Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint @ the British Museum

‘Thomas is the best doctor for the worthy sick’
(Inscription on a lead ampulla created before 1200 to hold some of the Saint Thomas Becket’s miracle-working blood)

Two years after his murder on 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III and his tomb at Canterbury cathedral quickly became a site of miraculous healing and wonder cures, and one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in all of Europe, second only to Rome and Santiago de Compostela.

How appropriate of the British Museum to re-open after the long COVID lockdown with a grand exhibition devoted to one of the greatest healers this country has ever known.

The healing of Ralph de Longeville. Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Thomas’s story

The exhibition is in the central rotunda at the museum, smaller and more intimate than the large Sainsburys gallery at the back. It is laid out in simple chronological order, with key events told in the dozen or so big wall posters and embellished in the labels of over 100 objects brought together for the first time, including rare loans from across the UK and Europe.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll quote liberally from the exhibition wall labels:

Becket was born in 1120 in Cheapside, a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral. He had a comfortable childhood. His parents Gilbert and Matilda were immigrants from Northern France, and part of a wealthy merchant community living in the commercial heart of London.

Around the age of 18 Becket went to study in Paris. After three years in Paris, Becket returned to England. He was offered the chance to work as a clerk for Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, joining a group of ambitious young men. The legal and diplomatic training that Becket received in his nine years with Theobald was life-changing.

In 1154 the archbishop recommended him as royal chancellor to the new king, Henry II, and the two men became great friends. It was the best paid position in the royal household, earning him five shillings a day. As chancellor Becket was responsible for issuing documents in the king’s name.

In 1162 Henry II nominated Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, following Theobald’s death. It was a controversial appointment. Becket was not a priest and until then had lived a worldly, secular life. The king wanted him to remain chancellor, hoping that having his friend in both positions would increase royal control over Church and State. This plan failed when Becket renounced the chancellorship and began to oppose Henry. In 1164, with tensions escalating, the archbishop escaped across the Channel.

Henry II saw Becket’s rejection of the chancellorship in 1162 as a betrayal. Over the next two years their relationship disintegrated. One issue in particular divided them. The king demanded that churchmen accused of serious crimes be tried in secular rather than religious courts. Becket refused to endorse this infringement of the rights of the Church, provoking the king’s outrage.

Henry II and Becket arguing in a genealogy of the Kings of England, about 1307 to 1327. © British Library Board – Royal MS 20 A II, f. 7v.

With the situation spiralling out of control, Becket was brought before the king and accused of trumped-up crimes. Fearing for his life, on 2 November 1164 the archbishop fled abroad. He spent six years in exile under the protection of Henry’s rival, Louis VII of France, returning on 2 December 1170. Henry II punished Becket for leaving England without his permission, confiscating his land and wealth.

Becket found himself in France at the same time as Pope Alexander III, who was locked in disagreement with Frederick Barbarossa, an emperor with vast territories in central Europe. Like Becket, Alexander was in exile and sought protection from King Louis VII of France. After making peace the pope returned to Rome. This image shows him embracing Becket before their farewell. Alexander was later responsible for Becket’s canonisation as a saint.

Pope Alexander, who had forbidden the Archbishop of York to perform the sacred act, receives a complaint from Becket. He asks for permission to excommunicate the bishops involved in the ceremony, which the pope duly grants.

The coronation of the Young King spurred Becket into action and, after agreeing a fragile peace with Henry II, he decided to return to England. Fatefully, before leaving France he carried out the sentences of excommunication endorsed by the pope.

On 2 December, Becket returned to Canterbury and the cathedral he had not seen for six years. At his Christmas court in Normandy, Henry learned that Becket had excommunicated the English bishops involved in his son’s coronation. He flew into a rage, calling Becket a traitor and ‘low-born clerk’. Four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, Richard Brito and William de Tracy, heard the king’s outburst. They hatched a plan to bring the archbishop to Henry and headed for England to arrest him.

