St. Eddie

October 13 marks the feast of the translation of St. Edward the Confessor, king of England 1042-66. His death on January 5 opened a three-way struggle for the throne, since he had failed at one of the prime tasks of any medieval king: produce an heir. His brother-in-law Harold Godwinson seized the throne and was crowned king on January 6. Here is the relevant scene from the Bayeux Tapestry:

Here King Edward, in bed, speaks to the faithful. And here he dies. Here they give Harold the king’s crown. Here sits Harold, King of the English. Stigant the Archbishop [of Canterbury presiding].

Harold defeated the Danish claimant Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge (Lincs.) in September 1066, but was in turn defeated by William of Normandy at Hastings (Sussex) in October. Thus ended Anglo-Saxon England.

But just because Edward produced no heir doesn’t mean that we can’t rehabilitate him in some way. A burst of miracles at his tomb inspired people to think of him as holy, and to put the best spin on his childlessness: he was so holy, you see, that he practiced chastity within marriage! That’s why he and Edith didn’t produce an heir!

The monks at Westminster, where Edward was entombed, took to promoting the cult assiduously. The combination of an interested king (Henry II) and a papal schism produced an opportunity for canonization, and once this was achieved the Westminster monks staged a solemn translation of Edward’s relics into a new shrine on October 13, 1162. (“Translation” is used here in its original Latin sense of “carrying across.” A translation ceremony would serve as public recognition of sainthood, and its anniversary would often became more important than the saint’s original feast day, i.e. the day of his death). What is interesting about Edward is that he had two translation ceremonies – Henry III rebuilt Westminster Abbey in the thirteenth century, and built an even nicer shrine for its most famous occupant. Thoughtfully, they also scheduled this one on October 13.

St. Edward the Confessor was never all that popular as a saint, but the English kings certainly enjoyed him, because he bestowed legitimacy on their regime. So there is a lot of propaganda from the royal court referencing St. Edward. Here is the most famous medieval depiction of him, from the Wilton Diptych, painted for Richard II (reigned 1377-99):

Edward holds a ring, which refers to a legendary act of charity he performed: for lack of having any coins, he gave his ring to a beggar who turned out to be John the Evangelist. John later returned the ring to a pair of English pilgrims in the Holy Land.