Edward the Confessor, the Last of the Anglo-Saxon Kings

Edward the Confessor also known as St. Edward the Confessor (Old English: Ēadƿeard se Andettere; French: Édouard le Confesseur; 1003–05 to 4 or 5 January 1066), son of Æthelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy, was one of the last Anglo-Saxon kings of England and is usually regarded as the last king of the House of Wessex, ruling from 1042 to 1066.
He has traditionally been seen as unworldly and pious, and his reign as notable for the disintegration of royal power in England.
He had succeeded Cnut the Great’s son Harthacnut, restoring the rule of the House of Wessex after the period of Danish rule since Cnut had conquered England in 1016. When Edward died in 1066 he was succeeded by Harold Godwinson, who was defeated and killed in the same year by the Normans under William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings.
Edward was canonized in 1161 by Pope Alexander III, and is commemorated on 13 October by the Catholic Church of England and Wales and the Church of England. He was regarded as one of the national saints of England until King Edward III adopted Saint George as patron saint in about 1350.

Edward’s position when he came to the throne was weak. Effective rule required keeping on terms with the three leading earls, but loyalty to the ancient house of Wessex had been eroded by the period of Danish rule, and only Leofric was descended from a family which had served Æthelred. Siward was probably Danish, and although Godwin was English, he was one of Cnut’s new men, married to Cnut’s former sister-in-law. However, in his early years Edward restored the traditional strong monarchy, showing himself, in Frank Barlow’s view, “a vigorous and ambitious man, a true son of the impetuous Æthelred and the formidable Emma.”

Modern historians reject the traditional view that Edward mainly employed Norman favourites, but he did have foreigners in his household, including a few Normans, who became unpopular. Chief among them was Robert, abbot of the Norman abbey of Jumièges, who had known Edward from the 1030s and came to England with him in 1041, becoming bishop of London in 1043. According to the Vita Edwardi, he became “always the most powerful confidential adviser to the king.”

In the 1050s, Edward pursued an aggressive, and generally successful, policy in dealing with Scotland and Wales. Malcolm Canmore was an exile at Edward’s court after Macbeth killed his father, Duncan I, and seized the Scottish throne. In 1054 Edward sent Siward to invade Scotland. He defeated Macbeth, and Malcolm, who had accompanied the expedition, gained control of southern Scotland. By 1058 Malcolm had killed Macbeth in battle and taken the Scottish throne. In 1059 he visited Edward, but in 1061 he started raiding Northumbria with the aim of adding it to his territory.

Historians have puzzled over Edward’s intentions for the succession since William of Malmesbury in the early twelfth century. One school of thought supports the Norman case that Edward always intended William the Conqueror to be his heir, accepting the medieval claim that Edward had already decided to be celibate before he married, but most historians believe that he hoped to have an heir by Edith at least until his quarrel with Godwin in 1051. William may have visited Edward during Godwin’s exile, and he is thought to have promised William the succession at this time, but historians disagree how seriously he meant the promise, and whether he later changed his mind.

Edmund Ironside’s son, Edward Ætheling, had the best claim to be considered Edward’s heir. He had been taken as a young child to Hungary, and in 1054 Bishop Ealdred of Worcester visited the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III to secure his return, probably with a view to becoming Edward’s heir. The exile returned to England in 1057 with his family, but died almost immediately. His son Edgar, who was then about five years old, was brought up at the English court. He was given the designation Ætheling, meaning throne worthy, which may mean that Edward considered making him his heir, and he was briefly declared king after Harold’s death in 1066. However, Edgar was absent from witness lists of Edward’s diplomas, and there is no evidence in the Domesday Book that he was a substantial landowner, which suggests that he was marginalised at the end of Edward’s reign.

After the mid-1050s, Edward seems to have withdrawn from affairs as he became increasingly dependent on the Godwins, and may have become reconciled to the idea that one of them would succeed him. The Normans claimed that Edward sent Harold to Normandy in about 1064 to confirm the promise of the succession to William. The strongest evidence comes from a Norman apologist, William of Poitiers. According to his account, shortly before the Battle of Hastings, Harold sent William an envoy who admitted that Edward had promised the throne to William but argued that this was overridden by his deathbed promise to Harold. In reply, William did not dispute the deathbed promise, but argued that Edward’s prior promise to him took precedence.

In Richard Baxter’s view, Edward’s “handling of the succession issue was dangerously indecisive, and contributed to one of the greatest catastrophes to which the English have ever succumbed.”

Edward is depicted as the central saint of the Wilton Diptych (c. 1395–99), a devotional piece made for Richard II, but now in the collection of the National Gallery. The reverse of the piece carries Edward’s arms; and Richard’s badge of a white hart. The panel painting dates from the end of the 14th century.

In Act 3, Scene VI of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (c. 1603–06) Lennox refers to Edward as “the most pious Edward,” and in Act 4, Scene III, Malcolm describes his powers of healing those afflicted with “the evil”, or scrofula.

He is the central figure in Alfred Duggan’s 1960 historical novel The Cunning of the Dove.

He is featured in Sara Douglass’ novel God’s Concubine.

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.

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
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2 Responses to Edward the Confessor, the Last of the Anglo-Saxon Kings

  1. Angelyn says:

    Barlow is one of my favorite historians on this period. He pointed out the similar circumstances of the Confessor’s deathbed bequest to that of his successor. The power of the novissima verba did, at least initially, fulfill the Conqueror’s bequest. Wonderful post.

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