Edward the Confessor (c. 1003 – January 5, 1066) was one of the last Anglo-Saxon English kings. Usually considered the last king of the House of Wessex, he ruled from 1042 to 1066.
Edward was the seventh son of Æthelred the Unready, and the first by his second wife, Emma of Normandy. Edward was born between 1003 and 1005 in Islip, Oxfordshire, and is first recorded as a ‘witness’ to two charters in 1005. He had one full brother, Alfred, and a sister, Godgifu. In charters he was always listed behind his older half-brothers, showing that he ranked beneath them.
During his childhood, England was the target of Viking raids and invasions under Sweyn Forkbeard and his son, Canute the Great.
Edward succeeded Canute the Great’s son – and his own half-brother – Harthacnut. He restored the rule of the House of Wessex after the period of Danish rule since Canute conquered England in 1016.
In 1043, Godwin’s eldest son Sweyn was appointed to an earldom in the south-west midlands, and on January 23, 1045 Edward married Godwin’s daughter Edith.
Edith was the daughter of Godwin, the most powerful earl in England. Her mother Gytha was sister of Ulf, a Danish earl who was Cnut the Great’s brother-in-law. She was probably born in or before 1027. Edith was originally named Gytha, but renamed Ealdgyth (or Edith) when she married King Edward the Confessor.
When Edward died in 1066, he was succeeded by his wife’s brother Harold II Godwinson, who was defeated and killed in the same year by the Normans under William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. Edward’s young great-nephew Edgar the Ætheling of the House of Wessex was proclaimed king after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 but was never crowned and was peacefully deposed after about eight weeks.
Historians disagree about Edward’s fairly long 24-year reign. His nickname reflects the traditional image of him as unworldly and pious. Confessor reflects his reputation as a saint who did not suffer martyrdom as opposed to his uncle, King Edward the Martyr.
Some portray Edward the Confessor’s reign as leading to the disintegration of royal power in England and the advance in power of the House of Godwin, because of the infighting that began after his death with no heirs to the throne. Biographers Frank Barlow and Peter Rex, on the other hand, portray Edward as a successful king, one who was energetic, resourceful and sometimes ruthless; they argue that the Norman conquest shortly after his death tarnished his image.
However, Richard Mortimer argues that the return of the Godwins from exile in 1052 “meant the effective end of his exercise of power”, citing Edward’s reduced activity as implying “a withdrawal from affairs”.
About a century later, in 1161, Pope Alexander III canonised the king. Edward was one of England’s national saints until King Edward III adopted George of Lydda as the national patron saint in about 1350. Saint Edward’s feast day is October 13, celebrated by both the Church of England and the Catholic Church.