The knights arrived at Canterbury and entered the precincts. They tried to arrest Thomas but he fled into the cathedral itself. Here the knights again tried to seize him but Thomas refused to go with them. The knights had worked themselves up into a rage and also risked major humiliation if they ended up having to leave empty-handed. Although the precise exchanges will never be known the confrontation escalated out of control and finally the knights attacked, one of them raising his sword and bringing it down to shatter Thomas’s skull. There were quite a few eye witnesses including Thomas’s clerk, Edward Grim, who tried to intervene and was injured in the struggle. All the eye witnesses agree that Thomas’s skull was shattered and a fragment of it flew to the ground.

The exhibition contains numerous depictions of the deed, as illustrations in illuminated manuscripts such as the MS containing John of Salisbury’s Life of St Thomas Becket from the British Library, one of the earliest known representations of the murder, or as carved reliefs, as shown below.

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket. England, around 1425 to 1450. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Appalled at what they had done the knights returned to Henry’s court in France where the king immediately grasped the significance of the catastrophe. In the years to come he made not one but two major penances to atone for his guilt and eventually took the extraordinary step of going on pilgrimage himself to Canterbury, where he stripped to a loincloth and shuffled through the cathedral on his bare knees, arriving at the altar where he was flagellated by monks.

To understand the utterly Christian worldview of the Middle Ages, you have to grasp that this was a reasonable and practical thing for a king to do. It cleansed him of his personal guilt and thus enabled his soul to enter heaven. It went a long way to winning back those of his subjects and the hierarchy of the church in Rome which had been scandalised by the murder. And so it, at the same time, fulfilled Henry’s purpose of asserting his authority over the farflung territories of his Plantagenet empire which stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees.

The personal drama

Complicated story, isn’t it, and I’ve followed the museum’s account so closely because your opinion of the murder has to depend on a good grasp of its context and of the precise chain of events leading up to it.

At the level of personal drama, Henry and Becket had at one time been very good friends. Becket was 13 years older than Henry, better educated and in many ways a mentor to the younger man. The pair worked well together when they were king and chancellor. When Henry raised him to the archbishopric he therefore had every expectation that Thomas would be grateful.

But Thomas was also a flamboyant man, given to grandiloquent gestures as chancellor and, when he became archbishop, there is evidence from contemporary accounts that many other clerics disapproved. He had to be promoted through the hierarchy of clerical positions at top speed which many felt made a mockery of religion.

Therefore Thomas was nervously aware of his lack of deep theological training or of proper clerical experience. Combine that with a tendency to grandstand and you have an accident waiting to happen.

To this day historians debate his motives.

1. When he refused Henry’s demands to reform ecclesiastical law in order to make priests who had committed egregious crimes (for example rape or murder) subject to the secular laws of the land, did Thomas do it because he sincerely felt everyone anointed into the church was only accountable to the church – or because of his awareness that he wasn’t a ‘proper’ churchman so he was trying to curry favour with the English church hierarchy and the distant pope?

2. When he made the dramatic move of excommunicating the bishops who anointed Henry’s young son co-king, did he do it out of purely religious fervour and in order to protect the rights and privileges of the post of archbishop of Canterbury, whose ancient right it was to perform coronations and this undermined his authority. Or was he, once again, grandstanding to curry favour, this time with the pope who he met in exile in France and who explicitly approved his actions?

3. Lastly, why did he insist on staying put when the knights came to arrest him? Chances are he knew they were behaving without Henry’s explicit permission, that arresting an archbishop was illegal, and he knew any confrontation between him and the king would inevitably draw in the pope who was a staunch ally. Why not go with the knights, have it out with the king and be exonerated?

Alabaster panel from an altarpiece showing Becket’s consecration as archbishop on 3 June 1162. England, first half of the 15th century. Private Collection. © Nicholas and Jane Ferguson.

Or, as T.S. Eliot’s play on the subject considers, did Thomas want to be martyred? Facing intractable problems, not least his own sense of inadequacy and illegitimacy (as a man who lacked the deep experience required by an archbishop) did his liking for grand gestures kick in, and he taunted the knights so much they were left with no way out?

