Post-classical history


Edward the Confessor

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THE ENGLAND ON which invaders began to cast covetous glances in the early 1060s had for twenty years enjoyed an unwonted period of relative calm and prosperity. But the fifty years 995–1045 had seen England in a turbulent condition, preoccupied with the ‘Scandinavian question’. The key crossover point from the fairly tranquil tenth century to the violent early eleventh was the reign of Ethelred, known as the ‘Unready’, who was king from 978 until 1013.1 Whereas the reign of Ethelred’s father, Edgar, had been a peaceful ‘golden age’, his own was a miasma of warfare, conquest and uncertainty. Viking raids had been a factor in English life ever since the first terrible appearance of the Northmen at Lindisfarne in 795, but in Ethelred’s reign Norse raids resumed, this time much more formidable both in degree and kind.

During the ‘second Viking age’ the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded a series of raids of ever increasing ferocity by Norsemen seeking treasure and loot rather than a land on which to settle. In 980 there were attacks on Southampton, Thanet and Cheshire; in 981 Devon and Cornwall were the main focus of the Northmen’s incursion; in 982 Dorset was ravaged and London itself put to the torch. In 991 one of Ethelred’s ealdormen (the tenth-century equivalent of the eleventh-century earl) finally gave battle to the Norwegians under their famous king Olaf Tryggvason but were utterly defeated in a battle at Maldon in Essex immortalized by one of the most famous exemplars of heroic poetry.2

After the defeat at Maldon Ethelred bowed to the seemingly inevitable and took the advice Olaf Tryggvason’s herald had given ealdorman Byrhtnoth before the battle: ‘Bold seamen have sent me to you and told me to say that you must send treasure quickly in return for peace, and it will be better for you all to buy off an attack with treasure, rather than face men as fierce as us in battle. We need not destroy each other, if you are rich enough. In return for gold we are ready to make truce with you.’3 But buying off the Northmen turned out to be both expensive and hyperinflationary. In 991 the first of a series of danegelds was levied at £10,000, but three years later the Vikings returned to demand £16,000; the amount was said to have ascended to £24,000 in 1002, £36,000 in 1007 and £48,000 in 1012, though some scholars are suspicious of the neat arithmetical progressions.4

It is well known that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was unremittingly hostile to Ethelred, and its account of his spectacular incompetence may have been overdone. Certainly in recent years scholars have tended to rehabilitate him, stressing his efficient financial and administrative system and the burgeoning of vernacular literature in these years.5 But history and legend had their final say with Ethelred by foisting on him the unforgettable nickname ‘the Unready’. Even though this is a mistranslation of un-raed – literally lack of counsel or decision – a wicked pun derived from the proper name Ethelred (which means ‘good counsel’) and applied by the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers as an epithet to the king for his indecisiveness in the years 1011 and 1016, the mud has stuck.6

There are certainly good grounds for censuring Ethelred, who could never decide how to deal with the Vikings: whether to use force against them or simply to buy them off. Moreover, even as the Northmen landed on the east coast, Ethelred had embroiled himself in a conflict with the duchy of Normandy, so that he was liable to a war on two fronts.7 At first he acted cravenly towards the Vikings, then he decided to back Olaf Tryggvason in Norway while identifying the Danes as a major target, trying at least to contain if not rule the Scandinavians by dividing them, and after all it was to the Danes that the major drain of treasure went.8 Violent reversals of policies often denote the weak man attempting to make sense of events that threaten to overwhelm him, and so it proved with Ethelred. In 1002 he launched a murderous pogrom against all Danish settlers. But first he married Emma, daughter of Richard I of Normandy (and sister of Richard II), thus securing his southern flank by a dynastic alliance. Having already sired six sons and five daughters with his first wife, Aelfgifu, the prolific Ethelred produced three more children with Emma: Edward, Alfred and Godgifu.9

Denmark did not forget the massacre of its emigrant sons and daughters. In 1013 king Svein Haraldsson of Denmark invaded England with a mighty army, forcing Ethelred and Emma to flee to Normandy. But the following year Svein died, and in the interregnum Ethelred returned, having been handed a golden opportunity to expel Svein’s Danes, since his son Cnut (Canute) had temporarily returned to Denmark to attend to the succession there. Despite strong backing from Normandy, by 1015 Ethelred’s position was again desperate, since Cnut stormed back to England and quickly reconquered all the country except London. Worn out by battling against the odds, Ethelred died in April 1016, appointing his son Edmund Ironside as his successor. Cnut first defeated Edmund at Assandun in Essex, then agreed to temporary kingdom-sharing, but was handed the total sovereignty of England when Edmund conveniently died a month later.10

After a purge of all possible rivals and pretenders, Cnut set aside his English mistress Aelfgifu and contracted a marriage with Ethelred’s widow, Emma; almost certainly his motive was to neutralize Edward and Alfred, her sons by Ethelred, and thus prevent them seeking military assistance from Normandy.11 Since the Duke of Normandy still hoped that Edward would eventually succeed, or that Emma would have a son of Norman blood by Cnut, Richard II was happy to maintain friendly relations with Cnut. This cordial entente was ruptured under a later duke, Robert, for reasons that remain obscure. One apocryphal story was that Robert married Cnut’s sister Estrith and then discarded her in favour of his mistress, Herlève, thus giving mortal offence to the king of England.12 The story is implausible on many grounds, not least Cnut’s unfailingly astute statesmanship, although it is clear Robert did at one time contemplate an invasion of England, before thinking better of the idea and departing on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem instead. Cnut, only twenty-one when he became king, was a master of international diplomacy. In 1018 he inherited the throne of Denmark from his brother and from Denmark directed operations which overthrew Olaf II Haraldsson (St Olaf) of Norway in 1030, after which Cnut installed his son Svein (by Aelfgifu) as the puppet ruler.13

