Edward the Confessor (1042–66), who had probably been present at his predecessor’s death, was to have a lengthy and relatively secure reign. The drawing of him in the manuscript of the Encomium Emmae, written by a cleric of St-Omer for Queen Emma, is the best likeness we have. In it he appears with trimmed hair in a fringe and a short, wavy beard with perhaps the hint of a moustache. While in the Vita, written for his wife, Edith, he is described as ‘a very proper figure of a man – of outstanding height, and distinguished by his milky white hair and beard, full face and rosy cheeks, thin white hands and long translucent fingers … Pleasant, but always dignified, he walked with eyes downcast, most graciously affable to one and all’.1 He could also be thought ‘of passionate temper and a man of prompt and vigorous action’, but Edward was no soldier. The medieval writer who said ‘he defended his kingdom more by diplomacy than by war’ had it right; but failure to act as a commander of men was a grave disadvantage in this period.2

We should be under no illusion but that the Scandinavian conquest and the frequent switches of dynasty during the first half of the eleventh century had greatly weakened the kingdom. There were no other surviving sons of either Aethelred II or Cnut, but there were too many with claims and interests in England for its good. For example, Sweyn Estrithsson was the grandson of Sweyn Forkbeard; he was to become king of Denmark, and was not keen to see the old Saxon dynasty replacing that of his own line in England. Meanwhile, Magnus of Norway still saw possibilities for his own expansion. Later he was succeeded by the famed adventurer Harold Hardrada, who also dreamed of bringing Scandinavian rule back to England. Nor was Edward’s reign free from Viking raids of the old kind.

The northern earls, Leofric and Siward, accepted Edward, but cannot have been enthusiastic about his succession. The north had never been firmly under southern control, and would continue to offer threats to the peace of England under Edward. Nevertheless, given the difficult period before Edward’s accession and the long-term weaknesses displayed by the troubles, the Confessor’s reign was better than one might have expected. The view of Edward as ‘a holy simpleton’ is not easy to maintain.3 At least some historians now are prepared to be more respectful to the Confessor.

He could expect renewed attacks from Scandinavia, hopes of reward from Normandy, which might be difficult to satisfy, and opposition from at least some of the English magnates. His new realm was divided between English and Scandinavian populations, and into politically powerful earldoms. His most powerful earl, Godwin of Wessex, had been implicated in the murder of his own brother, Alfred.

At the same time, Edward possessed an advantage which most had lacked during the century: he was indisputably king and, unlike his immediate predecessors, he came from the old house of Wessex. He was also wealthy. His own possessions were valued at about £5,000, with an additional £900 coming through his wife. This made him wealthier than any of his magnates, including Godwin, though royal landed wealth was unevenly distributed, and in some areas of the realm the king held very little.4

Edward’s position was helped further by the death of Magnus, king of Norway and Denmark, in 1047. The Confessor’s Norman mother and Norman upbringing – he had received an education at the ducal court and it is said was trained as a knight – gave him the probability of a good relationship with that emerging power.5 His sister, Godgifu, had married from the Norman court into the French nobility, and this gave Edward a number of noble relatives on the continent. But in any case, in the early years of the reign England could expect neither aid nor opposition from Normandy, which was undergoing much internal turmoil during the minority of William the Bastard.

Edward had to rely on his own wits, and had at least learned some tricks of survival and diplomacy from his years as a relatively insignificant figure at a foreign court. The exchange of status from pawn to king was rather sudden, but at least he had some experience of the game. Edward also received the blessing of the Church, and both the archbishops of York and Canterbury were present at his coronation on Easter Day 1043. The recognition of Europe was underlined by the presence at the ceremony of representatives from the German Emperor and the kings of France and Denmark.

As Edward’s reign progressed, relations with Normandy did indeed prove generally amicable. Not surprisingly, he had forged bonds with Normans during his youth in the duchy, and a number of Normans were invited to his court. Indeed, several continentals had come to England with Edward in 1041. Among those in his household was the later Archbishop of Canterbury Robert of Jumièges, and Edward’s nephew Ralph of Mantes, who was to become earl of Hereford. Some received lands and some received appointments in the Church. It became one of the points of dispute with his English earls, and especially with Godwin of Wessex.