This is the view of Paul Johnson in his 1976 History of Christianity who quotes Edward Grim, who was an eye witness:

He who had long yearned for martyrdom now saw that the occasion to embrace it had arrived. (Paul Johnson, History of Christianity, 1990 Penguin edition, page 210)

And one of Thomas’s many hagiographers, William Fitzstephen:

Had he so wished, the Archbishop might easily have turned aside and saved himself by flight, for both time and place offered an opportunity to escape without being discovered.’ (ibid)

Could he have simply walked out peacefully with the knights and accompanied them to France with no fuss? We’ll never know.

The saint and healer

The exhibition really blossoms after Becket was murdered because that’s when he was transformed from one among many squabbling European monarchs and their statesman, into a premier league saint.

News of his murder spread far and wide across Europe and almost immediately people rich and poor, high and low, young and old, male and female, began making the pilgrimage to the cathedral and to the precise steps into the choir where he was hacked down. Relics were many: his clothes, his blood, his bones, his coffin, special prayers, these all helped rain down on pilgrims inestimable blessings, healings and cures.

Not only did Canterbury become by far Britain’s premier pilgrimage site but until the Reformation Thomas was the most frequently portrayed of all saints, had more parish churches named after him than any other saint, and more English boys were called after him than any other namesake.

The exhibition includes many of the precious caskets which were lovingly created to contain this or that relic brought back by pilgrims which are all beautiful examples of medieval craftsmanship, but maybe the most striking is this reliquary casket from Norway. Norway! Because apparently in Norway Thomas’s fame was such that he was second in popularity to St Olaf, the national saint.

(If you look carefully at the bottom panel you can not only see the knight hacking Thomas’s head but also the famous fragment of skull falling to the floor.)

Reliquary casket, c.1220–50 from Hedalen Stave Church, Norway. By kind permission of Hedalen Stave Church

The stained glass

In the decades following his death, the authorities at Canterbury cathedral created a new chapel devoted to Thomas. This included what became a set of 12 tall, narrow stained glass windows over six meters in height and each containing a set of four circular roundels themselves divided into segments depicting scenes not from Thomas’s life, but from the countless miraculous healings which people attributed to his powers. Hence they are collectively known as the Miracle Windows.

Five of the original windows were destroyed over the centuries, so seven survive, and one of these seven has been lovingly dismantled, removed from the cathedral and carefully transported here to the British Museum, where the four sections have been separated and are displayed at head height in a special curving gallery.

So this is a golden opportunity to see some masterpieces of medieval stained glass, really close up, beautifully presented and with the sometimes gruesome stories portrayed in each of the panels carefully described and explained.

Take the roundel which describes the sensational story of Eilward of Westoning.

Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Eilward was a peasant who was accused of stealing in a drunken quarrel. In the panel on the mid-left he stands with the stolen items tied behind his back. A judge in a cap sentences him to trial by ordeal. Eilward fails and is condemned to blinding and castration. At the bottom left, Eilward is reclining in bed, his head bandaged from a blow. Becket appears to him in a vision, emerging from a shrine to bless him. In the middle-right panel Eilward lies bound to a plank as a man holds him by the neck and stabs his eyes while another wields a blade, kneels on his legs and reaches for his testicles.

Becket appears in a vision to Eilward. The saint makes the sign of the cross in front of his face. On waking, Eilward’s eyes and testicles grow back. The top panel shows Eilward riding a horse to Canterbury Cathedral. In the bottom centre panel a crowd gathers round Eilward as he points to his eyes while another man points at his groin to highlight his miraculous healing. The green tree at the centre symbolises his restored fertility. The panel at bottom right shows Eilward giving thanks at Becket’s tomb.

The other roundels describe in similar detail the miracle of Etheldreda who recovers from a fever, Saxeva who recovers from a painful arm and stomach ache, two sisters from Boxley who were lame and are healed, a monk called Hugh from Jervaulx Abbey who is cured, and so on. I particularly liked the story of Hugh who, at one point, suffers a catastrophic nosebleed which is depicted as a vivid flow of red streaming down from his face, on the lower left.

