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

torsdag 12. mars 2015

Edward the Confessor and the Nightingales

 The nightingales in Haveringatte-Bower
Sang out their loves so loud, that Edward’s prayers
Were deafen’d and he pray’d them dumb
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, Harold, Act I, Scene II

Edward the Confessor occupies a big place in English history and folklore, both because of his office as king of England and because of his role as one of England’s royal saints. As a consequence, there are several legends about him that have been in circulation throughout the centuries. One story claims that he aided Harold Godwinsson in the Battle of Stamford, while another, and one of the most widely famous of these legends, states that he gave his ring to a beggar who turned out to be John the Evangelist . We will return to this latter legend later on, but the main focus of this blogpost is another and much more recent story.

Wooden statue of Edward the Confessor, uncertain date but possibly Victorian
Note the bird on the sceptre - possibly a nightingale

In his play Harold, Alfred Lord Tennyson presents a dramatised account of the Norman Conquest centred around the figure of Harold Godwinsson. In Act I, Harold meets with his sister Edith, Edward the Confessor’s wife, and as Harold enters the stage he recounts the brief anecdote quoted above. The story goes that Edward, who was more of a monk than a king according to the very first biography of him, Vita Ædwardi (c.1070), spent his night in prayer and meditation. One night he was at Havering, the nightingales sang so loudly that they disturbed his prayers and so he prayed that they would be quiet. Since Edward had God’s attention, the nightingales turned silent.

We don’t know how old this legend is, but evidence suggests that it is not very old as far as legends go, and the earliest recorded instance is said to date from the seventeenth century, according to AHistory of the County of Wessex. There is no trace of it in the Latin vitae of Edward that were written during the Middle Ages, and nor can it be found in the historiographical or vernacular material – at least to my knowledge.  The earliest account seems to stem from the early modern period. Historian Deb Martin notes that a local legend – recorded by Essex historian Philip Morant in 1768 – claimed that after this incident, the nightingales never dared to sing in Havering again. By the 19th century, this legend seems to have passed into historiographical tradition, as we see in David Hughson’s London from 1809. Here, Hughson notes that Havering Bower “was the seat of some of the Saxon kings; particularly of Edward the Confessor, who took great delight in it, as being woody, solitary, and fit for devotion” (Hughson 1809, vol. VI: 195). He then goes on to quote the legend, and repeats the story recorded by Montagu that since then the nightingales had stopped singing in that place.

The story of Edward and the nightingales is a curious one, and even though we can’t say for certain when the nightingales at Havering entered the legendary of the Confessor, we can see in this story the conflation of two motifs from medieval folklore.

The first motif is that of animals being silenced by a saint. Many saints are said to have had command over animals, and this motif is found already in Athanasius’ Life of Antony in which we read how Antony of Egypt ordered animals to stay out of his vegetable garden. This was the foundation for the later version of Antony’s life in which it was said that he had a pet-pig, who became his primary iconographical attribute. A later example of this motif can be found in the legend of St Francis of Assisi, who was said to not only command birds but even locusts. In Legenda Aurea, Jacobus de Voragine records the following incident (translated by William Granger-Ryan): “He preached to the birds and they listened to him; he taught them and they did not fly away without his permission. When swallows were chattering when he was preaching, he bade them be silent and they obeyed” (Jacobus de Voragine 2012: 611). Whether there is a connection between this story and that of St Edward and the nightingales is beyond conjecture, but it is nonetheless interesting to see this motif recur in two such different settings.

Antony and his pet-pigs
MS Royal 2 A XVIII, early-fifteenth-century prayerbook
Courtesy of British Library

The second motif at play comes singularly from the legendary of Edward the Confessor, namely his connection to Havering. In 1809, Hughson stated that Havering had been a royal residence and that Edward had spent time there. Whether the Confessor ever did spend much time at Havering can not be ascertained, even though Hughson quotes the Domesday Book as marking Havering as a feudum of the king. The earliest known record of Edward staying at Havering comes from John Hardyng’s chronicle of 1437, where he states that Havering was the setting for the legend of St Edward’s ring. Hardyng’s treatment of the episode goes as follows:

In his forest, as he pursued a dere,
In Essex, a palmer with hym met,
Askyng hym good, whome gladly he dyd here,
He claue his ryng and in sonder it bette,
The halfe of whiche he gaue without lette
To the palmer that went awaye anone,
That other good to geue [hym] there had [he] none

But after that full longe and many [a] daye,
Two pylgrames came vnto that noble kynge,
And sayde, saint Iohn thappostell in pore araye
Vs prayed, and bad straytly aboue all thing,
To you present and take this halfe golde rynge,
Which ye gaue hym of almesse and charyte,
And bade vs say that right sone ye should him se:

Whiche ryng he set together there anone,
And that ylke place he called ay after Hauerynge,
And that same place where they it braste alone
He called by after that ryme Claueryng,
In Essex be bothe fayre standynge,
Where that he made two churches of saint Iohn
Theuangelyst, and halowed were anon
- The Chronicle of Iohn Hardyng, edited by Henry Ellis, printed in London, 1812: 232

Edward holding his ring
Statue of uncertain date, St Albans
Couresy of this website

Hardyng’s account is interesting in many ways. First of all, he introduces the novel idea that Edward broke the ring in two rather than giving it unbroken to the beggar (which is how it happens in Aelred of Rievaulx’s Vita Sancti Ædwardi (1163), the earliest source to mention this). Secondly, Hardyng states that Edward was hunting when he first met the Evangelist. This is significant in that it is a feature absent from the Latin hagiographical tradition, but it is included in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum, in which a hunting episode becomes an illustration of the king’s calm temper (William of Malmesbury 1998: 348-49).

In the chronicle of John Hardyng, no reference is made to nightingales, only his connection to Havering. We don’t know when the nightingales first enter the stage, or what was the origin of the legend. One likely source, however, is the Confessor’s coat of arms, which was a golden gross on a blue background surrounded by five gold martlets.

The supposed coat-of-arms of Edward the Confessor
Courtesy of Wikimedia

This coat of arms did not exist in the time of the Confessor, but was believed to have been his coat of arms in the fourteenth century. Therefore, when Richard II merged his own coat of arms with that believed to be the Confessor’s, the result was as follows.

Richard II's coat-of-arms, 1395-99
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The trajectory from Hardyng’s chronicle to the legend recorded by Montague, Hughson and Tennyson can not be recovered, but in the medieval texts and iconography we have seen here we might perceive at least the origin of this charming story.

For more on Edward the Confessor see these blogposts:

Overview of his cult

Edward in stained glass at Ickford

The celebration of his feast day


Primary Sources

Aelred of Rievaulx, The Life of Saint Edward, King and Confessor, translated by Jane Patricia Freeland, printed in Dutton, Marsha (ed.), Aelred of Rievaulx: The Historical Works, Cistercian Publications, 2005: 123-244

Evagrius, Life of Antony by Athanasius, translated by Carolinne White, printed in White, Carolinne (ed.), Early Christian Lives, Penguin Classics, 1998: 1-70

Hughson, David, London, Stratford, 1809

Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012

John Hardyng, The Chronicle of Iohn Hardyng, edited by Henry Ellis, London, 1812

Tennyson, Alfred Lord, Harold

William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, translated by R. A. B. Mynors, Clarendon Press, 1998

Secondary sources

Baker, Arthur, A Tennyson Dictionary, Haskell House Publishers, 1916

'Parishes: Havering-atte-Bower', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 7, ed. W R Powell (London, 1978), pp. 9-17 [accessed 9 March 2015].



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