England had been for many years before the birth of Edward, in a very unsettled and miserable state. The fierce sea-kings from Norway and Denmark made repeated incursions into England, striking terror into the inhabitants, whom they treated with great arrogance and cruelty.
There were several Danish kings of England, and, during their reign, their followers compelled the native Saxons to give them the best board and lodging that their houses afforded, to wait upon them at table, and to address them as “Lord Danes.” This state of affairs became intolerable to the Saxons, and they were constantly at war with the invaders. The only Danish king whom the Saxons could tolerate, was Canute, a good, sensible man, whose reign brought more peace than the disturbed country had known for a long time. There is rather interesting little anecdote told about him. One day his courtiers began to flatter him, telling him what a great king he was, and intimating that his power was so vast, that it would extend even to the ocean, whose waves he could subdue at will. Canute was disgusted with this foolish flattery, and determined to teach the courtiers a useful lesson. Accordingly he directed that his chair be placed upon the sea-shore, when the tide was rising. He seated himself with all his flatterers about him, and, raising his scepter, commanded the sea to approach no nearer. Very soon he and his attendants were forced to abandon their position, as the rising tide splashed over them. Canute then rebuked the courtiers, telling them never again to attribute to a creature a power which belongs only to God.
While Canute reigned in England, the Saxon king had taken refuge in Normandy, a part of France, which received its name from the Norman sea-kings, who conquered it. This prince’s name was Ethelred, and he was surnamed the Unready, from the indecision and slowness of his disposition. He married the Norman princess Emma, and their son, Edward, afterwards became the great and good monarch, whom the Church honors with the title of Confessor.
After the death of Ethelred, his widow married Canute, and they had one son, Hardicanute, who was the last king of Danish extraction to rule in England.
Emma, who had remarried in England after Canute’s death, lived in great splendor at Winchester. Her sons by her first marriage, Edward and Alfred, were still in Normandy, and affairs in England were managed almost entirely by a powerful Saxon nobleman, Earl Godwin. Canute’s son, Harold, had succeeded his father on the throne, but he was a weak-minded prince, whom his subjects regarded with fear and dislike. Harold was guilty of a dreadful act of cruelty toward his step-brother Alfred, an act in which he is supposed to have been aided by Earl Godwin. These two conspirators professed great friendship for the young prince, and sent a message to Normandy, inviting him and his brother Edward to visit England. Alfred, being the elder of the two brothers, was the rightful heir to certain portions of England, over which Harold desired to reign, and he formed the wicked design of ridding himself of his rival, with the aid of Godwin. When the young princes reached England, they were set upon by a large number of Godwin’s vassals, who captured Alfred and immured him in a prison at Ely, after torturing him in a most horrible manner. He died soon after, and his brother Edward, who had not been captured, fled with their mother to Normandy.
Harold then took possession of Alfred’s dominions, but his triumph was not of long duration. He died in a very short time, little regretted by any of his subjects, and was succeeded by his half-brother, Ilardicanute, the son of Canute and Emma. Ilardicanute was little better than his predecessor, although his first act was an attempt at punishing the murderers of Alfred. He accused Godwin of the crime, but the crafty nobleman denied all complicity in it, and, to appease the king, made him a present of a galley, or ship, with a gilt stern, rowed by eighty men, each of them wearing a gold bracelet on his arm, and clothed in the most sumptuous manner.
Ilardicanute, on receiving this fine present, forgot his brother’s murder, and acquitted Godwin, who stoutly protested his innocence of any part in poor Alfred’s cruel death.
In the meantime Edward remained in Normandy, where he had taken refuge after his unlucky visit to England, living a good, pious life, and little dreaming that he would ever occupy a throne. He was much astounded, therefore, by the arrival of a messenger, who had traveled with all speed to Normandy, bearing tidings of the sudden death of Hardicanute, and an invitation from Earl Godwin to come to England and assume the reins of government.
Godwin was powerful enough to have made himself king, had he wished, and the fact that he did not do so, shows that he had, at least, some idea of justice. Edward and Godwin had not been friends since the violent death of Edward’s brother, but they agreed to bury their animosities, and in token of their reconciliation a marriage was arranged between Edward and Godwin’s beautiful and virtuous daughter, Edith.
