The suffix ‘the Confessor’, added to King Edward’s name following his death, refers to a rank in the progression towards sainthood, meaning a person who was persecuted for their faith but not martyred. Edward the Confessor’s legacy may be one of sainthood and piety but his life was one of courtly pleasures, tainted only by a constant anxiety over who would be heir to his throne. Edward’s complex relationship with Godwin, Earl of Wessex and his powerful noble family led to the disintegration of royal power in England during the 11th century. Edward the Confessor’s greatest gift to England is Westminster Abbey, built under his instruction and dedicated to him just a week before he died.
Key Facts about Edward the Confessor
- Edward the Confessor’s date of birth is unknown but he is thought to have been born around 1004.
- Edward succeeded as King of England on June 8th 1042 aged around 38.
- He married Eadgyth (Edith) daughter of the Earl of Wessex and Kent on 23rd January 1045.
- Edward the Confessor died on January 5th 1066 aged 62 and is buried at Westminster.
A Brief Look at the Life of Edward the Confessor
One of the last Anglo-Saxon kings of England, Edward restored the English throne to the House of Wessex following a period of Danish rule that had lasted 26 years. The restoration was a brief one, though, as within 24 years the crown had been taken from the House of Wessex at the Battle of Hastings by none other than William the Conqueror.
Seventh son of Aethelred the Unready but first son of Aethelred’s second wife Emma of Normandy, Edward was born in Oxfordshire sometime between 1002 and 1005 but fled to Normandy in 1013 following a series of brutal Viking raids where he remained for a quarter of a century. There is little evidence of Edward’s life during this period until in the 1030s when he witnessed charters in Normandy and signed them King of England. An unsuccessful invasion of England was attempted to put Edward on the throne and he was vocally supported by a number of abbots on the continent.
As the seventh son of a large family, the potential of Edward ascending to the throne as King of England was unlikely. However following years of battle over English soil between the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons and the death of Edward’s father Aethelred and five of Edward’s older brothers, Edward’s position changed dramatically. Edward’s mother, Emma of Normandy, then married the Viking aggressor, Cnut the Great and beckoned Edward and his remaining brother Edmund out of exile and back to England.
Edward succeeded Harthacnut, Cnut the Great’s son, to the throne in 1042 but not without much drama and tragedy. Godwin, Earl of Wessex and one of the most powerful nobleman in England, captured Edward’s brother Alfred on his return to England and blinded him by jamming hot pokers in his eyes in order to make him unfit for the throne. Alfred died of his injuries and despite their later alliance King Edward is thought to have nursed a lifelong hatred for Godwin. Edward was crowned King of England, royal seat of the West Saxons, on 3rd April 1043 at Winchester Cathedral.
Early in his reign, Edward’s position as King was weak. The three leading earls of the time were of Danish descent and few of those royal to the ancient house of Wessex had managed to remain in positions of power. Edward sought out the support of Godwin, Earl of Wessex and married Godwin’s daughter, Eadgyth (Edith). Godwin’s motive for supporting Edward was his hope that a grandson of his would eventually become King but as the union between Edward and Eadgyth resulted in no heir, Edward was faced with the lifelong torment of having no secure heir to his throne.
Norman-French in lineage and culture, Edward is thought to have been idle, cultured and a lover of court life as a young man, an image that contrasts starkly with his saintly legacy. The holy cult of Edward the Confessor used the fact of Edith’s inability to have a child by Edward as proof of his chastity and thus suitability for sainthood.
The main crisis of Edward’s rule happened in the year 1051. The constant struggle for power between Edward and his much maligned father-in-law Godwin Earl of Wessex boiled over into a call to arms when Edward’s Archbishop Robert accused Godwin of plotting to kill the king. Godwin fled the country with neither the means nor the desire to fight and Edward promptly banished Eadgyth to a nunnery. But when Godwin returned with an army a year later Edward had no choice but to surrender, fearing a civil war in England would encourage foreign invasion. Godwin again became Earl of Wessex, Eadgyth was restored to her position as Queen of England but it became clear that Edward’s days were numbered.
In the succeeding decade Edward launched a campaign against Scotland and Wales. After Macbeth killed his father, Duncan I, and took control of the Scottish throne – an occurrence that would later be immortalised in Shakespeare’s renowned play, Macbeth – Edward sent a convoy to invade Scotland. Edward’s ally Malcolm Canmore had killed Macbeth and secured the Scottish throne by 1058 but soon turned on Edward, raiding Northumbria with the aim of adding it to his Southern Scottish territories.
Godwin Earl of Wessex had died in 1053 and due to a series of circumstances out of Edward’s control Godwin’s four brothers took over Earldoms in different parts of England simultaneously, effectively controlling the whole country by 1057. Around this time the Edward withdrew from politics and the burdens of his royal position, preferring to spend his days at church or out hunting.
Following a revolt against Tostig the Earl of Northumbria which Edward was unable to quash he was banished from his throne. It is thought he suffered a series of strokes following this humiliating event and died on the 4th or 5th January 1066. He was buried in Westminster Abbey and his kingdom entrusted in good faith to Harold, who was crowned the same day.
Edward’s handling of his own succession was disastrous and it is still unclear who Edward himself wished to see take over his throne. Many believe that Edward had always intended that William the Conqueror, his natural cousin, become his heir but was premature in making his intentions known. This school of thought takes Edward’s celibacy as intentional although it wasn’t until Edward’s serious quarrel with Godwin that he offered the throne to William.
Edmund’s son Edward Aethling was exiled to Hungary at a young age and had the best claim to the English throne following Edward’s death but died under suspicious circumstances on his return to England in 1057. Edward’s reliance on the Godwin Earls during the later stages of his reign further complicated things and Edward’s deathbed promise of the throne to Harold, the Godwin’s favoured prospective king, overrode Edwards promise to William and led directly to the Battle of Hastings.
The Legacy of Edward the Confessor
Edward the Confessor’s legacy is one of piety and saintly devotions. He was canonised by Pope Alexander III in 1161 and is commemorated on 13th October by the Roman Catholic Church and Church of England. Edward was the first Anglo-Saxon and the only King of England to be canonised and is considered to be the patron saint of difficult marriages.
Edward is responsible for building Westminster Abbey, the first Norman Romanesque church in England. A generous patron of the church, Westminster Abbey was designated as a royal burial church and holds the bodies of most of England’s many dead royals.
Films and TV Shows about Edward the Confessor
- Historyonics (2004) TV Show
- Lady Godiva of Coventry (1955)
- Hereward the Wake (1965)
- Macbeth (1997)
- Barlow, Frank (1997) Edward the Confessor
- Maddicot, J. R. (2004) Edward the Confessor’s Return to England in 1041
- Mortimer, Richard (2009) Edward the Confessor: The Man and the Legend
- Rex, Peter (2008) King & Saint: The Life of Edward the Confessor.
- Alfred Duggan (1960) The Cunning of The Dove
Locations related to Edward the Confessor
- Edward the Confessor is responsible for the building of Westminster Abbey, the first Norman Romanesque church in England and completed in 1090.
- In 2005, archaeologists located Edward the Confessor’s original tomb under the tiled mosaic floor of Westminster Abbey
- Edward is depicted as a saint in the Wilton Diptych, a 14th century painting in the collection at the National Gallery.