 January 1066, Harold had been chosen as the successor by the Witan (the King’s council). Harold claimed that Edward had also chosen him as successor, but so did Harold’s exiled brother Tostig – so did William of Normandy, for that matter. The last contender for the throne was Harald Hardrada, a direct descendent of the Danish kings who had ruled England directly before Edward.

Scene 26 of the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the funeral of Edward the Confessor. The text of the tapestry reads “Here the body of King Edward is carried to the Church of Saint Peter the Apostle.”

The day following Edward the Confessor’s death, 6 January, he was buried at Westminster Abbey, the church he had begun building in 1042. On that same day Harold was crowned king, probably the first monarch to have been crowned at Westminister and beginning the tradition that remains to this day. The Bayeux Tapestry contains beautiful depictions of the original Westminster Abbey in which Edward was buried, along with a depiction of Edward’s funeral procession.

The death of Edward the Confessor on 5 January 1066 marked an end to the stability of England and to the Saxon rule. Sir Winston Churchill evoked the scene perfectly in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples:

The lights of Saxon England were going out, and in the gathering darkness a gentle, grey-beard prophet foretold the end. When on his death-bed Edward spoke on a time of evil that was coming upon the land his inspired mutterings struck terror into the hearers. Only Archbiship Stigand, who had been Godwin’s stalwart, remained unmoved, and whispered into Harold’s ear that age and sickness had robbed the monarch of his wits. Thus on 5 January 1066 ended the line of Saxon kings.

Scene 37 of the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the Normans preparations to launch an invasion of England.

Within the month of Edward’s death, William of Normandy had begun constructing a 700-ship fleet. Nine months later, Harold’s short reign would end. Tostig and Harald Hardrada invaded England from the north, and while Harold spent his forces defending the north of England, William of Normandy and his forces sailed for Sussex. On October 14, 1066, Harold and William would face each other at Hastings and William would gain the name ‘Conqueror.’

To whom did Edward the Confessor leave his crown?

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.

Harold II

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Harold II, also called Harold Godwineson or Harold Godwinson, (born c. 1020—died October 14, 1066, near Hastings, Sussex, England), last Anglo-Saxon king of England. A strong ruler and a skilled general, he held the crown for nine months in 1066 before he was killed at the Battle of Hastings by Norman invaders under William the Conqueror.

Harold’s mother, Gytha, belonged to a powerful Danish noble family with close connections to Canute, the Danish king of England. Harold’s father, Godwine, earl of Wessex and Kent, was an important supporter of the king. Although an ally of the Anglo-Danish line, Godwine accepted the accession as king of a member of the former English royal family, Edward the Confessor (1042–66), following the death of Canute’s successor. Godwine emerged as the dominant figure in the kingdom early in Edward’s reign, more powerful even than the king himself. About 1044, Godwine obtained for Harold the earldom of East Anglia, Essex, Cambridgeshire, and Huntingdonshire, and in 1045 Edward married Edith, Godwine’s daughter and Harold’s sister.

In 1051, however, Godwine refused to obey a royal command to punish the people of a town friendly to him. Both sides rallied their troops, but Godwine’s rebellion collapsed when powerful nobles supported the king. Godwine and his sons were banished for defying royal authority, and Edward sent his wife to a convent and designated William of Normandy as his heir. (Exiled from 1016 to 1041, Edward had found sanctuary in Normandy. In addition, his mother was a Norman, and he had close connections to Norman churchmen.) In 1052 Harold invaded England and forced the king to restore his father and his family to their previous positions.

Godwine’s restoration was short-lived he died in 1053. Harold, whose older brother Sweyn had died on pilgrimage the previous year, succeeded to his father’s earldoms, becoming (as his father had been) the dominant figure in the kingdom. His hand was further strengthened in the 1050s by the deaths of Leofric, the earl of Mercia, and other rivals, and by 1057 Harold had obtained earldoms for his three brothers, Tostig, Gyrth, and Leofwine. Harold cultivated good relations with the leading clerics of the kingdom, including Stigand, the bishop of Winchester and archbishop of Canterbury, and was an active patron of various religious houses, most notably the college of canons at Waltham.

Harold faced opposition, however, from Aelfgar, the exiled son and heir of Leofric, who raided Mercia with help from a leading Welsh prince. In retaliation, Harold and Tostig subjugated Wales in 1063. Two years later Harold endured another challenge when the Northumbrians revolted against Tostig, their earl. After killing many of Tostig’s supporters, the rebels offered the earldom to Morcar of Mercia, a member of the family of Leofric, and forced Harold to accept him. Tostig, declared an outlaw by the Northumbrians and abandoned by Harold, fled to Flanders. Harold, however, gained some advantage from this situation. Although he had lost the support of Tostig, he strengthened his position with the Mercians and the Welsh by marrying Morcar’s sister, who had previously been married to a Welsh prince.

Having established himself as the preeminent figure in England by the mid-1060s, Harold most likely expected to ascend the throne after the passing of the childless Edward. His designs, however, were complicated by events in 1064. According to contemporary Norman sources, notably the Bayeux Tapestry, Harold was sent by Edward to Normandy to confirm Duke William as the king’s heir. While en route, Harold was shipwrecked and captured by Guy I of Ponthieu, one of William’s vassals. The duke demanded Harold’s release and may have ransomed him. Harold was warmly welcomed by William and joined him on a military campaign in Brittany. According to the Bayeux Tapestry and other Norman accounts, Harold also swore an oath of fealty to William and promised to protect William’s claim to the English throne.

