Edward was crowned king at Winchester on Easter Day, 3 April 1043. He had been exercising the powers of the kingship for ten months since the death of Harthacnut in June 1042 and may have been joint king since 1041. A contemporary saw a man in his late thirties, tall above the average and to be feared in his rage. He was passionately addicted to hunting with dogs – English hounds were renowned throughout Europe – and had inherited an impetuous streak from his father. He was half Norman by birth and spoke Norman-French as fluently as, if not more so than, English. His entourage comprised Bretons as well as Normans and the Lotharingian Herman, whom he appointed bishop of Sherborne. His most influential councillor, Earl Godwine of Wessex (according to Robert Fleming ‘a parvenu’1), had been raised to power by Cnut the Dane. The earl’s Danish wife, Gytha, far more distinguished than her husband, had been the great king’s sister-in-law and Edith (i.e. Eadgyth) his half-Danish daughter, was shortly to become Queen of England. The family had connections with Ireland (possibly trading in slaves to that country) and Queen Edith would prove a fluent Irish-speaker, as well as mistress of various other languages. There was nothing about the vigorous and cosmopolitan court of this Edward of Wessex and England, third of his name since Alfred the Great, to suggest the milksop image history sometimes associates him with as ‘Edward the Confessor’.

Just months after his coronation, in November 1043, Edward moved in company with the three great earls, Godwine, Leofric of Mercia and Siward of Northumbria, against his once-powerful mother Queen Emma/Ælfgifu and her adviser Bishop Stigand, ensconced at Winchester, home of the kingdom’s treasury. The next year Edward had his Norman counsellor, Robert, abbot of Jumièges, appointed bishop of London (in 1051 he would move him to Canterbury). It seems he aimed to use churchmen to counterbalance the influence of the lay advisers already in place. Equally he acted with royal assurance as he wished, banishing a kinswoman of Cnut’s and her family, and then a powerful Danish magnate. He even overrode Earl Godwine in one vital matter by refusing support for Denmark, which was then under attack from Magnus of Norway. In fact, Godwine was probably right: Magnus had a claim on the English throne, as we know, and had he overrun Denmark England would have been next in line. Magnus died in October 1047, but the danger did not die with him.

That same year Edward banished Swein, the eldest son of Earl Godwine, because he had abducted and raped the abbess of Leominster, in the Welsh marches. This was a direct confrontation with the mighty dynasty. Swein Godwineson, for five years earl of Herefordshire, as well as Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Berkshire, was in local rivalry with Ralph of Mantes, Earl of Worcester, a French nephew of the king’s, who now displaced him in his earldom, along with their cousin Beorn. The following year Swein was back in the king’s favour, but almost at once he breached the king’s peace, this time with the murder of Earl Beorn, from what motive is still unknown. He was declared ‘nithing’ [of absolutely no account or social standing] by the king. (Three years later, he was to make the extravagant penance of a barefoot pilgrimage to Jerusalem.) Yet, after a further brief exile in Bruges with Count Baldwin of Flanders, the impetuous and twice-exiled Swein was once again restored to the king’s grace.

For much of his life Edward had been in the exile zone between England, Flanders and Normandy. Tostig Godwineson, another exile on the run, would marry the Count’s daughter, Judith. Orderic Vitalis claimed that in April 1066 he actually visited the court of William of Normandy (a cousin by marriage) to offer him assistance in his invasion of England, before going north to join the Norwegian king. But in general we know little of the bargains, deals and understandings that were currency among the players – only that the throne of England seemed to be perennially in the hazard. Had not Edward himself won it against the odds? Earl Godwine had been a power in the land long before Edward arrived from exile. For Edward the royal court must sometimes have seemed a luxurious form of house arrest with Godwine’s daughter, Queen Edith, the turnkey. Between 1050 and 1052 Edward would manoeuvre for a break-out.

The challenge that failed

Quite apart from anything else, his dynasty needed an heir. Married in January 1045 and at least fifteen years the king’s junior, the talented and solicitous young queen seems to have been a major figure in the protocol and ceremonial of the court. She controlled that department of the royal treasury dedicated to the visual presentation of the dignity of the king. She saw to it that ‘[he was] arrayed in garments of splendour’ and had the throne adorned with gold-embroidered mantling. In her fascinating book Queen Emma and Queen Edith, Pauline Stafford mentions five goldsmiths listed among Edith’s servants, one of whom, Leofgeat, held land in return for the service of producing aurifrisium, presumably the same luxury product as the London guild of silk women was famed for in the later Middle Ages. The queen also provided him with a staff encrusted with gold and gems for his everyday use and directed the smiths to hang his saddle and horse trappings with golden birds and beasts. (Any collector of antique horse brasses must surely get the picture . . . at the bottom end of the market!) The goldsmiths who worked for her and the king included a certain Theoderic, who with his wife held lands in Oxfordshire, and a German, Otto, who married an Englishwoman and held properties in Essex. Edith excelled as a mistress of the wardrobe and director of ceremonies. It was almost certainly she who would commission the King’s Life (Vita Edwardi Regis), which often reads like a eulogy of the Godwine family. But she had yet to produce children.

Any move against the queen inevitably entailed a move against her family and, of course, her father. Next to the earl and the king the most powerful man in the kingdom was the archbishop of Canterbury. The huge wealth, extensive lands and great powers of patronage that went with the primacy made for contentious politics. In October 1050 the archdiocese fell vacant with the death of Archbishop Eadsige. Godwine, as lay lord of Kent, was adept at encroachments on the property of the see and had hopes that the electors, the monks who ran the cathedral, favoured a kinsman of his. Strictly speaking, the election of archbishop required papal approval, but this had usually followed automatically on the wishes of the lay ruler. However, church reform was in the air. The German-born Pope Leo IX, though himself appointed by Emperor Henry III at the end of a period of church decline, was not the man to approve a courtier’s puppet at Canterbury and during his reign (1049–54) he did much to re-establish the authority of Rome. And Godwine faced another obstacle – King Edward was keenly interested in church matters. The year before he had sent Duduc, bishop of Wells, a learned Saxon appointed by Cnut in the 1030s, Wulfric, abbot of St Augustine’s, Canterbury, and Abbot Ælfwine of Ramsey to the synod at Reims presided over by Leo: this was the first time a pope had left Italy in 300 years. In 1050 other English churchmen were dispatched to the papal council at Rome and Bishop Ulf of Dorchester, one of Edward’s Norman appointees, attended the council at Vercelli in northwest Italy. (Did he take the Codex Vercellensis with him?) By contrast William of Normandy, who extracted papal support for his conquering raid into England, never permitted any clergy of his to attend papal councils.2 Edward had received papal permission for certain reforms and, famously, built the great minster or collegiate church of St Peter’s to the west of London. With the exception of the contemporary cathedral built by the German emperors at Speyer on the Rhine, this building, later known as Westminster Abbey, was the largest church built north of the Alps since the fourth century.

