Edward the Confessor: England’s holy hardman

Edward the Confessor has widely been cast as a saintly but feeble king – a dreary bit-part player in the great crisis of 1066. Yet, writes Tom Licence, scrutinise the sources and what emerges is a hard-nosed, vigorous leader who was prepared to do whatever it took to protect his crown

Edward the Confessor seated at a banquet

Think of Edward the Confessor, and you’ll probably imagine an old, grey king, approaching death. This is how we see him depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, in iconography inspired by his saint’s cult, and in TV dramatisations of the Norman conquest. We think of Edward the saint, preparing his soul for heaven, and we regard his reign as a prelude to the more exciting events of 1066. Like Charles Dickens, in his A Childs History of England, we quickly pass over “the dreary old Confessor” to get to “the brave Harold”. Edward has become linked in our minds with the decline of Anglo-Saxon England, Harold to its final defence. Yet Edward’s reign is the key to many mysteries, including how England came to be conquered.

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Reputations can be misleading. It can take centuries for historians to rewrite them. It was Edward himself, or his courtiers, who planted the idea that he was a holy king who worked miracles. This boosted his mystique. Later, his image was reshaped by medieval monks who wanted to portray him as one of their own. Reinventing him as a ‘Confessor’ (a saint who ‘confessed’ the faith by virtuous living), they created a cipher who was revered by pious monarchs, notably Henry III. Edward came to be seen as an otherworldly king, more interested in preparing his soul for heaven than in governing England. The idea soon grew that Edward left the business of ruling the kingdom to his earls, chiefly Godwine and Godwine’s son Harold.

Similar ideas representing Edward as a reluctant, disengaged ruler carried through to modern times in the six-volume history of the Norman conquest by the Victorian scholar EA Freeman. To Freeman, Edward was a “weak king”, “a feeble king”, “who shrank from the trials of the earthly kingdom”. Harold, in contrast, roused his patriotic feeling. As a king who died defending the nation, he seemed a perfect Victorian role model. Praising Harold as “the hero and martyr of our native freedom”, Freeman decided that every achievement of Edward’s reign was due to Harold’s influence.

The 'saintly' Edward the Confessor
The ‘saintly’ Edward (right) depicted in the 1390s. Monks were eager to portray both Anglo-Saxon kings as their own. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Freeman (and Dickens) were using history as a tool for creating heroes who appealed to the Victorians. In the process, Edward – a role model for the pre-Reformation church – was brushed aside, while the valiant Harold was credited for his achievements. Today, historians are trained to deconstruct historical reputations in an impartial manner. Instead of accepting the monkish caricature, our training teaches us to query it.

Strong, glorious, feared by his enemies, Edward the Confessor kept England safe for 24 years

We might start by observing that Edward was not the only king whose reputation was reinvented by monks. King Edmund of East Anglia died, in 869, fighting the Vikings, according to the earliest source we have – the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Yet a century later the monk Abbo of Fleury was portraying him as a holy pacifist who laid down his weapons and surrendered to execution like a sacrificial lamb. Edward the Confessor was no more a feeble, inactive king than Edmund was a passive martyr. Strong, glorious, feared by his enemies, he kept England safe for 24 years.


Listen: Tom Licence discusses the life and times of the pre-conquest ruler of England, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


A king of the blood

Edward was born in c1004, the son of King Æthelred II and Emma of Normandy. He came of a long line of kings stretching back to the semi-legendary Cerdic, founder of the West Saxon dynasty. The blood of kings was believed to run in the male veins of that line. Those who possessed it stood apart, higher than ordinary mortals. Since the days of Alfred the Great (871–99), kings of the blood had extended their rule beyond the confines of Wessex – their original domain – to encompass the whole of England as we know it today. No rival dynasty arose to contest their ancient blood-claim, but in 1016 the Danish ruler Cnut took England by conquest, and Edward fled to Normandy.

