Battle of Hastings, Battle of Stamford Bridge, Canute the Great of Denmark, Edgar the Ætheling, Edward the Confessor, Harald Hardrada, Harold Godwinson, King of the English, Sweyn II of Denmark, Tostig Godwinson, William the Conqueror
Yesterday I wrote of the death of Edward the Confessor, King of the English. His death sparked a battle for the English throne.
Prior to the death Edward the Confessor, King of the English on January 5, 1066, he named as his successor Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex. That is the general consensus from historians based on contemporary historical sources.
Earl Godwinson’s claim to the English Throne did raise some issues because there were five other men who believed they held the lawful right to the throne.
Today I will examine who these men were that believed that their claim to the English Throne was the superior and rightful claim.
1. Harold Godwinson (c. 1022 — October 14, 1066)
Harold Godwinson was a member of Godwin family founded by Wulfnoth Cild (died c. 1014) who was a South Saxon thane who is regarded by historians as the probable father of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, and thus the grandfather of King Harold II Godwinson.
Harold became a powerful earl after the death of his father, Godwin, Earl of Wessex.
Harold was the brother Ealdgyth (Edith). Their mother Gytha was sister of Ulf, a Danish earl who was Canute the Great’s brother-in-law. This gave Harold’s family, already a prominent Anglo-Saxon family, more prominence because of their ties to Canute the Great who was King of Denmark, Norway as well as King of the English.
On January 23, 1045 Edith married Edward the Confessor. Unlike most wives of the Saxon Kings of the English in the tenth and eleventh centuries, Edith was crowned queen. The marriage produced no children. Later ecclesiastical writers claimed that this was either because Edward took a vow of celibacy, or because he refused to consummate the marriage because of his antipathy to Edith’s family, the Godwins. However, the claim of apathy towards the Godwins is dismissed by modern historians.
Since Harold was the leading noble in England the alleged claim is that the childless Edward gave the kingdom to Harold on his deathbed. Harold was crowned king on January 6, 1066. Harold is also known as Harold II of England.
In September of that year he successfully fought off an attack by one rival claimant to the throne, Harald III Hardrada, King of Norway. But less than three weeks later Harold was killed in the Battle of Hastings against another claimant to the throne: William II, Duke of Normandy, known as the Conqueror.
2. William II of Normandy (c. 1028 – September 9, 1087)
William II, Duke of Normandy, believed that Edward had promised him the English throne long before he had made his deathbed promise to Harold. Edward, who was William’s friend and distant maternal cousin, supposedly wrote to the French duke to tell him England would be his in as far back as 1051.
William the Conqueror was not a descendant of the Kings of Wessex/the English but at this point in history direct blood descent from prior Kings was not a prerequisite for kinship.
Incensed by Harold’s coronation, William gathered up a fleet of around 700 ships and, with the backing of Pope Alexander II, set sail for England — once the winds were favourable. After arriving at the Sussex coast in September 1066, William and his men had their confrontation with King Harold II on October 14.
After winning the Battle of Hastings, William practiced a scorched earth policy as he made his way to London and was crowned King of the English on Christmas Day.
3. Edgar the Ætheling of Wessex (c. 1052 – 1125 or after)
Edgar the Ætheling or Edgar II was the last male member of the Royal House of Cerdic of Wessex, and the great-nephew of King Edward the Confessor. Edgar had spent the early years of his life in exile in Hungary and was not considered politically strong enough to maintain unity within the country.
Following the death of Harold II at the Battle of Hastings, Edgar the Ætheling is proclaimed King of England by the Witan; he is never crowned, and concedes power to William the Conqueror two months later.
King Malcolm III of Scotland married Edgar’s sister Margaret of Wessex, and agreed to support Edgar in his attempt to reclaim the English throne. When the rebellion broke out in Northumbria at the beginning of 1069, it greatly failed and Edgar returned to England with other rebels who had fled to Scotland.
Following this disaster, he was persuaded by Malcolm to make peace with William and return to England as his subject, abandoning any ambition of regaining his ancestral throne.
Edgar lived to see the death at sea in November 1120 of William Adeling (Ætheling), the son of his niece Edith and heir to Henry I, King of the English.
Edgar was still alive in 1125, according to William of Malmesbury, who wrote at the time that Edgar “now grows old in the country in privacy and quiet”. Edgar died some time after this contemporary reference, but the exact date and the location of his grave are not known.
4. Harald III Hardrada, King of Norway (c. 1015 – 25 September 25, 1066)
Harald III of Norway and given the epithet Hardrada, roughly translated as “stern counsel” or “hard ruler, was King of Norway (as Harald III) from 1046 to 1066.
Additionally, he unsuccessfully claimed both the Danish throne until 1064 and the English throne in 1066. Before becoming king, Harald had spent around fifteen years in exile as a mercenary and military commander in Kyivan Rus’ and of the Varangian Guard in the Byzantine Empire.
Harald had renounced his claim to Denmark in 1064 and Tostig Godwinson, former Earl of Northumbria, and the brother of English king Harold II Godwinson, pledged his allegiance to Harald and invited him to claim the English throne.
Magnus I of Norway wanted to reunite Canute the Great’s entire North Sea Empire by also becoming King of the English. An agreement was supposedly made between Magnus and Hardicanute, the Danish King of the English, to give the English crown to Magnus. However, Hardicanute only ruled England briefly between 1040 and 1042 and when Harthacnut died, the English nobles had chosen as their king Æthelred the Unready’s son, Edward the Confessor. However, that did not stop Harald from believing that as the successor to Magnus I, that the English crown should be his upon the death of Edward the Confessor.
Harald Hardrada went and invaded Northern England with 10,000 troops and 300 longships in September 1066. He raided the coast and defeated English regional forces of Northumbria and Mercia in the Battle of Fulford near York on September 20, 1066.
Although initially successful, Harald was defeated and killed in a surprise attack by Harold Godwinson’s forces in the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25, 1066, which wiped out almost his entire army. Modern historians have often considered Harald’s death, which brought an end to his invasion, as the end of the Viking Age.
5. Sweyn II Estridsson, King of Denmark (c. 1019 – April 28, 1076)
Sweyn II Estridsson was King of Denmark from 1047 until his death in 1076. He was the son of Ulf Thorgilsson and Estrid Svendsdatter, and the grandson of King Sweyn I Forkbeard through his mother’s line. He was married three times, and fathered 20 children or more out of wedlock, including the five future kings Harald III Hen, Canute IV the Saint, Oluf I Hunger, Eric I Evergood, and Niels.
Sweyn II, King of Denmark, was Harold Godwinson’s cousin but believed that he may too have a claim on the English throne because of his own connections to Hardicanute, who was his uncle. It was not until William the Conqueror was king, however, that he seriously turned his attentions to England.
In 1069 Sweyn II was part of the force with Edgar the Ætheling who tried invade the north of England to defeat William but, after capturing York, Sweyn reached a deal with the English king to abandon Edgar.