Sunday, 1 November 2009

The Cloud of Witnesses

On this All Saints Day, I want to write about one of my favourite saints, Edward the Confessor. I meant to write about him a few weeks ago, on his feast-day, October 13th, but flu got in the way (mine, not his).

It's interesting to consider why some Anglo-Saxon kings were canonised and others weren't. Anyone who was killed violently was an obvious candidate to be a martyr, even if they weren't exactly murdered for their faith; certainly, poor Edmund of East Anglia was killed by those nasty pagan Vikings, but Edward the Martyr was only thirteen when he was murdered, supposedly by his stepmother (the mother of Ethelred the Unready) for political reasons, and he had a reputation for bad temper and rash behaviour, so he is not the most obvious candidate for sanctity.

As Ethelred's son, Edward the Confessor was the nephew of Edward the Martyr, but he was more suited by nature for sainthood than his unfortunate teenage uncle. He was pious and charitable, and since he was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, it is not difficult to understand why post-Conquest kings venerated him. The end of his reign, which led directly to the Norman Conquest, was one of the most important moments in English history, but to understand Edward as a man and a saint it is interesting to consider his early life - before he was a saint, or even a king.

Of course this information comes from various sources, some of which are not as reliable as others, but my excuse for repeating it is that sometimes with medieval history it doesn't actually matter if something is true or not; what matters is that it was said, by someone, for some reason.

Edward was born in about 1003 and spent his childhood in a vulnerable, disintegrating country. His father, King Ethelred, dealt with the persistent scourge of Viking attacks in a number of ways, each as ineffective as the last. His efforts ranged from the feeble (attempts to raise armies who never turned up) to the extremely violent (in the year before Edward was born, he ordered that all the Danes living in England should be killed). His son Edmund Ironside, Edward's older brother, did his best to fight against the invaders, but frequently clashed with his father and disobeyed him. In 1013, Edward and his younger brother Alfred fled with their mother to her homeland of Normandy, while the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard, assisted by his son Cnut, besieged London. Ethelred was forced to surrender and join his family in exile.

Edward's family had ruled Wessex for hundreds of years; to be forced out of England must have been a massive humiliation. There was some back-and-forth over the next few years; Sweyn died and Ethelred was invited back, but soon died too; Edward Ironside ruled for a couple of months, but was eventually forced to cede power to Cnut. Edward, Alfred and their mother Emma remained in Normandy throughout this time of uncertainty and change; they must have wondered if they would ever return to England.

Emma was said to despise her feeble husband. She was a formidable woman; maybe she thought she could have done a better job than Ethelred. Edward is supposed to have been on bad terms with his mother - perhaps she thought he was as weak as his father. After Ethelred's death, Cnut married Emma. It was a marriage of political advantage to them both (peace with Normandy was in Cnut's interests) but it also seems to have been a loving marriage, and in the history Emma commissioned of her life, she shows much more affection for her children by Cnut than for her sons by Ethelred. Despite their mother's remarriage, Edward and Alfred remained in Normandy. Cnut can't have wanted them around; he was a shrewd ruler - of three kingdoms! - and knew better than to have potential Anglo-Saxon heirs to the throne hanging around, even if they were also his step-sons.

This convoluted situation is par for the course among medieval royalty, but it still strikes me as intriguing. Edward was potentially heir to a country he hadn't even been in since he was a young teenager, and from across the Channel he must have seen his mother actively working against his interests in favour of her son by Cnut. No wonder they weren't on good terms... He lived in exile like this for 30 years. He probably never thought he would be king of England, let alone patron saint of the kings of England!

Cnut died in 1035 and after brief reigns by his two sons, Edward at last became king in 1042. As well as being patron saint of the kings of England, he is the patron of troubled marriages: in 1043 he married the daughter of one of the powerful noblemen Earl Godwin. Godwin had been suspected of involvement in the brutal murder of Edward's younger brother Alfred and the king's marriage with Edith was an attempt at reconciliation. The reconciliation succeeded; the marriage did not. It was perhaps never even consummated, and the couple lived separately. Meanwhile, antipathy between Edward and his mother continued: he seized her property, and she seems to have encouraged rebellion against him. He ruled for over twenty years, and then came 1066, Harold (who was Godwin's son and Edward's brother-in-law) and William, and the Norman Conquest.

Edward's public role made him a saint, but it's his personal life which makes him a sympathetic figure to me. I suppose one oughtn't to romanticise, but it seems such a sad life: decades of exile, a failure of a father, a mother who married his father's enemy, a murdered brother, a disastrous marriage... Anglo-Saxon life was not easy at the best of times, but Edward's sounds so unsettled and lonely. It's just sad. And yet he was a virtuous and holy man, who showed the power of God in his life, and he was admired and venerated, and miracles were worked through him. When I hear sermons about how saints are difficult for us to relate to because they are always happy and glorified (and I heard two such sermons today), I think about Edward the Confessor and that hymn which says of the saints:

Once they were mourning here below,
And wet their couch with tears;
They wrestled hard, as we do now,
With sins and doubts and fears.

Well, I can relate to that.

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