England in the 11th century was a rich prize. The land held about one and a half million people, Anglo-Saxons with large settlements of Vikings – mainly Danes – across north and eastern England. In the Celtic west were the Cornish and Welsh, with Scots and Picts on the northern borders.
The kingship was strong, with the king as war-leader, anointed by the church and assisted by his council or witan. He could raise the geld, a form of land tax, and had rights to bridge building, service on town fortifications (burhs), and military service in the fyrd (the king’s army). His most powerful subjects were the earls, then the king’s thegns and lesser thegns.
Much of England was a rural economy. Sokemen were freemen who paid rents for their land but many villagers could not leave without the lord’s permission. Slaves also existed, largely in the west and south.
Towns were expanding and London was a major centre, still protected by its Roman walls. Moreover, the coinage was strong, with mints under royal control. The church had experienced a monastic revival in the 10th century, which was now ebbing. English art – painting, ivory carving, sculpture and needlework – was of a very high order.
Edward the Confessor, had to contend with a few very powerful earls. In the midlands was Edwin of Mercia and to the north his brother, Morcar of Northumbria. In the south the most powerful was Harold Godwinsson of Wessex, with his younger brothers, Gyrth in East Anglia and Leofwine to the north of London. The king was married to Harold’s sister, but there were no children and thus no heir.