Historical Lectures and Addresses/Saint Edward the Confessor

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Saint Edward the Confessor  (1896) 
by Mandell Creighton
An address delivered in Westminster Abbey on the Festival of the Translation of St. Edward the Confessor, 13th October, 1896.

We are met to-day to commemorate the founder of this great building, so closely connected with all the history of our race and nation. It is natural that we should ask ourselves if, in so doing, we are merely gratifying a vague sentiment, or indulging in harmless antiquarianism. "Everything," it may be said, "has a beginning; but that beginning has little real connexion with the results which have followed from it. Accident has developed and given shape to some undertakings, a shape unforeseen by him who gave the first impulse. It is futile to give him credit for what he never intended." We must admit the limits of human foresight; but no man ever embarked upon a great monumental work without some idea to inspire his effort. A founder may have nothing new to say. He is possessed of an idea which is common to many. What is peculiar to him is the conviction that the idea is true and therefore imperishable; he wishes to give it a form which later times may better if they can. Men have different modes of expressing themselves and impressing their message on the world. Some labour at affairs as statesmen or men of business; some increase human knowledge; some speak through the medium of literature and art; some create educational institutions; and some leave behind them monumental buildings. But all alike must be convinced of the greatness of what they are doing, of its possibilities in the future, and of its inherent power. All of them are more or less animated by the spirit of the founder of one of the colleges at Cambridge, who, when challenged about the object of his foundation answered, "I have set an acorn which, when it becomes an oak, God only knows what may be the fruit thereof".[1]

Perhaps in an ordinary way we do not sufficiently recognise the value of great buildings as a means of inspiring great ideas and keeping alive a sense of the nobility of life. Yet surely nothing appeals so directly and so powerfully to every one alike. Try to imagine London without this Abbey and the Houses of Parliament on this site, and you will dimly realise what I mean. Travel in new countries which have no memorials of an historic past, and you find your mental atmosphere entirely changed. Somehow or other you think on a lower level. Places have characters of their own which influence you in spite of yourself. And if you carry your investigation far enough you will find that that character was the creation of some individual mind, susceptible, of course, to the influences which were at work around it, but giving them conscious form, and so making a decided mark which determined future development. The character impressed upon its capital is a great factor in a nation's growth. The site of the capital is decided by its natural advantages; but the use made of the site, the ideas which it is made to express—these are a permanent element in the national life, which somehow responds to the demands made upon it by an outward symbol of its dignity and greatness.

If this be so, I think we must recognise the Abbey and Palace of Westminster as the group of buildings which, with their surroundings, are the most expressive monument of England's life in the past, and of its aspirations in the present. They rank, and will rank for ever, with the Acropolis of Athens or the Capitol of Rome: not, it may be, so distinctive, not so clearly cut—for that is not England's characteristic—but equally expressive. It is natural for us to commemorate the man who first gave this site its definite form, and impressed upon it the character which it has ever since retained. He certainly has an imperishable claim upon our remembrance, like all men who devised great things, even though they could not know the greatness which the future had in store. That posterity should have followed in their steps is at least a sign of their foresight and of their just judgment.

