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Medieval England

Steven Muhlberger

Edward the Confessor and His Earls

We are now approaching that extremely important event, the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.  It was the immediate sequel of the death of King Edward, commonly called the Confessor for his supposed piety.

But for people who lived in Edward's reign (1042-1066), the relations of England and Normandy were only a part of the political situation in which they found themselves, and until the very end, not necessarily the most important part.

For those who concerned themselves with politics in that era, the big question was whether England could ride out the reign of King Edward without being invaded once more from Scandinavia.

The early deaths of Cnut's sons left the way clear for Edward, the eldest son of Aethelred the Unready and Emma, to become king. He was a mature man, of undoubted royal birth, and as a long-time resident of the Norman court, he had the friendship of Duke William the Bastard. This was not a bad thing to have, considering Normandy's strategic position. A Norman alliance, by securing the other shore of the English Channel, would help cramp the style of any would-be Vikings. But Edward did not turn out to be a strong enough ruler to make the English feel confident about the unity and security of the country.

There was more than one reason for this feeling of insecurity.

First, he had the misfortune to produce no heir.

Second, Edward, without being a wimp, was not a great warrior, either. He did not launch any great military adventures or find any other way of putting himself at the head of the warriors of the nation.

Third, his ancestors had ruled England for a century because they had the resources and the loyalty of Wessex at their command.  Cnut had given Wessex away to an earl, Godwine. By 1042, Godwine had held Wessex for almost twenty years. A generation of thegns, that is warrior aristocrats, had grown up looking to Godwine, not the king, for leadership and largesse. So Edward did not have a secure territorial base from which to dominate the kingdom.

The final problem was the Scandinavian threat. Magnus, the king of Norway and Denmark, felt that he was the logical ruler of England as well. In 1038 he and Harthacanute had made a peculiar peace treaty in which each made the other his heir if he had no direct descendants. Magnus died in 1047, but his successors in Norway and Denmark felt they had a similar claim on the country. No Scandinavian king was ever in a position to invade England during Edward's time, but the threat was always present. What made the threat so dangerous was that many influential people in northern England were of Scandinavian descent or had long standing connections with Scandinavian royalty, and would not necessarily be adverse to a Danish or Norwegian king.

Nonetheless, Edward was not a negligible ruler. He could show determination and the ability to maneuver between factions. His willingness to act decisively was demonstrated in 1043, when he went to Winchester, the traditional West Saxon capital, and seized all the treasure that his mother Emma had there. The chronicle says that she had been too close-fisted with him. No doubt Edward also remembered the death of his brother Alfred. He didn't trust his mother, so he shut her right out of the government.

It was more difficult to deal with the earls. There were three great earls in 1042 and 1043. There was Siward the earl of Northumbria, Leofric the earl of Mercia, and Godwine. Existing rivalries meant Edward had to chose between the northerners and Godwine. Since Godwine was stronger and most royal property was in Wessex, Edward chose Godwine. In 1045 he closed an alliance with his most powerful subordinate by marrying Edith Godwinesdaughter. About the same time, Godwine's two elder sons, Svein and Harold, were made earls in their own right, which increased the holdings of the Godwine family immensely.

But Edward was not long content to be dominated by Godwine, if indeed he had ever been content. He tried to do what any king in his position would have done, which was to build up a faction loyal to himself. He had to look for followers overseas -- in Normandy. So during the 1040s, Edward promoted likely Normans to positions of influence in the kingdom.

Of course Godwine and his family had the most to lose from this development. In 1051, a crisis for Godwine's influence blew up. Edward rejected Godwine's candidate for the archbishopric of Canterbury and chose instead the Norman Robert of Jumièges, who had formerly been bishop of London. At about the same time, Edward, who was childless and almost 50 years old, decided he should designate an heir. For this position he chose his cousin William duke of Normandy.

The designation of William as heir was a great blow to Godwine's ambitions. A chance incident provoked Godwine into action. Edward's brother-in-law Eustace, the count of Boulougne in France, was going home from the English court when his men got into a fight with the townsfolk at Dover. According to one version, nineteen members of Eustace's retinue and over twenty people of the town were killed in the riot.

Eustace rode right back to the court at Gloucester and complained to Edward. Edward was angry at the insult to his relative, and ordered Godwine to take a punitive expedition to Dover, which was in his earldom. But Godwine and his sons marshalled their armies and went to the king to demand the punishment of the foreigners. Earls Siward and Leofric were alarmed by Godwine's actions, and they came to court with their armed retinues to support the king.

A great council was called for later that year in London to settle the dispute without civil war. But when Godwine showed up in London, he found that the issue on the table was his disloyalty to the king. His thegns were unwilling to fight the king on this issue, and soon the entire Godwine family was outlawed. Harold, the second son and the most intelligent of the bunch, fled to Ireland, and most of the rest of the family went to Flanders, right across the channel. As soon as they were gone, Edward made the sweep a clean one by sending his wife to a nunnery.

