The Anglo-Saxon period of English history lasted more than six centuries, from the legendary arrival of Hengest and Horsa in Kent in 449 AD to the downfall of the last native dynasty at Hastings on 14 October 1066. It is the final event that has dominated the public imagination. Since Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings (1848), ‘last of’ has been almost obligatory in book titles, picked up by Charles Kingsley in Hereward the Wake, Last of the English (1866), and continued more recently in Hebe Weenolsen’s The Last Englishman (Hereward again, 1951) and Julian Rathbone’s The Last English King (Harold again, 1997). Tom Licence uses the phrase in a more nuanced way. His subtitle points to the fact that while Harold Godwinson may have been ‘the last English king’ (actually he was half-Danish), and possibly the ‘last of the Saxon kings’ (though that is just Bulwer-Lytton deflecting the shame of defeat away from England), unlike his predecessor, Edward the Confessor, he had no claim to descent from the old royal line of Wessex, which went back to King Alfred two hundred years earlier, and before him to King Cerdic, Hengest’s contemporary, and before that, if you believe the Anglo-Saxon genealogists, to both Noah and the god Woden. Some would say this was the problem: Harold lost at Hastings because he did not have ‘royal blood’.
Or should we say ‘we lost’? Licence writes that his new biography of Edward was prompted by the sense that both the man and his reign had become ‘entangled with an emotive national story’. This is putting it mildly. Nationalist English historians and novelists alike have treated defeat at Hastings as an emotional trauma. Tolkien notoriously took the Norman Conquest so hard that he avoided every connection with French: ‘Bag End’ is a defiant response to the imported phrase ‘cul-de-sac’, which angered Tolkien every time he saw it on a street sign. His view was shared by Victorians including Kingsley, Edward Freeman and even Dickens in his Child’s History of England(1851-53).
The thoroughly unwelcome historical fact was that England had not only been invaded and occupied, but it had been conquered by people who spoke French. Still worse, there was little sign of later national resistance. Northern rebellion was crushed too quickly to provide a hero. Hereward no doubt did his best in East Anglia, and Eadric the Wild more obscurely on the Welsh marches, but there wasn’t much there for a proud Englishman to be proud of. Something of an industry grew up to massage the bruised national ego – see for instance Kipling’s Sir Richard Dalyngridge stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910). The Normans weren’t really French, after all, the argument went, just transplanted Vikings, which on the Victorian ethnic map made them almost relatives. But there was no getting away from it: 1066 had been a disgrace. Someone had to take the blame. The ‘dreary old Confessor’, to use Dickens’s phrase, was and remains the leading candidate.
First on the charge sheet: Edward was a roi fainéant, who handed everything over to Earl Godwin and his squabbling sons – if Harold had not had to go and fight his brother Tostig at Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066, he might not have lost at Hastings three weeks later. Edward also failed in his duty to provide an heir, possibly out of pious abstinence from sexual relations with his wife, Edith Godwinson, Harold’s sister. (Why did he marry her in the first place? Was he bullied into it?) The most serious charge was that in promising the succession to both Harold and William of Normandy, he engendered the whole disaster of the Conquest. To round off the accusations, it was claimed that he wasn’t really English at all, having been brought up in Normandy. In fact, for Protestant and patriotic writers of the 19th century he was a ‘monkish foreigner’.
It didn’t help his reputation to be saddled with the designation ‘the Confessor’, for hardly anyone knows what that means. Did he have things to confess? Was he someone people confessed to, like a priest? The term seems to have been attached to him by successive biographers in an attempt to get him canonised as a saint, and in that context ‘confessor’ is a term for someone slightly lower down the sanctity scale than a martyr, one who professes his faith in and adheres to Christianity in spite of persecution (which doesn’t seem to apply to Edward at all: his enemies were all Christians too).
Sorting out this ‘emotive story’ is no easy task. The early 11th-century drama in which Edward found himself was one of dynastic entanglement. The Anglo-Saxon habit of serial monogamy among royals was guaranteed to cause discord between half-brothers and incite stepmothers. In 978, King Edward the Martyr was killed at Corfe Castle, a murder generally blamed on his stepmother, Ælfthryth, who wanted to see her own son Æthelred on the throne. Æthelred duly succeeded, but under a cloud of suspicion and disapproval. This no doubt contributed to the indecision and weakness that even in his own lifetime earned him the title of Unræd, ‘one without a plan’, modernised as ‘the Unready’.