Detail from Miracle window showing the story of Hugh of Jervaulx, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. Note the vivid red nosebleed from the prostrate man’s face © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Move over, graphic novels!

Thomas and Realpolitik

I was already familiar with the story of Thomas Becket, possibly a little over-familiar with it and not much in the main body of the exhibition told me much I didn’t already know or changed my own personal opinion.

Influenced by secular historians like Paul Johnson, I am inclined to think of Thomas as a deliberately obstructive, showboating and irresponsible man who needlessly set out to make Henry II’s life as difficult as possible. In most accounts I’ve read, the Becket murder was a blip or side issue in the bigger picture of Henry’s lifelong struggle to maintain his Plantagenet empire. It had a seismic impact on popular culture but little or no impact on the diplomatic Realpolitik of the day. After his half-naked atonement Henry restored good relations with the pope who approved his selection for next Archbishop of Canterbury as well as other ecclesiastical posts, as well as his plans to invade and conquer Ireland. In practical, worldly terms, Thomas’s death changed nothing.

(It’s worth pointing out that the curators disagree, and include a treasured manuscript of Magna Carta, signed 45 years after Thomas’s death by Henry’s useless son, King John, in 1215, to make their case. The Charter’s very first clause, probably added at the insistence of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, states that the English Church must be free from royal interference. In the curators’ opinion this demonstrates how Becket’s dispute with Henry II continued to shape English politics long after his death. In Paul Johnson’s view this struggle between king and church was the central issue of the high Middle Ages, would remain a bugbear for centuries until Henry VIII decisively ended it with victory for the secular authority, and Thomas’s death didn’t really affect the issue one way or the other. Discuss.)

The Canterbury Tales

The exhibition has a section devoted to The Canterbury Tales, one of the key texts of English literature and, with its varied and colourful tales told by a motley cross section of late 14th century personalities all engaged on a horseback pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, as explained in the lovely words of the Prologue.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

‘That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke’, I love that line. Who doesn’t need holp when that they are seeke?

The exhibition includes one of the earliest manuscripts which contains all 24 of the surviving stories, as well as blow-ups of the original medieval portraits of some of the storytellers (the Wife of Bath, the Yeoman, the Merchant and the Shipman). But none of the stories are actually about Thomas and, if anything, they demonstrate a woefully relaxed attitude to Christian faith and morality which would have appalled the saint and his most zealous devotees.

The suppression of a saint

The one part of the exhibition I found genuinely new and informative came right at the end and deals with Henry VIII’s aggressive erasure of the cult of Thomas.

I knew that, as part of the first steps in the Reformation and linked with the Dissolution of the monasteries, Henry had all pilgrimage sites and saints shrines shut down. I knew from Johnson’s account that Thomas’s shrine was the biggest one in the land and that Henry’s commissioners carried off a vast amount of loot, namely 4,994 ounces of gold, 4,425 of silver-gilt, 5,286 of plain silver and 26 cartloads of treasure. A generation earlier, around 1511, the Dutch reformer Erasmus and the English humanist John Colet had visited the shrine and been disgusted at its tackiness. They were offered the opportunity to kiss a prize relic, the genuine arm of St George, or to touch a manky old rag supposedly stained with the saint’s blood, and Thomas’s genuine original shoe to be kissed.

As the curators observe:

After visiting Becket’s shrine real pilgrims bought similar souvenirs, badges to pin to clothing or little flasks worn around the neck. They were made quickly and cheaply by pouring molten lead or tin into a mould. The range of Canterbury souvenirs is remarkable, from miniature bells inscribed with ‘St Thomas’ to tiny swords with detachable scabbards.

And the exhibition includes no fewer than 24 examples of these multivarious knick-knacks and gewgaws. The medieval cult of saints had degenerated to the level of Blackpool souvenirs.

