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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Ælfgyva: The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry – Introductory Part One

Ælfgifu, or as it was sometimes spelt, Alfgyva, or even Ælfgyva as it is on the Bayeux Tapestry, must have been a popular name and one of some significance, for when Emma of Normandy was espoused to Aethelred, the witan insisted that she be called Ælfgifu, which incidentally had been the name of a couple of Æthelred’s previous partners, though none of those women had been given the title of queen, unlike Emma. Perhaps they had been so used to referring to their king’s women by the same name they thought it more expedient to refer to Emma as Ælfgifu too, lest they forget themselves and mistakenly call Emma by the wrong name. I say this tongue in cheek, but it is unclear as to why the name Emma was objectionable to them, after all, it was not unlike the English,  Ymma. But changing a queen’s name is not an unheard-of phenomenon; later Queen Edith, great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, changed her Saxon name and  to become Queen Mathilda when she wed Henry the first. Ælfgifu, or as it was sometimes spelled, Ælfgyva, must have been a popular name and one of some significance, for when Emma of Normandy was espoused to Æthelred, the witan insisted that she be called Ælfgifu, which incidentally had been the name of a couple of Æthelred’s previous consorts, though none of those women had been given the title of queen, unlike Emma. Perhaps they had been so used to referring to their king’s women by the same name they thought it more expedient to refer to Emma as Aelfgifu too, lest they forget themselves and mistakenly call her  Ælfgifu anyway.   I say this tongue in cheek, but it is unclear as to why the name Emma was objectionable to them, after all, it was not unlike the English version of Ymma. But changing a queen’s name is not an unheard of phenomenon; later Queen Edith, great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, changed her Saxon name to become Queen Mathilda when she wed Henry the first. This might have been a choice she had made, wanting to please her new subjects. The nobles were made up of mostly Normans who  liked to make fun of the English language and names, so it might have not been her choice but one that was coerced from her.

There were so many Ælfgyvas/ Ælfgifus amongst the women of the 11thc that it must have become quite confusing at times. Even Cnut’s consort before Emma, was called Ælfgifu, mother of Cnut’s sons Harold and Sweyn. She was known as Ælfgifu of Northampton, the woman whose father had been killed during Æthelred’s reign. So one can see that if anyone called Emma, Ælfgifu, by mistake, it would not have mattered as they could be referring to either of them! Even Cnut would not have been caught out by this one.
There was a story about Cnut’s Ælfgifu,  that she had been unable to produce her own off-spring and  involved a monk to help her pass off a serving maid’s illigitemate babies as her sons by Cnut. In another version, it was said that the monk himself had fathered them.  Were they a monk’s children fathered on a serving maid so that Ælfgifu could present them as hers and Cnut’s? Or, were they lovers themselves, the monk and Ælfgifu? These are questions that, after reading the evidence, I am pondering upon. However, Emma, it is said, hated Ælfgifu and the two women were at odds with each other for many years until Ælfgifu died. It would not be implausible that these tales, rumours, chinese whispers, if you may, were put about by the Queen to destroy her rival’s reputation.

Which leads me now to the mystery of Aelfgyva on the Bayeux tapestry. Ælfgyva is the same name as Aeflgifu, just a different spelling, much like Edith and Eadgyth. For centuries people must have pondered over this scene, where a slim figure, clad in what would appear to be the clothing of a well-bred woman, stands in a door way, her hands are palm upwards as if she could be explaining something to a monk, apparently behind a doorway.  He is reaching out to touch the side of her face whilst his other hand rests on his hip in a stance of dominance and he looks as if he might be touching her face in a fatherly way, perhaps admonishing her for some misdeed, or perhaps he is slapping her?  On the other hand he could be caressing her face. The text sewn into the tapestry merely states ‘where a priest and Ælfgyva…’ and the onlooker is left with no more than this to dwell on. So just what is the author alluding to? Why did he/she not finish the sentence? Perhaps they were referring to a well known scandal of the time and they had no reason to describe the events in detail, because everyone would have known about it anyway. Who knows what the truth is? It seems the answer to the question of the lady’s identity and the relevance the scene has to the story of Harold Godwinsons downfall, died with the creators of the tapestry long ago. Those who presented it to the owner must have given a satisfactory explanation to him about the scene. One can only wonder as to what it might have been and was it a truthful explanation, or did it have a hidden story?
This brings me to my burning question. Was this scene depicting the scandal of Aelfgifu of Northampton and the monk and if so why and what did it have to do with the tapestry? What was its creator  alluding to? Or had someone woven them into the tapestry, mistakenly confusing Cnut’s Aelfgifu/Aelfgyva with a similar story that did have some legitimacy with the story of the conquest? I have an interpretation, but it is just that, and most likely the fanciful ramblings of my imagination, although it could perhaps be close. I will attempt to explain my idea further sometime in part two soon. Watch this space as the mystery unfolds!

This blog post can also be read here: https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2017/11/lfgyva-mystery-woman-of-bayeux-tapestry.html