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The Mysterious Death of the Heir to the English Throne

Updated on June 2, 2016

In 1054 the King of England, Edward the Confessor, had been on the throne for 12 years and had been married for 9 years, but still had no heir. This was a major problem and he was put under pressure by his nobles to start thinking about appointing one, as he was now in his mid-forties. This succession dilemma and the events that followed led to the invasions of England in 1066 culminating in the Battle of Hastings.

Edward’s early life had been in exile in the court of Normandy and it was this fondness for the Norman’s and his understanding of their way of life that meant he invited Norman’s into his court in England and also took some of them on as advisers. This did not go down well with some of the Anglo-Saxon nobility especially the Godwinsons.

In 1051 England came very close to civil war! In the late summer in Dover a group of Norman’s, led by Count Eustace of Boulogne (Edward’s brother-in-law), was attacked by the townspeople of Dover in a bloody mass brawl. The Norman side of the story was that they had demanded lodgings in Dover for the night and were refused with one householder being killed. The townspeople rebelled against the Normans and a mass brawl ensued with casualties on both sides. When the Normans reported these events back to King Edward, he did not wait to hear the other side of the story, but ordered that the townspeople of Dover be punished. As Dover was part of Earl Godwinson’s earldom, he was ordered by King Edward to carry out the punishment. Earl Godwinson refused for a number of reasons; he did not believe the story of Count Eustace; the townspeople were defending their right to admit who they chose and he was fed up with King Edward siding with the Norman’s all the time. Therefore a few weeks later, Earl Godwinson had amassed an army and met the Kings army at Beverstone, 15 miles south of Gloucester. After realising that the rest of the Earldom’s in England sided with the King and therefore was outnumbered, Earl Godwinson backed down and submitted to the King. After consultation with his councillors, the entire Godwin family, including the future King Harold, were given five days to leave England and were banished. King Edward’s wife, Edith, also a Godwinson, was removed from Court and sent to a nunnery in Wherwell, near Winchester!

Later in 1051, Duke William of Normandy visited King Edward in England and it was during this visit that he was supposedly chosen as Edward’s heir. However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle only noted his visit and not the purpose of the visit. Although Edward may have wanted William as his heir, it was the ruling council, the Witan, which chose the next King, so the crown was not Edward’s to give.

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William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror

The Godwinsons did not stay in exile for long. In 1052, they gained support and made their way to London in a fleet of ships taking hostages and ransoms where they could. Finally again they had a showdown in London where King Edward this time submitted. All the titles and lands were restored to the Godwinsons and the Queen Edith was returned to Court. Earl Godwinson’s joy at regaining his title and properties for his family were short lived. During the rebellion he had begun to feel unwell and whilst at Edward’s court in early 1053 he died after a short illness. Harold became Earl of Wessex and over the next few years would become King Edward’s right hand man and was seen as king in all but name.

So within all this internal turmoil and Court bickering, in 1054 King Edward discovers that a male relative of his is alive and well and living in the Hungarian Court. His nephew, also called Edward, who was supposed to have been killed off by King Canute, is the son of English King Edmund Ironside(king for seven months before being killed by King Canute). Therefore, he had a rightful claim to the English throne. On hearing this news, King Edward despatched Bishop Aldred of Worcester to request that his nephew come to the English Court and become his heir.

This lost relative was not good news for the two protagonists of the Battle of Hastings. Duke William firmly believed that King Edward had promised him the crown in 1051. Earl Harold was also making a name for himself as the most prominent Anglo-Saxon and would have thought himself fit to wear the crown when King Edward died. However, fate played its hand once more to the detriment of the Anglo-Saxons, as the exile Edward died within two days of arriving back in England in 1057. King Edward never even got to meet his long lost nephew and no-one knows why. So mysterious was this death that the chroniclers of the time made little mention of it.

The Anglo-Saxon chronicle says of Edward the Exile’s death: ‘We do not know for what reason it was brought about that he was not allowed to visit his kinsman King Edward. Alas, that was a miserable fate and grievous to all this people that he so speedily ended his life after he came to England, to the misfortune of this poor realm.’

The two people with the most to gain from this mysterious death were Duke William and Earl Harold. The fact that it occurred on English soil and although he had been in exile for over forty years, Edward the Exile would have been accepted by the Anglo-Saxon nobility, the finger would point towards Harold. However, Duke William claimed he had been told by King Edward that he was heir to the throne and he had a network of spies all over Europe makes him a suspect too.

All in all, King Edward was still left without an heir when he died on 5th January 1066. Earl Harold became King Harold II and the catastrophic slide towards the Battle of Hastings had begun.

Do you think that Edward the Exile was murdered?

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    • TrixieShi profile image

      Diana Strenka 

      2 years ago from North Carolina

      Well written. Nice work!!

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