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At the time of the Norman Conquest (1066) it has been difficult for me to find any concrete rules regarding the succession to the throne. During the reign of the House of Wessex, who were first kings of Wessex only until they began to slowly unify England, the succession doesn’t seem to have many hard and fast rules.

Succession to the throne of Wessex/England was vested in the descendents of King Egbert of Wessex. However, it was not by primogeniture. There were times when young children of the monarch were passed over in the succession for brothers or uncles of the previous monarch.

Another aspect of the monarchy at this point is the governing council, called the Witan or Witenagemot, which also served in electing the monarchy. Prior to hereditary kingship, which was a later development as families sought to consolidated power, the majority of monarchies were elective…even if that election was limited to one family.

To this day historians debate the role of the Witain (even the name itself) but there is evidence that controlling the succession was one of their powers.

Starting as early as William of Malmesbury in the early 12th century, historians have puzzled over Edward’s intentions for the succession. One school of thought supports the Norman case that Edward always intended William the Conqueror to be his heir, accepting the medieval claim that Edward had already decided to be celibate before he married, but most historians believe that he hoped to have an heir by Edith at least until his quarrel with Godwin in 1051.

William may have visited Edward during Godwin’s exile, and he is thought to have promised William the succession at this time, but historians disagree on how seriously he meant the promise, and whether he later changed his mind.

Edmund Ironside’s son, Edward the Exile, had the best claim to be considered Edward’s heir. He had been taken as a young child to Hungary, and in 1054 Bishop Ealdred of Worcester visited the Holy Roman Emperor, Heinrich III to secure his return, probably with a view to becoming Edward’s heir.

The exile returned to England in 1057 with his family but died almost immediately. His son Edgar, who was then about 6 years old, was brought up at the English court. He was given the designation Ætheling, meaning throneworthy, which may mean that Edward considered making him his heir.

However, Edgar was absent from witness lists of Edward’s diplomas, and there is no evidence in the Domesday Book that he was a substantial landowner, which suggests that he was marginalised at the end of Edward’s reign.

After the mid-1050s, Edward seems to have withdrawn from affairs as he became increasingly dependent on the Godwins, and he may have become reconciled to the idea that one of them would succeed him. The Normans claimed that Edward sent Harold to Normandy in about 1064 to confirm the promise of the succession to William.

In January of 1066 King Edward the Confessor died without any issue (children) causing one of Enland’s first succession crisis. The legend goes that Edward promised the succession to William II the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, a relative by marriage.

There was also a co-claim that Harold Godwinson had received a similar promise. When Edward died early that January both men claimed that Edward had promised them the succession. Historians debate the legitimacy of both of those claims. Even in its time there were many conflicting accounts of these alleged promises. They possible were both manufactured by each party.

The strongest evidence that Edward had promised the throne to William comes from a Norman apologist, William of Poitiers. According to his account, shortly before the Battle of Hastings, Harold sent William an envoy who admitted that Edward had promised the throne to William but argued that this was over-ridden by his deathbed promise to Harold.

William’s tomb before the high altar in the Abbaye-aux-Hommes, Caen

In reply, William did not dispute the deathbed promise but argued that Edward’s prior promise to him took precedence. In Stephen Baxter’s view, Edward’s “handling of the succession issue was dangerously indecisive, and contributed to one of the greatest catastrophes to which the English have ever succumbed.”

The truth it seems is that Edward had no actual power to name his successor and that the power to name the successor was vested in the Witan. The Witan did choose Harold Godwinson, a member of a powerful noble family with connections to the rulers of Denmark.

Therfore in the month of January Harold was crowned as Harold II, King of England. William, feeling that his inheritence was stolen from him, mounted an invasion of England. I won’t go into detail with the story as everyone is familiar with it. William invaded England from Normandy and defeated the forces of Harold II at Senlac outside of Hastings in October of that year.

After the defeat of Harold the Witan (including Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury & Archbishop Ealdred of York) elected Edgar the Ætheling, the heir to the House of Wessex) as King of the English but since military might was on the side of William this was an empty election. William was crowned King of England on Christmas Day of 1066.

However, it took a few years to consolidate his rule and bring all of England under his thumb. Although at his coronation William desired to stress his legal right to the throne, Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury refused to place the crown on William’s head saying “to crown one who was covered with the blood of men and the invader of others’ rights.” Archbishop Ealdred of York was the one who actually placed the crown on his head.

As previously mentioned, the Witan was the legal body that regulated the succession in 1066. They chose Harlod as the legal successor to Edward the Confessor and in October of 1066 after Battle of Hastings the Witan elected Edgar the Ætheling as King of the English.

Despite his claims of being the legal heir to the throne William I “the Conqueror” was clearly a usurper in the legal sense. When William came to the throne he abolished the Witan and replaced it with the “king’s court” or Curia Regis. He also took the power to name his successor and this power gradually made England a more hereditary monarchy.

William was not the first King of the English although some book make him out to be just that. He did profoundly change England though. The amalgamation of old English and Norman culture forged the modern English culture. Every monarch since the Conquest is a descendent of his. When chronicler’s began numbering the kings of England the reign of William the Conqueror was the starting point.