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Understanding the English Succession, 1051-1066

This activity tries to keep things simple, which isn’t easy given the complexity of the debates over the succession to the English crown in 1066. I’ve added some notes on historians’ interpretations at the end in case these help but I’ll describe the activity first – hopefully a gentler start!

One other introductory point – many teachers ask students to decide ‘who had the best claim?’ or ‘who would have made the best king?’. The problem with these activities is that the former is deeply misleading because there were no ‘rules’ about the succession (see later notes) and the latter depends entirely on the viewpoint of the decision-maker so a general ‘best king’ cannot be decided. Such questions may be enjoyable and engaging but have no historical value for understanding the events of 1066. There’s also the danger of erroneous ideas being established at KS3 which would make understanding harder at GCSE. Again more on this later!

If you want to catch up on the history before reading further here is a very clear article by Dr Jessica Nelson of The National Archive:


A WORD version of this activity and accompanying resources can be downloaded:

Summary and Objectives

This is a four-stage activity with each stage representing a different date - 1051, 1059, 1065, January 1066. For each date students position the contenders in relation to the crown to create a visual representation of who seemed closest to the crown at each date (see PowerPoint slide 1). You could do this activity on paper or whiteboard but the physical movement and placement will help some students at least understand in a way they might not otherwise do.

By the end of the activity students should know and understand that:

a) there was long-running uncertainty about who would be Edward’s successor

b) the likelihood of each possible successor taking the crown changed over time

c) there was a variety of reasons why individuals could claim the crown and there was no agreed set of ‘rules’ about who should be king

d) all the ‘contenders’ had reason to believe they had the chance to be king, making conflict almost inevitable in 1066.

This activity does not require the study of the sources which may seem unusual for this topic. My suggestion is that if you want to look carefully at the sources you do that as a second stage, after using this activity. The logic is that this activity first helps students see the overall pattern and identify individuals, their reasons for believing they could take the crown, who was closest to the throne at each stage – before they get embroiled in the uncertainties created by the sources. You can use the sources as the second stage to assess how probable is the story created in this activity, therefore moving students from apparent certainty to a degree of certainty with much use of ‘probably’, ‘possibly’ etc.

Note: I’d like to thank Richard Kerridge, Ruth Lingard and Sally Wilson for discussing aspects of this activity. What follows is, of course, entirely my fault!

The Activity

1. Setting up your room

Place a crown at one side of the room and maybe a stuffed toy to represent Edward the Confessor. (No parallel is intended between the inertness of the stuffed animal and Edward – historians do disagree on the nature of his personality and assertiveness!)

Clear a space across the room leading to the crown so students representing the possible successors can be positioned close to or far from the crown.

Identify 5 students who will appear as:

• William of Normandy
• Godwin/Harold Godwinson (same student as both)
• Edward the Exile/Edgar Atheling (same student as both)
• An unborn child of Edward the Confessor (better as a small stuffed toy than a student)
• Harald Hardrada of Norway

Give them tabards to wear or cards to hold so their names are clear.

Prepare a recording sheet for students to use at each of the 4 stages – alternatively you can keep a record on your board and students can copy this up as you go.

2. Introducing the activity

a) Explain that you are going to explore who seemed to have the best chance of being the king. Do NOT say he has no child as this immediately cements any assumptions about ‘rules’ of succession and interferes with b and c below.

b) Ask students what they think will decide who will be the next king and list answers – this is important in identifying what is already in students’ minds

c) Compare students’ answers with the following factors which influenced the succession (see PowerPoint slide 2)

• A blood relative of the existing king or a previous king
• Being identified as the successor by the king
• Being accepted as king by the nobility and church hierarchy
• Substantial powerful support

Discuss what students thought before and what new ideas are in the list – and perhaps how likely this range of factors was to lead to disagreements or war.

(Note – for your use see the historical notes at the end of the activity for discussion of why the idea of ‘rules’ for the succession is misleading.)

