Once England had fallen to the Protestants we stopped thinking of the saintly men and women who hail from the fascinating little island across the ocean. (What must it be like to grow up in a small town with a city like London a few hours away, and access to the best of everything – the best practices in music, literature, arts, theater?)
O God, Who crowned blessed King Edward with the glory of eternity, grant us, we beseech You, so to venerate him on earth that we may be worthy to reign with him in heaven.Collect from the Mass of the Day
Edward’s a fascinating man. We’re on a first name basis, too, in case you wondered.
Think of Edward the Confessor, and you’ll probably imagine an old, grey king, approaching death. This is how we see him depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, in iconography inspired by his saint’s cult, and in TV dramatisations of the Norman conquest. We think of Edward the saint, preparing his soul for heaven, and we regard his reign as a prelude to the more exciting events of 1066. Like Charles Dickens, in his A Child’s History of England, we quickly pass over “the dreary old Confessor” to get to “the brave Harold”. Edward has become linked in our minds with the decline of Anglo-Saxon England, Harold to its final defence. Yet Edward’s reign is the key to many mysteries, including how England came to be conquered.
Reputations can be misleading. It can take centuries for historians to rewrite them. It was Edward himself, or his courtiers, who planted the idea that he was a holy king who worked miracles. This boosted his mystique. Later, his image was reshaped by medieval monks who wanted to portray him as one of their own. Reinventing him as a ‘Confessor’ (a saint who ‘confessed’ the faith by virtuous living), they created a cipher who was revered by pious monarchs, notably Henry III. Edward came to be seen as an otherworldly king, more interested in preparing his soul for heaven than in governing England. The idea soon grew that Edward left the business of ruling the kingdom to his earls, chiefly Godwine and Godwine’s son Harold.
But Edward is far more than the man behind the reputation built for him by monks of later centuries.
Edward now began driving home the message that he was a saviour, sent by God to resurrect the ancient line of kings and usher in a golden age. He proclaimed these ideas by the original means of including the word ‘PEACE’ on his inaugural coinage and by delaying his coronation by almost a year, to hold it on Easter Day 1043.
The Christ-like symbolism was striking. Returning from the grave of exile (which was often likened to death), Edward came to redeem his people from Danish captivity. Peace was a manifesto that he intended to implement. According to his contemporary biographer, one of the first things Edward did was to arrange peace treaties with the lesser kings or princes of the British Isles, and with the neighbouring powers who shared Britain’s seaways. Meanwhile, he rewarded the agents who had helped him, including Earl Godwine, and punished those who had not, such as his mother, Emma. Harthacnut was dead of course, but Edward punished him for presuming to occupy the throne by ensuring he was given a bad write-up in the chronicles.
A courtly writer observing Edward at the beginning of the reign in 1042 remarked that he was a good man and a perceptive one too. Nearing 40, the king was no longer a youth. His biographer, writing at the end of the reign in 1065, described him as a man of vigorous action. Another contemporary, at the abbey of Bury St Edmunds, regarded Edward as an energetic man, always busy for the benefit of present and future generations. Barlow, who saw Edward as a king “who never searched for work”, appears to have overlooked this evidence, which contradicts his thesis that Edward was lethargic and uncommitted.
The Vita Ædwardi Regis – a manuscript dating to 1100 and now residing in the British Library – writes of him:
“He was a very proper figure of a man – of outstanding height, and distinguished by his milky white hair and beard, full face and rosy cheeks, thin white hands, and long translucent fingers; in all the rest of his body he was an unblemished royal person. Pleasant, but always dignified, he walked with eyes downcast, most graciously affable to one and all. If some cause aroused his temper, he seemed as terrible as a lion, but he never revealed his anger by railing.” This, as the historian Richard Mortimer notes, ‘contains obvious elements of the ideal king, expressed in flattering terms – tall and distinguished, affable, dignified and just.’
He was tall and pale, also distinguished, affable, dignified, and just. I can relate – he’ll make a perfect study for my sabbatical theme of composure.
His tomb is located in Westminster Abbey and is a well-worn place that was, and still is, the center of pilgrimages throughout the centuries. A beautiful place to visit, and I was able to do that once.
He lived with his wife Edith in Westminster Abbey, which he also built. The Abbey was later and famously rebuilt starting in 1245, in the form it still has, and finished in 1269.
The 13th of October marks the day his remains were translated – transported, or moved and reinterred from their original location – to the present Abbey.
The Abbey itself has an impressive article on Edward and his lovely wife Edith.
They were both Catholic of course. Here’s a link for information on a Requiem Mass done for Edith a few years ago at the Shrine of St. Edward, in the Abbey.
St. Edward, ora pro nobis.