The Medieval Review 10.02.02

Mortimer, Richard, ed. Edward the Confessor: The Man and the Legend . Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2009. Pp. 228. $90.00 ISBN 9781843834366 . .

Reviewed by:

Nicholas Vincent
University of East Anglia

The reign of Edward the Confessor, like the lull before any great storm, has served as a magnet to historical speculation. Setting aside the historical profession's supposed abjuration of all arguments teleological, the principal point of interest in Edward's reign has always been its end, and in particular the question of the succession to the English throne. The assumption has grown up that it was this "succession crisis" which dominated the politics of the reign, almost from the moment that Edward returned to England as king in 1042. Even the great disturbance on 1051-2, in which Edward seems briefly to have wriggled free from the stranglehold of earl Godwin and his sons, has been interpreted within the context of a Godwinist "bid for power," with the throne as Godwin's ultimate goal. Only one scholarly biography has attempted to break with the patterns imposed by hindsight and to assess Edward in his own terms, rather than as a mere avatar to the reign of William of Normandy. Frank Barlow's magnificent life of the Confessor was first published in 1970, in direct association with Barlow's more or less single-handed reinstatement of the most significant of the primary sources, the so-called "Vita Edwardi." This had first been published by Luard in 1858, and had been used by Freeman only to be dropped from respectable society thereafter, in part because of doubts, mistakenly articulated by Marc Bloch, about the "Vita"'s date, in part because of the appallingly opaque Latin in which it was written and the incomplete nature of the surviving manuscript. Barlow's re-edition of the "Vita" revealed a much more forceful, red-blooded, hunting and feasting sort of king than the "Confessor" nickname would suggest. Even Barlow, however, was forced to admit that Edward's reign was a "confusing" time, and that the "Vita" was a "confusing" source, written in the flabbiest of Latin by a Flemish monk. For the political events of the reign, save for this Flemish flab, we have little to guide us save for the heavily edited and often cryptic remarks of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

In the forty years since Barlow's biography of Edward was published, a great deal has shifted in our understanding both of the detail and the context of Edward's reign. Barlow wrote before most of the work of Musset and others on Norman affairs had been properly assimilated into English debates, before the reassessment of Anglo-Saxon charter evidence by Simon Keynes, before the rediscovery of the history of women in Anglo-Saxon society, and before the revolutions in our understanding of such sources as Domesday Book as a means of access not merely to Norman but to pre-Conquest England. The nine essays in the present volume, emerging from a conference held at Westminster Abbey in 2005, rather optimistically intended to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of Edward's birth (at a date and place still undetermined, probably between 1002 and 1005), represent a valuable supplement and corrective to existing scholarship. They will prove invaluable to teachers and to students attempting to make sense of the period, not only because they challenge Barlow at various key points but because it would be hard to think of a collection of scholars whose opinions will be more eagerly sought, than the experts whose thoughts are here set down. That no major new synthesis appears from this collection, and that most of the greater mysteries of the reign remain unsolved, should come as no surprise to anyone who has grappled with the sources. Like other great enigmas, the nature of the historical Edward retains its fascination precisely because no definitive "solution" seems possible.

The collection opens with an important survey both of the reign and of existing scholarship, by Richard Mortimer. Mortimer rightly stresses the problem of assuming any "plan" or basic "policy" either to the reign or the person of Edward. Why, he asks, must historical characters be assumed to have acted according to unchanging principles when such principles are about the last thing that we assume on behalf of modern politicians? Inconsistency is a very human characteristic. What Edward intended in the 1040s was by no means necessarily the same thing that he intended twenty years later. The sources themselves do not even allow us to establish the degree to which it was the King, as opposed to his counselors or the simple pressure of events, that controlled the decision-making processes of the reign. Not content merely with a summary of the existing state of play, Mortimer enters into significant points of detail, including the important question of whether the "Vita"'s record of 1051 refers to "divorce proceedings" (causam diuortii) between Edward and Edith, or merely to less specific proceedings "long since begun" (causam diu ortam). He reminds us that the late twelfth-century seal of Westminster Abbey shows, on one side, St Peter trampling over Nero, on the other Edward trampling earl Godwin. What the historical Edward would have made of this juxtaposition, he suggests, "one can but imagine." One minor blemish here is worth signaling: in the family tree at p. xii, the kinship between Gytha the wife of earl Godwin and Ulf the son-in-law of Sweyn of Denmark, sister and brother, has somehow slipped out of the typesetting.

