Edward the Confessor

From New World Encyclopedia
Saint Edward II, the Confessor
King of England
A sealed writ of Edward the Confessor.
Reign June 8 1042 (not crowned till 3 April, 1043) – 4/5 January 1066
Born c. 1004
Islip, Oxfordshire, England
Died January 5 1066
Buried Westminster Abbey, Westminster, England
Predecessor Harthacanute
Successor Harold Godwinson
Consort Edith of Wessex
Father Ethelred the Unready
Mother Emma of Normandy

St Edward the Confessor or Eadweard III (c. 1004– January 5, 1066), son of Ethelred the Unready, was the penultimate Anglo-Saxon King of England and the last of the House of Wessex, ruling from 1042 until his death.[1] His reign marked the continuing disintegration of royal power in England and the rise of the great territorial earls, and foreshadowed the country's later connection with Normandy, whose duke William I was to replace Edward's successors Harold Godwinson and Edgar Ætheling as England's ruler. He also left his mark on London as founder of Westminster Abbey, where many English monarchs have been crowned.

He succeeded his half-brother Harthacanute, who had successfully regained the throne of England after being dispossessed by his half-brother, Harold Harefoot. Edward and his brother Alfred the Aetheling, both sons of Emma of Normandy by Ethelred the Unready, had previously failed to depose Harold in 1036. When Edward died in 1066 he had no son to take over the throne so a conflict arose as three people claimed the throne of England. Strongly inclined towards peace, his reign was a time of prosperity and, following the Norman Conquest was remembered with nostalgia by the non-elite especially, who saw their Norman rulers as foreign. His canonization in 1161 as part of a conscious development of English national identity was popular among the peasantry, who regarded him as representative of an older, gentler type of governance. Until 1348, Edward was patron saint of England. He has remained the patron saint of the Royal Family.

Early years

Edward was born c. 1003, allegedly in Islip, Oxfordshire. His palace was in Brill, Buckinghamshire. In 1013, he and his brother Alfred were taken to Normandy by their mother Emma of Normandy, sister of Normandy's Duke Richard II, to escape the Danish invasion of England. Edward is traditionally said to have developed an intense personal piety in his quarter-century of Norman exile (disputed by Howarth), during his most formative years, while England formed part of a great Danish empire. His familiarity with Normandy and its leaders would also influence his later rule: the refuge he was given in Normandy, vis a vis the disregard the Normans paid him while he was there, would leave him both grateful and bitter towards his kinsmen. Howarth argues that much of Edward's reputation for piety was wishful back projection; English account 'written a century later', says Howarth, 'make Edward more of a saint than he seemed to the men who knew him, for by then the English felt nostalgia for the last of their native kings, and the aim of these accounts was to persuade the pope that he should be canonized' (Howarth 1978, 34).

After an abortive attempt with Alfred in 1036 to displace Harold Harefoot from the throne, Edward returned to Normandy. Alfred, however, was captured by Godwin, Earl of Wessex who then turned him over to Harold Harefoot and was blinded to make him unsuitable for kingship. Alfred died soon after as a result of his torture. This murder of his brother is thought to be the source of much of his later hatred for the Earl—although he was acquitted of the crime - and played a major part in the reason for his banishment in autumn 1051; Edward said that the only way in which Godwin could be forgiven was if he brought back the murdered Alfred, an impossible task. At one point, Edward blamed not only Godwin but his children, too, when 'nobody ... had ever suggested ... that his sons had anything' to do with Alfred's murder, at this point 30 years earlier (Howarth 1978, 95).

The Anglo-Saxon lay and ecclesiastical nobility invited Edward back to England in 1041; this time he became part of the household of his half-brother Harthacanute (son of Emma and Canute), and according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was sworn in as king alongside him. Following Harthacanute's death on June 8, 1042, Edward ascended the throne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle indicates the popularity he enjoyed at his accession—"before Harthacanute was buried, all the people chose Edward as king in London." Edward was crowned at the cathedral of Winchester, the royal seat of the West Saxons on April 3, 1043.

Edward's Reign

Edward's reign was marked by peace and prosperity, but effective rule in England required coming to terms with three powerful earls: Godwin, Earl of Wessex, who was firmly in control of the thegns of Wessex, which had formerly been the heart of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy; Leofric, Earl of Mercia, whose legitimacy was strengthened by his marriage to Lady Godiva, and in the north, Siward, Earl of Northumbria. Edward's sympathies for Norman favourites frustrated Saxon and Danish nobles alike, fuelling the growth of anti-Norman opinion led by Godwin, who had become the king's father-in-law in 1045. The breaking point came over the appointment of an archbishop of Canterbury: Edward rejected Godwin's man and appointed the bishop of London, Robert of Jumièges, a trusted Norman.

