St. Edward the Confessor

(1033-1066 A.D.)

In his Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote of the “divinity that hedges a king.” England’s awe for kings as almost divine persons may well have been inspired by her mild miracle-working monarch, St. Edward the Confessor.

His own personal trials must have done much to make Edward a meek, forgiving man. During the years when Danish kings ruled Britain, the ten-year-old Edward had to be spirited out of his native land because as an heir to the British Crown his life was endangered. Growing up in French Normandy, the little prince learned how little worldly ambition counts, and how important to human life is simplicity and religious devotion.

In 1042, England’s Danish ruler Hardicanute died suddenly. Edward, by then 40, and already known in England for his worthy character, was called home by acclamation to assume the kingship. Thus he became the last of England’s Anglo-Saxon rulers. A man of peace, he took peace as his motto, and was actually able to keep the land free from war for the next 25 years. The welfare of his people was his principal aim: He abolished an unpopular tax; he gave generous alms to the poor and to various religious causes. He enacted legislation acclaimed for its justice. (“Good St. Edward’s Laws” became a popular axiom in England for years to come.) He was immortalized by being depicted in his famous “medieval “Bayeux Tapestry”, which shows him as a dignified, fair-complexioned, fair-haired, fair-bearded monarch.

The English Chronicler William of Malmesbury records of Edward’s character: “He was so gentle that he would not say a word of reproach to the meanest person.” As a ruler he could scarcely avoid worldly pursuits, both governmental and recreational, but he did not permit these to distract from his religious devotion. Thus, hunting was his chief diversion, and he really enjoyed it. But he would never set out on the chase until he had first attended daily Mass. The tradition that he and his wife Queen Edith lived as brother and sister may be incapable of proof but is was widely believed. Edward was also the first king of England reputed to be able to cure skin disease (“the king’s evil”) by laying hands on those afflicted by it. “The king’s touch,” it was named, and several other English kings up to modern times have been called upon to lay hands upon people who had contracted scrofula.

While still in his French exile, Edward had vowed to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land if his family affairs got straightened out. Unfortunately, when he became king, he was unable to find time to visit Palestine. At his request, therefore, Pope Leo IX commuted his vow into something he could do without leaving his country. He was to restore with his own funds an old monastery located on the then outskirts of London. Because it lay west of the monastery at St. Paul’s Cathedral, it was called “West Monastery” or “West Minster.” Westminster Abbey still stands.

Edward undertook the task assigned, but died in 1066 only a week after the new abbey church was finished. He was canonized a saint in 1161, and given the name “the Confessor” (i.e., the non-martyr) to distinguish him from his uncle, King St. Edward the Martyr (died 979). When the present “Westminster Abbey” Church was built three centuries later to replace Edward’s structure, his tomb was moved there. In this church (now Anglican), where England’s monarchs have been crowned up to the present, St. Edward’s shrine and relics are still held in honor. In earlier centuries, at least, many pilgrims reported cures through his intercession. Today his presence still reminds one of this kindly ruler who in a fiercer age led “the life of an angel in the administration of his kingdom.”

--Father Robert F. McNamara