Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Feast of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor 2019
Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?
The Reverend Professor Sarah Foot Canon of Christ Church and Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History
in the University of Oxford
Sunday, 13th October 2019 at 10.30 AM
Jesus said to the sons of Zebedee, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ (Matthew 20: 22)
Most of the kings who ruled in England before the Norman Conquest of 1066 occupy only a shadowy place in the national collective memory. But every school child can call to mind the benign, bearded face of the aged Edward the Confessor, the last English king descended from the West Saxon house of King Alfred’s predecessor, Cerdic, the feast of whose translation we keep today. His epithet, confessor, distinguishes him from an earlier sainted King Edward, the martyr, who had been murdered in 978.
The Bayeux Tapestry, that woven narrative of the events that led to William the Conqueror’s victory at Hastings in 1066, opens with a portrait of King Edward, sitting enthroned in his palace. We see him sending his brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson, on his ill-fated journey to Normandy in early 1064, a trip that arguably set in motion the train of events that led to Harold’s defeat and death at Hastings, on 14 October 1066. Today, the 13th, marks the 750th anniversary of the dedication of this splendid Gothic church, begun by Henry III in 1245 on the site of the eleventh-century church of St Peter. King Edward had endowed that building as a noble edifice, worthy of the Prince of the Apostles, in order that it become his own burial place (Vita Ædwardi regis, ed. F Barlow, bk I, ch. vi, p. 44). It was also on this day in 1269 – the anniversary of a previous translation in 1163 – that the coffin containing Edward’s remains was reverently taken to the new shrine behind the high altar, and a metal feretory lowered over the coffin.
As we mark the double feast of Edward’s translation and of the dedication of Henry III’s new church, we gather, as our predecessors have done over centuries, around the Lord’s table. Here, in celebrating the mysteries of the holy Eucharist, we follow Christ’s injunction to eat his body and drink his blood of the new covenant ‘in remembrance of him’. Each time we do so, we participate not just as individuals, but collectively. We – we who, although many, are one body in Christ – co-memorate his death and passion in the shared fellowship of breaking bread and pouring wine. Each act of commemoration serves to bind us closer together as a Christian community encompassing the dead as well as the living. Each binds us in one communion stretching across time to include all the thousands – millions – of faithful who have shared Christ’s bread and his cup in this place, including the Confessor himself. Although he never worshipped in the finished church that he endowed on this site, Edward did attend services in the Benedictine abbey church that preceded it, divinely and devoutly attending the divine offices every day, according to his hagiographer. (Vita Ædwardi, bk I, ch vi, p. 40).
Edward the Confessor was by no means England’s first royal saint, but he stands apart from earlier English saint kings in three important respects: first, most of the others died violent deaths, often at the hands of pagan enemies. But Edward died, as we will see shortly, in his own bed, surrounded by those closest to him.
Secondly, hagiographies were written about other early English sainted kings, but all were composed after their subject’s deaths. Yet Edward’s wife, Edith, commissioned a Flemish monk, Folcard, to start writing a life of her husband that portrayed him in hagiographical terms in late 1065, whilst he was still alive. In the first book of what became a two-volume work, Folcard presented Edward, Edith and her father Godwine as representatives of peace, unity, piety – and in the case of the royal couple – chastity (T. Licence, ‘The date and authorship of the Vita Ædwardi regis’, Anglo-Saxon England 44, 2015, pp. 259-85, at p. 272.). Book II, written after the Conquest in around 1067, dwelt more conventionally on the king’s lifelong virginity and posthumous miracles, demonstrating that he had joined the communion of saints in heaven, and could intercede with the Almighty on behalf of the faithful on earth.
And thirdly, unlike any of his early English predecessors, Edward was the first English saint formally to be canonised by the pope in Rome nearly a century after his death in 1161.
After that familiar opening image, we encounter Edward twice more in the Bayeux Tapestry: when he met Harold on his return from Normandy, and then at his death. Three consecutive scenes about the end of Edward’s life should be read together, although they are not portrayed in chronological order. The first shows the consecration of the abbey church at Westminster on the eve of Holy Innocents’ Day (i.e. 28 December, 1065), with the hand of God descending from the cloud to bless the new building. In the next image, to the right of the church – so recently completed that a workman is still positioning the weathercock on the east end – we see a group of pallbearers, followed by some tonsured clerics appear, carrying a bier with the dead king accompanied by bell ringers. ‘Washed by his country’s tears’, Edward was to be buried on the feast of the Epiphany (6 January) before the high altar of the church of St Peter that he had had built. Only in the third scene do we encounter Edward’s deathbed, the day before his burial. A double-decker image shows the king both alive and dead: in the top half (in an upper room in the royal palace), Edward lies mortally ill, with an unshaven priest at his side (probably Baldwin, his physician, abbot of Bury St Edmunds). His weeping wife, Edith, stands at the foot of the bed, and in the foreground the king stretches out his hand and touches Earl Harold, who kneels before him.
