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The Death of Kings : Royal Deaths in…

The Death of Kings : Royal Deaths in Medieval England (2003)

by Michael Evans

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"The Death of Kings is an account of what is known about the deaths of all medieval English kings - natural, violent or accidental (as William Rufus's death out hunting in the New Forest). It shows how contemporaries and later writers, including Shakespeare, drew morals from such deaths and about the characters of individual kings, giving these deaths an imaginative and symbolic resonance that has lasted until the present day. Full of detail and personal information about the characters and attitudes of English kings and queens, The Death of Kings is a unique window into the heart of medieval society."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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Between 1066 and 1485 eight kings of England died violently: in battle, by murder, or in suspicious accidents. These deaths fascinated medieval chroniclers and have continued to fascinate historians and readers ever since. Nor was a fascination with royal death unique to the middle ages. We only have to think of the death of King Charles to realise its continuing hold on people's imaginations. Indeed a much more recent death, that of Princess Diana of Wales in 1997, with its talk of martyrdom and sainthood, and the princess's ability to attract veneration after death, was in some aspects very recognisable in medieval terms.

Medieval chronicles can be frustrating sources. To quote a modern editor of the twelfth-century monastic historian Henry of Huntingdon: “Henry’s account [of the reign of Henry I] is tantalisingly brief, being overloaded with moral reflections, fictitious speeches, and irrelevant poetry, and yielding little in the way of “facts”.¹ An historian can react to this problem in one of (at least) two ways: he or she may lament the lack of ‘facts,’ transcribing what few there are, before looking elsewhere for enlightenment; alternatively, the historian can ask why Henry included so many ‘irrelevant’ details, and begin to examine them in Henry’s own terms. The latter approach will enable the historian to work with the text, not against it.

Death and Burial

In January 1066 Edward the Confessor, the last king of the ancient Anglo-Saxon dynasty of Wessex, lay dying at Westminster. His death was to plunge his kingdom into crisis and lead to its conquest by William of Normandy, one of the great turning points in English history. The circumstance of Edward's reign had helped create this crisis. Whether by choice (later tradition maintained that he had remained celibate throughout his marriage) or involuntarily, he had remained childless, leaving a disputed succession. Much of his reign had seen the ascendancy of Godwin, earl of Wessex, whose daughter Edith was married to the king. Her brother Harold Godwinson, who succeeded Godwin as ear of Wessex, was an obvious candidate as Edward's heir.
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