St. Edward the Confessor: 13 October

Br. Columba Maria

With this strange virtue [the healing touch]

He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy,

And sundry blessings hang about his throne

That speak him full of grace.

So Shakespeare describes, by the lips of Malcolm Canmore of Scotland in Macbeth, Saint Edward, King of England from 1042 to 1066 (5 January was his 950th anniversary).

That he reigned at all was a near-miracle. Ethelred the Unready proclaimed him king from his death bed, even though Edward was still in his mother Emma’s womb at the time. Ethelred, it seems, was never quite ready to tackle Cnut of Denmark’s invasion, and although Ethelred’s son Edmund Ironside (by a previous marriage) did succeed him, he too died that same year, 1016, and Cnut was crowned, to reign until 1035. Several hereditary princes were still potential rivals to Cnut and, to appease some, he negotiated his marriage to Queen Emma, whose Norman brother, Duke Richard, stipulated that her sons by Ethelred: Alfred and Edward, would be outranked by any future sons of Cnut. Edmund Ironside too had a son, Edward, but he was exiled to Hungary for his own safety.

Still, our Edward should have been superseded by his older brother Alfred, but this poor man came over from his Norman shelter to claim the crown in 1036 and died a horrible death. It was not until after Emma and Cnut’s son Hardecanute died in 1042 that Edward finally was crowned at Winchester.

The first thing Edward desired to fulfil was a vow he had made to God that, were he crowned, he would make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But both nobles and people raised such a clamour that Edward invited Pope Leo IX to adjudicate. Leo gladly commuted his vow to raising a church in honour of St. Peter.

St. Peter himself visited a hermit and told him to guide the king to restore what is now Westminster Abbey. This in fact became the king’s abiding passion, and it was as he was dying that the abbey was finally consecrated, Christmas 1065.

And so, from 1042 began a period of peace that England had not known hitherto. While at Mass in St. Peter’s one morning, Edward was gifted with a vision of the Danish king, Magnus, attempting another invasion like Cnut’s, suddenly falling from the prow of his ship and drowning. Edward’s unusual response (seldom if ever repeated by subsequent rulers!) was to remit the Danegeld, the tax imposed by Cnut to maintain the fleet.

Beyond giving alms, he was the first of our kings to have the healing touch and there are many proven examples of it, like the one of the multiply-crippled Irishman who was granted a vision of St. Peter, who told him that, were the king to carry him on his shoulders through the church to the altar, he would be completely cured. No sooner had this word reached the king’s ear than he, despite being scoffed at, went down on all fours and carried the man from the door through the nave, not even stopping along the way when the man was healed.

While England did not suffer an attack during these years, it did undergo a civil war. Godwin (Earl of Wessex, Sussex and Kent) rose with his two sons and boldly attempted a revolution. It was only after a lengthy resistance that the king was able to restore order. To Godwin too is ascribed the murder of Alfred, mentioned above. Yet this Godwin was received back into favour, and from this unlikely source came Editha, Godwin's daughter and Edward’s bride, all of which displays Edward’s control of his passions, selecting the rose while treading in thorns. Edward and Editha lived in a celibate marriage.

King Edward is often criticised for appointing too many Normans to government of both Church and state and thus paving the way for the Norman Conquest. One of his appointees was St. Wulfstan to the see of Worcester. After 1066, both Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, and King William, thought it better to replace him and at a synod in Westminster ordered his deposition. St. Wulfstan calmly thrust his crozier into Edward’s stone tomb, saying, “They convict you, my lord king, of error in appointing me, me in consenting. Take it and grant it to whomsoever you will.” To the amazement of all, no one could remove the crozier from the slab. Seeing the hand of God at work, both archbishop and king invited St. Wulfstan to retake his pastoral staff and continue his bishopric.

St. Edward is often portrayed with a ring, commemorating the time he donated his ring to the Apostle John, disguised as a beggar, who returned it later with the prophecy that the king would join him soon in heaven.

On his deathbed, Edward had another vision: the time had come for God to chastise England: her priests were faithless; her nobles thieving; her subjects undisciplined. God would send fire and sword for a year and a day. 1066 was a bloody year. Would there be no respite, asked the king? The answer was: “A certain green tree was cut from its stump and removed three furlongs from its own roots; when it returns to its stump, and it blossoms once more and produces fruit, there will be some hope of comfort.” Interpreted by St. Aelred of Rievaulx (the source of much of this article) the three furlongs are Harold Godwinson, William the Conqueror, and William Rufus, the three kings after Edward, none of whom had either a legal right to rule, nor a blood relation to Alfred the Great, the first of the English race to be anointed king. But when Henry I married Matilda—Malcolm and St. Margaret of Scotland’s daughter (and Edward’s great-niece)—the Angle and Norman races were harmonised and a certain limited peace blossomed.

St. Edward’s incorrupt remains are at Westminster Abbey. If you request to pray before his tomb, the ushers will be only too happy to lead you to his shrine which is at the heart of the Abbey church. You will be able to pray there in peace.

St. Edward the Confessor, ora pro nobis.

See also: St. Margaret of Scotland

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