3. Who seemed to be Edward’s most likely successor?

Information about the possible successors is set out on PowerPoint slides 3-6 – only you will know whether you need to simplify or add detail in these slides for each individual class.

Take each date in turn and ask the class to decide where they would position the possible successors in relation to the crown, using the information on the slide i.e. a strong favourite is in touching distance of crown, other contenders further from crown with the distance determined by likelihood of gaining crown.

After discussion, position the possible successors on the pathway to the crown, then ask students to record the positioning, perhaps on a summary worksheet with and also note down which of the criteria seem most important at each date.

Repeat the same process for each of the 4 dates.

An alternative method, perhaps with GCSE students, is to ask them to research the positioning from their books rather than using the more easily digested information on the PowerPoint.

Note – I haven’t tried to explain Harald of Norway’s possible claim to the crown on the PowerPoint slide. It’s complex but, more importantly, came a long distance second in all likelihood to his desire to extend his power and wealth. Little if anything was said about him inheriting a deal between Harthacnut of England and King Magnus until the 12th century.


Begin by asking students what they have learned from this activity so they have to think about and identify their learning. If necessary, steer them towards the main points (see PowerPoint slide 7) i.e.

a) there was long-running uncertainty about who would be Edward’s successor

b) the likelihood of each possible successor taking the crown changed over time

c) there was a variety of reasons why individuals could claim the crown and there was no agreed set of ‘rules’ about who should be king

d) all the ‘contenders’ had reason to believe they had the chance to be king, making conflict almost inevitable in 1066.

Overall this should help students understand why there was such a high chance of conflict in 1066.

One analogy that might be useful is that the succession has a resemblance to the game of musical chairs – who had the best chance of sitting the chair/throne when the music stopped i.e. Edward died? If he had died earlier then it may not have been Harold who took the throne but, of course, it was power that mattered.

As noted earlier this may now be the time to explore the nature of the sources. One way to begin would be to give students information about a number of writers/embroiderers and ask students to predict what each source might say about who Edward wanted as his successor and then which sources they’d expect to be most useful for finding the answer.

This sequence has at least two advantages:

a) it helps students realise that certainty is very unlikely because they have identified problems of reliability BEFORE looking at the content of sources

b) the process of prediction makes students keener to find out what the sources really did say

Why this can be a tricky topic to teach at KS3 and GCSE

Here are some things to be aware of if you are new to this topic (apart from all the names, spelling, countries etc!):

1. We do need to go back, however briefly, to the late 1040s or 1051 to understand the background to the succession crisis of 1066 even if this extends coverage back beyond the GCSE specification start date. It will help students understand 1066 if they have an outline idea of these changes rather than assuming the succession issue was static.

2. We often study 1066 as a one-off succession dispute when in fact almost every succession between 975 and 1189 was disputed to some degree. This one-off approach to 1066 makes it harder for students to appreciate that the conflict in 1066 was far from unusual.

3. There were no clear ‘rules’ about the succession in 11th century England. Students often assume that there was such a thing as ‘the rightful heir’ or that the king’s eldest son was bound to inherit the crown. This assumption makes it hard for them to appreciate the much more flexible reality. To repeat my earlier rant - this is where activities which ask students to decide who had the best claim are seriously misleading as they are likely to confirm students’ misconceptions rather than challenge them.

In his new book William the Conqueror (Yale UP, 2016) Professor David Bates explains that ‘norms of succession’ were malleable, varying according the needs and interests of individuals and groups in each new circumstance. The use of bold below is mine to pick out a key point.

In 1042 ‘… while Edward was a splendidly authentic representative of the Wessex line of kings … the king-worthiness that he exemplified as a descendant of previous kings was no more than a basic starting qualification in the eligibility stakes. In installing him no account had been taken of the claims of his … nephew in exile in Normandy … In England the succession had yet again been manipulated to produce a desired result. The malleability of the norms of succession – surely no one could think in terms of rules – was central to the cultural worlds of William and his slightly older contemporary, Harold of Wessex.’