Pilgrim badge, 14th century, England, showing Becket returning from exile in France.

So I wasn’t surprised to learn the specifics of the demolition of Thomas’s massive and treasure-laden shrine, that:

On 5 September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury. During his three-day stay royal agents began demolishing St Thomas’s shrine, prising off the jewels and smashing the marble base. They packed up its precious metal in crates, which were taken to London. Becket’s bones were removed, and a rumour spread that they had been burnt and the ashes scattered to the wind.

What I didn’t know and found fascinating was the way King Henry VIII singled out the cult of Thomas for special suppression. It was because, at a political level, above the level of popular culture and religion, Thomas was a symbol of the independence of the Church and Henry’s reformation was about decisively ending centuries of squabbling, and asserting the paramount authority of the secular monarch.

This explains why, after 1534 when Henry broke with Rome and Parliament appointed him Supreme Head of the Church of England, he could not tolerate Becket’s status as a defender of Church liberty and denounced him as a traitor to the country, or the new notion of ‘nation’ which Henry was creating.

Hence the passage of laws which singled out the cult of Saint Thomas and banned it. The laws banned visual references to the saint and insisted that the very word ‘saint’ was to be expunged from the record. Henceforth he was to be referred to as ‘Bishop Thomas’. A wall label quotes from a Royal proclamation, of 16 November 1538:

…from henceforth the said Thomas Becket shall not be esteemed, named, reputed, nor called a saint, but Bishop Becket, and…his images and pictures through the whole realm shall be put down…

The exhibition closes with some quite fascinating examples of how this erasure from history, this rewriting of history, was carried out, including:

  • a book of hours where the devotional prayer to Becket has been carefully cut out, although the illustration of the martyrdom has been left (intriguingly) undamaged
  • a copy of the Golden Legend, a very popular compendium of the lives of saints, in which the text and image for Becket’s story have been crossed out with black ink
  • a manuscript containing texts for the celebration of mass, once owned by the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bromsgrove, near Worcester, in which thick red ink has been selectively smeared across prayers to St Thomas in order to obliterate them

Manuscript containing mass texts from the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bromsgrove in which prayers to ‘Bishop’ Thomas have been obliterated by red ink. Around 1450. © The Syndics of Cambridge University Library

Curators

  • Lloyd de Beer, curator, Medieval Britain and Europe
  • Naomi Speakman, curator, Late Medieval Europe
  • Sophie Kelly, project curator

Related links

Other medieval reviews

Exhibitions

Books

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris (2012)

Young historian and TV presenter Marc Morris has written a racy pacy account of the ‘most important event in English history’, a  350-page overview which starts 50 years before the big event, continues for a generation afterwards, and effortlessly integrates scholarly weighing of the various sources and their reliability with common-sense interpretation and stylish factual asides.

For example, the population of 11th century England was some 1.5 million of whom over 10% were slaves. Most of the population above them were smallholding churls, with around 5,000 significant landowners in the whole country, of whom only an estimated 90 held enough land to be rich enough to attend the king, and only 4 earls at a time ruled the four main regions of Wessex, Mercia, Northumberland and East Anglia.

There are some fascinating sections on the rise of Norman church architecture, later named the ‘Romanesque’, whose soaring new designs eclipsed the clunky windowless churches of the Saxons.  And a chapter dedicated to the origin and implementation of the amazing Domesday Book.

However, no matter how brightly and enthusiastically it starts, like every account of this era, Morris’s book soon bogs down in the tangled web of family trees and promises – ie who promised who the throne of which country when, who invaded who, who made solemn oaths of friendship and then declared war etc – webs which ensnare not just the throne of England but those of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, Wales and France as well as the dukedoms and earldoms of Anjou and Flanders and Normandy, to name just the main ones.

As one way through this complex web I set out to record simply why each king of England – from Æthelred the Unready onwards – actually became king. Not their acts and achievements. Just why they became king.

