History

Edward the Confessor and Edith

Edward the Confessor was born at Islip in Oxfordshire between 1002 and 1005, the son of King Ethelred the Unready and Emma. Driven from England by the Danes, and spending his exile in Normandy, the story goes that Edward vowed that if he should return safely to his kingdom, he would make a pilgrimage to St Peter's, Rome. He returned to England and was crowned at Winchester in 1042. But once on the throne he found it impossible to leave his subjects, and the Pope released him from his vow on condition that he should found or restore a monastery to St Peter. This led to the building of a new church in the Norman style to replace the Saxon church at Westminster.

One of the legends associated with the king happened towards the end of his life. Edward was riding by a church in Essex and an old man asked for alms. As the king had no money to give he drew a large ring off his finger and gave this to the beggar. A few years later two pilgrims were travelling in the Holy Land and became stranded. They were helped by an old man and when he knew they came from England he told them he was St John the Evangelist and asked them to return the ring to Edward telling him that in six months he would join him in heaven.

The Abbey at Westminster was consecrated on Holy Innocents' Day, 28 December 1065, but the king was ill and unable to be present at the service. He died on 5 January 1066 and was buried before the High Altar in his new church. His burial procession is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Edward the Confessor, as he was known, had not been a particularly successful king, but his personal character and piety endeared him to his people. In appearance he is represented as tall, dignified and kindly with rosy cheeks and a long white beard. He was regarded as a saint long before he was officially canonized as Saint and Confessor by Pope Alexander III in 1161. A Confessor is a particular type of saint. The term applies to those who suffered for their faith and demonstrated their sanctity in the face of worldly temptations, but who were not martyrs.

On 13 October 1163 St Edward's body was transferred to a Shrine prepared for it. At this time the famous ring was taken off his finger and deposited with the Abbey relics (all the relics unfortunately disappeared at the dissolution of the monastery in 1540).

King Henry III (1207-1272) held Edward the Confessor in great veneration and decided to rebuild his Abbey in the magnificent new Gothic style. He erected a new and costly Shrine with workmen and mosaics from Italy, which was finished in 1269. Sick persons made pilgrimages to the Shrine and knelt in the recesses to pray for healing. A cult of St Edward had grown up and people regarded him as the patron saint of England. However, after Henry III's death the cult declined and St George eventually became recognised as patron saint of England.

The Benedictine monastery at Westminster was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540 and the Shrine despoiled. The Saint's body was buried in some obscure spot in the Abbey. Mary I restored the coffin to its place in 1557 and gave new jewels to replace the stolen ones. The fabric of the Shrine has suffered much during the centuries. However, the Confessor's coffin still lies in a cavity in the top part of the marble structure. The Shrine is regarded as the centre of the Abbey and five kings and four queens lie buried in his Chapel. Edward's wife Edith (died 1075) is buried near her husband's Shrine. On the western side of the Chapel is a stone screen with fourteen scenes of events, real and legendary, in the life of the Confessor. A special service is held every year on St Edward's Day (13 October).

(The illustration depicting St Edward holding his ring and sceptre is taken from a 14th century manuscript in the Abbey Library)

Further reading:

Westminster Abbey Official Guide
Edward the Confessor by Frank Barlow, London 1970.

Edward the Confessor. The Man and the Legend. Edited by Richard Mortimer, 2009.

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