Biography of St. Edward the Confessor


Stained Glass picture of St. Edward - Victorian lightEdward ruled England from 1042 until his death in 1066. He lived a life renowned for generosity and piety and was considered a gentle and devoted ruler. He was canonized in 1161 and became known as Edward the Confessor. A confessor is a saint who did not die a martyr’s death but whose life proclaimed their faith. St. Edward’s feast day is October 13th.

Edward was born in Islip, Oxfordshire about 1003 and died January 5th, 1066. He was the son of the Saxon King Ethelred II “the Unready” and his second wife Emma, the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy. Ethelred held his throne by the sword, levying heavy taxes (Dangeld) on the people in the hope of bribing the Vikings to leave England in peace.  Ethelred’s marriage to Emma was political, seeking the support of the Normans against the Danish raids.

Edward spent his early years in relative peace at Ely Abbey, one of the richest and most influential abbeys of the time. However in 1013 Sweyn, the king of Denmark, seized the English throne and Ethelred and his family fled into exile. Edward and his brother Alfred were taken to the court of his uncle, Duke Richard II of Normandy, where they were able to grow up in safety. Edward was to spend almost half his life in Normandy and it was to have a huge influence on him. It was here that he made a vow of chastity, served at Masses and developed the reputation of having a saintly character.

Ethelred regained his throne temporarily but died in 1016. Edmund Ironside, Edward’s older stepbrother inherited the kingdom but was soon defeated by the Dane Canute. Emma married Canute and had a son, Hardicanute, who became heir to the English throne. However, when Canute died in 1035 it was his illegitimate son Harold Harefoot who took advantage of Hardicanute’s absence in Denmark and seized power. In 1036 Edward and his brother Alfred tried to seize the throne. Alfred was killed and Edward forced to escape back to Normandy. In 1041, following the death of Harold Harefoot, Hardicanute became king. However he died in 1042, leaving no heir.

Edward had the strongest claim to the throne and his religious reputation made him acceptable to both Saxon and Danish settlers in England. After many decades of fighting in England, Edward’s reign was to be one of almost unbroken peace. He managed the country well, ending the Danegeld and living within the income of his royal estates instead of drawing taxes. He was known to listen to complaints and dispense justice fairly. He even began the royal custom of laying hands on people to cure them of scrofula “the king’s evil”. This tradition carried on for nearly 700 years. However the Norman influence on his life made his Saxon subjects uneasy. Eventually Edward agreed to a political marriage with Edith, daughter of Earl Godwin of Wessex, as long as she accepted that he kept his vow of chastity. Godwin was highly ambitious, at one point his rebellion against Edward led to exile for his whole family, including Edith. Eventually however, to maintain stability in the country, Edward was forced to reinstate them.

While in Normandy Edward had vowed to make a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s tomb in Rome if he regained his kingdom. However, leaving England for that length of time would have destabilised the country, the Pope therefore requested that Edward build a new abbey to St. Peter. Edward rebuilt and enlarged the Saxon abbey in Westminster. “Westminster Abbey” was dedicated just a week before Edward’s death. Edward’s death left England in turmoil. His vow of chastity meant that he died without an obvious heir. The Saxon people rejected his promise of the throne to the Duke of Normandy. Three contenders to the kingdom emerged – Edward’s brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson; the Viking king, Harold Hardrede; and William, Duke of Normandy. Hardrede was defeated by Godwinson at Stamford Bridge. Godwinson died at the Battle of Hastings, leaving William “the Conqueror” to succeed and start the Norman era.

Edward’s reputation for healing the sick continued after his death and in 1161 he was canonized. In 1163 a shrine to Edward the Confessor was created in Westminster Abbey. It became the centre of pilgrimage (King Henry III built a new and costly shrine in 1269) for several centuries. St. Edward was the Patron saint of England until 1415 (succeeded by St. George).