Edward the Confessor Canonised: January 5th 1161

By Cavendish, Richard | History Today, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Edward the Confessor Canonised: January 5th 1161


Cavendish, Richard, History Today


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The king died early in 1066 and was interred in the church of the abbey at Westminster, which he had refounded and to which he had devoted much time, energy and money. His piety is not in doubt, though the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle portrayed him not as a saint but as a strong king. The late Professor Frank Barlow in his classic biography pointed out that the accepted picture of the king for centuries afterwards was entirely different. He was remembered as a devout weakling, too obsessed with the matters of the spirit to cope with the real world. This was probably because his death led directly to the Conquest and to the fact that, despite being married to one of the most beautiful women in the country, he had no children by her. It was assumed he had been too holy to have any inclination for the matters of the flesh.

There were reports of miraculous cures at Edward's tomb soon after his burial. In 1102 the tomb was opened and it was found that his corpse had not decayed. The English were reasserting themselves by this time and the Westminster monks may have started to claim Edward as a saint. In the 1120s William of Malmesbury wrote of miracles Edward had performed during his lifetime, including the case of a blind man who regained his sight after his eyes were touched with water in which the king's hands had been washed. Osbert of Clare, prior of Westminster in the 1130s, wrote the lives of several Anglo-Saxon saints and a biography of Edward which presented him as a holy man who could heal people suffering from scrofula by touching them: hence the subsequent tradition of 'touching for the king's evil', which lasted until the accession of George I in 1715.

Osbert believed that he had been cured of fever by the dead king and in 1138 or 1139 he led a deputation from Westminster to Rome to ask Pope Innocent II to canonise Edward. The suggestion was declined. When Henry II became king in 1154, however, he lent his weight to the cause and after Alexander III was elected pope in 1159 with the aid of English votes Henry congratulated him and asked for Edward's canonisation. …

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