Edward the Confessor and Edith
Edward, called 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. 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. The Abbey at Westminster was consecrated on Holy Innocents' Day, 28th December 1065, but the king was ill and unable to be present at the service. This church was mostly demolished by Henry III to build the present Gothic structure, in honour of Edward.
He 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 February 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.
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.
Marriage to Edith
Edward married Edith, daughter of Godwin(e), Earl of Wessex and his Danish wife Gytha, on 23rd January 1045. One of her brothers was Harold Godwinson, who succeeded Edward as king. She was educated in the nunnery at Wilton near Salisbury (where she rebuilt the church and probably retired to after Edward's death). All surviving references to Edith say she was an educated, pious and literate woman, skilled in languages. She commissioned a Life of St Edward (Vita Edwardi Regis - the Life of King Edward who rests at Westminster). At the time of her husband's death she was the richest woman in England, owning many estates in Rutland, the east Midlands and elsewhere. She had no children and died on 19th December 1075 at Winchester and was buried near her husband's tomb in the Abbey. Late medieval tombs list say that she was re-buried on the left side of the new Shrine. Nothing marks her grave. In medieval times a lamp was burned in her memory by the High Altar.
After returning from exile in France Edward was crowned at Winchester in 1042. Edith had her own coronation as consort.
Burial and Shrine
He died sometime on the night of 4-5th January 1066. The burial procession from Westminster Hall to the Abbey, where prayers were said all day and the following night, is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. He was buried on 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany before the High Altar. According to Prior Osbert of Clare's life of Edward William the Conqueror had a reliquary of gold and silver made for Edward's remains. In 1102 Osbert describes the opening of the tomb (for what reason is not known). When the top slab (it was presumably a stone coffin) was taken away "a wonderful fragrance filled the church", suggesting that the body, if not embalmed, had at least been packed with aromatics. The body was wrapped in a precious pall with a sceptre by his side and a crown on his head. On his finger was a ring and sandals on his feet. The pall which covered his head was cut beneath the chin and the long beard was seen. Miracles were said to have taken place at the tomb and it became a place of sanctuary in the time of Abbot Crispin (died 1117).
On 13th October 1163 St Edward's body was transferred to a Shrine specially 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. They had been kept to the east of the Shrine until the Chantry for Henry V was built and then they were in a cupboard or aumbry adjoining Henry III's tomb. The Abbey's late 12th century wax seal shows St Edward trampling on Earl Godwine (with St Peter trampling on Nero on the other side)
Henry III (1207-1272) held Edward the Confessor in great veneration and he erected a new and costly Shrine with mosaics (Cosmati work) and workmen from Italy, led by Pietro di Oderisio. This was finished in 1269 and on 13 October Henry and his brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall and his two sons bore the coffin on their shoulders in a solemn procession. Sick persons made pilgrimages to the Shrine and knelt in the recesses to pray for healing. Round the verge was an inscription formed by blue glass set in gold mosaic. Traces of letters under the plaster can still be seen. A cult of St Edward had grown up and people regarded him as the patron saint of England.
The inscription around the ledge of the Shrine was in Latin and this can be translated
In the thousandth year of the Lord, with the seventieth and twice hundredth with the tenth more or less complete this work was made which Peter the Roman citizen brought to completion. O man, if you wish to know the cause, the king was Henry, the friend of the present saint.
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 coffin was quite possibly laid on the same spot and covered by the wooden canopy.
Mary I, who brought back the Benedictine monks to Westminster for a short period, moved the coffin back to its place in the hastily re-assembled Shrine and gave new jewels to replace the stolen ones. This was in place by 19th April 1557 (as recorded in Henry Machyn's diary). Abbot Feckenham added the cornice to the stone base. The decorated tiered wooden canopy above the stone shrine probably dates from about 1516 and is a very early example of Renaissance woodwork in England. It was heavily restored in the late 1950s.
The present 16th century painted inscription can be translated
Edward, hero and saint, pre-eminent in all the praises of his virtues. Dying in 1065, he ascends above the heavens. Lift up your hearts – John Feckenham, Abbot.
The Confessor's wooden coffin still lies in a cavity in the top part of the Purbeck marble structure. The Shrine later lost Mary's new jewels and images. The Shrine is regarded as the centre of the Abbey and five kings and four queens lie buried in his Chapel.
On the western side of the Chapel is a stone screen dating from the mid 15th century. This now hides the Chapel from general view behind the High Altar. This depicts fourteen scenes of events, real and legendary, in the life of the Confessor - oath of fealty to Queen Emma by nobles in the name of her unborn son, Edward's birth, his coronation, the devil dancing on the Danegeld, a thief trying to steal treasure from the king's bedchamber, Christ appearing to Edward at Mass, vision of the shipwreck of the King of Denmark, Edward at table with Earl Godwin and his sons when he prophesied the future feud between the sons, vision of the Seven Sleepers, St John the Evangelist disguised as a pilgrim asking alms of the king and receiving a ring, blind men cured by washing in the king's water, St John giving ring to pilgrims in the Holy Land to return to Edward and foretelling the king's death, pilgrims giving the ring to Edward and the dedication of a church (assumed to be the Abbey).
