18 The End of the Danish Dynasty, Edward the Confessor and the Rise of the Great men


Cnut’s dynasty survived him by only 7 years, and in 1042 the house of Cerdic returned in the form of Edward the Confessor. Edward is an enigma – weak man or determined survivor? This week the History of England podcast looks at how he came to the throne and his first 10 years.


18 The End of the Danish Dynasty, Edward the Confessor and the Rise of the Great Men

This period of history has it all really – the threat of international war, high politics, scheming Queens . . . a real political soup. There are 3 groups with an interest in the English throne:

  • Harold – Son of Cnut and Aelgifu of Northampton
  • Harthacnut – son of Cnut and Emma of Normandy
  • Alfred and Edward – stuck in Normandy, son of Aethelred the Unready

Harold Harefoot (King of England 1036-1040)

Cnut and his wife, Emma of Normandy never intended Harold to come to the throne, since he was Cnut’s son by his first wife, Aelfgifu of Northampton. They planned for Harthacnut to combine the thrones of England and Denmark. But Harold and Aelfgifu had other ideas. While Harthacnut was occupied defending Denmark, Harold and Aelfgifu persuaded the English thegns to put Harold on the throne – including the crucial man of power – Godwin. Emma of Normandy was sent packing. Meanwhile Harold starting to get rid of his rivals, having Alfred blinded ad killed.

Harthacnut (King of England 1040 – 1042)

Finally Harthcnut was ready in 1040 to fight for his English inheritance – but Harold saved him the trouble by dying. According to the chroniclers, Harthcnut ‘never did anything kingly while he ruled’. But he did bring over Edward (the Confessor) and make him heir.

Edward the Confessor (King of England, 1042-1066)

After Edward took his revenge on his mother, the first 10 years of his reign were dominated by fear of invaision from Scandinavia, and Edward’s relationship with Godwin. In 1051, Edward had his chance at last to remove Godwin from the scene – and he took full advantage, though his joy did not last long. Edward can be seen as a weak man, or as a man who carefully planned his vengence, and was prepared to wait for the right moment.




Hello and welcome to the History of England, Episode 18, The end of the Danish Dynasty and rise of the great men. We left off last week with Cnut’s death, at a most inconvenient time for his empire. Most inconsiderate of him. This week I’m going to cover the end of Cnut’s short lived dynasty, and the first decade or so of his successor, Edward the Confessor.

Before we start all of this, it’s going to get confusing, unless I make sure we’ve got all the relationships of the various pretenders to the English throne worked out. I’ll put a family tree on the website to help, but maybe it would be a good idea to have an introduction to the dramatis personae before we get into the meat of this week’s episode.

We have 5 groups that you need to worry about. Well, not worry, but you know what I mean – to bear in mind. So, in chronological order.

Firstly, there are the children on Aethelred the unready. Aethelred was married twice. Firstly to Aelfgifu, with whom he had 10, yes 10 children. But you can forget all of those. And actually you can forget about this Aelfgifu as well.

Then he married Emma of Normandy. He had another 3 children by her, 2 of which you need to worry about. These are Alfred and Edward the Confessor, born somewhere around 1003-5. These two are living in Normandy with Emma’s family, deserted by Emma when she married Cnut.

Then there’s Cnut’s children. He also married twice, and spookily his first wife was also called Aelfgifu, called commonly Aelfgifu of Northampton. He had two children by her, Svein the eldest and Harald, though most of the chronicles accuse Harald of having nothing to do with Cnut. By the time of Cnut’s death, though, Svein has died after a disasterous period of rule in Norway. So you don’t have to worry about Svein. Just worry about Harald. Harald, was often called Harald Harefoot, on account of his speed and his talent for hunting, and would have been about 20 when Cnut died.

Aelfgifu of Northampton had been with her son Svein in Norway during his disasterous rule, where she had been even more unpopular than he had, but by the death of Cnut she was back in England, and desperate to see her second son Harald succeed to the English throne.

