And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

søndag 5. januar 2014

Dies Natalis Sancti Ædwardi

Here Edward king,
of Angles lord,
sent his stedfast
soul to Christ.
In the kingdom of God
a holy spirit!
- Entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 1065, Whitelock, Dorothy, David, Douglas C., Tucker, Susie, I. (eds.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1962

On this day, the eve of the Epiphany, in 1066 Edward king of England died in sickbed only a few days after he had witnessed the consecration of Westminster Abbey. Edward died childless and was succeeded by Harold Godwinson, and he was revered by the new Norman overlords as a good and pious king. In 1161 he was canonised by Pope Alexander III and became known as Edward the Confessor. The cult was centred at Westminster and was initially embraced by King Henry II, who orchestrated the moving of his relics to a new tomb on October 13 1163. On this occasion, Henry was presented with a new vita of the Confessor, written by Aelred of Rievaulx, and this became the primary source for all subsequent renditions of Edward's life. In this blogpost, I aim to present an overview of this feast in liturgical sources from the High Middle Ages.

Edward the Confessor carrying book and sceptre
MS. Royal 20 A II, historical miscellany from England, c.1307-27
Courtesy of British library

When Edward's cult was established in 1161, there was only one celebration for the ministrants of Westminster Abbey, namely his dies natalis, January 5. The dies natalis meant the heavenly birthday of the saint, the day when, through dying, he or she entered the registers of the saint and was born into holiness. In the beginning of any cult, this day is the most important feast day, and so it was for Edward the Confessor up until the mid-13th century.

Despite Henry II's initial enthusiasm for Edward the Confessor's cult, it appears he never achieved any widespread popularity in England, and when Thomas Becket was canonised in 1173 the late archbishop's cult gained an overshadowing prominence in the realm. Becket's feastday was December 29 and thus his octave fell on the eve of Epihany, January 5, and in churches where Becket was the more important saint of the two, it is probable that Edward the Confessor was not celebrated with a complete office, but rather included in a minor memorial service.

Shrine of Edward the Confessor at Westminster
MS. Egerton 3028, Roman de Brut with continuation, England, 2nd quarter of 14th century
Courtesy of British Library

We have today very little liturgical material left from the repertoire of Edward the Confessor. In my MA work I have been able to date one text snippet to the timeframe 1161-66, and this text is a part of an office material that most likely was performed on January 5 at Westminster. The text in question is a responsory referred to by Aelred of Rievaulx in a sermon for January 5, held sometime in the aforementioned timeframe. Today, this responsory survives only in MS. Rawlinson liturg. g. 10 (c.1400), and its only translation into English can be found in my MA thesis and below. A responsory is a liturgical item that follows a reading, such as a lection in an office, and responds to the theme of the preceding text.

Responsum: Edwardus domino se vidit esse ditatum.
repetenda: A primis annis studuit vitare reatum.
Verse: Omnia contemnens que carni dant famulatum.
repetenda: A primis annis studuit vitare reatum.

R. Edward saw himself enriched by the Lord.
[r.] And from his earliest years on strove to avoid sin.
V. Avoiding all that could subject him to the flesh.
[r.] And from his earliest years on strove to avoid sin.

Material for Edward's dies natalis can also be found in a few liturgical books that do not follow the Westminster Use, i.e. liturgical formulae of Westminster and its related houses. Two of these antiphonaries are from the early 13th century (one from the Sarum Use, one from the Worcester Use), and what is more interesting is that they both only have material for October 13, not January 5. I don't know why this is, but I allow myself to speculate that this might be a consequence of the veneration of Thomas Becket's octave. Edward's lack of popularity around 1220, when these books were put together, can be seen in by Archbishop Stephen Langton's plea to Pope Gregory IX that he must command the English clergy to improve their veneration of the Confessor. The pope issued a bull to this effect in 1227.

Another interesting detail, however, is that a 14th-century antiphoner from Aberystwyth, following the Sarum Use, does indeed contain material for January 5. Why this is, I don't know, but it is interesting to note that a Westminster Missal finished prior to 1386 under the auspices of Abbot Lytlyngton, where January 5 is the most important feast, holding the same rank as Christmas.

The translation of Edward the Confessor
MS. Ee.3.59, La estoire de seint aedward le rei, 13th century
Courtesy of Cambridge Digital Library

By the middle of the 13th century Edward's long-suffering popularity received a boost from Henry III who embraced Edward as his particular saint, and who refurbished Westminster in his honour and had his corpse translated once more on October 13 1169. It is possible that Henry III saw a greater royal symbolism in the translatio, owing perhaps to the fact that it was Henry II who had overseen the translation of 1163, and this became now the most important feast, replacing January 5, the aforementioned importance of this date in the Lytlyngton Missal notwithstanding.

The final result of Henry III's initiated refurbishment of Westminster


Carpenter, D. A., "King Henry III and Saint Edward the Confessor: the Origins of the Cult", printed in English Historical Review, Vol. CXXII, No. 498, Oxford University Press, 2007

Hope, Steffen, The King's Three Images - the representation of Edward the Confessor in historiography, hagiography and liturgy, Trondheim, 2012

Legg, John Wickham, Missale ad usum Ecclesie Westmonasteriensis, Henry Bradshaw Society, London, 1891 (Vol. I), 1893 (Vol. II) and 1897 (Vol. III)

Luard, Henry Richard (ed.), Flores Historiarum, London, 1890

Raciti, Gaetano, Aelredi Rievallensis Sermones LXXXV-CLXXXII, Corpus Christianorum Continu-atio Medievalis IIC, Brepols Publishers, 2012 Vol. 4

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