Claimants to the English throne in 1066

Edward the Confessor died childless on 5th January 1066, leaving no direct heir to the throne. Four people all thought they had a legitimate right to be king.

Drawing of the four claimants of the throne: Edgar Aetheling, Harold Godwinson, Harald Hardrada and William
  • Harold Godwinson: Earl of Wessex
  • William: Duke of Normandy
  • Harald Hardrada: King of Norway
  • Edgar Atheling: Great-nephew of Edward

The claims that they made were connected to three main factors: family ties, promises made, and political realities.

Family ties

  • Harold Godwinson - Harold was Edward’s brother-in-law, but there was no blood connection.
  • William - William was a cousin of Edward the Confessor, through Edward’s mother Emma, who was William’s great-aunt.
  • Harald Hardrada - Harald had no direct blood ties to the English royal families.
  • Edgar Atheling - Edgar was the great-nephew of Edward the Confessor and was the last Anglo-Saxon prince alive after his father was killed in 1057.

Promises

  • Harold Godwinson - Edward did not hate Harold as much as he hated Harold’s father Godwin who died in 1053. Edward probably did promise Harold the throne at some point after 1053.
  • William - In 1051 it is possible that William made a trip to England from Normandy to see Edward. William claimed that Edward had promised that he should succeed him as King of England. In 1064 Harold Godwinson made a trip to Normandy, and William claimed that he also promised that William could succeed to the English throne.
  • Harald Hardrada - Harald succeeded Magnus I of Norway in 1046. Magnus had been promised the Kingdom of Denmark by Harthacnut, who was King of England in 1040-42. Harald claimed the Kingdom of Denmark as part of the legacy of Magnus. In 1064 Harald gave up trying to secure Denmark and switched to claiming England because of the earlier Anglo-Danish kingdom. In 1066 Tostig Godwinson invited Harald to join him in rebelling against his brother Harold Godwinson to secure the English throne.
  • Edgar Atheling - Edgar and his father, Edward the Exile, had been invited back to England from their exile in Hungary by Edward the Confessor in 1057. It seems possible that Edward wanted an Anglo-Saxon prince to succeed him.

Political realities

  • Harold Godwinson - Harold succeeded his powerful father as Earl of Wessex in 1053, giving him control over all of Southern England. He was recognised as being the most powerful man in England after Edward’s death. In Edward’s last years, he left a lot of the running of the kingdom to the nobles, particularly Harold Godwinson.
  • William - William was an ambitious and powerful ruler in Normandy. He wanted to build up his power, so the Normans could have a great empire, like their Viking ancestors.
  • Harald Hardrada - Harald was a famous Viking warrior and skilled commander. He already had secure control over his own land.
  • Edgar Atheling - Even though Edgar was the closest blood relative to Edward, he was only a teenager when Edward died. He was not considered strong enough to hold the kingdom together in 1066.

Who had the strongest claim according to the different factors?

Promises

All four claimants had some promise that they believed gave them a right to the English throne. These involved the swearing of oaths, which were taken very seriously in 11th century Europe.

Harold Godwinson almost certainly had the latest promise from the dying king himself, Edward the Confessor. William of Normandy probably had a promise in 1051 from Edward the Confessor, and a promise from the main contender, Harold.

Strongest claim: Harold Godwinson’s claim is strongest here because he was promised the throne as Edward lay dying. The oath Harold swore to William was considered invalid by the Witan because it was made under the threat of death.

Family ties

Edgar Atheling had the strongest blood tie – but blood ties were not essential for the succession to the English throne at this time.

All the claimants had some kind of family blood tie, except for Harald Hardrada.

Strongest claim: Edgar Atheling was the last surviving member of the Royal House of Wessex that had ruled England for centuries.

Political realities

All the claimants had a strong degree of political power in 1066, except for Edgar Atheling.

Harold Godwinson was the claimant who was closest to the king when he died. He had military power within England itself in 1066.

William of Normandy and Harald Hardrada were both experienced military commanders. They both had Viking ancestry and had secure control in their own lands.

Strongest claim: Harold Godwinson was the only claimant who had the support of the Witan and all the English nobility therefore he was best suited to both protecting and ruling England after Edward’s death.