Edward’s acceptance of reforms in the church marked royal compliance with papal wishes beyond anything seen in England for centuries. For years, one man had been both archbishop of York and bishop of Worcester. When Ealdred of Worcester became archbishop of York in 1062, Rome insisted that such plurality, the holding of more than one see by one man, should end and Wulfstan succeed him in Worcester. Edward concurred.

In 1050 Edward’s candidate for Canterbury was Robert of Jumièges, since 1044 bishop of London. Robert departed for Rome to receive his pallium. On his way he is supposed to have negotiated an alliance between the twenty-three-year-old Duke William of Normandy and King Edward; later Norman writers were to claim that at this time Edward nominated the duke his heir to the English throne. Robert was also a tough defender of church property against lay predators and an advocate of general church reform. Pope Leo approved as much as Earl Godwine objected. Robert also provoked Edward’s hostility towards Godwine by allusions to the death of Prince Alfred, the king’s young kinsman reputedly murdered on the earl’s orders. On his return from Rome in the summer of 1051 Robert’s devotion to reform heightened: he now refused to consecrate the king’s own candidate as bishop of London.

The king had further trouble in store. Plenty of people in England resented the French/Norman presence at court. A visit from his brother-in-law, Count Eustace of Boulogne, triggered a crisis. On his way to embarkation, the count and his retinue were badly mauled in the streets of Dover. The cause of the fracas was naturally contested, but an assault on a guest of the king was an assault on the dignity of the king himself and Edward ordered Earl Godwine to punish the citizenry by sending in armed men to sack the place. Godwine refused. This made him popular with the people but not with the king. Summoned to account for himself, Godwine called up his sons Swein, back from exile, and Harold, who ordered their household warriors to assemble. The king summoned Earl Leofric of Mercia and Siward of Northumbria with their men to meet with his councillors at Gloucester, along with Ralph of Mantes and his men. Two armies, one royalist and the other potentially a rebel force, were now mustered in the region of Gloucester. Civil war seemed possible but was averted for the time being. The D Chronicle records that there were men on both sides who considered that conflict ‘would be a great piece of folly’, since battle between the ‘noblest in England’ would open the country to attack from its enemies and ‘cause much ruin among ourselves’.

By his refusal of the king’s order Godwine might be guilty of contumacy and it was agreed he should stand trial in London. The two forces began the march to that city, but the rebels began to melt away and Earl Godwine looked to make his peace with the king when Edward outlawed Swein. Using as his messenger Bishop Stigand of Winchester, reckoned one of Godwine’s party, Edward replied that the earl could have peace when he restored Prince Alfred to him. The king’s distrust and hostility could not be made plainer: apparently he still held Godwine responsible for his brother’s death. Equally obvious was that Stigand, if willing to carry such a message, had switched his allegiance.

England’s most powerful family was in disarray. The earl himself, his wife and their sons Swein and Tostig took ship from their port of Bosham for Flanders. Harold sailed for Ireland. The whole family was declared outlaw, except of course for Queen Edith. On the king’s orders she was sent to the nunnery at Wilton; Robert of Jumièges even felt able to recommend divorce. Her removal from the royal presence was logical, both as a member of a disgraced family and as a royal consort who had not produced an heir. Later it was said that she had been accused of adultery, too, though had proved her innocence in the ordeal of fire, walking unharmed over red-hot ploughshares.3 Her humiliation did not last long. Her family were planning their return.

The king ordered a fleet to stand by at Sandwich and alerted coastal commanders. Godwine’s fleet was intercepted as it made its way from Flanders to England. Although Harold was able to join up with his father, gales scattered both royalist and rebel forces. But the Godwine family regrouped and in mid-September, ‘the sea covered with [their] ships and the sky aglitter with weapons’, thanks to their opponents’ inertia they crossed ‘the Kentish sea’ and were able to establish themselves on the south bank of the Thames, threatening the king’s party of loyal earls and its French supporters in the city. But the Englishmen’s hearts were not with the king. Edward realized that he could not rely on the Londoners’ support against England’s chief noble dynasty. Robert of Jumièges and the French bishops of Dorchester and London, together with the rest of the French party, had to force their way out against the hostile citizenry. It was a Godwine triumph. The entire Godwine party was declared innocent of all crimes with which they had been charged and their lands and honours were restored. On the advice of his councillors Edward gave Godwine the kiss of peace, Queen Edith was returned to court and the king was obliged to accept a huge loss in authority and prestige. Godwine’s enemies were outlawed.

Some of the French/Norman refugees from the events of 1052 fled to Scotland, always ready to fish in England’s troubled waters and the court of King Macbeth (1040–57). Malcolm Canmore, son of Duncan, the king whom Macbeth had defeated and killed in battle near Elgin, was in exile in England where he found an ally in Siward, Earl of Northumbria. The earl twice invaded Scotland in Malcolm’s cause, with the approval of Edward, and English levies were prominent in the army that Malcolm himself led to victory over Macbeth to become king as Malcolm III (d. 1093). He established the Scottish monarchy through which James VI of Scotland and I of England traced his descent. Macbeth and his wife Cruoch suffered character assassination in the version of history encouraged by Malcolm’s descendants. (Not surprisingly, when Shakespeare came to write his Macbeth for performance before James VI and I about 1606 he followed this tradition.)

While the historical Macbeth could hardly have been a figure of the towering complexity of his tragic namesake, neither was he the murderer of his predecessor. Shakespeare’s Edward, on the other hand, was ‘gracious England’, and had ‘the most miraculous’ power to cure ‘people all swollen and ulcerous’ (Macbeth IV, 3). The ability to cure the unsightly disease of scrofula, a tuberculosis of the lymph glands, was attributed to Edward from an early period, as it was to the Capetian kings of France, his contemporaries. Shakespeare has Malcolm reporting that Edward left ‘to the succeeding royalty . . . the healing benediction’. James I himself offered the healing gesture and his granddaughter Queen Anne was the last British sovereign to do so. (In France Charles X, reigned 1818–30, still performed the practice.)