The lands and wealth of the Godwin family made it outstandingly the strongest in England, with about twice the income of any other family in the land. The author of the Vita gives a more restrained picture of the great earl than we expect, and it has a ring of truth about it. He thought Godwin ‘the most cautious in counsel and the most active in war’, with an ‘equable temperament’ and a penchant for hard work, eloquent, courteous and polite to all, treating inferiors kindly.6 In 1019 Earl Godwin had married Gytha, sister of a Danish earl and related by marriage to Cnut. In 1045 the Godwin family held four of the six great earldoms in England. They had moved within a couple of generations from obscure if respectable origins to the fringes of royalty. The writer of the Vitasaw Godwin as ‘vice-regal, second to the king’.7

To confirm the status of the family, Edward the Confessor took as his wife Edith, the eldest daughter of Earl Godwin and Countess Gytha. He was in his forties and she was about twenty-five. They married in January 1045, and Edith was crowned as queen. Edward’s motives for taking her as a wife are not clear. Some have thought that Godwin pressured the match, but Edward had already shown that he could act independently and had been tough with his mother. No one was in a position to make him marry. The liaison was clearly intended to seal an alliance between king and earl, and probably we need to look no further for its reason.

There would be problems with the marriage, but it endured for twenty-one years. That there was some affection in the match seems likely. There is a contemporary description of the couple, with Edith content to sit at his feet. The suggestion that it was never consummated seems unlikely though not impossible. Edward’s pious nature, their failure to produce children, and his later alienation from her, all give the story some credibility, but the main evidence for it comes from later attempts to give Edward a saintly character.

It was then claimed that Edward spent ‘all the days of his life in the purity of the flesh’, and that he treated Edith as a daughter rather than a wife: ‘she called him father and herself his child’. The tone of the Vita, written for Edith, is affectionate towards Edward and does not suggest a failed marriage, though it does say that in a vision the king was marked out by St Peter for ‘a life of chastity’, and that he ‘lived his whole life dedicated to God in true innocence’.8

In 1043 Edward was seriously at odds with his own mother. Her behaviour had always been geared to her own profit rather than to his, and some think that he harboured resentment for her neglect of his interests in the past. The D writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle wrote ‘she formerly had been very hard to the king her son, in that she did less for him than he wished both before he became king and afterwards as well’.9

Now suddenly Emma was accused of treason. The earls Leofric, Siward and Godwin were with the king at the time, and may have been implicated in her fall. Her protégé, Stigand, who was at the time Bishop of East Anglia, was deposed and his possessions seized. The accusation of treason was quietly forgotten, and later Stigand was restored. Possibly Emma had been involved in some conspiracy, possibly Edward simply sought to show her who was now master.

The Godwin family was powerful, but not everything went as it wished. The oldest son, Sweyn, who had been given an earldom in the west midlands, brought about his own downfall by going off the rails in a spectacular manner when he kidnapped and seduced (or possibly raped) Eadgifu the abbess of Leominster. He found little support, even from his family, and fled to Bruges and then on to Denmark. He returned to England in 1049, landing at Bosham. He sought pardon from the king, coming to him at Sandwich. But he received little sympathy even from his brothers or from his cousin Beorn, and Edward banished him again.

When Beorn then changed his mind and agreed to meet Sweyn, he soon had reason to regret his decision. Sweyn made him captive and killed him when they got to Dartmouth, presumably because he would not give the assistance Sweyn desired. Harold Godwinson disowned his brother’s action and brought his cousin’s body to Winchester for honourable burial. Sweyn was now declared nithing; an object of scorn and legally able to be killed by anyone. Even some of his own men and ships deserted him, and two of his ships were captured by the men of Hastings. He fled to Bruges, where Baldwin V (1035–67) demonstrated his hostility to Edward the Confessor by giving shelter to the fugitive. Perhaps through his father’s intervention, and with the aid of Bishop Eadred of Worcester, Sweyn was pardoned by the king in 1050. It suggests that at this time Edward was prepared to go to almost any lengths to keep on good terms with the Godwin family.

A test of the powers of the king and Earl Godwin came when the archbishopric of Canterbury fell vacant on the death of Archbishop Eadsige in 1050. Godwin supported a relative, Aelric, for the post, but Edward favoured the Norman, Robert of Jumièges, already appointed Bishop of London with his backing. In 1051 Robert became archbishop and, in the conflicts which followed, was loyal to Edward against the Godwin family. The writer of the Vita suggests that English clerics also resented the appointment, and protested against it.10 Other Normans were given bishoprics, at Dorchester and London, and other continentals won favour.

A second cause of conflict between the Wessex family and the king came over the king’s favour to Eustace of Boulogne. Some historians suggest that Edward, now well established, brought on the break with the Godwins deliberately.11 The political links between the powers in north-west Europe at this time form a vital background to events. Political alliances and hostilities between France, Scandinavia, Flanders, Normandy, Boulogne and England governed much that occurred.

