9 January 2011

Did William visit England in 1051?

by Helen Hollick

One of Duke William’s claims to England was that Edward (the Confessor)
designated him as his heir and promised him the throne of England.

There’s something fishy about this.

·         Why would Edward promise something unless he was certain he would not have   his own son? (which adds to the theory that he might have been gay?)
·         Why would Edward promise this when he had a young nephew (son of  Edward the Exile, grandson of Edmund Ironside) as the next legitimate member of the Royal Family? Although he was not in England back in 1051
·         Why would he promise this when it was for the Witan (the Council of England) to ‘elect’ the next king?
·         Why would he choose William when the rest of England did not exactly have a good relationship with Normandy?
·         Why would he choose William when Sven of Denmark had just as good a claim?
·         Why did William claim this when no one else seemed to know about it?
and finally
·         IF Edward had made such a fool promise WHEN did he make it?  The only possible “window of opportunity” would have been in 1051/2 when the powerful Godwine family were temporarily (as it turned out) in exile. When Edward had set his wife, Edith, daughter of Earl Godwine aside.

Which leads us to ask…..

(the following article is by John ‘Huscarl’)

Did duke William come to England in 1051 and meet with King Edward, his (very) distant kinsman?  [N.B. from Helen: Queen Emma, Edward’s mother was William’s Great Aunt] Could he have risked leaving his [then] unsettled Norman duchy to his enemies (France and Anjou), when he could easily have simply sent a VIP embassy?

Norman sources never present William as seeking anything from Edward- but William did need something from him, the all-important kingship - while Edward only needed Norman ports closing to the recently-ousted earl Godwin, and against Count Baldwin of Flanders, where raiding Vikings and English exiles had always been welcomed.

Version D- The Worcester Chronicle- of the ASC under 1052 for 1051 says William came in person with a huge guard and retinue of 'Frenchmen'- maybe then in person received Edward's 'promise' and also the exiled Godwine's youngest son (Wulfnoth) and Hakon (Swein Godwinesson’s bastard) [Helen; not necessarily, could have been a legitimate son] as hostages - as well as Dover town (prominent in the actions of 1051 and later the 1064 "oath" according to the Normans).

If he did visit England in 1051- was it a very brief visit during a turbulent time in Normandy, or is the Chronicle confusing Count Eustace of Boulogne ‘s visit also that year, who may have been William's vassal embassy acting on his ducal master's behalf?

Or if Eustace was not William's vassal in 1051, is William's supposed visit to meet Edward in England during 1051 a convenient 'cover story' concocted later by Norman historians (as some scholars believe) in order to negate the similar, actual visit by William's then enemy around this exact time period, Count Eustace?

Contemporary historians who stated that William visited England in 1051 include Wace, William de Poitiers, William de Jumièges and Orderic Vitalis

Most of the best respected and esteemed secondary source scholars of the last century state or believe that William was not only promised the English crown by Edward (in 1051), but that the Norman duke did visit Edward in 1051, these include;-

David Bates; Terence Wise; Dr. David Starkey; David Crouch; Sir Francis Palgrave; Michel de Bouard; Edward Freeman and Sir Frank Stenton [: -) and Helen Hollick!]

Elisabeth Van Houts and Michael Wood are undecided, whereas those who believe that William did not visit in 1051, due to the duchy being threatened by France and Anjou (as well as William's own rebellious family) include;-

Prof Frank Barlow (who describes Duke William as “a youthful count of little note”); Norman authority David C. Douglas and N. J. Higham, but I'll leave it to Emma Mason to describe the Norman (non?) event...

"The Norman claim to the succession to the English throne originated in opportunism and is riddled with inconsistencies.  It would be unrealistic to suppose that King Edward, in consultation with his leading counsellors, offered Wulfnoth and Hakon - and only them - as hostages to ensure the fulfilment of a promise supposedly made by him with the consent of the witan, as William of Poitiers claimed after the Norman conquest.

Any English hostages would include kinsmen both of the king himself and of the other leading magnates. But if Edward really gave hostages as a guarantee of his good faith in bequeathing the throne to William, this implied that he was under constraint to make the promise. There is no reason to believe that this was the case. On the contrary, in the highly unlikely event that King Edward did promise the succession to William, any hostages would have been required of the duke, to guarantee his good faith that he would not try to take over the kingdom in Edward's lifetime. There is no logical reason why the king should have made any such promise."
(‘House of Godwin’')."

Addendum from Helen
I believe there is evidence to assume William did come to England in 1051. The big give away is his marriage to Mathilda of Flanders.  William wanted her as wife to form an alliance with Duke Baldwin (to ensure Baldwin supported Normandy.)

The Pope, however, was having none of it and refused to sanction the proposed betrothal. Does it not make logical sense that William would seek support for his marriage plans from anyone who had influence?

Edward, as a kinsman and as a person known to Baldwin – and a pious King respected by Holy Church  - would be a prime candidate.

Normandy was fairly settled at this time (at least settled enough for William to be making marriage plans) William did go to Flanders – so why not have a quick call into London on the way?
Makes perfect, logical sense to me.

