The Confessor's Gift and the Conqueror's Oath

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Fecamp Abbey

The Abbey Church, Fécamp

Edward the Confessor spent about twenty eight years in exile before becoming King of England. While the Dane, King Cnut and his two sons occupied the English throne, Edward found sanctuary with the dukes of Normandy. His parents had fled to the court of his maternal uncle, Duke Richard II, where he remained after the death of his father King Aethelred and the return to England of his Norman mother Emma. Documents from the period show that Edward was in the coastal town of Fécamp, where the dukes maintained a palace and lavished their wealth on a great abbey. Edward's apparent vow of chastity is one of several indications that he may have become a monk at Fécamp, or at least chosen the simple life as a guest of the abbey for many years.

Edward's prospects of regaining his father's throne looked dismal. His mother entered into a remarkable second marriage. She became the wife of King Cnut - and had a son. Aethelred's Norman marriage had been intended to cement a cross-channel coalition against Viking raiders. It was a spectacular failure: the Danish invader Cnut took the throne and the Queen! Others in Edward's family were murdered. Nonetheless, Richard II's son, Duke Robert, recognised his cousin Edward as the rightful king of England. Robert even attempted an attack on Cnut from Fécamp, in Edward's support, but with little success.

Cnut's line eventually failed and Edward returned to England. His peaceful accession to the throne in 1042 was a dramatic turn of fortune.  Edward had much for which to thank his Norman protectors and gave the royal minster church in Steyning, with its large manor lands, to the Abbey Church of the Holy Trinity at Fécamp. The gift was to take effect after the death of the Bishop of Winchester who had charge of Steyning, named Aelfwine.

This man originally accompanied Queen Emma to England from Normandy on the instruction of her father, and Aelfwine became a favourite with whom she was later accused of having an affair. During the reign of her son Edward, she is said to have walked barefoot over nine red hot metal ploughshares to demonstrate her innocence. Aelfwine had fought against the Danes and became a monk when Cnut took the throne. Upon Emma's return to England as Cnut's queen, she raised Aelfwine again to high office. Bishop Aelfwine died in 1047 and ecclesiatical jurisdiction in Steyning then passed via Fécamp Abbey directly to the Pope. This was because Fécamp Abbey itself answered to no Norman bishop but only to the Pope.

An awkward question was whether Fécamp Abbey also answered to the French King, who was technically the lord of its greatest patrons, the Dukes of Normandy. This was conveniently obscured by the politics of Norman relations with France, but what was the position when the abbey gained land from an English King? King Aethelred in exile, Queen Emma of Norman birth, the Danish King Cnut, his two succeeding sons, and the monkish King Edward all seemed oblivious to this problem.

King Edward's gift may have been influenced by the reunion with his mother, after many difficult years, and memories of his father. King Cnut had already given a port with land around Rye, Winchelsea and Hastings to Fécamp Abbey, to honour a promise made by King Aethelred. Aethelred had taken refuge in Fécamp and left his family there before he died. Not to be disadvantaged by Aethelred's loss of life and kingdom, the abbey obliged Queen Emma to persuade her new husband, Cnut to pay the price of her family's safe-keeping. King Edward added the important new Sussex port of Steyning to enrich the abbey's trade and communication with England. His extraordinary gift was confirmed in a charter up to forty years later under King William, but the monks described the exceptional liberties they believed Edward had given them in a forged charter:

253. Charter by William I to the abbot and monks of Fécamp.

Confirming the gift, made by Edward the Confessor, of Steyning [co. Sussex]. This charter acquitted the grantees of all earthly service and subjection to barons, princes, and others, and gave them all royal liberties, custom, and justice over all matters arising in their land; and threatened any who should infringe these liberties with an amercement of £100 of gold.*

King Edward was made a saint in later times but his reign was weakened by over-mighty subjects. One of these men, raised up by King Cnut, was Earl Godwine of Wessex. Godwine's political instincts were Anglo-Danish rather than Anglo-Norman. He was a shrewd and intelligent statesman, but above all he promoted his own family interests. Edward apparently intended to maintain a vow of chastity, but was obliged to marry Godwine's daughter Eadgyth.

The Earl held vast estates in Sussex formerly owned by the royal family. He may, in fact, have been a direct male-line decendant of King Aelthelwulf, according to the historian Frank Barlow. Godwine's father, Wulfnoth Cild of Sussex was deprived of his lands after a notorious act of treason under King Aethelred in 1009. In 1051, Godwine also launched a chaotic rebellion and suffered exile. But he returned stronger than ever, unlike his father, and forced several influential Normans to flee the country in 1052. One of these was the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert of Jumieges, the man suspected of having first suggested to Duke William that he was Edward's heir.

The monks of Fécamp lost Steyning, having hardly had time to establish themselves, and Godwine took it for himself. The abbey was arguably compensated for this loss in 1054, when Abbot John of Fécamp visited England. King Edward gave the abbot some lands named in a surviving charter, but historians have found it difficult to identify the locations. It seems that the abbey managed to hold on to Cnut's gifts at Hastings, Rye and Winchelsea.

Maybe Steyning had been Godwine's by inheritance until his father's rebellion, when Queen Emma gave it to her favourite, Aelfwine. The terms of King Alfred's will had stated that his lands must remain with his father's male decendants, and be returned to them if they should inadvertently fall into the hands of others. This would have included Steyning, which strayed into the possession of Aelfwine and then the Abbey of Fécamp. Did Godwine brandish King Alfred's will to his own advantage, when others had forgotten it?

As a patriot and statesman, to his credit, Godwine clearly suspected King Edward of paving the way for a Norman succession and may well have understood the difficulties relating to Fécamp Abbey's peculiar status.

Earl Godwine died in 1053, but his equally powerful son continued to dominate the reign of Edward the Confessor. This was Harold Godwineson. When King Edward died childless, Earl Harold was swiftly chosen and crowned to defend the country against aggressive foreign claims. In line with his father's policy, King Harold did not restore Steyning to the monks of Fécamp. This was hardly surprising, since there was a royal mint in the town. The manor lands were large and wealthy. Steyning was a busy port and a natural point of entry into England from Normandy. Far better for a king to have his own men at Steyning, rather than Norman monks in league with his enemies!

Unlike Duke William, King Harold neglected to send an envoy to the Pope to explain his position. By October 1066 William had landed on the south coast of England with his fleet, including a ship provided by Fécamp Abbey. The stage was set for the Battle of Hastings.

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Page last updated
16th August 2021