October 13

St Edward the Confessor

The sort of demands placed on kingship means that very few national rulers are ever recognized as saints. The French have St Louis IX; Hungarians have Stephen; Russia has the feckless Nicholas II, who got the title only by virtue of being murdered by Bolsheviks; and England has the very peculiar Edward the Confessor.

Edward (c. 1003-66) was the son of Ethelred the Unready and Emma, the daughter of the Duke of Normandy, born at a time when the Anglo-Saxon monarchy was crumbling before the last onslaught of Viking invaders. When Sweyn Forkbeard landed in England with a Danish army, Emma and her children fled to Normandy. After a brief civil war and the death of Ethelred, Emma married Sweyn’s son Cnut and became Queen of England a second time but Edward remained in Normandy where he was brought up as a pious Catholic. He attempted to return to England in 1036 but the murder of his brother made him return to safety in Norman territory.

In 1042, after more civil war and deaths of rival claimants, Edward became the unchallenged king in England. Having spent most of his life abroad, he was unfamiliar with his new realm and had to contend with powerful earls, particularly the ambitious Godwin of Wessex with his brood of even more ambitious sons. In 1045 Edward married Godwin’s daughter Edith; though historians disagree over whether this was a chaste marriage, it produced no children. Gradually, Godwin, and then his son Harold, came to dominate English politics and Edward seems to withdrawn from such affairs, preferring to spend his time in hunting and religious devotions. He was also involved in the construction of Westminster Abbey whose architecture broke with local methods and introduced a Norman form of Romanesque style to England; it is where all English kings have been crowned since the death of Edward, who is buried there.

Childless Edward seems to have left conflicting wishes about who would succeed him, creating disastrous consequences for his country. Harald Hardrada of Norway, Harold Godwinson and William of Normandy all claimed the throne after Edward’s death in 1066. The Battle of Stamford Bridge eliminated Hardrada and William’s victory at the subsequent Battle of Hastings ended Anglo-Saxon rule and saw the beginning of the Norman ascendancy.

On 13 October, 1269 Edward’s relics were moved (or “translated”) to a new shrine in the Abbey. This date is regarded as his feast day, and each October the Abbey holds a week of festivities and prayer in his honour.

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