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Edward the Confessor

Westminster Abbey

In 1014, the Anglo Saxon king of England, Ethelred was deposed by Scandinavian invaders, allowing Scandinavian leader Canute to become king of England. When King Canute died in 1035 his two sons, Harthacnut and Harold "Harefoot" both claimed the throne. When Harthacnut left to fight battles in the Scandinavian and Danish parts of Canute's realm, Harold Harefoot took the opportunity to seize control in England. He went on to a short and troubled reign, with his brutal ways causing deep resentment. Meanwhile the Anglo Saxon dynasty of Wessex, deposed by Canute, had not been entirely destroyed. Emma, Alfred and Edward, the children of former Anglo Saxon king Ethelred, had survived Canute's invasion. They were living in Normandy where they had been sent for their own protection. Alfred travelled to England, probably to assess support for his own claim. But he was captured and handed over to the Danes by the powerful noble Godwine. Harold Harefoot then blinded Alfred, who died soon afterwards. Harold Harefoot ruled for four years, before dying and being replaced by Harthacnut. Harthacnut, unlike his father was not interested in England, and simply used it as a source of money with which to wage wars in Scandinavia. He made peace with the surviving members of England's old royal family. And during his many trips abroad Harthacnut even asked Alfred's younger brother Edward to act as a caretaker ruler. When Harthacnut died unexpectedly on 8th June 1042, his caretaker was the natural successor to the throne. Edward, later known as the Confessor in recognition of his pious ways, was crowned in Winchester on Easter Day 1043.

 

 

The Quay at Sandwich

In his first year as king Edward had to secure his kingdom against the threat of invasion from Magnus of Norway. Magnus was supported by of all people, Emma, Edward's mother, second wife of Ethelred. Ethelred had been a hopeless king, and Emma it seems could not bear the idea of Ethelred's son on the throne. In 1043 Edward moved decisively to deal with this threat, sending soldiers to Winchester to seize Emma's huge reserve of treasure. This effectively broke Emma's power, and she lived the rest of her life quietly. Every year until 1047 Magnus continued to pose a threat, and every year Edward took personal command of the fleet at Sandwich ready to oppose invasion.

Just as dangerous was a threat to Edward's authority from within. Earl Godwine of Wessex was powerful and ambitious, and in the early days of his reign Edward had no choice but to seek his support. This was always an uneasy relationship, in the light of Godwine's role in capturing Edward's brother Alfred and sending him to his death at the hands of Harold Harefoot. But Edward had to do what was necessary, and tried to consolidate Godwine's support by marrying his daughter Edith. He also placed Godwine's sons Harold and Tosti in important positions of power, which wasn't too much of an imposition as both were talented soldiers and administrators, although Godwine's eldest son, Swein was a much more difficult proposition. After exile for abducting an abbess, and murduring his cousin Beorn, Swein was to be the cause of much disagreement between Godwine and Edward. Nevertheless for a while an uneasy accommodation was found between England's two most powerful families. This changed when it became clear that Edith would not be able to have children. To secure the succession Edward needed a son, which meant divorce from Edith. But divorcing Edith was not straightforward when she was the daughter of Godwine. Eventually a showdown had to come, and that moment came in July 1051 when Edward's brother-in-law Count Eustace of Boulogne visited England. On his way back to the continent Eustace and his party got into a fight with the townspeople of Dover. As Dover was in the part of the country administered by Godwine, the earl was given the job of ravaging Dover in retribution for the riot. Godwine refused. According to historian Ian Walker it is quite possible that Edward engineered the riot to bring a confrontation with Godwine. Eustace and his men put their armour on before entering Dover, as though they expected trouble. Having brought about the riot Godwine could then be asked to inflict the traditional punishment, with Godwine being expected to refuse. If this was the plan it worked perfectly. Edward summoned a meeting of the royal council for 8th September to deal with Godwine's insubordination.

 

 

Bosham Quay

Godwine now realised he was in real trouble, and decided to call out his forces. His sons did the same. Both sides, however, shied away from civil war, and support for Godwine started to dwindle. Godwine was forced into exile, leaving England from his estate at Bosham in Sussex and heading for Flanders. Meanwhile Godwine's son Harold made for Ireland. Free of Godwine's influence Edward quickly sent Edith to a nunnery at Wilton. This action was fairly obviously motivated by Edward's desire to find a new wife and secure the succession. Meanwhile Godwine in Bruges and Harold in Dublin prepared their forces for a return. Godwine used his wealth to hire mercenaries to bolster the ranks of his supporters. Harold recruited merceneries in Ireland. To counter the growing threat Edward gathered a fleet of forty ships at Sandwich, but found support for it was not strong. The people of Dover, who had been saved from attack by Godwine in 1051 were no doubt particularly lukewarm. On 24th June 1052 Godwine landed undetected at Dungeness and set about recruiting seamen. When news of this finally reached Edward at Sandwich the fleet sailed, but Godwine was warned and moved on to Pevensey. Edward could not give chase because his unenthusiastic fleet simply fell apart. Edward sacked the commanders and crews, but could not find any replacements. Godwine heard about this and seized his opportunity. Combining his forces with Harold's, he sailed up the Thames on 14th September 1052. The invasion fleet had to wait for the tide to allow them past London Bridge, and Godwine used this period to negotiate with Londoners, who were generally sympathetic. Edward realised his position was hopeless. In the talks that followed Godwine was restored to all his lands, and Edith returned from the nunnery. Now all hope of a son was gone. Meanwhile Archbishop Robert of Jumieges, who had done much to encourage Godwine's exile, fled to Normandy. He may have left behind a hoard of silver coins, buried on his estate at Appledore in Kent. In 1997 this hoard of silver coins was found by a group of metal detector enthusiasts, and is now on display at the British Museum.

Godwine was triumphant and therefore had effective control over Edward. But by now Godwine was an old man. Within a year of his return, he collapsed at a royal feast on Easter Monday 1053. Edward now tried to secure the succession, and initially tried to keep the throne in his own family. He contacted the family of his older brother Edmund Ironside. Although Edmund himself had died, probably from wounds fighting the army of King Canute, his son Edward had lived in Hungary for many years, and was tempted back with a promise of the throne. Unfortunately the prospective successor died soon after he returned to England in 1057. Attention now switched to the dead man's young son Edgar, but Edgar was a young boy, and not a suitable choice to take the kingship. With no candidates amongst his own family, Edward was forced to turn to England's most influential family, that of Godwine. Godwine's son Harold was the obvious choice, a young man who had already proved himself an able leader and soldier. Unfortunately he had been captured by William of Normandy on a rather mysterious trip there in 1064. To secure his release Harold had to swear to support William's claim to the English throne.

 

 

Westminster Abbey

William of Normandy had by now decided that he had a real claim to the English throne, and with 1066 approaching, England was about to suffer its most famous invasion. But in the few years just before this shattering event, the last part of Edward's reign ironically saw the laying of important symbolic foundations of state at Westminster Abbey, and Westminster Hall. Westminster Abbey was consecrated on 28th December 1065, but Edward was too ill to attend. He died just over a week later on 5th January 1066. He was buried at Westminster Abbey on the 6th. On the same day Harold was crowned, probably at Westminster Abbey. William of Normandy was already preparing to invade.

 

 

 

 

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