Edward the Confessor canonised

Richard Cavendish describes Edward the Confessor's canonisation, on January 5th, 1161.

The body of Edward the Confessor is carried to Westminster Abbey, a detail from the Bayeux Tapestry, c. 1082The king died early in 1066 and was interred in the church of the abbey at Westminster, which he had refounded and to which he had devoted much time, energy and money. His piety is not in doubt, though the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle portrayed him not as a saint but as a strong king. The late Professor Frank Barlow in his classic biography pointed out that the accepted picture of the king for centuries afterwards was entirely different. He was remembered as a devout weakling, too obsessed with the matters of the spirit to cope with the real world. This was probably because his death led directly to the Conquest and to the fact that, despite being married to one of the most beautiful women in the country, he had no children by her. It was assumed he had been too holy to have any inclination for the matters of the flesh.

There were reports of miraculous cures at Edward’s tomb soon after his burial. In 1102 the tomb was opened and it was found that his corpse had not decayed. The English were reasserting themselves by this time and the Westminster monks may have started to claim Edward as a saint. In the 1120s William of Malmesbury wrote of miracles Edward had performed during his lifetime, including the case of a blind man who regained his sight after his eyes were touched with water in which the king’s hands had been washed. Osbert of Clare, prior of Westminster in the 1130s, wrote the lives of several Anglo-Saxon saints and a biography of Edward which presented him as a holy man who could heal people suffering from scrofula by touching them: hence the subsequent tradition of ‘touching for the king’s evil’, which lasted until the accession of George I in 1715.

Osbert believed that he had been cured of fever by the dead king and in 1138 or 1139 he led a deputation from Westminster to Rome to ask Pope Innocent II to canonise Edward. The suggestion was declined. When Henry II became king in 1154, however, he lent his weight to the cause and after Alexander III was elected pope in 1159 with the aid of English votes Henry congratulated him and asked for Edward’s canonisation. A petition was organised by Abbot Laurence of Westminster which testified to Edward’s miracles, his merciful disposition and his devotion to the Church, and stressed that he had remained a virgin all his life. A delegation travelled to Rome in the winter of 1160 and discussed the matter with the new pope, who accepted the English arguments.

When the decision was made is uncertain, but the tradition was to canonise a new saint with effect from the anniversary of his death. In Edward’s case this was January 5th, which became his feast day. Pope Alexander informed the authorities in England in a letter dated February 7th, 1161. Edward became known as ‘the Confessor’, a saint who had died a natural death, to distinguish him from St Edward the Martyr.

In 1163 Laurence and his monks made a new inspection of the king’s remains. They found Edward’s body wrapped in cloth of gold with a gold-embroidered mitre on his head and purple shoes at his feet, his white beard curling on his chest. They gently lifted the corpse out, wrapped it in a silk cloth and put it in a wooden coffin. After King Henry and other notables had been shown the body it was transferred to a new tomb in a ceremony presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. The sermon was preached by Abbot Ailred of Rievaulx, who wrote a revised life of the king based on the biography by Osbert of Clare. The date, October 13th, became the Confessor’s new feast day.

The body was moved again, to its present position in Westminster Abbey behind the high altar, when Henry III built a new tomb in 1269 in the course of rebuilding the church. Henry, himself deeply pious, held the Confessor in special reverence and had named his first son Edward after him. Appropriately or not, the Church made the Confessor the patron saint of difficult marriages.