When Cnut died in 1035 (the same year as his enemy Duke Robert of Normandy), the fissiparous tendencies in England which he had so skilfully integrated by his severe but popular government again manifested themselves. Svein, Cnut’s eldest son by Aelfgifu, was still trying to maintain himself in Norway and took no part in the struggle for succession to the English throne, but the powerful earls in the kingdom ranged themselves on opposite sides. Earl Leofric of Mercia, who controlled all the thegns north of the Thames as well as the sailors of the national fleet based in London, supported Harold Harefoot, the younger son of Cnut and Aelfgifu and Svein’s brother. Harold Harefoot based his claim to the throne on the basis of one-one correspondence: he argued that since Cnut possessed three sons and three kingdoms and since, further, Viking law made no distinction between legitimate and illegitimate sons, his brother Svein already held Norway and his half-brother Harthacnut was king of Denmark, it followed that he himself should be king of England. But Emma, who loathed Harold Harefoot with a rare loathing, backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex, representing the nobility of the south, vociferously asserted the absent Harthacnut’s claim, in accordance with Cnut’s declared wishes that Harthacnut should succeed him in both England and Denmark.14

In this tense situation two events occurred which at once clarified and obscured matters. First, Svein died in Norway in 1036. In the same year Emma’s sons by Ethelred decided to make their own bid for the English throne. In an ill-considered venture, they attempted a coup d’état, supported with ships and mercenaries paid for by Normandy – for Harold Harefoot was the only one of the pretenders who had no Norman blood. The decision to stage this coup was dangerous folly, for the implications had not been thought through; the most likely scenario is that Emma summoned her two sons from Normandy out of sheer rage at being unable to make inroads against Harold Harefoot. Certainly Emma was sufficiently deranged to have spread a rumour that Harold was not even Aelfgifu’s child: allegedly Aelfgifu had substituted a servant-woman for herself in the darkness with Cnut and he had impregnated her instead.15

Emma’s two sons disastrously botched their invasion attempts, mainly through not having realized that Harold Harefoot already held the military whip hand. Edward shaped his course from Normandy to Southampton, where he landed, but, encountering stiff opposition, he gave up, re-embarked and returned to Normandy.16 Unfortunately this prudent response, the reflex action of a survivor, was not copied by his younger brother. Alfred, failing to co-ordinate his effort with Edward’s, used Flanders as his launching-off point and achieved initial success by evading the English naval squadron that had been sent to intercept him. But almost immediately after landing, he and his party were ambushed by Earl Godwin’s men, who took them as captives to Guildford and handed them over to troops under the direct command of Harold Harefoot. Alfred’s companions were at once taken out and executed, but for Alfred a grimmer fate was in store: he was taken to Ely and there blinded so brutally that he died.17

Ever afterwards it was a staple of Norman propaganda that the murder of Alfred should be laid at the door of Earl Godwin.18 His defenders pointed out that the murder was committed by Harold Harefoot’s men who took Alfred out of the custody of the Wessex thegns, and that Godwin had neither control over nor responsibility for whatever happened when he no longer had power over him.19 Later (in Harthacnut’s reign) Godwin swore a solemn oath that he had handed Alfred over only after receiving express orders from Harold Harefoot.20 It is interesting, too, that Emma never blamed Godwin for the death of her son, even though she was distraught with loss and anyway none too careful with wild accusations. Emma’s version was that Harold had forged a letter in her name, luring her two sons to England, though it is clear that the main purpose of this story is to distance herself from responsibility for the fiasco which her own short-sightedness and overheated imagination had brought about.21 The most likely explanation for this much-disputed episode is that Godwin was guilty of political machiavellianism rather than murder: seeing that Harold’s triumph in the struggle for the throne was now inevitable, he decided to curry favour with the new ruler by handing over to him a dangerous pretender.22

With Harthacnut still preoccupied in Denmark, Svein dead in Norway, Alfred dead in England and Edward skulking, defeated, in Normandy, there was now no one to oppose Harold. At first he was merely regent for the legitimate heir to the throne, Harthacnut, but in 1037 he felt strong enough to expel Emma to Bruges and impose his own election as king on the ruling council of England or witan. Emma waited impatiently in Flanders for Harthacnut to make his bid, but her son showed good judgement by giving Scandinavian affairs his priority. By this time the followers of St Olaf had regained power in Norway in the shape of young King Magnus, who carried on a war of revenge against Harthacnut for the way Cnut had overthrown their beloved Olaf.23 Harthacnut dared not leave a hostile and powerful Magnus on his flank while setting out on a risky venture in England, so that it was not until 1039 that he was able to move against England. In that year he made peace with Magnus, probably on the basis of a secret treaty pledging that, whichever of the rulers died childless, the other would succeed in both kingdoms.24