***

Æthelred the Unready (978–1013 and 1014–1016) son of King Edgar and Queen Ælfthryth, Æthelred was the great-grandson of Alfred the Great. King Edgar had an older son by another wife, Edward, who duly became king in 975 but was not the choice of many powerful nobles and was murdered just three years later in 978. It’s at this point that the Witan or council of powerful landowners elected the ten-year-old Æthelred king. Over the following 40 years Æthelred failed to bind together the factions which had made his election so bloody, and his long reign was characterised by backstabbing weakness at the centre and betrayal at the periphery. All made worse for coinciding with a resumption of the Danish/Viking raiding which everyone thought had been staunched in the mid-900s. Thus in 1002 Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark, landed and began harrying whole swathes of England in sustained campaigns until, in 1013, Æthelred was forced to flee abroad (to the court of Normandy, home of his wife Emma) whereupon Sweyn declared himself king.

Sweyn Forkbeard (1013-14) Sweyn had himself crowned king of England on Christmas Day 1013. He reigned for 5 weeks, dying on 3 February 1014. He had one son, Cnut, aged about 20, who had been an active helper in his wars. But the English ealdormen rejected Cnut and invited Æthelred back to be their king. Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England was elective.

Æthelred the Unready part 2 (1014–1016) Æthelred accepted the invitation, returned from Normandy and organised an army which defeated the Danes in Lincolnshire, the one and only military victory of his reign. However, old divisions among his senior advisers once again opened up and soon his eldest son, Edmund, was in open opposition to him. In September 1015 the Danes led by Cnut re-invaded and Edmund led the armies against them while Æthelred fell into his final illness and his court squabbled as usual. In April 1016 Æthelred died.

Edmund Ironside (April – November 1016) third of the six sons of Æthelred by his first marriage to Ælfgifu, Edmund gathered loyalist forces around him to fight the Danes, first Sweyn and then his son Cnut. Edmund was king of England from April 1016, when his father died. He led fierce resistance to the invading Danes, fighting five major battles against them before defeat at the battle of Battle of Assandun led him to agree to a division of the country, Edmund keeping Wessex, the old English heartland of Alfred the Great, and Cnut taking the rest. These arrangements were rendered moot when Edmund himself died 0n 30 November, probably from wounds sustained in the battle.

—At  this point Æthelred’s children by his second wife, Emma of Normandy – Alfred, the future Edward the Confessor and their sister, Godgifu – fled abroad to Normandy.—

Cnut the Great (1016-1035) Cnut and his Danish army successfully regained the throne claimed by his father Sweyn. He was to rule as king of England for nearly 20 years, at the same time being king of Denmark and of as much of Norway as he could conquer.

[Edmund’s heirs – Edmund had two children by Ealdgyth – Edward and Edmund. Cnut sent them to the king of Sweden to be murdered, but the Swedish king forwarded them to Hungary where Edmund died but Edward prospered. Edward ‘the Exile’, as he became known, returned to England in 1057 only to die within a few days of his arrival...]

Cnut had sons by two wives:

  • Ælfgifu of Northampton, who he was betrothed to by his father Sweyn upon the conquest in 1013, gave him Svein and Harold, called ‘Harefoot’. Svein was to die on campaign in Norway in 1035.
  • Upon taking the throne Cnut invited Æthelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, to marry him; she did and bore him Harthacnut.

Hiatus (1035-37) When Cnut died after nearly 20 years on the English throne he left the conditions for a bloody struggle between the two sets of sons. The great men of the kingdom held a meeting at Oxford on the river Thames, the border between Wessex and the south where Emma based herself and which supported Harthacnut, and the more Scandinavian north which supported Harold. They agreed to partition the country (once again) but in fact Harthacnut found it impossible to leave Denmark where he was threatened by invasion by the kings of both Norway and Sweden, for some years. And so, the record suggests, Harold little by little made himself actual ruler of the whole country.

Harold I ‘Harefoot’ (1035-40) son of Cnut by his second wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton, some historians speculate that his mother was the real power behind the throne. After the conflicts surrounding his election not much is recorded of his reign. He died in on 7 March 1040 at the relatively young age of 24, just as his half-brother Harthacnut had finally got round to organising a fleet to invade England.