It was a great triumph, both for Edward and for Norman influence in England, but it was soon reversed. The Godwine family returned the next year in force, attacking England from Ireland and Flanders simultaneously. This time it was the king who had to surrender rather than risk full-scale civil war. Godwine and his sons got their dignities and property back, Queen Edith returned to a place of honor at Edward's court.

Many of the Normans were sent packing.   Robert the archbishop of Canterbury was deprived of his see and replaced by Stigand, bishop of Winchester, a man closely connected with Godwine. This last move would come back to haunt the Godwine family. Dismissing archbishops in this way was frowned upon by the church, and the papacy was in the middle of a reforming push. The deposition of Robert made England look bad and cast doubt on the legitimacy of someone who was effectively a key member of the government.

But for a long while, things went well for the Godwine faction. The old man died in 1053, but Harold, his eldest surviving son, stepped into his shoes quite handily.Each of his three younger brothers got an earldom. Leofwine got the area around London, Gyrth got East Anglia. The third, Tostig, got the greatest prize of all. When Siward died in 1055, Tostig was parachuted in, metaphorically speaking, to be the effective ruler of the north. No Wessex lord had ever held so much power in Northumbria as Tostig did, and this clinched the Godwine clan's domination of England.

In fact, between 1057 and 1065, they held all the earldoms except a diminished Mercian earldom, which stayed in Leofric's family.

Harold's prestige was boosted by victories on the Welsh frontier, where he personally defeated the most powerful king the Welsh had had in centuries. One of the chronicles of the time called Harold "the underking."

There was only one thing that stood between Harold and the throne when King Edward should pass away: this was the fact that several powerful princes had a claim, or thought they did.

William of Normandy's designation as Edward's heir had never been withdrawn. William had the potential to be serious trouble. By 1060 he was no longer struggling to survive.

Farther away but still dangerous were the Scandinavian candidates. King Svein Estrithson of Denmark, a first cousin of Harold of Wessex, could press his rights as a nephew of Cnut. Another Harald, Harald Hardrada of Norway, had inherited a claim from Magnus of Norway through Magnus's treaty with Harthacanute. Harald of Norway was a feared warrior-king. He had spent most of his early life as a mercenary in Constantinople. After making his fortune in Byzantine politics, he had come back to Norway and enforced his claim to the Norwegian throne against a variety of rivals. He was not the kind of person that you would want casting greedy eyes on your kingdom.

But Harold of Wessex was no slouch himself. He and his family already controlled the ground and the military resources of the kingdom. As King Edward, childless and old, approached death, Harold of Wessex looked like a good bet to succeed him, despite his lack of royal blood. What tripped Harold up was trouble in the family.

In 1065, the last year of king Edward's life, Tostig went off the rails. Tostig was in a delicate position as an outsider in very-independently minded area, Northumbria. Rather than rule with discretion, however, he acted in an autocratic manner, killing opponents and confiscating land from both the church and secular lords. The story went around that he had had his sister, Queen Edith, procure the killing of a prominent northerner at court.

In August of 1065, the thegns of the north had had enough of him, and rose against him. They killed all of his men they could catch, seized his treasure, and then sent to Edwin the earl of Mercia, asking him to send his brother Morcar to be their earl. This was a great reverse. Morcar of course was a member of the one noble family in England that could rival the Godwins. Edwin and Morcar's father Aelfgar had been fighting Harold and Tostig in Wales only a few years back.

Morcar and the northerners marched south with an army, and significantly, were joined by men from the old Danish Five Boroughs, part of Edwin's earldom. It was beginning to look like a confrontation between the Scandinavian-influenced north against the Wessex-dominated south. Harold went north to meet them, not to fight, but to negotiate. No matter how much he talked to them, the Northumbrians would not agree to take Tostig back. Harold had to choose between civil war and abandoning his brother. Finally he agreed to the latter.

Harold went south to the court, and got Edward to appoint Morcar earl of Northumbria. The king was probably all too happy to ratify this setback for the Godwine family.

It may have been at this point that King Edward required Harold to go to Normandy to confirm William as heir to the throne of England. The story, which is not found in any English source, is universally insisted on by all Norman historians, and is illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry. Harold had the bad luck to be captured by a castellan in France, and the humiliation of being rescued by his rival, William. While in William's company, or perhaps custody, he swore to support William's claim to the crown, became his vassal in the Norman style, and was given the arms of knighthood. Harold probably had no intention of living up to his oath, but it made William feel a lot more justified in attacking Harold the next year.

The oath to William, however, was nothing to compare with another problem. Harold's capitulation to the demands of the Northumbrians had alienated his brother Tostig, who had sailed away to Flanders, whose very powerful count was Tostig's father-in-law. He was known to be looking for allies -- not only the count of Flanders, but Harald Hardrada in Norway. In the winter of 1065, as King Edward, now old and concerned only to finish his abbey at Westminster, approached death, there was no one in England to stop Harold from claiming the crown. But there were plenty of potential enemies overseas. Harold had no way to know who would strike at him, or from where.

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Copyright ©1999, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.