Next Harthacnut sailed for Bruges, to prepare for an invasion of England and concert matters with his mother. Civil war threatened, but suddenly, in March 1040, Harold Harefoot died. When Harthacnut crossed the Channel with sixty ships to Sandwich, expecting hard fighting, he met with no resistance. Once in London, almost his first act was to dig up Harold’s body in Westminster Abbey and throw it into a bog.25 Scarcely mollified by his pacific reception in England, he repaid the ‘treachery’ of the inhabitants during the years 1035–40 by levying a swingeing fleet-tax to pay the full costs of his journey from Denmark to England via Bruges. Universally detested by the common people, he died at the age of twenty-four in 1042, allegedly from convulsions after overindulging at a wedding feast.26

The year before he died, Harthacnut had made the apparently generous gesture of inviting Edward from Normandy to share the throne with him. This decision was undoubtedly dictated by circumstance rather than sentiment, for Harthacnut was aware that he was unpopular, had many enemies and needed to close ranks around him. The invitation to Edward, which was probably part of a grand design discussed with him and Emma in Bruges in 1039–40, made a lot of sense: on the one hand Harthacnut and the scarcely less unpopular Emma could palliate public hostility to them by using Edward as a smokescreen and thus camouflage their own position; on the other, Harthacnut, always essentially preoccupied by Scandinavia, wanted to renew the war with Magnus of Norway and needed Edward as his regent in England while he returned north. Harthacnut was prevailed on by Emma to recommend Edward as his successor in England, at which time he probably also designated his kinsman Svein Estrithson as his heir in Denmark.27

Edward was a shrewd reader of the runes, for on the face of it returning to England in 1041 was risky and he cannot ever have been unmindful of his brother’s fate. Yet his judgement was rewarded, for, when Harthacnut died, he was on the spot while the two other most obvious claimants – Magnus of Norway and Svein Estrithson – were in Scandinavia. Edward was regarded with suspicion in some quarters, as the creature of the Normans, and there was a very strong pro-Scandinavian party in England that wanted the succession bestowed on a scion of the northlands.28 The really salient fact, however, was that all the great earls of England supported Edward: Godwin of Wessex, Leofric of Mercia and Siward of Northumbria. The devious Edward accepted the endorsement of Godwin even though, in his secret heart, he hated him as the man responsible for the death of his brother Alfred and could never forgive him. None the less, for the present he kept his counsel and was rewarded by being crowned king of England at Winchester on Easter Day 1043.29

The central paradox of Edward’s twenty-three-year reign was that he was a less powerful ruler than his counterpart William in Normandy, even though Edward was king of a nation much larger in extent and with almost twice the population. Before 1066 England was thought to be the maximum size for a polity under the direct control of a monarch, albeit one using nobles and the Church as intermediaries.30 In this epoch Ireland was still completely independent and Scotland and Wales virtually so: kings on the Celtic fringes took a formal oath of fealty to the English king but were thereafter left undisturbed unless they intervened in England.31 Nor is the answer to the paradox to be sought in the powers invested in the English monarchy.

Kingship was a prize worth having in eleventh-century England, for on paper the royal revenues were large and potentially vast. The king’s income came from four main sources: from his own landed estates, known as the royal demesne; from profits from the boroughs and churches and from the administration of justice; from services owed the monarch by those under his direct lordship, plus gifts and offerings; and from the geld or land tax, payable from all parts of the kingdom, including the earldoms. The king had considerable reserve and residual powers: no one else could tax directly or issue coinage; a monarch could break an earl, declare him outlaw, and so come into possession of all his lands and thegns; and had sole command of national armies and fleets. Great nobles, royal thegns with estates in several shires and small freeholders, all held their lands provisionally from the king and in return owed him some service, rent or remuneration.32

Since England’s economy was overwhelmingly pastoral and agricultural, the power to levy the land tax was a mighty weapon, especially as the geld was the first charge on property. Those who could not pay had their land sold to those who could, which meant that the geld was both deeply unpopular and deflationary in terms of local economies.33 Moreover, the king exercised discretion in how the tax was levied: not paying tax on his own lands in the royal demesne, he could reduce or waive it elsewhere at whim. Unlike William of Normandy, notorious for his avarice, Edward was uninterested in money-making per se and sought wherever possible to lighten the fiscal load. Uniquely among European nations, England levied an army tax or heregeld, used for hiring mercenaries – a burden introduced by Ethelred in 1012 – but Edward suspended it in 1051.34

The king stood at the apex of a social triangle where the hierarchy was reasonably clear-cut at the upper levels but became increasingly broad and confused at the base. Lordship was the key to the political structure just as producing goods to generate a surplus was the key to the economic; both the economic and political structures in turn rested ultimately on military might and, at the limit, the need to fight battles against powerful enemies.35 Below the king in the pecking order was a handful of earls and below them in turn a heterogeneous group of noblemen known as thegns, which divided into king’s and non-royal thegns, depending on the lord from whom they held their land. A thegn (or thane) by definition had to be a large enough landholder not to farm himself and was a member of the military élite and a local noble of influence.

