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ENTERTAINING ENGLISH HISTORY

SURE, WE HAVE our George Washington cutting down that apple tree and proving the law of gravity by throwing an apple across the Potomac. (Or do I have this wrong?) But our admittedly short-lived history pales in comparison to the English’s. 

Old friend David Roberts recites a poem taught to him as a lad: It lists 38 rulers of England, in order, from the 1066 Norman Conquest to Queen Victoria, 1837-1901. 

It begins with “Willie, Willie, Harry, Ste,/ Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three,” and ends with “William and Mary, Anna Gloria,/ Four Georges, William, and Victoria.” 

Above, in David Robert’s hand. Below, our Roberts’ gift ruler.

Of course, there were English kings before the first Willie, aka William I aka William the Conqueror aka William the Bastard (but that’s another story). In particular, there was Edward the Confessor, who reigned from 1042 to his death on January 5, 1066.

Edward the Confessor, c. 1003-1066, King of England. Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry.

Edward the Confessor is the subject of Tom Shippey’s “Men Who Keep Wolves,” London Review of Books, December 3, 2020. Shippey’s article is a review of Tom Licence’s book Edward the Confessor: Last of the Royal Blood. Here are tidbits from Shippey’s entertaining LRB review, together with my usual Internet sleuthing. 

Battle of Hastings. First off, note that the fateful Battle of Hastings didn’t come until October 14, 1066. It was Edward’s brother-in-law Harold Godwinson, the last crowned Anglo-Saxon king of England, who gets the rap for this defeat. By the way, Harold’s father, Godwin, Earl of Wessex, recurs in this tale.

A View from Middle Earth. LRB reviewer Shippey observes, “The thoroughly unwelcome historical fact was that England had not only been invaded and occupied, but it had been conquered by people who spoke French…. Tolkien notoriously took the Norman Conquest so hard that he avoided every connection with French: ‘Bag End’ is a defiant response to the imported phrase ‘cul-de-sac’, which angered Tolkien every time he saw it on a street sign.”

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, CBE FRSL, 1892–1973, English writer, poet, and philologist; best known as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Image from Britannica.

A Confessor. Edward the Confessor was the penultimate Anglo-Saxon king of England and the only one with the moniker “Confessor.” Shippey notes, “It didn’t help his reputation to be saddled with the designation ‘the Confessor,’ for hardly anyone knows what that means. Did he have things to confess? Was he someone people confessed to, like a priest?”

Serial Monogamy—and Murder. Shippey writes, “The early 11th-century drama in which Edward found himself was one of dynastic entanglement. The Anglo-Saxon habit of serial monogamy among royals was guaranteed to cause discord between half-brothers and incite stepmothers.” 

One and another, Harold/Harald and Swen/Sweyn/Svein/Sewegn had wives often named, inexplicably, Ælfgifu. Shippey notes, “The young Edward was, therefore, one of a throng of half-brothers, both Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish (while he himself was Anglo-Norman), intent on killing one another.”

No Confessor Offspring. “Edward…” Shippey writes, “failed in his duty to provide an heir, possibly out of pious abstinence from sexual relations with his wife, Edith Godwinson, Harold’s sister. (Why did he marry her in the first place? Was he bullied into it?)”

As Shippey posits, “Edward could be forgiven if by this time he was irrevocably paranoid…. Meanwhile, the main reason for the precarious peace of Edward’s lifetime is probably not his saintly life, as early biographers would have it, or his diplomatic skills, as in [author] Licence’s interpretation, but simply that all his half-brother competitors had died or been killed.”

Godwin and his family sail home to the court of King Edward the Confessor in 1052. From a 13th century manuscript of the Vita Æwardi Regis.

 A Great Story. Shippey shares the tale, apocryphal though it may be, of Edward dining with his father-in-law Godwin, Earl of Wessex: “Edward, so the story goes, always suspected Godwin of involvement in the capture, blinding and murder of Alfred [Edward’s brother], but never accused him outright. One day, however, as the two men sat together at dinner, one of the waiters stumbled, caught himself, and said cheerfully and proverbially: ‘One leg helps another, as brother helps brother.’ At this, Edward turned to Godwin and said: ‘But I have no brother.’ Stung by the implied accusation, Godwin took a piece of bread: ‘If I had any part in the murder of Alfred, may this piece of bread choke me when I swallow it.’ He swallowed it, choked and died.”

Now that’s a tale, much better than Washington’s tossing an apple across the Potomac. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021

3 comments on “ENTERTAINING ENGLISH HISTORY

  1. John
    February 19, 2021

    Thank God, There’ll always be an England.

  2. sabresoftware
    February 19, 2021

    Interestingly William I is Queen Elizabeth’s 21 st. Great Grandfather, and Harold Godwin is her 27 th. Great Grandfather.

    Also rather interesting https://familypedia.wikia.org/wiki/Famous_Descendants_of_William_the_Conqueror_of_England lists multiple descendants of William I including several US presidents, actors and musicians.

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