We are, I think, further justified in separating men's permanent achievements from all else they did or were, and in interpreting their lives by reference to these, and not to what they might have done. I cannot hold up Edward as a great figure in our national history. He was not fitted for the times in which his lot was cast; he had neither the strong will nor the strong arm needful for a ruler. If he be measured by what he accomplished, the result is scanty. If he be appraised as a king, his reign was inglorious. He was neither a man of counsel nor of action, in days when both were needed. Yet he left behind him a memory which his people venerated, a memory which was a solace to them in times of misery and oppression. Somehow or other he impressed himself on their imagination; and there are periods in national life when the imagination alone remains vital, and cherishes conceptions which may grow in secret till they can again force their way to vigorous and open life. When England fell before the Norman power, it was not in the recollection of the statecraft of Godwine or the bravery of Harold—pure English as they were—that the English temper took refuge, but in the simpler and more intelligible figure of the well-meaning and gracious king who did little but loved much. It is well to remember this fact, for it calls up thoughts which give us a needful sense of the large meaning of life. When we come to weigh and measure, with our imperfect standards, we necessarily take into account practical capacity and usefulness in affairs. These can be seen and valued. But the qualities which fire the imagination and captivate the heart are diffused and impalpable. We seldom have an opportunity of seizing the general impression produced by a life and character. Only sometimes, at a great crisis, is this definitely realised as a possession which remains, when all sense of practical achievements has passed away. Men catch at this impression—it is the only thing left, and they live in the power of its suggestiveness. A time comes when they wish to hand on that impression to others. Then they attempt to explain it on material grounds, and it is lost in legend, which soon ceases to awaken any response. The original charm evaporates; and subsequent generations, failing to find it in the crude records which remain, disregard it altogether, or explain it away by a process as wrongly mechanical as that which gave it shape. We may be sure that no man was revered without in some way deserving it. It is the wisest plan to try and discover what was the secret of his influence, what was the fragrance attaching to the memory which he left behind.

Edward lived in difficult times, and he was both by education and temperament unable to deal with those difficulties in the practical form in which they were presented to him. Indeed, it is impossible for us to discover the secret of England's helplessness before its Danish conquerors at the end of the tenth century. Perhaps it was greatly due to the fact that progress in civilisation had been too rapid, and changes in the surroundings of social life followed too quickly. The English were not a quick or sharp-witted people. They were solid enough and vigorous, but they needed time to adapt themselves to changes, more time than events allowed. The impulses which they received from without were too rapid and too imperative. Their original institutions, simple in themselves, became complicated from too frequent demands for readjustment. The unity of the nation had come too speedily; the people had not risen to a sense of what it entailed. In the face of an invading foe organization failed; men were helpless because they did not clearly know what was expected of them. The tide of the Danish invasion ebbed and flowed, and there was but a vague sense of national resistance. When Edward came to the throne, he was amongst a people suffering from bewilderment. Their hearts were ready, but their heads were at fault. They were true patriots, and nourished a vigorous national life; but they knew not how to display their patriotism. They had long been destitute of leaders in whom they could trust. The motives of the chief men of this time are hopelessly perplexing, as we do not know enough of the conditions of the time to attempt to explain them. But we see that their motives were mainly personal, and rested upon no clear conception of the public welfare. In fact men asked themselves the question, What is the future of England to be? And they had no clear answer to give. The common folk were without guidance. They wished to live their lives in peace, in the old way; but they had no sense of security and no outward assurance of stability. The lack of "rede," or counsel, was attached as an epithet to the ill-fated Ethelred. England found itself in the hands of a Danish conqueror, it scarcely knew how or why; and though it enjoyed peace and prosperity under his rule, it was not happy. Canute's death brought a renewal of the divisions, the treachery, and the self-seeking which had become too sadly familiar. When the last of the Danes passed away England turned again, with an enthusiasm which sprang from despair, to its old royal house, and welcomed Edward back from exile.

Seldom was one summoned to a difficult position who showed so few signs of fitness. Driven as a child from England, he had been brought up amongst his mother's folk in Normandy. He was a stranger to England and its ways, but at least he had not been a witness of his father's feebleness or his mother's follies. He had lived amid the sterner and more decided men of Normandy, who had a keener practical capacity than had the English, who knew little of hesitation, but steadfastly pursued their ends. Yet Edward took no part in their busy life, and was not affected by their activity and enterprise. He was attracted apparently by the finer side of their civilisation. Through closer intercourse with the rest of Europe the ecclesiastical life of Normandy was more highly developed than that of England. In those days of perpetual warfare, the most effective form of setting forth the Christian temper was in the form of a protest, that is by monasticism. Men despaired of blending the secular and the religious life. All they could do was to provide an expression for the religious life, away from and apart from the world, that its perpetual protest might at least be of some avail. There were places to which men worn out with active service, wearied with the poverty of the world's guerdon, might retire and pray against evils which they were helpless to amend. The only hope of raising society was in maintaining a strong contrast to its common ways. But it is ever more easy to set up a protest than to keep it to its purpose. The forces of the world are always surging round the barriers erected to restrain them. Monasteries of older foundations decayed through prosperity, and ceased to act as a contrast to the world. New foundations were made with more rigorous rules, and more fervent zeal in their first occupants; they were placed in wilder spots and fenced round with greater care. But all was of no avail; and they in their turn were submerged like their predecessors. Yet no better expression of the religious life could be devised; and periods of spiritual movement were always marked by new projects for monasticism. This spirit was working in Normandy in the days of Edward, and took conspicuous shape in the great abbey of Bec, which was so intimately connected with the English Church in later days. It may be that Edward held converse with its knightly founder. Certainly he loved the abbey of Jumièges, and held its abbot as his greatest friend. Perhaps it was there that he learned his taste for architecture, his love of the actual surroundings of a church, his joy in its services.