Royal thegns were men who had been given lands for past services to the Crown and in expectation of future ones; such land was invariably still subject to the geld or land tax. The landed thegns owed the king service as a hereditary duty, and they ‘owned’ their land in a way alien to modern, capitalistic notions.36 Property was always a provisional rather than absolute right, and every further land transaction by a landed thegn required the king’s consent – which meant his actual, written approval, not just some tacit or assumed consent. When a thegn died, to ensure succession to his son the estate had to pay succession duty to the king, or else some part of the original land grant was taken back by the king as his ‘fee’ for ensuring the succession.37

Below the thegns were the non-noble classes, for whom the most common generic name was the ceorls, but here we encounter byzantine complexity of a kind that makes the famous Marxist division of Russian peasants into upper, middle and lower peasants pellucid by comparison. The Domesday Book of 1087 provides us with an invaluable key to social England in the eleventh century. Each manor is assessed by the acreage of ploughland, pasture, meadow and woodland and mills are included; the inhabitants are divided into a number of categories – for example, slaves, freedmen, villeins and cottagers – and the number of ploughs is stated.38 The ceorl, properly speaking, was a prosperous peasant farmer who aspired to be a thegn; this ambition could be fulfilled in two main ways: by acquiring five ‘hides’ (600 acres) of land; or by deed of gift from an earl. Such promotions were by no means unheard of, since eleventh-century England shows some signs of accelerating social mobility.39

Descending from ceorl status, we encounter other types of peasants: the gebur, a kind of middle peasant burdened by rents and dues; the sokeman, a peasant owing light services or none at all; the villein or villanus, who held anything from fifteen acres to a full hide (120 acres) in return for labour, dues and services; the bordar, who held up to fifteen acres; and the cottar or cottager, limited to a cottage. Finally there was the theow or slave, who could be bought and sold by a lord. Slavery was a legal punishment imposed for an inability to pay fines and, since eleventh-century legal codes ordained heavy fines for many offences, the system produced many slaves by a process of spontaneous generation, to say nothing of those traded. The extent and role of slavery in eleventh-century England is still much debated, as is the question of whether it was in the interests of landlords to create it deliberately through fines.40

The same fundamental socio-economic system prevailed in both England and Normandy – yet another reason for rejecting the old model of violent disjuncture between ‘pre-feudal’ England until 1066 and feudal thereafter – though naturally custom and law produced different manifestations in the ‘superstructure’: what was a ’fief in Normandy was ‘bookland’ in England, and so on.41 As in Normandy also, towns were the centres for trade, and the walled towns or boroughs of England, with their streets set out in a grid system, were explicitly designed as safe refuges for merchants and rallying points against attackers. By 1086 about 10 per cent of the population lived in towns, which were increasingly linked with commerce and a burgeoning cash economy. Society in the towns was more complex, with specialized division of labour, represented by trades such as pottery, boneworking, leather manufacturing, long-distance trade, and – vital for a would-be military power – there were specialists in the storing and marketing of food.42 The economic arrangements in the town tended to be more complex than in the countryside, for, although all profits from rents, tolls and law courts went to the king, he would often sublet to local landlords and, especially, churches and abbeys, in return for a fixed fee. By 1066, not only London, but Winchester, Canterbury, Nottingham, Stamford, Leicester, Northampton, York and Chester were all important towns.

Towns helped to increase royal power, and by 1066 all significant ones were controlled by the king. Another source of royal power was the coinage, which the monarch issued. There seems to have been a veritable explosion of coining in the eleventh century, initially to pay the danegeld, for which 36 million pennies were struck in Ethelred’s reign.43 This monetary inflation was part of a general picture of economic prosperity in Edward’s reign, reflected in healthy demographic statistics. England’s population was probably just under two million (though some estimates have put it as high as 2.5 million), with particular densities in East Anglia, eastern Kent and Lincolnshire and the lowest concentrations in Yorkshire, the Pennines, Cornwall and the north-west Midlands.44In this era of prosperity, short-term profit maximization was the watchword and, together with heavy rates of royal taxation, bore down hard on the peasantry. The get-rich mentality can also be seen in the trend away from demesne farming in Edward’s reign. Instead of being actively involved in agricultural production, landlords increasingly rented out their estates for fixed rents.45

Despite all the sources of revenue, there is reason to believe that Edward, reluctant to mulct his people more than necessary, was not particularly affluent. One study has established that the value of the king’s estates was about £5,000 (£30–40 million in modern money) and of the queen’s £900.46 One of Edward’s problems was that his income did not far exceed outgoings and there was a shortage of silver with which to make cash payments: this meant that among the royal household all but a handful of mercenaries and retainers had to be paid in revenue-producing land, and the question was where this land was to come from. The consequence was obvious: either Edward had to risk antagonizing some of the powerful lords who had helped him to the throne by confiscating part of their lands; or he had to contract his own royal demesne to provide the land.47

Under Edward the great earls of England were more powerful vis-à-vis the king than under Cnut or later under the Normans. Hence the paradox of a relatively impoverished monarch in the midst of generally burgeoning economic prosperity. During Edward’s mostly tranquil reign the mere fact of peace enabled the economy, diminished by the drain of money to Scandinavia under Ethelred and his successors, to recover. The necessary conditions for economic growth were already there, for the well-attested improvement in climate (the years 1000–1300 were among the warmest in all recorded time) produced in England the same consequences as in Normandy: population growth.48 Pressure on resources; with a rising population outstripping the food supply, led both to dearth and increased profits for the few. The augmented demand for food resulted in cheap labour and an increase in the amount of land under the plough, though food prices continued steep. While the landless suffered, landlords prospered: the vast surpluses they extracted from the labouring peasantry were spent mainly on water mills, new churches and the purchase of luxury goods, which sucked in foreign imports. Unlike the situation in Normandy, none of the profits went into castle-building.49

It was the social sector occupied by the thegns that benefited most from economic growth, for studies have shown that on royal lands reeves and farmers hived off much of the profits. In addition, the royal lands under Edward were not nearly so extensive as those possessed by past and future monarchs. He had no estates in Middlesex, Essex, Hertfordshire, Rutland, Lincolnshire, Cheshire and Cornwall and merely tiny slivers of land in East Anglia and Yorkshire.50 The greatest threat to the king’s position was the vast earldom of Wessex which Cnut had created and given to Earl Godwin. It was not surprising that Edward’s main problems throughout his reign centred on the Godwins and that he was obliged to ‘solve’ them initially by a curious marriage to Godwin’s daughter.