The claim that Edward promised the throne was either a later good excuse for slaughtering England’s rightful King (Harold II) or I wouldn’t have put it past Edward to have said something entirely out of place which got somewhat misinterpreted by William

Imagine the scene: William has called in for an overnight stay to beg Edward’s help in getting Mathilda’s hand. They’ve feasted and are now well into their cups.

Edward is gloating that he is now rid of that wretched Godwine family – and he will be looking for a new wife.

“I have daughters!” Says William – “An alliance between Normandy and England – how splendid!
“Why yes” chirrups Edward “Then you would be my dearest kinsman and should I not have a son you could protect England for your daughter, my wife….”

Ho hum….

The hostages were taken by Eustace of Boulogne to secure his exit from England during the fracas between him & Earl Godwine over the trouble at Dover. Which is why it was only Godwine’s boys taken.

Wulfnoth and Hakon remained in Normandy for many years – which is why Harold went there in 1064 (?) to get them back. He did return with Hakon.

So what do you think? Other opinions most welcome!

My thanks to John for such a thought provoking topic!  Helen


  1. Interesting topic John. I had never heard that William might have made an earlier trip to to England before his eventual arrival in 1066. I'd always assumed that he coveted England, and used his claim of being related to Edward, and a promise by letter, to override Harold's claim. It seemed that many people had a good claim,but William had the superior strength. Like your hypothesis of what the meeting would have been like.

  2. Thanks Helen and Elizabeth,

    Yes, it all seems rather remote to us today and submerged beneath greater, successive events?

    William was seeking a form of public support from King Edward in 1051, perhaps not only, as Helen suggested, in his marriage that year (incurring the wrath of the church and enforcing a penance- the building of two abbeys), but also in his quest to accede to the English throne, which Edward had vaguely also promised it to other claimants in the late 1040's to stay off invasion -Kings Magnus of Norway (Hardraada's half-nephew) and Swein of Denmark.

    It has been suggested by some secondary sources that the Normans were, in 1064 (when earl Harold unwittingly got shipwrecked on the French coast and was, as a 'guest', was 'duty-bound' to submit an oath to back Duke William's throne claim), that William was extracting part of the same oath from Harold that his father, earl Godwin had sworn to Edward in the stand-off during September 1051?
    This is a murky episode to us today, but clearly would have included the handing over/or arming of Dover at the Englishman's expense?

  3. I have to admit I still need to be convinced that william did come to visit Edward at all. One of my reasons for this I believe is that only one of the chronicles gives it a mention and it is completely left out of all the others, not that that would be a good enough reason in itself, I am sure there would be lots of ways of explaining this, however, although i feel that Edward or perhaps Robert Champart, may have dangled a carrot before William, I remained to be convinced that he came at all. However I do believe it is plausable but on the other hand, why was a state visit such as this left out of most of the chronicles and given little coverage in the one that was. Could this have been added in later by the Norman propaganda machine?

  4. I used to believe the same (as does author Emma Mason), Paula, but given the amount and breadth of scholarly opinion, from Freeman, Stenton and JH Round to Norman authorities such as David Crouch, David Bates and Michel De Bouard as well as David Starkey and author/military historian Terence Wise, I have come to decide that William did visit England himself, however brief, although it is odd that it was little covered.

    Wace says that William came here 'more than once' before 1066!
    John of Worcester based his opinion that William came in 1051 upon the Worcester Chronicle (ASC version D), which says under 1052 for 1051 says he ‘briefly’ came in person with a “splendid” guard/retinue “of Frenchmen”.

    Maybe William was not expected to 'last' at this early point, surrounded by major enemies inside and outside of the Norman state, recently brought into chaos by his wild father's rule.
    William would need to bolster his shaky existence (recent marriage under papal question), enemies encircling him, and as you say, an ousted and embittered Robert of Jumieges telling him to seek his English kinsman's succession claim?

    The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has several brief or non-existent accounts for different years (1064 being a noted one), but I doubt that the Normans forged that Chronicle, as over-ambitious as they were!

  5. A thought. I haven't time to look for myself : how many "State Visits" ARE recorded in the ASC? It is inconceivable that Edward was King for all those years without someone of importance coming to see him - to discuss trade, make agreements. Baldwin of Flanders, Henry of France etc.
    Did Edward go anywhere?
    Is there any record of anything?

    What I am getting at, if there is no record of visits to England
    1. Did Kings, Dukes, Counts - whatever - NOT personally make contact with other Kings etc or
    2. Were they just not recorded?

    I firmly believe William did come in 1051 and it wasn't recorded because no one actually considered him to be very important!

  6. Good question, helen, I must say that I have only ever read about Duke William visiting Edward the Confessor in person. Edward himself never even ventured abroad on Pilgrimage, and so was obliged to build a dedication to God- Westminster!! As was required custom if a leader did not go.

    Edward was in touch with other kings though, as was evidenced by his departure from Normandy in 1036 and 1042, his alledged and vague 'promises' made to both Magnus and Swein in the late 1040's and also his involvement with Holy Emperor Henry III, Pope Leo IX & Geoffrey Martel of Anjou in the wrangle over containing Count Baldwin of Flanders in 1048.

    Maybe Continental kings and Dukes were too pre-occupied with warring their neighbours to leave their borders vulnerable? Certainly over a distance over rough sea or through hostile land?
    Harold himself found this in 1057.


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