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Confessions of a King

David Woodman

The death of Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king, prompted the Norman invasion and a turning point in English history. But who was King Edward? We interviewed the author of a new biography.
David Woodman

Confessions of a King

David Woodman

The death of Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king, prompted the Norman invasion and a turning point in English history. But who was King Edward? We interviewed the author of a new biography.

What first attracted you to writing a biography of Edward the Confessor?

There were lots of reasons why I was interested in Edward! Perhaps primarily, his life spanned some of the most dramatic events and political upheavals in early medieval British history, from Viking conquests of the kingdom right through to the Norman conquest soon after his death. I wanted to explore these episodes by focussing on one individual and investigating how he dealt with the various different political twists and turns.

As the son of Æthelred Unræd (better known as Æthelred ‘the Unready’) and Emma of Normandy, he grew up in a kingdom that was plagued by Viking attack. The subsequent conquest and rulership of England by a succession of Scandinavian kings (like Swein, Cnut and Harthacnut) forced Edward into exile in Normandy for about twenty-five years. It was astonishing to trace Edward’s time in Normandy, to discover how he attracted allies while there, and then how he managed to become king in 1042. Of course, his troubles were far from over once he became king. He then had to establish himself as ruler, navigate the complex factional politics in the English royal assembly (known in Old English as the ‘witan’) and be aware of and react to a range of competing influences from north-western Europe. Although Edward inherited a highly sophisticated government in terms of its administration, these were significant challenges for him to contend with and his relationship with the leading earl of his time, Godwine, and with Godwine’s family (the ‘Godwines’), became fraught with complexity and difficulty. A relative wealth of near-contemporary primary sources, written from both English and Norman perspectives, provides unusual degrees of detail about these fascinating events and personal relationships and allows access to the centre of English politics in the mid-eleventh century, making the writing of Edward’s biography a very exciting enterprise.

What do you think was Edward’s most significant achievement or strength, before or during his reign?

In certain respects, Edward’s greatest achievement was his rebuilding on a massive scale of an existing abbey at Westminster. The deliberately large dimensions were intended in part to mimic contemporary fashions of construction in Normandy. But they were also intended to provide a material demonstration of Edward’s success in political and religious spheres, mirrored in various ways by the iconography of the designs on his coins and seals, which took contemporary imperial usage as their inspiration. Edward’s abbey would remain important, and it would later be rebuilt once more into the famous Westminster Abbey that stands today.

In terms of Edward’s greatest strength, my own view is that he must have been an extraordinary political pragmatist. As I have mentioned, he managed to gain the throne even though he had been exiled for a prolonged period. Then he went on to establish himself securely as king and weathered in 1051-2 an astonishing crisis during which relationships with the Godwines broke down spectacularly, such that the English were on the brink of a major civil conflict. He was then able to remain as king until his death in January 1066. Kings of early medieval England could expect to be beset by challenges and difficulties, but Edward endured more than most. 

Do you think that the character of Edward changed after he ascended the throne?

Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwinson depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.

It isn’t easy to assess Edward’s character. Our sources do comment on his temperament and mood at various points. Still, it is impossible to know from this chronological distance, and with their authorial bias in mind, what we can take from such observations. It would be hazardous simply to accept them at their word. There are similar issues when it comes to the material record. The Bayeux Tapestry has a famous image of Edward as an old man with a beard, and his coins undergo interesting stylistic changes during his reign, at times showing Edward as a warrior-like figure and at other moments depicting him in imperial terms. In all of these cases, we should ask questions about the authors of these images, what messages they were trying to send and why.

What is undoubtedly striking is the change in emphasis that we see following the end of the 1051-2 crisis involving the Godwines. Where previously the major contemporary source, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, had often commented on Edward’s actions and decisions, it now shifts its view to other individuals and Edward no longer features to the same extent. It is right to ask questions about what this means regarding Edward’s position at this moment and whether or not his authority had been diminished as a result of his conflict with the Godwine family. 

There are differing views concerning Edward’s intended successor – was William that favoured successor, and who had the strongest claim?

This is one of the most contentious and enduring questions from early medieval English history! It was likewise controversial for contemporary writers, who offered different views of the issue. Edward’s childlessness did enable different contenders to advance their claims, and it seems likely that, although we can’t be certain, Edward himself explored different options at different moments. In 1051, just when Edward was trying to change political direction with his attempted removal of the Godwines from power, it is notable that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to a visit to Edward’s court by Duke William of Normandy. We are not told any more about the purpose of his visit and the discussions that ensued, and some historians have doubted whether or not it even took place. But, if it did, the possibility of some kind of Anglo-Norman alliance may well have been discussed, maybe even the future of the English throne. Whatever the case, there is evidence suggesting that later in his reign Edward was inclined to favour those of the West Saxon royal blood-line, men like Edward the Exile and Edgar Ætheling. 

What was Edward’s legacy?

For a variety of reasons, Edward gained a degree of prominence in the centuries that followed his death. For Norman kings of England, who had to wrestle with their own legitimacy to rule, it was important to stress that they had inherited their position directly from Edward, the last king of the West Saxon royal line (Harold, son of Godwine, who became king immediately after Edward’s death, was not of royal blood). This led to an increased importance of Edward’s memory in legal and official documents (like Domesday Book). Also, at various points in the 12th century, members of the Westminster religious community sought to have Edward, their royal founder, canonised in order to increase their own prestige and standing. They eventually succeeded in February 1161 when Pope Alexander III issued a papal bull to declare Edward’s sainthood. And the importance of Edward endured into the mid-13th century when Henry III rebuilt Westminster Abbey into its present form and completed the construction of a magnificent shrine for Edward. 

Are there any other figures from the medieval period about whom you’d like to write a biography?

1066 is one of the best-known dates in English history. But to my mind 927—the year when King Æthelstan was able to conquer Northumbria and knit together the kingdoms that would comprise ‘England’—deserves just as wide recognition. Æthelstan was a king of extraordinary ambition, and his reign witnessed some of the most impressive developments in terms of governance hitherto seen. His mode of kingship and relations with Europe mean that his reign is ripe for further investigation, certainly something I hope to do in the future.

Doctor David Woodman is Fellow and Senior Tutor of Robinson College, University of Cambridge, and is the author of Edward the Confessor: The Sainted King.

David Woodman