William of Normandy’s Claim to the English throne: Examining the Evidence
By Jacob Deacon
William of Normandy had no legal claim to the English throne. Edward’s deathbed bequeathal of the kingdom to Harold Godwineson superseded his earlier promise to William, the primary cause of which was to strengthen his rule with a Norman alliance, not to grant the throne to a foreigner. Norman chroniclers have emphasised the relationship between Edward and William in order to strengthen his claim, yet discrepancies in their accounts mean they have been found wanting. However, what ultimately mattered was not Edward’s promise but whether William had the force of arms necessary to conquer England. In this regard the primary aspect of William’s claim became that of right of conquest, the right he won through victory at the Battle of Hastings.
Although there is a wealth of source material regarding William of Normandy’s claim to the English throne, due to constraints on time and space this research will be primarily limited to the following sources; The Gesta Guillelmi, William of Jumieges’ and Orderic Vitalis’ contributions to The Gesta Normannorum Ducum, The Bayeux Tapestry, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the Vita Ædwardi Regis. I have chosen to include these and not twelfth century sources as I feel their closeness to events makes them more qualified as ‘evidence’ for William’s claim. There are also some aspects of the debate which, whilst I feel are relevant, have also been omitted, primarily the legitimacy of Harold’s coronation, and the strength of William’s claim against that of Harald Hadrada.
William of Normandy was not the first man to be promised the throne by Edward the Confessor. In 1042 Edward seems to have given his word on this matter to Swein Estrithson when England was under threat from King Magnus of Norway. The situation was not altogether different in 1051 when Edward had exiled Earl Godwin and his sons and once again found himself in need of a powerful ally. In this case Edward sought out support from William of Normandy at the advice of Robert of Jumiéges, his Norman Archbishop of Canterbury, who more than likely relayed the promise to William. The reoccurrence of granting a future crown in return for an alliance is evidence that Edward was not genuine about either of these promises, and would later go on to adopt other heirs as it suited him. Furthermore, the dating of both these promises have proved problematic to historians hoping to argue that Edward wanted William to succeed him. It is unlikely that Edward would have been preparing for his death in 1051 when his promise was issued, as there was still a possibility that he would produce an heir. In later years when it appeared more likely that he would die childless, he decided to entrust the throne to Edward the Æthling, who had returned to England in 1054. If he had truly meant for William to succeed him there was nothing to be gained by inviting the Æthling back to England; this would only cause problems with Normandy. It seems much more likely that Edward meant for the Æthling to succeed him, his death in 1057 transferring this inheritance to his son Edgar.
Whether or not Edward’s promise of the throne to William was genuine, it was later certainly made irrelevant by Edward’s deathbed will. Beckerman has highlighted how in eleventh century England it was customary that a promise relating to inheritance made in one’s final moments was the more valid, superseding and revoking previous promises. This was different to Normandy, where tradition stated that the first grant was `irrevocable`. Although it is understandable why William, raised with this tradition, felt as his he had a stronger claim than Harold, it would make no sense that the issue of the English throne should be resolved using Norman traditions. One may argue that Harold’s oath to William prevents him from accepting the crown, but Beckerman argues that the testamentary custom also freed Harold from his promise. Furthermore, even if one was to accept Norman custom, William’s claim would still be invalid due to the earlier supposed promise of the throne to Swein, as theorised by Bouet and Neveux. However, a problem inherent in this argument that Edward intended Harold to succeed him is present in Edward’s supposed final words; `I commend all the kingdom to your protection.` This is clearly open to multiple interpretations; Harold may be designated king by Edward, or he may simply be given the task of protecting the realm until the next king can be crowned. Either way, when viewed in conjunction with the above arguments, it becomes clear that Edward intended either Edgar or Harold to succeed him as king, not William.
One of the primary reasons for the longstanding arguments that William was Edward’s chosen heir is the considerable support he enjoys from several Norman sources. However, one must consider their motivations for writing. William of Potiers wrote his Gesta Guillelmi in order to show William in the `best possible light`, and there are several instances of this in his work. Orderic Vitalis similarly claimed that both William of Poiters and William of Jumiéges were writing in order to curry favour. This is clear is William’s own words, especially after he admits that he wishes in no way to seem displeasing to his lord, who he served as his personal chaplain. From early on William is keen to show how his duke possesses the virtues required to be king; he protects the Church, upholds the weak, and imposes laws which are not burdensome. At the same time William is eager to cast aspersions on Harold and his claim. He is king `against law and right`, and is the `most abominable of men` after reneging on his `most sacrosanct oath`. He also stresses how William ruled by hereditary designation, stating how it was `well known` that he and Edward were related by `close ties`, but conveniently ignores that there were still several surviving claimants with a closer relationship to the deceased king, such as his nephew Ralph. On the whole a praise biography such as the Gesta Guillelmi is unlikely to provide an objective view on the issue of the succession, but does show how Norman chroniclers emphasized the distant blood-ties between Edward and William in order to strengthen his claim.
