Edward the Confessor (died 1066), the last king of the house of Wessex, ruled England from 1042 to 1066. Attracted to religion and to Norman culture, he was not a vigorous leader. He gained a reputation, not fully deserved, for sanctity and was eventually canonized.
The youngest son of Ethelred the Unready and his Norman wife, Emma, Edward was born sometime after 1002. When Ethelred's authority crumbled in the face of Danish invasions and dissensions among the English nobility, Emma and her children took refuge in 1013 at the court of Richard II, Duke of Normandy. Ethelred died in 1016, and Edward's eldest brother, Edmund Ironsides, succeeded him but died later the same year. Cnut of Denmark was in possession of England, and Edward and his remaining brother Alfred were in exile in Normandy. As he grew up, Edward became thoroughly imbued with Norman manners.
After Cnut's death in 1035, England experienced several years of factional strife, during which Edward's brother Alfred returned to England and was murdered by a powerful earl, Godwin of Wessex. In 1041 Cnut's last surviving son designated Edward his successor, and the following year Edward, with widespread popular support, became king of England.
The first half of Edward's reign was full of uncertainties. Until 1047 England was threatened by a possible invasion by King Magnus of Norway, who claimed the English throne because of an agreement made with Cnut's son. Meanwhile, internal difficulties sprang from the rivalries of the great earls Godwin, Leofric, and Siward (formerly Cnut's councilors) and their ambitious descendants. Godwin, murderer of Edward's brother, was especially troublesome, but Edward, lacking the power to confront him, pacified him for several years. Edward married his daughter Edith in 1045. The match was childless, inspiring a later legend that Edward, in his saintliness, had never consummated it. Edward also met opposition from his mother, whose lands he confiscated in 1043. To counteract his lack of trusted English councilors, Edward invited to his court a number of Norman and Breton knights and clerics, whose presence angered the English magnates.
In 1051 Edward, using as an excuse Godwin's refusal to obey an order, moved against his great rival. He exiled Godwin, banished Edith from the court, designated William, Duke of Normandy, as heir to the throne of England, and arranged that a Norman, Robert of Jumièges, become archbishop of Canterbury. The following year the situation reversed itself. Godwin returned with a large fleet, and he and Edward were officially reconciled to prevent a civil war and resultant Norse invasion. The archbishop and most of the Norman courtiers were banished. Godwin died soon after, in 1053, but his son Harold became Earl of Wessex and Edward's most powerful adviser.
For the rest of his reign Edward, by choice or necessity, did not exercise dominant control over affairs of state, leaving to Harold, to Godwin's other son Tostig (from 1055 to 1065 Earl of Northumbria), and to other powerful nobles the prosecution of wars against the revived power of Wales and the settling of domestic policies. In 1057 Edward's nephew, since 1016 an exile in Hungary, came to visit him but died soon after his arrival in mysterious circumstances. His death made it clear that Edward's successor would be either William of Normandy or the popular Harold of Wessex.
Edward became increasingly interested in religious matters, devoting much of his attention in his later years to the founding of Westminster Abbey. He also loved hunting and was less inclined to ascetic and pious practices than his posthumous reputation, based on a miracle-laden hagiographical biography written soon after his death, suggests. Edward died on Jan. 5, 1066. Harold was quickly chosen his successor, but by the end of the year William of Normandy (known as the "Conqueror") had been crowned at Westminster in the abbey whose construction Edward had supervised with such loving care.
Further Reading on Edward the Confessor
The main historical source for Edward's life and reign is The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, edited and translated by G.N. Garmonsway (1953). A full-length study is Frank Barlow, Edward the Confessor (1970). The hagiographical The Life of King Edward, edited and translated by Frank Barlow (1962), is not a historical record but testifies to the growth of the cult of Edward after his death. See also F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (1943; 2d ed. 1947), and C. N. L. Brooke, The Saxon and Norman Kings (1963).
Additional Biography Sources
The life of Saint Edward, king and confessor, Guildford, Surrey: St. Edward's Press, 1990.
Barlow, Frank, Edward the Confessor, London: Eyre Methuen, 1979, 1970.
The life of King Edward who rests at Westminster, New York: AMS Press, 1984, 1962.