Frank Barlow, who wrote a biography of Edward in 1970, regarded his time in Normandy as uneventful. During the 25 years Edward spent there in exile, from 1016 to 1041, Barlow believed he did little to advance his claim to the throne, returning to England only when invited, because the new king, Harthacnut (Cnut’s son), had fallen ill, and there was no one but Edward to replace him. Though Barlow challenged the consensus that Edward was little more than a monk in a crown, he was wedded to the Victorian idea that Edward was unimpressive.

New research into sources that were unfamiliar or problematic to Barlow shows that Edward actively promoted his claim to the throne. Authentic charters from Normandy, from the 1030s, reveal that even in Cnut’s lifetime, the Normans recognised Edward as England’s rightful king. In one charter, datable to 1033/34, he adopts the title ‘King Edward’ and grants land in England to the monks of Mont-Saint-Michel, an abbey on the border of Normandy and Brittany. The fact that he did so signalled his conviction that he would make good his royal title and ability to grant lands not yet in his possession. What is remarkable is that the precocious claimant had shown this conviction as early as 1016, when he promised lands in England to the monks of St Peter’s in Ghent in Flanders. He was about 12 or 13 at the time.

Convinced that he would one day return to England and reclaim the throne of his fathers, Edward convinced his allies that his destiny was written in the stars. In 1033/34 his cousin, Duke Robert of Normandy, applied pressure on Cnut. He launched a fleet to attack England in Edward’s name, though bad weather blew it off-course.

In 1036, after Cnut’s death, Edward assembled his own fleet and headed for England, which could not decide which of Cnut’s two sons should inherit the throne. Hoping to meet with a party that supported his own claim, Edward ran into opposition. He fought them off but was forced to return to Normandy.

Undaunted at this setback, Edward kept up the pressure until 1041, when he again crossed the Channel with a fleet. This time he had done better in laying the groundwork. Tired of Harthacnut’s misrule, a delegation led by Earl Godwine received Edward into the government. A year later Harthacnut was dead, and Edward inherited the throne.

Edward's death is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry
Edward’s death is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. (Image by AKG)

Edward now began driving home the message that he was a saviour, sent by God to resurrect the ancient line of kings and usher in a golden age. He proclaimed these ideas by the original means of including the word ‘PEACE’ on his inaugural coinage and by delaying his coronation by almost a year, to hold it on Easter Day 1043.

The Christ-like symbolism was striking. Returning from the grave of exile (which was often likened to death), Edward came to redeem his people from Danish captivity. Peace was a manifesto that he intended to implement. According to his contemporary biographer, one of the first things Edward did was to arrange peace treaties with the lesser kings or princes of the British Isles, and with the neighbouring powers who shared Britain’s seaways. Meanwhile, he rewarded the agents who had helped him, including Earl Godwine, and punished those who had not, such as his mother, Emma. Harthacnut was dead of course, but Edward punished him for presuming to occupy the throne by ensuring he was given a bad write-up in the chronicles.

A courtly writer observing Edward at the beginning of the reign in 1042 remarked that he was a good man and a perceptive one too. Nearing 40, the king was no longer a youth. His biographer, writing at the end of the reign in 1065, described him as a man of vigorous action. Another contemporary, at the abbey of Bury St Edmunds, regarded Edward as an energetic man, always busy for the benefit of present and future generations. Barlow, who saw Edward as a king “who never searched for work”, appears to have overlooked this evidence, which contradicts his thesis that Edward was lethargic and uncommitted.

A formidable fleet

Early in his reign, having established peace with his neighbours, Edward ordered the building of a huge fleet and assembled it at Sandwich in Kent – his forward naval base. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle remarks, in 1045, that it was the largest fleet anyone had seen. It is an important piece of evidence revealing Edward’s military strategy. In a world shaped by control of the seaways and the ability to transport armies, ships were power itself. England had seen a lot of ships – and some mighty fleets – during the 30 years before Edward’s reign, yet nothing quite as large as this. Fleets were expensive to build and maintain. But Edward’s operated largely as a deterrent. And it worked.

