Sunday, November 17, 2013

Blood of the Ironside: Why William of Normandy was Not the English Choice for the Crown

by Paula Lofting, Author of Sons of the Wolf and The Wolf Banner

Edmund’s Story

Edmund Ironside was the 3rd youngest son of Aethelred II and his first wife Aelfgifu. During the invasion of the Danes beginning in around 1013 when Swein seizes the throne, Edmund was very close to his oldest surviving brother Athelstan. It seems that Athelstan and most likely Edmund became at odds with their father over the ineffective policies he was employing against the invading Danes. Edmund was to earn the name Hyrneside, because of his amazing courage in the face of the Danish army; a title that deeply contrasted his father’s reputation of the Unraed. Whilst Aethelred and Emma fled to Normandy with their young sons Edward and Alfred and daughter Goda, Aethelstan and Edmund continued the offensive against Swein and his son Cnut; eventually, Aethelred returns to help them drive them out, but Aethelstan died in June 1014 leaving a substantive amount of land to his brother Edmund and a sword that had belonged to Offa.

Aethelred, known as the infamous Unraed (badly counselled), on the advice of the ‘grasping’ Eadric Streona, executed Sigeforth and Morcar for treason when they went to a council meeting, probably expecting to be pardoned, punishment for submitting to Swein and now Cnut, (Swein died in February 1014). I suspect that they had had little choice but submit when Aethelred had deserted the country and fled to Normandy; and although they betrayed the friendship of Aethelstan and Edmund, it was either submit to Cnut or die. I believe that Edmund may have forgiven them and considered these men his retainers as he took possession of their lands upon their deaths and was welcomed as lord by the men of the whole of the Five Boroughs (Stenton 1971). Edmund married Ealdgyth, the widow of the executed Sigferth in order to protect her from his father’s wrath and most likely to strengthen the allegiance of the men of the Five Boroughs; an act that would make him fall even further foul of his father.

But soon, Aethelred is dead and Edmund is crowned King, and Edmund continues to fight courageously to keep his crown; he might have won at the Battle of Assendun if not for the treachery of Eadric Streona. Streona switches sides at the crucial moment and the battle is a decisive defeat for Edmund, but the consequential result is a stalemate, with both sides agreeing to keep to their sides of the kingdom--Edmund in Wessex and Cnut in the Danelaw.

Edmund dies some weeks later, his death shrouded in hearsay and mystery. There is a myth that he was killed when he went to the privy. A determined assassin sent by Streona, braved the privy pit to come up beneath him and stab him in the back passage. The truth is he may have sustained wounds at the battle that had become gangrenous; whatever the cause, he was dead by the 30th November 1016 and the pathway to the throne was freed for Cnut. Edmund had ruled for only a matter of months.

Edmund’s wife Ealdgyth, was now a widow for the second time, and for the second time her life she was in danger. She has two infants by Edmund, Edmund and Edward. In what order chronologically it is not clear but it is thought that they were very young, and given the time scale between Edmund taking Ealdgyth to wife both children could only have been babies.

Cnut, like many kings who had come to power through force, was possibly feeling the paranoia that goes with the job. He was most likely insecure on the throne and as yet hadn’t consolidated his position. He was still suspicious of the English nobles, especially Streona who was willing to betray Edmund so easily.

In order to eliminate any possibilities of anyone taking up their cause, he decided to exile the family of Edmund, and they were sent abroad, either by force or by threat, or even perhaps on the premise that it was for their own safety.

They were sent to Sweden, to the court of King Olof Skötkonung, probably to be disposed of. Olof, a Christian king, having converted sometime around 1008, may have felt that this was against his ethos and assisted their escape; they somehow make their way to Hungary where Edward grew to adulthood at the court of King Stephen. Something happened to Edward’s brother Edmund, for he and his mother leave the scene; the details are not known. By the time Bishop Eadred of Worcester sets out on a mission from King Edward to find his half-nephew, Edward The Exile is married to a German/Hungarian noble lady called Agatha, with two daughters, Christina, Margaret, and a son, Edgar.