And finally, Cnut then put Aelfgifu of Northampton aside and married Emma of Normandy, Aethelred’s widow. They had one son, Harthacnut, who would have been about 17 at Cnut’s death. And who Emma was equally desperate to have become king, and was favoured also by Cnut. By the way, guess what the Old English name for Emma was? Yup you guessed it – Aelfgifu.

Finally, just keep half an eye on the son of Edmund Ironside, Edward the Exile. You may remember that he fled to Hungary, after Cnut tried to kill him, and is still over there for the moment.

And just remember the powerful earls we talked about last week – Leofric of Mercia, Godwine of Wessex and Siward of Northumbria

OK, all clear? So it’s 1035. We’ve got the Anglo Saxon Alfred and Edward in Normandy. We’ve got Harald in England, Hathacnut in Denmark. In the wings we’ve got Edward the exile. We’ve got 3 powerful earls and 2 powerful queens.

Ready? Right, off we go then.

Before his death, it was pretty clear that Cnut had intended that Harthcnut would rule his empire, including Denmark and England. But Harthacnut was under attack from Magnus in Norway and could not come over to England to claim his inheritance. And the Witan in England were worried; with Magnus cutting up rough in Norway they didn’t like not having a king to prepare any defence that might be necessary.

So there was a crisis, and the witan was undecided and split into parties. One party, led by Emma and Godwine was prepared to take the risk of electing an absent king, and declared for Harthacnut. The other party, led by Leofric, London and almost all the thegns north of the Thames wanted to postpone a decision until things were clearer in Norway and Denmark, and proposed a regency. Their proposed regents were Aelfgifu of Northampton and Harald, though there’s some indication that some of this party were also sympathetic to Alfred and Edward in Normandy.

We’ve seen before that even in these early days the English loved a good compromise, and the witan were masters at it. So in the council held in Oxford in 1036, the witan decided that Harald should indeed be regent; but that Emma should live at Winchester, surrounded by Hathacnut’s huscarles, i.e. his personal household troops. The significance of this was that the royal treasury was there, and presumably this gave Emma and Harthacnut some level of security.

If Harthacnut had been able to leave Denmark and come to England within a few months of this arrangement, maybe he could have succeeded to his inheritance as Cnut intended, but he was unable to get back for year, and Aelfgifu and Harald prepared their position carefully, Harald very quickly seized the royal treasury against Emma’s will. Emma hung on grimly in Winchester, and may well have responded by spreading rumours casting doubts on Harald’s parentage. Aelfgifu and Harald meanwhile worked tirelessly to bring the thegns and earls round to the idea of Harald becoming king, binding men to them with oaths. In the process, they appear to have worked Godwine round to their side as well.

Before they could succeed, though, Alfred and Edward the Confessor enter the scene. For some reason, they decided that now was the time to visit Emma their mother. Given the distinct lack of affection she displayed towards them, and the resentment Edward the Confessor later showed toward her, this is more than a little strange. Rumours abound. Did Emma encourage their gamble in a desperate attempt to through Harald off his stride? Or did Aelfgifu of Northampton trick them to come over? Whatever happened, they must have had some message; it seems extremely unlikely that they would have taken such a risk without come assurances.

Edward failed to make it over, beaten off by the weather and returning to Normandy. Alfred was not so lucky. He arrived on the south coast, and set off for his mother in Winchester, but was intercepted by Godwine. According to the ASC, Godwine tempted Alfred with the throne, and Alfred said he was interested – at which point Godwine’s men seized him and killed most of his men. Alfred was taken to Ely, probably now out of Godwin’s control – and as soon as he arrived he was savagely blinded, and died soon afterwards of his wounds. Godwine had made a friend of Harald – but an enemy of Harthacnut and Edward.

Before the end of 1037, Harald and Aelfgifu’s campaign had succeeded, and Harald was formally declared to be King. Harald immediately moved against Emma, and drove her out of the country. Interestingly, she did not go to Normandy to join her son and Richard, the Duke of Normandy, but when instead to Baldwin the Count of Flanders. This does kind of indicate that she was suspected of some evil doing, or at least an unnatural lack of affection towards her sons, and she realised that she would not be safe there. She was to be there for 3 years, but at the time she must have thought it would be much longer.

