Gateway to the Classics: Our Island Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Island Story by  H. E. Marshall

Edward the Confessor

Y OU remember that, when the Danes invaded England in the time of Sweyn, Canute's father, Ethelred, who was then king, fled to France with his wife and children. After Ethelred's death Edmund Ironside, one of his sons, became king, shared the kingdom with Canute, and died after a reign of only seven months. Edward, whom the English now chose to be king, was Edmund Ironside's brother, another son of King Ethelred the Unready.

Edward was a boy when he was first taken to Normandy, so although he was English, he had lived all his life in Normandy, and he liked the Normans better than the English.

He brought Norman friends over from France with him. The Norman language, Norman customs and fashions were soon heard and seen everywhere in England.

It had been greatly through the advice of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, that Edward had been chosen, and now the earl was sorry when he found that the king seemed not to be English, but Norman.

However, Godwin thought that an English wife might make Edward love England better, so he persuaded the King to marry his daughter Edith. But although Edward married this beautiful and good lady, he never loved her. Indeed, although he was perhaps not really cruel to her, he was not kind, and he hardly ever even spoke to her. So she had no chance of making him love England better.

The Normans, like the Danes, were very proud and haughty. And Edward's friends behaved so haughtily towards the English, that very soon they were hated, just as the Danes had been hated. The hatred grew and grew, and at last it broke out into fighting.

It happened that one of Edward's friends, called Eustace, Count of Boulogne, was going back to France, after having visited the King. Like most of the Normans Eustace was proud, and he and his company rode into Dover, on their way to their ships, with jingling swords and clanking armour, making a great noise and stir, and behaving as if the whole town belonged to them.

They went to the best houses, rudely demanding food and lodging. They entered the houses without leave, and took what they wanted without a word of thanks.

Now the English have ever been hospitable, but an Englishman's house is his castle. He will give freely, but he does not like to be bullied and robbed. So one brave man refused to allow the Normans to enter his house. Angry at that, a Norman soldier struck him in the face. The man returned the blow. It was enough. In a few minutes a fierce fight had begun, the Normans against the men of Dover.

The Englishmen fought well. They were glad to have a chance of showing their dislike of the Normans, they beat them thoroughly, and drove them out of the town.

Back to King Edward rode Count Eustace in furious rage. "See," he cried, bursting into the room where the King was, "see how these Englishmen of yours have treated us. They set upon us as we rode peaceably through Dover. They have killed twenty of my men, and I myself have barely escaped with my life. Is this the way to treat your friend and guest, my lord king?

Count Eustace, you see, did not tell the story truly. He did not tell King Edward that he and his men had begun the quarrel and were to blame.

King Edward was very angry with the English. He sent at once for Earl Godwin, as Dover was in his earldom. Godwin came, but when he had heard the story of the fight, he felt sure that the fault was not all on the side of the English. So when the King told him to take an army and go to punish the brave men of Dover, he refused. "You have only heard one side of the story," he said. "You have no right to blame or punish the Englishmen until you have heard what they have to say. I will not go."

King Edward was so angry at this, that he banished Earl Godwin and his sons from the land, and gave their earldoms to other people. Then he shut Queen Edith up in a convent, because she was Godwin's daughter.

Now there was no one to hinder the King from doing just as he wanted. He brought more people than ever from France, and among them came his cousin, the Duke of Normandy.

William of Normandy only came for a visit, but many of the other nobles remained in England, and Edward gave them all the best places at court.

William thought England was a very beautiful country, and before he went away he made Edward promise that he should be king next. And Edward was so fond of his cousin that he promised.

Of course Edward had no right to do this. He could not give away the crown of England to any one without the consent of the people. And certainly the people did not wish a Norman king. The kings of England had really no power to act in great matters without calling together a council of the nobles and wise men. The English had always been a free people, who had a share in governing themselves. Their kings had been kings, not tyrants.

Nearly all the chief men at court were now Normans, and the people longed for Godwin and his sons to return and free them from these hated strangers. At last they did return.

Edward was angry when he heard that these banished men had come back without leave. But the people rejoiced and flocked to join the great earl, and it seemed as if there might be war. But there was none. Earl Godwin was very clever, and somehow he forced the king to send away his Norman favourites, and put Englishmen in their places, without any fighting at all. The Frenchmen fled back to their own country, and the things went better in England.

Soon after this, Earl Godwin died and his son Harold took his place. During what remained of Edward's reign it was really Harold who ruled, for the king was growing old and feeble. And Harold governed well, for love of England filled his heart. He even banished his own brother, Tostig, who was Earl of Northumbria, because he governed his earldom badly. This was a difficult thing for Harold to do. But although he loved his brother, he loved his country more, and when he had to choose between them, he chose his country.

Now a very sad thing happened which, together with Edward's foolish promise, made a great difference in the lives of the English people, and perhaps changed all our island story.

One day Harold was sailing upon the sea when a terrible storm arose. The sailors worked hard and tried to get into a safe port, but it was of no use. The masts were broken, the sails torn away. The ship drifted helplessly, and at last was dashed to pieces on the rocky coast of Normandy. Harold and some of the sailors escaped drowning, but they fell into the hands of Duke William.

Now Duke William had never forgotten what a beautiful country England was, and he still hoped to be its king. He knew that Harold was a very great man in England, and he was glad to have him in his power.

Duke William pretended to treat Harold very kindly, but he really kept him prisoner. He would not let him go home until he promised to help him to become king when Edward died.

At last Harold promised. Now of course Harold had no more right to do this than Edward had. But there was more excuse for Harold than for Edward, because the King was a free man in his own country, while Harold was a prisoner in a foreign country, and to make this promise was his only hope of freedom. We must blame Harold for making a promise which he did not mean to keep, but we must blame William more for forcing him to make it, as he took a mean advantage of a helpless prisoner.

Harold went back home, glad to be free, but sad at heart at the remembrance of what William had forced him to do, and hating the Normans more than ever.

Very soon after this, on 5th January 1066 A.D., King Edward died. He was buried with great pomp and ceremony in the grand new church at Westminster, which he had built and which had been finished only a few days before.

King Edward on the whole was a good king, but he had not those things in him which make a great king. He was gentle and pious, and after his death people began to think that he was really a holy man and called him Edward the Confessor, by which name we remember him in history.

If his reign was a happy one for England, it was partly because the great Earl Godwin and his noble son Harold were so powerful that they forced the King to act justly.

Edward did not feel as all great kings must feel, that they are put in their high position, not to please themselves but to do what is best for their people. Edward did not love his people, and he pleased himself by bringing his proud Norman friends from France, and by giving them all the chief posts in England. He thought more about building churches and buying relics or bones of holy men, long since dead, than of strengthening his castles and trying to make the lives of his people peaceful and happy. This and his foolish promise to his cousin, Duke William of Normandy, brought great sorrow upon the country.

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