Æthelred had six sons by his first wife, Ælfgifu, of whom the most notable was Edmund Ironside (an epithet conferred on him in admiration by his Viking enemies). As the Anglo-Viking wars reached their climax, Edmund fought even Cnut the Great, the most powerful of the Danish invaders, to a draw, the terms of which divided the realm between them, the survivor to inherit the whole. Edmund died in suspicious circumstances in 1016, perhaps of poison, leaving England to Cnut. Æthelred’s six sons by Ælfgifu were followed by two more – Edward the Confessor and his brother, Alfred – by his second wife, Emma of Normandy (who for some reason, and thoroughly confusingly, adopted the name of her predecessor, Ælfgifu, on marriage). After Æthelred’s death, also in 1016, Emma married Cnut, by whom she had a further son, Harthacnut, who followed Cnut’s son Harold Harefoot (yet another contender for the throne) by his first wife, called, of course, Ælfgifu. (Anglo-Danish royals could have been a bit more diverse in their name choices – the century is packed with Harold/Haralds and Sven/Svein/Swegns, as well as women called Ælfgifu – and Yale would have done well to add a multi-family tree to make all these relationships clear.)
The young Edward was, therefore, one of a throng of half-brothers, both Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish (while he himself was Anglo-Norman), intent on killing one another. When his Anglo-Saxon half-brother Edmund Ironside died, 11-year-old Edward had to be hurried out of the country before his Anglo-Danish relatives came looking for him. For the next twenty or so years he lived abroad at the court of his cousin, Robert of Normandy. He and Alfred remained, however, the last known representatives of ‘the royal blood’ of England. In 1036 both mounted invasions against their stepbrother Harold Harefoot. Neither invasion succeeded. Alfred was captured under obscure circumstances, and turned over to Harold, who had him blinded: an operation which, not surprisingly, proved fatal. Edward’s chance came again in 1041, by which time Harold Harefoot had died and Harthacnut, half-brother to both Harold and Edward, would die the following year. Facing no immediate contender, Edward came to the throne in 1042.
Edward could be forgiven if by this time he was irrevocably paranoid. Was he accordingly reluctant to do much in this world, hoping for salvation in the next? This is one of the traditional arguments that Licence tries to refute. He points to the significance of Edward’s decision to be crowned on Easter Day 1043, just after the vernal equinox: a new moon, a new start, a triumph of light and spring. Another innovation was putting the word ‘PACX’ (i.e. peace) on his first coin issue. From the start, Licence says, Edward had a flair for ‘the art of cultivating awe that turns sceptics into subjects’.
Modern sceptics might argue that Edward needed such an art because his reign was overshadowed by his relationship with Earl Godwin, the father of Harold, Tostig and a whole brood of ambitious Anglo-Danish sons. Licence doesn’t mention the one story generally known about Edward and Godwin (it has been retold many times, perhaps most notably in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, which just shows how deeply – unlike so much Anglo-Saxon history – it had made its way into Victorian popular awareness). Edward, so the story goes, always suspected Godwin of involvement in the capture, blinding and murder of Alfred, but never accused him outright. One day, however, as the two men sat together at dinner, one of the waiters stumbled, caught himself, and said cheerfully and proverbially: ‘One leg helps another, as brother helps brother.’ At this, Edward turned to Godwin and said: ‘But I have no brother.’ Stung by the implied accusation, Godwin took a piece of bread: ‘If I had any part in the murder of Alfred, may this piece of bread choke me when I swallow it.’ He swallowed it, choked and died.
Contemporary sources confirm Godwin’s sudden and public death in 1053 but say nothing about the accusation or the bread. The story originates from Ailred of Rievaulx, writing more than a hundred years after the event, which is quite enough reason for a scrupulous modern historian such as Licence to discount it. It might have been worth mentioning, just the same, as a relatively early and rather convincing interpretation of the tension between Edward and Godwin, tension not notably relieved by Edward’s marriage to Godwin’s daughter. Trouble flared up in 1051, when visiting dignitaries from Boulogne got into a fight with the townsmen of Dover, and Edward ordered Godwin, as earl of Greater Wessex (which included Kent), to ravage his own town and teach the burgesses a lesson. Godwin refused, so Edward called the Midland and Northern earls to back him up. Civil war was only prevented by the rank-and-file on both sides, who refused to fight other Englishmen over a quarrel among the elites.
What sort of case can Licence make for his subject’s aims and abilities? It depends on what you want from a king. If you want the kind of Scandinavian warrior-king beloved by Victorians, Harold Godwinson fits the bill. On the other hand, if your criteria for success are a just rule, preservation of the peace and successful transition to an heir, then two out of three isn’t bad. Edward certainly preserved the peace, even in the crisis of 1051, for which Licence praises the ‘adroitness’ of his ‘manoeuvring’. He also protected the borders, dealing efficiently if by proxy with the wars of Gruffydd in Wales and Macbeth in Scotland.
Licence sees Edward as a skilled diplomat – a result of his chancy boyhood, much of which must have been spent looking over his shoulder and observing shifts of favour. When Queen Edith lost her temper because a visiting French abbot refused her the kiss of peace, Edward smoothed things over, saying that except in the notoriously lax Anglo-Saxon Church, holy abbots were bound by their vows to abstain from all contact with women. A skilled ‘people-manager’, Edward was also good at sending non-verbal ‘messages’. ‘Surrounding himself with the Godwinsons’ conveyed the message that ‘a man who keeps wolves is not a man who fears being bitten.’
