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Edward the Confessor - 1042 -1066

In 1042 Edward 'the Confessor' became King. As the surviving son of Ethelred and his second wife, Emma of Normandy, he was a half-brother of Hardicanute. With few rivals (Canute's line was extinct and Edward's only male relatives were two nephews in exile), Edward was undisputed king; the threat of usurpation by the King of Norway rallied the English and Danes in allegiance to Edward.

Brought up in exile in Normandy, Edward lacked military ability or reputation. His Norman sympathies caused tensions with one of Canute's most powerful earls, Godwin of Wessex, whose daughter, Edith, Edward married in 1045 (the marriage was childless).

These tensions resulted in the crisis of 1050-52, when Godwin assembled an army to defy Edward. With reinforcements from the earls of Mercia and Northumberland, Edward banished Godwin from the country and sent Queen Edith from court. Edward used the opportunity to appoint Normans to places at court, and as sheriffs at local level.

William, Duke of Normandy may have been designated heir. However, the hostile reaction to this increased Norman influence brought Godwin back. Edward subsequently formed a closer alliance with Godwin's son Harold, who led the army as the king's deputy (he defeated a Welsh incursion in 1055) and whom Edward may have named as heir on his deathbed.

Warding off political threats, England during the last 15 years of Edward's reign was relatively peaceful. Prosperity was rising as agricultural techniques improved and the population rose to around one million. Taxation was comparatively light, as Edward was not an extravagant king and lived off the revenues of his own lands (approximately £5,500 a year) - nor did he have to pay for expensive military campaigns. Deeply religious, Edward was responsible for building Westminster Abbey (in the Norman style) and he was buried there after his death in 1066.

Not only was he the founder of Westminster Abbey, the focal point of all our royal coronations, but also he established Westminster Palace, our present seat of government. Today, the Houses of Parliament meet in what is still known as the 'Palace of Westminster' on the very same spot that Edward chose for his London home.

So, what sort of person was Edward? Well, he seems to have been something of an oddity. Some say that he was an albino, because he had an exceptionally red face and snow-white skin, hair and beard. Certainly he seems to have been rather unworldly and more fitted for the life of a monk than of a king. The very name that people gave him, 'Confessor', suggests that he was regarded more as a priest than as a king. Early on in life he had taken a vow of chastity, and was believed to have refused to consummate his marriage to Edith, daughter of Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Not surprisingly, he had no heir. An early writer tells how he loved talking with monks and abbots, and particularly 'used to stand with lamb-like meekness and tranquil mind at the holy masses'. Perhaps surprisingly to modern minds, he was also a fervent huntsman, 'delighted by the baying and scrambling of the hounds'.

During his lifetime Edward acquired an awesome reputation for holiness and for being able to heal people by laying his hands on them. He began the royal custom of touching people suffering from a skin disease known as 'the King's Evil'. There is a description of this in Shakespeare's Macbeth, and the custom lasted, off and on, right into the eighteenth century. Queen Anne was the last monarch to practise this.

In 1163, almost a century after his death, Edward was formally proclaimed a saint, and in 1269 his bones were laid in Westminster Abbey in what was then the most sumptuously decorated shrine in the western world. He was England's patron saint for over four centuries, and every year thousands of pilgrims visited his shrine, kneeling each side of it and reaching up to get as close as possible to the body of the saint. Sick pilgrims used to stay overnight near the shrine in the hope of being cured. His cult died out only with the destruction of the monasteries at the time of the Reformation.

Edward the Confessor's bones are still there today, raised high up in the shrine just behind the high altar of Westminster Abbey. In a sense, those bones represent a meeting-point in English history, for Edward was not only great-great-great-grandson of the Saxon king Alfred the Great, but also stepson of the Danish King Canute, and great-uncle of the first Norman king, William the Conqueror.

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