Edward the Confessor and his early links to William of Normandy

With his death in early 1066, Edward the Confessor set the wheels in motion of what is possibly the most famous year in English history. By the time, William of Normandy was crowned as king of England on the 25th December 1066, there had been four kings in the year, including Edward, three major battles and a virtual complete change in the upper levels of society in England. It is said that Edward had promised William the crown on his death, but why? What were Edward’s links to William that allowed him to think that William was his rightful heir? The below text, will look at some of the links between Edward and William, during Edward’s early life.

Edward and William were related. Edward’s mother was William’s great-aunt, Emma of Normandy. Emma was the sister of William’s grandfather Richard II, Duke of Normandy. Emma and Richard’s ancestor was Rollo, the first Viking leader that was given land in modern day Normandy by the then French king, Charles the Simple, during the early tenth century. Edward’s father was Æthelred the Unready. Æthelred was descended from the great kings of Wessex, like Alfred the Great and the first of their line Cerdic who ruled in the early sixth century AD.   With Edward, these two families were joined together and with this, the line of the Viking Rollo had managed to succeed were the earlier Viking raiders of the eight and ninth century had failed, his blood would go on to rule all of England.

Viking raids during Æthelred’s reign had become more prevalent, with raiders using the lands of Normandy to winter. This would lessen the length of time taken to sail back to Scandinavia, allowing more time to raid England. The Norman’s although descended from Viking’s themselves had embraced French culture, religion and language and by the time the early tenth century, it would be hard to describe them as actual Vikings. This change in lifestyle must not have been a deterrent in the relationship between the Viking raiders and the Normans as Æthelred would have to take further action to try and stop the waves of raids.

Edward funeral btap 26

Edward the Confessor’s funeral as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry


Æthelred unsuccessfully tried to stem the raids, with a failed attempt at raiding Normandy himself and a treaty in 991. In 1002, Æthelred took things further and with an agreement to marry Emma, uniting the English with the Normans. The shortest distance of the channel is just short of twenty one miles and both sides were practically neighbours. This was not the first time of a cross channel marriage with Æthelberht, King of Kent at the end of the six century married Bertha, the daughter of Charibert I, the Merovingian king of Paris and grandson of the great Frankish king, Clovis. With this marriage Æthelred attempted to create a strong link between the English and the Normans to try and stem the increasing Viking raids, but this would fail.

Viking raids on England increased and in 1013 these raids led by Swein Forkbeard, King of Denmark would take complete control of England. Æthelred managed to smuggle his two sons, Edward and Alfred out of the country. Henry of Huntingdon, writing in the twelfth century tells us how both Edward and his brother Alfred were sent to Richard, Duke of Normandy. Æthelred himself would spend Christmas that year on the Isle of Wight before joining his two sons on the other side of the English Channel. The time Edward spent would have had a lasting affect on him and in 1051 it is said that Edward made the promise to William that upon his death the crown of England would be his.

The promise of the crown from Edward to William, would be the starting point on a set of events that would go on to change the course of history not only in England, but in the wider Western Europe, and Holy Land for the centuries to come. It gave the Norman blood line a tighter grip on English politics and the crown. William’s win at the Battle of Hastings would cement the Norman dynasties place in English history, with the Viking invasion during the early part of Edward’s life leading to a descendent of Vikings finally getting both hands on England’s most powerful position.

Suggested reading

  • Bates, D. (2008), William the Conqueror
  • Morris, M. (2013), The Norman Conquest
  • Morris, M. (2016), William I England’s Conqueror
  • Rex, P. (2011), 1066