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Edward (c.1005–66), king of England (1042–66), known as ‘the Confessor’. Edward was born at Islip (Oxon.), the first recorded child of Æthelred's second marriage. His mother was Emma (Ælfgifu), the daughter of Richard I, count of Normandy (d. 996), and sister of the powerful Richard II (996–1026). During the Danish conquest of England, Edward took refuge in Normandy, initially in 1013, and then, together with his younger brother Alfred, on a more permanent basis from 1016. Emma married King Cnut in 1017, and seems to have been influential in Edward's recall from the long Norman exile in 1041 in the reign of Harthacnut, her son by Cnut: and in the following year Edward succeeded his half-brother on the throne with general approval. He proved far from the weak and pious nincompoop portrayed by some historians, and should be given full credit for keeping his kingdom intact in troubled times for close on a quarter of a century, for reconciling the English and Danish elements in the aristocracy, and for accustoming England to regular cultural and political contact with continental Europe, especially with Normandy and with the papacy. He intruded some Norman favourites into the English Church and state, but not to excess, apart possibly for a brief period, 1051–2, and generally succeeded in maintaining a balance at his court. It is true nevertheless that the politics of his reign was dominated by his relationship with one of the most extraordinary families in English history, that of Earl Godwine of Wessex, whose daughter Eadgyth married Edward in 1045. Godwine's five sons, Sweyn, Harold, Tostig, Leofwine, and Gyrth, all achieved the rank and office of earl, and Harold succeeded his brother-in-law as king in 1066. Much of the credit for the effective military defence of the realm and the pacification of the border with Wales must go to the Godwine family, especially Harold, but the king remained their superior, active in the creation and shuffling of the earldoms and in ecclesiastical matters, and by no means a passive symbol of royalty. Indeed in 1051 as a result of quarrels involving the exercise of both secular and ecclesiastical authority Edward was able to enforce the exile of the whole Godwine family, and although they returned under arms in the autumn of 1052 they did not do so unconditionally. In their absence Edward had indulged in a degree of Normanization. There is evidence, not utterly conclusive but strong, to suggest that Duke William of Normandy, his young kinsman (his mother's great-nephew), may have visited him in England in late 1051 when some loose accord may have been reached over the Norman duke's right to claim succession to the childless Edward. Godwine's return prompted reaction. Robert of Jumièges, whose promotion to the see of Canterbury in mid-Lent 1051 had caused disaffection, was in turn exiled and replaced by Stigand, a candidate favoured by the Godwines, but other appointments remained in being, notably that of the influential William, bishop of London, who remained in office until his death in 1075. Earl Godwine himself died in dramatic circumstances at Easter 1053, not long after his return. He is said to have declared on solemn oath that he was guiltless of the death of Edward's brother (murdered in an abortive attempt to lay claim to England in 1036), and then choked to death on the holy wafer taken to confirm his oath. After Godwine's death, Edward affirmed his overlordship in quite spectacular fashion, sending Harold on an embassy, and recalling from Hungary his own nephew and namesake Edward the Atheling, presumably again as a possible heir. Edward's skill in exploiting doubt over the succession must be ranked among his most formidable diplomatic achievements. Prince Edward died before he could even greet the king, but his children, Edgar Atheling (who lived on to the 1120s) and Margaret, queen of Scotland, proved potent pawns deep into the Norman age. The last decade or so of Edward's reign was a period of relative prosperity. The earls, those drawn from the Mercian house of Leofric and the Northumbrian house of Siward as well as the Godwines, remained powerful regional commanders but still subject to appointment and removal by king and council. Local government functioned effectively through a network of courts in shires, hundreds, and wapentakes, and urban life flourished, notably in London and Winchester. Tax systems and coinage were advanced, sophisticated, and efficient for the age. In church affairs the appointment of able clerics such as Wulfstan of Worcester (1062–95), and the influence of Ealdred, bishop of Worcester (1044–62) and archbishop of York (1061–9), counterbalanced the dubious nature of Stigand at Canterbury. Edward himself remained active almost to the end of his life, planning hunting expeditions in the Bristol channel area in the summer of 1065, and hunting with Tostig in Wiltshire as late as the autumn. An outbreak of rebellion in Northumbria in October, resulting in the exile of Tostig, caused the king much grief and seems to have precipitated his final illness. He had spent much personal energy and treasure on the rebuilding of Westminster abbey, deeply influenced by similar ventures in characteristic new Romanesque style at Jumièges in Normandy, but was too sick to attend the dedication on 28 December. He died in the first week of 1066, on 4 or 5 January, and was buried in the abbey. His posthumous reputation was distorted by the nature and needs of the Norman Conquest. The Normans pointed back to his reign as a golden age in the recent past, while king Harold was dismissed as a usurper and oath-breaker. William himself claimed direct legitimate succession in kingly office from Edward, and Domesday Book used ‘the time of King Edward’ as its standard temporal test for legal rights and tenure. In the 12th cent. Edward became something of a symbol of reconciliation between Norman and English. His reputation as a lawgiver, largely unmerited, became great, and his personal piety (including an unlikely attribution of celibacy within marriage) exaggerated. Westminster abbey had a special interest in him which the monks exploited to the full. In 1161, after earlier attempts had failed, Edward was canonized by Pope Alexander III. The by-name ‘the Confessor’ persisted, that is to say one who suffered for his faith, though short of martyrdom, even though initially it was given merely to differentiate him from his half-uncle Edward the Martyr. Henry III fostered his cult, rebuilding Westminster abbey and naming his son and heir Edward. There was every likelihood that he would be adopted as the patron saint of England until more militant elements ousted him in favour of the soldier St George.