Simon Keynes, supplementing his already classic study of Edward's pre-accession exile in Normandy, attempts an assessment of "Edward the Aetheling" and the history of Edward's childhood, before 1016. He accepts the questionable identification of Islip as Edward's birthplace, attempts a brave although necessarily sketchy survey of Edward's relationship with his elder half-brothers Athelstan and Edmund, and concludes that, although at most fourteen years old by the time of his flight into exile in 1016, Edward would already have acquired not only a close familiarity with his future English realm but a fairly sophisticated understanding of the political forces which impacted so disastrously upon the last decade of his father's reign. With Keynes confining his survey to England, Elisabeth van Houts is left to carry the story forwards to Edward's continental exile, building upon the work of Keynes published in 1991, on "The Aethelings in Normandy" but extending this in a number of important respects. Her essay contains highly significant new material on Godgifu, Edward's sister, and her first husband, Drogo of Mantes, quite possibly assigned a dower by her kinsman, Duke Richard of Normandy, as yet further proof of the close protection afforded by Richard to his English kin. Godgifu's second marriage, c. 1036, to Eustace of Boulogne, almost certainly explains the previously unremarked involvement of Boulogne in her brother Alfred's ill-fated expedition to England later that year. Both of Godgifu's marriages, Van Houts, quite rightly emphasizes, need to be set within the context not just of English but of Norman relationships with the greater powers on Normandy's frontiers and hence greatly strengthen the impression that the dukes of Normandy did their best both to protect and to manipulate the exiled children of Aethelred. In this context it might have been worth noting the way in which, at the very end of his reign in 1086, William the Conqueror laid claim to the Vexin on the basis that it had been granted to his father, Duke Robert II, by the King of France as long ago as 1033, during precisely that period when, as Van Houts shows, Godgifu and Drogo of Mantes were most active in the region. Having further suggested that there were close personal and professional associations between various of the Norman abbeys and (mostly Italian) abbots of Norman religious houses patronized by Edward, both before and after 1042, Van Houts concludes by linking such contacts, beyond the frontiers of Normandy, to the way in which already, even before his return to England in 1042, Edward is reputed to have worked miracles of healing, in emulation of the reputation of King Robert of France, and perhaps to similar effect, as a means of bolstering the pretensions of a self-styled king whom by no means all contemporaries regarded as legitimate heir to the throne.

Superficially, where Van Houts presents new evidence, Stephen Baxter's survey of the succession question after 1042 might be thought merely to synthesize earlier theories, arriving at the far from revolutionary conclusion that no single theory will work and that Edward changed his mind on at least three occasions, favouring first William of Normandy, then his great-nephew Edgar the Aethling, and finally, on his deathbed, Harold Godwinson. In fact, there is a great deal here that is new or newly thought through. Baxter stresses, for example, the likelihood that, in the 1040s, the King genuinely expected to father children by Queen Edith, drawing attention to the pontifical of Leofric of Exeter, bishop and courtier, and its prayers that the King be blessed with an heir. The offer of the throne to William when no such heir appeared, after 1051, was itself hardly unexpected although, as Baxter emphasizes, needs to be divorced from the question of the Godwinson hostages delivered up to William and still in Norman custody in 1066. These hostages, apparently lending weight to the theory of an offer of England to Duke William, served to support the Norman chroniclers' account of Norman claims and have since caused great perplexity to modern undergraduates, seeking to make sense of events. The hostages, however, were not necessarily linked to an offer of the throne but to the settlement brokered in 1052, on Godwin's return, when it was feared that, without such hostages, Godwin's promises of future good conduct to Edward would be as fickle as his promise, made in 1036, to allow no harm to come to Edward's brother, Alfred. To this extent, the hostages do not necessarily need to be associated with an offer of the throne to William, although they do suggest that, in the 1050s, relations between Edward and William were closer and more trusting than those between Edward and Godwin. Baxter supplements his enquiry with a series of a dozen coloured maps (by no means the least glory of this volume), setting out in splendid and illuminating detail the transfer of earldoms effected by Edward and by political events across the twenty years of the reign.

