The Rise of Edward the Confessor: The Story of the Man Who But For a Quirk of Fate, Might Never Have Been King

How Edward Became King

Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 1 : le roi Édouard le Confesseur
Bayeux Tapestry, Scene 1: King Edward the Confessor and Earl Harold. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons, Author: Myrabella

Edward, son of Æthelred must have been one of if not the luckiest Anglo-Saxon kings to take the throne of England. He starts out with his chances of succeeding his father looking very hopeful up to the age of about eight. Then his luck ran out with the coming of Danish invaders, Svein and Cnut. His father Æthelred, chased out of England, returns again only to die in the midst of the Danish invasion. With Edward’s older brother Edmund¹ on the throne in Wessex and Cnut in charge of the Danelaw, his chances of ever becoming king were looking slim, and they got even slimmer when Edmund, the courageous Ironside, dies from his battle wounds leaving the kingdom to Cnut as agreed by the treaty the two men had made. As if things couldn’t get any worse, they are compounded when his dear mother, Emma, decides to get into a new marriage bed with Cnut, followed by two more children, leaving poor old Edward and his brother, Alfred, out in the cold in Normandy.
The years go by, and Edward spends it in exile, cultivating a hatred for his mother, that will last a life time. And who could blame him? After all, she abandons the interests of her sons by Æthelred to marry this Cnut chap who is years younger than her and not willing to play stepdaddy to two young lads one little bit. Emma seems quite happy about this, or perhaps, struck with a short memory problem, forgets her children from her former marriage also including a girl, Goda. Most likely, Emma negotiates her own terms for her marriage, seeing as her brother, in a fit of pique, more-or-less disowns her when she sails back to England to marry Cnut, and it would seem that within those terms there is no room for Edward or Alfred in this happy new family. So Emma, as far as her eldest son is concerned, bangs the first nail into her coffin, and there are more nails to bang in over the coming years.

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Emma and Cnut – public domain

Despite her neglect of her eldest children, Emma of Normandy was quite a woman for her time. Born somewhere between 985 and 989 she was shipped off to England in 1002 to marry Æthelred who was to earn the nomenclature Unready for prosperity. In becoming the second Mrs Unready, Emma was the first Norman queen of England. If her treatment of her children by Mr Unready is anything to go by, she obviously didn’t like her first husband. He was, no doubt, a lot older than her having grown up children of his own. She may had loved her first children dearly, but it still didn’t stop her from running to Cnut without securing something for them. Cnut probably needed her as much as she needed him, however, whether Cnut was unwilling to agree to her sons having a stake in the crown, or whether Emma was agreeable to forgoing their rights, is unsure. Whatever the machinations, I imagine that it was part of the nuptial contract that Emma forego her children’s rights, but she probably secured the succession for any children she had by Cnut over his children by any others. To give credit to her, she pulled off an amazing coup by becoming Cnut’s queen, ousting the backside of her rival, Ælfgifu², from his bed and replacing it with her own, getting her hands on that crown for the second time running.

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Norman knights supported by archers attack the English at the Battle of Hastings. Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry – 11th century

Edward probably spends the next twenty-five years living in Normandy being educated with his brother and being brought up as knights. He seems to make several friends, one of them being Robert Champart who may have travelled to Normandy with him later when his half-brother, Harthacnut, recalls him to assist with his government. It is not known exactly how he carried on his affairs in Normandy or what his relationship was like with Duke Robert or his young son, William. William would have only been in his infancy when Edward himself was a young man and Edward did not seem to have had much to do with him during the dangerous years of William’s succession to his father. It is unlikely that the Norman propaganda in later years that promulgated their relationship as cordial and supportive was true. Edward is not mentioned in the sources as being part of his administration which seems to have been carried out by close members of the senior duke’s family and that of the boy’s mother’s. If he had been, I’m sure that it would have been documented and used to their advantage. They may have known each other distantly, but there is no evidence to state that there was any love between them and by the time Edward sailed for England, the young duke would have been no older than twelve or thirteen. Edward may have studied at Jumièges, as his relationship with Robert Champart of Jumièges might suggest. Or he might have lived at the Abbey of Fécamp as his gifts to them during his reign might also suggest. William Calculus, a monk of Jumièges stated that Edward and Ælfred completed their schooling in the ducal court, which William of Poitiers, Archdeacon of Lisieux also repeats. No doubt, however, that whatever the case, the brothers were most likely brought up as young noble men would have been. Initially as pages, then learning squirely duties where they would also have learned to sing, dance, and fight on horseback as chevaliers.

