The Crowning of Edward, The Confessor - 3rd April 1042.
Vitae Ædwardi Regis, the book on the life of Edward, commissioned by his wife, describes the Anglo-Saxon King as “Of outstanding height and distinguished by his milky white hair and beard, full face and rosy cheeks, thin white hands and long translucent fingers. He was pleasant, but always dignified, he walked with eyes downcast and very affable to all.” He was the first, and only, Anglo-Saxon King to be canonised – by Pope Alexander III – and was one of our national saints until Saint George was officially adopted around 1350 by Edward III who created the Order of the Garter. Edward’s feast day was 13th October.
Born around 1003 Edward was the surviving son of Ethelred, known as the ‘Unready’, (Due to losing his throne to the Sweyn and Canute) and his second wife, Emma, of Normandy. He was the half brother of the English King Hardicanute. Edward was brought up in exile in Normandy and lacked military ability and reputation. He is said to have had a very unhappy childhood, away from his home and his family. On becoming King the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that one of his first acts was to deprive his mother of her estates and leave her in poverty for the rest of her life, such were his feelings of anger towards her and his situation. His Norman sympathies and patronage caused tensions between the English earls, especially Earl Godwin of Wessex – probably the most powerful of them all. Despite Edward marrying Godwin’s daughter, Edith, in 1045 the two fell out to such an extent that the Earl of Wessex raised an army against Edward. With the help of the Earls of Mercia and Northumberland the King managed to banish him and exile his wife from Court in 1051. During this exile Edward brought in Normans to places at court and to act as sheriffs around the country to sure up his reign. It is also said that early in 1051 William, Duke of Normandy (Later William I, the Conqueror) was designated heir to the English throne when he came on a visit.
The hostile reaction to this brought Godwin back in 1052. However during a Royal banquet in 1053 he collapsed and died and his place was taken by his son, Harold, who formed a much closer alliance with Edward. He led the Royal army as his deputy and in many ways ran the country. The last 15 years of Edward’s reign were relatively peaceful. Techniques in agriculture improved prosperity and the population rose to around one million people. Taxation was light as Edward lived off the revenues of his estates (roughly £5,500 p/a) and there were no expensive military campaigns. Trade was also good with mainland Europe.
Edward was also deeply religious and had commissioned the building of Westminster Abbey. His devotion to prayer is the reason for his nickname of ‘Confessor’ although some of this is more down to legend and hearsay rather than fact. He had a fierce temper and fits of rage, loved the hunt and sometimes seized lands to gain the revenues from them. His appointment of Stigand, as Archbishop of Canterbury, was also controversial as he was the first appointed for over 100 years who was not a monk. Stigand was dismissed by many churchmen due to his plurality, as he held the appointments at both Winchester and Canterbury.
In 1064 Edward sent Harold, Duke of Wessex, to confirm the promise he had made to William back in 1051. Harold swore on holy relics to reconfirm this, although the legality and whether he was forced into doing this remain unclear. The Bayeux Tapestry shows this event and there are both Norman and Saxon accounts that differ widely in their interpretation. In November 1065 though he became ill. Although he recovered somewhat his condition deteriorated on Christmas Eve that year causing him to miss the consecration of Westminster Abbey. He did manage to attend the Christmas Day banquet however.
Although it was not customary for a monarch to name his successor it usually went to the son of the monarch. However Edward had no children and the role of electing the new King was up to a group known as the Witan, which is an Old English word for a meeting of wise men. These were the King’s advisors and were present while Edward lay dying. Their first criterion was that the new King must English. Others were that he should be of good character and be of royal blood.
As they waited for his death Edward woke and began to speak about a dream he had had. Two Norman monks he knew had come to place a curse on England. One year after his death devils would bring fire, a sword and war to punish the country for the wickedness of its Earls and Clergy. This curse would only be lifted when a green tree, felled halfway up its trunk and with one part cut off and taken three furlongs away, would re-join it and start to grow again. The Archbishop of Canterbury dismissed this as the ravings of a dying man but others were worried – especially with William, Duke of Normandy waiting across the channel to claim the throne. Edward was seen as a pious man with a reputation for prophesying the future. However this was all over-shadowed when Edward offered his hand to Earl Harold, his brother-in-law, and placed England into his protection. He then fell back into a coma and died on January 5th 1066. The following day the Witan confirmed this appointment unanimously – an Englishman, the most powerful man in the country and a proven soldier. No mention was made of William and the promises made in 1051 and 1064. Edward was buried in Westminster Abbey and on the same day Harold was crowned.
Back in Normandy William was seething. He was to build a fleet and an army that was to smash Anglo-Saxon England forever. Harold’s reign was to last just nine months and the country was about to be subsumed into the rest of Europe. How long that lasts will depend on the referendum to be held on 23rd June 2016, just 950 years later.