Edward was forty years old when he ascended the throne, twenty-seven of which had been spent in exile. In the hard school of adversity he had acquired those virtues which were the foundation of his greatness. England was in a pitiable condition at the time of Edward’s accession to the throne. The native Saxons, who had been practically the slaves of the Danes, were almost savages, ignorant, clumsy and rude. The monasteries, which were the only seats of learning in the Middle Ages, had been destroyed during the invasion of the pagan Danes, and their precious manuscripts burned. The laws of the realm were few and imperfect, and were more frequently disregarded than observed. Edward tried to instil a love for the law into his subjects by means of kindness rather than severity, for he made allowance for their failings, which he considered less the result of depravity, than of the unfortunate manner in which they had been governed. One morning at dawn, the king was awakened by a slight noise in his apartment. He looked about, and what was his astonishment to see a man in the act of taking some gold coins from a chest which stood in one corner of the room Instead of calling for help and delivering the thief to punishment, the good king only said, “My friend, never do that again, for if my chancellor of the exchequer catches you, you will not escape as easily as you do now.”
But King Edward, like all reformers, met with many vexations and troubles. The Normans, with whom he had spent so many years of his life, were much more refined and better educated than the Saxons, a fact -which made it easier to find Normans fitted to occupy certain positions than Saxons. Consequently many Norman friends of the king were placed in positions of trust, and some of his Saxon subjects complained that they were unfairly treated by Edward. Ill-feeling was thus engendered between the Normans and the Saxons. At length the smoldering fire burst into flame.
A Norman friend of King Edward, Eustace, Count of Boulogne, had paid a visit to England, and stopped at Dover, on his return to France. One of his attendants was refused admittance to an inn, and attempting to force his way into the house, wounded the inn-keeper. The inhabitants then attacked the Norman and killed him. Count Eustace and his men took arms, and in the tumult, twenty people were slain, Eustace being forced to save his life by flight. He hurried to court and complained of the treatment he had received. The king was much displeased and mortified that a stranger of rank, who had been his guest, should have been subjected to violence in his dominions, and he gave orders to Earl Godwin, in whose district Dover lay, to go there at once and punish the offenders. But Godwin, who rather wished to encourage enmity between the Saxons and the Normans, refused to obey the king’s order, and threw the whole blame for the unfortunate affair on Eustace and his train. Godwin was, in reality, pleased to have a pretext for a quarrel, as he wished to banish the Normans from England. He accordingly assembled a large force and marched against Gloucester, where the king resided.
Edward was totally unsuspicious of Godwin’s base designs, and he was much surprised when the news reached him of what was transpiring. He lost no time in mustering a force to oppose Godwin, and so beloved was the king that his subjects flocked from all quarters to join his standard. Soon he started at the head of a great army to London. Here he summoned a council to judge Godwin and his sons, but they rather than stand trial, fled, taking refuge in Flanders.
The Earl of Flanders was the father-in-law of one of Godwin’s sons, and he aided them in fitting out ships to return to England and renew the fight which they had been forced to abandon.
England had enjoyed peace during the absence of this turbulent Earl, and the inhabitants of London were astounded and dismayed to see a fleet commanded by Godwin, appear in the Thames, and anchor before the city. Edward, who dreaded the effects of war upon his subjects, made some kind of compromise with Godwin, thus averting hostilities.
Not long after the return of Godwin from Flanders, he was invited to dine with the king. The company were much amused by a cup-bearer who tripped one of his feet, but saved himself from falling by suddenly bringing up the other in a comical manner that made the guests laugh. Godwin said, referring to the man’s feet, that one brother had saved the other. “Yes,” answered the king, “brothers have need of brothers’ aid, would to God that mine were still alive.” He looked meaningly at Godwin, as he said this, appearing to insinuate that the Earl had had some part in the death of Edward’s brother, Alfred.
Godwin at once reproached the king for his suspicions, and made vehement denial of any participation in the crime. He swore to his innocence with a solemn oath, and said that he wished the next mouthful of bread he ate might choke him, if what he said were not true. Immediately after making this protest he put a piece of bread into his mouth, and in the act of swallowing it was seized with a fit of coughing and suffocation. The attendants hastened to his assistance, and carried him from the presence of the terrified guests. He was seized with convulsions and died in five days.
The singular and tragic death of Godwin brought peace to England, and Edward exerted every effort to bring education and order, where ignorance and lawlessness had so long held sway. Schools and churches rose under his hand. The University of Oxford, which had been founded by Edward’s great-great-grandfather, King Alfred, had almost fallen into ruin. He restored and enlarged it and invited eminent teachers from the continent to take up their residence there, for the Saxons could boast of but few native teachers.
