When Edward came to the throne in 1042, Vikings were no longer the constant threat they had been in previous generations. England was becoming one of the richest countries in Western Europe, and her population was slowly growing.
Edward had a government which ran the country very efficiently for the times, although he had to be careful not to upset the handful of very powerful earls in the land: they were all rich, and each had plenty of armed followers.
There were mints across the country producing millions of silver pennies, which improved trade and made life easier for everyone.
There were Christian churches throughout the land, mostly small wooden buildings, and people’s lives were dominated by their beliefs. Country priests constantly reminded them of the torments of Hell. Indeed, many people had expected the world to end in 1000AD, but nothing had happened, and life went on as before.
London was becoming one of the most important cities in England, with perhaps 15,000 inhabitants. York had a population of around 8000, and there were a dozen or so other cities in England with two to four thousand inhabitants. But the great majority of people – more than 90% – lived in the countryside, kept animals and grew crops. There were perhaps between one and two million people in the whole of England – that’s about one-fortieth of today’s population!
The earls owned vast estates – bigger than counties today – but they relied on their ‘thanes’ to run things for them. Thanes were the lords of each village, and were expected to fight for the earl or the king if necessary in return for the land they’d been given.
The thanes in turn gave some of their land to ‘churls’, who were free men, but worked for the lord in exchange for their fields. Churls weren’t normally expected to fight.
Churls could rent out bits of their land to much poorer folk called ‘cottars’, who had very few rights.
In Edward’s England, there were still slaves at the bottom of the social scale, but slavery was beginning to die out.
Before he became king, Edward had spent his younger days across the sea in Normandy, where he had become friends with the noble men and women of the Norman court. By 1065, he was an old man, and gained a reputation as a devout Christian. He had no children, and his thanes were uncertain about who was to succeed him when he died. In 1051, while in Normandy, he had apparently assured young William that the English crown would pass to him, but this promise wasn’t taken very seriously in England. He apparently entrusted the throne to Harold Godwineson on his deathbed, but it was the custom for his advisors to make the final decision.
For anyone who thought they had a claim to the throne, it was clear that England was a very rich prize indeed. When Edward passed quietly away in his new Abbey at Westminster (where he still lies to this day), there were several contenders prepared if necessary to fight for that prize…