Edward the Confessor

St. Edward the Confessor
King of England
Reign June 8, 1042 – January 4, 1066
Born c. 1002 – 1005
Islip, Oxfordshire, England
Died January 4, 1066
Buried Westminster Abbey
Married Edith of Wessex
Parents Ethelred II
Emma of Normandy

Edward the Confessor or Eadweard III (c. 1004 – January 4, 1066) 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 aggrandizement of the great territorial earls, and it foreshadowed the country's later connection with Norandy, whose duke William I was to supplant Edward's successors Harold and Edgar Ætheling as England's ruler.

Edward, and his brother Alfred were taken to Normandy by their mother Emma, sister of Normandy's duke Richard II, to escape the Danish invasion of England in 1013. In his quarter-century of Norman exile during his most formative years, while England formed part of a great Danish empire, Edward developed an intense personal piety; his familiarity with Normandy and its leaders was also to influence his later rule.

Returning to England with Alfred in an ill-advised abortive attempt (1036) to displace their step-brother Harold Harefoot from the throne, Edward escaped to Normandy after Alfred's capture and death. The Anglo-Saxon lay and ecclesiastical nobility invited him 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 and aftermath

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 armed 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. The monastic authors of the king's hagiography, written about the time of his canonization, has represented the childless union as a spiritual marriage, with Edward refusing to consummate it rather than break a vow of chastity. His 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 fourteen—opened the way for Harold's coronation and the invasions of two effective claimants to the throne, the unsuccessful invasion of Harold Hardrada in the north and the successful one of William the Bastard.

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 7000-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 December 28, 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 12th and 13th centuries, and the original tomb has since been found on the central axis of the Abbey in front of the original high alter.

Historically, Edward's reign marked a transition between the 10th 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.


When Henry II came to the throne in 1154, he united in his person at last the Saxon and Norman royal lines. To reinforce this new warrant of authenticity, the cult of King Edward the Confessor was promoted. Osbert de Clare was a monk of Westminster, elected Prior in 1136, and remembered for his lives of saints Edmund, Ethelbert, Edburga in addition to one of Edward, in which the king was represented as a holy man, reported to have performed several miracles, and touching people to heal them. Osbert was an active ecclesiastical politician as his surviving letters demonstrate, who was twice banished from the monastery and who went to Rome as an advocate for the canonisation of Edward culminating successfully in his 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 honour of preparing a sermon was given to Aelred, the revered Abbot of Rievaulx, to whom is generally attributed the vita 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.

When Edward was sanctified, there were two types of saints: martyrs and confessors. Martyrs were people who died in the service of the Lord, and confessors were people who died natural deaths. Since Edward died a natural death, he was styled Edward the Confessor.

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.


  1. The numbering of English monarchs starts from scratch 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).

Further reading

  • Aelred of Rievaulx, Life of St. Edward the Confessor, translated Fr. Jerome Bertram (first English translation) St. Austin Press ISBN 190115775X
Preceded by:
King of England
Succeeded by:
Harold II
Monarchs of England
Alfred | Edward the Elder | Ethelweard | Athelstan | Edmund I | Edred | Edwy | Edgar I | Edward the Martyr | Ethelred | Sweyn I*† | Edmund II | Canute*† | Harthacanute* | Harold I | Edward the Confessor | Harold II | Edgar II | William I | William II | Henry I | Stephen | Matilda | Henry II | Richard I | John | Henry III | Edward I | Edward II | Edward III | Richard II | Henry IV | Henry V | Henry VI | Edward IV | Edward V | Richard III | Henry VII | Henry VIII‡ | Edward VI‡ | Jane‡ | Mary I‡ | Elizabeth I‡ | James I‡§ | Charles I‡§ | Interregnum | Charles II‡§ | James II‡§ | William III‡§¶ and Mary II‡§ | Anne‡§
* Also Monarch of Denmark | † Also Monarch of Norway | ‡Also Monarch of Ireland | § Also Monarch of Scotland | ¶ Also Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel and Drenthe

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