Edward the Confessor

Edward the Confessor

Edward the Confessor, d. 1066, king of the English (1042-66), son of Æthelred the Unready and his Norman wife, Emma. After the Danish conquest (1013-16) of England, Edward grew up at the Norman court, although his mother returned to England and married the Danish king Canute. In 1041, Edward was brought to England by his half brother Harthacanute, whom he succeeded as king in 1042. Edward was an able but not very energetic ruler, and he was unable to assert his authority over the great earls of the kingdom. Most powerful of these was Godwin, whose daughter Edith married (1045) the king. Edward's natural inclination to favor the Normans in England—notably Robert of Jumièges, whom he made archbishop of Canterbury in 1051—led to a breach with Godwin. In 1051, after a fracas between the king's brother-in-law, Eustace II, count of Boulogne, and the citizens of Dover, Godwin refused to obey Edward's order to punish the men of Dover and tried to raise a revolt. Edward, however, was supported by Leofric of Mercia and Siward of Northumbria, and he outlawed and banished Godwin and his family. In their absence Edward received William, duke of Normandy (later William I), and apparently made him his heir. In 1052, Godwin and his sons returned and demonstrated their power by forcing Edward to accept Stigand as archbishop of Canterbury instead of Robert. Thenceforth the king took less interest in his realm, becoming absorbed in his religion and in supervising the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey. Shortly before his death, Edward named Harold, son of Godwin, as his successor, possibly in the hope of averting the threat of war posed by the rival claims to the throne of William of Normandy and Harold III of Norway. Edward's piety was responsible for his name the Confessor. He was canonized in the 12th cent. Feast: Oct. 13.

See biography by F. Barlow (1970).

King Edward the Confessor (c. 1003 – 5 January 1066), son of Ethelred the Unready, was the penultimate Anglo-Saxon King of England and the last of the House of Wessex, ruling from 1042 until his death. His reign marked the continuing disintegration of royal power in England and the aggrandizement of the great territorial earls, and it foreshadowed the country's later connection with Normandy, whose duke William I of England was to supplant Edward's successors Harold Godwinson and Edgar Ætheling as England's ruler.

Edward succeeded his half-brother Harthacanute, who had successfully regained the throne of England after being dispossessed by his half-brother, Harold Harefoot. Edward and his brother Alfred the Ætheling, both sons of Emma of Normandy by Ethelred the Unready, had previously failed to depose Harold in 1036. When Edward died in 1066 he had no son to take over the throne so a conflict arose as three men claimed the throne of England.

Edward was canonised in 1161 as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, which regards Edward the Confessor as the patron saint of kings, difficult marriages, and separated spouses, and by the Church of England and other Anglican Churches. From the reign of Henry II of England to 1348 he was considered to be the patron saint of England, when he was replaced in this role by Saint George, and he has remained the patron saint of the Royal Family.

Early years

Edward was born c. 1003 in Islip, Oxfordshire. His palace was in Brill, Buckinghamshire. In 1013, he and his brother Alfred were taken to Normandy by their mother Emma of Normandy, sister of Normandy's Duke Richard II, to escape the Danish invasion of England. Despite his piety, it seems that he was a tough warrior. The Norse Flateyisbok describes him fighting in London against Canute in fierce urban warfare. He is said to have attacked Canute, who was saved by Thorkell the Tall pulling him from his horse. The book relates that Prince Edward broke through the saddle and killed the horse with his axe. Edward is traditionally said to have developed an intense personal piety in his quarter-century of Norman exile (disputed by Howarth in 1066: The Year of the Conquest), during his most formative years, while England formed part of a great Danish empire. His familiarity with Normandy and its leaders would also influence his later rule: the refuge he was given in Normandy, vis a vis the disregard the Normans paid him whilst he was there, would leave him both grateful and bitter towards his kinsmen there. It is believed that when Duke Robert, who was his cousin, went on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land (where he died) that Edward was named as one of the guardians of his son William.

After an abortive attempt with Alfred in 1036 to displace Harold Harefoot from the throne, Edward returned to Normandy. Alfred, however, was captured by Godwin, Earl of Wessex who then turned him over to Harold Harefoot, who blinded him to make him unsuitable for kingship. Alfred died soon after as a result of his torture. This murder of his brother is thought to be the source of much of his later hatred for the Earl and played a major part in the reason for his banishment in autumn 1051; Edward said that the only way in which Godwin could be forgiven was if he brought back the murdered Alfred, an impossible task.