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York Museums Trust (Yorkshire Museum)

Meanwhile, whilst Edward was going about his activities in Normandy, Cnut ups and dies in November of 1035. The country is split into to 2 factions, with those supporting Cnut’s son by Ælfgifu, Harold Harefoot in the north and those supporting his son, Harthacnut, by Emma in the south. Nobody thought about the two sons of Æthlefred languishing in exile over the water in Normandy – or perhaps they did, and found Edward wanting, if anyone had bothered to look into his character that is, as it was to become clear later, Edward was hardly the epitome of a king in such a warrior society as this, despite his knightly upbringing. Æthelred did have other sons that the English might have looked to should they have no desire to plant the troublesome offspring of Cnut on the throne, but by this time, they were all dead, and any issue from them may have been obscure or missing, as was the most famous amongst them, Edmund’s sons³, at this time, abroad in exile.
So, with Harthacnut held up in Denmark, unable to get back to England to claim his throne, his half-brother, Harold, is proclaimed Protector for his in his absence. Harold hurries to Emma in Winchester and seizes the Royal treasury and regalia from her. The next blow to her is Godwin, who had been a supporter of Harthacnut and Emma, accepts that his lot would be better served by switching sides and Emma, vulnerable and concerned for her own position is thought to have reached out to her first-born sons in Normandy. Edward and Ælfred, whether in harmony or not, cross separately with a contingent each to meet their mother in England. Ælfred is killed by Harold Harefoot’s henchmen after being handed over by Godwin. The Earl of Wessex intercepted had Ælfred on his way to parley with Harold. Edward is said to have landed in Southampton but is either repulsed or perhaps sent a messenger from his mother which warns him and he scuttles back home the way he came. Emma later claims that Harefoot forged a letter to sent to her sons to lure them to England and as in Ælfred’s case, eventual death. It was Earl Godwin who was the loser in this debacle. Whatever his reasons for intercepting Ælfred, he was to be blamed for the rest of his life by Edward for the death of his brother: an accusation that was said to have haunted Godwin until his death.
Harold Harefoot eventually has a timely death which coincides with Harthacnut’s return to England shortly after to take up his post as king. When he heard about the death of his half-brother, Ælfred, the first thing  he did was to dig up Harold Harefoot’s corpse and toss it in a ditch, so incensed was he. But he wasn’t to live for too long either, even though he was only about twenty-four at the time, he might have had some insight into his health. Not having married or fathered any known sons, he was advised to invite his older brother from across the sea in Normandy, to join him and be one of his counsellors. Edward had by now given up any thoughts of being king, so the summons must have come as a surprise.

Queen Emma, wife of Ethelred II and Cnut, receives the book from its author, watched by her sons Harthacnut and Edward (King Edward the Confessor)
Emma receives the Encomium from its author, flanked by Harthacnut and Edward, 11th century (c) British Library Board/Bridgeman Imageson

