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Edward the Confessor, More Christian than King

Builder of Westminster Abbey, this strange royal saint, whose feast day we celebrate today, was better at piety than at statecraft

Edward the Confessor
Slept under the dresser.
When that began to pall,
He slept in the hall.

—a clerihew from G. K. Chesterton’s Biography for Beginners

It is a strange paradox of history that the weak are often remembered with the same vigor as the strong, and the tenacity of the former category can eventually render them as strong in character as the latter. By this phenomenon of legend, a varlet can hold smiling sway in the general estimation with the valiant, having passed the test of time haphazardly rather than heroically.

There was a king, once upon a time in old eleventh-century England, who achieved this historical topsy-turvydom, being remembered, by most accounts, as the best of men, even though, by some accounts, he was the worst of kings.

Edward the Confessor, son of Ethelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy, bears the title of not king, but confessor, for he distinguished himself not for being a great king, but for being a good man who devotedly confessed the King of Kings.

Ironically, it was Edward’s goodness that often got in the way of his kingship, living as he did in a time when it took a barbaric hand to hold barbarians at bay. Edward was no barbarian—he was a Saxon by blood but a Norman at heart and would sooner pray piously through the night for the unruly than manage them in any practical, much less confrontational, way.

Edward was a king who served the will of his God as far as he judged it more than the will of his people, winning condemnation from his subjects as the last Anglo-Saxon king of the House of Wessex and salvation from his Lord as the first English king to be canonized by the Catholic Church.

Born near the year 1000, he grew up in Normandy, where his father, Ethelred, had sent him to be safe from the Viking invaders who beleaguered England. After Ethelred’s death, the Danish king and conqueror Canute, taking control of the island, took Edward’s mother as his wife. After Canute’s death, Edward returned to England to find Canute’s son by his mother on his father’s throne.

The white-haired, white-faced, willowy young man was beyond paling at these outrages and his distaste for the Anglo-Saxon situation. He bided his time. When Canute’s son died, Edward moved decisively, seizing his crown and kingdom before turning his attention to the suspicious Saxon earls, who beheld this colorless Saxon king of Norman fashion as a phantom.

Holding fast first to the faith he confessed, Edward was given as wife a woman named Edith, the daughter of the mightiest of the Saxon earls, Godwin of Wessex. In turn, Edward gave her brother, Harold, the earldom of East Anglia. It was then that the pleasantries abruptly ceased. Edward sent his bride to a nunnery and the rest of the scheming Godwins into exile.

Freed from their influence, Edward enjoyed some independence and openly adopted the delicate Norman courtly practices and customs he was accustomed to. With generous and gentle intent, he brought Normans over to rule with him and gave high offices to his family members, some of whom were of dubious character, remembered with titles such as Ralf the Timid and William the Bastard.

Even the Saxons who were glad to see the cunning Godwins cast out grew uneasy. But Edward the Confessor was of simple mind and simple faith and concerned himself with procuring holy relics and building a great abbey church before heeding the Saxon murmurings.

Finally, Godwin and his sons sailed up the Thames in defiance of the devout king, and Edward’s fleet failed to engage. The king surrendered in disgrace, keeping to the nonviolent path that eventually earned him his title of confessor. Harold, Godwin’s son, assumed military command and forced Edward to release Edith, his sister, from the convent. He acquiesced and lived with that poor woman of the Godwin line in a fruitless union.

Reduced to a royal lame duck, Edward the Confessor focused his attentions on the glorious church he was building over the Thames, Romanesque in style, just like the architecture Edward knew and loved in Normandy. Known today as Westminster Abbey, Edward’s project was the largest church—in fact, the largest structure—in all of Anglo-Saxon England at the time. Westminster Abbey eventually became the place where all royal affairs with the Lord were conducted, including coronations and burials.

Edward the Confessor’s abbey is his greatest legacy, a place sacred to English history and ceremony. So it stood, and so it stands, lofty and magnificent, erected under the direction and inspiration of a king who could only blunder or slink in his own kingdom, for his virtues as a man of God outshone his virtues as a statesman.

The king ended his days quietly, living where the House of Parliament stands today, reading the Bible, praying the Divine Office with monks, and doing penance for his sins. Even before his death, rumors of his goodness, rather than reports of his incompetence, began to spread. It was said that those suffering from tuberculosis were healed under his hand, which began a longstanding tradition of English kings laying their hands on those suffering from this disease that came to be called the King’s Evil.

However pale in complexion he might have been, Edward was a man of ruddy and robust faith, who showed a bias to the people he thought should rule England, though England thought otherwise. Edward is a saint of “Merrie England,” but he wasn’t one who made England particularly merry. Nevertheless, he confessed a truth that remains worthy of confessing, even if he was an awkward child of God.

He was, in the end, a man of peace, for all his violent clumsiness and well-intentioned infuriating efforts to rule, and in his good-heartedness, he is remembered as a worthy advocate for the Faith.

G.K. Chesterton sums up the paradox of Edward the Confessor in his Short History of England thus:

When we turn from the destructive to the constructive side of the Middle Ages we find that the village idiot is the inspiration of cities and civic systems. We find his seal upon the sacred foundations of Westminster Abbey. We find the Norman victors in the hour of victory bowing before his very ghost. In the Tapestry of Bayeux, woven by Norman hands to justify the Norman cause and glorify the Norman triumph, nothing is claimed for the Conqueror beyond his conquest and the plain personal tale that excuses it, and the story abruptly ends with the breaking of the Saxon line at Battle. But over the bier of the decrepit zany, who died without striking a blow, over this and this alone, is shown a hand coming out of heaven, and declaring the true approval of the power that rules the world.

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