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Peterborough lecture celebrates England’s saintly king

St Peters and all Souls has hosted a lecture on St Edward the Confessor by Oliver Wessex, a young and upcoming historian.

Fr Adam Sowa MS organised the event on February 7 in the parish hall. About 20 parishioners and young people benefited from the visual presentation on the life and legacy of the saint, who lived from 1002 to 1066.

Edward of Wessex, also known as Edward the Confessor, was born in Islip, Oxfordshire, and went on to become the third to last Anglo–Saxon King of England, reigning from June 8, 1042 to January 5, 1066. Interestingly, his reign has been the subject of much debate among historians. It lasted 24 years, with historians spilling much ink on the matter for almost a millennium.  

In the popular accounting, Edward is seen as other worldly and overly pious. This has led one camp of historians to argue that Edward’s reign saw the collapse of the prestige of the once-mighty English monarchy and the growth of civil strife. He had no children and thus there were no heirs to his crown. Meanwhile, the English nobility of the time became petty and through infighting risked the future of the country.

So why was he canonised? Pope Alexander III decided to canonise him in 1161, more than a century after his death. The Pope knew him for his deep Christian piety, with a strong commitment to prayer and Holy Mass. In addition, the Pope’s mind was reassured by many reported miracles and canonisation petitions written by the monks of Westminster.

The lecturer argued for a fresh view of Edward as a competent and skilled ruler. He promoted stability and peace, ensuring that the powerful noble families of the kingdom kept their rivalries at bay, often under very stressful and trying times. The King himself led the English forces under the threat of Viking invasion in the 1040s. He strengthened the authority and the prestige of the House of Cedric, his dynasty, after the turmoil that came from several Danish invasions in his lifetime.

His reign and the wider debate around it remain complicated. He died suddenly in January 1066 while he was in his sixties as a result of stress, leading to a royal succession crisis. He had hoped his grandnephew Edgar Ætheling of Wessex would succeed him. However, there emerged a power struggle among various claimants for his throne, like Harold Godwinson, who fought to be appointed by ‘the Witan’, the council of nobles.

Another claimant, William, Duke of Normandy, stated that he was the rightful heir, as he said that Edward had promised him the crown before his death. Therefore, William invaded England in September 1066, sparking the Battle of Hastings, in which Harold was killed and William emerged victorious. Consequently, William was crowned king of England on Christmas Day in 1066, by the tomb–shrine of the saintly Edward the Confessor.

Edward’s greatest gift to England was the building of Westminster Abbey, which he ordered and just completed in his lifetime. It remains one of the most beautiful churches in the land, and Westminster has remained the spiritual and political capital of England. His feast day on October 13 is very much forgotten by the English people and has fallen to the rank of an optional memorial. The lecturer concluded that he deserves better.

Saint King Edward the Confessor, he said, is the embodiment of what it means to be a Christian ruler and an English Catholic. “I shall not die, but shall live,” said the saint on his deathbed. “Departing from the land of the dying, I hope to see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living.”