Canute died in 1035, aged not more than forty or forty-one. The crown was disputed between his two sons, the half-brothers Harold and Harthacnut; it was doubtful whether the birth of the elder prince was legitimate, and Queen Emma strove to get her own son Harthacnut preferred to him. In Denmark the younger claimant was acknowledged by the whole people, but in England the Mercian and Northumbrian earls chose Harold as king, and Wessex only fell to Harthacnut. Both the young kings were cruel, dissolute and wayward, most unworthy sons of a wise father. It was to the great profit of England that they died within two years of each other, the elder in 1040, the younger in 1042.
On Harthacnut's death he was succeeded not by any Danish prince but by his half-brother Edward, the elder son of Aethelred and Emma, whom he had entertained at his court, and Edward had apparently designated as his heir, for he had no offspring. There was an end of the empire of Canute, for Denmark fell to the great king's nephew, Sweyn Estrithson, and Norway had thrown off the Danish yoke. Engaged in wars with each other, Dane and Norseman had no leisure to think of reconquering England. Hence Edward's accession took place without any friction. He reigned, but did not rule, for twenty-four years, though he was well on in middle age before he was crowned. Of all the descendants of Alfred he was the only one who lived to see his sixtieth birthday; the house of Wessex were a short-lived race. In character he differed from all his ancestorshe had Alfred's piety without his capacity, and Aethelred's weakness without his vices. The mildest of men, a crowned monk, who let slip the reins of government from his hands while he busied himself in prayer and church building, he lowered the kingly power to a depth to which it had never sunk before in England. His sole positive quality, over and above his piety, was a love for his mother's kin, the Normans. He had spent his whole life from 1013 to 1040 as an exile at the court of Rouen, and was far more of a Norman than an Englishman. It was but natural, therefore, that he should invite his continental relatives and the friends of his youth to share in his late-coming prosperity. But when he filled his court with them, made them earls and bishops, and appointed one of them, Robert of Jumiges, to the archbishopric of Canterbury, his undisguised preference for strangers gave no small offence to his English subjects.
In the main, however, the king's personal likes and dislikes mattered little to the realm, since he had a comparatively small share in its governance. He was habitually overruled and dominated by his earls, of whom three, Leofric, Earl Godwine|Godwine] and Siward all old servants of Canute had far more power than their master. Holding respectively the great earidoms of West Mercia, Wessex and Northumbria, they reigned almost like petty sovereigns in their domains, and there seemed some chance that England might fall apart into semi-independent feudal states, just as France had done in the preceding century. The rivalries and intrigues of these three magnates constitute the main part of the domestic politics of Edwards reign.
Godwine, whose flamid daughter had wedded the king, was the most forcible and ambitious of the three, but his pre-eminence provoked a general league against him and in 1051 he was cast out of the kingdom with his sons. In the next year he returned in arms, raised Wessex in revolt, and compelled the king to in-law him again, to restore his earldom, and to dismiss with ignominy the Norman favorites who were hunted over seas. The old earl died in 1053, but was succeeded in power by his son Harold, who for thirteen years maintained an unbroken mastery over the king, and ruled England almost with the power of a regent. There seems little doubt that he aspired to be Edward's successor: there was no direct heir to the crown, and the nearest of kin was an infant, Edgar, the great-nephew of the reigning sovereign and grandson of Edmund Ironside. England's experience of minors on the throne had been unhappy Edwy and Aethelred the Redeless were warnings rather than examples. Moreover, Harold had before his eye as a precedent the displacement of the effete Carolingian line in France, by the new house of Robert the Strong and Hugh Capet, seventy years before, He prepared for the crisis that must come at the death of Edward the Confessor by bestowing the governance of several earldoms upon his brothers. Unfortunately for him, however, the eldest of them, Tostig, proved the greatest hindrance to his plans, provoking wrath and opposition wherever he went by his highhandedness and cruelty.
Harold's governance of the realm seems to have been on the whole successful. He put down the Scottish usurper Macbeth with the swords of a Northumbrian army, and restored Malcolm III to the throne of that kingdom (1055-1058). He led an army into the heart of Wales to punish the raids of King Griffith ap Llewelyn, and harried the Welsh so bitterly that they put their leader to death, and renewed their homage to the English crown (1063). He won enthusiastic devotion from the men of Wessex and the South, but in Northumbria and Mercia he was less liked. His experiment in taking the rule of these earldoms out of the hands of the descendants of Siward and Leofric proved so unsuccessful that he had to resign himself to undoing it. Ultimately one of Leofric's grandsons, Edwin, was left as earl of Mercia, and the other, Morcar, became earl of Northumbria instead of Harold's unpopular brother Tostig. It was on this fact that the fortune of England was to turn, for in the hour of crisis Harold was to be betrayed by the lords of the Midlands and the North.