The Godwin family would always overshadow Edward’s reign. Godwin, probably a scion of a South Saxon family, was created Earl of Wessex by Cnut in 1018, and at around the same time he married Gytha, sister of Ulf of Denmark, himself brother-in-law of Cnut through having married Cnut’s sister Estrith; Godwin was thus the uncle of Svein Estrithson of Denmark. He seems almost to have appeared from nowhere, for he first comes to the attention of history through having been left land in the will of atheling Athelstan.51 His rise was rapid, not so much meteoric as comet-like, in that after him came a blazing tail, the issue of his union with Gytha. Adopting Homer’s method in Book Eleven of the Odyssey, we might first deal with distinguished women and mention his three daughters: Edith, born some time in the 1020s, and later Gunnhild and another whose name has not come down to us. But it was on his six sons that the ambitious Godwin pinned his hopes of founding a dynasty that would make the Godwinsons the greatest power in England after the king. First born was Swein, around 1022; then came Harold, possibly with a date of birth in 1024 (but certainly not before 1022 or after 1026); Tostig, born between 1026–29; Gyrth, born around 1032; Leofwine, born around 1035 and finally the shadowy Wulfnoth, of whom little is known.52

Godwin, ambitious, cunning and dauntless, owed everything to Cnut. Plucking him from the obscurity of the South Saxon nobility, where his father, Wulfnoth, was just one among many thegns, Cnut took him with him to Denmark in 1017–18 and on his return in 1018 appointed him earl over the lands south of the Thames, intending the loyal Godwin to be his first line of defence in southern England against invasion or pirate foray.53 It seems that in Denmark Cnut got to know Godwin well, and learned to appreciate the rare cluster of individual talents that encompassed courage, strength, wisdom, perseverance and eloquence. Wishing to bind him closer, he arranged the marriage with Gytha. Cnut was not disappointed. By 1023 the Earl of Wessex was clearly first among equals and always had pride of place when witnessing charters, ahead of the other earls. Godwin went with him to Denmark, where in 1025 he took part in the battle of the Holy River. This, one of dozens of major pitched battles that convulsed Scandinavia in the first sixty years of the eleventh century, ended in complete victory for the king of Sweden over Cnut’s Anglo-Danish levies.54

If Godwin owed his elevation to Cnut, Edward no less owed his crown to Godwin. Since Edward on his accession found the English earldoms in the hands of powerful and virtually independent families, his obvious tactic would have been ‘divide and rule’. But there were two problems with his ploy. First, throughout the 1040s there was an ever present threat of invasion from Scandinavia, especially from Magnus of Norway, and it would be folly to face this threat with a divided England. More seriously, Earl Siward of Northumbria and Earl Leofric of Mercia were preoccupied with their own bailiwicks; only Godwin had truly national ambitions. It was therefore difficult for the monarch to resist when Godwin, as the price for his support in the witan that had elected Edward king, all but insisted that Edward marry his daughter Edith.55

Edith is not an easy personage for the historian to pin down. Her date of birth is uncertain – she could have been anything from sixteen to twenty-four when she married Edward – and her historical personality has become encrusted with the barnacles of legend and the hagiography of would-be canonizers. Nevertheless, all the sources agree that she was an exceptionally intelligent woman, who had received a more academic education than was usual for one of her sex. At the nunnery of Wilton, a kind of finishing school for high-born ladies, she excelled in languages, mathematics, grammar and music.56 An excellent linguist, with a fluent command of French, Danish and Irish, she was no blue-stocking, but a dignified and close-mouthed woman, in every way fit to be a queen, matching erudition with beauty, generosity and moral integrity.57

The marriage, which was celebrated in 1045, was childless and has always been considered something of an oddity. Some say that Edward never consummated the marriage, simply to show his hatred of Godwin, whom he sincerely believed to be the murderer of his brother Alfred; there is also the curiosity that Edith later took an oath that she was a virgin and that her relationship with her husband was like that of father and daughter. Others say that Edward was himself a virgin, whether out of a fastidious disdain for carnality or simply because he was impotent.58

Others, again, consider that the evidence for Edward’s lifelong chastity is not very strong – although it is likely that he never had another woman outside his marriage – and regard the legend of his celibacy as simply an ‘expedient exaggeration’ which was widely bruited about in order to enhance his claims to sainthood. These claims to a modern eye seem remarkably slender, especially if humbug has to be added to the indictment against Edward. If Edward knew himself to be infertile or impotent, or if he had no intention all along of having conjugal relations with his wife, then his promise to make Svein Estrithson of Denmark his heir in effect made Svein the indefeasible heir apparent – a fact about which a truly honest or saintly man would have come clean.59 A careful review of the evidence suggests there are really only two plausible interpretations: either that Edward was homosexual or that he and Edith enjoyed normal marital relations, in which case either he was infertile or his wife was barren; given the fecundity of the other Godwin scions the former is more likely. It would have suited those who later promoted Edward for canonization to pretend that a normal marriage was in fact sexless and saintly – Edith indeed encouraged the rumours as part of her own self-hagiography – though how that squared with canon-law insistence that every marriage had to be consummated to be valid is less clear.60

