The death of Edward the Confessor on 5 January 1066 brought an effective end to England’s line of Saxon kings. It also opened the door on a violent succession struggle, a struggle that culminated in the conquest of England by William of Normandy.
Edward was born into the House of Wessex, the same house into which Alfred the Great had been born several generations earlier. Alfred had begun the stability that allowed England to expand and strengthen but Edward would be responsible for effectuating Saxon England’s end. The increasing Danish invasions during the early 11th century had forced Edward’s mother to seek refuge in Normandy, the place where Edward spent at least 15 of his earliest years. When the Danish occupation of England disintegrated during the reign of Harthacnut in 1041, he called for Edward to join him in England. Edward was chosen as the next king. It is most likely that Edward was chosen as king simply because of his lineage: the Danish rule had grown weak, and Edward’s place in the House of Wessex evoked some level of optimism for a return to stability.
The leading earl of the day, Godwin, Earl of Wessex, also hoped for a return to stability – as long as he was in control. In Godwin’s view, Edward provided the perfect solution to the problem. Godwin could consolidate his own power by allowing Edward to take the throne. Both the Saxons and the Danes would be satisfied with the return of a monarch from the Wessex line, and Godwin could quietly gain control of more land and power behind the scenes. Effectively, that is how the story played out for the next twenty-four years. Godwin practically controlled England and Edward sat on the throne, more occupied with pious endeavors. When Godwin died in 1053, his son Harold maintained the same control of England, uninterrupted.
Toward the end of Edward’s reign, William of Normandy entered the picture. Some historians believe that William had visited Edward and asked to be next in line for the throne, though no one knows Edward’s response. Some believe that Edward promised William the throne, since William continued to push for his own succession. Edward, however, was unclear as to who his successor should be, an omission that had an enormous effect on England’s history.
Godwin’s son Harold also vied for the throne and at Edward’s death on 5 January 1066, Harold had been chosen as the successor by the Witan (the King’s council). Harold claimed that Edward had also chosen him as successor, but so did Harold’s exiled brother Tostig – so did William of Normandy, for that matter. The last contender for the throne was Harald Hardrada, a direct descendent of the Danish kings who had ruled England directly before Edward.
The day following Edward the Confessor’s death, 6 January, he was buried at Westminster Abbey, the church he had begun building in 1042. On that same day Harold was crowned king, probably the first monarch to have been crowned at Westminister and beginning the tradition that remains to this day. The Bayeux Tapestry contains beautiful depictions of the original Westminster Abbey in which Edward was buried, along with a depiction of Edward’s funeral procession.
The death of Edward the Confessor on 5 January 1066 marked an end to the stability of England and to the Saxon rule. Sir Winston Churchill evoked the scene perfectly in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples:
The lights of Saxon England were going out, and in the gathering darkness a gentle, grey-beard prophet foretold the end. When on his death-bed Edward spoke on a time of evil that was coming upon the land his inspired mutterings struck terror into the hearers. Only Archbiship Stigand, who had been Godwin’s stalwart, remained unmoved, and whispered into Harold’s ear that age and sickness had robbed the monarch of his wits. Thus on 5 January 1066 ended the line of Saxon kings.
Within the month of Edward’s death, William of Normandy had begun constructing a 700-ship fleet. Nine months later, Harold’s short reign would end. Tostig and Harald Hardrada invaded England from the north, and while Harold spent his forces defending the north of England, William of Normandy and his forces sailed for Sussex. On October 14, 1066, Harold and William would face each other at Hastings and William would gain the name ‘Conqueror.’