William of Jumieges’ Gesta Normannorum Ducum fares little better when it comes to seeing what William’s actual case was in 1066. William states that Edward sent Harold to William of Normandy with the express purpose of swearing fealty concerning his crown and to pledge it by oath. If Edward did this then it would be clear proof that he did indeed intend William to become king, yet there are problems with this idea of Harold setting out to swear fealty to William. Only Norman sources ever allude to Harold’s oath; the issue is never raised by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example. One would imagine that an issue as important as Edward designating an heir would be recorded, and their silence suggests that this oath was never supposed to happen. One must bear in mind that both of these sources were written in hindsight, with William already having gained the crown; no Norman writer alluded to his claims in a source produced before 1066. The dating of the writings of Norman chroniclers would therefore infer that their arguments were constructed after William had gained the throne, and wanted to seem like a legitimate ruler. It was also much easier to enforce his claim after he had defeated his main rival.
The Bayeux Tapestry is likewise vague when it comes to determining the fact of the matter. In the first scene when Edward sends Harold abroad it is not expressly clear what his purpose is; of course it is possible that he was sent to Duke William but there are several reasons why this is not actually the case. Mason, for example, argues that Harold’s landing in Ponthieu is proof that he did not set out for Normandy, and that when swearing his oath to William he was clearly under constraint; he had to take the safety of himself, his men, and William’s hostages in to account. Similar views are shared by Lewis, who convincingly states that Edgar’s presence in England made it unlikely that Harold was sent to swear fealty, but if this was the case, William would have been entrusted with higher status hostages.
Despite the forcefulness with which the Gestas argue William’s claim they seem to be missing a vital piece of evidence. In the D chronicle of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle there is a reference to `duke William from beyond the sea with a great retinue of Frenchmen` coming to visit Edward. However, this is the only source we have which mentions this visit. Surely if this visit did take place, which historians have argued was the occasion when Edward promised the throne to William in person, then the Norman chroniclers would have used it as evidence of their lord’s claim to the English throne. Although later historians have used this visit to support claims that Edward intended the throne to go to William, its unique existence in the D chronicle would suggest that it is in fact an interpolation, added later on by another hand. Yet this allusion to William’s visit, the true purpose of which is never revealed, is the only mention in any of the English sources regarding William’s claim.
The silence of the various authors of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is further proof that Edward did not intend William to wear the crown. They instead refer to William’s landing as an `invasion`, suggesting that it was an act of a hostile foreign aggressor, not the true king come to claim his crown. The only real piece of evidence that supports William’s claim to the throne from an English perspective comes from Edward’s widow, Edith. According to the Gesta Guillelmi Edith `wished William to rule over the English, since her husband had chosen him as his successor by adoption`. Edith’s motivation behind her support of William, much like that of the Norman chroniclers, can also be called in to question. After the Battle of Hastings she was at the mercy of William the Conqueror. If she wanted to retain her status and her wealth the best possible way to appease the new king was to publicly support his claim to the throne of her deceased husband.
Despite these problems with the accounts of William’s supporters, his legal claim to the throne is not what won him the crown. In September 1066 William landed in England with an army of 7000 soldiers. From this moment on the legality of his claim became purely academic; what mattered now was whether he could assert his claim through force of arms. With his victory at the Battle of Hastings, William’s claim was now primarily through right of conquest. What mattered now was might, not law. Further evidence of this comes from the fact that even after Harold had been killed in battle William was still not the preferred candidate; the Witanagemot chose to elect Edgar the Æthling in his stead. The abandonment of his candidacy in the face of Norman military might, however, reinforces claims that William claimed his throne through right of conquest. Chroniclers were not unaware of this either; William of Poitiers in his account of William’s coronation states, for example, that William held England `through right of conquest` in addition to Edward’s bequeathal. It should however be mentioned that there was nothing unusual about this; Sweyn Forkbeard and his descendants ruled for much of the eleventh century owing to his military incursions.
Although there are several difficulties when it comes to assessing the legal strength of William’s claim to the English throne, these issues are not as important as historians have argued. Between the death of Edward the Confessor and William’s coronation what mattered the most was the ability to use military force to uphold a claim, an ability in which William was unrivalled by his competitors. Without this, William’s claim would have led to nothing. With it, he was able to remove all opposition to his rule, leaving him as the only claimant. It was only after this that Norman chroniclers were able to stress the relationship between Edward and William, emphasizing that he had been promised the throne and Harold had usurped it. It is of course important to note that this was not a new method of claiming the throne; several previous kings had come to power through force of arms, and William’s claim was further made possible by Edward’s shifting decisions about who would eventually succeed him, leaving no-one with a solid claim to the English throne.