The Godwine family in the ascendant

After 1052 the Godwine influence was paramount in England. Although Swein died while returning from his pilgrimage and Earl Godwine himself collapsed of a seizure in the king’s banqueting hall in April 1053, the family remained the arbiters of English affairs. Harold smoothly succeeded to the earldom of Wessex, though he diplomatically surrendered his position in East Anglia to Ælfgar of Mercia, Earl Leofric’s son. When Siward of Northumbria died two years later, however, the all-powerful family asserted its absolute ascendancy. Siward’s son was deemed too young to succeed his father and Leofric of Mercia was clearly too old to combine the two great earldoms. Mercian influence in the north was utterly excluded when his son Ælfgar was sent into exile and lost part of his earldom to Gyrth, one of the younger Godwine scions. (For a time, the embittered Ælfgar allied with the Welsh prince Gruffudd of Gwynedd). Northumbria now went to Tostig, Queen Edith’s favourite brother. The Northumbrians themselves seem to have considered him as the king’s representative, not as an imposed territorial lord, though they were to find his rule offensively strict. The great families of Anglo-Saxon England were not provincial in the sense that the French nobility commanded provincial power bases; their personal estates were scattered in relatively small units, not held in large blocs, and they, like their lands, were integrated into a wider, essentially nationwide whole.

When Earl Leofric of Mercia at last died in 1057 he was succeeded by his son Ælfgar but Gyrth Godwineson became sole earl in East Anglia. That year Ralph of Herefordshire also died. Together with a number of other French lords settled by English policy in these Marcher territories, he had developed his earldom as a Marcher lordship using mounted troopers to harry and pursue Welsh raiders and building strong points with castles, Norman style, rather than building burhs in the English manner. But in the autumn of 1055 he and his fellow Marcher lords went down to a crushing defeat at the hands of the northern Welsh prince Gruffudd ap Llywelyn of Gwynedd and Powys. Early the following year an English force under Leofgar, the newly appointed warrior bishop of Hereford, was dealt with just as summarily. On Ralph’s death, Harold Godwineson took his earldom and its problems; the remaining brother, Leofwine, was accommodated with an earldom from the southeastern shires. By 1060 Mercia was the only English earldom not controlled, in the king’s name, by a member of the house of Godwine.

The contradictions in Tostig’s image are exemplified by his activities in 1061. Unpopular though this West Saxon courtier might be in Northumbria, he felt confident enough in his governorship not only to campaign into Wales in support of his brother but also to continue to be absent from his post for the best part of a year while he led an embassy to Rome in company with Ealdred, the newly appointed archbishop of York. They travelled down the Rhine, presumably by way of Cologne and Mainz, devoutly visiting all the shrines on the route. Passionate in his politics, Tostig was also pious in his religion and is recorded with his wife Judith of Flanders as a patron in the Liber Vitae at Durham in letters of gold.

It was the view of the family’s eulogist in the Vita Edwardi that, ‘When briefly joined in peace’, Tostig and Harold seemed as England’s ‘mainstays’.4 At court the family’s presence was felt in the person of Queen Edith as the king pursued his passion for hunting and increasingly concerned himself with ecclesiastical matters; later she may even have hoped to influence the succession. She certainly amassed wealth and land. At Edward’s death only the royal estate, Earl Harold and Archbishop Stigand outdid her personal holdings. The Domesday Book shows her with property scattered across England from Old Wessex to the eastern Midlands, the dower portions of the queens of Mercia, the bulk of these in the little territory of Roteland, known from the 1150s as the shire of Rutland. (It was ‘reformed’ away in 1974 but, thanks to local lobbying, restored some twenty years later. It would appear that the East Mercians are a determined breed!)

In the last ten years of his reign Edward presided over a kingdom prosperous within its borders and more or less holding its own against its Celtic neighbours. Malcolm III of Scotland, who owed his throne to English help, made a courtesy visit to the English court at Gloucester in 1057, though that did not stop him from making inroads into Northumbria in the following years. As to Wales, the late 1050s and early 1060s were years of Welsh ascendancy. It was not until 1063 that the situation was adjusted. In the spring Gruffudd managed to weather a punitive expedition led by Earl Harold. Tostig marched down from Northumbria and joined forces with Harold, who burnt the palace at Rhuddlan. Their successful campaign in the Marches forced the Welshmen to sue for peace and traitors killed their own charismatic prince. His head and the beak of his raiding ship were brought to Harold, hostages yielded up and tribute paid.5 A century later, standing stones were still to be seen along the border recording Harold’s numerous victorious engagements.

At this time Harold was just forty: England’s greatest landholder, her richest man and most powerful royal minister. The Anglo-Norman historian Orderic Vitalis (writing in the 1120s) recorded him as tall, well built and noted for his eloquence, courage in battle and affability to his supporters. His partner, the beautiful Edith Swanneck, was a rich woman in her own right with extensive landholdings in the east of England. They had five children and if their liaison did not conform entirely to the church’s requirements they formed a formidable and loyal couple. A man of great consequence in the nation’s affairs since his early twenties – his eastern earldom had covered much of East Anglia, Essex and Cambridgeshire (including Huntingdonshire) – Harold was also a person of conventional piety. For example he was a keen and discriminating collector of relics and a great patron of religious establishments. The abbey of Peterborough was a favourite and, much to its disadvantage, Abbot Leofric was with Harold at the Battle of Hastings. By contrast, the small religious community of Waltham Holy Cross greatly benefited from the beautiful stone church that Harold had built for them, much to the approval of King Edward. Harold apparently had a special devotion for the cult of the Cross, like other English nobles at this time.

Like them too he seems to have visited Lotharingia and been much impressed by the religious reforms going forward there, and to have been a connoisseur of fine manuscript illumination. He may even have visited Rome; he is certainly known to have been in Saint-Omer in November 1056, when he witnessed a charter there for Count Baldwin V of Flanders, his brother-in-law. Of his other visits to the Continent, the one to Normandy, when he is supposed to have pledged his oath to William to support him as successor to the English crown, should in the view of Professor Frank Barlow, in his recent book on the Godwine dynasty, be dated to the year 1064 – if it ever took place at all. It certainly features dramatically on the Bayeux Tapestry but, Barlow argues, the detail ‘must be viewed with caution’. There is no mention of this visit in the Chronicle and he considers the later English sources that do mention it, such as Eadmer, are merely ‘refashionings’ of the Norman version of events. He points out that there are differences as to where the ceremony took place – at Bonneville-sur-Touques according to William of Poitiers, at Rouen according to Orderic Vitalis – while the Bayeux Tapestry specifies no location. From the start, the Norman apologists claimed, Edward wanted William to be his heir but, Barlow observes: ‘There is no good evidence that Edward ever or consistently regarded William as his heir.’6 Even so it was central to William’s case for papal support in his invasion plans and one wonders whether the papal curia would have credited a total fabrication. And the Bayeux Tapestry unequivocally depicts Harold in Normandy.

