Edward the Confessor: 9 fascinating facts

Edward the Confessor is most familiar to history as the king whose death in 1066 triggered the unrest that ultimately paved the way for the Norman conquest. But how much do you know about the life and rule of the Anglo-Saxon king? We learned more from Professor Tom Licence…

Edward the Confessor, depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

HistoryExtra content director David Musgrove recently spoke to Professor Tom Licence, author of a new biography of King Edward the Confessor, for an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast. Here are nine fascinating facts from Professor Licence, taken from the podcast interview…

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1

We don’t know precisely when he was born

“We have a charter reference saying that Edward was born at Islip, a royal manor in Oxford, sometime in the period 1002 to 1005.

“His father was King Æthelred, who’s best known as Æthelred the Unready (meaning that he wasn’t advised particularly well) and his mother was Emma of Normandy, the sister of the Duke of Normandy at the time. The couple were married in 1002.

“We can’t be precise, but we know that he was definitely born after his parents’ marriage in 1002 and before 1005 when he makes his first appearance, presumably as a baby, in a charter as a witness.”

2

His father was forced off the throne by Danish invaders

“Æthelred is known as the king who had to pay off the Vikings numerous times, and who seems never to have won a battle against them. He eventually was overthrown in 1014 and had to surrender his kingdom to a Viking invader, Swein Forkbeard. [Swein died in 1014, but he had a son, Cnut]. In 1016, when Cnut took the English throne, Edward, being the son of Æthelred, was forced to flee. If he’d stayed around, Cnut would have had him killed, most likely. So Edward and his younger brother Alfred and their sister Godgifu fled to Normandy where they were looked after by their uncle Richard, Duke of Normandy.”

Stained glass image of King Cnut from Canterbury Cathedral. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Stained glass image of King Cnut from Canterbury Cathedral. When Cnut took the English throne in 1016, Edward was forced to flee. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
3

Edward spent his formative years in Normandy, but always planned to get his throne back

“Edward was in Normandy for a total of 24 years in total from the end of 1016 to 1041 [from the age of around 12 through to his 30s]. So this was a long section of his life and a time where he was looking to new role models, particularly Duke Richard of Normandy.

“But it’s also clear, looking at the contemporary charter evidence that from day one, Edward was determined to return and recover his father’s throne. The most interesting evidence for that is the charters that he gave to various monasteries, promising them that he would grant them land in England, in effect, on the assumption that he would one day be king, and in a position to make good those grants.”

4

He might have returned to the throne in 1034 when a Norman fleet was assembled to attack England

“When Cnut was nearing death in 1034, we know that the Duke of Normandy (Robert, Edward’s cousin) launched a fleet with the expressed intention of attacking England and reclaiming it for Edward himself. Although we can’t be absolutely certain whether this was partly bluster. Bad weather seems to have blown this expedition off course.

“Very conveniently, the Duke of Normandy redirected it to Brittany, where he wanted to go campaigning and assert his rights anyway. So, the whole thing might have been a ruse. But it is stated very clearly in the sources and there’s good reason for thinking that it was an expedition designed to help Edward recover the throne.” [Cnut died in 1035 and his son Harold Harefoot ruled England until 1040, and then another son, Harthacnut succeeded him, ruling until 1042].

5

Edward didn’t get on that well with his mother

“Edward’s mother, Emma of Normandy, married Cnut after the death of Æthelred, so she was the wife, the queen, to two kings in succession.

“She didn’t do very much to help Edward in all those years in exile, not least by marrying the man who took up his father’s throne. It seems moreover that Emma got on a lot better with Cnut than she did with Æthelred. She decided to have Æthelred completely written out of the history that she had written about the dynasty, but she celebrated Cnut in that history so it’s clear to me at least, that she preferred her second marriage. And that might not have gone down very well with Edward.

“As a result, one of the first things Edward did on becoming king was to punish his mother. He confiscated a lot of her assets and he told her to go and live quietly in a house in Winchester. Whether he did this simply because she was sitting on resources and refusing to release them to him, or because he genuinely felt anger and bitterness at her lack of support from all those years in exile, isn’t entirely clear. But after he punished her by taking away some of her wealth, she then lived out her days, in effect, as a widow in retirement, so there were no further attacks upon her.”

6

Edward’s accession to the throne is a little suspicious

“The traditional story is that by 1042 the ruler Harthacnut decided that he needed a bit of help in the running of the kingdom and invited Edward over [from Normandy] to assist and run it with him – not quite as co-king, but as a sort of co-regent.

