Today is St. Edward the Confessor's translatio, the feast day of the moving of his relics, which is one of two main feast days for a saint. Edward's relics were first moved to a new shrine in 1163, two years after his canonisation by Alexander III, and again in 1269 under the auspices of his most zealous devotee of all ages: Henry III. I'm currently writing my MA dissertation on Edward the Confessor, or more precisely on how he his represented in narrative literature and liturgy.
To honour my thesis subject, I will in this blogpost present an excerpt from a lecture I held at a local medievalist seminar two days ago, where a friend and I presented our soon-to-be-finished MA dissertations. The excerpt is a brief overview of the Confessor's cult, and this is only a minor selection of material from my thesis chapter on this subject. When my MA is finished I hope to present a more complete version, but for the time being this overview must suffice. All images are from wikimedia.
The woman-hearted Confessor prepares
The evanescence of the Saxon line.
The evanescence of the Saxon line.
- The Norman Conquest, William Wordsworth
These lines by William Wordsworth are interesting in that they are a testament to how enduring historical fictions can be, and how a textual representation of a person can continue to be accepted when it is cultivated properly. Wordsworth is here referring to the idea that it was Edward the Confessor, heirless from his purportedly chaste marriage, who appointed William the duke of Normandy as his successor and thus paved the way for the Norman Conquest. This claim was first put forth by the Norman chronicler William of Jumièges who wrote his Deeds of the Norman Dukes shortly after the Conquest. Since the Normans had taken England by force they needed some way to legitimise their conquest, and they then turned to the rumour, quickly committed to letters, that William was Edward's legitimate heir and that his successor, Harold Godwinson, had been a usurper. This fiction lent credence to the Norman claim to the English throne, but it also assured Edward a favourable reputation from the very beginning of his posthumous life. This reputation was of course enhanced by the anonymous work Vita Aedwardi written shortly after the Conquest which reads in part like a religious biography of the dead king, and this laid the foundation for the later hagiographic tradition.
Edward in the Bayeux tapestry
The Cult of St. Edward
Edward's posthumous standing in England remained favourable in the years following the Conquest. Kings embraced him as a worthy predecessor and historians hailed him as a man of virtues whose reign was a brief time of peace between two ages of chaos, a point that made authors compare him with the Biblical king Solomon who ruled peacefully after his father David's wars. However, although he was described in favourable terms there is nothing to suggest that he was regarded as anything more than a mortal king. And not everybody was equally pangeyric in their praise: William Malmesbury, writing in the 1120s, presents a dual picture of Edward. On the one hand he lauds Edward for his piety made manifest through his healings, but he also states that Edward was too simpleminded to be a good king, and that it was through the grace of God alone England did not suffer under his kingship. This statement must of course be understood as a response to a claim spreading from France: that miracle-working was inherent in royal blood. William repudiated such theories and stated instead that Edward's miracles were made possible through his piety, for it was not Edward himself who performed the miracles, but God who had chosen Edward as a vessel for these miracles because of the king's piety.
The first claim to Edward's sainthood came in the 1130s when Osbert of Clare, a prior of Westminster Abbey, was allegedly cured of a fever and attributed this to Edward's intervention. In 1138 he therefore wrote a new biography of Edward, a text that was based both on Vita I, William of Malmesbury's Deeds of the English Kings and other documents. This was the first text on Edward that can be labelled strictly as a hagiography, as both its structure and subject-matter conform to hagiographic conventions, and it was titled Vita Beati Eadwardi Regis, henceforth known as Vita II. This hagiography was presented to the papal legate who visited Westminster that year. The motion was denied on grounds of insufficient evidence, but it probably also had something to do with King Stephen's meddling in ecclesiastical affairs.
Aelred of Rievaulx, initial from De Speculum Caritatis
Although Henry II had taken the initiative to reapply for Edward's canonisation, there's no evidence that suggests he was personally invested in the cult of St. Edward. He needed the king sanctified to provide himself with a saintly forebear who would legitimise his claim to the English throne, and to purport this he was equally - if not more - preoccupied with commissioning the vernacular Roman de Rou, a family history showing off what greatness ran in his Angevin blood. The king's lukewarm attitude coupled with the meteoric rise of the cult of Thomas Becket from 1173 onwards were two very important reasons why Edward receded into the background and apparently became a chiefly Westminster figure. Here, however, he was celebrated with due solemnity, and we see from a late-12th-century liturgical calendar that both his dies natalis and his translatio were big days in the liturgical year at Westminster.
After the first surge of devotion - what I prefer to call the Angevin surge - the cult of Edward lay more or less dormant for several decades until it caught the attention of King Henry III in the 1230s. Henry's devotion to Edward was driven by an unprecedented zeal and he expressed this in the refurbishing of Westminster Abbey, the naming of his eldest son and heir, and a new translation in 1269, to mention only a few aspects. When Henry died in 1272 the cult of Edward retained a strong position in the kingdom for decades, until it waned significantly at the turn of the century, marking an end to what I have termed the first Plantagenet surge. Due to the growing militarism of the English monarchy, Edward's relevance decreased as he was a peaceful king more famed for his sedate piety than as a leader of warriors. In the end he was overshadowed by St. George, who in 1351 became the patron saint of England. Edward enjoyed one final devotional surge in the 1380s and 1390s, the second Plantagenet surge, when Richard II embraced the cult. This resulted in an array of donations to the king's tomb, and Richard continued the building on Westminster Abbey. This surge was, however, short-lived as Richard was deposed in 1399.