John Gayford asks whether Edward the Confessor should be the Patron Saint of England?
In the last 20-30 years there has been revived interest in the history of King Edward the Confessor, including his family and associates both good and bad, so that we seem to know more about him than any other saint of his era. This may be a good time to consider if he ought to be restored as the patron saint of England rather than St. George of whom we know next to nothing.
Edward, the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, died in January 1066 and was declared a saint by Pope Alexander III in 1161. For some years as St. Edward the Confessor he was patron saint of England; King Edward III replaced him by St. George, symbolic of a military hero, and founded the Order of the Garter in 1348 with St. George as patron. Most activities of Edward were not of great interest in his lifetime and were not well recorded. Thus information may be speculative, perhaps exaggerated and certainly influenced by political motivation. Historians try to disentangle the various Life accounts which include the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, the Encomium Emmae Reginae probably written c. 1041 in honour of Queen Emma the mother of Edward, and the Vita Edwardi Regis written about the time of Edward’s death by a foreign monk associated with Queen Edith. The purpose of the latter was to glorify the family of the Earl Godwin of Wessex. In it the kingdom is projected as prosperous and king Edward as Solomon. There were other foreign accounts, some in poetry. Osbert of Clare wrote a Latin biography of Anglo-Saxon saints including Edward. William of Malmesbury (died in 1143) continued in this vein in promoting the canonization of Edward and wrote about posthumous miracles.
From these various accounts Edwards’s biography can be constructed. Edward was the son of Ethelred II (sometimes called ‘the unready’ seen in old English terms as being ‘ill advised’). Ethelred’s second wife Emma bore him three children the first of whom was Edward born c.1005, followed by Alfred and a daughter Godgifu. At about the age of 10 Edward went to Normandy with his siblings due to the troubled state of England that continued to exist. While in Normandy Edward made a vow that he would go on pilgrimage to St. Peter’s tomb in Rome if God should put an end to the misfortunes of his family. Alfred was unwise enough to come back to England in 1036 where he was brutally murdered at the instigation of Earl Godwin who later tried to deny his involvement. Edward may have been with the 1036 expedition but retreated to stay in Normandy until 1042. This amounted to about 24 years of exile which included his developing years. The qualities he learned of worldly wisdom were to be a patient, cautious, flexible opportunist, making him a good and peaceable ruler of his kingdom when called to be England’s king. These could be cited as better qualities for him to be claimed a patron saint of this land rather than pious attributes and kindness to the poor which may have been exaggerated by legend. Although Edward was proclaimed king he was not anointed until Easter Sunday at Winchester in 1043.
The Crown Jewels and some constituents of them can be traced back to Edward the Confessor. A crown worn by Henry III in 1220 is said to be the same crown worn by Edward the Confessor. After Edward’s canonisation they were seen as holy relics by the monks from Westminster Abbey who wanted them to be used in future coronations. Oliver Cromwell saw the Crown Jewels as symbols of the detestable rule of kings and as memorials of superstition and idolatry. They were sold to the highest bidder. Yet the Restoration of the monarchy needed new items. It was unlikely that the old items could be retrieved or reconstructed: but a new crown and other items could be named after Edward the Confessor and so it continues today.
When fully installed as king Edward was advised not leave the country for fear of rebellion, so he could not fulfil his vow of pilgrimage. Pope Leo released Edward from this vow after his promise to finance the building of a monastery dedicated to St. Peter at Westminster. Like most kings Edward delighted in hunting as often as possible but he also had a very strong relationship with the monks of Westminster Abbey and is reputed to have gone to Mass each day before his traditional kingly activities. Edward realised he needed the support of the ruthless Earl Godwin and perhaps as an alliance of friendship married his daughter Edith in 1045, some 20 years younger than himself. She was brought up at Wilton Abbey where she had a good education and is reputed to have spoken several languages. Later Edith became a wealthy and powerful woman in her own right, she was crowned Queen of England but remained childless. Various reasons have been postulated for her fruitless marriage but none can be proven.
Edward created problems by inviting back friends from the continent, giving them responsible posts including some in the Church. Robert Abbot of Jumièges, a friend and counsel of Edward while he was in Normandy, was made Archbishop of Canterbury. This renewed Edward’s conflict with Godwin Earl of Wessex who was banished from the kingdom with his son Harold in 1051. This caused friction between Edward and Edith and she was sent to a convent for a time. Various reasons have been given for this which include her safety or as a prelude to a divorce for not producing an heir. In 1052 Earl Godwin and his son forced their way back into England. Robert’s short career as Archbishop of Canterbury ended with a dramatic account of how he and others fled from England. Godwin Earl of Wessex died suddenly in 1053 while at a banquet with King Edward. So ended the long power battle between the Earl of Wessex and King Edward.