We don’t know very much about Harald Harefoot, though we might suspect that is was as much the reign of Aelfgifu as it was of Harald. But there is no reason to suppose that he was anything but secure in this reign. Harthacnut came to an agreement with Magnus in 1038 or 9, and from that point forward was free to come and claim his inheritance. The nature of the agreement with Magnus was that if either if them died without an heir, the other could claim their throne. Harald from this point on was free to made a bid for England. But he knew that to dislodge Harald he would need a full blown invasion, so he set about gathering a major fleet and army, of over 60 ships, and moved his fleet to Bruges in 1039 to meet up with Emma. Still he didn’t move on England, and in 1040 he was saved the trouble, when in March Harald unexpectedly died.

The witan immediately turned to Harthacnut and invited him to London, but Harthacnut didn’t arrive until June. When he did. arrive that there would have been many English lords feeling extremely worried about their futures, in particular Godwine. But Godwine, as he was to prove throughout his colourful life, knew the way to his new king’s heart, and knew how to survive. He presented Harthacnut with a gilded galley, fully manned with 80 soldiers, and plenty of silver and gold. He swore that he’d hated having to arrest Alfred, and swore that he’d been forced to follow orders. Harthacnut was either convinced, dazzled, or recognised that Godwine was not easily disposed of, and Godwine survived.

Of Aelfgifu’s fate we know nothing. She simply disappears from the record, so speculation is useless. Your guess is as good as mine.

Our knowledge of Harthacnut’s character is almost as vague. On the plus side, he was clearly a man for whom family was important. His concern for his half brothers seems genuine, and he took the death of Alfred personally. He prosecuted Godwne, who only survived by the present of the aforementioned ship, and by oaths sworn by many of the leading magnates of the kingdom. Harthacnut Deprived Bishop Lyfing of his see for a while, since he also blamed him. And the following year he invited the surviving brother, Edward to come to England, and in 1041 made him his heir. And so the Anglo Saxon line stood to recover its position.

But there’s plenty of negative evidence as well, and there’s no doubt Harthcnut had inherited his father’s lack of ruth. He had Harald’s body interred, and thrown into the marshes. And be betrayed Eadwulf, the earl of Bamburgh to his enemies, a crime particularly harsh since Eadwulf had been granted his special peace, which essentially made Harthacnut an oath breaker.

Harthacnut also faced a particular problem which he solved brutally and without mercy. He had with him 60 ships stuffed full of soldiers, who presumably had expected some plunder in the traditional Viking idiom. To compensate, Hathacnut imposed a one off tax of £32,000. The English were horrified at the severity of the tax, and Harthcnut’s Huscarles were dispatched to enforce the collection. When Worcester resisted, the city was burned.

But really, that’s all we know. The chronicler of the ASC was pretty clear when it remarked that Harthecnut ‘never did anything kingly while he ruled’, and maybe it’s this epitaph of a contemporary that we need to accept.

Hathacnut was only 2 years as King of England, until he died suddenly as he drank at the wedding feast of his father’s retainer Tovi the Proud, in June 1042.

With his death the male line of Cnut came to an end. There were claimants to the throne in Cnut’s family in Denmark; and Magnus of Norway claimed the throne by dint of his agreement of 1038 with Harthacnut. But there was a groundswell of popular feeling in favour of the ancient English line of Cerdic in the form of Edward, and he was immediately elected king by popular acclamation. None of Cnut’s extended family survived or stood any chance of challenging this; but Magnus successfully invaded Denmark, and began to prepare for an invasion of England.

For the next 5 years, until Magnus’s death in 1047, the English were constantly aware of Magnus’s threat, and aware of the need to meet it. Alone of the leading figures of the kingdom it was Edward’s mother, Emma that seems to have encouraged Magnus, apparently offering to put all her wealth at his disposal. It is quite remarkably difficult to figure out Emma. The balance of probability has to be that she was extremely ambitious, and prepared to do pretty much anything for power – thus her marriage to Cnut, her previous husband’s destroyer, at the price of the abandonment of her children Edward and Alfred; and possibly her cold hearted encouragement of them to visit England to destabilise Harald despite the risk to them. But maybe also she had found her true partner in Cnut, and simply could not bear to see the dynasty he destroyed come back to power. We’ll never really know, but it’s telling that despite her attempt to control history, by commissioning a chronicle of her life, her reputation did not survive intact.