Henry Loyn


Barlow, F. , Edward the Confessor (1970);
Clarke, P. A. , The English Nobility under Edward the Confessor (Oxford, 1994).

Edward the Confessor

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Edward the Confessor

Edward the Confessor (died 1066), the last king of the house of Wessex, ruled England from 1042 to 1066. Attracted to religion and to Norman culture, he was not a vigorous leader. He gained a reputation, not fully deserved, for sanctity and was eventually canonized.

The youngest son of Ethelred the Unready and his Norman wife, Emma, Edward was born sometime after 1002. When Ethelred's authority crumbled in the face of Danish invasions and dissensions among the English nobility, Emma and her children took refuge in 1013 at the court of Richard II, Duke of Normandy. Ethelred died in 1016, and Edward's eldest brother, Edmund Ironsides, succeeded him but died later the same year. Cnut of Denmark was in possession of England, and Edward and his remaining brother Alfred were in exile in Normandy. As he grew up, Edward became thoroughly imbued with Norman manners.

After Cnut's death in 1035, England experienced several years of factional strife, during which Edward's brother Alfred returned to England and was murdered by a powerful earl, Godwin of Wessex. In 1041 Cnut's last surviving son designated Edward his successor, and the following year Edward, with widespread popular support, became king of England.

The first half of Edward's reign was full of uncertainties. Until 1047 England was threatened by a possible invasion by King Magnus of Norway, who claimed the English throne because of an agreement made with Cnut's son. Meanwhile, internal difficulties sprang from the rivalries of the great earls Godwin, Leofric, and Siward (formerly Cnut's councilors) and their ambitious descendants. Godwin, murderer of Edward's brother, was especially troublesome, but Edward, lacking the power to confront him, pacified him for several years. Edward married his daughter Edith in 1045. The match was childless, inspiring a later legend that Edward, in his saintliness, had never consummated it. Edward also met opposition from his mother, whose lands he confiscated in 1043. To counteract his lack of trusted English councilors, Edward invited to his court a number of Norman and Breton knights and clerics, whose presence angered the English magnates.

In 1051 Edward, using as an excuse Godwin's refusal to obey an order, moved against his great rival. He exiled Godwin, banished Edith from the court, designated William, Duke of Normandy, as heir to the throne of England, and arranged that a Norman, Robert of Jumièges, become archbishop of Canterbury. The following year the situation reversed itself. Godwin returned with a large fleet, and he and Edward were officially reconciled to prevent a civil war and resultant Norse invasion. The archbishop and most of the Norman courtiers were banished. Godwin died soon after, in 1053, but his son Harold became Earl of Wessex and Edward's most powerful adviser.

For the rest of his reign Edward, by choice or necessity, did not exercise dominant control over affairs of state, leaving to Harold, to Godwin's other son Tostig (from 1055 to 1065 Earl of Northumbria), and to other powerful nobles the prosecution of wars against the revived power of Wales and the settling of domestic policies. In 1057 Edward's nephew, since 1016 an exile in Hungary, came to visit him but died soon after his arrival in mysterious circumstances. His death made it clear that Edward's successor would be either William of Normandy or the popular Harold of Wessex.

Edward became increasingly interested in religious matters, devoting much of his attention in his later years to the founding of Westminster Abbey. He also loved hunting and was less inclined to ascetic and pious practices than his posthumous reputation, based on a miracle-laden hagiographical biography written soon after his death, suggests. Edward died on Jan. 5, 1066. Harold was quickly chosen his successor, but by the end of the year William of Normandy (known as the "Conqueror") had been crowned at Westminster in the abbey whose construction Edward had supervised with such loving care.

Further Reading

The main historical source for Edward's life and reign is The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, edited and translated by G.N. Garmonsway (1953). A full-length study is Frank Barlow, Edward the Confessor (1970). The hagiographical The Life of King Edward, edited and translated by Frank Barlow (1962), is not a historical record but testifies to the growth of the cult of Edward after his death. See also F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (1943; 2d ed. 1947), and C. N. L. Brooke, The Saxon and Norman Kings (1963).

Additional Sources

The life of Saint Edward, king and confessor, Guildford, Surrey: St. Edward's Press, 1990.

Barlow, Frank, Edward the Confessor, London: Eyre Methuen, 1979, 1970.

The life of King Edward who rests at Westminster, New York: AMS Press, 1984, 1962. □

Edward the Confessor, Saint

views updated May 17 2018

Edward the Confessor, Saint (1002–66) King of England (1042–66), son of Ethelred II (the Unready). Before succeeding Hardecanute, Edward was resident in Normandy. His perceived favouritism towards Normans resulted in a rebellion, led by his father-in-law, Godwin. Edward's reign is noted for the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey. His name resulted from his piety and, having taken a vow of chastity, he produced no heir. Although he is said to have promised the throne to William I (the Conqueror), Edward acknowledged Harold II, son of Godwin, as his rightful heir. He was canonized in 1161. His feast day is October 13.

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