Somewhere about the end of his period of ascendancy, perhaps in 1064, Harold was sailing in the Channel when his ship was driven ashore by a tempest near the mouth of the Somme. He fell into the hands of William the Bastard, the duke of Normandy, King Edward's cousin and best-Norman loved relative. The duke brought him to Rouen, and kept him in a kind of honourable captivity till he had extorted a strange pledge from him. William alleged that his cousin had promised to make him his heir, and to recommend him to the witan as king of England. He demanded that Harold should swear to aid him in the project. Fearing for his personal safety, the earl gave the required oath, and sailed home a perjured man, for he had assuredly no intention of keeping the promise that had been extorted from him.
Within two years King Edward expired (Jan. 5, 1066) after having recommended Harold as his successor to the thegns and bishops who stood about his deathbed. The witan chose the earl as king without any show of doubt, though the assent of the Mercian and Northumbrian earls must have been half-hearted. Not a word was said in favour of the claim of the child Edgar, the heir of the house of Alfred, nothing (of course) for the preposterous claim of William of Normandy. Harold accepted the crown without a moments hesitation, and at once prepared to defend it, for he was aware that the Norman would fight to gain his purpose. He endeavoured to conciliate Edwin and Morcar by marrying their sister Ealdgyth, and trusted that he had bought their loyal support. When the spring came round it was known that William had begun to collect a great fleet and army. Aware that the resources of his own duchy were inadequate to the conquest of England, he sent all over Europe to hire mercenaries, promising every knight who would join him broad lands beyond the Channel in the event of victory. He gathered beneath his banner thousands of adventurers not only from France, Brittany and Flanders, but even from distant regions such as Aragon, Apulia and Germany. The native Normans were but a third part of his host, and he himself commanded rather as director of a great joint-stock venture than as the feudal chief of his own duchy. He also obtained the blessing of Pope Alexander II for his enterprise, partly on the plea that Harold was a perjurer, partly because Stigand, the archbishop of Canterbury, had acknowledged the late anti-pope Benedict.
All through the summcr Harold held a fleet concentrated under the lee of the Isle of Wight, waiting to intercept William's armament, while the fyrd of Wessex was ready to support him if the enemy should succeed in making a landing. By September the provisions were spent, and the ships were growing unseaworthy. Very reluctantly the king bade them go round to London to refit and revictual themselves. William meanwhile had been unable to sail, because for many weeks the wind had been unfavourable. If it had set from the south the fortune of England would have been settled by a sea-fight.
At this moment came a sudden and incalculable diversion; Harold's turbulent brother Tostig, banished for his crimes in 1065, was seeking revenge. He had persuaded Harold Hardrada, king of Norway, almost the last of the great viking adventurers, to take him as guide for a raid on England. They ran into the Humber with a great fleet, beat the earls Edwin and Morcar in battle, and captured York. Abandoning his watch on the south coast Harold of England flew northward to meet the invaders;, he surprised them at Stamford Bridge, slew both the Norse king and the rebel earl, and almost exterminated their army (Sept. 25 1066). But while he was absent from the Channel the wind turned, and William of Normandy put to sea. The English fleet and the English army were both absent, and the Normans came safely to shore on the 28th of September. Harold had to turn hastily southward to meet them. On the 13th of October his host was arrayed on the hill of Senlac, 9 miles from the duke's camp at Hastings. The ranks of his thegnhood and house-carles had been thinned by the slaughter of Stamford Bridge, and their place was but indifferently supplied by the hasty levies of London, Wessex and the Home Counties. Edwin and Morcar, who should have been at his side with their Mercians and Northumbrians, were still far away probably from treachery, slackness and jealousy.
Next morning (October 14) William marched out from Hastings and attacked the English host, which stood at bay in a solid mass of spear and axemen behind a slight breastwork on the hillside. After six hours of desperate fighting the victory fell to the duke, who skilfully alternated the use of archers and cavalry against the unwieldy English phalanx. (See Battle of Hastings.) The disaster was complete, Harold himself was slain, his two brothers had fallen with him, not even the wreck of an army escaped. There was no one to rally the English in the name of the house of Godwine. The witan met and hastily saluted the child Edgar Aetheling as king. But the earls Edwin and Morcar refused to fight for him, and when William appeared in front of the gates of London they were opened almost without resistance. He was elected king in the old English fashion by the surviving magnates, and crowned on Christmas Day 1066.