10 Little-Known Facts About Edward The Confessor

Tom Licence

Middle Ages
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Edward the Confessor, son of Æthelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy, was the penultimate Anglo-Saxon King of England.

After his death, the English throne was claimed by not one, but three successors: Harold Godwinson, Harold Hardraada and William, Duke of Normandy.

The battles that emerged from this are well known, but following are 10 little-known facts about the king whose death initiated them.

1. He called himself ‘king’ during Cnut’s reign

Born about 1004, Edward was the son of King Æthelred II and Queen Emma. He should have inherited the throne, but in 1016 Cnut of Denmark conquered England and drove him out.

Exiled to Normandy, his mother’s homeland, Edward asserted his royal status. Norman charters reveal that by 1034 he was calling himself ‘King Edward’, even though Cnut was still king of England at the time.

Medieval illumination depicting Edward’s half brother, King Edmund Ironside (left), and Cnut the Great (right) at the Battle of Assandun. From the Chronica Majora written and illustrated by Matthew Paris, 1259 (Credit: Public Domain).

2. He tried to capture the throne in the 1030s

Maintaining that he was rightful king, in 1034, Edward challenged Cnut by attempting to invade England with the help of his cousin, Duke Robert of Normandy. Unfortunately the invasion fleet was blown off-course and diverted to Brittany.

Undeterred, Edward attempted a second invasion in 1036, after Cnut’s death. Commanding 40 ships, he landed and fought a battle near Southampton. Though he triumphed, the political situation had turned against him, so he returned to Normandy.

In 1041, he arrived on the south coast with another fleet. Received as the rightful heir, Edward finally ascended to the throne the following year on the death of Cnut’s son, Harthacnut.

3. He reorganized the fleet and founded the Cinque Ports

Edward quickly set about defending the coast from the viking attacks which had plagued England during his father’s reign.

Establishing a new system for raising fleets, he ended England’s reliance on crews of Danish mercenaries. Instead the provisioning of ships was entrusted to ports on the South East coast; these were granted privileges in return.

First charged with defending the coast by Edward the Confessor, the towns of Sandwich, Dover, Romney, Hastings and Hythe evolved into the original Cinque Ports.

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4. He introduced castles into England

Before the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-66), we come across evidence of fortified aristocratic residences but nothing quite like the castles that were a tool of border warfare in France.

Seeking to curb the Welsh, Edward implanted French military commanders in the borders, around Hereford. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to the castles they erected – new and aggressive creations, which got up the noses of the locals and became a source of friction between the French and the English at court.

5. He imprisoned his wife in a nunnery

Edward wanted a son, to continue his ancient bloodline, but he and Queen Edith were unable to have children. When her father and brothers were driven into exile for opposing the king, Edward took the opportunity to dispatch his wife to a nunnery.

His contemporary biographer reveals that the king was considering divorce – and presumably remarriage, in the hope of procuring an heir. Eventually, however, Edith recovered her position.

She obviously forgave her husband, for in later years she commissioned his biography, praising him as a saint, and chose to be buried at his side in Westminster abbey.

Coronation of Queen Edith. From the Chronica Majora written and illustrated by Matthew Paris, 1259 (Credit: Public Domain).

6. He defeated the Scots and the Welsh

Edward acquired formidable enemies in the Welsh king, Gruffudd ap Llewelyn, and the Scottish king, Macbeth. Macbeth was a might ruler who had held his throne since Cnut’s day. Gruffudd was the first king to rule the whole of Wales.

Eventually Edward sent armies, led by his earls, to crush the Scottish and Welsh rulers. Macbeth was defeated in 1054, Gruffudd a decade later. His head was brought to Edward as a trophy.

By 1066, the kings of the Scots and Welsh acknowledged Edward as overlord of Britain. They did not recognise his successors, Harold and William, in this way.

7. England prospered in his reign

Edward’s reign was remembered as a period of peace and prosperity. Those who lived through the bloodshed and turmoil of the conquest that followed looked back fondly to Edward’s time.

Although there were raids by the Welsh and Scots and occasional bands of vikings, the kingdom itself was never in danger. Peaceful alliances established at the start of the reign ensured that Edward was respected by neighbouring powers.

People had more money in their pockets too. The evidence is in the numbers of individual coin losses which are found by metal detectorists. More have been found from Edward’s reign than from comparable periods under his predecessors.

Edward the Confessor’s funeral depicted in scene 26 of the Bayeux Tapestry (Credit: Public Domain).

8. He cured the sick with his touch

Peace treaties and the threat of crushing force were the foundations of Edward’s success, but his authority drew also on the mystique of his ancient bloodline and the powers it bestowed. Edward cultivated this mystique to inculcate awe in his subjects.

Presenting himself as quasi-divine, dripping with gold and jewels like the image of a saint, he was the first English king to claim to perform miracles. His specialty was in curing scrofula – a swelling of the lymph nodes – by the touch of his holy hands, though his enrapt admirers also reported that he had restored sight to the blind.

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9. He survived two major rebellions

Edward was not timid in enforcing his will, and twice he ran into opposition. In 1051-2, the rebels objected to the unchecked influence of his foreign favourites. In 1065, once more, the object of anger was an over-mighty favourite, Tostig.

In both instances, confrontation was settled without civil war, though only because the king was obliged to back down in the face of insurmountable opposition. The rebels had their way; the favourites were banished. King Edward was forced to terms, but all parties prioritised finding a peaceful resolution.

10. He is England’s only canonized monarch

Though Anglo-Saxon England venerated numerous kings, queens and princesses, Edward is our only canonized monarch. He alone met the stricter standards which, by the 1160s, were precluding more doubtful candidates.

Richard II presented to the Virgin and Child by his Patron Saint John the Baptist and Saints Edward (centre) and Edmund, shown in The Wilton Diptych, 1395-9 (Credit: Public Domain).

Canonized by the Pope in 1161, he continued – as he had started – as a personification of the divine mystique of kingship. As such he appealed to Henry III (1216-72), who became his devoted admirer.

Edward rests, to this day, in Westminster abbey, surrounded by the tombs of monarchs who hoped his glory might rub off on them.

Tom Licence is Professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia. He grew up in Essex and took his degrees at Cambridge, becoming a Fellow of Magdalene College. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and of the Society of Antiquaries, he is an authority on the Norman Conquest, Latin historical writing and the cult of the saints. Edward the Confessor: Last of the Royal Blood is now available in hardback.

Tom Licence