13 October. 1662 Book of Common Prayer: Translation of King Edward the Confessor
Binski, Paul. “The Cult of St. Edward the Confessor.” History Today (Volume: 55 Issue: 11 2005). http://www.historytoday.com/paul-binski/cult-st-edward-confessor. Accessed 27 May 2014.
Edward the Confessor, the last truly Anglo-Saxon King, was remembered with such affection he became a sainted embodiment of a pacific and idealistic form of kingship under Henry III. Paul Binski asks why.
EDVVARD REX. Edward the Confessor enthroned, opening scene of the Bayeux Tapestry
Edward the Confessor was born between 1002 and 1005; he came to the English throne in 1042 and died early in 1066. The year 2005 has been declared to be the thousandth anniversary of his birth, and has been celebrated both in his birthplace of Islip, Oxfordshire, and in Westminster Abbey, his great foundation. Some have looked at the inexorable rise of the Danish House of Godwin, which culminated in Harold taking the throne in 1066, and seen Edward’s reign as a failure. A cosmopolitan, half-Norman monarch, Edward’s principal achievement is nevertheless held to have been the preservation of the unity of his kingdom. And he has always been acknowledged as the preserver of the ancient peace and harmony of a bygone England. But Edward was manifestly about other things too.
His image has never been that of a dynamic king. He appears in the Bayeux Tapestry, made around 1080; in the very first scene he is shown enthroned at Westminster and firmly in command; later he is shown seated and decrepit, while Harold slinks back from Normandy to report on his dealings with William of Normandy. Then, in a series of spectacular and ambiguous scenes, Edward is shown on his deathbed in his chamber at Westminster, perhaps transmitting the kingdom of England to Harold by means of his feeble hand gesture. His funeral procession to his newly built Westminster Abbey follows: as well as being Edward’s burial site this is also (by implication) the future coronation place of William the Conqueror. In reversing the flow of action at this point from right to left, the Tapestry seems to pause and reflect on the local topography of Westminster. Indeed, the palace and abbey, which he founded there, remain Edward’s most enduring physical monument. Edward the Confessor began the creation of the political heart of the nation and, as a saint (which he became in the twelfth century) he symbolized it.
Edward did not at first seem to possess the natural qualifications of a saint. The early literature of praise about him is as much concerned with his queen, Edith, as with his own royal virtues. Slowly, accounts of his posthumous miracles were bolted onto a conventional royal biography. It took the combined efforts of the monks of Westminster with the support of Henry II to gain his canonization in 1161. Two years later his body was translated to a shrine behind the Abbey’s high altar in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in 1163. Here he was to remain until the reign of Henry III.
As a saint, Edward was not associated with great miracles or a sustained tradition of pilgrimage: he represented a different style of sanctity from the martyred Thomas of Canterbury. He was the virtuous, high-born king who died peacefully in his bed and took nearly a century to canonize. Thomas, in contrast, was not high born, was not obviously virtuous, was slaughtered on the pavement of his own cathedral, and was canonized just three years later. Both were canonized in the reign of Henry II and (for the first time for English saints) by the authority of Rome. Thomas was the more truly popular figure. Yet he never became the national saint: the creation of a such a figure was a matter of state politics.
Edward was a saint in traditional English form. The French historian André Vauchez draws a distinction between the aristocratic sainthood of north-western Europe and the urban sanctity of the Mediterranean world. England remained a country of ‘holy sufferers’, men and women who were high-born and whose styles of life and death entailed the trauma of inner (spiritual) or outer (fleshly) martyrdom. This tradition was of great antiquity: the imprint of the cults of royal saints had been made long before the Norman Conquest. It was deep and persistent, and its main representatives were typical: kings or princes who attained physical martyrdom (notably Edmund of East Anglia [d.869] and Edward the Martyr [d.978]); and women who renounced their high-born station to embrace chastity and the monastic life (such as Edburga of Winchester, Etheldreda of Ely or Edith of Wilton). Edward, named the Confessor to distinguish him from Edward the Martyr, displayed the style of sanctity of the inner martyr, based on the privations of chastity.
One way of judging who the most popular saints really were in the Middle Ages was the number of days free from work or festa ferianda granted in their name: adopting this criterion, St Thomas of Canterbury was by the thirteenth-century much the most universally celebrated saint of English origin. St Edward remained the saint of the political elite, not even being noted among the festa ferianda for the diocese of London, while Thomas, the embodiment of the vox populi, dominated London in a way inconceivable for Edward. Yet much about St Edward – not least the form of his thirteenth-century shrine – suggests that his cult was built up in deliberate imitation of such truly popular and miraculous cults as Thomas’s.