The original altar was at the west end of the Shrine as this area lacks the original Cosmati work paving beneath. It had been conjectured for many years that the altar here was the Cosmati work tomb now set in a recess in the south ambulatory. But that has been proved to have been a tomb for two royal children and not an altar.
The present altar against the west end was erected at the time of the coronation in 1902 and was designed by J.T. Micklethwaite. The silver candlesticks, of 17th century Italian work, were the gift of the Duke (later King George VI) and Duchess of York to commemorate their marriage at the Abbey in 1923. The tall silver standard candlesticks were given in 1924 by the Order of Crusaders. The crucifix, designed by K. Redfern, was the gift of the Misses Bull in 1979. A hanging lamp to the east of the Shrine was presented in 1971 by the Reverend Ivan Young.
An icon of the saint was dedicated on 13th October 2019. This is the first work in England by Archimandrite Zinon.
Soon after the coronation of James II in 1685 when scaffolding was removed [the chapel is used during a part of this ceremony] a hole was seen in the tomb. One of the choirmen, Charles Taylour, obtained a ladder and put his hand into the coffin and extracted from beneath the bones a richly enamelled crucifix and gold chain, 24 inches long. He had moved the skull to the hole and saw that the jaws were whole and full of teeth with a band or coronet of gold round the temples. Also in the coffin was white linen and gold coloured flowered silk. He showed the crucifix to the Dean and they presented it to the King. James had the coffin enclosed in a new one strongly clamped with iron and it has remained undisturbed since that time.
A special service is held every year on St Edward's Day (13th October), together with a Pilgrimage to the Shrine on the Saturday nearest the feast.
The Chapel can be visited by those on a Verger Guided Tour but is closed to the general public due to the fragility of the floor. The Cosmati work floor has recently undergone consolidation by the Abbey's conservators.
Edward the Confessor. The Man and the Legend edited by Richard Mortimer, 2009
Edward the Confessor by Frank Barlow, London 1970
The Cosmatesque mosaics of Westminster Abbey. The pavements and royal tombs... by Warwick Rodwell & David Neal, 2019
Life of St Edward the Confessor by St Aelred of Rievaulx translated into English by Fr. Jerome Bertram, 1997
The Life of King Edward who rests at Westminster, attributed to a monk of St Bertin, edited and translated by Frank Barlow, 1962
La Vie d'Edouard le Confesseur by a nun of Barking Abbey by Jane Bliss, 2014
La vie de S.Edouard le Confesseur par Osbert de Clare, ed. M. Bloch, Analecta Bollandiana,1923
St Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey by Jane Hedges (children's book), 2012
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004
Edith, Edward's wife and queen by Pauline Stafford in the Mortimer volume mentioned above.
The church of Edward the Confessor at Westminster by J.A.Robinson, Archaeologia, 1910
Recent discoveries in the nave of Westminster Abbey [foundations of the Confessor's church] by L.E. Tanner & A. Clapham, Archaeologia 1933
The pavement in the chapel of St Edward...by Tim Tatton-Brown, Journal of the British Archaeological Association 153, 2000
Edward the Confessor's church at Westminster.... by F. Woodman and Romanesque monastic building at Westminster Abbey by S. Harrison & J. McNeill, both articles in 'Westminster, the art, architecture and archaeology of the royal Abbey and Palace', vol.1, BAA, 2015
The Shrine of St Edward the Confessor by J.G. O'Neilly and L.E. Tanner, Archaeologia vol.C, 1966 (The wooden models of the Shrine made by O'Neilly are in the Abbey reserve collection)
Edward the Confessor's shrine..its date of construction reconsidered by M. Payne and W. Rodwell in Antiquaries Journal vol. 97, 2017
A true...narrative of the...finding of the crucifix...of St Edward.. presented to..James the Second by Charles Taylour, 1688. [he described the cross in detail. It is not known whether it still exists]
The Quest for the Cross of St Edward the Confessor by L.E. Tanner in Journal of the BAA vol.XVII, 1954
Edward the Confessor's chapel..the origins..and its Cosmatesque pavement by Sally Badham in Antiquaries Journal 87, 2007
King Henry III and St Edward...:the origins of the Cult by David Carpenter in English Historical Review vol. CXXII, 2007
CD by the Abbey choir "Feast of St Edward...at Westminster Abbey" is available from the Shop
Three small pieces of silk, reputed to have come from the shroud when the coffin was seen in the reign of James I, are in the Victoria & Albert Museum