Edward mingled freely with his subjects, who had access to his presence at all times. He used frequently to retire to his country house at Brill, situated in the midst of a dense forest. Upon one of his visits Edward learned that the forest was infested by a particularly ferocious wild boar. He offered a reward for the capture of the animal, and a certain huntsman of the neighborhood, named Nigel, determined to try for the prize. He dug a deep pit, in the bottom of which he placed a pig for bait, covering the top of the pit with branches and a little soil. After waiting patiently several nights, without success, Nigel saw the boar stealthily approaching in search of the pig, which he had scented from afar. Stepping upon the branches the boar fell into the pit, and was quickly killed by Nigel, who presented the head to the king. He was rewarded with a grant of land in the forest, which was called Boarstall. He built a house upon his domains, and his descendants have continued to reside at Boarstall through all the centuries that have elapsed since the reign of Edward.
Queen Edith was almost as much beloved by the English people as was her husband. Having no children of her own, she manifested a motherly interest in the children of her subjects. A writer who lived in those days, and has recorded some of the events of his life, describes how, on his way to school, he often met the queen, who never failed to stop him, engage him in conversation, and ask him questions about his grammar, logic and verses. She would then praise him for the progress he had made, and direct her attendant to give him a present of some money. This simple little incident shows the kindness of Edith’s heart, and explains the affection with which all her subjects regarded her.
While Edward was doing all in his power to preserve peace in his dominions, the inhabitants of that part of England bordering on Wales, began to be much harassed by the Welsh, a semi-barbarous people, who would descend during the night from their mountain fastnesses, and commit all sorts of depredations upon the property of their English neighbors.
Griffith, the reigning prince of Wales, had distinguished himself in these incursions and had made his name a terror to the English. Harold, the son of Godwin, determined to lead an expedition of picked men lightly armed, into the Welsh mountains, to pursue and punish the natives. He was completely successful, reducing the Welsh to such distress that they sacrificed their own prince, whose head they cut off, and sent, in token of submission, to Harold. King Edward then appointed two Welsh princes to rule over the semi-barbarous people of Wales, who then ceased their marauding expeditions into England.
After the defeat of the Welsh, England enjoyed a period of peace, which King Edward employed in compiling a very complete set of laws, a work upon which he expended much labor and thought. As the good king had always the welfare of religion at heart, he caused numbers of churches to be built, among them Westminster Abbey, which he had the satisfaction of seeing completed before his death.
When Edward was in his sixty-fourth year, he felt that his health was failing, and being childless, began to consider whom he would name to succeed him on the throne of England. He sent a deputation to Hungary to invite his nephew Edward, the son of his eldest brother, to come to England. This prince’s right to the throne could not have been disputed, for he was the only remaining heir of the Saxon line. Unfortunately he died a few days after his arrival in England. The unexpected death of the heir whom he had selected threw the king into fresh difficulties. After due consideration he decided to name, as his heir, William of Normandy, a relative through his mother, who, you remember, was a Norman princess. Harold, the son of Godwin, wished very much to be the king’s heir, and, it is said that in his eagerness he forced himself into the apartments of Edward, who was ill in bed, and asked him on whom the crown should be bestowed. Edward answered that he had appointed, as his successor, William of Normandy. Harold intimated that he would seize the throne by force, saying that he feared not the Norman, nor any other foe. The king then warned him that if he fought the Norman it would be his ruin, a prophecy which was speedily to be fulfilled.
A few days after his interview with Harold, the good king breathed his last, sincerely mourned by all of his subjects, to whom his reign had brought peace and prosperity. He was honored as a saint by the English people, even before his canonization, which took place about a century after his death. Until the thirteenth century, he was regarded as the patron saint of England, and numerous churches in that country bear his name.
Saint Edward was the first king to touch for the “king’s evil,” as it was called, a disease which he healed miraculously. His successors followed his example, but, not being saints, their touch had not the healing efficacy of Edward’s.
In Westminster Abbey, the greatest monument to the piety and zeal of the Confessor, there is a chapel which bears his name. The curious old shrine in the center of this chapel, is surmounted by a massive oaken coffin containing the mortal remains of the good Saint Edward, the last of the Saxon kings.