Whoever actually made the famous piece of needlework (the question is discussed in Appendix A), it was surely commissioned as a record of the Norman version of how the crown of England was acquired by the duke of the Normans. It follows the account in William of Poitiers of how Harold visited Normandy on a mission from King Edward with instructions to confirm his oath, first made during William’s visit to England in 1051–2 along with the other English magnates at that time, to accept William as the next king of England. He was wrecked off the coast of Ponthieu in Picardy and seized by the local count, who ransomed him to Duke William. While the duke’s guest, Harold joined him in his military campaign against Conan fitzAlan, count of Brittany – which features extensively in the Tapestry. The earl’s mission, we are told, was to convey to William that King Edward had designated the duke his heir to the English crown. William had his English visitor swear to support him as king and then had the cloth removed from the table on which he had placed his hand – to reveal a cache of saints’ relics beneath!

Back in England Harold, as head of the house of Godwine, faced trouble from the Northumbrians angered by the harsh administration of his brother Tostig as earl of Northumbria. Scandal darkened the last weeks of the dying king. The Christmas court of 1065 was in uproar at the death, most said the murder, of the northern magnate Gospatric, who like Tostig had been at court for the festivities and was a known enemy of the earl. Such a breach of the king’s personal peace rocked the foundations of established order; worse still, another rumour accused the queen of having set it up.7

Northumbrian loyalties were divided between the Anglian lords of Bamburgh, of whom Gospatric was one and who were dominant north of the Tyne, the church community of St Cuthbert at Durham, and the predominantly Scandinavian aristocracy of Yorkshire. Tostig’s appointment as earl in 1055 had brought rough but effective, and hence contested, rule. He and his wife Judith of Flanders were renowned for their generosity to St Cuthbert, including the donation of a large crucifix, covered in gold and silver and accompanied by images of the Virgin Mary and St John. Tostig had identified the ringleaders as the house of Bamburgh and had two of its members murdered at York while under safe conduct.The rebels, among them Yorkshire thegns, declared Tostig outlaw and invited Morcar, younger son of Ælfgar of Mercia, to be their earl.

They marched south to ask the court to authorize the appointment. In a sense it was a vindication of Tostig’s rule since it seems his brief had been to bring the northern region into line with the rest of the kingdom.8 Harold met them at Oxford and agreed their demand. King Edward rubber-stamped the appointment; Tostig was forced into exile, with no support from his brother.

Some regarded this quarrel as responsible for the collapse of the Godwine family fortunes. Harold, ignoring his ‘Danish marriage’ with Edith Swanneck, now married Morcar’s sister: their son would no doubt have succeeded to the throne had Harold won at Hastings.

The last Anglo-Saxon reign

Harold was crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey on 6 January 1066, the day following the death of King Edward. The great church had been dedicated some ten days earlier on 28 December as the king its patron lay dying. Preparations for the forthcoming ceremony must surely have been under discussion. It was certainly hasty; some could say unseemly. But Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester, who prophesied to the king disaster if the country did not mend its debauched ways, did not level the charge of perjury against Harold. There were other candidates, most strongly Edgar Ætheling, grandson of Edmund Ironside, as well as William of Normandy. But there is no evidence that either had a party of supporters in England. It seems that Harold had right on his side when he claimed that the dying king had named him his successor, and the council had acclaimed him. Why should they do otherwise? Norman influence had been strong enough in the first half of the Confessor’s reign; with the ruler of the duchy on the throne of England, their position as English magnates would be parlous.

The ‘E’ version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written in the scriptorium of Peterborough Abbey, whose abbot Leofric was with the English army at Hastings, records straightforwardly that ‘Earl Harold succeeded to the realm of England, just as the king had granted it to him and as he had been chosen to the position.’ The twelfth-century English historian John of Worcester would confirm this and even William of Poitiers believed that the dying Edward had nominated the earl his heir. John also tells us that Harold was crowned by Archbishop Ealdred of York. Norman sources, however, claimed that the coronation had been conducted by Stigand of Canterbury, who had received his pallium of office from Benedict X, whose reign ended after just nine months when he was expelled by reformers and declared anti-pope. Pope Alexander II, sponsor of the invasion of England, did not of course recognize Stigand. The Tapestry tellingly depicts his ambiguous position – he stands to one side of the enthroned King Harold, not wearing his pallium but displaying it to the spectator. Evidently he had not conducted the coronation. Interestingly, Stigand was not replaced at Canterbury until 1070.

Harold’s nine-month reign was largely occupied with preparations against invasion. The country’s fabled wealth was mobilized for war, the mints striking thousands of pennies bearing the new king’s head at more than forty sites from Romney in the south to York and Chester in the north. The Welsh threat had revived under new leaders. But more serious was the fact that Tostig, determined to recover his position in England, had made common cause with the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada, the most renowned warrior of the time, who was now ready to prosecute the claim dating back to his grandfather’s deal with King Harthacnut. (In Harald’s opinion, even Edward the Confessor had been an intruder, let alone the Godwineson now in place.)

And then, of course, there was the relentless build-up of William of Normandy’s invasion forces along the Channel coast. All summer Harold held his troops on stand-by in the southern counties with ships in readiness at Sandwich and off the Isle of Wight. There are hints that he may have ‘raided the Norman coast at some time during the summer’. Week after week the wind blew from the north, making it impossible for William to launch his troop transports. In the first week of September the supplies provisioned for the English troops on standby ran out ‘and the men were allowed to go home, while the fleet returned to London.’9 But if the winds hampered the Normans they favoured the Norwegians and in September news reached Harold that they, with Tostig and a fleet of some 300 ships, had sailed into the Humber estuary and marched upon York. Edwin and Morcar led the forces of Northumbria against the invaders and were routed on the banks of the River Ouse, ‘south of York’. (The twelfth-century chronicler Symeon of Durham sites the battle at Fulford.) By forced marches that were a tribute to his army’s discipline and fitness, Harold arrived to face the enemy at Stamford Bridge on 25 September. The fighting lasted the best part of the daylight hours; the invaders were crushed, both Harald and Tostig met their deaths, as did a great proportion of their troops both ‘Norwegians and Flemings’.10 Harold gave quarter to the survivors. Figures vary as to the slaughter. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ‘the very great raiding army’ arrived in 300 ships and, after their defeat, returned in 24 ships. John of Worcester gave the figures as 500 and 20, respectively. According to Orderic Vitalis a mountain of whitened bones was still to be seen on the battlefield in the 1120s.11 Harold’s triumph was brief. The winds in the Channel had changed. On 28 September the fleet from Normandy crossed the narrow seas and William was able to land his invasion force unopposed at Pevensey. The duke himself stumbled and fell and, to avert the omen, a quick-thinking lieutenant let it be known that the duke wished to embrace his new kingdom.

Raising his army had presented problems for William too. It is not clear that his vassals owed him service outside the duchy. From outside, Eustace of Boulogne was his principal ally but he also recruited soldiers from Brittany, Maine and even Aquitaine. He was able to hire mercenary archers and crossbowmen. It seems that the building of the fleet and troop transports did not begin until after news of Edward’s death reached Normandy. He seems to have sailed with a fleet of between 500 and 700 ships. His delayed sailing played in his favour in so far as Harold was in the north of England during the vital days that the Normans crossed the Channel. This gave them time to deploy from the old Roman fort at Pevensey to Hastings.