The Anglo-Saxon lay and ecclesiastical nobility invited Edward back to England in 1041; this time he became part of the household of his half-brother Harthacanute (son of Emma and Canute), and according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was sworn in as king alongside him. Following Harthacanute's death on 8 June 1042, Edward ascended the throne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle indicates the popularity he enjoyed at his accession — "before Harthacanute was buried, all the people chose Edward as king in London". Edward was crowned at the cathedral of Winchester, the royal seat of the West Saxons on 3 April 1043.


Edward's reign was marked by peace and prosperity, but effective rule in England required coming to terms with three powerful earls: Godwin, Earl of Wessex, who was firmly in control of the thegns of Wessex, which had formerly been the heart of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy; Leofric, Earl of Mercia, whose legitimacy was strengthened by his marriage to Lady Godiva, and in the north, Siward, Earl of Northumbria. Edward's sympathies for Norman favourites frustrated Saxon and Danish nobles alike, fuelling the growth of anti-Norman opinion led by Godwin, who had become the king's father-in-law in 1045. The breaking point came over the appointment of an archbishop of Canterbury: Edward rejected Godwin's man and appointed the bishop of London, Robert of Jumièges, a trusted Norman.

Matters came to a head over a bloody riot at Dover between the townsfolk and Edward's kinsman Eustace, count of Boulogne. Godwin refused to punish them, Leofric and Siward backed the King, and Godwin and his family were all exiled in September 1051. Queen Edith was sent to a nunnery at Wherwell. Earl Godwin returned with an army following a year later, however, forcing the king to restore his title and send away his Norman advisors. Godwin died in 1053 and the Norman Ralph the Timid received Herefordshire, but his son Harold accumulated even greater territories for the Godwins, who held all the earldoms save Mercia after 1057. Harold led successful raiding parties into Wales in 1063 and negotiated with his inherited rivals in Northumbria in 1065, and in January 1066, upon Edward's death, he was proclaimed the King.

Relations with his Mother

Edward's mother was Emma of Normandy, second wife of his father, Ethelred the Unready. She remarried King Canute the Great and Edward and his brother Alfred were sent away to Normandy whilst Canute attempted to assassinate all the sons of Ethelred and his first wife, Aelgifu. Emma's son Hardicanute preceded Edward who had Alfred killed.

When Edward succeeded, Queen Emma supported another candidate Magnus the Noble and Edward had his mother arrested. Later she survived trial by ordeal on a trumped up charge of adultery with a bishop.


The details of the succession have been widely debated: the Norman position was that William the Conqueror had been designated the heir, and that Harold had been publicly sent to him as emissary from Edward, to apprise him of Edward's decision. Harold's party asserted that the old king had made a deathbed bestowal of the crown on Harold. However, Harold was approved by the Witenagemot who, under Anglo-Saxon law, held the ultimate authority to convey kingship.

Edward had married Godwin's daughter Edith on 23 January 1045, but the union was childless. The reason for this is the subject of much speculation. Possible explanations include Edward, having taken vow of chastity, considering the union a spiritual marriage, the age difference between Edward and Edith engendering a filial rather than spousal relationship, Edward's antipathy toward Edith's father , or infertility.

Edward's nearest heir would have been his nephew Edward the Exile, who was born in England, but spent most of his life in Hungary. He had returned from exile in 1056 and died not long after, in February the following year. So Edward made his great nephew Edgar Atheling his heir. But Edgar had no secure following among the earls: the resultant succession crisis on Edward's death without a direct "throneworthy" heir — the "foreign" Edgar was a stripling of fourteen — opened the way for Harold's coronation and the invasions of two effective claimants to the throne, the unsuccessful invasion of Harald Hardrada in the north and the successful one of William of Normandy.

Edward's cousin's son, William of Normandy, who had visited England during Godwin's exile, claimed that the childless Edward had promised him the succession to the throne, and his successful bid for the English crown put an end to Harold's nine-month kingship following a 7,000-strong Norman invasion. Edgar Ætheling was elected king by the Witan after Harold's death but was brushed aside by William. Edward, or more especially the mediæval cult which would later grow up around him under the later Plantagenet kings, had a lasting impact on English history. Westminster Abbey was founded by Edward between 1045 and 1050 on land upstream from the City of London, and was consecrated on 28 December 1065. Centuries later, Westminster was deemed symbolic enough to become the permanent seat of English government under Henry III. The Abbey contains a shrine to Edward which was the centrepiece to the Abbey's redesign during the mid-thirteenth century. In 2005, Edward's remains were found beneath the pavement in front of the high altar. His remains had been moved twice in the 12th and 13th centuries, and the original tomb has since been found on the central axis of the Abbey in front of the original high altar.