Edward’s fortunes changed with the rise to maturity of Henry III (r.1216-72). The St Edward of late medieval devotion was in many regards the saint whom Henry had taken as his beloved friend and patron. The attraction that Henry felt for Edward as a model is impossible to explain totally, but the evidence of Henry’s affection speaks for itself. In his great chamber at Westminster, Henry’s four-poster bed was surmounted by a vast wall-painting (now lost but copied in 1819) of the coronation of St Edward together with other images that stressed aspects of the virtue of the saint: showing his charity to St John the Evangelist by giving a ring to the poor John, dressed as a pilgrim; his Solomonic wisdom; and female personifications of his virtues of largesse and debonereté (temperateness or moderation). St Edward was to occupy, indeed form, the calm centre of Henry’s personal world amidst life’s trials and tribulations, and the two men came to lie with one another in death.
The 1230s were clearly fundamental in the rise of Edward as the special companion of Henry III. In 1227, as a result of the prompting of Stephen Langton the Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope Gregory IX had ordered the celebration of St Edward’s feast (October 13th) by the English Church. Langton did much to raise the profile of the great English saints, old and new. But sustained royal support was still vital.
Something connected Henry and Edward. It may not be a coincidence that the two English kings most drawn to St Edward, Henry III and Richard II, both ascended to the throne as boys: did Edward provide them with an ideal father-figure? Historian David Carpenter sees the key period in the development of Henry’s interest in St Edward as being the years 1233-37, and identifies a number of religious and political considerations in the recognition of Edward as Henry’s blessed predecessor, not least a new and intensified pattern of observing the saint’s feast at Westminster itself in these years. The monks of Westminster stood to benefit: Henry’s pietas served to bind his patronage to their Abbey in perpetuity, with St Edward the guarantor of their liberties and privileges. It may even have been some of the monks of Westminster, the abbot Richard of Barking and the royal servant and monk Richard le Gras, who finally persuaded Henry to take up St Edward’s cause at a moment when the foreigners at Henry’s own court, notably the disliked Bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches, were falling into disfavour. Henry married Eleanor of Provence in 1236: perhaps his acquisition of a serious patron saint was a symptom of growing up. By 1241 he was absorbed in plans for a new shrine, and by 1245 had demolished much of the Confessor’s church at Westminster to make way for something far more splendid to house the saint.
It was Henry’s marriage that brought onto the stage of St Edward’s cult another celebrated and gifted individual, the writer and artist Matthew Paris (d. 1259). It was almost certainly Matthew who assembled the model on which is based the greatest surviving pictorial celebration of St Edward in existence, the illustrated Anglo-Norman verse Life of St Edward in Cambridge University Library. This poem, based upon a combination of Aelred of Rievaulx’s Latin Life of 1163 and Paris’s historical writing, is dedicated to Eleanor of Provence. However, this sole extant manuscript is a copy by Westminster scribes and artists working in the 1250s. The text includes the statement that it was illustrated by its own author, a state of affairs that can only have applied to the uniquely talented Matthew Paris, and its main purpose was to introduce the new Queen to Henry’s patron saint at the time of their marriage. Everything about the text implies a date not long after 1236. Matthew is known to have written (or translated) and illustrated Lives both of St Thomas and St Edward, and it is possible that the Cambridge manuscript was originally bound up with a Life of St Thomas. The Cambridge Life is concerned with the tomb and shrine of St Edward, and this would have been balanced by accounts of the spectacular tomb-miracles of Thomas. The young Eleanor would thus have had in her hands illustrated Lives of the two unavoidable English saints. Matthew had shown an adroit understanding of human nature: perhaps in gaining the Queen’s sympathies he would gain the King’s. But more probably he had already directed such an illustrated Life to Henry.
The Cambridge Life of St Edward, written by a Benedictine apologist for the royal family, is massively informative about the thirteenth-century cult of St Edward and what it stood for. The text and images do not contain anything so banal as a ‘programme’ for royal conduct and devotion; and yet the sense that they embody a prescription for kingship is powerful. St Edward is presented not as a martial flower of chivalry, but as a peaceable and co-operative king. The warrior ethos of earlier Anglo-Saxon notions of kingship is resolutely set aside. Edward is possessed of moral and spiritual delicacy. The elegant pen and wash illustration, using little gold and no strident colour, set off this new sensibility well. Because St Edward possessed the more reflective virtues, his spirituality is focused on and derives from his chastity and his formation of a chaste marriage with Edith. Edward’s virtues are not exactly kingly, nor indeed are they exclusively masculine: their character is clerical, or monastic. The impracticality of not providing an heir is set aside in favour of a higher cause. This Edward is a monkish visionary, his visions often occurring at Mass where he is depicted just behind the priest, like a deacon.
The character and scope of sacral kingship preoccupied Henry III: Edward was its emblem. There is much in the Cambridge Life about the virtues of marriage which will have been of pastoral interest to the young Henry and Eleanor; but arguably an even stronger theme is that of friendship, of the bond between the saints especially. Every king must have his saintly model: Edward’s was St John the Evangelist, the model of youthful chastity and the greatest Christian visionary. When, in ordinary charity, Edward unknowingly gives a ring to St John in disguise, the point is made that the king not only exerts patronage but is also bound to the saint in a spiritual marriage. This episode was the most popular represention of St Edward in the Middle Ages: and it was a profound assertion of the bond that linked Henry and Edward, king and saint and which is so hard to explain in practical terms.
As an essentially peaceable and sedentary monarch, Paris places Edward in his palace at Westminster in ‘parliament’ (an early occurrence of this word is used in the Life) with his baronage. Westminster is the true political centre of the kingdom. Under the real Confessor this would have been unhistorically premature; under the Plantagenets it was becoming true. Edward’s wisdom, whose example was King Solomon, lent to his reign peace and right order, his laws being the guarantor of the ancient liberties of the English people in the calm summer before the Conquest. This king is beneath the law and, critically, is ethically capable of self-governance. He has none of the brutish bodily or degraded moral appetites of the Godwin dynasty – or (one is tempted to say) of twelfth-century Angevin despotism. The downfall of the greedy, disreputable Harold at Hastings is thus part of the moral order. Paris celebrated this new temperance, this all-governing ‘mesure’ as he put it, which means that Edward’s court was the court of a gently magnanimous man who expressed his contempt for earthly gain by abolishing taxes and forgiving thieves.
The self-controlled, peaceable and co-operative king that emerges in these pages is the perfect expression of the ideals of a reforming church in the period after Magna Carta. It is an ideal royal image, not (except in the barest outlines) a reflection of the historical Edward. Its intellectual formation and ethical character is as much clerical and monastic as royal. Many of its most important ideals were framed by the Cistercian and Benedictine authors who constructed it. They were shared by the reforming clergy of the era: the same themes of temperance, chastity and friendship appear in the Lives of the new bishop-saints St Edmund of Abingdon, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1240) and St Richard of Chichester (d. 1253). The St Edward of Henry III’s reign, in short, unites the strengths of the Anglo-Saxon lineage of royal sainthood with a new morally, politically and spiritually subtle sensibility. Church and public (temporal) power, once divided, were now hand in hand.
Stephen Langton, one of the greatest of this new generation of clerics, had been especially clever in regard to the celebration of sainthood. In 1220 he initiated what Powicke called ‘a period of ceremonial stocktaking in the Church in England’ which included a series of carefully-staged events, often with an eye to the royal presence: the canonization of Hugh of Lincoln, the second coronation of Henry III and the foundation of a new Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey; the start of works on the cathedral at Salisbury; and the brilliantly orchestrated translation of St Thomas in July of that year. Becket’s body was carefully moved in the presence of the young, impressionable Henry III to a dazzling new shrine and a great feast summoned in the new archiepiscopal hall. In this way Langton relaunched what was to be the most successful period of his primacy. Langton understood that the adventus, or symbolic ritual triumphant entry, of a saint could make a powerful political statement, in this case, as Richard Eales has argued, of the ‘renewal of peace and right order in the English Church and Kingdom’. It was but a short step to regard St Edward as another model for this notion of peace and right order, of a community of the realm or communitas regni as it was known at the time.
Canterbury and Westminster were not in opposition to one another. Canterbury had important lessons for Westminster in terms of its art and architecture. Canterbury’s splendidly furnished Trinity Chapel and shrine offered, to an alert art patron like Henry, a thoroughly cosmopolitan yardstick of what could be attained if no expense was spared. Henry rose to the challenge, the new church he began at Westminster in 1245 is testimony to a dialogue between the best in what French and English Gothic architecture had to offer, just as Canterbury had been. The architect William of Sens was working in an essentially northern French idiom at Canterbury after 1174. Henry III’s new church at Westminster, though copying the best High Gothic exemplars of northern France such as Reims cathedral (1211-60) and the dazzling Sainte-Chapelle in Paris (c.1243-48), was itself without precedent (or true successor). The shrine churches of St Thomas and St Edward both possess a significant degree of romanitas. St Thomas’s biographers built him up to match the heroes of the great age of martyrdom in the early church: Canterbury’s doubled quasi-Corinthian columns surrounding its shrine-space look like a self-conscious nod to the Christian basilicas of Constantinian Rome. Its shrine area has gleaming mosaic floors like those in medieval Roman basilicas. Canterbury’s example may well have stimulated the adoption, late in the reign of Henry III, of Roman Cosmati mosaics for the main pavements around the high altar and shrine at Westminster, and indeed the shrine base of St Edward himself.
Henry III and his peers had translated St Edward to the new shrine with great ceremony in 1269. The body of the saint still lies within, almost uniquely for an English medieval shrine. Three years later Henry himself was dead, and was later buried in a shrine-like tomb next to St Edward, in the same style of Roman mosaic, provided by his son Edward. There was nothing odd about associating Roman mosaics with an Anglo-Saxon saint in this way. Westminster Abbey was dedicated to (indeed, according to legend, by) St Peter, one of St Edward’s own patrons. St Edward’s earthly patron and friend Henry III wanted the best for him, which included the art of papal Rome. Westminster’s resemblance to Canterbury in this regard has nurtured the myth that St Edward was a great popular figure like St Thomas. Similarly the tomb-pictures in the Cambridge Life of St Edward, which show queues of the sick healed by the Confessor to the singing of the Te Deum, correspond to no known historical reality about Edward’s miraculous powers. Even here, Becket’s magnetism can be felt.
Edward remained an elite figure. Henry’s quasi-priestly conception of kingship was as exclusive as his evocation of the church furnishings of papal Rome. After Henry’s death, St Edward’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. Edward I (r.1272-1307) had a significant devotion to St Thomas. In 1307 the monks of Westminster translated the relics of King Sebert, an early founder of the Abbey, a sign that St Edward’s shrine alone was insufficient for their spiritual needs. Other, more subtle, signs that he was ceasing to be the focus of devotional loyalties include the way in which the royal coronation regalia, preserved as a privilege by the Abbey – his crown, chalice, paten, slippers and other items – became known as the ornamentz reaux de Saint Edward. Instead of being a spiritual figure, the saint now assumed the character of an emblem of statehood and its rituals.
Even in this new guise, by the middle of the century St Edward was being sidelined by St George. Where St Edward’s arms had headed those of the baronage of England in the shields carved in the aisles of Henry III’s choir in the abbey, under Edward III, St George’s replaced them in the shields decorating the east-end arcading of St Stephen’s Chapel at Westminster, splendidly decorated in 1350-63 with images of military saints such as St Eustace, St Mercurius and St George himself, leading the male members of the royal family towards the high altar and image of the Virgin Mary. The rise of the cult of St George under Edward III at Windsor and Westminster, in effect reinstated the warrior ethos that had been rejected by the sanctity of St Edward. A brief revival of the cult of St Edward under Richard II, a boy who came to the throne exceptionally young and who remained childless as a king, did little to secure the saint’s long-term fortunes.
Although neither the first nor the last good English king, Edward was the first to attract a sophisticated literary and artistic vision of what virtuous rule comprises. He was important in embodying a practical, rather than theoretical, view of kingship. St Edward rose with, and helped to shape, the consolidation of the post-Conquest nation state and emergence of its political centre at Westminster. He was rendered redundant as a religious figure in the later Middle Ages by his immense success as a political emblem. He was one of the few figures who helped to bring England into being. He may also be the first English figure linked to the notion of political nostalgia, a yearning for a lost Golden Age. Yet it is perhaps a mark of the confidence, if not depth or sophistication, of the English that their ruling class was prepared to transfer the idea of a national saint from him to a figure, St George, with no traditional English ties or shrine, and who stood for much that St Edward would (cordially) have disliked.