This must have seemed like a miracle to Edward, who, as the Vita Ædwardi Regis claims was sworn in as the future king when Emma was pregnant. The will of God had been that Edward would be their king all along, and that God had postponed the event in order to punish the people for their sins. Despite the auspisiousness of the prophecy, this was given to add meaning to Edward’s long-awaited kingship, thus rationalising the development of his saintly persona. Edward was now elevated to the highest status one could ever achieve. Just a few weeks prior to his invitation from his half-brother, Edward had been in the unlikely position of ever becoming king. Now, he was the king’s heir. Edward, without doing anything, had achieved the seemingly impossible. He had started out in a goodly position. His mother’s pre-marriage contract arranged by her brother, the Duke of Normandy, would have seen to it that any of her sons borne of Æthelred’s seed would have taken precedence over any of his sons from another woman’s womb.
Harthacnut, it was said as per the Encomium Emma, was inspired by brotherly love, because he obviously loved Edward even though he’d never given him a thought throughout his life, invited Edward to come and hold the kingdom with him. Edward hopefully didn’t rush into this rashly, after all, he’d only waited 25 years, but he obeyed the summons and ‘Emma and her two sons among whom there was true loyalty,’ ehem, *coughs, ‘amicably share the kingdom’s revenues.’ Poitiers chose to believe that William of Normandy, then only a mere twelve or thirteen, had something to do with helping the exile get back home to his rightful place.

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Edward’s Coronation

It’s possible that whilst Emma was in Bruges waiting for Harthacnut to withdraw from his issues in Denmark, some sort of reconciliation between the two brothers and their mother was made. Perhaps Emma at last felt the burden of guilt lay heavily on her shoulders, or perhaps it was Harthacnut’s idea, wanting to meet his brother and form a bond with him.
As it happened, the two brothers may have had just about enough time to get to know each other and form some sort of friendship before Harthacnut died, binging on drink in 1042 at the wedding of Tovi the Proud. He was said to have stood up to make a speech and then keeled over in what one can only imagine was some sort of stupor. He was never to recover. There is no suggestion that poison was involved, despite the fact that Harthacnut was not very well liked. In any case, the miracle that Edward had needed all his life if he was ever to be king, had finally happened. God’s will had been done, the English were punished enough, and Edward was now their king at last. The man who ought never to have been king, was elevated to that exulted place at last.

Notes

¹ King Edmund II known as the Ironside for his strength and courage.

²Ælfgifu of Northampton was Cnut’s first alliance, the daughter of an important Northern Anglo-Saxon family. She was the mother of Cnut’s two sons, Svein and Harold.

³ Edmund’s sons, Edward and Edmund, were sent abroad when they were infants to be done away with on Cnut’s orders. Luckily for them, the king of Sweden took pity on them and at least one of them survived into adulthood. Edward Edmundson was to become the subject of a mission by King Edward to find himself an heir.

References

Barlow F. 1997 Edward the Confessor, Yale University Press, Newhaven and London

Swanton M. 2000 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles Phoenix Press, London.

Walker W. I. 2004 Harold, the Last Anglo-Saxon King

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Writers of Anglo-Saxon literature: Annie Whitehead

Today I’d very much like to welcome fellow Anglo-Saxon nut, Annie Whitehead, (sorry Annie!) to my Writers of Anglo-Saxon Literature series. Here she is talking about her beloved Mercia, and the characters that inhabited that world in the not so Dark Ages.

If you’re here reading Paula’s blog, then you probably don’t need to be told how interesting and exciting Anglo-Saxon history is. Despite the epithet, these times weren’t really the Dark Ages. There’s a wealth of documentary and archaeological evidence and an abundance of tales about characters who are too interesting not to write about.

It wasn’t deliberate, but I seem to write almost exclusively about the inhabitants of a particular Anglo-Saxon kingdom: Mercia.

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Map – Heptarchy (image attribution: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:England_green_top.svg)

Why Mercia in particular? Well, I happen to think that some of the most charismatic characters came from there or operated within its borders. More of them anon.

We don’t know precisely where the Mercians came from, or how they ended up where they did, or even what their name means and whether that’s what they called themselves.