In some ways Edward had reason to fear Flanders more than Normandy in the early period of his reign. He certainly paid heed to links with those who might help to counter the power of Flanders. In the clash between Baldwin V and the German Emperor, Edward sided with the Emperor. Edward kept connections with others who might be useful against Flanders, such as the counts of Ponthieu and Mantes, and not least with Eustace II, count of Boulogne, whose first wife was Edward’s widowed sister Godgifu, and who visited Edward in England in 1051.

On his way home Eustace intended to pass through Dover. It may be that Edward meant to make a grant of Dover to Eustace. At any rate, when Eustace came there, apparently looking for somewhere to sleep, he was involved in a brawl with the townsmen. Eustace’s men, according to one version of the incident, ‘killed a certain man of the town, and another of the townsmen killed their comrades, so that seven of his comrades were struck down. And great damage was done on either side with horses and with weapons.’ Another version says that twenty men were killed.12 Dover lay within the earldom of Godwin, and Edward ordered his earl to punish the town by ravaging. Godwin’s sympathies clearly lay with the town and he refused. Edward called a council at Gloucester at which Robert of Jumièges put the case against Godwin and even accused him of plotting to kill the king.

The simmering resentment between earl and king now came to a head. Godwin assembled a force, but found that opposition to a crowned king was not easy. The king, probably encouraged by the archbishop, wanted a trial of Godwin and his sons to be held in London, for the earlier killing of the king’s brother Alfred, while the pardoned Sweyn Godwinson was outlawed once more.

Ralph of Mantes and many thegns rallied to the king’s cause. A sarcastic message was sent to Godwin that he would be pardoned if he could restore to life Edward’s murdered brother Alfred. The Vita suggests that it was Archbishop Robert who persuaded the king that Godwin would attack him ‘as once upon a time he had attacked his brother’.13 Godwin’s own people hesitated to use force against their monarch, showing that this incident had not been forgotten. The king also got the support of the northern earls, Leofric of Mercia and Siward of Northumbria.

Godwin backed down. When he received the message about Alfred he was dining. He ‘pushed away the table in front of him’, realising that his position was impossible.14 He and his family fled that night, riding to his manor at Bosham, and sailing into exile. His sons Harold and Leofwin made for Bristol, and took ship for Ireland. Godwin himself and most of the family left for Flanders, whose count, Baldwin V, as we have seen was generally hostile to King Edward. The Godwin family had close connections with Flanders, and at about this time Godwin’s son Tostig married Judith, half-sister to the count.

A royal council declared the whole family outlawed. Some of the Godwin lands were granted out to royal favourites, including Edward’s nephew Earl Ralph, known as ‘timid’, and Archbishop Robert.15 Godwin’s daughter, Queen Edith, was sent to a nunnery. Edward had attempted to throw off the hold of the Godwin family, but as a permanent move it proved more than he could manage.

Edward had shown sufficient strength to force the whole Godwin family into exile, but he lacked the power to keep them there. Within a year, in 1052, Godwin was able to return with a force partly supplied by the count of Flanders. Feeling in England had not been united against Godwin and his family. Some whispered against Godwin, ‘the malice of evil men had shut up the merciful ears of the king’, but others sympathised, and few were prepared to take arms against him. Harold meanwhile, also with an armed force, had sailed from Ireland and finally joined up with his father on the south coast. The Godwins advanced on London, and two armies faced each other across the Thames. Stigand negotiated on behalf of the Godwins.

Now Godwin had his revenge, and forced the king’s hand so that he ‘outlawed all the Frenchmen who had promoted injustices and passed unjust judgements and given bad counsel’.16 The earl was insistent that Archbishop Robert give up Canterbury and leave the country, along with a number of Edward’s foreign courtiers. Robert went to Rome to protest, but finally returned to his abbey at Jumièges where he died. The archbishop was replaced at Canterbury by Stigand, bishop of Winchester, at the heart of Godwin’s Wessex. One writer thought that Stigand had ‘deceived the innocent simplicity of King Edward’.17 Leofric’s son Aelfgar had been given East Anglia but now Harold Godwinson was able to recover it as his earldom.

The Godwins were restored in full: the father to Wessex, the sons to their earldoms, Edith to court, ‘brought back to the king’s bedchamber’.18 Only Sweyn was missing, and that was probably a blessing. He had set off for the Holy Land, no doubt seeking the divine pardon he richly needed. He was to die at Constantinople on his return.

