The Catholic Church in England has a history rich with beauty and ugliness, wonders and horrors, saints and scandalous sinners. This long, storied history stretches back into the mists of time, and at times is more nebulous than clear. However, one of the many bright beacons in the distant, dark past of this nation’s Church, is St. Edward the Confessor, king of England and saint of the poor. St. Edward was a model of unity, combating divisiveness in his kingdom and recognizing the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the fundamental unifying principle.
Edward was born sometime between 1002 and 1005, son of King Aethelred II “the Unready” and Queen Emma. During his formative years, Edward reportedly preferred to assist at the Mass and lose himself in prayer to the typical pleasures and dalliances of royalty. The Christian faith that had been fostered in Edward would help him get through many trying years that were to come.
Upon the death of Aethelred II, several Danish kings ruled England, and Edward, his brother, and his mother were sent to Denmark to be killed. However, they were pitied, and sent to Sweden, and subsequently to the King of Hungary to be cared for. When the boys grew older, they sought refuge in Normandy across the English Channel. It is said that Edward, while in exile in Normandy, pledged to make a pilgrimage to Rome if his family’s seat on the throne was ever re-instated.
Edward was invited to return to England in 1041, and in 1042 he was crowned King of England. Due to his time spent in Normandy, resentment began to grew in his Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and accusations of favoritism abounded. Edward was, by his actions, forging a unity between the Anglo-Saxons and Normans, but a unity that would take much time to be brought to fruition. A further attempt at unity was made when Edward married the daughter of Goodwin of Wessex, who was a sort of leader of the resentful, in 1045. Their union produced no children, and they are reported to have lived such ascetic lives that they even lived “as brother and sister.”
However, the lack of heirs produced by the marriage would lead to one of the most dramatic series of events in English history. Goodwin’s son Harold lay claim to the throne following Edward’s death, as did William of Normandy. A great war was waged, and in the end, in October 1066, William prevailed, and England became no longer an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, but a Norman kingdom with Anglo-Saxon constituents. Years later, Edward would become a sort of beacon of unity in the quest to keep England from tearing apart at the seams.
Whence the moniker “the Confessor”? Edward was universally recognized as someone who had led a saintly life, and whose example was one to be emulated. While he did not die a martyr’s death, he was a holy man who lived the Word of God and the Gospel calling of Jesus Christ. As such, he was given the title “the Confessor,” acknowledging him as one who expressed and lived a profound Christian faith, and distinguishing him from an earlier king, Edward the Martyr, who reigned from 962-979.
St. Edward was regarded as the patron saint of England until 1348, when King Edward III adopted St. George as the nation’s patron. However, he remains the patron saint of the English royal family, through numerous changes of royal house and dynasty.
The England of St. Edward the Confessor is an England very different from what most of us associate the nation with. Edward was king prior to the invasion of William the Conqueror and the Normans in October 1066, an invasion which brought French influences from the continent to the island nation. These continental influences over time helped to shape England into the land we know today. St. Edward was one of the last kings of pre-conquest England, and his influence extended well beyond the invasion that divided the country.
One of Edward’s long-lasting influences is writ in stone and stained glass, and reflected in every English coronation and countless other historical royal events. Edward’s pledge of pilgrimage did not come to fruition, although the fortunes of his family had indeed been reinstated. He was advised that it would be imprudent for the king to be so long away from his country. As an alternative, however, Edward took the money that was to be spent on his pilgrimage, and spent it on the poor, and the building of Westminster Abbey. The Abbey was rebuilt in the thirteenth century, and still stands today as a startlingly beautiful monument to the glory and grandeur of God, as well as the piety and faithfulness of medieval Catholic England – in particular, St. Edward the Confessor.
King Henry II of England, perhaps best known for his friendship and rivalry with St. Thomas Becket, encouraged the cult of Edward, pushing for his canonization. Edward was canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1161. Henry saw Edward as a symbol of unity between the feuding Norman and Anglo-Saxon factions in England. Edward was of Anglo-Saxon pedigree but having spent a great deal of time in Normandy and having Norman family. During the reign of Henry II, who was a Norman with no such Anglo-Saxon connections, the feuding between the two groups grew worse, and Henry pushed for the canonization of Edward, so that he could be lifted up as a model of this unity, an example that the country could follow. It is this model of unification that perhaps will allow Edward to speak to us today.
Perhaps Edward can be considered a patron saint for Christian unity. As noted above, part of King Henry II’s motivation for advancing the cause of Edward’s canonization was to unite the disparate camps following the Norman invasion of England – the Norman and the Anglo-Saxon. But this is not the only rift which Edward has managed to bridge. He is a saint that is recognized, revered, and honored by both Catholics and Anglicans. While his feast is celebrated on different days (October 13 in the Catholic Church, January 5 in the Anglican Communion), the reverence that is afforded this great saintly king is certainly common between these Christians.
Edward lived hundreds of years prior to the English Reformation. In the England of Edward’s day, there was but one Christianity, a unified cultus of Jesus Christ. Edward was a strict adherent to this faith, and a passionate defender of it. Being a revered saint of such a Church, perhaps Edward can help us recognize what is held in common between Anglicans and Catholics, and be seen as an example of what the Catholic Church in England can and should look like.
In recent decades, there has been a great movement toward unity on the part of the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, made great strides forward in this effort. The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission has released numerous joint statements, identifying and elaborating on points of doctrine which are shared between the two groups. Statements have been released on many doctrines, including the Eucharist, ordination, Mariology, ecclesiastical authority, salvation, and communion. These statements are intended to reflect and emphasize common beliefs between Anglicans and Catholics, and are important stepping stones in the road towards unity.
This Commission is a tool in fulfilling the call of Jesus Christ “that they may be one” (John 17:21). This is a wish and a command of our Blessed Lord, and St. Edward the Confessor can be an ideal patron, a model of unity and a holy intercessor on behalf of Christian unity.