As a brief respite from the turmoil in Church and State these days, I’ve been indulging myself with a very pleasant read through Alfred Duggan’s novel (1960) The Cunning of the Dove  – a fictional re-creation of the turmoil in Church and State in the days of King Edward the Confessor (1042-1066). Some things, it seems, never really change.
Duggan was a friend of Evelyn Waugh’s, a conservative Catholic, a powerful yet graceful writer who deserves to be better known for a series of novels set in the Middle Ages. As Waugh wrote of him: “This century has been prolific in historical novels, many garish, some scholarly. I know of none which give the same sense of intimacy as Alfred’s – as though he were describing personal experiences and observations.”
There’s probably no more realistic and insightful account of the life of a saintly king. Saintly rulers are a great rarity: after St. Edward there’s St. Louis and – who? Duggan’s novel raises a question: Can a saintly man also be a good ruler? To run the worldly city well requires worldly – not merely heavenly – virtues. Hence his title, which shuffles the Gospel verse so that the innocent dove (Edward) is as cunning as the serpent.
A hard truth, one that a Christian instinctively resists. In the Middle Ages, there was a whole literature de regimine principum, on how a Christian ruler should be educated and behave. Machiavelli, of course, turned that upside down in The Prince, arguing that the ruler who does what he ought instead of what he needs to do (even though immoral) will fail – and bring great harm on his people.
Cynical – and “Machiavellian” – of course. But there’s a question here about the need for a ruler to be something more than mildly pious, which doesn’t allow for easy solutions – and never goes away.
In modern times, a crop of well-meaning idealists have risen to power and effectively put a “Kick Me” sign on their backs – inviting malefactors, who are never in short supply. The type is also not unknown in Church governance.
Neville Chamberlain signed a pact with Adolf Hitler in 1938 and returned to London proclaiming triumphantly that he had secured “peace in our time.” World War II, which left 40 million dead, began the next year. I’m very – sorely – tempted to name recent names here, but this is not a partisan political site. And TCT’s readers are quite capable of filling in the blanks.
Edward’s case is complex because he seems to have been both a saintly and reasonably effective monarch. His was not an easy time. We think we have problems over “diversity.” But he faced: Welsh rebels, Irish Vikings, Danish invaders, conflicts between the earls of Northumbira, Mercia, Scotland, and a royal court where the English language was just coming into its own – jostled by French, Danish, and various British dialects.
He managed to hold it all together by a combination of spiritual insight and toughness. In Duggan’s tale, for example, Edward has no pangs about executing marauding Vikings:
Enemies of civilization, beastly robbers who would rather steal than plough their own lands. Drowning is too good for such savages. I hope we catch some of them alive, so that I can hang them before a crowd of the peasants they hope to pillage. . . .a king who defends his people from vikings is doing no more than his duty.
Medieval saints were generally realistic about the need to defeat evil and protect the good. Edward takes offense on behalf of Christendom when Christians in Flanders buy what Vikings have looted in England. But he believes that even pirates “can be tamed by good priests and good rulers.” He and other Christian leaders join together to “fix” Flanders.
Edward also faces hard prudential choices without shirking, as when he must allow some nobles to go unpunished for certain injustices in order to avoid the greater evil of civil war.
At least one lesson his reign seems to teach is that a man who is not drunk on power, yet deeply seeks the good, can afford to let others handle their own responsibilities. He centralizes power when necessary, decentralizes – and therefore fosters loyalty – as appropriate. A certain detachment allows him to see even worldly matters more clearly.
Edward attended Mass – twice a day – is said to have performed various miracles and had several prophetic visions. He once “saw” that a Danish invasion would not take place because the leader of the flotilla had died before setting sail in an accident hundreds of miles away.
More significantly, right before he died himself, the souls of two Norman monks came to him, to help him to cross to the next world but also to deliver a message:
Woe to England! Because the Earls and the Bishops and the clergy are not what they should be, but rather the servants of the Devil, the whole land will be given over to Satan for a year and a day.
Yes, they had leaders like that, in both Church and state, in the Middle Ages, too. The time frame is, to be sure, proverbial, but in this case proved very close to literal.
After Edward’s death, the Council broke its oath and named Harold Godwinsson king. Harold immediately found himself beset: by invasions in the north, turmoil everywhere. And even worse was to come. William the Conqueror killed him at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Edward had built the first great London cathedral in 1065, which remains the oldest part of Westminster Abbey. On January 6, 1066 – Feast of the Epiphany – he was buried near the main altar, where there is still a shrine to him and his tomb.
William was crowned there the first Norman King of England on Christmas Day that same year. Edward’s dying vision was only about thirteen days off.
*Image above of Edward is from the Wilton Diptych by an unknown French artist, c. 1395-99 [National Gallery, London]. In the full diptych (below), Edward stands between John the Baptists and St. Edmund the Martyr, as King Richard II is presented to the Blessed Virgin and Christ. (Click image below to expand.)