“In the 11th century, people generally didn’t want to share power. The story later told by William of Poitiers, a Norman writing in the 1070s trying to make sense of these events, is that Harthacnut was a sickly man who didn’t have very long left to live. For that reason, he invited his half-brother Edward over. [Queen Emma was mother to both of them].

“But that story doesn’t square very well with the evidence we have, which is, first of all, that Harthacnut was a young man. Secondly, that he died very suddenly while he was drinking at a banquet [in 1042], which doesn’t seem to be the death of someone who was ailing in bed. So the traditional idea that Harthacnut simply invited Edward over to share power because he felt like it isn’t very convincing. No [contemporary] writer suggested that Harthacnut was murdered. But it was awfully convenient that a year after Edward the Confessor was invited over, the obstacle should be removed in such a sudden way.”

 

7

Edward marketed himself as a man of peace

“[On becoming king], Edward made a point of stressing a message of peace. He did something very original. He issued a coin that had the word for ‘peace’ embossed on it. It was the first Anglo-Saxon coin of this type ever to have ‘peace’ stamped on it. And it looked like a manifesto. Edward’s desire was to bring together warring factions. He wanted to restore the old dynasty. He wanted to unite the English and the Danish as best he could, although that wasn’t always successful.”

“Richard of Normandy, Edward’s uncle, who had looked after him through much of his time in exile, was renowned and remembered as a man of peace, a duke who brought peace between the different principalities, who always preferred peace to war. He was renowned also as a godly man. That ideal of a ruler bringing peace might have been an ideal that Edward had learned from his uncle’s example.

King Edward the Confessor stained glass
King Edward made a point of stressing a message of peace, says Professor Tom Licence. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

 

8

He had an interesting relationship with his most important nobles, the Godwines

“In January 1045, when Edward was in his early 40s, he married Edith. Edith was the daughter of Godwine, Earl of Wessex, who was the most powerful earl in England and had held his position since Cnut’s time in the early 1020s. Godwine was a real power broker. Edith, his daughter, was probably in her teens or at most in her early 20s when Edward married her. They would have been something of a father-daughter relationship, at least to onlookers. This was picked up on at the end of the reign by Edward’s biographer, who commented that it was a little bit like a father-daughter relationship.

“The relationship between King Edward and Earl Godwine deteriorated after that to such an extent that there was a clash in 1051, due to a whole combination of factors at play. First of all, Godwine wasn’t getting his way as much as had previously, because he tried to push his appointments into political positions and to win arguments in the Witan – the Anglo-Saxon political council – but he wasn’t doing very well. There was a new faction at court, a faction led by Norman and French favourites of Edward, who were beginning to challenge Godwine’s monopoly of influence. And all of this blew up in 1051 with a big row, which was started by a Norman friend of Edward, starting a fight in Godwine’s Earldom.

“The result of the 1051 crisis was that Earl Godwine and his sons, including the future king Harold Godwineson, were exiled, but returned in 1052 and reached an accommodation with the king. After that, there was a fairly harmonious relationship between them, that they got on very well and put their differences behind them. Edward built a new family for himself, something he continued to have to do through his life. He lost his first family, so he built a new family first in Normandy with his cousins and then later on with the Godwines. Edward and the Godwines were pretty much of one mind in most of the action they took, not necessarily at the very end of the reign which has coloured perception to some extent, nor in 1051 – but through those 15 years in between, they got on pretty well.”

9

He probably didn’t want his throne to go to either Earl Harold Godwineson or Duke William of Normandy when he died in 1066

“Edward wanted the throne to pass to his adopted son, Edgar Ætheling. Edmund Ironside, Edward’s half-brother, had died in 1016. He had had a son, also confusingly called Edward, who had gone into exile in Hungary. And Edward the Exile, in terms of bloodline succession, was the equivalent to the next one in line for the throne if King Edward had no children. So when it became clear that Edward and his wife Edith would have no children, they sent a mission to Hungary to bring back Edward the Exile. After some toing and froing, Edward the Exile did return to England, having been absent for 40 years. He probably spoke little or no English, but they brought him back in 1057. He died almost immediately, but his son Edgar survived him. And there are some good indications that Edward regarded Edgar, his great nephew, as his heir and adopted him as his son.”

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Professor Tom Licence is professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia. He specializes in the Norman Conquest and he is author of Edward the Confessor: Last of the Royal Blood (Yale University Press, published 11 Aug 2020)