Edward the Confessor was born in 1003 to King Aethelred II and Queen Emma. Little is known about his early years but, after the Danish invasion of 1013, Edward and his family were exiled and fled to Normandy. They returned one year later but were exiled again in 1016. With the support of Earl Godwin, the most powerful nobleman in England, Edward was able to return in 1041 and was crowned king the following year. In 1045 Edward married Edith, daughter of Earl Godwin.
But, despite a happy union, rumours abounded that his marriage to Edith had yet to be consummated. This created a potentially serious problem – who would succeed to the throne when Edward died?
According to French writers, Edward had devised a solution to this problem; secure the succession by promising the throne to William, the Duke of Normandy. The two men were distant cousins and William had visited Edward at his court in England sometime in 1051.
On the death of Earl Godwin in 1053, dominance in England passed to his sons who became leading figures in English politics, ruling much of England’s territories. As reported by French writers, King Edward sent Harold (pictured), his brother-in-law and the most powerful of these sons, to Normandy in 1064. If these writers are to be believed, the purpose of this trip was to confirm Edward’s succession promise made to Duke William in 1051.
Harold’s journey to Normandy did not start well; he was shipwrecked north of Normandy, in the region of Ponthieu, and captured by the local Count, Guy. The Bayeux Tapestry, which records this drama, tells us that, on hearing the news of his imprisonment, Duke William rushed to Harold’s rescue. Harold then accompanied William into battle and was knighted. Later, at William’s palace in Rouen, Harold swore an oath to the Duke over holy relics. The exact words of the oath remain unknown but contemporary writers were convinced that Harold promised to protect William’s claim to the throne and do all he could to ensure his succession. With the promise made, Harold returned to England.
January 1066: The Death of a King
King Edward had been sick since November 1065. Despite a brief recovery, the illness returned on Christmas Eve. Although he was able to attend the Christmas Day banquet, Edward’s illness caused him to miss the consecration of Westminster Abbey, his most famous project.
It was not yet customary in England for the monarch to name his successor, although the king’s son was usually chosen. This responsibility was left to the Witan, the king’s council of advisers, who were present while Edward lay dying. Choosing a new king was a serious business and, as Edward’s marriage had not produced a son, the Witan had developed a strict criterion to help them choose the best man for the job. First of all, the new king had to be an Englishman, as the Witan did not want England to be ruled by a foreigner. Secondly, he must be of good character and, finally, be of royal blood. The king was free to nominate a successor but the final decision rested with the Witan.
The First Omen?
Shortly before his death, King Edward began to speak. He told those around him of a recent dream where two Norman monks, that he had once known, told him that God had placed a curse on England. One year and one day after his death, devils would bring fire, sword and war to punish the country for the wickedness of its earls and clergy. The curse would only be lifted when a green tree, felled halfway up its trunk, and with one part cut off and taken three furlongs away, would rejoin and grow again.
The Archbishop of Canterbury dismissed his dream as the ravings of a man close to death but others began to worry. After all, Edward was an extremely pious man with a reputation for prophesying the future. But the dream was soon overshadowed by Edward’s next action. He offered his hand to his brother-in-law, Harold, and placed the kingdom of England into his protection. After these important announcements, Edward fell back into a coma and died during the night of 5 January 1066.
The Witan Decide
The following day, the Witan unanimously confirmed Harold as the new king of England. Not only was he Edward’s choice but he was the most powerful man in England, of good character, a proven soldier and, above all, he was English. There was no mention of Duke William and the alleged promise that was made in 1051, nor Harold’s confirming visit to Normandy in 1064.
Thus, on 6 January 1066, King Edward was buried in Westminster Abbey and Harold Godwinson was crowned King Harold II of England.