Edgar’s Story

It must have occurred to everyone in King Edward’s administration that he and Queen Edith were never going to produce heirs. Edward himself hinted that the fault lay with him and not with Edith, suggesting that he may have preferred the company of men or that he was not interested in sex, preferring to live a monkish lifestyle. Edward looked upon Edith as a daughter and Edith it seemed, mothered Edward, tending to his attire with great care, lavishing gifts upon him to adorn him in such splendour that was becoming of a king.

The beginning of their relationship was not, by all accounts, one of great mutual respect, as shown by Edward’s willingness to cast her aside when the rest of her family fell out of favour with Edward and were exiled in 1051. They were returned to favour a year later and she was restored to her throne after a spell in a nunnery and by the time of the King’s death, the couple had grown fond of each other in a father/daughter fashion. Edith, apparently, often sat at Edward’s feet and would warm them if they were cold; an observation of affection that had been made at the time.

So with Edward and Edith’s inability to produce an heir of the Blood Royal for the throne, the Witan counselled that an investigation into the whereabouts of the family of Edmund Ironside, King Edward’s half brother, should be carried out. In 1054 King Edward sanctioned Bishop Ealdred to travel abroad to seek out information about them and hopefully return with them. When he does return in 1055, he has that information but has been unable to access the family due to the political unrest in Hungary at the time which made it unsafe for him to travel there. In 1057, however, the family are found and brought to England. Edward the Exile and his Hungarian family have come home.

There is some evidence to support a theory that Harold Godwinson was part of a delegation to bring back Edward the Exile to England. He was certainly abroad in 1056/7 as charters would attest (Barlow 2013). Mysteriously, according to the Worcester Chronicle, Prince Edward was somehow prevented from meeting his uncle the King. It is not known how he died, but he did so after only 3 days of being back in England. Historians have suggested that there was foul play involved in his death. Also, some have implicated Harold Godwinson and or other members of his family in having somehow ‘done away’ with the Exile; however there is not a shred of evidence to support this and this is purely conjecture.

So, with Edward the Exile dead and the problem of the English Succession still in existence, they look to the remaining members of the family, who have travelled to England with a great treasure to support them. Agatha, wife of the deceased Prince Edward was thought to be related to both the Hungarian and German nobility. She had provided the unlucky Edward with three children as mentioned above. Edgar, their youngest and only son was 5 years old; later he becomes known as ‘Edgar Atheling’. Edward and the rest of his council of nobles accept him as a contender for the throne, for he has the blood of Wessex, the Royal Blood of Ironside; he will be able to attest his claim upon his great uncle’s death.

William’s Story

At this time, there is no other recorded atheling, which was the main criterion expected in a claimant. William of Normandy, Edward’s second cousin through his mother Emma of Normandy, was never referred to with this title, and there is no recorded evidence that he ever was despite the Norman chroniclers’ assertion that Edward and William discussed the succession in 1051 after the Godwinsons had been ousted from power and exiled abroad.

Edward’s Norman supporters clearly wanted this powerful family out of the way; they supported the idea of a Norman king on the throne of England. Earl Godwin’s wealth and the fact he had a plethora of sons all vying for offices in the English administration was a threat to their welfare and security. It seemed highly likely that the Norman/French faction in Edward’s government plotted against the mighty Godwin and engineered the exile in the form of the Dover incident, which Godwin refused to accept, and thus he was ousted from the country along with his family.

Queen Edith, Godwin’s daughter, was sent into a nunnery, as mentioned before. William took the opportunity to venture overseas to meet with Edward whilst the Godwins were out of the way in exile. There is only one of the Anglo Saxon Chronicles that concurs with this event strangely enough, but it would appear that this meeting did happen, for the events that were to follow later supports this.