The puzzle over his sexuality is only one of many enigmas surrounding Edward’s personality. From the contemporary records it is hard to see how the legend of Edward the saint got started, for the personality described by eyewitnesses is that of a cross-grained neurasthenic, a neurotic with a tendency to paranoia and possessed of a fearsome temper that often made him impervious to reason.61 It is tempting to say that he combined his father’s indecisiveness with his mother’s psychological instability and love of secret intrigue. His ‘saintly’ detachment can be read in quite another way, as the ‘schizoid’ alienation of the classic lone wolf, who has decided that since no one cares for him he in turn will care for nobody; interestingly, his most recent biographer writes: ‘Edward always behaved like one who had been deprived of love.’62

Despite his Normano-Saxon blood, Edward had a characteristic that is more usually associated with the Celtic races: an elephantine memory for slights and an ability to bear grudges eternally. Edward was scarred by his early experiences in Normandy, where, later Norman propaganda notwithstanding, he had not been especially well treated, had been shown no particular marks of esteem nor given any lands of his own.63 He blamed the Normans for slighting him, and for having sent Alfred to his death by not supporting him strongly enough with force of arms; most of all he blamed his mother for the long separation from her in his youth. Since his mother was Norman he made her a particular focus for all the rage he had had to suppress, and all the manifestations of resignation he had forced himself to display – something that his later champions absurdly read as saintly stoicism.

The final assessment we make of Edward is likely to depend on the interpretation we put on the enigmatic Emma. Was she the stoical, saintly, loving mother, oppressed by grief for her murdered son Alfred and, moreover, the classic female victim, dragooned into two dynastic marriages, first with Ethelred, then with Cnut? Or was she a venal, immoral woman, an inveterate intriguer as dangerous as she was indefatigable, who rode her luck too hard with Edward and was justifiably punished?64 Certainly Edward, once raised to the throne, wasted no time in cutting her down to size. Attacked unexpectedly at Winchester in 1043 by the combined forces of her son and the Earls Godwin, Leofric and Siward, she was deprived of her great wealth in the form of gold and silver and kept under ‘town arrest’ in Winchester and allowed merely a subsistence allowance.65

Emma had played into Edward’s hands by championing the claims to the succession of Magnus of Norway; her apologists, however, say she wished merely to do something about the growing power of the contumacious Earl Godwin. But it is typical of the fog of ambiguity that clouds eveything to do with Emma that the charge of conspiring with Magnus was only one count in a multifarious indictment. She was also suspect because of her friendship with the venal Bishop Stigand of Winchester, and there were even rumours that she was conducting a sexual liaison with him or another highly-placed bishop. Edward accused her of withholding from him treasure that was rightfully his and compounding her offence by promising Magnus that she would subsidize his invasion of England with her gold. But most of all, Edward hated her for having failed, as he saw it, to exert herself sufficiently on his behalf, for withholding her maternal affection from him, and even for having preferred his dead brother Alfred to him.66

It will already be clear that Edward was no saint; what was worse, he was the kind of weak, indecisive and ineffectual man who loathes all persons having talents superior to his. He evinced his ’lone wolf status by wearing a long white beard, thus cocking a snook at both the Anglo-Saxon fashion for men to go about moustachioed and the Norman preference for clean-shavenness. His reputation for piety seems to rest mainly on the fact that, unlike most of his high-born peers, he refrained from carrying on conversations during Mass. His mania for hunting was a black mark against him, contrasting as it does so strikingly with the love for dumb beasts of his contemporary St Anselm. It is related that Edward once roundly cursed a peasant who trespassed on his hunting grounds; Edward Freeman is surely right when he remarks that Edward would have had no compunction about cursing St Anselm in a similar manner for the same offence. And another of Freeman’s comments accurately sums up Edward: instead of a king, he should have been the head of a Norman monastery.67

The indecisiveness and confusion in Edward’s mind can be seen clearly in his foreign policy during the 1040s. To assuage the anger of Svein Estrithson, who had confidently expected to succeed Harthacnut in England, Edward nominated him as his heir apparent and made his claim indefeasible by stating that the Dane would succeed him even if he sired children of his own.68 But Svein was soon at war with Magnus of Norway, to whom Harthacnut had explicitly promised the succession. Magnus sent a forceful letter to Edward, reminding him of this fact and making it plain that in Danish eyes Edward was merely king de facto, a temporary viceroy on sufferance permitted to hold sway only until the day Magnus crossed from Norway to claim his own.69

To solve the Scandinavian problem called for superlative diplomatic skills; Edward, a great exponent of fudge and mudge, made no reply to Magnus and seemed simply to hope that something would turn up to rid him of these turbulent northern pretenders. Edward was lucky, for the something did turn up in the shape of a northern war. In 1045 as Magnus prepared a formidable armada for a descent on England, Svein, who had accepted a position as Magnus’s satrap in Denmark, declared his independence; the result was a war between Denmark and Norway that went on sporadically for twenty years. Svein appealed to Edward for help in the form of fifty warships, and Godwin urged the king to send his fleet to aid his (Godwin’s) nephew.70

