Edward the Confessor
Edward the Confessor was a man of great prayer – rather like a crowned monk. He was hailed throughout his life as a gentle, loyal and devoted king.
A confessor is a saint who suffers for his faith but is one step short of martyrdom. Edward suffered for his faith by resisting the temptations of the world. He lived off the income of his own lands and reached out to the poor.
Edward the Confessor was born in Islip, near Oxford, probably in 1005. He was the son of King Ethelred the Unready and his Norman queen, Emma.
The family spent several years in exile in Normandy after the Danish invasion of 1013. Ethelred was briefly reinstated as king but after his death in 1016, the Danes once again seized the crown.
England was ruled by Canute until his death in 1035 when Edward tried to capture the crown himself but failed.
Later, Edward vowed that he would make a pilgrimage to St Peter’s in Rome if he managed to return safely to his kingdom.
In 1042, his dream became reality when he succeeded Canute’s son on the throne. But Edward found it impossible to leave his subjects to make the pilgrimage to Rome.
The Pope released him from his vow on the condition he founded a monastery and dedicated it to St Peter. In accordance with the Pope’s wishes, Edward built a new cathedral in Norman style to replace the Saxon church at Westminster. The cathedral became known as Westminster Abbey.
Healing the sick
Edward the Confessor was an enigmatic figure who was believed to have the power to heal. He began the royal custom of touching ill people to cure them. The tradition continued for nearly 700 years until the reign of Queen Anne.
Edward also made a promise of chastity. He continued to remain celibate even after his marriage to the daughter of one of his closest advisors. He had no children and the throne passed to his brother-in-law, Harold, who was quickly overthrown by William the Conqueror.
Edward’s supporters insisted he was a deeply religious, patient and peaceful ruler who resisted war and revoked unjust taxes.
But his critics claimed the opposite. They maintained Edward was a weak and violent man and that his canonisation a century after his death was a political move.
Miracle of the ring
Many legends sprang up about Edward the Confessor both during his lifetime and after his death. One that has stood the test of time happened towards the end of his life.
Legend has it that Edward was riding to a ceremony at a chapel dedicated to St John the Evangelist in Essex when a beggar asked for alms. Edward had no money with him so he took off his ring and handed it to the poor man instead.
A few years later two English pilgrims were travelling through the Holy Land and became stranded. They were helped by an old man who told them he was St John the Evangelist.
He was carrying the ring Edward had given to the beggar some years previously. He asked the pilgrims to return it to the king telling him that in six months he would meet St John in heaven.
Edward the Confessor died on January 5 1066. He was made a saint in 1161 and his body was translated to a shrine at Westminster Abbey in 1163.
In the centuries that followed many sick people came to kneel at the shrine and ask to be healed. Richard II prayed there too, asking for strength before the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381.
Today Edward the Confessor is the only major English saint whose body is still in its shrine.
Westminster Abbey celebrated the anniversary of Edward’s birth in 2005. Highlights of the celebrations included the reading of Saint Aelred’s acclaimed sermon on St Edward from 1163, recently rediscovered and translated into modern English, and 12th-century hymns and sermons performed in Latin and Anglo-Saxon English.