Historians on the Succession Crisis

Another problem is that we do not know what happened with any precision! We cannot be completely certain if Edward offered William the crown in 1051, what he intended when inviting Edward and Edgar back from exile, what his attitude was to Harold as his successor, whether he ever seriously considered Edgar as his heir, what happened at Edward’s deathbed in terms of Edward bequeathing the crown to Harold. Some issues have a greater sense of probability than others but none are known for certain.

The most easily accessed summary of the succession issue is a very clear article by Dr Jessica Nelson of The National Archive here:

Another very helpful article is unfortunately in a book that’s very hard to get hold of - it costs £50 and is only likely to be found in a university library. The article is:

Stephen Baxter ‘Edward the Confessor and the Succession Question’ in R. Mortimer, Edward the Confessor: The Man and the Legend, 2009.

To summarise Dr Baxter’s article very simply he divides historians’ views on the succession into three groups:

1. those who argue that Edward promised the throne to William and stuck to that intent (e.g. David Douglas, author of the 1963 book William the Conqueror in the English Monarchs series, the forerunner of David Bates’ new book)

2. those who argue that Edward may have promised throne to William but later favoured an English successor (e.g. Frank Barlow who argues that Edward was an energetic and positive influence as king)

3. those who say we can’t know at all! (e.g. George Garnett who rejects as a post-hoc confection of propaganda the Norman story of the 1051 promise and of Harold’s oath. If that makes Garnett’s view sound like a wild interpretation it’s worth pointing out that he’s a highly-respected Oxford historian who has written in depth and with great command of his material.)

Stephen Baxter’s own view overlaps with category 2 - that Edward may well have promised the throne to William in 1051 but later favoured an English successor. He suggests that Edward changed his mind as circumstances and the power of the Godwins changed – these events unfolded over 15 years after all (the lifetime of a GCSE student) so there was plenty of scope for change. However Dr Baxter doesn’t follow Barlow in his portrayal of Edward – his Edward rather gives up, leaves it to events to sort out and must carry much of the blame for the uncertainty in 1066.

Dr Baxter discounts Edgar as a likely successor from late 1050s because Edgar does not appear in witness lists to documents from c1057 and doesn’t appear to have had much land according to Domesday. However Professor Bates in William the Conqueror (2016) suggests that Edgar was still a live contender in 1064, possibly 1065 and it’s largely the imminent invasions that shift support to Harold.

Another point is that William’s belief that he was Edward’s heir was well-known around the courts of western Europe and nobody would have been of any doubt about William’s intentions when Edward died. Therefore Harold could not have been taken by surprise when he visited Normandy in 1064  and was required to swear to support William’s claim as successor (assuming Harold did – this has been questioned but historians do tend to agree that he did swear some kind of oath in Normandy. The main evidence for this is in Eadmer of Canterbury’s chronicle – it seems that the visit was Harold’s own initiative to try free family members held as hostages by William rather than him being sent by Edward to confirm the 1051 promise).

A final issue is that there were different understandings of succession oaths in Normandy and England. It had never occurred to me to wonder whether different nationalities had different perceptions about promises about inheritance, including promises of the crown. However, again attempting to summarise complex arguments:

In Normandy what are known as post obitum grants were common – an individual swore formally before witnesses that he was leaving his property to X. Such a grant was regarded as irrevocable.
If Edward did this in 1051 then William did believe he was EC’s heir because this was the Norman custom. (Given his long stay in Normandy Edward must have known this too though whether he ignored that knowledge we can’t know.)

In England such a post obitum grant would only have been irrevocable if Edward had formally passed the crown and property (i.e. England) to William – therefore to the English this promise was not irrevocable and could be set to one side. It is also argued that in England deathbed bequests over-rode all earlier grants.

I fear this may not have made things any clearer but these differences in customs (which were far from static as well) may explain why there was so much debate then and now and made disputes more than likely.


Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

This Page



Summary and Objectives

The Activity


Why this can be tricky

Historians on the Crisis