Either way, Edward had had enough, and in 1043 he took the three most powerful kingdom, the earls Godwine, Leofric and Siward to Winchester, There he took possession of her treasure and confiscated all her lands. Emma’s political influence was over, and she was apparently allowed to live out her life at court, and died in March 1052.

The first few years of Edward the Confessor’s rule were carried out in some anxiety and international politics. Edward was in a unique position for a new King in AS England. He had no constituency; he had spent most of his life in exile in Normandy, and had no personal connections with the leading men of the kingdom. He arrived in a situation with three well established and powerful Earls. One of them was deeply implicated in the death of his brother. He did introduce a French element to the court, and caused some reputation for gathering foreigners around him, but the truth is, evidenced from his charters, that at this stage it was the Anglo Scandinavian lords who held the real power.

Edward has a reputation for mildness and other-worldliness. But I don’t think we should be too fooled. Godwine’s power and manner annoyed him. In these early years he bided his time and worked out the way of the land; he even moved to disarm Godwine, marrying his daughter Edith in 1045. But when he had a chance to destroy Godwine, he moved fast and energetically. He was not Godwine’s friend. My bet is that Edith was forced on him through circumstance. One of the sources of his reputation for piety was his reputed failure to consummate his marriage. As soon as he had the chance he packed her off to Edith to a nunnery, without the servants she could have expected. Edward surely didn’t need to do this even given Godwin’s disgrace, and it’s extremely unlikely that Edith appreciated it. When Godwine came back to power, she is again seen as one of Edward’s inner circle – which may be from Edward’s choice, or lack of choice. I personally suspect the latter!

Edward’s character has been a matter of debate, and really it is difficult to tell; was he a weak, vacillating man who failed to cope with his powerful subjects; or was a determined if pious man, a survivor who managed to preserve peace for over 20 years while powerful magnates struggled for power? There are some things people do agree on; he had a benign manner which attracted many of the people who met him; he preferred a simple life and possessed the piety that was to earn him a sainthood and his title of Confessor.

One of the other problems with Edward’s reign is that it is so often seen simply as a precursor to the famous events that followed in 1066. And while some of the events of his reign did affect the outcome, he surely deserves to be studied on his own merit.

Anyway, back to the early years of Edward’s reign. England faced a fluid situation across the water in Scandinavia as Magnus of Norway and Sevin Estrithson slugged it out for control of Denmark. While on the face of it Svein was the better choice for Edward, and was supported by Godwin, whose wife was related to Svein, Edward followed a very neutral policy. In 1046, Svein asked for 50 ship to help against Magnus, but against Godwin’s advice, Edward refused the request, too cautious to risk losing the fleet that protected the coast against Magnus. As a result Magnus was accepted as king of Denmark, and England stood in real danger of invasion.

But then Magnus died. The danger receded as Svein and Harald Hadrada, Magnus’s successor as king of Norway, fought it out. Harald made peace with Edward, and a further request by Svein for aid, despite Godwin’s continued support, again went unanswered.

One of the interesting things about all of this is the relationship between Edward, Godwin and his earls. The Godwin family was enormously powerful at this stage. He was earl of Wessex, his son Harold was the Earl of East Anglia, his son Svein was earl of a region that included 5 shires, and his daughter was the King’s wife. But despite this, his desire for giving Swein Estrithson support was denied. With the support of his other Earls, Leofric and Siward, Edward did hold a balance of power and was able to exert control. But it is also true to say that Siward and Leofric themselves always appear strangely ambivalent towards Edward and Godwin, sometimes supporting one, sometimes the other. The whole set up was a volatile mix of politics and personalities.