The Battle of Hastings

Again Harold of England traversed his kingdom, he and a number of his troops no doubt on horseback. By 7 October he was in London. There a family conference is said to have ensued and, among other things later tradition tells us, his mother urged him not to fight and his brother Gyrth proposed that he, not Harold, should command the army because he was an oath-breaker.12 Contemporary English sources say nothing about the oath and the story is first found in Orderic Vitalis, who may have had in mind the oath supposedly sworn to William in 1051/2.

It seems that Harold spent the best part of a week in London assembling an army. One presumes this entailed dispatching writs for the raising of levies through the southern counties, for we are told that men came in as he rode through Kent and Sussex. The chronicle of Abingdon Abbey records that the thegns owing duty to the abbey fought at Hastings and as we have noted Abbot Leofric of Peterborough was there, presumably with the men at arms owing service to the abbey.

William of Malmesbury records that the night before the battle the English were carousing. Supposedly the English thought the Normans must be priests because they lacked the flowing moustaches of true warriors; and the Normans thought the English a womanish bunch with their combed and pomaded hair.13 If Wace is to be believed the Normans’ battle cry at Hastings, the semi-Latin ‘Deus aïe!’ (‘With God’s help’) was answered by the Anglo-Saxon cry ‘Ut!’ (‘Out!’)

On 14 October Harold took up position on a hill ridge at Senlac some seven miles (11 km) from Hastings and prepared to engage the enemy – even though other English forces were on the road to rendezvous with the royal army. Accounts of the battle are piecemeal and confused. M. K. Lawson (2003) tends to accept one source formerly discounted, the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio (‘Song of the Battle of Hastings’) by Guy, bishop of Amiens. It begins by comparing William to Julius Caesar and many of the sources make classical allusions. There is a much disputed account of how Taillefer, a juggler, threw his sword into the air in front of the French lines and killed an Englishman who rushed forward against him.

Harold’s battlefield position was well chosen, as it seems Duke William was unable to turn either flank. Accounts speak of ditches, one of them large and well concealed, which suggests that the English position extended with field defences beyond the ridge. Later pro-English chroniclers report the inadequate size of the English force. As to numbers, Lawson comments, ‘How large a “large” army may have been there is no way of knowing.’14 William of Poitiers, on the other hand, speaks of the ‘immense size’ of Harold’s army with reinforcements from Denmark, while the ‘D’ text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports Harold as assembling a ‘great host’ (presumably swelled by local shire levies), which the Normans attacked ‘before his people were set in order’ (‘ær his folc gefylced wœre’). Had they been delayed by the preparation of the field defences? Was the shield wall still being marshalled? Was it because the local levies were still being mobilized into the main army? Or was it because they had been carousing the night before?

William of Poitiers speaks of indiscipline, recording that the English forces three times left their sound defensive position, the third time to be surrounded and cut down by those it thought in flight. The English fought under Harold’s banner of ‘The Armed Man’ (‘homo armatus’), worked in purest gold apparently, which was sent to the pope after the battle as spoils of victory. This was appropriate since Pope Alexander II seems to have sent William the banner that his people fought under, ‘the standard of St Peter the Apostle’ as Orderic Vitalis called it. The English shield wall held against repeated Norman cavalry charges and arrow fire. Towards the end of the day the Norman foot fell back in what proved a tactical feint. The shield wall broke; the enemy returned to the attack. The English faltered and then tried to flee. Many were cut down as they ran. Accounts of the battle are scant and confused. According to the Carmen the Normans were already stripping the bodies of the dead when Harold was seen on the ridge of the hill still fighting. When four Normans attacked and killed him one speared him through his shield; one hacked off his head; one split his entrails; a fourth hewed off his thigh. William ordered that Harold’s corpse be buried on the seashore.

At the end of the day Harold’s brothers Gyrth and Leofwine and many of the Anglo-Saxon nobility lay dead on the place of slaughter. The pro-English twelfth-century historian William of Malmesbury is among those who records the tradition of Harold’s death by arrow shot. Apparently the English army only abandoned the fight as reports of the king’s death spread through the ranks. An arrow shot, whether in the eye or not, seems probable. Harold’s prowess was such, men said, that he could overthrow a horse and its rider with a single blow, so that no one could approach near enough to kill him. Discounting the legends that he survived the battle (they are explored in Appendix B), death by arrow shot (whether in the eye or not) seems probable.


Like Waterloo, Hastings, it seems, was a near run thing. The length of the battle from morning till dusk indicates evenly matched opponents, whether or not there was an imbalance in numbers. Had he fought out the day to a stalemate, with nightfall Harold would still have been king of England and William looking to bivouac in hostile country with a bleak prospect for the morning. As it was, the English defeat was total, and the systematic rape of the southern counties stubbed out immediate resistance. But resistance there was.

After a week spent on a savage punitive expedition to the south and west of London, William paused at Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire to receive the leading citizens of London, Edgar the ætheling, Archbishop Ealdred of York and the earls Edwin and Morcar, and accept their hostages and allegiance.

Three months after his coronation in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066, William left England for Normandy and was attending to business in the duchy until the following December. There were local uprisings in many parts of England but they were not coordinated. Unrest in the southwest, however, was more serious. William may even have had reason to believe that its aim was to put Godwine, Harold’s son by Edith Swanneck, on the throne.15 Aged perhaps eighteen at the time of Hastings, he held property in Somerset. The other great old-regime landowner in the region, with large estates in Devon and Wiltshire as well as Somerset, was the young man’s grandmother, Gytha, wife of the old earl and matriarch of the Godwine dynasty, presumably now in her sixties. Exeter, a dower city of her daughter Queen Edith, was the chief rebel centre and it was here that William directed his energies in early 1068. After heavy initial losses the new king took the place after an eighteen-day siege. Gytha and her entourage made good their escape and in due course she arrived at Saint-Omer with sufficient bullion and other treasures to see her through a comfortable retirement away from the hazards of court politics and attempted comebacks.