Matters came to a head over a bloody riot at Dover between the townsfolk and Edward's kinsman Eustace, count of Boulogne. Godwin refused to punish them, Leofric and Siward backed the King, and Godwin and his family were all exiled in September 1051. Queen Edith was sent to a nunnery at Wherwell. Earl Godwin returned with an army following a year later, however, forcing the king to restore his title and send away his Norman advisors. Godwin died in 1053 and the Norman Ralph the Timid received Herefordshire, but his son Harold accumulated even greater territories for the Godwins, who held all the earldoms save Mercia after 1057. Harold led successful raiding parties into Wales in 1063 and negotiated with his inherited rivals in Northumbria in 1065, and in January 1066, upon Edward's death, he was proclaimed king.


The details of the succession have been widely debated: the Norman position was that William had been designated the heir, and that Harold had been publicly sent to him as emissary from Edward, to apprise him of Edward's decision. Harold's party asserted that the old king had made a deathbed bestowal of the crown on Harold. However, Harold was approved by the Witenagemot who, under Anglo-Saxon law, held the ultimate authority to convey kingship.

Edward had married Godwin's daughter Edith on January 23, 1045, but the union was childless. The reason for this is the subject of much speculation. Possible explanations include Edward, having taken vow of chastity, considering the union a spiritual marriage, the age difference between Edward and Edith engendering a filial rather than spousal relationship, Edward's antipathy toward Edith's father, or infertility.

Edward's nearest heir would have been his nephew Edward the Exile, who was born in England, but spent most of his life in Hungary. He had returned from exile in 1056 and died not long after, in February the following year. So Edward made his great nephew Edgar Atheling his heir. But Edgar had no secure following among the earls: the resultant succession crisis on Edward's death without a direct "throneworthy" heir—the "foreign" Edgar was a stripling of 14—opened the way for Harold's coronation and the invasions of two effective claimants to the throne, the unsuccessful invasion of Harald Hardrada in the north and the successful one of William of Normandy.

William of Normandy, who had visited England during Godwin's exile, claimed that the childless Edward had promised him the succession to the throne, and his successful bid for the English crown put an end to Harold's nine-month kingship following a 7,000-strong Norman invasion. Edgar Ætheling was elected king by the Witan after Harold's death but was brushed aside by William. Edward, or more especially the mediæval cult which would later grow up around him under the later Plantagenet kings, had a lasting impact on English history. Westminster Abbey was founded by Edward between 1045 and 1050 on land upstream from the City of London, and was consecrated on 28 December, 1065. Centuries later, Westminster was deemed symbolic enough to become the permanent seat of English government under Henry III. The Abbey contains a shrine to Edward which was the centrepiece to the Abbey's redesign during the mid-thirteenth century. In 2005, Edward's remains were found beneath the pavement in front of the high altar. His remains had been moved twice in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and the original tomb has since been found on the central axis of the Abbey in front of the original high altar.

Historically, Edward's reign marked a transition between the tenth century West Saxon kingship of England and the Norman monarchy which followed Harold's death. Edward's allegiances were split between England and his mother's Norman ties. The great earldoms established under Canute grew in power, while Norman influence became a powerful factor in government and in the leadership of the Church.

It was during the reign of Edward that some features of the English monarchy familiar today were introduced. Edward is regarded as responsible for introducing the royal seal and coronation regalia. Also under Edward, a marked change occurred in Anglo-Saxon art, with continental influences becoming more prominent (including the "Winchester Style" which had become known in the tenth century but prominent in the eleventh), supplanting Celtic influences prominent in preceding painting, sculpture, calligraphy and jewellery (see Benedictional of St. Æthelwold for an example of the Winchester Style). His crown is believed to have survived until the English Civil War when Oliver Cromwell allegedly ordered it to be destroyed. Gold from it is understood to have been integrated into the St. Edward's Crown, which has been used in coronations since Charles II of England in 1661.



