Edward was born in 1003AD in Islip, Oxfordshire, the son of Ethelred and Emma of Normandy. He was just ten years old when he was sent to Normandy with his brother Alfred to escape the Danish invasion. While there, he became interested in religion and it was this piety, plus reportedly attending daily confession that earned him the title “Confessor”. He was not a worldly or decisive man and is considered weak and uncertain by some historians. He did however forge strong links between the old English church and Rome, sending bishops to Pope Leo IX’s councils in 1049 and 1050AD.
He was also reported as having seen visions and cured scrofula (The King’s Evil) by his touch. Contemporary accounts describe him as “very slothful, to have an unsteady attention to duty, with fits of ill timed zeal and to be lacking in sound judgement”. His father Ethelred died in 1016AD and was succeeded by his half brother Edmund Ironside who carried on the fight against the invaders until his death some seven months later. Edward is thought to have returned to England at this time and some Scandinavian legends claim that he fought alongside Edmund, but this seems unlikely as he would have been just thirteen.
He returned to Normandy and an unremarkable life where he seems to have been rather poorly esteemed by his Norman kin although his familiarity with Normandy and its leaders would influence his later rule, and the disregard paid to him in his exile would eventually leave him both grateful and bitter towards them.
The Danish King of England, Harthacanute never married and having no heir was the probable reason for him inviting Edward back to the English court, a popular move with both the lay and clerical nobility who looked forward to a return of the Wessex royal line. Going further, Harthacanute also had Edward sworn in as future king, which may have been a ploy to divert some of the ill feeling against him among the English. The Chronicle reports on Harthacanute’s death and states, “before he was buried, all the people chose Edward as king in London”.
Edward returned to England to take the throne, but in this he was opposed by his mother Emma who favoured Magnus the Noble, the Norwegian King to succeed, demonstrating her rejection of her sons fathered by Ethelred. Edward repaid her coldness by having her arrested and later subjected to trial by ordeal on a trumped up charge of adultery with a local bishop which she surprisingly survived.
Edward was crowned with tremendous pomp on Easter Sunday 1043AD, at his ancestor Alfred’s capital of Winchester, chosen by his supporter Earl Godwin to remind the people of the new king’s royal Wessex blood.
Edward’s reign began peacefully enough, but to ensure stability he needed the support of the three powerful English Earls, Godwin of Wessex, Leofric of Mercia and Siward of Northumbria. In 1045AD Edward married Godwin’s daughter Edith, a union that suited the ambitious Earl. The marriage produced no children, this sometimes being attributed to a vow of abstinence by Edward. Another suggestion is that he refused to consummate the marriage because of his antipathy to the Godwins, although if this was the case one would have to ask why he married her in the first place.
Godwin used his influence on the King to move his sons into important positions in the land with Harold as Earl of East Anglia – Sweyn held the earldoms of Hereford, Gloucester and Oxford, while Godwin’s nephew Beorn held the earldoms of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.
Relations between the Earl and the king began to deteriorate when Edward brought from Normandy, Robert of Jumieges and appointed him Bishop of London. Seven years later, Edward appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury, a move that enraged Godwin who had quarrelled with Robert on a number of occasions over his attempts to regain church lands lost to Godwin and his family. Godwin was also furious that Robert had the ear of the king who had placed many Normans in senior positions in the land. Edward’s sympathies for his Norman favourites caused much animosity among Saxon and Danish nobles who felt they were being displaced by the newcomers. Matters were not helped when Robert refused to consecrate one Spearhafoc, an ally of Godwin, as Bishop of London.
Edward, having spent much of his life in Normandy, was understandably pro Norman in his outlook and favoured them much to the chagrin of Godwin. As a sort of celebration of Norman culture, Edward began the building of a great Norman style church on the north bank of the Thames which would become Westminster Abbey.
Edward’s former brother in law and political ally, Eustace of Boulogne, paid a visit to England in 1051AD, landing at Dover with his retinue and “caused much offence to the people of the town with his high handed manner”. He was honourably received at the royal court by the king. Earl Godwin however, seeking to strengthen his own power base, had recently arranged the marriage of his son Tostig to the daughter of Eustace’s rival, the Count of Flanders and to make matters worse, Godwin’s son Sweyn had been feuding over territory with one Ralph the Timid, who in addition to being a stepson of Eustace, was also a nephew of Edward.
On their return to Dover the Frenchmen were offered no hospitality and Eustace ordered his troops to don their chain mail and force the townspeople to feed and house them. The people responded by attacking Eustace’s men and a small battle ensued which resulted in some twenty deaths on either side. Eustace raced back to the king at Gloucester and demanded retribution. Edward, favouring the French, ordered Godwin, who held jurisdiction over the town, to punish the townspeople. He refused and summoning his sons to his side, raised an army against the king. The two armies arrived at a standoff on the banks of the Thames with the Godwins on the south side and the King’s forces on the north, but after mediation it was decided to let the Witan sort the problem out. The Earls of Mercia and Northumberland remained loyal to the King during the dispute and forced Godwin and his sons Harold, Tostig, Leofwine and Gyrth to be exiled, with Harold and Leofwine going to Ireland and Godwin and Gyrth leaving to join his other son Sweyn in Flanders while his youngest son Wulfnoth was taken as hostage by the king to ensure Godwin’s good behaviour. Queen Edith, Godwin’s daughter, was sent to a nunnery at Wherwell.
Edward continued to bring Norman advisors to England causing more unrest among the Danish and Saxon nobles who viewed the increasing influence of Normandy with suspicion Godwin chose his moment to return, landing on the south coast and gathering men from Kent, Surrey and Sussex to his banner. He sailed his fleet up the Thames and gained the support of the Londoners, forcing Edward to send the advisors, including Archbishop Robert, home and reinstate Godwin and his offspring to their former estates, thus making them the most powerful group in England.
In 1052AD, Duke William of Normandy made a state visit to England and it was at this time that Edward is thought to have nominated William as his successor. Whether this offer was genuine or another placating ploy by Edward is not known. In the same year, Edward made his nephew, Ralph the Timid, the Earl of Hereford, replacing the exiled Sweyn.
The new Earl immediately began building castles in his territory, a new architectural feature in England. During Sweyn’s time as Hereford’s Earl, he had supported the Welsh King of Gwynedd in his fighting against Gruffydd, King of Deuhebarth. With Sweyn gone, King Gruffydd ap Llewlynn, together with Elfgar, son of Earl Leofric of Mercia, who had been deprived of his inheritance by the Godwins, invaded the Earldom in 1055AD. Ralph armed his forces as mailed cavalry in the Norman fashion and fought a pitched battle with Llewlynn on the 24th of October 1055AD, where the Welsh crushed the Earl’s forces and destroyed Hereford castle. It was this reliance on Norman tactics and armour, seen as inferior to the Saxon shield wall, that earned Ralph his nickname rather than any lack of courage on his part. Harold was sent to restore the situation which he did by driving the Welsh back and also restoring Elfgar to his Earldom.
Sweyn Godwinson was clearly a colourful character. In 1046AD, he fell in love with Eadgifu, the Abbess of Leominster and abducted her, keeping her in his care for over two years. One must assume that she returned his affection as they had two children, Hakon and Magnus. Sweyn was finally persuaded by the church to give Eadgifu up and he was sent into exile as punishment. His children, together with Wulfnoth, the sixth son of Earl Godwin were later kidnapped by the scheming Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert of Jumieges and taken to Normandy. It was the later ill fated ransom attempt by Sweyn’s brother Harold that took him to Normandy where Duke William tricked him into swearing an oath to support the Norman’s claim to the English throne which would lead to invasion in 1066AD.