At Easter 1053, Earl Godwin suffered a sudden stroke at dinner with the king, and ‘suddenly sank towards the foot-stool, bereft of speech and of all his strength’. He was carried by his sons to the royal chamber, dying a few days later ‘in wretched pain’. The death of Godwin did not lessen the family’s influence. Harold Godwinson ‘wielded his father’s powers even more actively, and walked in his ways, that is, in patience and mercy and with kindness to men of good will’.19 Harold succeeded him as earl of Wessex, and a younger brother succeeded Harold. When Siward of Northumbria died in 1055 that earldom also went to the Godwin family, to another of Godwin’s sons, Tostig. However, southern insertions in the northern earldoms were not popular, and Tostig found it difficult to establish himself. But it meant that only one earldom, Mercia, was not held by a Godwinson.

Edward the Confessor had some success as a British ruler. The Scottish king, Malcolm Canmore, came to his court and recognised English overlordship. He married Margaret, the daughter of Edward the Exile, who was the son of Edmund Ironside. There were also successful military expeditions against the Welsh, where Harold Godwinson, described as ‘strong and warlike’, laid the foundations for the later Norman advances with a raid into Wales first in 1055.

There is a story that when Edward met Gruffydd, the Welsh prince carried him on his shoulders as a mark of humility, and like the Scots king recognised his lordship.20 But later Gruffydd raided into Mercia, and Harold, ‘the vigorous earl of the West Saxons’, was again sent with an army against him in 1063.21 On the second invasion Harold and his brother Tostig led separate forces into Wales. Harold burned the Welsh prince’s palace and set fire to his ships. The Welsh submitted but Gruffydd escaped by sea. However, his own people murdered him in Snowdonia, and brought his head to Harold, who sent the gory trophy of his triumph on to Edward.

Gruffydd’s brothers swore fealty both to King Edward and to Harold. They divided up their brother’s lands between them. Harold ordered the construction of ‘a large building’ at Portskewet (Monmouthshire) in 1065. It would be interesting to know exactly what sort of structure this was and whether it was fortified in any way. It was used to store food and drink, and as a base for the English. But the precarious position of the invaders was soon demonstrated when the Welsh prince Caradoc attacked the new building, killed the ‘labourers’ and took the stores. This suggests that it was unfinished.22

The unity of the Godwin family did not endure to the end of Edward’s reign. There was rebellion in Northumbria against Tostig at the end of 1065, partly caused by his attempts to tax the earldom with ‘a large tribute’, and for what some saw as his ‘iniquitous rule’, but it was mainly a chance to demonstrate the latent hostility towards him. It was also claimed that he robbed the church and took land. The comment of the Vita blames both earl and subjects: he ‘had repressed with the heavy yoke of his rule because of their misdeeds’.23 In October, with Tostig at the king’s court, Northumbrian rebels led by thegns attacked his men in York, killing two hundred, including his Danish housecarls Amund and Ravenswart, and seizing his treasure.24

The Northumbrians invited Morcar, the younger son of Aelfgar, whose brother Edwin was earl of Mercia, to be their earl, and virtually everyone bar Tostig was prepared to accept the change.25 It seems likely that his brother Harold thought that Tostig had brought the rebellion on his own head, and believed that restoration was either not possible or not wise. He gave his brother no support. As a result, Tostig became enraged at his brother and did all in his power to oppose his interests; he even accused Harold of being involved in the rebellion against him. This rift in the Godwinson family probably did as much as anything to undermine Harold’s position in the long run. It was the division which gave William of Normandy his chance and made the Norman Conquest possible.

Harold and his brother Tostig were a striking pair, and caught the attention of contemporaries: ‘distinctly handsome and graceful persons, similar in strength … equally brave’.26 They were even described as ‘the kingdom’s sacred oaks, two Hercules’. Harold was depicted as taller, more open, more cheerful, more intelligent; Tostig as quicker to act, more determined, more secretive and more inflexible.27

How far Tostig’s failure in Northumbria was his own fault is difficult to say. It seems that he did try to introduce southern laws and to impose heavy taxation. Whether he was too harsh is hard to judge. He was accused of three killings, two of men under safe-conduct. However, they might have been involved in a conspiracy against him.28 It may be simply that the imposition of this representative of the leading southern family was unpalatable to the northerners, however able he might be. He did retain power in Northumbria for a decade.