It was to these things that his mind turned, and we may accept the words which an old poet puts into his mouth as expressing his feelings:—

          When I was young in Normandy,
          Much I loved the holy company
          Of people of religion,
          Who loved only all that was good;
          Especially a monk who led
          A high and heavenly life;
          But two I found there most loyal,
          Wise and spiritual,
          Sensible and well instructed,
          And virtuously disposed.
          Much their company delighted me,
          And through them I amended my ways
          In courtesy, speech, and wisdom.

Indeed all the motives which in those days turned men to religion were operative on the young Edward. He was a stranger and an exile, fatherless and abandoned by his mother. He heard of nothing but tales of misery from his native land; and he was exposed to constant peril from plots against his person, as he was a hindrance to many ambitious plans at home. Again we may follow the poet:—

          News came to me often;
          News of the death of my father,
          News of the marriage of my mother,
          News of Edward my brother,
          Which was worse than the rest,
          News of my nephews
          Who were slain by gluttonous Danes:
          Then of Alfred, my brother, who
          Was destroyed and died in Ely.
          I was watched as a prisoner,
          Nor was I safe even in a monastery.
          Besides God and His Mother I had no
          Comfort, and my lord Saint Peter
          And Saint John the Evangelist.

It was under the penetrating discipline of sorrow that the character of the young Edward was formed. He saw all his relatives one by one swept away by a remorseless destiny; and in his growing solitude he took refuge with God. The land of his birth was to him only the source of unnumbered woes. His lot was bound up with it, and he must do his duty, whatever it might be; but he took no pleasure in the thought.

So when Edward, at the age of forty, was called to the English throne, he came to discharge an office for which he felt no special fitness. He had little of the joy of living left in him: he had no thirst for power; he had no policy which he wished to carry out. A sense of the vanity of life already possessed him, and tinged his character with gentle melancholy. All he hoped for was to keep himself unspotted from the world, and to live worthy of his Christian calling. Politics must settle themselves, for he at all events had no decisive word to speak. He had a few personal predilections, which he wished to indulge; but that was all. Perhaps he did not know how much they involved, how the entire life of a ruler is necessarily interwoven with the fortunes of his people. It was a lesson which he had to learn.

I do not purpose to relate the facts of Edward's reign. I am concerned with explaining why an incompetent king became a national saint and hero. One reason no doubt was that very incompetence. He was like his people in having no answer to give to the difficulties of the present; but he consoled them by pointing to a vague yet glorious future. The statesmen of the time, like the statesmen of all times, were engaged in making the best of things. This is of course a statesman's business; but it is oftentimes a thankless task, especially when there is small hope of combining the people into resolute action. If Edward had possessed capacity and foresight, he would have thought it his duty to devise a policy of his own. But Edward knew that he had neither of these qualities; and he did not attempt to meddle with things which he confessed to be beyond him. He turned to what was within his power. If he could not direct his nation's destinies, he might at least do something to mould the character of his subjects. If he could not help them in the present distress, he might leave behind him a legacy of hope to support them in the dark days which were coming. Some form of reorganisation he saw was imminent; some transformation of the national life, which was feeble, distracted, impotent; so unlike that life which he had quitted in Normandy, a life which was cruel, hard, unlovely, but full of energy and force, which he failed to find in England. A change must come, a new birth of some sort; and the birth-pangs would be severe, men's hearts would fail them, and they would look here and there for succour. Dreamily, languidly, uncertainly, Edward thought of himself as the shadow of a rock in a thirsty land.