One could argue that the message actually conveyed was that a man surrounded by wolves may be too frightened to drive them off. In any case, there is the third criterion for successful kingship, a safe succession, and here Edward failed calamitously. Was it his fault? He seems to have considered the issue early on, as shown by his bringing back to England in 1057 his nephew Edward the Exile (who promptly died) and great-nephew Edgar the Ætheling. These other survivors of ‘the royal blood’, the son and grandson of Edmund Ironside, had like Edward himself abandoned the ‘war of the half-brothers’ long ago and fled for safety even further off than Normandy, in distant Kiev.
Licence makes a good argument that by 1066 Edward meant for Edgar Ætheling to succeed him. As to whether Edward gave diplomatic but contradictory assurances to Harold, whose only dynastic claim was as Edward’s brother-in-law; or, as claimed by Norman chroniclers, to William of Normandy, whose only slightly stronger dynastic claim was as the son of Edward’s cousin Robert; and whether, as hinted at in the Bayeux Tapestry, Harold had given assurances to William during his 1065 stay in Normandy – none of this, exhaustively as Licence examines it, can be proven.
It is telling that Norman chroniclers writing before 1066 make no mention of any promise to William, which (had they known of it) they would certainly have ‘shouted from the rooftops’. As for Harold, the speed of his coronation, carried out immediately after Edward’s funeral, looks suspiciously opportunist: ‘No king had been quicker to get the crown on his head.’ These considerations, along with Edward’s determined promotion of young Edgar, perhaps excuse him from accusations of duplicity or feebleness. The Victorian claim that he was a ‘foreigner’ by sympathy if not by blood, favouring William and the Norman relatives among whom he had been brought up, also looks less convincing. Licence plausibly suggests that in Edgar, the ‘fatherless exile’, Edward was endorsing ‘a protégé who reminded him of himself’. If, however, Edward expected a complete stranger, a teenager with no native powerbase, to succeed him peacefully, then he was spectacularly naive. Does this support the other Victorian accusation of ‘monkishness’? Was Edward perhaps too concerned with his own salvation to bother about his kingdom?
For modern historians of the medieval period, the first rule of Quellenkritik, or source-criticism, is that contemporary accounts, however dull, outweigh later ones. In four appendices, some 15 per cent of his entire text, Licence considers the problems of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which diverged during Edward’s reign into three separate accounts); of Edward’s royal charters and their witness lists, which provide a guide to court manoeuvrings; of the early Vita Edwardi Regis, which is framed by the fifth-century allegory Psychomachia (reducing its value as evidence); and of an argument for the later date of the Norman chronicler William of Jumièges.
While earlier sources are likely to be better informed, later ones still have their own tales to tell. It would have been good to know more about the way Edward’s life has been constructed by biographers, first in the Vita, now known to have been written by the Flemish monk Folcard of Saint-Bertin, then as adapted by the Westminster monk Osbert of Clare and taken up by Ailred of Rievaulx – much of this in service of Edward’s claim to canonisation, eventually granted by Pope Alexander III in 1161. There was a strong element of self-interest in the process, designed to promote the status of Westminster Abbey, Edward’s foundation and burial place, but there is more to be said about the speed and means by which the Edward of recent history ‘faded into the image of a saint’.
The real reason for the calamitous defeat at Hastings is surely not Edward’s ‘monkishness’ but the fact that by 1066 all the contenders for the throne, indeed the whole English leadership class, had lived for decades in ‘a nexus of scheming and manoeuvring … entangled in deceit and self-deception’. Since the death of Æthelred the Unready, this had steadily hollowed out the morale of taxpayers and the county levies. The loyalty shown to the ‘royal blood’ of Wessex by the thanes and churls of England is remarkable, and no doubt founded on the respect still felt for Alfred the Great, Athelstan the Victorious and Edgar the Peaceful – the kings who, over two centuries, had created England out of Wessex. But that sense of identity wasn’t shared by the leadership class, and the loyalty of the commons was not rewarded.
The Anglo-Saxon elites, secular and religious, paid a full price for their self-absorption with the wave of dispossessions that followed the Norman Conquest. (It’s hard not to wonder if the Conquest came as something of a relief to the lower classes, though if it did, of course, they had no voice to say so.) Meanwhile, the main reason for the precarious peace of Edward’s lifetime is probably not his saintly life, as early biographers would have it, or his diplomatic skills, as in Licence’s interpretation, but simply that all his half-brother competitors had died or been killed. Licence does his best for his subject but the story he tells, especially in modern circumstances, is instructive rather than satisfying or (at least as regards Edward) entirely convincing. It shows a country in dire need of reform from the top down, and the country eventually got it. But not from Edward.