The extent and limits of Godwin’s power was also evident in the affair of his son, Svein. Svein was Godwin’s eldest son, and had been promoted to an earldom in 1043, and had made a creditable fist of it. Then in 1046 he outraged public opinion and Edward’s opinion by abducting and trying to marry Eadgifu, the Abbess of Leominister. His request to marry was refused, but Godwin seems to have been able to save the earldom for him. Despite this, a year later Svein hotly abandoned his earldom and took refuge with Svein Estrithson in Denmark. He quickly managed to get himself back into trouble and was thrown out for some unspecified crime in 1049, which left him no choice but to try Edward again.

So in 1049 he appeared with 8 ships to plead his case with the King. But Edward would not be persuaded. Svein turned to his cousin Earl Beorn on ship near Pevensey. Despite Beorn’s initial misgivings, he eventually agreed to add his weight to Svein’s side. But on their way to see the king, Svein had Beorn killed. Who knows why – it appears senseless. Maybe Svein resented Beorn’s initial refusal to support him – we’ll never know.

Anyway, Edward immediately summoned an assembly of the whole army and declared Svein a man without honour. Svein was deserted by 6 of his 8 ships and fled to Flanders. Yet despite all this, incredibly Svein was pardoned and returned to his office in the following year.

What are we to make of all this? Now it’s a long time ago, and the chronicles are conflicting and probably biased, but it’s surely difficult to read this as strong leadership and the rule of law. I mean, the guy’s abducted an Abbess, chucked up his office, committed a further crime in Denmark, murdered his cousin – and yet here he is back in England, all is forgiven. It looks awfully like a King that is unable to refuse the demands of Godwin that his son be taken back. I cannot see this other than as a position of enormous weakness by Edward. Public opinion must have been clearly against Svein. His brother Harold was outraged. It seems difficult to believe that Siward and Leofric would be anything other than outraged. And yet Edward let him get away with it.

Weakness or not, we come to the other side of the argument about Edward. Because it seems equally clear that while he was a push over in the matter of Svein, he was clearly building his position against Godwin. So he did begin to bring in French supporters. For example, Ralph of Mantes was made earl of Hereford; Robert was made Bishop of London and in 1050 he promoted him to the Archbishopric of Canterbury, overturning the election of Eadsige, a kinsman of Godwin.

In 1049, Edward courted popularity by starting to disband the fleet, and ended by ending the hated heregeld in 1051. It seems like a really risky decision, so soon after appearing beset by the danger of invasion from Norway, and with recent Danish raids on the Essex coast. It might just be that he made arrangements with towns along the coast to provide ships, but the arrangement with what became known as the Cinque ports was never clear.

One explanation that seems to meet the facts is that Edward was in too weak a position in 1049 and 1050 to resist Godwin. But that he was determined to get his man in the end, and slowly built his position so that when his chance came to remove Godwin, he would be ready. So the abolition of the Heregeld was part of a plan to build his popularity. And he brought in French friends to counter balance the earls.

His chance came in 1052. The ASC tells us that the Kings friend Count Eustace of Boulogne visited in 1051, met the King and then went homeward. In Canterbury, Eustace picked a fight with the locals, killing and wounding several townsmen in a fight over the provision of lodgings. The locals fought back, and Eustace fled and complained to the King.

Edward ordered Godwin to punish the townsmen – despite the fact that the affray was clearly Eustace’s fault. To give him his due, Godwin saw the injustice of this and refused. Edward immediately gave orders to convene a council to decide Godwin’s fate on 8th September.

Is it too devious of me to suggest that Edward and Eustace cooked up the affair in Canterbury specifically with Godwin in mind? Edward had been made to eat crow – by the man at least partly responsible for the death of his brother. The return of Svein must have been deeply humiliating, he’d had Godwin’s daughter forced on him and he was not master in his own house. He must have known that in his arrogance Godwin would have hated the idea of punishing the people of Canterbury. Firstly, it was the hated foreigners who had caused the problem. Secondly, these were Godwin’s own people, in his earldom. Inflicting punishment would have surely struck hard at his pride.

