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Edward the Confessor and John the Evangelist

Thursday, October 13, 2016 13:23
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St Edward the Confessor, king of England, died on January 5, 1066, after a reign of over 23 years. He is called “the Confessor” to distinguish him from King Edward the Martyr (died 978), another Saint who was very popular in pre-Reformation England. He is the last monarch of England honored as a Saint; Henry VI (1422-71) was the subject of a strong popular devotion, with many miracles attributed to him, but his cause for canonization was broken off at the Reformation, and subsequent attempts to revive it have failed. (This was a favorite subject of the great Mons. Ronald Knox.) The numeration of the English monarchs begins with the Norman Conquest, which took place shortly after, and largely because of, Edward’s death, and therefore neither he nor the Martyr is included in it. (Edward I reigned in the later 13th and early 14th centuries.)

Ss Edward the Martyr, Edward the Confessor and John the Baptist present King Richard II to the Virgin and Child (The Wilton Diptych, 1395.) The Confessor holds a ring in his hand, in reference to the story recounted below.

He was canonized in 1161 by Pope Alexander III, who had a remarkably long reign (one week shy of 22 years), and lived to canonize another very important Englishman, St Thomas Becket. Since he died on the vigil of the Epiphany, which was considered far too important to displace, his feast was assigned to October 13, the day on which St Thomas himself translated his relics from their original place in Westminster Abbey to a shrine in the choir. They were later moved to a different shrine within the abbey behind the altar, where they remain to this day, one of two such shrines in all of England not destroyed by the impiety of Henry VIII and his successors. (The other is of a Saint called Wite of whom nothing is known.) In 1689, the year after the last Catholic monarch of England was dethroned, Bl. Pope Innocent XI extended his feast to the general calendar.

A Catholic Requiem Mass celebrated at the shrine of St Edward in Westminster Abbey in 2013 (from an NLM post by Charles Cole.)

The Sarum Breviary tells a charming story of St Edward and his devotion to St John the Evangelist. While attending the consecration of a church, Edward was approached by an elderly man who asked him for alms in the name of God and of St John. The royal almoner was not present, and having nothing else on him, Edward gave him his ring. Many years later, two English pilgrims in Jerusalem met an elderly man who, on learning where they were from, said to them “I ask you brothers, return to your king, and give him the message which I shall send by you. I am John, the Apostle and Evangelist, and I love the holy king Edward for his chastity, for I know him to be near to God.” He then explained to them how he received the ring from Edward, “which I have kept unto this day for love and reverence for the man of God; I now send it back to him with glory, and within a short time, shall render even more pleasing gifts. For within half a year’s time, he will be clothed as I am in the robe of immortality…”

The pilgrims, cleverly described in the breviary as “apostolic legates”, returned to the king, delivering both the message and the ring. And indeed, St Edward took ill on Christmas night of that year, and by Childermas, was too sick to attend the consecration ceremony of the abbey of St Peter, which he himself had founded and built. The original Romanesque building was replaced by the famous Gothic church now known as Westminster Abbey in the mid-13th century. The only surviving representation of the original church is in the section of the Bayeux Tapestry which shows the body of King Edward being brought into it for burial.

“Here the body of King Edward is brought to the church of St Peter the Apostle.”


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