Meantime, towards mid-summer 1068 Harold’s brothers and his son Godwine, who had crossed over to Ireland where the family friend King Diarmait of Leinster had helped fit them out, appeared in the mouth of the River Avon with ’a raiding ship army’ and plundered the countryside. The citizens of Bristol fought them off, so they took their loot back to their ships and went up into Somerset before returning to Ireland. The next year they returned with more than 60 ships, landing on the coast of north Devon. Again they were driven back with the loss of many of their best men, this time by the Breton count, the Conqueror’s earl in the district.16

In the summer of 1069 a Danish fleet commanded by King Swein II found safe anchorage in the Humber. Even from the records that survive it is clear that England was seething with discontent after Hastings; the explosion came in the north. It was William’s Norman appointee as earl of Northumbria who set the torch to the brushwood. The men of the Durham region surprised him inside the stronghold there and killed him and the 900 men with him. The arrival of the Danish fleet sparked a rising in York. By 20 September the city was lost, Yorkshire was in rebel hands and the entire Norman project in England in jeopardy. Within days the seventeen-year-old Edgar the aethling had arrived in the city, marching south from his exile in Scotland. Since Hastings Edgar had managed to keep out of William’s way while receiving various embassies of support, notably from Brand, the new abbot of Peterborough, ‘because the people there thought he ought to become king.’ He had made his way to the court of Malcolm of Scotland, along with his Hungarian mother Agatha and his sister Margaret, who, much against her will, was obliged to marry the Scottish king.

York received the ætheling with jubilation. But William stormed north, retaking York as the ætheling escaped back to Scotland.William celebrated Christmas in its smouldering ruins; he continued northwards to the River Tees through the lands of St Cuthbert and the Lordship of Bamburgh. News came of further risings in Cheshire and Wales. William drove his army southwest across the Pennines in the depths of a bitter winter. Desertification, death and rapine followed him. The harrying of the North that ensued brought the practice of the punitive expedition to the nadir of horror. Fifteen years later the Domesday commissioners were noting ‘laid waste’ against village after village of the region, entry after entry.

With the country in turmoil, ‘the English people from the Fens’ had flocked to Swein of Denmark, thinking his army was planning to occupy the region. At about this time the monks of Peterborough heard that one of their tenants, Hereward of Bourne, was marching on the abbey because he and his men had heard that, with the death of Abbot Brand, the Conqueror had handed the place to the Norman soldier/churchman Turold of Fécamp. In what followed the once ‘golden borough’ crashed to ‘wretched borough’, plundered of its treasures by foes and friends alike, claiming to save them from the alien invaders. Pirates, we are told, sailed up to the minster wharf and tried to break in. When the monks resisted the attackers set fires. They then plundered the abbey of its gold, from the crown on the head of the crucified Christ hanging on the rood screen to many other crosses and gold and silver ornaments of all kinds, as well as precious manuscripts. Even the talismanic arm of St Oswald was carried down to the ships and, with the rest of the booty, taken off to Ely – supposedly for safe-keeping away from the depredations of the Normans.

There Hereward, known to history and legend as Hereward the Wake, joined by Earl Morcar of Mercia and Bishop Ælfwine of Durham, held out with hundreds of desperate rebels, their hope fixed on the Danish fleet in the face of news of King William’s progress. Ely Abbey, on its island among the fenland marshes, was well suited for a stronghold, but as at Alfred’s Athelney resistance could not be indefinite.

By the spring William had flayed his rebel kingdom back to obedience. In a campaign that historian David Douglas rated ‘one of the outstanding military achievements of the age’, he was once more master. At this point the Danes came to terms with the Norman king and sailed away to Denmark, with much English booty in their holds. Now, too, the leaders of Ely’s lost cause made what peace they could while Hereward made good his escape into the half-light between legend and history. The Conqueror is said to have pardoned him and he supposedly crossed over to France. There, according to Geoffrey Gaimar, the French historian of the English, writing his Estoire des Angleis for the wife of a Norman lord in Lincolnshire, Hereward was run to ground and murdered by a party of vengeful Normans. It is fitting that the end of his story, whether true or fiction, should be penned so near to Hereward’s home territory. Anglo-Saxon England’s last real, if faint, hope was Edgar the ætheling, Ironside’s grandson, who had been named king in October 1066 by the English bishops and the remnant of the nobility: he survived to join the armies of the First Crusade, where, as a man in his early forties, he would strike a contemporary as ‘handsome in appearance; liberal and noble in eloquence.’

Aftermath and rebirth

According to the Vita Edwardi Regis, as he lay dying Edward, indicating the queen, had said to Harold: ‘I commend this woman with all the kingdom to your protection.’ The Chronicle explicitly states that ‘Harold succeeded to the realm of England, just as the king had granted it to him and as he had been chosen to the position.’17 If true it was the first time such a bequest had been made to one not of the royal line. Reports of the deathbed scene come from witnesses who were, by definition, Harold’s supporters. However, one Norman source tacitly accepts that the deathbed nomination was made, by charging Harold with perjury for accepting it. As to his sister, the dowager queen Edith, a Chronicle entry for the year 1076 tells us that the Lady Edith, dowager to King Edward, passed away at Winchester seven days before Christmas and the king had her body brought to Westminster with great ceremony and buried beside her lord. She was the first queen to be buried there, just as her brother was the first king of England to be crowned there.

The Normans called Harold an oath-breaker and perjurer. But from an English point of view William, the illegitimate descendant of pirates, with no share in the blood royal, who had not been chosen by the councillors or people of the realm and whose claim to be the nominated successor had been superseded by the dead king’s nomination of Harold, could be considered as openly planning a war of usurpation and conquest against the lawfully anointed king of one of Europe’s ancient Christian kingdoms. The pope’s blessing was essential, and for that blessing to be given ‘Harold the Perjurer’ was an important bogey-man. After 1066 some religious establishments deleted the Godwine name from their lists of benefactors.18

As R.H.C. Davis has stated:

The most interesting fact about the Norman Conquest is what made it so complete . . . Apparently . . . England received a new royal dynasty, a new aristocracy . . . and virtually a new church, as the result of one day’s fighting . . .19

In fact the picture was not quite that simple. But the total defeat of the English at Hastings made a reversal of the decision virtually inconceivable.

Hastings shattered the English army, and William subdued the kingdom by terror. Quite apart from the horrors to come in the north, from the day after Hastings until the week before their master’s coronation William’s soldiery, drawn from Brittany, Picardy, French Flanders and other regions of northern France by the lure of booty in England, carved a swath of devastation across southeast England. But the leading members of this ‘joint stock enterprise’, as his army has often been called, expected more than casual loot: they expected to be rewarded with land.

The pope, the patron of William’s war, enjoined penances on the army. After the coronation, William issued a writ in English to the bishop and citizens of London (who had been spared the punitive rampage), greeting them as friends, proclaiming his wish that they should continue to enjoy the laws that had governed them in King Edward’s day, and promising to protect them from injury. There now followed a systematic suppression of native English culture that in the emotive rhetoric of our own day would be called cultural genocide.

First, there was the suppression of the language and literature. Secondly, there was the dismantling of the vibrant spirituality of the Anglo-Saxon church tradition and the destruction of many of its buildings.

