Saint Edward the Confessor: A Witness to True Catholicity

Saint Edward the Confessor (1004 – 1066) was one of the last Anglo-Saxon kings of England, and considered to be the last King of the House of Wessex, ruling from 1042 until his death. He was remembered as a pious and kindly ruler, though willing to exert his authority when necessary and prone to anger which, when incurred, was said to be as ‘terrible as a lion.’ The title of ‘confessor’ attributed to him was one originally used to describe those who had suffered and been persecuted for the Faith but had not been martyred; however, by Edward’s time its meaning had come to include all those who had lived a saintly life. The holiness of Edward’s life was widely believed, and he was canonised in 1161 – his feast day determined as the 13th of October.

Saint Edward’s reputation and popularity led him to be considered patron saint of all England for many years (until Saint George was adopted as such by King Edward III in 1350), and he appears in the left-hand-side panel of the Wilton Diptych, inbetween Saint Edmund the Martyr (841 – 869) and Saint John the Baptist, who all stand beside the kneeling King Richard II as they present him to the Blessed Virgin Mary – a symbolic representation of England’s donation to Our Blessed Mother for her special protection, giving vivid and beautiful pictorial expression to the devotional situation at the time, when the affection and loyalty of the English to Mary was so great that the country was referred to as ‘Our Lady’s Dowry’. That Saint Edward was included in this scene to represent the country of England is testament to his significance.

As an interesting aside, until Saint George was made patron saint of England, the two other figures considered its patrons were Saint Edmund the Martyr and Pope Saint Gregory the Great, the latter of which also testifies to the strong bonds the English continued to feel towards the papacy, as well as the fond memory they had of that great pope, who had started the Augustinian missions that evangelised the Anglo-Saxon peoples and initiated a process which would lead to England’s being one of the most well-developed and fruitful ecclesial provinces in Christendom. I have written before here of how important full catholicity was to the English, as well as some aspects of the development of that critical meeting between Church and culture here.

To return to Saint Edward though, his reign was a relatively peaceful one, albeit not without controversy, as he had to contend with various rival earls (one of whom – Godwin – was his father-in-law) whose wealth and regional powerbases continued to undermine the strong centralised form of monarchy that Edward favoured. Nevertheless, he did manage to control any shifts of power against him by carefully appointing his preferred candidates to political and ecclesiastical positions. One instance of this, when he installed Robert of Jumieges as Archbishop of Canterbury against Godwin’s wishes, nearly led to civil war, but this was averted by Edward’s realisation that accepting personal setbacks was a requirement of the political process.

Overall, Saint Edward was able to prevent the earls from dominating the political landscape of England, although by 1057, due to a series of deaths, Godwin and his brothers regained control of much of the south of the country. After this he devoted much of his time to hunting and to prayer, and he passed on the succession to one of Godwin’s sons – Harold – shortly before he died, though the circumstances behind his decision, especially as to whether it was wholly his or not, are complex and uncertain. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, which he had started to rebuild in 1042, from the old abbey of Saint Peter – it was consecrated in 1062 and finished in 1090.

Edward’s holiness has been questioned by some modern historians, mainly because of the fits of anger he was prone to and his love of hunting. The former must be contextualised by the accounts given about him that though he was prone to rage he did not rail, but quickly subdued himself (i.e.; he saw it as a personal fault and repeatedly tried to control himself), and the latter seems a strange reason not to consider someone a saint, perhaps having more to do with modern attitudes than Edward’s level of sanctity. At any rate, it seems that there was a small cult devoted to him right after his death, but that this was discouraged by the Norman abbots, and that it continued to grow in intensity into the twelfth century. By the time of his canonisation, it had the full support of King Henry II, the Abbot of Westminster, most of the English bishops, and Pope Alexander III.

One particular aspect of Edward’s life that may have added to the impression of holiness was that he had been so devoted to God that during his marriage he remained abstinent, he and his wife living together in a ‘Josephite’ relationship (a topic relevant to some of the discussions going on right now at the Synod on the Family). Whether this is true or not (and the evidence is incomplete) Saint Edward’s holiness does not rest on this alone – he was also known for his generosity to the poor and infirm, his steadfast and deep religious devotion, his donations to religious causes (such as the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey), and miracles attested to during his lifetime – scrofula was given the name ‘the King’s evil’ after his having cured someone of it.

Finally, I think a useful comparison can be made with another English king, whose sanctity is also claimed by some. King Charles I has long been claimed as a saint and martyr by some Anglicans, on the basis that he died for the episcopacy. It is true that he gave up his life for this, believing it to be the very same historic, apostolic episcopacy that had subsisted in the Church in England from the earliest times, and also insisted on the celebration of liturgical rites with great ceremony. However, Charles’ sympathies had much more to do with an antipathy towards Presbyterianism and national sympathy for Englishness than with a genuine desire for catholicity or apostolicity.

Charles I disliked the Mass, and was not quite as fond of ceremony as his archbishop, William Laud, and was nowhere near as ‘high’ as today’s Anglo-Catholics. Moreover, he remained profoundly anti-Catholic (in the sense of being anti-papal and of being against the idea of a truly universal Church) and was totally committed to the new Protestant theology and narrow nationalist sensibilities of the newly founded English church – the independence of the English church from any power, temporal or spiritual, was what was important to him. Though his death was a terrible thing, he was not a martyr in the traditional sense, as he did not die for the Catholic Faith but for a belief that was personal, national and novel.

Saint Edward the Confessor on the other hand, though not a martyr in any sense, was a man thoroughly committed to the Catholic Church – the universal body that, in its shared belief, common structures and genuine diversity through unity, included the people of England in a faith and culture that transcended national limits whilst providing the very basis for its unique and particular expressions of national feeling and identity. Saint Edward also represented the end of an era – a period of growth, conflict and change through which England emerged as one nation, being shaped also by its Catholic heritage and sense of connection to a wider whole. With the Norman invasion, different changes were to come, but it was in many ways the same England that Edward had lived in. His life testified to the Faith that in great part formed that continuous identity, and it is for this reason that he is remembered as a true saint of the Church.

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