his summarizes the life and times of St. Edward the Confessor, patron saint of kings, difficult marriages, and separated spouses.
dward was born in about 1003, the son of King Ethelred II the Unready, and of Emma, the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy. Edward lived in England until 1013, when Vikings took the English throne: his family escaped to Normandy. He returned to England in 1041, and was elected King in 1042 when the Viking dynasty died out. In 1045 he married Edith, daughter of Earl Godwin: they had no children. Edward reigned until his death in 1066, living a life renowned for generosity, piety, and beneficent rule. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, which he had built. He was canonized in 1161.
e is remembered on October 13th, often with this prayer: O God, who called your servant Edward to an earthly throne that he might advance your heavenly kingdom, and gave him zeal for your Church and love for your people: mercifully grant that we who commemorate him this day may be fruitful in good works, and attain to the glorious crown of your saints; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
he following examines his life in more detail; the images are from an early 13th century manuscript about his life:
dward lived in violent times. After a long history of Saxon kings, the English throne had become a prize sought by ambitious Normans, Saxons, and Vikings. Edward’s father, King Ethelred the Unready, gained and kept his throne by the sword. The people suffered greatly: heavy taxes were levied to bribe the Vikings to leave England at peace; but the Viking raids continued. Ethelred married Emma of Normandy, a daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, to gain Duke Richard’s support against the Vikings; this marriage would later help give the Normans, who coveted England, one reason to claim the English throne.
nto this time of tumult, Edward was born, a very different kind of man: he had no ambition except for the welfare of his people; he won the throne by election, not by the sword; and he gave his subjects a time of peace, prosperity, and good government that was remembered by the people for centuries.
dward was born in Islip, Oxfordshire, in about 1003. He spent his early years in relative peace at Ely Abbey: this abbey, founded in 673 by St. Etheldreda, was one of the richest and most influential abbeys of the time. (Ely Abbey still exists, known today as Ely Cathedral.) In 1013, however, when Edward was about 10, Ethelred and his family were forced to flee into exile when Sweyn Forkbeard, the Viking King of Denmark, seized the English throne.
dward and his brother Alfred were taken to the court of his uncle, Duke Richard II of Normandy, where they would be able to live in safety. Edward was to live in Normandy for nearly half his life. During this time he quite naturally grew very close to the Normans: this became a problem later, when he was King; he would antagonize the Saxons by introducing Normans and their ways into England.
dward’s father Ethelred died soon after they had fled to Normandy. Edmund Ironside, Edward’s elder half-brother, was briefly King: however, the Viking prince, Canute, fought Edmund, killed him, and made himself King. Edward’s mother Emma then married Canute, agreeing that her future children by King Canute would be the heirs to the English throne.
uring his sojourn in Normandy, Edward came to be very pious. He made a vow of chastity, and spent much time at prayer, assisting at services, and helping in church activities. He developed the reputation of having a saintly character: this later would help persuade the Saxons to choose Edward as King.
ing Canute the Great died in 1035: his successor should have been Edward’s half-brother Hardicanute, son of Canute and Emma, but Hardicanute was in Denmark when Canute died, and the throne was seized by Hardicanute’s illegitimate brother, Harold Harefoot. Harold cruelly oppressed the English people. In 1036 Edward and his brother Alfred tried to free their people, but failed: Edward escaped to Normandy; Alfred was betrayed, captured, blinded, tortured, and murdered.
ing Harold Harefoot died in 1041, so Hardicanute was finally able to ascend the throne, where he proved himself as brutal and hated as Harold. However, Hardicanute reigned for only a short time, dying in 1042, leaving no heir: this ended the brief Viking dynasty in England. Edward was finally able to sail back to England, where he was to live for the remainder of his life.
dward was elected King in 1042, after Hardicanute’s death. (In this era the English and Scandinavian kings were normally elected unless the throne was taken by force.) Edward was chosen partly due to his saintly character, and partly because he had the strongest claim to the throne: the Viking dynasty was extinct; Edward was the son of one king, Ethelred II, and a half-brother to both King Edmund Ironside (the previous Saxon king) and King Hardicanute (the last Viking king).
ing Edward did not wish to marry: he had long before made a vow of chastity. But he was persuaded by his advisors to marry, and in 1045 he married Edith, daughter of Earl Godwin of Wessex: she had to agree, however, to honour his vow; they would therefore have no children. Edith was reputed to be virtuous, which made her a good match for Edward.
dith’s father, Earl Godwin, however, was far from virtuous. He was ambitious and ruthless: he coveted the crown for his family, and was a major power in England. Godwin, it was found, had taken part in the betrayal of Edward’s brother, Alfred. Godwin schemed to put one of his sons on the throne. And Godwin rebelled against Edward, for which crime he and his family, including Edith, were outlawed. But Edward was forced to reinstate them: Godwin was too influential, and had the support of too many Saxons, who were angry with Edward’s Normanization of England.
dward’s reign was one of peace and prosperity. He managed the country well. He resolved internal conflicts without bloodshed. He engaged in no wars, except to defend England from Viking and Welsh raids, and to help King Malcolm III of Scotland regain the throne which Macbeth had taken from Malcolm’ father, King Duncan. Edward ended the ‘Danegelt’, the brutal tax levied to bribe the Vikings. He ended the taxes raised to support the court, instead using money raised from his own estates. He listened to complaints, and dispensed justice fairly. He was generous in giving to the poor and to the church. Only his Norman affinities created discontent.
any miracles were attributed to Edward. He was said to have had visions, giving him foresight into events that would take place, or into actions that he should take. He was also said to have healed the blind, the crippled, and the diseased; even after his death, people came to his tomb to be cured of their ailments.
dward promised to build an abbey for St. Peter in Westminster. He fell ill, however, and died early in 1066, a week after the abbey was dedicated. Edward’s body rests in his abbey, now better known as Westminster Abbey, where also rest many other great figures in English history. Edward was canonized in 1161: he is referred to as St. Edward the Confessor; ‘Confessor’ denoted someone whose life proclaimed their faith, but whose death was not a martyr’s death.
fter Edward’s death, violence briefly returned to England. Though in many ways he was a very good king, in one critical sense he was not: he failed to select a credible successor. He had no children. He promised the throne to the Duke of Normandy, but this was rejected by the Saxons. Later it seemed as if he might be succeeded by a nephew, a son of Edmund Ironside, but the nephew died. On Edward’s death-bed he bequeathed the crown to Earl Godwin’s son, Harold. But Harold had no royal blood. This resulted in a disputed throne and two invasions of England in 1066. The first was by the Viking King, Harald Hardrede: it was repulsed at great cost at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. The second was by William of Normandy: this resulted in Harold Godwinson’s death at the Battle of Hastings, and an end to the Saxon kings. The next dynasty was Norman, established by William the Conqueror.
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ost images on this page are from an early 13th century manuscript about St. Edward. We are indebted to Cambridge University for preserving and publishing this important work.
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