Edward rejected this sensible advice – much more sensible than a policy of neutrality, as a realpolitiker like Godwin saw clearly, for Magnus was much the stronger of the two and when he defeated Svein was likely to revive his project for a descent on England. It seems that the counter-advice from a jealous Earl Leofric was the deciding factor with Edward; Leofric feared the consequences of the kinship ties binding the Godwin family and Svein Estrithson, and suspected that Godwin was plotting to replace Edward with Svein as king of England, on condition that the Earl of Wessex and his sons would be the real power in the land.71

Events resulted exactly as Godwin predicted: Magnus was soon victorious over the Danes and immediately turned his attention to the invasion of England; only his sudden death on 25 October 1047 prevented the launch of his longships. Taking advantage of the confused situation in Norway, Svein Estrithson himself then resuscitated his plans for an invasion of England in pursuit of his claims. Edward stalled by reiterating his early succession contract by Svein, but this time the Dane seemed unconvinced by mere words from a man who had left him in the lurch when he was in mortal danger from Magnus. Once again by sheer good fortune Edward escaped the horns of the dilemma on which he had impaled himself, for Svein’s plans in turn were laid aside as he faced a fresh outbreak of war with Norway under its new king, the redoubtable Harald Hardrada.72

Edward’s foreign policy in continental Europe was also a muddle, even though he spent the first six years of his reign almost continually absorbed in it. His main aim was the containment of Baldwin of Flanders, who had allowed Flemish ports to become a launching pad for all manner of pirates and naval adventurers, such as the Scandinavians who raided the coast of south-east England in 1048.73 To counteract Baldwin on the Continent, Edward made overtures to a number of putative allies but principally his brother-in-law Eustace II, Count of Boulogne (though his situation was complicated by being Baldwin’s vassal), and his nephew Walter, then Count of Mantes, Chaumont and Pontoise and later pretender to the County of Maine – an ambition that led to his death by poisoning at the hands of Duke William.74

Failing to make much headway with these overtures, Edward was once again delivered from imbroglio by sheer good fortune, for after 1047 Baldwin became involved in his unsuccessful conflict with Emperor Henry III of Germany. The battle-lines on this occasion were drawn between two distinct camps: on the one side, Baldwin, Henry I of France and Duke William of Normandy; on the other, Emperor Henry III, Pope Leo IX and Geoffrey Martel of Anjou. Edward joined in on the imperial side (as did, confusingly, Svein Estrithson) and, as a result, in 1049 Henry III called on him to blockade Flanders so that the defeated Baldwin could not escape by sea. Based at Sandwich, Edward disposed his fleet so well that the result was achieved and Baldwin forced to make his obeisance to the emperor at Aachen.75

But the real confusion in Edward’s foreign policy concerns his rapprochement with Normandy even as he allied himself with Duke William’s enemies during 1047–50. To explain the zigzag pattern of Edward’s policy it is necessary to trace the rise and rise of the Godwin sept during these years. Undoubtedly the black sheep of the family was the eldest son, Swein, who appears to have suffered from a kind of scapegrace hypomania that made him lurch from scandal to scandal.76 Although by 1045 three of the Godwin kin possessed earldoms – Harold, created earl in 1044–5, held in East Anglia, while Bjorn (Estrith’s son and Godwin’s nephew) held a especially created earldom – and there were three other sons, Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwine, waiting in the wings, Swein was the first to receive glittering prizes. It was on him that the ageing lord of Wessex initially reposed his hopes, and accordingly he was the very first (in 1043) to join his father in a position of vast territorial power, commanding an earldom that encompassed the south-west Midlands, Somerset, Hereford, Gloucester, Oxford and Berkshire.77

With a reputation for preferring all things Scandinavian and Celtic and despising French and Norman influences, Swein capped an ill-advised raiding expedition in 1046 in South Wales with his freebooting ally Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, prince of the rival kingdom of North Wales, with an exploit that was an egregious scandal even for those case-hardened times. Making his way home through Herefordshire, he became captivated by the beauty of Eadgifu, Abbess of Leominster, and abducted her from her abbey. Whether this was rape or seduction is less clear – there are sources for either version – but Swein had already given grave offence at court by his wild allegation that Cnut, not Godwin, was his real father. Stung by this and the angry remonstrations of Gytha, whose fidelity was thus so openly impugned by her own son, Godwin raised no protest when Edward reacted adversely to the Leominster incident. Friendless anyway because his pro-Welsh leanings seemed unpatriotic and anti-English, Swein was obliged to seek sanctuary with Baldwin in Flanders.78

That Baldwin condoned a crime as serious as Swein’s was surprising; that he welcomed the son of a man supposedly in league with Edward to abet the emperor’s suppression of his (Baldwin’s) rebellion seems even odder, once again illustrating the Byzantine intricacy of power politics in northern Europe. Godwin must have been secretly relieved, though he took care that Swein’s earldom did not pass out of his family by putting the lands in the charge of his second son, Harold, and of Bjorn, the most senior Godwin kinsmen. Soon Swein was on his travels again, this time to Denmark, where he served briefly under Svein Estrithson until another scandal (this time of undivulged nature) drove him back to Flanders.79

