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Edward the Confessor (c. 1003 – 5 January 1066), son of Ethelred 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 (technically the last being Edgar the Ætheling who was proclaimed king briefly in late 1066, but was deposed after about eight weeks.) His reign marked the continuing disintegration of royal power in England and the advancement in power of the earls. It foreshadowed the country's domination by the Normans, whose Duke William of Normandy was to defeat Edward's successor, Harold II, and seize the crown.

Edward had succeeded Cnut'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 had no son to take over the throne so a conflict arose as three men claimed the throne of England.

Edward was canonized in 1161 by Pope Alexander III, and is commemorated on 13 October by the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England and other Anglican Churches. He is regarded as the patron saint of kings, difficult marriages, and separated spouses. 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

Arms of Edward the Confessor
Coin of Edward the Confessor 1042-1066
Edward was born c. 1003 in Islip, Oxfordshiremarker. Edward and his brother Alfred were sent to Normandy for exile by their mother. Æthelred died in April 1016, and he was succeeded by Edward's older half brother Edmund Ironside, who carried on the fight against the Danes until his own death seven months later at the hand of Canute, who next became king and married Edward and Alfred's mother, Emma. According to Scandinavian tradition, Edward, by then back in England, fought alongside his brother, and distinguished himself by almost cutting Canute in two, although as Edward was at most thirteen years old at the time, the story is highly unlikely.

Edward then returned to Normandy, and although he is traditionally said to have developed an intense personal piety in his quarter-century of Norman exile, during his most formative years, while England formed part of a great Danish empire, some modern historians dispute this claim. His familiarity with Normandy and its leaders would also influence his later rule: the refuge he was given in Normandy, vis-à-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 brother-in-law, went on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land (where he died), Edward was named as one of the guardians of his son William.

Harthacnut had been considered the legitimate successor following Canute's death in 1035, but his half-brother, Harold Harefoot, usurped the crown. Edward and his brother Alfred unsuccessfully attempted to depose Harold in 1036. Edward then returned to Normandy, but Alfred 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 wounds. This murder of Edward's brother is thought to be the source of much of Edward's later hatred for the Earl and one of the primary reasons for Godwin's 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. Harthacnut succeeded on Harold's death in 1040, just as Harthacnut was preparing an invasion.

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 Harthacnut (son of Emma and Canute), and according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was sworn in as king alongside him. Following Harthacnut's death on 8 June 1042, Edward ascended the throne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle indicates the popularity he enjoyed at his accession — "before he [Harthacnut] was buried, all the people chose Edward as king in London." Edward was crowned at the cathedral of Winchestermarker, the royal seat of the West Saxonsmarker on 3 April 1043.


A sealed writ of Edward the Confessor
Edward's reign began in 1042 on the death of his half brother Harthacanute. 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 Wessexmarker, 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 of Normandy.

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 Wherwellmarker. 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 Herefordshiremarker, but his son Harold accumulated even greater territories for the Godwins, who held all the earldoms save Merciamarker after 1057. Harold led successful raiding parties into Walesmarker 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.

Edward and his mother

Edward's mother was Emma of Normandy, second wife of his father, Æthelred the Unready. She remarried King Cnut the Great and Edward and his brother Alfred were sent away to Normandy through neglect of their mother whilst the third son of her first marriage, Edmund (Ironsides) was killed by her second husband, Cnut, with whom she had a fourth son, Harthacnut. Emma's son Harthacnut preceded Edward as king.

At the time that Edward ascended to the throne, 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. Emma died in 1052.


Edvvard Rex

King Edward

depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry
Image of Edward the Confessor
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. However, even William's eulogistic biographer, William of Poitiers, admitted that the old king had made a deathbed bestowal of the crown on Harold. On Edward's death, Harold was approved by the Witenagemot which, 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 has been the subject of much speculation. Within a few years of Edward's death, and possibly in his old age, rumours were circulating that he had not consummated his marriage, either because he had taken a vow of chastity for religious reasons, or because of hostility to the Godwin family. However, in the view of Edward's biographer, Frank Barlow, it is extremely unlikely that Edward's childlessness was due to deliberate abstention from sexual relations.

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 Abbeymarker 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, Westminstermarker 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 Cnut 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 jewelry (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 Westminstermarker, elected prior in 1136, and remembered for his lives of Saints Edmund, Æthelberht 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 Romemarker 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 Abbeymarker 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 Rievaulxmarker, 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 St 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. St Edward remains the "Patron Saint of the Royal Family".

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

The main liturgical commemoration of Saint Edward is on the date of his translation, 13 October, rather than the date of his death. This feast was removed from the General Roman Calendar when it was reformed in 1969, but remains in the Calendar of the Traditional Latin Mass, as well as the national calendar of the Roman Catholic Church in England. The Church of England has included this feast in its calendar since the Book of Common Prayer of 1662.

In popular culture

Edward is depicted as the central saint of the Wilton Diptych, a devotional piece made for Richard II, but now in the collection of the National Gallerymarker. 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.

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

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

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


  1. According to some sources the date was 4 January.
  2. The numbering of English monarchs starts anew after the Norman conquest, which explains why the regnal numbers assigned to English kings named Edward begin with the later Edward I (ruled 1272–1307) and do not include Edward the Confessor (who was the third King Edward).
  3. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MS E) s.a. 1041 (1042), tr. Michael Swanton.
  4. Barlow, p. 252.
  5. Barlow, pp. 81-85.
  6. See the General Roman Calendar as in 1954, the General Roman Calendar of Pope Pius XII, and the General Roman Calendar of 1962.


Primary sources

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

External links

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