It was quite a year.
School children (used to) know it as the year of the Norman Conquest, led by William, Duke of Normandy, a point of change in the course of history in what we now call England. But in the 11th century, the land that John of Gaunt (in Shakespeare’s Richard II) would call, “This earth of majesty, / This seat of Mars, / This other Eden, demi-paradise, / This fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infection and the hand of war” was a congeries of disputed and disputing fiefdoms and, as the invasion of 1066 showed, hardly an invulnerable fortress.
The two principal fiefdoms prior to William’s invasion were Mercia and Wessex, and they were constantly disputing, even warring with each other (and sometimes together against Vikings). And so it was until 1066, which was the last year in the life of the last true king of Wessex, Edward, son of Æthelred II, this latter famously styled, “the Unready.” Wessex had emerged, after all the sparring with neighbors and Vikings and Danes, as the more-or-less center of “this scepter’d isle.”
Edward’s mother, Emma, was a Norman, the daughter of Richard the Fearless, Count of Rouen, and Duke William’s great-aunt. (By the way, we need to revive the use of these epithets: Trump the Uninhibited? Biden the Unrepentant?) Edward himself had spent years in exile in Normandy, although that didn’t make Duke William’s invasion a family reunion.
The Romans were long gone, of course, although Rome had returned throughout Europe in the guise of Catholic missionaries, priests, and bishops, and the Norman invaders hadn’t come across the channel in an evangelical spirit.
None of this mattered to Edward, however, because he was dead, having expired on the 5th of January 1066, months before the invasion.
After Edward’s death, a couple of pretenders (Harold Godwinson and Edgar Ætheling) claimed the Wessex throne, and Harold briefly became king. But he died in October of 1066 at the decisive Battle of Hastings, and Edgar was out once William was in after his coronation on Christmas Day.
Edgar was then just a teenager and spent the rest of his life looking for someplace to hang his crown. Some of the “English” nobility considered coalescing around him, since he was perceived the weakest baron, but all their stratagems failed to push William back to “France,” which I put in quotes, because – like “England” – that area had yet to be sufficiently unified to be known by a single, national name. (The French saw themselves as Norman, Burgundian, Aquitanian, and so forth.) Of course, people had been speaking for half a millennium of “Engla Land,” the land of the Angles, which, married with the earlier “Saxon” invaders, gives us . . . well, you know.
Anyway, this last king of Wessex, Edward (born c. 1003), would become styled the Confessor. And he is a Roman Catholic saint, canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1161. The “Confessor” title does not indicate that he was a priest-king, only that he was pious, although historians squabble about that. It is convenient in distinguishing him from his also-saintly uncle, Edward the Martyr, who had been murdered in 978.
Edward’s wife, Edith, was Harold Godwinson’s sister, and she developed a reputation for piety. She and Edward had no children, and – after her brother had, prior to 1066, made trouble for Edward, leading to his banishment – Edith had been dispatched to a convent, which some may have seen as an expression of a chaste Catholic union, rather than as a political exile. But it’s also asserted that Edward had taken a vow of celibacy, confirmed, perhaps, by their childless marriage. This he did despite the fact that Edith was thought Europe’s greatest beauty.
In any case, when Edward had returned from his own exile and assumed the throne, he’d taken another vow: to make a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to St. Peter’s in Rome. Times being what they were, it wasn’t possible to do so, and Pope St. Leo IX released Edward from his pledge.
It may be difficult to imagine any king in the contentious, often violent 11th century as saintly, and some of his reputation for holiness certainly comes from his activities on behalf of the Church, not least his commencement, in the first year of his reign, of the building of Westminster Abbey, which occupied much of his first decade as king. (He reigned for two-dozen years.) It was also a condition Pope Leo had placed upon him in granting that dispensation from his pilgrimage.
That church is not the Abbey we see in London today. King Edward’s abbey was destroyed in 1245 to make way for the “new” one. This is the way of things: Edward had built his church on the site of an earlier abbey, St. Peter’s – so named by River Thames fishermen who’d helped build it. In fact, the current Westminster Abbey (since the Reformation, the seat of the Church of England) is properly called the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter at Westminster.
Edward’s original church was at least in part a tribute to Emma of Normandy, his mother, since it was built in the Norman Romanesque style. She died the year the Abbey was completed, although it was not consecrated until just a few weeks before Edward’s own death.
Historians debate Edward’s saintliness, and legends – if that’s what they are – of healings and other miraculous happenings do test credulity, most notably the story of the king’s ruby ring, which the beneficent William had given to a beggar. In 1065, two English pilgrims in the Holy Land were given shelter by an elderly man, who turned out to be John the Baptist. He gave them Edward’s ring, saying: “Return this to the king, and tell him he will die in six months’ time.”
Tomorrow is the king’s feast day. In this time, when few leaders could hardly be considered anything like saintly, Eduardus Confessor, ora pro nobis!
*Image: The Wilton Diptych (front panel) by an unknown English or French artist, c. 1395-9 [National Gallery, London]. St. Edward the Confessor, center, stands with St. Edmund the Martyr (together England’s original patron saints) and John the Baptist. Kneeling is the abovementioned King Richard II, who they are presenting to Our Lady and the Christ Child. Note that Edward’s offering is the aforementioned rub yring. Below is the back of the triptych, with a shield, much the worse for wear, on one side and Richard’s “heraldic badge,” the white hart on the other side. The angels surrounding Mary and Jesus on the front wear the badge.
You may also enjoy:
Robert Royal’s Before 1066 and All That
Fr. Gerald Murray’s Of Saints and Clown