Crowned on 3rd April 1043, Edward the Confessor was King of England from 1042 to 1066. He is usually considered the last king of the House of Wessex. He is the only king of England to be canonised and his death resulted in a succession crisis which culminated in William of Normandy taking the English throne.
Edward was born between 1003 and 1005 and was the seventh son of Æthelred the Unready, and the first by his second wife, Emma of Normandy. During his childhood England was the target of Viking raids and invasions under Sweyn Forkbeard and his son, Cnut. Sweyn seized the throne in 1013, forcing Æthelred and his family, including Edward, to flee to Normandy. With Sweyn dying in February 1014, the exile would not last long as Æthelred was invited back to take the throne. Peace would not however return to England and what followed was a brutal struggle with Sweyn’s son, Cnut. Æthelred died in April 1016 and was succeeded by Edward's older half-brother Edmund Ironside who carried on the fight. Edmund died in November 1016, and Cnut became undisputed King of England. Edward, along with his brother Alfred and sister Godgifu, resumed their exile in Normandy, while in 1017 their mother married Cnut.
Cnut, who would become known as Cnut the Great and rule over Denmark and Norway too, died in 1035. His son Harthacnut succeeded him as king of Denmark while Harold Harefoot acted as regent in England. In 1036 Edward and his brother Alfred separately came to England, perhaps at the request of their mother. Alfred 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 act probably marked the origins of Edwards' animosity towards Godwin, which would later result in the Earl’s excile. Edward is said to have fought a successful skirmish near Southampton, and then retreated back to Normandy.
In 1037 Harold was accepted as King of England, but died in 1040. In his wake, Harthacnut was able to cross from Denmark unopposed and take the English throne. In 1041 Harthacnut invited Edward back to England. He was received as king in return for his oath that he would continue the laws of Cnut. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Edward was sworn in as king alongside Harthacnut, but a diploma issued by Harthacnut in 1042 describes him as the king's brother.
Harthacnut's died on 8th June 1042 and Edward was crowned at the cathedral of Winchester, the royal seat of the West Saxons, on 3rd April 1043. His initial position was weak as the power of the house of Wessex had been eroded by the period of Danish rule, however Edward quickly set about the task of restoring the strength of the monarchy.
In ecclesiastical appointments, Edward howed a bias against candidates with local connections, and when the clergy of Canterbury elected a relative of Godwin Earl of Wessex as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1051, Edward rejected him and appointed Robert of Jumièges, who claimed that Godwin was in illegal possession of some archiepiscopal estates. In September Edward was visited by his brother-in-law, Godgifu's second husband, Eustace II of Boulogne. His men caused an affray in Dover, and Edward ordered Godwin as earl of Kent to punish the town's burgesses, but he took their side and refused.
Edward seized the chance to bring his over-mighty earl to heel and armies were raised to fight him. The position of Godwin and his family disintegrated as their men were not willing to fight the king and Godwin and his sons, Sweyn, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine and Wulfnoth fled, going to Flanders and Ireland. In 1052, Godwin returned with an army, and received considerable support. There was concern within both Royal and the Godwins’ camps that a civil war would leave the country open to foreign invasion but before violence could break out, Edward yielded and restored the Godwins and to their earldoms.
While the Godwin family’s power was checked for the time, the balance of power began to change following Godwin’s death in 1053. Harold succeeded as Earl of Wessex, while Swyen was Earl of Herefordshire. In 1055 Tostig was appointed Earl of Northumbria and in around 1057, Gyrth became Earl of East Anglia and Leofwine became Earl of Kent. Thus by 1057 the Godwin brothers controlled all of England subordinately apart from Mercia. It is not known whether Edward approved of this transformation or whether he had to accept it, but from this time he seems to have begun to withdraw from active politics, devoting himself to hunting, which he pursued each day after attending church.
Despite the internal strife and threat of the Godwin’s, Edward managed to pursue an aggressive and relatively successful policy in dealing with Scotland and Wales. In 1040 Macbeth killed Duncan I of Scotland and proclaimed himself king and Duncan’s son Malcolm would be an exile in Edward’s court. With the support of Siward of Northumbria, Malcolm gained the Scottish the throne in 1085 and while Scottish and English relations were initially good, Malcolm raided Northumbria in 1061, pillaging Lindisfarne.
In 1049 Gruffydd ap Rhydderch of Deheubarth, with Irish and Viking support, led an unsuccessful raid on England. This would lead to Edward ordering the Welsh king’s assassination at Christmas 1052, which took place soon afterwards. Rhys’ head was delivered to Edward on the 5th January. In the power vacuum left by Gruffydd’s death, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn of Gwynedd established himself as the sole ruler of Wales, the first Welsh king to do so. Gruffydd allied himself with Ælfgar of Mercia, who had been outlawed for treason. They defeated Earl Ralph at Hereford, and Harold Godwinson had to collect forces from nearly all of England to drive the invaders back into Wales. Peace was concluded with the reinstatement of Ælfgar, who was able to succeed as Earl of Mercia in 1057.
Gruffydd swore an oath to be a faithful under-king of Edward, but in 1062 Harold obtained Edward’s approval for a surprise attack on Gruffydd’s court at Rhuddlan. He escaped, but when Harold and Tostig attacked again the following year, he retreated to Snowdonia and was apparently killed in 1064 by his Welsh enemies.
Domestically, Edward's most significant achievement may have been the building of Westminster Abbey, the first Norman Romanesque church in England. This was commenced between 1042 and 1052 as a royal burial church, consecrated on 28 December 1065, completed after his death in about 1090, and demolished in 1245 to make way for Henry III's new building, which still stands.
In October 1065 Northumbria rebelled against Tostig Godwinson’s rule. They nominated Morcar, the brother of Edwin of Mercia, as earl, and invited the brothers to join them in marching south. They met Harold at Northampton, and Tostig accused Harold before the king of conspiring with the rebels. Tostig seems to have been a favourite with the king and queen, who demanded that the revolt be suppressed, but neither Harold nor anyone else would fight to support Tostig. Edward was forced to submit to his banishment, and the humiliation may have caused a series of strokes which led to his death.
Edward probably entrusted the kingdom to Harold Godwinson shortly before he died on 5th January 1066. He was buried in Westminster Abbey on the 6th January and Harold was crowned on the same day. Depite the swift coronation, what transpired was a succession crisis that would end with William of Normandy seizing the throne.
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