Theories abound. Some say they migrated from the eastern settlements, some say there’s no evidence for this. Some think that they were Angles rather than Saxons, and most agree that their name, Myrcne, means the Marcher, or Border, People. So straight away they’re marked out as different; not named for who they were and where they came from – unlike the West Saxons, (Wessex) or the North Folk (Norfolk) – and we’re not even sure which border is being referred to. Was it the border with the Welsh? The Northumbrians? Or even the West Saxons?

It gets even more complicated when we realise that they weren’t even one kingdom, but more like a confederation of states. These smaller kingdoms gradually merged, or got consumed by Mercia proper, but their administrative organisation bore traces of those early kingdoms, and tribal identities remained, even into the eleventh century. (They almost toppled Edward the Confessor, too, but I’ll come back to that.)

At crucial times, their backing of a particular candidate for the throne was pivotal. Athelstan was first declared king in Mercia, and just as well, because he had a little difficulty shoring up his position in Wessex, initially. There was a small amount of trouble from a half-brother who was elected king in Wessex but died just a couple of weeks later, and then another half-brother who was implicated in a rebellion and was put to sea, where he drowned.

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Athelstan with his aunt, Æthelflæd – author’s photo

Later on in the tenth century, a fairly feckless young king, Eadwig, failed to bribe enough noblemen to support him – not for lacking of trying; in his short reign he issued over sixty charters, attempting to buy support in return for land – and the Mercians elected his brother, Edgar, as their king. There were two courts for a while, until Eadwig, like so many before him, died a convenient death at aged just nineteen. Edgar was keen throughout the rest of his reign always carefully to acknowledge the debt he owed to the Mercians and what by then had effectively become the Danelaw, in fact if not in name.

So, for me, they’re a little bit different. A little bit unconventional. And the people who led them were fascinating.

Any history of Mercia has to start off with Penda, the pagan warlord. Official line: he made war on Northumbria for no reason, burning, pillaging and generally behaving in an unsportsmanlike manner. But a chance remark by his sternest critic, the Venerable Bede, informs us that at one point he went to war because the king of Wessex had repudiated his sister. Vicious pagan he may have been, but I’d want him on my side if I ever got ‘dumped’.

At one point, the kingdom of Mercia stretched from the Thames to the Humber. Mercian kings were at various points overlords of most of the smaller kingdoms of the south and east. Their downfall though came in part because of their make-up. Having started out as a confederacy of separate kingdoms, they retained a tribal element and often their ealdormen weren’t elected by the king, but served in government because they were, effectively, tribal chiefs. This meant that an awful lot of successions to the kingship were contested, by rival claimants from various families. This might not have mattered so much had it not been for two things: the coming of the Vikings, and the fact that Wessex started getting its act together and established a strong dynasty of its own, the most famous member of that family being Alfred the Great.

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Æthelflæd (Public Domain image from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, c. 1220)

Still, the Mercians remained quite cheerful, putting their weight behind a lady of whom you might have heard: Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred. She was half-Mercian anyway, but her strategic burh-building meant that, in partnership with her brother, the boundaries of the Danelaw were pushed back and important territories regained. Her daughter succeeded her in Mercia for a short while. They weren’t queens, but they were accepted by the Mercians in a way that the West Saxons never accepted women leaders.

Still, after a brief spell as leader, this daughter was removed by Alfred’s son, Edward, and Mercia was governed from then on by Wessex.

They weren’t for giving up their national identity though, as we’ve seen; twice they were instrumental in electing West Saxon kings. And in the eleventh century, their identity was still discrete from Wessex. It doesn’t cast them in a positive light, but when their ealdorman, Eadric Streona, was accused of fleeing the battlefield, it was said that he took with him the men of the Magonsæte, one of the original kingdoms which had made up the Mercian confederacy.