Historically, Edward's reign marked a transition between the 10th century West Saxon kingship of England and the Norman monarchy which followed Harold's death. Edward's allegiances were split between England and his mother's Norman ties. The great earldoms established under Canute grew in power, while Norman influence became a powerful factor in government and in the leadership of the Church.

It was during the reign of Edward that some features of the English monarchy familiar today were introduced. Edward is regarded as responsible for introducing the royal seal and coronation regalia. Also under Edward, a marked change occurred in Anglo-Saxon art, with continental influences becoming more prominent (including the "Winchester Style" which had become known in the 10th century but prominent in the 11th), supplanting Celtic influences prominent in preceding painting, sculpture, calligraphy and jewellery (see Benedictional of St. Æthelwold for an example of the Winchester Style). His crown is believed to have survived until the English Civil War when Oliver Cromwell allegedly ordered it to be destroyed. Gold from it is understood to have been integrated into the St. Edward's Crown, which has been used in coronations since Charles II of England in 1661.


When Henry II came to the throne in 1154, he promoted the cult of King Edward the Confessor. Osbert de Clare was a monk of Westminster, elected Prior in 1136, and remembered for his lives of saints Edmund, Ethelbert and Edburga, in addition to one of Edward, in which the king was represented as a holy man, reported to have performed several miracles and to have healed people by his touch. Osbert was, as his surviving letters demonstrate, an active ecclesiastical politician, and went to Rome to advocate the cause for Edward to be declared a saint, successfully securing his canonization by Pope Alexander III in 1161.

In 1163, the newly sainted king's remains were enshrined in Westminster Abbey with solemnities presided over by Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. On this occasion the honour of preparing a sermon was given to Aelred, the revered Abbot of Rievaulx, to whom is generally attributed the vita in Latin, a hagiography partly based on materials in an earlier vita by Osbert de Clare and which in its turn provided the material for a rhymed version in octasyllabic Anglo-Norman, possibly written by the chronicler Matthew Paris. At the time of Edward's canonisation, saints were broadly categorised as either martyrs or confessors: martyrs were people who had been killed for their faith, while confessors were saints who had died natural deaths. Edward was accordingly styled Edward the Confessor, partly to distinguish him from his canonised predecessor Edward the Martyr.

The Roman Catholic Church regards Edward the Confessor as the patron saint of kings, difficult marriages, and separated spouses. After the reign of Henry II, Edward was considered to be the "Patron Saint of England", until 1348 when he was replaced in this role by Saint George. He remained as the "Patron Saint of the Royal Family".

Edward's reign is memorialized in an eight panel stained glass window within St Laurence Church, Ludlow, England.

The shrine of Saint Edward the Confessor remains where it was after the final relocation of his body in the 13th century - at the heart of Westminster Abbey, where the date of that translation, 13 October, is observed as a major feast. For some time the Abbey had claimed that it possessed a set of coronation regalia that Edward had left for use in all future coronations. Following Edward's canonization, these were regarded as holy relics, and thereafter they were used at all English coronations from the 13th Century until the destruction of the regalia by Oliver Cromwell in 1649.

13 October was the date assigned to his liturgical commemoration when it was introduced in 1679 into the Roman Catholic calendar of saints. Because of his limited importance on a worldwide scale, it was removed from this in 1969. Since then, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates his feast day on 5 January, the date of his death.

In popular culture

Edward the Confessor is referenced by characters in Shakespeare's play The Tragedy of Macbeth as the saintly king of England.

On screen he has been portrayed by Eduard Franz in the film Lady Godiva of Coventry (1955), George Howe in the BBC TV drama series Hereward the Wake (1965), Donald Eccles in the two-part BBC TV play Conquest (1966; part of the series Theatre 625), Brian Blessed in Macbeth (1997), based on the Shakespeare play (although he does not appear in the play itself), and Adam Woodroffe in an episode of the British TV series Historyonics entitled "1066" (2004). In 2002, he was portrayed by Lennox Greaves in the Doctor Who audio adventure Seasons of Fear.


See also




External links

Further reading

  • Aelred of Rievaulx, Life of St. Edward the Confessor, translated Fr. Jerome Bertram (first English translation) St. Austin Press ISBN 1-901157-75-X
  • O'Brien, Bruce R.: God's peace and king's peace : the laws of Edward the Confessor, Philadelphia, Pa. : University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, ISBN 0-8122-3461-8

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