If we assume that William travelled with his retinue to meet with King Edward sometime between the autumn of 1051 and late spring 1052, there was quite possibly a discussion about the succession. The only English source that corroborates with this is the Worcester Manuscript (Chronicle D) and records no more detail than ‘Duke William came from over the sea...and the King received him and let him go again.’

William was happy enough to return to Normandy, but no more appears to be mentioned about this until later when Harold Godwinson is elected king and rises to the throne. There are no recorded letters between the Duke and the King and nothing is mentioned about any letters in any of the later sources.

When the Godwinsons returned to power, fighting their way back from exile like a hurricane blown from the sea, many of Edward’s Norman friends were accused of counselling the King falsely and were forced to flee England as the Godwins had been forced to do the year before.

The other major leading English nobles were Leofric, Earl of Mercia and Siward of Northumberland and they had refused to back Godwin against the King before he was exiled, but this time they did, most likely because they were threatened by the increasing power of Edward’s Frenchmen and it was a case of ‘better the devil you know’, than allow the Normans’ influence with the King to escalate. At least Godwin was a native of the land, understood the cultural needs of the people, the ancient laws and their customs. The Normans did things differently, and the English wanted to preserve the laws that governed the land and protect their rights within the framework of law codes that had been developed throughout the passing generations.

The Normans had been whispering in the King’s ears about a powerful Norman heir, who had already proved himself in his own lands. I can imagine something along the lines of this: “Better to leave the kingdom in the capable hands of Duke William than to the power-hungry, self-seeking Godwinson brothers. Godwin killed your brother, now they want to kill you.” With Godwin out of the way, they could make an alliance for Edward with one of the Duke’s female relatives. This would be much more favourable.

In 1052 Edward was forced to restore Godwin back to his Earldom of Wessex, and his son Harold was restored to his Earldom of East Anglia. Godwin took charge and saw that Edward was only allowed to keep certain trustworthy members of his Norman retinue, like his nephew, Ralph de Mantes; the guilty ones, one of whom was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Champart, fled back to Normandy with Godwin’s son and nephew as hostages. Edward was now pretty much a puppet, made to dance to Godwin’s tune.

Godwin dies in 1053, but not before he has restored the kingdom back to its former state as it was before his exile. Harold steps into his shoes in Wessex and Leofric’s son Alfgar, takes over in East Anglia. Then in 1055 Harold’s brother Tostig is allocated Northumbria. Around this time, as we have already discussed, Bishop Ealdred is sent on his mission to find Edward the Exile. The carrot that has been dangling in front of Duke William is no longer dangling. Eyes have turned firmly in the direction of the Royal Blood of Wessex. Edgar Atheling.

Harold’s Story

And as the years drew towards the 1066 Norman Invasion, it seemed that there was little interaction between Edward and William regarding the succession. According to Eadmer, Edward advised Harold against his trip to Normandy in 1064 to secure the release of his kinsmen who had been taken to Normandy as hostages by Robert Champart. The boys had been given as hostages when Godwin was exiled. In 1064, Harold decided that it was time for them to come home.

Edward knew that no good would come from this trip, and he might have been very wise to advise Harold of this, for Harold and his crew became hostages in William’s court until Harold swore an oath on relics to support William’s claim to the throne. It seemed that Edward had the insight to forewarn his leading Earl, however, Harold was always his own man and ignored the advice of his King to go to Normandy regardless.

The Norman’s version ignores this story. Harold, they said, had travelled to Normandy on Edward’s orders, to confirm Edward’s promise of the crown and swear his fealty to him. In return, William had agreed with Harold that he would remain second in command when he became the king. But Harold had been under duress when he had given this oath and it was widely thought that an oath under duress could be forsaken at a later time.

