Ēadƿeard (Edward) the Confessor, King of the English, died this date, January 5, 1066 after a reign of 23 years. Edward died without issue creating a succession crisis.
At the end of 1065 King Edward the Confessor had fallen into a coma without clarifying his preference for the succession. He died on January 5, 1066, according to the Vita Ædwardi Regis, but not before briefly regaining consciousness and commending his widow and the kingdom to Harold’s “protection”. The intent of this charge remains ambiguous, as is the Bayeux Tapestry, which simply depicts Edward pointing at a man thought to represent Harold. When the Witan convened the next day they selected Harold to succeed, and his coronation followed on 6 January, most likely held in Westminster Abbey; though no evidence from the time survives to confirm this. Although later Norman sources point to the suddenness of this coronation, the reason may have been that all the nobles of the land were present at Westminster for the feast of Epiphany, and not because of any usurpation of the throne on Harold’s part.
At the time of Edward’s death there were four strong claimants to the throne. Edgar Ætheling (son of Edward Ætheling, see below) who was the closest male representative of the House of Wessex, Harold Godwinson, Earl Godwin, brother-in-law of the king and to whom Edward allegedly promised the throne, William II, Duke of Normandy (great-nephew of Emma of Normandy, Edward’s mother) a cousin of the king and to whom Edward also allegedly promised the throne. The final candidate was Harald III Hardråde, King of Norway (1046-1066) who claimed the English throne via a promise made in 1038 or 1039 between Harald III’s father, Sigurd Syr (petty king of Ringerike, a region in Buskerud) who had wrangled a promise from King Harthacnut of England (1040-1042, also known as Canute III of Denmark, the son of King Canute II the Great [who ruled Denmark, Norway, and England] and Emma of Normandy), that his eldest son would succeed him in England should King Harthacnut die childless.
Historians have been trying to understand the intentions of Edward and the succession as early as William of Malmesbury in the early 12th century. 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 how seriously he meant the promise, and whether he later changed his mind.
Edward Ætheling had the best claim to the throne during Edward’s reign and had been considered Edward’s heir until his death in 1057. Edward Ætheling, also known as Edward the Exile, was the son of King Edmund II Ironside (half-brother of Edward the Confessor) and of Ealdgyth. He spent most of his life in exile in the Kingdom of Hungary following the defeat of his father by Canute II the Great, King of Denmark, England and Norway.
Edward the Exile had a very strong claim to the English throne and was a direct descendant of a line of Wessex kings dating back, at least on the pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, to the arrival of Cerdic of Wessex in 495AD, and from Alfred the Great. Of his more immediate ancestors, all four of Edward’s male-line ancestors were Kings of England before Canute II the Great took the crown and sent Edward into exile.
Edward the Exile 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 five 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, and he was briefly declared king after Harold’s death in 1066. 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 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. The strongest evidence 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. 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.”
In early January 1066, hearing of Harold’s coronation, Duke William II of Normandy began plans to invade England, building 700 warships and transports at Dives-sur-Mer on the Normandy coast.
The rest they say is history.