When the Conqueror met the Confessor

Edward the Confessor as depicted in the centre of the Wilton Diptych.

William, Duke of Normandy, knew Edward, future king of England, as a boy. This is because, when William was born, Edward was living in exile with his mother’s relatives in Normandy. Cnut had conquered England and Edward had fled with his mother, Emma, He had no expectation of ever becoming king. But when, via a series of unexpected marriages and early deaths, Edward came to the throne in 1042, William was 14 and quite old enough to be engaged by the politics that brought Edward the crown.

As king of England, Edward retained close links with the court where he had grown up. As king, Edward had had to engage with the powerful Earl Godwin and his family, marrying Godwin’s daughter, Edith, and raising Godwin’s son Harold to an earldom. But Edward apparently chafed at this dependence and in 1051 Edward moved against the family, forcing Godwin and his sons into exile and sending Edith to a convent. However, Godwin and his sons returned the following year with an army and, to prevent civil war, Edward had to reinstate them and take Edith back as his wife and queen.

However, during the year when Edward was free of the Godwins, one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded a visit from across the Channel. Around October or November of 1051, William with his retinue visited Edward. Remembering his debt to the Norman court and his dislike of Earl Godwin and his family, it’s possible that Edward promised the throne to William should he remain childless.

William returned to Normandy convinced that, so long as Edward and Edith did not unexpectedly produce an heir, then he would be king of England.

Of course, what William did not know was that Edward did not have the authority to promise the crown to William. There were no fixed laws of succession but rather a series of traditions, starting with blood relation to the previous king but also involving the promise of the previous king and the assent of the English magnates.

The situation was slowly being set for the disaster that was to befall the English nobility.


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