Edward was born in 1002, the child of Æthelred, king of England, and his Norman wife Emma. Living in exile during the rule of the Scandinavian kings Sweyn and Cnut, the first of whom seized the throne from his father, Edward was invited back to England in 1042 to become king. He was heartily welcomed as a descendant of the old Saxon royal line.
Sustained by Edward’s diplomacy and determination, his reign was a balancing act between the influences of stronger characters at home and abroad. Some have seen him as a weak, vacillating ruler who paved the way for the Norman Conquest, while others have stressed his tenacity and cunning which enabled him in a state of near-isolation to preserve peace for over twenty years, while Danish and Norman magnates struggled for power. He was concerned to maintain peace and justice in his realm and to avoid foreign wars, but his reputation for holiness was built on his personal, rather than his political, qualities. He was accessible to his subjects, generous to the poor, and hospitable to strangers. His marriage with Edith, the daughter of Godwin, earl of Wessex, was supposedly unconsummated, a belief that added to the sanctity ascribed to him by his subjects. He was also reputed to have seen visions and to have had portentous dreams, after one of which, concerning the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, he sent envoys to the emperor in Constantinople to inquire after the dream’s meaning. He strengthened the close ties between the English Church and the Church in Rome, sending bishops to Leo the Ninth’s councils in 1049 and 1050, and receiving papal legates in 1061. He promoted secular (non-monastic) clerics, sometimes from abroad, to bishoprics, thereby diminishing the near monopoly of monastic bishops.
But this did not imply a lack of esteem for monasticism. Having vowed as a young man while still in Normandy to go on a pilgrimage to Rome should his family’s fortunes ever be restored, he later felt it irresponsible to leave his kingdom, and was permitted to fulfill the vow by endowing a monastery dedicated to Saint Peter. Edward chose the abbey on Thorney Island, by the Thames, thus beginning the royal patronage of what would become known as Westminster Abbey. At one time he devoted a tithe (one tenth) of his income to the abbey. He made generous grants of land to the abbey and built a huge Romanesque church, three hundred feet long, which was finished and consecrated just before his death. He was too ill to attend the consecration and died on the fifth of January 1066. His relics were translated to the Abbey Church of Saint Peter on this day in 1163, during the reign of King Henry the Second who, though of French birth, was related by blood to Edward through his great-grandmother, Saint Margaret of Scotland. The abbey church that Edward so richly endowed, and where his relics await the Resurrection to this day, became the place of coronation and burial of the kings and queens of England and is well known throughout the world today.
prepared from Celebrating the Saints,
The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, and other sources
Sovereign God, you set your servant Edward on the throne of an earthly kingdom and inspired him with zeal for the kingdom of heaven: Grant that we may so confess the faith of Christ by word and deed, that we, with all your saints, may inherit that heavenly kingdom; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The icon of Saint Edward the Confessor was written by and is © Aidan Hart, and is reproduced here with his generous permission.