Pauline Stafford's essay on Edward's queen, Edith, once again building upon earlier work, revisits the perennial difficulty of fathoming the relations between men and women in an age for which the evidence is so sketchy and so stereotyped. Nonetheless, Stafford quite rightly draws attention to the allegations, apparently refuted by Edith, that the Queen was suspect to Edward, not just because of her supposed sterility or her support for the Godwin cause, but as a result of outright accusations of adultery. William of Malmesbury refers to such accusations, and to Edith's purging of them. Infuriatingly, he leaves unresolved the most important question of all: with whom was Edith accused of an affair? There is surely an opening here into which future historians can insert any number of wild speculations. Meanwhile, Edward's marriage to Edith, like the rise of the Godwinsons in general, raises another set of questions: to what extent was the Godwin family aware of the history of France, and hence of the way in which first the Carolingian and later the Robertian dynasties had come to replace their predecessors? Did Godwin and his sons model themselves upon the received opinion of Peppin of Hierstad or Hugh Capet, and were contemporaries aware of the comparisons that might be drawn?

In the four brief pieces with which the collection concludes, the emphasis shifts from Edward himself to his posthumous cult and canonization (neatly and expertly surveyed by Edina Bozoky) and in particular to the one building, Westminster Abbey, which can be assumed to preserve evidence of his personal architectural taste. In both cases revisiting earlier work, Richard Gem and Eric Fernie address the question of the building's design and designers, Gem drawing attention to three men (Teinfrith, Leofsi son of Dudde, and Godwin known, unforgettably, as "Fat Syd") named in early documents as having supervised the abbey's works. Fernie repeats his earlier statements about the extraordinary length and size of Edward's abbey and about the subtle ways in which it differs from Jumiges, sometimes assumed to have supplied the blue-print. In particular, he emphasizes that the geometrical relation between the side of the cloister and the length of the nave suggests that both cloister and nave were built to proportions already determined by the time of Edward the Confessor's death. The only problem here is that we have no certain date for either cloister or nave, the scale of both of which could have been augmented at any time between 1066 and the date of their final completion, by the 1080s at the earliest. To argue that the nave preserves its original proportions because those proportions are directly related to the size of the cloister is therefore to risk an entirely circular argument. Finally, in one of the more original contributions here, Warwick Rodwell draws attention to various recent discoveries at Westminster, including what may have been the tomb chamber of St. Edward, revealed by Ground-Penetrating Radar to lie under the Cosmati pavement in the Confessor's chapel, perhaps the resting place of Edward's body between 1163 and the reconstruction of the abbey from the 1240s onwards, a series of inscribed tiles that are the earliest surviving examples of their kind in England and which may have been used for the flooring of the eleventh-century chapter house, and a wooden door, certainly the oldest surviving in England, made from timber cut before 1064, already a venerable relic by the time that it was reshaped for use in the monastic buildings remodeled in the thirteenth century by Henry III. Rodwell quite reasonably speculates as to whether this door was deliberately preserved by Henry III because of its particular associations with the Confessor.

With so little of the Confessor's church still remaining, we are left to speculate what else may still remain to be discovered underground. Archaeology is unlikely to bring to light various of the abbey's greater relics, listed in the fifteenth-century inventory by John Flete which would have included the bits of wax and incense with which St. Peter himself is said to have dedicated the abbey church: a potent reminder of the close contacts between Edward and the continental church that historians of eleventh-century England ignore at their peril. They would not have included such archival remains as the new fragments of both the "Encomium" of Emma and the "Vita Edwardi" that came to light late in 2008, just as this volume was going to press and that are shortly to be published in articles by Tim Bolton and Henry Summerson. As such discoveries prove, there is a great deal about the Confessor's reign that will continue to fuel speculation. In the meantime, both as an introduction to the reign as a whole and as a commentary on various of its more significant episodes, this volume is highly to be recommended.