When Harold returned to England after that fateful trip, as Eadmer reports, Edward chastises Harold with ‘I told you that nothing would come of that trip.’ Edward was still to name his successor; Edgar was atheling but no more than 12 or 13 at this time. Being Atheling meant only that he was throneworthy, not that he was the chosen heir, and still England had no confirmed heir. However, Edward was, although aged, a robust and healthy enough man who continued to hunt and pursue outdoor sports. Perhaps they did not believe that there was any need yet to concern themselves with an imminent royal death. But Edward’s health was to take a rapid decline toward the end on 1065. He was dead by the new year of 1066 and had named on his deathbed his brother-in-law Harold as his successor.

Why not Edgar, I hear you all ask? He was young, very young, to take up the mantle of a king and perhaps not deemed to be experienced or schooled enough in the ways of kingship. A contesting prince would have had to have had a large body of supporters and men at his disposal to fight, if necessary, for his right to the crown. Most likely Edgar had none of those things and it certainly had not bypassed the English of what storms were due on the horizon.

The bitter, ousted Tostig was looming in the North with Harald Hardrada, razing, burning and threatening the peace of the kingdom and in the south, the Normans, watchful and waiting. The English, it seemed, did not want William for their king. They had elected Harold, probably before Edward had breathed his last. Edward had most likely just been following protocol by naming him.

If there had been no Harold, then perhaps they may have supported Edgar, but I am of the opinion the English did not want William as their king, nor did they want Tostig or Hardrada in power. They wanted the right to choose their own ruler; to be ruled in the way of their ancestors. The English knew that they needed a strong and powerful leader to do this if they were going to fight invasions from north and south. That man had to be Harold Godwinson. Although he was not Blood of the Ironside, he alone was the man that they thought could save them from the swelling tide of doom.

Soon, the Duke would be crowned in Westminster, and Harold would be dead on the battlefield of Hastings. Godwin’s blood line would continue, but in Eastern Europe, with Harold’s daughter Gytha marrying into the Russian royal family. It would one day return to England in the form of Philippa of Hainault, Edward III’s queen. Edmund’s blood would continue on in Scotland through his granddaughter Margaret, Edgar’s sister who becomes King Malcolm’s wife after the Norman invasion. Their daughter Edith becomes the wife of Henry I, and so the Blood of Ironside returns to the throne via their daughter Maude the Empress, whose son Henry becomes King of England in the 12th Century.

This piece of work is part of the research I have done for my Sons of the Wolf historical novel and its yet to be published sequel The Wolf Banner. Both these books are part of a planned series covering the events before and after the Norman Conquest of England.


Barlow F (1997) Edward the Confessor (2nd ed) Yale University Press, US.
Bridgeford A. (2004) 1066 The Hidden History of The Bayeux Tapestry, Harper Perennial, London.
Eadmer Eadmer’s History of Recent Events in England
Harvey Wood H, (2008) The Battle of Hastings: The Fall of Anglo Saxon England, Atlantic Books, Chatham.
Stenton F (1971) Anglo Saxon England (3rd Ed) Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Swanton M (2000) The Anglo Saxon Chronicles (2nd ed) Phoenix Press, London.


Paula Lofting is the author of Sons of the Wolf and The Wolf Banner.

This piece of work is part of the research I have done for my Sons of the Wolf historical novel and it’s yet to be published sequel, The Wolf Banner. Both these books are part of a planned series covering the events before and after the Norman Conquest of England.
You can buy Sons of the Wolf on:
Amazon US
Amazon UK

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  1. This was extremely well done, very learned, very well-written. I will read your novels. God bless.

  2. Fascinating. I came across Edgar AEtheling and Margaret when I researched King Malcolm's involvement in Northumbrian politics / rebellions / whatever you'll call it depending on the historical POV. ;-)

  3. I really enjoyed this post, Paula. It's good to see how a more accurate account of these years is beginning to uncover he Norman propaganda.

  4. Great post Paula, is there proof that Willam the Conqueror granted Edgar a post conquest earldom?


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