Well it worked, but maybe too well. In his arrogance, Godwin probably he thought he could get away with this, but he realised that his refusal was dangerously close to rebellion. So he gathered his sons and his army at Tetbury, close to Gloucester where the king was staying, and by 1st September he had a substantial army in the field. He basically demanded the surrender of Count Eustace and his men, as well as earl Ralph in Hereford. Godwin’s claim that he was seeking ‘the king’s advice and aid about how they might avenge the insult to the king and the whole nation’ was clearly window dressing. If Edward gave up Eustace, then the real king would be Godwin.
But at the same time, Edward had his support around him, though he was at first surprised by the size of Godwin’s army, Edward’s nephew Ralf and Earls Siward and Leofric called up more of their men and their army soon matched Godwin. Civil war seemed inevitable.

This time around Godwin bottled it. Maybe his army was the weaker of the two – no actual numbers are mentioned. Maybe he realised that public opinion would not wear his revolt. Maybe he simply wanted to avoid bloodshed – though in the light of later events that seems unlikely. Or maybe the tradition of the witan was to strong tot argue with, because when the Witan decided that the matter should be discussed again in London in 2 weeks time, Godwin had essentially lost.

In the interim, Edward’s army was swollen by Siward’s men from the distant north. Gowdin’s men crept away – they knew that the King had faced Godwin down. By the time of the meeting in London, Godwin knew he’d lost.

Edward summoned Godwin and his son Harold to appear at the court. Interestingly, Svein was declared outlaw even before the meeting – Edward simply could not wait to undo a wrong that must have stuck in his throat. Godwin negotiated for hostages, was refused and in turn refused to appear to answer the charges. So Edward had his revenge – Godwin and Harold were outlawed, and Godwin fled to Flanders and Harold to Ireland.

Despite the passage of centuries, you can almost feel Edward’s joy. Leofric’s son Aelfgar was given Harold’s earldom of East Anglia, an Thegn called Odda was given the Western portion of Wessex as an earldom. Spearhafoc, Godwin’s man as bishop of London was sent lacking and a Norman put in his place. And most of all as I mentioned earlier, Edith was stripped of her money and sent to nunnery.

For the first time as king, Edward was genuinely his own man. My view is that he had been planning this since his arrival 10 years ago. That he had never accept Godwin, the Killer of his brother. He couldn’t bring himself to consummate his marriage to Edith since she was daily evidence of his servitude. This was revenge, at its sweetest.

Let’s leave Edward there then, celebrating his freedom for a week. Next week of course the Godwin’s return, and Edward turns his mind to other things.

9 thoughts on “18 The End of the Danish Dynasty, Edward the Confessor and the Rise of the Great men

  1. Funny, while listening to the podcast, I kept thinking his name was “half a Cnut”. Not a very flattering comparison to his dad :-).

  2. Well, if tghe cap fits, wear it . . . half a cnut, or in fact nowhere-near-half-a-cnut it probably was!

  3. Thank you for reminding me about Emma of Normandy. While listening to this podcast and the last one, I was thinking that she sounded familiar. So I trekked up to my library and found that I do indeed own a book about her. What an interesting story. Thank you so much for telling these great stories; I am enjoying your podcast immensely.

  4. Hi David,

    Fantastic podcasts – I’m a little behind, started a month ago and just got to this point.
    Absolutely enthralled by the stories you tell. Have brought back fully my love of history – so many thanks!

    Could you recommend a good book that goes over the Anglo-Saxon history up to this point, in the style of Marc Morris (and your good self?)

    Anyhow, many thanks for all your hard work – it’s so brilliant!

    1. Hi Matt, and thanks! Um, book wise I always loved ‘In search of the Dark Ages’ by Michael Wood, though it’s very old now. There is a beautiful book, though its a textbook really, Called The Anglo Saxon World’ by Higham – maybe a little dry. In more detail there’s a great book on the Vikings by Neil Oliver, One on Aethelstan by Tom Holland ( a nice brief book). I could go on. but there are a few ideas!

  5. I think this is the first episode when you refer to something that sounds like the “Sink Ports” I was looking for the transcript so I could figure out the actual words, not just what I am hearing phonetically. Can you help me with the actual spelling of the actual words and what the origin is (could it be cinq portes?)

    1. Hi Lois – yes, they are the Cinque ports – French of course for the traditional core 5 ports, though that number grows. Traditionally pronounced as though no Englishman could ever speak French – though maybe also reflecting archaic French.

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