Harthacnut (1040-42) son of Cnut and his second wife, Emma the widow of Æthelred. He arrived with a fleet of 62 ships at Sandwich on 17 June 1040.  Most of the army were mercenaries and one of Harthacnut’s first acts was to levy an enormous tax to pay for them. Unpopular across the country, two tax collectors in Worcester were killed by the mob which led Harthacnut to send forces to kill everyone in the city and raze it to the ground. His popularity never recovered and he levied the same punitive tax the next year. After two brief years, on 8 June 1042 Harthacnut dropped dead at a wedding feast in Lambeth.

But, according to Morris, one of the few good things Harthacnut did in his reign was, in the second year, unexpectedly, to invite Edward, son of Æthelred and Emma, to come and join him in a joint rule (p.42). Maybe he realised how unpopular he was and needed an English intermediary. Whatever the motivation it paved the way for Edward’s swift acclamation.

Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) was a son of Æthelred by his second marriage to Emma of Normandy. Æthelred already had no fewer than six sons by his first marriage to Ælfgifu and so it must have seemed unlikely that Edward would ever inherit the crown. However, the most powerful son, Edmund Ironside, was killed resisting Cnut as, it seems, were four of the others, and the survivor, Eawdwig, was executed by Cnut along with any other members of the English nobility who seemed a threat soon after his victory in 1016. So now, in 1042, the son of Emma and Cnut – Harthacnut – was dead – and so were the sons of Cnut and Ælfgifu – Svein and Harold – and so were all the sons of Æthelred and Ælfgifu – leaving Edward on the spot and eligible. He was elected king by the Witan and crowned on Easter Day 1043.

Harold II Godwinson (1066) Edward reigned for a long time and a lot happened. A central thread is the presence of the great earl Godwine, who had risen under Cnut from relative obscurity to become, through his fighting prowess, earl of Wessex and one of the most powerful earls in the country by about 1020. A theme of Edward’s reign was the difficulty he had managing Godwine, problems which reached a climax in 1051 when Edward ordered Godwin to punish the population of Dover for a drunken brawl with visiting Frenchmen. Godwin refused, it became a battle of wills and Edward rallied the other earls and leaders and managed to get Godwin and his sons exiled and seized all his land. However, in 1052, the Godwins returned with a large armed force and won enough support to compel Edward to restore him. In 1053 he died and his son Harold inherited the earldom of Wessex, every bit as strong and imperious as his father.

The fatal promise

The crux of the Norman Conquest is whether Edward the Confessor promised the English throne to Duke William of Normandy, as is depicted in the Bayeaux tapestry and in all Norman accounts. When Cnut ruled England the entire Saxon royal family sought refuse in Normandy, where Edward was raised. As it became clear he was going to have no male issue, he allegedly, in 1051, sent a promise to Duke William that he would inherit the English throne. Over the years he infiltrated various Normans into high positions, including Archbishop of Canterbury.

Edward was well aware that earl Godwin’s headstrong son, Harold, considered himself a legitimate heir and so in 1064 Edward ordered him to go to Normandy to confirm Edward’s election of Duke William as his successor. This Harold did with very bad grace and William forced him to make the oath of allegiance over holy relics, effectively making Harold William’s vassal. But in his heart Harold didn’t accept it.

For Harold and the Saxons the crown was passed on by the decision of the Witan or council or by brute force; one king couldn’t choose to pass it to another. For William, Edward’s promise and Harold’s confirmation of it on holy relics, was a solemn and binding legal agreement.

And so when Edward died and Harold, ignoring his forced promise, and acclaimed by the other nobles of the country, took the throne, Duke William felt cheated and was able to persuade not only his own people but even Pope Alexander II that his cause was Just, to raise a massive armada, and to get the Pope’s blessing for his invasion. Harold counter-claimed that Edward gifted him the throne on his deathbed.

