Fr Nicholas Schofield celebrated Mass and gave the sermon at this year's Mass at the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor. This is the written version:
Homily for St Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey 2018
This shrine of St Edward is not only the spiritual heart of the abbey but, one could say, the spiritual heart of England. This is the place of coronations and royal weddings, the burial place of the great and the good, the setting for grand state occasions. And all this magnificence is based around an eleventh century saint, the king who built a large Romanesque church on this site and was canonised a century later. He subsequently became not only the patron of Westminster but the monarchy and of England. His shrine is a silent witness to the centrality of the Christian Faith in our land.
Look around at the congregation this afternoon. We have, of course, our twenty-first century pilgrims and Ransomers. But also, crowding round the shrine, are some of St Edward’s successors, medieval kings who asked to be buried on this spot, hoping for a share in his intercession, that his sanctity would ‘rub off’. So, joining us in our congregation, their splendid monuments forming the boundary of this chapel, are Henry III, who rebuilt this abbey; Edward I, the famous ‘Hammer of the Scots’; Edward III, whose reign saw the victories of Crecy and Poitiers; the unlucky Richard II, usurped and then murdered at Pontefract; and Henry V, victor of Agincourt, buried in an elaborately carved chantry chapel. And let us not forget St Edward’s wife, Edith, the sister of King Harold and (according to one theory) one of the creators of the Bayeux Tapestry, who lies somewhere beneath this floor.
What is strange is why so many kings looked to St Edward as a patron and model. The hagiographic tradition remembers him as a king of justice and peace but also portrays him as a reluctant ruler who was more concerned with the things of Heaven and whose most obvious legacy, beyond this abbey, was a contested succession and a brutal Norman Conquest. The saintly Confessor was remembered more for his piety and miracles than his policies and triumphs.
This was not the full picture: a study of contemporary sources shows St Edward taking tough decisions, sending political enemies into exile and commanding his fleet against pirates. An early chronicler wrote that ‘he was of passionate temper and a man of prompt and vigorous action’. Like most kings of the period, he enjoyed hunting, hawking and the telling of sagas.
One of St Edward’s most fervent devotees was Henry III, buried in this chapel. Despite his long 56-year reign, he is little known today but, in the words of a recent historian, his reign saw England ‘transformed from being the private plaything of a French-speaking dynasty into a medieval state in which the king answered for his actions to an English parliament.’
By the 1230s he had chosen St Edward as his special patron: he rebuilt Westminster Abbey in the latest gothic style, erected a new shrine for the Confessor and named his son and heir after him: the first in a long new line of King Edwards. What attraction did Henry see in his saintly predecessor?
Of course, there were always political motives – St Edward was half-Saxon and half-Norman, and so was able to heal the divisions of the past and give legitimacy to Henry’s dynasty. St Edward also was the sort of king that Henry strove to be – a ruler who based his leadership on justice and peace, who enacted laws and lived in harmony with his people. This was what England needed in the aftermath of the Magna Carta and decades of division and violence.
But, on a personal level, Henry saw in St Edward a man who had been through many similar life experiences. Henry had become king at the age of nine, succeeding his unpopular father, King John. With much of England occupied by rebels and most of his continental possessions still in French hands, he inherited a challenging situation and would have emphasised with St Edward, who himself spent much of his youth in exile and succeeded to the throne in the aftermath of war and oppression. Henry, like the Confessor, had also been deserted by his mother and, as king, had to deal with treacherous advisers. Indeed, the Abbey's late 12th century wax seal shows St Edward trampling on one of them, Earl Godwine. As one historian writes, ‘Henry turned to an eternal mentor, who would never deceive or desert him, and would never let him down….[he] found a powerful spiritual protector at a time when he most needed protection.’
St Edward was no cardboard cut-out saint but a man – a king - of his times, flesh and blood like us, with his own strengths and weaknesses. We offer this Mass because we trust in his intercession. And, though we are not Plantagenet kings, we can still admire and imitate him: his ability to combine a busy life of worldly concerns with prayer and living faith, his love of justice, his constancy in the face of adversity. As St Aelred of Rievaulx advised in the Prologue to his Life of the Confessor: ‘Entrust yourself to his careful protection, be sure to imitate his holiness as well, and so you will achieve happiness for ever with him. Amen!’
St Edward the Confessor, pray for us! St Peter, pray for us!
Our Lady of the Pew, pray for us!
Our Lady of Ransom and of Walsingham, pray for us!
Fr Nicholas Schofield
Fr Nicholas Schofield, M.A. (Oxon.), S.T.B., F.S.A., F.R.Hist.S
Parish Priest, Our Lady of Lourdes & St Michael, Uxbridge
Archivist of the Archdiocese of Westminster