Edward the Confessor


Edward the Confessor was the last king of the Wessex dynasty founded by Egbert the Saxon in 802. He is known for his piety and for building Westminster Abbey, one of the premier Cathedrals in England. He lived in troublous times, and there were numerous wars of succession both before and after his reign. Ironically, he was of a reserved and cautious disposition, and did not participate in these upheavals—he simply waited until most of the more ardent contenders for the throne had been killed or died off, and eventually he was the only living candidate. His reign was relatively peaceful and prosperous, but much of England was in the hands of powerful earls by the time he came to the throne, and he did not aggressively dispute their power. He died without an heir and shortly afterward, William the Conqueror prevailed at the Battle of Hastings, and claimed the throne of England for the Normans.

Edward was the younger son of Ethelred the Unready and his second wife Emma. Ethelred was deposed and sent into exile in 1013 by Sweyn I of Denmark, and Edward grew up at the court of his uncle, the Duke of Normandy in Europe. Shortly after the death of his father, his mother married Canute, the son of Sweyn, who had been his father's rival. In doing so she reclaimed her position as Queen, but only by forsaking her son's claim to the throne. For this reason Edward's relationship with his mother was never close and at various times they were antagonists.

By the time Canute died, after a reign of twenty years, his empire included all of Scandinavia, Denmark, and parts of Poland as well as England. His intended successor was Hardicanute, his son by Emma, but his older son, Harold, contended for the throne in England, and other claimants fought for the Scandinavian regions. During this period, Edward's brother Alfred attempted to assert their claim to the throne, but he was treacherously killed. During the next five years both Harold and Hardicanute contended for the throne, but eventually, both died and the Saxon nobles invited Edward to take the crown. One reason he was acceptable to all of the nobles was his gentle and patient disposition—the earls, who had taken a great deal of power to themselves did not desire a strong king.

The most powerful of all of the Saxon barons was Earl Godwin, who had been very influential in Canute's government and had become even more powerful after his death. Godwin had been involved in the death of Alfred, and was Edward's rival for much of his reign. In an attempt at reconciliation, a marriage was arranged between Godwin's daughter and Edward, but it produced no children, and at one point Edward exiled her family and sent her to a nunnery. The plot backfired however, largely because Edward's Norman advisers were unpopular even with the Saxons who at first supported him. Godwin returned with more power than ever, and from this point on the two were open rivals. Edward know that Godwin was grooming his son Harold to assume the throne on his death, since his marriage had produced no children, and his grand-nephews (sons of his half-brother Edmund), were too young to stand against Godwin. Edward therefore favored his cousin William the Conqueror to succeed him, and encouraged him to claim the throne upon his death. It was this conflict that played itself at the Battle of Hastings, in the months after Edward the Confessor died.

Key events during the life of Edward the Confessor:

Edward born to Ethelred the Unready and Emma
Exiled to Normandy with his family after his father is deposed by Sweyn Forkbeard.
Death of Ethelred, Edward's father
Edward's mother Emma marries Canute, his father's enemy and disavows Edwards claim to the throne.
Death of Canute leads to contention for his empire
Alfred attempts to reclaim the English throne but fails and is killed.
Recalled to the throne of England by Emma and Hardicanute
Marries Edith, youngest daughter of Godwin.
Names William the Duke of Normandy as his successor.
Exiles Godwin family and sends Edith to a nunnery.
Godwin returns with an army and forces the king to restore his title.
Godwin dies, leaving his estate to his son Harold.
Harold campaigns with Saxon lords to support his claim after the death of Edward
Consecration of Westminster Cathedral.
Death of Edward the Confessor

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Lady Emma  in  William the Conqueror  by  Jacob Abbott
Edward the Confessor  in  Famous Men of the Middle Ages  by  John H. Haaren
Edward the Confessor  in  Our Island Story  by  H. E. Marshall
Saint Edward the Confessor  in  Our Island Saints  by  Amy Steedman

Image Links

Edward the Confessor's Chapel, Westminster Abbey
 in Stories from English History

King Edward the Confessor
 in Stories from English History

Short Biography
Emma of Normandy Norman princess, wife first of Aethelred, then of Canute. Mother of Edward the Confessor.
William the Conqueror Claimed the crown of England and won it at the Battle of Hastings. Ruled forcefully but justly.
Canute the Great Danish king of Britain who ruled well. Married Emma, the wife of his enemy, Ethelred the Unready.
Godwin Very influential Earl of Wessex during reigns of Canute and Edward the Confessor. Father of Harold.
Alfred the Great Noblest of Saxon kings. Fought the Danes and made peace. Built churches and schools.
Hardicanute Son of Canute and Emma who was designated heir to Canute's empire.
Harold Illegitimate son of Canute who contended against Hardicanute.