The Abingdon Chronicle II, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (trans. Garmonsway G.N.), (London, 1975)
The Bayeux Tapestry: A Comprehensive Survey, (ed. Stenton F), (London, 1965)
The Life of King Edward who rests at Westminster (trans. Barlow F.), (London, 1962)
The Worchester Chronicle, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (trans. Garmonsway G.N.), (London, 1975)
William of Jumiéges, Orderic Vitalis, and Robert of Torigni, The Gesta Normannorum Ducum of William of Jumiéges, Orderic Vitalis, and Robert of Torigni, Vol. 1 & 2, (trans. Van Houts E.M.C.), (Oxford, 2003)
William of Poitiers, The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers (trans. Chibnall M. and Davis R.H.C.), (Oxford, 1998)
Barber M., The Two Cities: Medieval Europe 1050-1320, (London, 2003)
Beckerman J. S., `Succession in Normandy, 1087, and in England, 1066: The Role of Testamentary Custom`, Speculum, Vol. 47, No. 2, (April, 1972), pp.258-260
Bouet P and Neveux F., `Edward the Confessor’s Succession According to the Bayeux Tapestry`, The Bayeux Tapestry: New Approaches: Proceedings of a Conference at the British Museum, ed. Lewis M.J., Owen-Crocker G.R., and Terkla D., (Oxford, 2011), pp.-59-65
Chibnall M., Anglo-Norman England 1066-1166, (Oxford, 1986)
Douglas D., `Edward the Confessor, Duke William of Normandy, and the English Succession`, The English Historical Review, Vol.68, No.269, (1953), pp.526-545
John E., `Edward the Confessor and the Norman Succession`, English Historical Review, Vol.94, No.371, (1979), pp.241-267
Jordan W.C., Europe in the High Middle Ages, (London, 2002)
Lewis M. J., The Real World of the Bayeux Tapestry, (Stroud, 2008)
Lloyd A., The Year of the Conqueror, (London, 1966)
Mason E., The House of Godwine: The History of a Dynasty, (London, 2004)
Oleson T. J., `Edward the Confessor’s Promise of the Throne to Duke William of Normandy`, The English Historical Review, Vol. 272, No. 283, (April, 1957), pp.221-228
 Bouet P and Neveux F., `Edward the Confessor’s Succession According to the Bayeux Tapestry`, The Bayeux Tapestry: New Approaches: Proceedings of a Conference at the British Museum, ed. Lewis M.J., Owen-Crocker G.R., and Terkla D., (Oxford, 2011), pp.-59-65, p.65
 The Worcester Chronicle, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. Garmonsway G.N., (London, 1975), p.175
 Oleson T.J., `Edward the Confessor’s Promise of the Throne to Duke William of Normandy`, The English Historical Review, Vol.72, No.283, (1957), pp.221-288, p.227
 Lewis M.J., The Real World of the Bayeux Tapestry, (Stroud, 2008), p.41
 Beckerman J.S., `Succession in Normandy, 1087, and in England, 1066: The Role of Testamentary Custom`, Speculum, Vol.47, No.2, (1972), pp.258-260, p.260
 Ibid., p.259
 Ibid., p.260
 Anonymous, The Life of King Edward who rests at Westminster, trans. Barlow F., (London, 1962), p.79
 Chibnall M., Anglo-Norman England 1066-1166, (Oxford, 1986), p.9
 Van Houts E.M.C., The Gesta Normannorum Ducum of William of Jumiéges, Orderic Vitalis, and Robert of Torigni, Vol. 1, trans. Van Houts E.M.C., (Oxford, 2003), p.xxxi
 William of Poitiers, The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, trans. Chibnall M. and Davis R.H.C., (Oxford, 1998), p.59
Davis R.H.C. and Chibnall M. The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, trans. Chibnall M. and Davis R.H.C., (Oxford, 1998), p.xvi
 William of Poitiers, The Gesta Guillelmi, p.9
 Ibid., p.7
 Ibid., p.151
Lewis M.J., The Real World of the Bayeux Tapestry, p.41
 William of Jumiéges, The Gesta Normannorum Ducum of William of Jumiéges, Orderic Vitalis, and Robert of Torigni, Vol. 2, trans. Van Houts E.M.C., (Oxford, 2003), p.161
 Mason E., The House of Godwine: The History of a Dynasty, (London, 2004), p.110
, Anonymous, The Bayeux Tapestry: A Comprehensive Survey, ed. Stenton F., (London, 1965), p.104, Plate 1
 Mason E., The House of Godwine, p.113
 Lewis M.J., The Real World of the Bayeux Tapestry, p.45
 The Worcester Chronicle, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p.176
 Douglas D., `Edward the Confessor, Duke William of Normandy, and the English Succession`, The English Historical Review, Vol.68, No.269, (1953), pp.526-545, p.531
 The Worcester Chronicle, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p.197
The Abingdon Chronicle II, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p.196
 William of Poitiers, The Gesta Guillielmi, p.115
 Lloyd A., The Year of the Conqueror, (London, 1966), p.166
 John E., `Edward the Confessor and the Norman Succession`, English Historical Review, Vol.94, No.371, (1979), pp.241-267, p.267
 The Worchester Chronicle, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p.199
 William of Poitiers, The Gesta Guillelmi, p.151
Jordan W.C., Europe in the High Middle Ages, (London, 2002), p.43