How Norman was the saint and king, Edward the Confessor, born in Islip in about 1005, and now regarded as one of the last Anglo-Saxon kings? Answer: very. He left England for Normandy when he was only eight years old, and did not return for 28 years — apart from a short visit in 1036, following the death of his step-father King Canute of Denmark and England. Then he reappeared here in 1041, the year before he became King of England.
He was half Norman by blood too. His mother, the great Queen Emma, twice crowned queen of England, was a Norman girl; the sister of the conqueror’s grandfather, Duke Richard II of Normandy.
William’s conquest of England in 1066, the most memorable date in English history, was not a sudden attack by a predatory enemy but part of an ongoing Norman expansion, carried out with the blessing of the Pope by a man who believed he was the legitimate heir to the English throne.
His reasons for that belief were founded on that fateful wedding in 1002 of his great-aunt Emma to King Ethelred II (the Unready) — who, incidentally, had a palace in Headington. That marriage, in the words of 19th-century Oxford professor of history Edward Freeman (1823-92), was: “the first act of the drama” which then led inexorably to the conquest. From it stemmed William’s kin-right to the throne, and without it there would have been no conquest.
William’s claim was that, firstly, Edward the Confessor, the son of Ethelred and Emma, and the King of England from 1042 until his death in January 1066, had named him (William) as his heir; and secondly, that Harold, the English king killed at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066, had sworn feudal allegiance to him.
Everyone knows that history is largely written by the victor, but in this so-called ‘great matter’ of succession, even the English sources — in particular the Anglo Saxon Chronicle — do not specifically deny the Norman version of events, as graphically explained in the Bayeux Tapestry.
As for Harold, the son of the powerful Earl Godwin, and the brother of Edward the Confessor’s wife Edith, he had not a drop of royal blood in his veins from the English Royal House of Wessex, though he claimed that Edward had made a deathbed bequest of the throne to him.
Then of course he had indeed been crowned king in the recently built Westminster Abbey on January 6, 1066, the day after the Confessor’s death and the very day of his funeral; with one ceremony following the other.
As for the remarkable and beautiful Emma (988-1052 ), following the death of Ethelred she married the Danish conqueror Canute, and was crowned alongside him in Oxford in 1018. As a result she became the mother of another English king besides the Confessor, namely Hathacanute, her son by Canute, king of England from 1040-42.
But it was her 1002 marriage to Ethelred that brought the first influx of Normans (themselves people who had originally settled in Normandy from Scandinavia). They arrived as members of her household but their numbers were hugely increased when Edward became king. Indeed, an uprising in 1051 was caused by allegations of his favouring too many Normans and not enough English.
There is no sign of Edward’s former presence in Islip today. Nothing remains of the house in which he was born, though a chapel associated with him once stood near the church of St Nicholas, which contains his portrait. It was demolished in the 18th century.
But to return to the question: how Norman was Edward? In 1043, he gave the manor of Islip to the monks of his new Abbey at Westminster. But that building, though constructed before the Conquest, is architecturally speaking Norman to the chore. Surely there can be little doubt that he was at heart a Norman — and saintly enough to be better at building churches than controlling unruly English earls.