Monday, 31 October 2011

Choosing a new King of England in 1066

In January 1066 King Edward the Confessor of England lay dying. He had no children, a fact that would plunge his kingdom into war and change the face of England, and of Britain, forever.

It was not that there was a shortage of potential heirs – the difficulty was that there were too many and none had a claim to the throne that was any better than the others. It was up to the Witan, the council of nobles, to decide who should be the next king. Tradition demanded that they should choose a member of the royal family, but beyond that they were free to choose who they liked. In terms of strict legitimacy the crown should have passed to Edgar the Atheling, great nephew of Edward the Confessor. However Edgar was a mere child who had been brought up in Hungary and few people supported his cause.

Next to be considered was Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and head of the powerful Godwinson family. Harold had only a tenuous link to the crown. He was a member of the royal family by marriage, his sister being Edward’s queen. Unlike Edgar, Harold was a grown man of 44 with a proven track record of military success against the Welsh and of administrative skill in his earldom. He had, moreover, travelled on pilgrimage to Rome and had contacts abroad.

Also related to the royal family by marriage, though more distantly, was Duke William of Normandy. His great aunt Emma had married Ethelred the Unready and so was mother to Edward the Confessor. What William did have, or so he claimed, was a promise from Edward to nominate him as successor should he die without a son. The promise  appears to have been made in 1051 during some complex diplomatic moves between England and Normandy. If any of the nobles in England were aware of the promise they showed no signs of taking it very seriously.

A fourth contender lurked across the North Sea in the shape of King Harald Hardrada of Norway. Hardrada had no real claim to the throne at all, but he had friends and supporters in England. Moreover he was a big, tough and confident ruler who could command a mighty army of Vikings.

For the English noblemen meeting at Westminster as Edward lay dying the decision seemed an easy one. Harold Godwinson was English and he was capable. If any of them had any doubts, these were quelled when Edward indicated that Harold should be the next king. Edward died on 5 January and was buried next day. As soon as Edward was laid in his grave the nobles proclaimed Harold king and he was crowned later the same day.

from "Battlefield Walks in Kent and Sussex" by Rupert Matthews

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