The organized wealth of southern England was in the hands of the conquerors and they celebrated their triumph in stone . . . nowhere else in Latin Christendom was so much built in so short a time . . .20

By dint of ‘unfortunate conflagrations’, combined with ordered demolitions, within fifty years of the conquest Old English cathedrals and minsters had been levelled to the ground, in most cases to be replaced by Norman-style buildings, built under Norman contractors, even using stone from Norman quarries. It was a highly profitable rebuilding programme in which the native participation rarely amounted to more than forced labour, which first demolished its own historic structures and then raised, ‘to the glory of God’, the ‘great churches’ of the conquerors. The architectural glories of England’s Norman/Romanesque architecture are, like the ruined castles that still line the heritage trails, perpetual monuments to an historic act of cultural cleansing.

In addition there was spiritual vandalism. A particular feature of Anglo-Saxon religious life had been its exceptionally developed cult of the Virgin Mary. (Modern scholars tend to accept that the cult of the Virgin Mary at Walsingham probably began in the last years of Edward the Confessor.) Certain of the Marian feast days, including the Presentation [of Christ] in the Temple and the Conception of the Virgin, seem to have originated at Winchester in the 1030s. From there they found their way to Canterbury, where they were entered in the liturgical calendar of the archdiocese. One of the first acts of the new Norman archbishop Lanfranc, who finally succeeded Stigand in 1070, was to reform the calendar and abolish many of the old feasts of the Anglo-Saxon Church, among them these Marian celebrations. Elsewhere, such as at the great abbey of Abingdon, which in the time of Æthelwold had been adorned with an altar table of gold and silver and texts in silver decorated with precious stones, treasures were destroyed or dispersed after the Conquest.21

William had made various land grants before his return to Normandy in February 1067. In his train went a number of aristocratic English hostages to be paraded through the streets of Rouen as part of the spoils of victory. According to the chronicler William of Poitiers, ‘these long-haired sons of the North, with their almost feminine beauty’ made something of a stir.

For William, acceptance as the lawful heir of Edward the Confessor was of critical practical consequence. He had acquired an exceptionally well-run country. The basic unit, the shire, was in the hands of an administrative team that was ‘literate, active and continuous’. Here the assessment and collection of levies were organized on the basis of a sort of land register. The sheriff, instructed by writ, was responsible for implementing such instructions. His court was the place where local disputes were settled and local big men could be enlisted in support of the king’s business. Only when England’s sheriffs and their staff were satisfied that the alien ruler now in place was duly vested with the authority of a king of the English would they willingly discharge their functions. Their collaboration was essential to ensure the continued services of skilled Anglo-Saxons as scribes in his court writing office (or chancery) and as local officials in the shires and boroughs, to ensure the smoothest possible completion of the conquest, at least until a sufficient number of Frenchmen had been trained to replace them. The shire court lies behind the success of the Norman settlement.

A Norman granted land by the king need only present himself before the court with a sealed writ to that effect. If inspected and found authentic it was then read to the assembly. The leading men of the shire, thus made witness to the royal will in the matter, were duty bound to see it implemented. The alien intruder had to be duly informed of the lands that were now his and assisted, if need be, in taking possession of them. Not all the beneficiaries were best pleased. Orderic Vitalis tells us that while some were astounded by the extent of the lands awarded to them, others complained about ‘domains depopulated by war’. (‘Tant pis to you’, any Anglo-Saxon with a smattering of Norman French might no doubt have been heard to mutter.)

Yet when it suited him William was scrupulous in paying respect to the old ways. At a famous trial held on Pinnenden Heath in Kent in the 1070s, Æthelric, bishop of Selsey, ‘a man of great age and very wise in the law of the land’ was brought on William’s order in a wagon to the place of the trial so that ‘he might expound the ancient practice of the laws.’

In his 1966 essay, ‘The Norman Conquest’, R. H. C. Davis assumed that at first the Normans would have had to live like an army of occupation, ‘living, eating and sleeping together in operational units . . . and . . . exploiting their estates as absentee landlords for the time being’. But castles of various types soon encroached like a malignant rash across the English landscape, to enforce obedience. The simplest type comprised an earth mound (the motte) topped by a palisaded enclosure, or possibly a wooden tower, surrounded by a ditch and a palisade enclosing an outer compound, the bailey. Designed as protection for the henchmen of an alien warrior brigandage intent upon becoming a ‘nobility’, it was a constant menace to the subject countryside and a standing humiliation to its people whose forced labour had raised the structure. Stone-built keeps (donjons) replaced the first emergency timber towers. That the French name for a tower rising skywards was transmuted into ‘dungeon’ in the language of the conquered population to signify the dank and dreadful pit at its base, the domain of torment and sewer rats, recalls realities of the Conquest years that are rarely touched on. But the Normans had a hidden advantage. Many ordinary English may have felt that the invaders were sent as a scourge from God for the nation’s sins. After all, the pope in Rome had, for reasons known to himself, blessed the alien banners.

The more adventurous among the conquerors might take advantage of the general confusion to add to their holdings. Some ‘manipulated’ the suitors at the shire courts to make false returns in their favour. For example, Rochester Cathedral under its Anglo-Saxon bishop suffered for years at the hands of a Norman sheriff named Picot. He claimed that the cathedral’s manor of Freckenham in Suffolk was in fact royal demesne and as such under his management – and kept the profits for himself. In due course, however, the old English bishop was succeeded by a Norman and he persuaded King William to have a shire court convened to give judgement as to ‘whose the land ought to be’. Eventually the new bishop tracked down the Englishman who had managed the cathedral estates in the Confessor’s time and he confirmed that the manor had indeed belonged to the king.

King William was as interested as anyone to discover the exact location and value of the grants of lands he had made and whether any of his followers had seized more than allotted to him. Confident in the Rolls-Royce administration of his new kingdom, he ordered an inventory of England and its landholders – Domesday Book. The first question posed about any manor was ‘Who held it in King Edward’s time?’ If the answer did not match the one expected, in other words if the present occupier was not the one to whom the king had awarded the lands of the Anglo-Saxon lord named, then he could expect trouble. Many clamores or complaints came before the Domesday commissioners, some revealing attempted encroachments on the king’s land and then it could be the Normans’ turn to suffer. A certain Berengar, charged with invading the royal demesne land, found himself ‘in the king’s mercy’ – he became so ill that he was unable to attend the official hearing.