In the time of Edward’s father, Æthelred, Viking raiders from Denmark and Norway were becoming a menace. Between the 990s and 1016, raiders had arrived almost every other year, and there was the chance that the pattern would resume now that England was no longer under Danish control. Mindful of his father’s troubles and raids remembered from boyhood, Edward immediately set to guarding the coast. When the king of Denmark requested ships to assist him in his struggle against the king of Norway, Edward refused, allowing the rivals to fight their own battles and weaken each other.

England had seen lots of fleets in the past 30 years, but none as mighty as Edward’s

Meanwhile, Edward arranged for coastal towns of the South East to supply ships on an ongoing basis. Abolishing the expensive standing fleet, which relied on crews of Danish mercenaries, Edward substituted this new fleet which could be called upon when needed. The towns charged with providing it later extended their maritime duties and came to be known as the Cinque Ports.

Danger also lurked in the marches, the porous border between Edward’s kingdom of England and the realms of the Welsh and Scots. Here, too, Edward was innovative in defence. Wales, in the mid-1040s, was divided between two rival kings named Gruffydd: one in the north, one in the south. Edward’s early policy was to ally with the northern Gruffydd against his southern namesake, but he began to discover that the loyalties of the levies in the Welsh borderlands were fluid. Troops raised in Herefordshire to fight the Welsh might turn on their English commanders. Edward’s solution was to import French soldiers and order them to set up castles that dominated the frontier. Familiar in France as a resource in border warfare, the castles they built were probably more military in appearance and function than the fortified manors occupied by English nobles. French troops were useful to the half-Norman monarch for their expertise in castle warfare, and for their guaranteed loyalty.

While laying foundations for a lasting peace, Edward also did everything he could to procure an heir. When it became clear that his marriage to Edith of Wessex would produce no children, he sent a mission to Germany to negotiate the return of his nephew Edward the Exile. Like Edward, the nephew had gone into exile (as an infant) in 1016. In modern terms, one might say he was next in line for the throne. It is testimony to the power of blood-entitlement that he was recalled after 40 years in a foreign land, just as Edward himself had been recalled after a quarter of a century in Normandy. Unfortunately, the nephew died immediately upon his return, but Edward adopted his son Edgar and gave him the title ‘Ætheling’, meaning he was of the blood. It was a title reserved for the sons of kings, and it signified that Edgar was to be regarded as Edward’s heir.

Though much of his reign was peaceful, Edward did meet opposition, and his attempts to enforce royal justice in the lawless north were unwelcome. In 1065 a rebellion in York targeted his deputy, Earl Tostig. The rebels then marched south to confront Edward himself. Edward wanted to fight, but his commanders melted away. His health failed, and he died in January 1066.

No other monarch that century survived into their sixties. Despite the rebellion, he remained overlord of Britain. Welsh and Scottish kings had opposed him and had paid with their thrones and their heads.

Freeman, thinking Edward inept, attributed his conquests to Harold, a leading commander. But contemporaries praised Edward’s achievements. A poem written on his death describes him as righteous and skilful in counsel – qualities that had been noted even at the beginning of his reign. Impressed that he had ruled over all the peoples of Britain, the poet honoured him for being a king who had “defended homeland, country and nation”. Neither his father nor his successor succeeded on that front. Another poet wrote that Edward’s enemies feared him and “no one dared to break his peace”.

On Edward’s death, his brother-in-law Harold took the throne, claiming the dead king had promised it to him on his deathbed. No one in England wished to contradict his story, but foreign powers who had been on amicable terms with Edward saw Harold as illegitimate and turned against him. Within months of him taking the throne, Normandy, Boulogne, Flanders, Scotland, Norway and other principalities were plotting Harold’s downfall. Even the papacy got involved.

William I is crowned king of England
William I is crowned king of England after defeating Harold II at Hastings. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Harold was a strong leader, but he lacked the blood-claim that was central to the Edwardian conception of kingship. In the space of a fateful year, punctuated by Harold’s death in battle and William’s coronation, the peace Edward had built for nearly a quarter of a century dissolved in bloody conquest.

Tom Licence is professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia. His new book, Edward the Confessor: Last of the Royal Blood, is published by Yale. Tom Licence discussed Edward the Confessor on an episode of our podcast

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This article was first published in the September 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine