Memorializing Edward the Confessor



An anonymous author in c. 1067 completed a Life of King Edward, commissioned by his widow Edith. The second part of that work describes events that demonstrate the king’s holiness and his miracle-inducing prowess. It was this section that was then worked up by Osbert de Clare, a Benedictine monk at Westminster Abbey, in his more explicitly hagiographical Life of Edward, which was finished by the late 1130s.

Belief in kings’ ability to heal the sick by their touch was widespread in medieval Europe, and episodes that illustrate Edward’s powers in that regard are included by de Clare in his Life of Edward. As a prior, and then abbot, of Westminster, de Clare was a well-connected figure and he spent some time in Rome lobbying for Edward’s canonization. Saints were divided into two categories by the medieval Church: martyrs who had died for the faith and confessors who had witnessed to it. The king was formally canonized by the papacy in 1161, and thereby acquired his soubriquet.

Edward the Confessor

Edward the Confessor

Edward’s remains were then placed in a shrine at Westminster Abbey in a ceremony that took place in 1163 with Aelred (1110 – 67), abbot of the Cistercian monastery at Rievaulx in Yorkshire, preaching the sermon. Aelred wrote his own version of Edward’s life, and his many other works include a Genealogy of the Kings of the English which was partly intended to show that Henry II (r. 1154 – 89) was a true descendant of Anglo-Saxon kings. Henry was a vigorous promoter of Edward’s reputation, and by the late 12th century the Confessor was widely recognized as England’s patron saint.

Late medieval roof carving depicting a royal saint (likely Edward the Confessor), c1480.

Late medieval roof carving depicting a royal saint (likely Edward the Confessor), c1480.

Henry III (r. 1216 – 72) was devoted to the cult of the Confessor, and he decided to honour his predecessor by replacing the original Romanesque structure of the Westminster Abbey raised by Edward in the late 1040s with the Gothic building that survives today. He also ordered the construction of a magnificent shrine to replace the earlier one, and the Confessors body was brought to its new place of rest in a solemn procession on 13th October 1269.

Edward III (r. 1327 – 77), a very martial figure, decided that Edward should be replaced as England’s patron saint by George, an obscure soldier saint of the 3rd century who has been linked to the then Greek-speaking eastern region of Asia Minor. But the Confessor was central to the elevated role that Richard II (r. 1377 – 99) claimed for English kingship and which is illustrated in the Wilton Diptych, commissioned to accompany the king on his travels.

The Wilton Diptych

The Wilton Diptych

On the left the Confessor is joined by John the Baptist and Edmund, king and martyr, as they present the kneeling Richard to the Virgin and the infant Christ who, encircled by angels, are portrayed on the diptych’s right panel. By the side of the Saviour and Virgin stands an angel holding a pennant bearing the Cross of St George. The sense of the scene suggests that the king has presented England into the Virgin’s care and protection, and the presence by Edward the Confessor’s side of Edmund, the king of East Anglia killed by invading Danes in 868, is highly suggestive. Edmund was much venerates by the Anglo-Norman aristocracy, and that popularity was used to support the post-Conquest regime’s claim that it was offering continuity with the Anglo-Saxon past. On the back of the diptych a heraldic shield incorporates two coats of arms side by side: that of the kings of England, and that of the Confessor – which was devised for him after his time, since armorial bearings were only invented in the mid-12th century. By such means the Confessor lived on.

Shrine of Edward the Confessor

Shrine of Edward the Confessor

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