When Henry II came to the throne in 1154, he united in his person at last the English and Norman royal lines. To reinforce the emerging consciousness of English—as opposed to Norman or French identity—he promoted the cult of King Edward the Confessor. This was an early attempt at nation building in that it was a deliberate effort to bridge the gap between the majority of the population, who were Angl-Saxon, and the elite minority, who were French. He cleverly commissioned Osbert de Clare, a monk of—appropriately, since Edward has founded the Abbey—Westminster, and Prior from 1136, to petition the cause. Osbert had written lives of saints Edmund, Ethelbert and Edburga to which he added one of Edward, in which the king was represented as a holy man, reported to have performed several miracles—necessary for canonization—and to have healed people by his touch. Osbert, as his surviving letters demonstrate, was an active ecclesiastical politician. Traveling to Rome, he successfully secured Edward’s canonisation by Pope Alexander III in 1161.

In 1163, the newly sainted king's remains were enshrined in Westminster Abbey with solemnities presided over by Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. On this occasion the honor of preparing a sermon was given to Aelred, the revered Abbot of Rievaulx, to whom is generally attributed the vita (life) in Latin, a hagiography partly based on materials in an earlier vita by Osbert de Clare and which in its turn provided the material for a rhymed version in octasyllabic Anglo-Norman, possibly written by the chronicler Matthew Paris. At the time of Edward's canonization, saints were broadly categorized as either martyrs or confessors: martyrs were people who had been killed for their faith, while confessors were saints who had died natural deaths. Edward was accordingly styled Edward the Confessor, partly to distinguish him from his canonized predecessor Edward the Martyr.

The Roman Catholic Church regards Edward the Confessor as the patron saint of kings, difficult marriages, and separated spouses. After the reign of Henry II, Edward was considered the patron saint of England until 1348 when he was replaced in this role by St. George. He remained the patron saint of the Royal Family.

Edward's reign is memorialized in an eight panel stained glass window within St Laurence Church, Ludlow, England.

The shrine of Saint Edward the Confessor remains where it was after the final translation of his body in the thirteenth century—at the heart of Westminster Abbey. The date of that translation, October 13, is his feast day. Richard II who, for all his faults, also inclined towards peace, was promoted the cult of Edward. Evaluation of Edward's legacy is complicated by the myth-making that surrounds his name. On the one hand, he may not have been the saint of later tradition. On the other, the tradition that developed around his memory of a peace-loving king who preferred giving to charity than fighting was carefully crafted; it did not deny that Edward had engaged in his share of hunting and warfare but pictured him as increasingly peace-loving, and charitable towards the end of his reign. [2]

In the Arts

Referenced by characters in Shakespeare's play, The Tragedy of Macbeth, as the saintly king of England.


Edward's ancestors in three generations
Edward the Confessor Father:
Ethelred the Unready
Paternal Grandfather:
Edgar of England
Paternal Great-grandfather:
Edmund I of England
Paternal Great-grandmother:
Paternal Grandmother:
Paternal Great-grandfather:
Earl Ordgar, Alderman of Devon
Paternal Great-grandmother:
Wulfrith Redburch
Emma of Normandy
Maternal Grandfather:
Richard I of Normandy
Maternal Great-grandfather:
William I of Normandy
Maternal Great-grandmother:
Maternal Grandmother:
Gunnora, Duchess of Normandy
Maternal Great-grandfather:
Maternal Great-grandmother:

For a more complete ancestry that can be traced back to Cerdic, see House of Wessex family tree.


  1. The numbering of English monarchs starts again after the Norman conquest, which explains why the regnal numbers assigned to English kings named Edward begin with the later Edward I (ruled 1272–1307) and do not include Edward the Confessor (who was the third King Edward).
  2. Edward the Confessor. Channel 4. Retrieved November 4, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Aelred of Rievaulx. Life of St. Edward the Confessor, translated by Jerome Bertram (first English translation). Southampton: St. Austin Press, 1999. ISBN 190115775X
  • Barlow, Frank. Edward the Confessor. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997 (original 1970). ISBN 9780300072082
  • Binski, Paul. "THE CULT OF ST EDWARD THE CONFESSOR - Paul Binski Asks Why Edward the Confessor Was Remembered with Such Affection That He Became a Sainted Embodiment of a Pacific and Idealistic Form of Kingship Under Henry III.." History Today 55(11) (2005): 21. ISSN 00182753
  • Clarke, Peter A. The English Nobility Under Edward the Confessor. Oxford historical monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0198204428
  • Howarth, David A. 1066: The year of the conquest. Penguin Books, 1981 (original 1978). ISBN 978-0140058505
  • O'Brien, Bruce R. God's Peace and King's Peace The Laws of Edward the Confessor. The Middle Ages series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0812234619

External links

All links retrieved February 12, 2024.


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