Hence he made no effort to form a policy of his own, or to gather a party. Earl Godwine was in power, and Edward accepted him. He took his daughter to wife, and was rejoiced to find in her traces of like-mindedness with himself. But he was a man whose habits were already formed, and who was dependent on companionship. He welcomed old friends from Normandy, to whom he could talk more freely than to the English. He welcomed above all ecclesiastics who could speak of Church matters from a higher point of view than that with which English prelates were familiar. But he was no judge of men, and easily fell under the influence of the most plausible speaker. He did not care to meddle with matters of the State, but in the affairs of the Church he thought he might exercise a wholesome influence. The secular government of England was beyond him, but at least he might do something to raise its Church to a higher conception of practical activity. It was a worthy thought, in itself just and true. We know how large a part was played in the remaking of England by the capacity, intellectual and practical alike, of Norman ecclesiastics at whose head stood Lanfranc. If Edward could have infused new vigour into the English Church by a wise choice of capable leaders, he might have rendered to the England of his day the best and truest service. But Edward, even in his highest practical aims, could not rise to wisdom. He was too indolent to inquire and select. His instruments for a great object were not chosen with a view to the work which they were to do. He merely took the men at hand, those who possessed his ear, who humoured him, and had their own interests to serve in doing so. They thirsted for power, not for ecclesiastical but for secular purposes. They did not strive to identify themselves with England, but to raise a foreign party in favour of Norman influence. The English opinion of one of Edward's bishops in the see of Durham was shortly recorded in the words that "he did nought bishop-like therein". Edward's chief favourite, Robert, Abbot of Jumièges, soon became his adviser, so that men said, "If he declared a black crow to be white, the King would sooner believe his words than his own eyes". Robert became Archbishop of Canterbury, and stirred the King to rebel against the power of Godwine. For a brief period he prevailed; and the old earl who had so long held the chief power in England made way for the scheming Norman prelate. But Godwine returned, and Archbishop Robert fled from the land of his adoption. Edward's attempt to reinvigorate English life through the Church was an entire failure. It was ill-planned and ill-considered. It was dragged into the current of passing events and was stifled in the atmosphere of political intrigue. Exhausted by his one attempt to act for himself, Edward quietly fell back into the power of Godwine and his nobler son. The government of England was practically left in the hands of Harold.

Yet, if Edward could bring no help to England by counsel or by action, if his efforts at ecclesiastical revival ended in disaster, there was still something which he could offer to his subjects, and that was the influence of his life and character. It is not the most capable men who are most impressive, nor the wisest who are most popular. England was helpless, and it may be that men dimly felt that their king represented them only too truly when he meekly and mutely confessed his helplessness. At least he could clothe it with dignity and express it with grace. He could bear it with resignation, and foreshadow a future which he was unable to advance. There was a pathetic charm about this last descendant of the old English line of kings. Well proportioned and stately, with snow-white hair and beard, which surrounded a rosy face of cherubic serenity; with slender, nervous hands, of which the long white fingers were of the delicacy of wax, he had an air of royal distinction. He was dignified in public, and could gracefully relax in private, though he never forgot that he was a king. He was affable and gracious to all, and though he liked to be bountiful he could refuse a request in such a manner as to gratify him who made it. Though gentle and amiable, he had won self-control by discipline; for at times his face would blaze with anger, but he never allowed his wrath to find expression in words. In an age of gross intemperance in food and drink, he set an example of sobriety; and though he appreciated the necessity for a due magnificence on great occasions, he was simple in ordinary life, and was entirely free from vanity. He was compassionate and charitable, and admonished all in power that they should do justice fairly and freely. He was punctilious in his religious duties, but this was not uncommon. What was uncommon was that he was not only present in body at the services of the Church, but that he attended to them. It is noted of him with wonder that he rarely talked at such times unless some one asked him a question. Yet he was no ascetic recluse, for his great delight was in hunting, in which he mixed freely with his people. Moreover, he had a certain quaint humour, which men scarcely understood, but which impressed them and made them think. Thus, one day when he was hunting, a peasant spoiled his sport by throwing down the hurdles which directed the stag into the net. The King was angry, but soon checked himself, and instead of harming the offender, merely exclaimed, "I will do you such an ill turn some day, if I get the chance". In the same way he watched one of his servants pillage his treasure chest, which had been left open in the room while he slept. Twice the thief made away with as much as he could carry; when he came a third time the King startled him by the remark, "Make haste, for the treasurer is coming; if he catches you, he will not leave you with a halfpenny". Such sallies as these were remembered at the time, and in later days were the subject of serious comment, which missed their real interest.