Who was telling the truth? Did such a gift supersede – if it was made – the solemn promises Edward had made earlier to William? Did those solemn promises have meaning in English custom and law?

Harold was crowned in Westminster Abbey on January 6 1066. In September he had to march north to deal with the invasion of the Norwegian warrior, Harold Hardrada.

Harald Sigurdsson (called ‘Hardrada’) Half-brother to King Olaf the Saint of Norway. Following Olaf’s defeat and death at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030, Harald saw action in Russia and then as a member of the Byzantine emperor’s famous Varangian Guard in warfare around the Mediterranean. In 1046 he returned to Scandinavia and to conflict with his nephew Magnus I who had become king of Denmark and Norway. When Magnus died in 1047 Harald became king of Norway but hankered after Denmark as well and raided the country every year for nearly 20 years. Moreover, he contemplated invading England more than once, to restore the Empire of Cnut the Great. The Confessor was well aware of this and sent numerous emissaries to pacify Harald, but who also gave him the impression he would get the throne of England when Edward died.

In 1066 Harold Godwinson’s brother Tostig, former earl of Northumbria, was driven out of England and into exile. He came to Norway and persuaded Harald to try and invade the north of England, the part of the country with strong Scandinavian ties due to the prolonged settlement there of Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries. The landings were initially successful and Harald and his forces won the battle of Fulford outside York. However, King Harold II Godwinson arrived with a large force and, catching the Norwegians by surprise, massacred them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066.

William the Bastard (1066-87) In 1036 Duke Robert of Normandy died on pilgrimage to the Holy Land leaving a 7-year-old son by a working woman to whom he was not married and who he named William. William’s childhood and teens were spent in a court in crisis and beset by war, an environment he mastered, making himself the most successful military leader in northern Europe. He was convinced Edward the Confessor had promised him the crown of England and was outraged when Harold ‘usurped’ it. He assembled a huge invasion fleet and an army well-stocked with mercenary fighters, before waiting impatiently for the weather in the English Channel to become favourable. Landing in Pevensey Bay on 28 September 1066, he marched his army to Hastings and then inland to the ridge at Senlac where, on 14 October, the Battle of Hastings was fought, King Harold Godwinson killed, and the Saxon forces decimated.

William then marched his men from the coast through Sussex and Surrey, across the Thames and then north-east along the Chilterns to Berkhamsted, ravaging and burning as he went. All resistance was crushed and eventually the English nobles in London realised they had to capitulate. William had himself crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066. For the Normans coronation put God’s seal on power. He also had the Pope’s imprimatur. William claimed the throne:

  • by right of the Confessor’s solemn promises
  • by right of conquest
  • by right of the Pope and Mother Church
  • by the (eventual) acclamation of the leading English nobles

Edward the Aetheling Remember Edward the Exile, the son of Edmund Ironside? Who came back to England in 1057 only to drop dead? Well, he had a son known to history as Edgar the Ætheling (b.1051?). After Harold II was killed at Battle, Edward was briefly proclaimed king of England and based himself in anti-Norman London, at least for the few months that William ravaged his way through the Home Counties. It was Edward who led the deputation from London which went to submit to the Conqueror at Berkhamsted. He was allowed to live but plagued William by putting himself at the head of a number of rebellions against William’s rule between 1067 and 1075. With the end of English opposition in that year he went and fought alongside the Conqueror’s son Robert of Normandy in campaigns in Sicily (1085-1087) and accompanied Robert on the First Crusade (1099-1103) before dying of old age in England in 1126.

The failure of monarchy

The fundamental reason there was a Norman Conquest is because Edward the Confessor failed to have a son, indeed any children. His widow, Edith, later commissioned a Life of Edward which claimed he was so devout and holy the couple never had sex. More likely it was just a common-or-garden case of infertility, in which case two of the most seismic events in English history – the Norman Conquest and the Reformation – can be attributed to malfunctioning sex organs.

Related links

King Edward the Confessor promising what, exactly, and to whom?

King Edward the Confessor promising what, exactly, and to whom?

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