As many commentators have noted, this image echoes closely the account of Edward’s death in Folcard’s Life of King Edward. According to him, when the king was sick unto death and his men stood and wept bitterly, Edward said ‘Do not weep, but intercede with God for my soul, and give me leave to go to Him. For he will not pardon me so that I shall not die who would not pardon Himself so that He should not die.’ Commending the kingdom and his wife to her brother, Harold, Edward comforted Edith saying, ‘Fear not, I shall not die now, but by God’s mercy, regain my strength’. (Vita Ædwardi regis, bk II, p. 79). Although the lower half of the double image in the tapestry shows Edward looking exceedingly ‘dead’ in human terms, while his attendants wound a shroud around his corpse, his hagiographer explained that he had not mislead his hearers, ‘for Edward has not died, but has passed from death to life, to live with Christ.’ (Vita Ædwardi regis, p. 80).
These details about Edward’s death and burial in the newly-consecrated abbey church are important, for in them we have all the makings of a promising saint’s cult. The confessor had a reputation as a devout man of God and major patron of the church. He claimed kinship with Edmund, the martyred king of East Anglia, and showed great generosity to the abbey of Bury St Edmunds. On his death, a chronicler praised Edward as a glorious ruler of heroes; lavishly generous, he had ruled and protected a wide empire until, at his bitter death, angels led his righteous soul to heaven’s radiance (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 1066, MSS C and D).
Most significant for the growth of Edward’s cult was that claim to virginity, to which Folcard’s life had testified. Further evidence of his chastity emerged in 1102, when Gilbert Crispin, abbot of Westminster, opened Edward’s tomb and discovered the remains to be miraculously incorrupt, a clear sign of the purity of his body in life. This led to an organised campaign to secure Edward’s canonisation in which a second life by Osbert de Clare, emphasised the king’s virginity and recounted the miracles that proved his holiness. An early attempt proved unsuccessful, but with the support of Henry II, Abbot Laurence of Westminster petitioned Pope Alexander III, who agreed to inscribe Edward’s name in the catalogue of the saints in February 1161.
Ælred, the Cistercian abbot of Rievaulx wrote a new life for this occasion, introducing some additional legendary material in order to fill out the frankly rather thin account of Edward’s life that his predecessors had provided. This included the celebrated story about how Edward recovered a ring that he had once given to a pilgrim from St John the Evangelist. On Sunday 13 October 1163, the sainted king’s remains were taken from their original resting place in front of the altar and placed in a new shrine, high above the pavement behind the altar. The date chosen for this first translation was significant, for this was the eve of the anniversary of the battle of Hastings, and thus marked the end of Anglo-Saxon rule in England before the transition to the new, Norman order.
Exactly one hundred and six years later, on the same day in 1269, also a Sunday, Henry III’s new church was dedicated by Hugh, Bishop of Meath, and King Edward was translated again to his new shrine. The body was taken out of the old reliquary and placed into an ornately painted and enamelled wooden coffin; it was carried in procession round the church (with some rather unedifying jostling for precedence among the attending clergy) until at last it was laid to rest on the stone shrine base where it still rests. That is the double anniversary that we keep today, celebrating the solemn occasion with the Eucharist.
When we come to share in Christ’s body and his blood, we will be sustained and nourished in soul and body, united in our common life by the presence of Christ within us and all around us. While we rightly take comfort from this thought, our gospel reading casts some shadows over the drinking of the cup. At this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem; he had just told his disciples about the fate that he would suffer. This was hardly the moment for the mother of James and John to ask if her sons could sit beside Christ when he came to glory. They revealed their total lack of understanding in asserting that they could drink the cup that Christ would drink, not realising he spoke of the cup of suffering.
For any medieval king, but particularly for a devout ruler like Edward, Jesus’ remarks about the rulers of the gentiles and their habits of tyranny and oppression would have made for difficult reading. But Edward modelled himself on a Christian ideal of rulership that rested on gospel teachings. Folcard reported that he used ‘to stand with lamb-like meekness and tranquil mind at the holy offices of the divine mysteries and masses, a worshipper of Christ manifest to all the faithful.’ (Vita Ædwardi, bk I, ch. vi, p. 41) Although raised to the majesty of rulership over the English, everything in Edward’s conduct and demeanour modelled a form of servant leadership.
Edward understood, as we should also, that as Jesus told his disciples, the road to ‘glory’ runs straight through the valley of suffering and death. It is not possible to share in the joys of the kingdom (to get to glory) without having first shared in the events of Good Friday and reflected on their meaning and significance. Edward’s words on his deathbed show his understanding of theologies of the atonement. Sharing in the cup of Jesus thus involves sharing in his passion and death; each time we come to the Lord’s table to drink from the communion cup, we are forced to recall the dangers and risks of being followers of Christ. We share that Eucharistic cup in explicit memory – co-memoration – of Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper and of his passion and death. Every time we do this, we recall the shedding of his blood for the sins of us all.
Yet, we also come to this table secure in the knowledge that, although Christ died, he rose again. And risen, he ascended to take his place in glory. Surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses who through the centuries have testified to their confidence in Christ’s redeeming grace in this holy place, and rejoicing in the fellowship of Mary the mother of God, St Peter, St Edward and all God’s saints we pray that we, in our turn, may come to be united with them in the heavenly kingdom.