Before the Conquest it had become common practice for the great monastic houses to keep detailed records of their estates, tenants’ rents and so forth; lay landowners may have followed the same practice. The machinery of the sheriff’s court was essential to the Domesday inquests but such estate records, as we saw in the case of Freckenham, must have provided invaluable back-up material:

The Domesday survey brought the Norman Conquest to a conclusion by examining all the details of the ruthless spoliation, and approving them only when they had been done with authority . . . It made the Norman settlement permanent.22

English heritage

The death in a hunting accident of the second Norman king, William Rufus, in the New Forest near Winchester on 2 August 1100 seemed ill-omened to contemporaries and still attracts conspiracy theories: the most lurid of these claim that he was the sacrificial victim of a pagan fertility cult, although more likely it was the result of a coup. On Friday 3 August, the day after the body was interred in the cathedral at Winchester, the assembled barons elected his brother Henry to be king. Having put a guard on the royal treasury, still housed in the old West Saxon ‘capital’, Henry rode for London, its English citizenry ranked below only the bishops and the Norman baronage in their influence on national affairs. That Sunday he was consecrated as Henry I by the bishop of London before the altar in Westminster Abbey ‘and all the people in this land submitted to him’. Barely three days after one king’s accidental death a new one is elected, consecrated and acclaimed.

By the terms of William the Conqueror’s will Robert, the eldest son, had Normandy; to William went the newly acquired conquest of England; Henry received only money. William was unmarried and Robert away on the First Crusade. He was now on his return. Once he and William made their brotherly reunion Henry could kiss goodbye to the English throne unless it should become vacant – quickly. The timing and location of William’s accident, an hour or so’s ride from the kingdom’s treasury, was certainly convenient.

At the consecration Henry solemnly pledged ‘before God and all the people . . . to uphold the best of the laws upheld by any of his predecessors’. This was confirmed in a ‘charter of liberties’, which specifically committed Henry himself to maintain ‘the law of King Edward [the Confessor]’. Intriguingly the text of the Latin document as we have it uses the vernacular word laga instead of the Latin lex.

For England’s Norman conquerors the model for good government was to be found in pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon England. The Confessor as Law-giver would be cited in many a post-Conquest text. Yet no laws actually issued by him have survived. The text known as Leges Edwardi Confessoris dates from about 1140 and is not an authentic record of any previous code. It is of course possible that Edward did make laws that are lost or that his reputation for justice rested on his judgements and pronouncements by word of mouth.

Henry sent a copy of his coronation charter to every shire; then he turned to the threat from his brother Robert. At length in September 1106, largely thanks to his English troops, he defeated his brother at the Battle of Tinchebrai in Normandy, and Robert became his prisoner for life. The English fought enthusiastically for their Norman king, not least because he had married into the English royal house, his wife Matilda/Edith being the great granddaughter of Æthelred II.

During this reign there was something of a resurgence in things Anglo-Saxon. Although probably the son of a French father and an English mother, William of Malmesbury, who wrote his Gesta regum Anglorum following a request by Matilda/Edith that he compile an account of her ancestors, considered that Hastings had been a fateful day for England, ‘our sweet country’. His contemporary John of Worcester, born, a contemporary tells us, of English parents and a partisan for the memory of King Harold, drew on Bede and other Anglo-Saxon sources to amplify the English content in his continuation of a ‘Universal Chronicle’ he worked on up to about 1140. In addition he also produced royal genealogies of the pre-Conquest kingdoms. The last of these ‘Mercian-born’ historians, Henry of Huntingdon, wrote his Historia Anglorum (‘History of the English’) in ten short books. It found a wider market. The abbot of Westminster made a premature move for the beatification of Edward the Confessor. Miracles claimed for the king included the story that Earl Godwine had choked to death on bread blessed by him, while attempting to prove his innocence of the mysterious death of Edward’s brother, Alfred, years before (see the cover illustration of this book).

As a twelve-year-old, Henry I’s son William had received the homage of England’s Norman baronage and was presented as the ætheling to a gathering of English notables. He drowned in the wreck of the White Ship in 1120 but his sister Matilda, wife of Emperor Henry V (the third daughter of a king of England to marry into the empire since the accession of Æthelstan), continued the blood line. Years later Henry Plantagenet, her son by Geoffrey, count of Anjou, would become Henry II of England. Now the promotion of the Confessor’s cult began in earnest as Henry, the first post-Conquest king to have the English blood royal in his veins, took up the cause. Pope Alexander III proclaimed the new saint in February 1161. In October 1163 Thomas Becket, the controversial new archbishop of Canterbury, presided over a dazzling ceremony at Westminster Abbey at which the saint’s bones were installed in a new shrine.

Henry II’s treasurer, Richard FitzNigel, wrote that he could no longer detect a difference between the king’s English and French subjects. In London ‘a considerable proportion of the aldermanic class remained English’ and these great men of the city took high umbrage when the low-born Frenchman William Longchamp, bishop of Ely and chancellor to King Richard I, failed to address them in English. So, in the country’s metropolis, a minister of the crown was now expected to speak the language of the governed and not of the government. In the early 1200s the barons who would force Richard’s brother John to grant Magna Carta at Runnymede were appealing back to the laws of Edward the Confessor. The king himself looked to other English patrons, being buried at his own request in Worcester Cathedral, where his tomb is presided over by Bishop Wulfstan and Bishop St Oswald.

His son Henry III sought to honour St Edward by rebuilding his abbey of St Peter at Westminster and in 1268 had the Confessor’s body solemnly translated to its new resting place behind the high altar, where it still lies; the discovery of the exact location of the Confessor’s tomb by radar imaging was announced in December 2005. Henry named his eldest son Edward and on his crusade to Palestine in 1270–71 this Edward inaugurated the crusading Order of St Edward of Acre, yet another, if transitory, token of the Plantagenet cult of Englishness.

Edward was followed by his son Edward II and he by his son Edward III, who led England to victory against France in the Hundred Years War. His first-born son was also christened Edward, and this Edward, known to history as the Black Prince, also named his eldest boy after the Anglo-Saxon saint. But the line of Edwards was broken when the Black Prince and his eldest son both died prematurely young, and the Prince’s second son Richard came to the throne. And yet it was Richard’s reign that produced the most powerful testament of nostalgia for the old pre-Conquest monarchy in the magical painted panel known as the Wilton Diptych. Here we see King Richard II adoring the Virgin Mary, supported by St John the Baptist and the Anglo-Saxon royal saints, Edward and Edmund.

In the context of world culture the legacy of Anglo-Saxon England has been incalculable. The common era for the dating of the world’s events is still the one adopted by England’s first historian, the Venerable Bede. For the best part of five centuries the majority population of the southern half of Britain inhabited a society in which the vernacular language, mother of today’s global language, was the norm in every walk of life. Then came conquest and, except among the aldermanry of the city of London, the habit of English among the nation’s elite seemed lost. But although Latin and Norman French were to remain the principal languages of officialdom for generations, in 1263 we find the first ‘certainly known governmental document in English issued after the reign of William I’; in this King Henry III proclaimed his willingness to abide by the terms of the Provisions of Oxford, forced on him by his barons five years before. The proclamation was copied to all the shire courts, in the language of the country23 – as had been standard Anglo-Saxon governmental practice before the coming of the Normans.

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