By this time Edward’s naval blockade of Flanders, requested by Emperor Henry III, was in full swing but the dauntless Swein managed to run the gauntlet and arrive back in Godwin lands with seven or eight ships. He made landfall at Bosham, then travelled overland to Sandwich to seek the king’s pardon, hoping that his kinsmen would bring pressure to bear on Edward. But his brother Harold was not pleased to see the roistering Swein return, and still less was Bjorn Estrithson, who seems to have been managing most of the absentee earl’s lands. To Swein’s fury, he was unable to muster the support he needed with the king and then suffered insult added to injury when Edward ordered him and his ships out of the kingdom within four days.80

The sequence of events immediately afterwards is confused, for the malice domestic involving Swein was overtaken by a foreign levy coming from two different directions. First, the king of South Wales, Gruffydd ap Rhydderch, chose this precise moment to take revenge for Swein’s raid a couple of years earlier. Approaching Wye and the Forest of Dean by way of the river Severn, Gruffydd raided across the Welsh marches and defeated a force under Bishop Ealdred of Worcester that went to intercept him. Edward immediately diverted the entire Wessex naval squadron, some forty-four ships, to deal with this menace, placing Godwin and Bjorn in charge.81 But no sooner had they sailed than a new threat appeared. Osgod Clapa, one of the first of Edward’s many expulsions, was reported to have cleared from Flanders with a fleet of twenty-nine ships, intending to raid southern England, presumably in collusion with Swein. Edward summoned the Mercian naval squadron to deal with this peril and achieved complete success. Twenty-three of Osgod’s ships raided Essex but were caught in a storm on the way home; the few who survived the tempest were lured ashore by wreckers somewhere in continental Europe (possibly Ponthieu) and massacred to a man. Some instinct had made the circumspect Osgod remain in Flanders with just six ships to await the outcome; it is said that after this débâcle he gave up and sought refuge in Denmark.82

The Wessex fleet meanwhile was detained by contrary winds at Pevensey, and it was there that an apparently contrite Swein made his reappearance. Bjorn Estrithson, without the sagacious Harold to advise him, listened to the siren supplications of his kinsman and agreed to accompany him on another mission to seek Edward’s pardon. The result was a double-cross only the gruesome Swein could have thought up. Bjorn set out with just three bodyguards and allowed himself to be talked into diverting to Bosham, where Swein claimed to have gifts for the king. Once at Bosham, Swein ordered his men to seize and bind the luckless Bjorn; his fleet set sail and cruised west past the Isle of Wight and Portland Bill; and then at Dartmouth Swein put the unhappy Bjorn to the sword. Presumably Swein sought to terrorize Bjorn into accepting his terms and making an abject plea to Edward on his behalf, but, though frightened, Bjorn was not cowed and paid the predictable penalty for trying to call the bluff of a man as savage and murderous as his unruly cousin.83

News of the crime swept through England: to breach all laws of safe conduct and kill a kinsman into the bargain was morally reprehensible even in eleventh-century England, and made the previous scandal with Eadgifu of Leominster seem a bagatelle. Harold showed his disgust with his brother’s conduct by recovering Bjorn’s body and giving him solemn burial in Winchester’s Old Minster, alongside his uncle Cnut. Edward, in the presence of his army, pronounced anathema on Swein: he was designated nithing, an outlaw. Swein’s crime shocked even his atrocity-hardened sailors, most of whom deserted, so that it was with just two out of the original eight ships that he limped back to Flanders, where, amazingly, Baldwin again gave him sanctuary.84

It requires something of a suspension of disbelief to accept the sequel to these dark events, but the following year (1050) Edward pardoned the murderous Swein, despite the grave damage that had been done to England’s relations with Denmark. The basic fact of political life was that the seemingly all-powerful Godwin dragooned the king into pardoning his son, but there were contributory factors. Since Bjorn had been the fleet commander, the leaders of the anti-Dane and anti-naval power faction in England, particularly those associated with Earl Leofric, moved in for the kill. Leofric argued that Bjorn’s fortuitous demise afforded a suitable moment to take stock and wind up the expensive luxury of a fleet; it was obvious that neither the Danes nor the Norwegians would ever tear themselves away from their internecine conflict so as to be able to threaten England; and meanwhile the country was groaning under the burden of heregeld. Pardoning Swein could be a way of wiping the slate clean, of admitting that God worked in mysterious ways, and that he had given a sign of his displeasure with wasteful manifestations of naval power.85

Moreover, powerful voices in the Church called on Edward to exercise Christian forgiveness. Bishop Ealdred of Worcester, returning from Leo IX’s Easter Council in Rome, is said to have met Swein in Flanders, promised him his protection and brought him back to beg for mercy from the king. Ealdred, a friend and confidant of Godwin, persuaded Edward that England could never enjoy peace and prosperity if the Godwin clan was alienated, as they would eventually become if their leading representative of the next generation was not pardoned. Ealdred clinched his argument by offering to accompany Swein to Rome on a pilgrimage of atonement.86 Swein was accordingly restored to his earldom, but met with considerable opposition from a disgruntled population. It is possible that Edward was being machiavellian, that he had already taken this likely result of the pardon into consideration, and thought that the return of Swein would tarnish the reputation of the Godwins irreparably. For his part, Harold Godwinson still thought his father was making a grave mistake in being so complaisant towards Swein. However, all his reservations were subsumed in a more general crisis, for Swein had not yet fully restored his fortunes when the Godwin family was confronted by its most serious challenge yet.

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