Later in the eleventh century, when politics was dominated by the machinations and ambitions of the family of Earl Godwin, the Mercians had a part to play. When the northerners rebelled against Tostig Godwinson, Mercian brothers Edwin – Earl of Mercia – and Morcar – newly-elected earl of Northumbria – led the northern earls in a deputation which very nearly ended in outright rebellion, causing Harold Godwinson to ride north with all due haste and negotiate with them. It might even have been at this point that he arranged to marry the sister of Edwin and Morcar. Not bad work for Mercian brothers who were probably still only teenagers at the time.

When you consider that such lively characters as Offa and Lady Godiva were also Mercians, the question for me isn’t Why Mercia, but Why Not?

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Bio:

Annie is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, chronicles the life of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and her second, Alvar the Kingmaker, tells the story of Earl Alvar, who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, Cometh the Hour, charts the life of King Penda. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down. She is the recipient of various awards for her novels and has also won awards for her nonfiction essays. She won the inaugural HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition and her first full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom was published by Amberley Books in Sep 2018.

Links:

Website: http://anniewhiteheadauthor.co.uk

Blog: https://anniewhitehead2.blogspot.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/anniewhiteheadauthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ALWhitehead63

Paula Says

Thank you so much, Annie, for coming on my blog today. I’ve learned so much about Mercia already! I think the explanation for the name of Mercia being derived from the marches or borders is a good one myself, and quite reasonable. They were bordered on all sides as you say, so perhaps there is some truth in that. Perhaps they were a mixture of Britons, Saxons, and Angles, which could explain why they were never known as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

I agree that the Mercian characters are a fascinating bunch. I wonder how different things might have been had they ended up being the more dominant kingdom instead of Wessex. One of the most interesting things I find was their links with Wales, and how sometimes they were allies and sometimes they were enemies – I noticed you didn’t mention that old rebel, Alfgar, whom i happen to think of as one of the most interesting Mercians of the mid 11th Century apart form Leofric and Godiva, his parents. I’d love to know what it was the recalcitrant son of Godiva blurted out before he could stop himself that got himself exiled on two occasions!

As for Æthelflæd, she is my darling. I love your portrayal of her in your book To Be A Queen . For me she is the kick ass woman of the Dark Ages. If only we knew more about her life, her appearance and her character. Thank goodness that we have authors like yourself who bring these characters to life.

Which leads me to heartily recommend Annie’s books and her recent non-fiction book about MERCIA which currently awaits my hungry little eyes and fingers on my book shelf.

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Why I enjoy historical fiction

I loved this fabulous review from Wendy Steele. Thank you Wendy!

Wendy Steele

I don’t read historical fiction all the time, but when I pick up a book that not only chronicles a specific time in history, but brings me closer to the people, I can’t put it down. I’ve just finished The Wolf’s Banner by Paula Lofting, sequel to Son’s of the Wolf, set ten years before the Norman Conquest when the British Isles were in a state of chaos, as earls and thegns battled to keep hold of their piece of England…

‘I enjoy reading historical fiction for the same reason I enjoy watching Time Team, not just to immerse myself in the historical era, but to get close to the people and Ms Lofting describes her characters and their relationships with skill and an artful touch. Details of clothing and daily tasks help paint a picture of life from 1056AD in Horstede.

Where the first book in the series, Sons…

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Here is my interview with Paula Lofting

Today I visit the blog of the lovely Fiona Mcvie! Come hear my news!

authorsinterviews

Hello and welcome to my blog, Author Interviews. My name is Fiona Mcvie.

 

Let’s get you introduced to everyone, shall we? Tell us your name. What is your age?

My name is Paula Lofting, I am 56 years young!

Fiona: Where are you from?

From the ancient county of Sussex, a town called Crawley which lies near Gatwick airport in North-West Sussex. I have lived here for most of my life. I love Sussex, its steeped in history and as a history lover, that’s great for me.

Originally I was born in the county of Middlesex which has now been swallowed by Greater London. I emigrated with my family to Australia where I grew up in a place called Elizabeth, 17 miles outside from the South Australian capital of Adelaide. At the age of 16 I returned to the country of my birth and moved to Sussex about 30…

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