In a shrine at the heart of Westminster Abbey is the tomb of Edward the Confessor, king and saint. The magnificent chapel where he lies, is not, though, his original resting place.
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Edward, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, was born in Islip, Oxfordshire, sometime between 1002 and 1005AD, the eighth son of King Ethelred 'the Unready' and Emma.
He was driven into exile in Normandy by the Danes and vowed that should he ever return safely home, he would make a pilgrimage to Rome in thanks. After 28 years in France, he was eventually invited to return to England. He succeeded his half-brother Harthacnut and was crowned in Winchester Cathedral in 1043.
Once on the throne, however, Edward found it impossible to leave his subjects and the Pope released him from his vow on condition that he should found or restore a monastery to St Peter. Having established his new Palace of Westminster on the banks of the river Thames, Edward chose to fulfil his vow by re-endowing and greatly enlarging a Benedictine monastery which stood nearby. The monastery had been founded some hundred years earlier, in 960AD, under the patronage of King Edgar and St Dunstan. The large stone church he built, dedicated to St Peter the Apostle, became known as the ‘west minster’ to distinguish it from St Paul's Cathedral (the east minster) in the City of London.
Edward’s new church was consecrated on Holy Innocents’ Day, 28th December 1065, but the king was too ill to attend and died just a few days later, on 5th January 1066. The burial procession from Westminster Hall to the Abbey, where prayers were said all day and the following night, is shown on the Bayeux Tapestry. He was buried the following day, 6th January - the Feast of the Epiphany - before the High Altar of the church that he had built. There he rested for almost one hundred years until, on 13th October 1163, St Edward's body was moved – or translated – to a shrine specially prepared for it in the church.
The king’s piety had greatly endeared him to his people and he came to be regarded as a saint long before he was officially canonised as Saint and Confessor by Pope Alexander III in 1161. The term 'Confessor' applies to those who have suffered for their faith but who were not martyred.
He was associated with legends including a story from towards the end of his life. Edward was riding by a church in Essex and an old man asked for alms. As the king had no money to give he drew a large ring off his finger and gave this to the beggar. A few years later two pilgrims were travelling in the Holy Land and became stranded. They were helped by an old man and when he knew they came from England he told them he was St John the Evangelist and asked them to return the ring to Edward telling him that in six months he would join him in heaven. The story is one of fourteen scenes from the king’s life – real and legendary – carved on a mid-15th-century stone screen in the Abbey. Also shown are his birth, his coronation, Christ appearing to Edward at Mass, and the dedication of a church, assumed to be the Abbey.
Edward’s 11th-century monastery stood for some two hundred years until 1245 when King Henry III began building a much grander Abbey in honour of St Edward, to whom he was especially devoted.
The new church was consecrated on 13th October 1269, when Edward’s remains were once again moved, this time to a new shrine behind the High Altar. Henry, his brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall, and his two sons bore the coffin on their shoulders in a solemn procession.
Henry had lavished huge sums on the church. The cost of the shrine alone was £45,000 or around £15 million in today’s money. It was richly decorated with Cosmati mosaics, the work carried out by Italian craftsmen led by Pietro di Oderisio.
Such was Henry’s devotion to St Edward, that following his death in 1272, he was buried in a Purbeck marble tomb in the Confessor’s chapel. A further four kings and four queens were later buried here too, including Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, Richard II and Anne of Bohemia, and Henry V.
A cult of St Edward had grown up and until he was superseded by St George in the 14th-century, many regarded Edward as the patron saint of England. The sick made pilgrimages to the shrine and knelt in the recesses to pray for healing – a tradition which continues to this day.
Every year, the Octave of St Edward is celebrated in the Abbey from 13th - 18th October. A national pilgrimage to Edward's shrine is held, attracting worshippers from across the United Kingdom and further afield, all of whom come to experience the beauty of the Abbey in an atmosphere characterised by prayer. The celebrations in 2019 were particularly significant, marking as they did the 750th anniversary of Edward’s translation and the dedication of Henry III’s Abbey. Pilgrims had the opportunity to venerate a new icon of St Edward, written by the Orthodox Russian iconographer Archimandrite Zinon (Teodor), which was dedicated and placed in the shrine.
Although COVID-19 restrictions mean that the 2020 pilgrimage is reduced in scale, worshippers will nonetheless have an opportunity to visit the shrine, continuing a centuries-long tradition of prayer and devotion.
St Edward’s burial in the Abbey, the coronations and burials of many of his successors, together with commemorations of people of national and international significance have led to Westminster Abbey becoming a unique place of prayer and thanksgiving as well as pilgrimage.
The biggest challenge we face is maintaining such a large physical collection of material within a historic building – believe it or not, there’s just not enough space for it all.