The lack of heirs for Edward was a problem especially as he offered succession to William Duke of Normandy, who took this offer as a right to the throne.
Pope Leo IX gave permission for Edward to be released from his vow of pilgrimage if he took responsibility for building a monastery dedicated to St. Peter. King Edward built his palace on what was known as Thorney Island by the River Thames near where the Benedictine monks had built their small monastery. The King endowed the building of an enlarged monastic abbey with a cathedral church dedicated to St. Peter. The endowment took 25 years to build and was a large stone Romanesque building. By 1065 Edward was severely ill, possibly with a series of strokes. In his final years Edward was supported by Queen Edith who needed to take control. Westminster Abbey was to be consecrated on 28th December 1065 (the feast of Holy Innocents) with bishops, abbots and peers of the realm in attendance but the king was too ill to attend. Edward died on the night of the 4th to 5th January 1066 after the last rites had been administered and was buried in Westminster Abbey the next day, the same day as Harold was crowned in the same building. A month was ordered for prayers for Edward’s soul. Accounts of miracles in his own lifetime and at his tomb attracted pilgrims. There were reports of miraculous healing after prayers at his tomb and there were also claims of healings at his touch in his lifetime. Even water he had washed his hand in was considered holy with especial powers to heal scrofula (glandular T.B.) Pilgrims were attracted and donated, especially after his canonisation, making Westminster Abbey the richest foundation in the land.
Osbert of Clare (Prior of Westminster) in the late 1130’s lead a deputation to Rome to seek Pope Innocent II to canonise Edward but this was declined. In 1154 when Henry II became king a new attempt was made by Abbot Laurence of Westminster who had collected and testified miracles attributed to Edward. Pope Alexander III was more receptive and in 1161 Edward was declared St. Edward the Confessor and his saint’s day became January 5th the date of his death. The body was transferred to a new tomb at liturgy presided over by Thomas Becket Archbishop of Canterbury and the sermon was preached by Abbot Aelred of Rievaulx (both of whom became saints in due course). The date of the translation was 13th October which became the established feast day for St. Edward the Confessor. In 1163 King Henry III had a new shrine built behind the high altar to which the body was solemnly transferred yet again. Edward has the distinction of being the only king of England to be made a saint. His shrine survived the Reformation and still stands today in Westminster Abbey. Edward’s Abbey was to survive for about 200 years to be replaced by a Gothic style building endowed by King Henry III.
There are many legends attributed to St. Edward the Confessor. The most famous and worth recounting is as follows. One day on his way to Mass at the church of St. John the Evangelist in Essex he was approached by a beggar requesting alms. The King had no money on him to give, so instead gave him his ring. Many years later pilgrims from Rome brought the ring back to Edward. The claim was that the beggar had been St. John the Evangelist in disguise who would meet Edward shortly when he died.
Edward appears in the Bayeux Tapestry, and in the Wilton Diptych (1394-95) where he is on the left along with St. John the Baptist and St Edmond King and martyr and the donor king Richard II. In the Church of St. Edward the Confessor in the Oxfordshire village of Westcott Barton there is a 1913 stained glass window of Christ the King with St Edward the Confessor and St John the Evangelist.
Historians dig the soil deeply and reveal faults rather than admire the surface vegetation. In Edward’s era it was very difficult to be a saint and a king without being a (military) martyr. Edward was a man who had learned to reconcile with peace and had seen the disadvantages of conflict. These qualities were valued more after his reign than in it and contributed to his cult, manifesting in a shrine with pilgrims, miracles and supporting legends, two feast days each year accompanied by fairs that could last for two weeks. Canonization had helped this process on its way. Was this the type of patron that England needed to build and sustain an empire? History eventually refused him; and although historians have not been able to research in any detail the life of St. George, nevertheless George won as patron. St. Edward the Confessor negotiated for peace, was inclusive, and was loved by his people after his death. His shrine remained intact through the Reformation and still can be visited in the heart of Westminster Abbey. What better standard bearer could the nation possess to uphold our contemporary values?
Suggested Further Reading
Barlow, F. Edward the Confessor Yale University Press London. 1997.
Licence, T. Edward the Confessor: Last of the Royal Blood. Yale University Press London 2020
Rex, P. Edward the Confessor King of England Amberley Publications Gloucestershire 2015.
Woodman, D. Edward the Confessor: The Sainted King. Allen Lane Penguin Books. 2020.
Fr John Gayford is a retired priest.