King of his times who put his trust in eternal mentor
The Catholic Times 12.10.18
Fr Nicholas Schofield recently celebrated Mass at the shrine of an 11th century king which is the spiritual heart of Westminster Abbey.
IT was a privilege to recently celebrate Mass at the shrine of St Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, an event organised each year by the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom.
The shrine is not only at the spiritual heart of the abbey but one of the spiritual hearts 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. All the abbey’s magnificence is based around this 11th century king, who built a large Romanesque church on the site and a century later was
canonised. He subsequently became not only the saint of Westminster but a patron of the monarchy and of England. As I stood at the altar, I reflected on the congregation around me.
There was, of course, the group of 21st century pilgrims and Ransomers, including friends and family, crammed into every nook and cranny in the small space around the shrine.
But also present, very visibly, were at least five medieval kings and four queens, who asked to be buried on that spot, hoping for St Edward’s intercession and for some of his sanctity to ‘rub off’.
So, joining us in our congregation, their splendid monuments forming the boundary of this chapel, we had Henry III, who rebuilt the 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. 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 near her husband in an unmarked grave.
What is interesting is why so many monarchs 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. In reality, this is 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. Of course, there were always political motives behind the cult of the Confessor. St Edward’s canonisation
took place in 1161 and proved useful to the reigning monarch, Henry II, who was asserting the power of the Crown in matters ecclesiastical, a campaign which would put him in dispute with the Archbishop of Canterbury, St Thomas Becket, and create one of our great martyr saints. The Church’s response is often seen in the canonisation of an Archbishop of Canterbury, St Anselm, in 1163, two years after St Edward. Like Becket, he had been a champion of the Church’s liberty and endured many years of exile. Moreover, St Edward was not only the last English king of the line of Alfred the Great but also half-Norman. He was thus a figure of continuity, able to heal the divisions of the past and give legitimacy to the current royal dynasty. But such factors were not the only reasons for St Edward’s popularity. One of his most fervent devotees was Henry III. 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 his patron and named his son and heir after him: Edward I, the first in a long line of King Edwards. What attraction
did Henry see in his saintly predecessor?
Firstly, St Edward was the sort of king that Henry wanted 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. In the words of a recent historian, Henry’s 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”. 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, John. With much of England occupied by rebels and most of his continental possessions still in French hands, Henry inherited a challenging situation and would have empathised 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 (with St Peter trampling on Nero on the other side). 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, in other words, 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. As I offered Mass in the abbey, I
looked up to see a magnificent vista of the Confessor’s shrine and then, high above me, the gothic vaulting. We were there because we trusted in his heavenly intercession. Although we are not Plantagenet kings and live nearly a millennium later, we can still imitate him in his ability to combine a busy life of worldly concerns with prayer and living faith, in his love of justice,
and in his constancy in the face of adversity. As St Aelred of Rievaulx advised in the Prologue to his Life of St Edward:
“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!”