Despite his promise of the throne to William, Edward from his deathbed designated Harold his heir. On January 6, 1066, the day after Edward’s death, Harold was elected by the English nobility and crowned and anointed king at Winchester Abbey by the archbishop of York.

Harold’s reign, however, was destined to be short and troubled. He was immediately threatened by William and Harald III Hardraade, king of Norway, as well as by Tostig. In May, Harold mobilized his fleet and a peasant army of the south to guard the coast against an expected invasion by William. Meanwhile, Harold was forced to repel Tostig’s raids on the southern and eastern coasts. In September Harald and Tostig invaded in the north, defeating an army at Gate Fulford marching northward, Harold met them at Stamford Bridge, where he won an overwhelming victory on September 25. Harald and Tostig were killed, and the remnants of their armies quickly left England.

Earlier in September, Harold had been forced to disband his southern army because he had run out of supplies and because his troops had to return to the harvest. Thus, William was free to cross the English Channel unopposed. Finally blessed with favourable winds, William sailed from Normandy on the evening of September 27–28, landed without incident at Pevesney, and set up camp at Hastings. Harold, having just defeated Harald and Tostig, marched southward in all haste, reaching London on October 6. There his army, exhausted by the forced marches across England, rested a few days before setting out to Hastings. In the morning of October 14, however, before Harold had prepared his troops for battle, William’s forces attacked. Despite the surprise, the outcome of the battle was far from certain. William’s efforts to shatter Harold’s shield wall (a formation of troops in which soldiers stand shoulder to shoulder with their shields overlapping) failed at first, and William’s horsemen broke ranks and fled in confusion, with Harold’s army in hot pursuit. But William managed to rally his mounted knights, who turned and cut their pursuers to pieces. Later in the battle, William’s knights feigned two retreats, killing those who chased them. The deaths of Harold—killed by an arrow in the eye, according to the Bayeux Tapestry—and other Anglo-Saxon leaders finally won the day for William. His accession to the English throne as King William I ended the Anglo-Saxon phase of English history.

The manner of Harold’s legendary death, in the medieval view, was the proper fate of perjurers. It is unclear whether Harold really died in this way, however indeed, legends from the 12th century maintain that he was not killed at Hastings. According to one such tale, Harold spent two years recovering from wounds he received at Hastings before going on pilgrimage in France and England. He returned as an old man and lived as a hermit at Dover and Chester, where he revealed his true identity just before dying. Despite his brief reign, Harold was a key figure in English history and a talented leader in peace and war.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.

The English historian Henry of Huntingdon reports that a shower of Norman arrows fell around Harold and one ‘struck him in the eye’. Made only a few years after 1066, the Bayeux Tapestry is often considered the earliest and most convincing evidence that Harold was killed by an arrow to the eye.

The 5 Claimants to the English Throne in 1066

  • Harold Godwinson. The brother of Edward’s wife, Harold was the leading noble in England and the man who Edward supposedly gave the kingdom to on his deathbed.
  • William of Normandy. Watch Now.
  • Edgar Atheling.
  • Harald Hardrada.
  • Svein Estridsson.

The aftermath of Edward’s death

In the event, might won the day. Harold had himself crowned with a haste that suggests that he knew that his succession was not going to meet with universal approval. William, whether incensed because he thought himself the true heir, or because he was a bellicose buccaneer with a chance of winning a kingdom, began to plan his campaign. At the same time, Harold’s exiled brother, Tostig, began to plan how he could regain his position in England, and formed an alliance with Harold Hardrada, the King of Norway. Thus in September 1066 their joint forces invaded England through Northumbria. On 20 September they met the forces of the English earls Edwin and Morcar in battle at Gate Fulford, near York, and after a long battle defeated them. But by this point the new king, Harold, was on his way and at Stamford Bridge on 25 September his forces crushed the invading armies. Tostig and Harold Hardrada were both killed on the battlefield.

But even as King Harold celebrated his victory, Duke William was preparing to invade at the head of the coalition of northern French forces that he had built. They set sail three days later and on 14 October met and defeated Harold’s armies at Hastings. Harold was killed and William had himself crowned in his stead. It is worth noting that in the aftermath of the Conquest, several prominent English figures wanted Edgar Aetheling to be king, but this was doomed to failure and Edgar eventually fled to Scotland, where his sister Margaret married the king of Scots, Malcolm III. William sought to ‘airbrush’ the reign of Harold from history – in Domesday, the Conqueror’s great record of his new world order, Harold is almost invariably referred to as ‘earl’. The fact that he was briefly king is almost completely expunged from the official record.

History has been kind to Edward the Confessor. The actions of Harold and William have been widely questioned and their rights and wrongs hotly debated. In all of this, we have often been inclined to accept the view of Edward as pious and innocent, at best too unworldly to give thought to the matter of the succession and at worst a gentle man pushed around by his powerful nobility.

But we must remember that it is entirely possible that, affected both by his personal preferences and by the pressure exercised by the powerful people around him, Edward could have preferred different candidates at different times: his marriage to Edith implies an acceptance that a child from this match would be his heir, his recall of Edward the Exile looks like the king thought that he (and perhaps his son Edgar after him) should be his heir, and it certainly seems possible that he promised the kingdom both to Duke William and, later, to Earl Harold. Perhaps then Edward himself should shoulder some of the blame for the bloodshed of 1066.

Further reading:

Frank Barlow, Edward the Confessor (London, 1970).

Stephen Baxter, ‘Edward the Confessor and the Succession Question’ in ed. Richard Mortimer, Edward the Confessor, The Man and the Legend (Stroud, 2009).

Watch the video: 7th Social Studies: Edward the Confessor and His Unknown ? Successor (November 2022).

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