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

onsdag 12. oktober 2016

Edward the Confessor, according to William Wordsworth

Today is the feast of the translation of Edward the Confessor. This day celebrates the anniversary of when his dead body was placed in its shrine at Westminster Abbey in recognition of his sainthood, and this took place on October 13, 1163, only two years after his sainthood had been formally acknowledged by Pope Alexander III. A translation, or translatio, is the moving of a saint's remains to a new site, often a shrine placed in such a way that the faithful could see it when they were in the church. October 13 became, in the course of the thirteenth century during the reign of Henry III, the principal feast-day for the Confessor, although this had previously been his death-day, January 5. (For the development of the liturgical feast-days, see this blogpost.)

I have written several blogposts about Edward the Confessor, since his cult was the subject of my MA thesis, and several of these give a thorough account of the development of his cult. This time around, however, I will commemorate the translatio Edwardi by presenting to you a poem by William Wordsworth, "The Norman Conquest" which was the thirty-first of his ecclesiastical sonnets, composed in the period 1821-22. (The text is taken from this website.)

Wordsworth's sonnet only treats Edward very briefly, and rather condescendingly, and it is a clear testimony to how Edward's role in the Norman Conquest was perceived at least by the poet, if not by a wider segment of the British literati. The role of Edward in the prelude to the invasion in 1066 has been a contested issue ever since William the Conqueror laid claim to being Edward's chosen successor (for more on this controversy, see this blogpost).

For William Wordsworth, however, the verdict is clear: It is Edward who is to blame for what he sees as the "evanescence of the Saxon line", presumably meaning the line of Saxon kings which the ecclesiastical sonnets have in part followed up to this point. This testiness towards the changes brought on by the Norman Conquest is probably not that uncommon Wordsworth's own time. At the very least, it is close to the sentiment of Edward Augustus Freeman (1823-97), who wrote in his six-volume The History of the Norman Conquest of England (published between 1867 to 1879). Here, Freeman launches the conviction that the Norman Conquest eradicated English culture to such an extent that it was only the later sainthood of Edward that helped his name survive the Middle Ages.

Whatever the prevalence of Wordsworth's approach to the dramatis personae of the Conquest, the sonnet is a suitable reminder that attitudes are not constant and that Edward who was revered as a saint and patron in the Middle Ages, by the nineteenth century had found himself cast in a very different role

The sigil of Edward the Confessor, as Anglorum basilei, king of the English
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Ecclesiastical Sonnets, XXI - The Norman Conquest

The woman-hearted Confessor prepares
The evanescence of the Saxon line.
Hark! 'tis the tolling Curfew!--the stars shine;
But of the lights that cherish household cares
And festive gladness, burns not one that dares
To twinkle after that dull stroke of thine,
Emblem and instrument, from Thames to Tyne,
Of force that daunts, and cunning that ensnares!
Yet as the terrors of the lordly bell,
That quench, from hut to palace, lamps and fires,           
Touch not the tapers of the sacred quires;
Even so a thraldom, studious to expel
Old laws, and ancient customs to derange,
To Creed or Ritual brings no fatal change.

Similar blogposts

A trip to Westminster Abbey

The cult of Edward the Confessor

Edward the Confessor and Thomas Becket

A poem for Harold Godwinson

Edward the Confessor and the nightingales

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