It is also difficult for us to judge Harold’s attitude to his brother. One might have expected more aid than Harold gave. But we cannot know if he believed his brother’s fall was his own fault and his brother not worth aiding, or if politically it was unwise to make such a move, or if already there was little brotherly love between them. One source suggests that Edward’s advisers believed Tostig to be at fault. There is some evidence that Edward preferred Tostig to his brother and was upset by his downfall, which further fuels the idea that Tostig was at fault, since Edward made no move to reimpose him.29

It is not clear that anyone had the power to restore Tostig in Northumbria. What is certain is that after Tostig’s deposition and his brother’s failure to assist him to recover the earldom, he became thoroughly hostile to Harold. It seems likely that Queen Edith, who also favoured Tostig rather than Harold, and who may have influenced her husband’s attitude, thought Harold was at fault in the affair and became cool towards him. Her attitude is revealed by the Vita, in which it has been suggested that Tostig ‘is the real hero of the story’.30

The fate of the English kingdom became increasingly open to question in the 1060s. Edward had no heir and seemed now unlikely to produce one. From the several claims made later it would appear that Edward promised the succession to a number of people. It is possible that they invented this later, but it seems more likely that Edward used the succession as elderly modern patriarchs brandish their wills over their heirs. It is likely that he favoured a different heir at different times through the reign. Among those given promises were William of Normandy, Sweyn of Denmark and Harold Godwinson.

Edward also thought about another possible successor, with a better claim by descent than any of those already mentioned, and who might also have been given private assurances about the throne. This was Edward the Exile. The Confessor made contact with Edward the Exile through the German Emperor Henry III, and invited him to come to England: ‘for the king had decided that he should be established as his heir and successor to the realm’. The Exile would hardly have made all the effort to come had he not been given some indication of the likely consequence. But having arrived in England in 1057, Edward the Exile died in London. He did not even get to see his relative the king, and was buried at St Paul’s.

In 1064 Edward the Confessor seems to have sent Harold Godwinson to Normandy. We shall look at the details of this expedition in the next chapter, but we need to consider its significance briefly. It is uncertain what was the purpose of the visit, and the main evidence for it comes from Norman sources. It is unlikely that Harold carried a promise of the throne to William, but the wily Edward may have seen the humour of the situation as the two potential rivals eyed each other up.

The chief puzzle of the situation is to see Harold’s motives for going. One can hardly envisage the Confessor being able to order his premier earl to go on an expedition of this kind, though at this juncture we should not necessarily believe Harold hostile to the duke. It is more likely that Harold saw his status as a kind of ambassador, concerned about the fate of two relatives who were currently held as hostages by the duke. It may indeed have been primarily a goodwill mission to keep warm the friendship between the two powers.

The events of the trip certainly increased its significance and gave William a new lever, albeit through some rather underhanded action to force an oath out of Harold. We may believe that when Harold left Normandy, both he and his rival had their own views about how they would act when the English king died. They each had new cause to respect the abilities of a rival seen close up. Events were to catch up on them, perhaps more quickly than they expected. Edward became ill in 1065 and died at the very beginning of the new year. The future of the English crown seemed uncertain.


  1.  F. Barlow (ed.), Vita Aedwardi Regis, 2nd edn, Oxford, 1992, p. 19.

  2.  Barlow, Edward, pp. 70–1; Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 42.

  3.  John in Campbell (ed.), Anglo-Saxons, p. 221, from F. Maitland.

  4.  Barlow, Edward, p. 74.

  5.  Barlow, Edward, p. 39.

  6.  Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 8.

  7.  Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 44.

  8.  Barlow, Edward, pp. 81–4, 130; Barlow (ed.), Vita, pp. 14, 24, 90, 92.

  9.  Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1043, p. 107; Cubbins (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 67.

10.  Barlow (ed.), Vita, pp. 28–30.

11.  Barlow, Edward, p. 97: Edward ‘provoked Godwin beyond endurance’.

12.  Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1051, pp. 117, 118.

13.  Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 32.

14.  Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 36.

15.  John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 576: ‘timidus dux Rauulfus’.

16.  Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 124; Cubbins (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 73.

17.  John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 572.

18.  Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 44.

19.  Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 46; John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 572.

20.  Barlow, Edward, p. 208; John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 578.

21.  John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 592.

22.  John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 596.

23.  Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1065, p. 138; Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 76; John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 598.

24.  John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 598.

25.  Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 78.

26.  Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 48.

27.  Barlow, Edward, pp. 195, 198; Vita, pp. 48–50, 58.

28.  Barlow, Edward, p. 235.

29.  Barlow, Edward, p. 239, Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 78.

30.  Barlow, Edward, p. 298.

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