Edward the Confessor: King of England by Peter Rex (Review)

Edward the Confessor, the second last King to rule England before the Norman Conquest of 1066 is best known for his piety and patronage of the original Westminster Abbey where he is buried. Subsequent Kings admired him for his religious devotions rather than his statesmanship. During the thirteenth century, King Henry III rebuilt Westminster Abbey to honour his favourite royal saint and named his son and heir, Edward, reviving the Confessor’s name for eight future Kings. In Edward the Confessor, the late Peter Rex, author of numerous books about Saxon and early Norman England including William the Conqueror: The Bastard of Normandy, The Last English King: The Life of Harold II, 1066: A New History of the Norman Conquest and Hereward: The Last Englishman argues that centuries of hagiography and Norman propaganda have obscured the life and times of the real Edward the Confessor.

Rex begins and ends with the events of Edward the Confessor’s life but the middle chapters are organized by theme, emphasizing the King’s statesmanship instead of his piety. There are sections devoted to royal administration, the King’s wealth, succession politics, foreign wars and domestic upheaval, most notably the actions of the King’s father-in-law, Earl Godwin of Wessex. Throughout the narrative, Rex keeps the emphasis on the King as a statesman. Edward’s twenty-four year reign was a period of peace and prosperity for England that would not be replicated for the rest of the eleventh century. The successes of Edward’s reign demonstrate that he was politically astute as well as pious.

Although biographical information about historical figures who lived more than a thousand years ago is notoriously difficult to find, Rex reaches informed conclusions about the man who wore the crown. Edward was the son of King Aethelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy, a marriage that created a familial link between the Saxon royal house in England and the Dukes of Normandy that would change the course of English history. Emma largely abandoned Edward and her other children from her first marriage after her remarriage to King Canute.

Edward spent years of exile in Normandy while Canute and his sons ruled England. Norman sources seeking to justify William the Conqueror’s eventual ascension argued that Edward formed a close relationship with his relatives in Normandy but Rex uncovers little evidence of Edward receiving support from his mother’s family. While in Normandy, the exiled Edward did not receive lands, a noble wife or the military support necessary to claim his crown. Rex argues convincingly that Edward may have resented his relatives and certainly believed that his mother could have done more for him. In the chapter on succession, Rex does not present any evidence that Edward intended his cousin, William, Duke of Normandy to be his successor.

Rex also provides a sensitive and nuanced analysis of Edward’s marriage to Edith, daughter of the powerful Godwin, Earl of Wessex. For centuries, historians have argued that the marriage was celibate either because of Edward’s piety or his antipathy toward Godwin and his ambitious family. Contemporaries described the King and Queen as being “more like father and daughter,” an observation that may have had more to do with their twenty year age difference than their marital relations. Like Edward the Confessor’s other recent biographer, Frank Barlow, Rex argues that there no evidence to support the idea of a celibate union. Rex even uncovers circumstantial evidence that the royal couple may have had a least one child who died in infancy. Securing the succession was among the duties of medieval monarch and Edward’s piety does not seem to have precluded a physical relationship with his wife.

The 2013 edition of  Edward the Confessor is missing a few key features including an index that would allow scholars and general readers to better follow the changing fortunes of prominent figures during Edward’s reign. There are also a few typographical errors that distract from the narrative. Otherwise, Edward the Confessor, is a fascinating biography that allows readers to glimpse the personality and policies of the last uncontested Saxon King of England.

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