we three kings
And what of the politics of the time, and its nexus with religion? If we focus only on England, and the eleventh century, we find, at the top of the political hierarchy, a succession of Saxon, Dane and Norman kings, all professing Christianity. The three most effective of these monarchs; Canute, Edward [the Confessor] and William [of Normandy] treated Christianity in quite different ways. Canute, a second-generation Christian who pilgrimed himself off to Rome halfway though his reign [he was rarely in England anyway due to his extra duties as King of Denmark and Norway], was, though a renowned warrior, quite possibly sincere in his belief. The famous story told of his humbling of himself before the waves has him saying something like
Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings. For there is none worthy of the name but God, whom heaven, earth and sea obey.
The scribe who captured these words for posterity hasn’t been identified. In any case poor old empty and worthless Canute didn’t show any sign of giving up his collection of earthly thrones. Yet he was generous to the English church, repairing and rebuilding churches and monasteries [many of them damaged by his own men] and building new ones. In alliance with Wulfstan, archbishop of York, he supported the popular monastic reforms of the time, begun by the celebrated Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, in the previous century. Once they’d won the patronage of the monarch, these ecclesiastical figures acted as virtual prime ministers at the time. Of course, their downfalls could be as swift as the sudden death or change of mood of their patron.
Edward the Confessor was of mixed background and mixed allegiances. He was the son of the Saxon king Ethelred, but his mother Emma was a Norman, sister to Duke Richard 11 of Normandy and great-aunt of William the Conqueror. After the death of Ethelred, Emma married Canute, through him giving birth to another son who would be king, Edward’s half-brother Harthacanute.
While still a young lad, Edward was taken to Normandy out of harm’s way by his mother. The Danes were making life hot for royalty in England. When Canute finally secured the English throne, he chose to marry Emma, but Edward stayed in Normandy until after Canute’s death, when he apparently returned to participate in an attempt upon the life of Canute’s son and successor, Harold Harefoot. This scheme failed, and Edward returned to exile, but was called back to the English court after Harold’s death, and was designated the successor to his half-brother Harthacanute, the new king. He succeeded to throne two years later, in 1042.
He didn’t have an easy time of it. The English nobility was at this time very powerful, and the most powerful noble was Godwin, whose daughter Edward married in 1045. Godwin had come to power largely through the patronage of Canute, and he represented the main oppositional force to the Normans Edward had installed at his court. There was also bad blood between Edward and Godwin because of the role Godwin played in having Edward’s brother tortured and killed. At one point Edward managed to have Godwin exiled but he returned soon afterwards and forced Edward to reinstate him as Earl of Wessex.
As to Edward’s celebrated piety, little is known for sure and it may well have been exaggerated. He’s famous for having contributed a famous religious monument, Westminster Abbey, to posterity, though it in fact existed before his time and was much rebuilt and remodelled afterwards.
William of Normandy, the conqueror of England in 1066, has less connection with religion than the other two, his reforms being more or less entirely secular. They included the introduction of a European feudal system, the increased administrative regulation of a political system that was already one of the most regulated and efficient in Europe, and the transformation of the aristocracy, as Saxon nobles were dispossessed and exiled in favour of William’s Norman cronies. However his connection with the Italian religious figure Lanfranc, with whom he had dealings in Normandy, helped him in the conquest of England. Lanfranc was an associate of Pope Alexander 11, and secured his blessing for the undertaking. Lanfranc later became William’s archbishop of Canterbury, and was an influential figure at court.
this being entry 2 of part 2