A man of such a character was quite outside the ordinary types of the time. He would have been attractive and interesting at any time; he was much more so in his own day. Never since Alfred has there been a king who was at once so homely and so picturesque. Men forgave him that he did little or nothing. What, they may have asked themselves, could he do? But he gave them a sense of repose and trustfulness. He was kindly and compassionate, and men were glad to be reminded that such qualities still had a place in the world. He loved justice and tried to preserve it; and justice is what men understand and love above all else.

It is doubtful if all this would have perpetuated the name of Edward if he had not condensed his general good intentions into a definite act, if he had not been prompted to express them in a memorial which could appeal to the eyes of men. It is the foundation of this great Abbey Church which has kept his memory alive through the ages. If he could do nothing to express his meaning for himself, at least he might leave behind him a monument which others might understand. It is said that Edward's plan of a great foundation near London was in commutation of a vow of pilgrimage to Rome. He well might feel that England needed some conspicuous holy place of its own, which might set forth the basis and the meaning of its national life. He had seen such monuments springing up in Normandy on a scale of magnificence unknown in England. He might at least leave the land of his birth some memorial of his foreign culture—of those vague ideas and aspirations which he was unable to make vital in any reforms of organisation or heightening of intellectual or spiritual standard. Edward's main object is clear from the choice which he made of the site for his foundation. He chose this spot, then lying a little way outside the western gate of London, pleasantly surrounded by green meadows. It was an island of the Thames, and bore the name of Thorney, from the bushes which covered it; and on it stood a little monastery, founded in early times, and dedicated to St. Peter, as the great foundation in the city was dedicated to St. Paul. The monastery was poor, and its buildings were mean. Edward resolved to revive it and house it in splendour. By its side he built a royal palace, where he abode. Thus the chief city of his realm—the centre of commerce and of business—should see, rising just beyond its borders, an abiding symbol of the union of Church and State. In the middle towered the great Church. On one side of it was the abode of men who gave their life to prayer and to the service of God. On the other side was the royal palace; the Bayeux Tapestry depicts it as connected with the Church by a bridge. From the house of God was to come the power and wisdom which alone could give lasting effect to the designs and efforts of the ruler. This was Edward's great conception, and amid the changes of time and circumstances that conception remains as true, as sublime, as penetrating as it was when first it struggled into form.

Of Edward's church scarcely anything is left in the stately structure which has replaced it, and which drew its inspiration from it. But we know that the original building far exceeded anything previously built in England, and marked the beginning of our national architecture. It produced a deep impression on men's minds; for it is true at all times that nothing expresses national self-confidence so much as does the scale and dignity of public buildings. It was just this scale and dignity which Edward introduced into England. He had seen the new style developing in Normandy, and he made use of all that Norman skill and inventiveness had devised. But he built upon a larger scale than was known even in Normandy, and he taught the English people to understand and love the builder's craft. Listen how his church is described:—

          He laid the foundations of the church
          With large square blocks of grey stone:
          Its foundations are deep.
          The front towards the east he makes round,
          The stones are very strong and hard;
          In the centre rises a tower,
          And two at the western front;
          And fine and large bells he hangs there.
          The pillars and entablature
          Are rich without and within;
          At the bases and the capitals
          The work rises grand and royal:

          Sculptured are the stones
          And storied the windows;
          All are made with skill
          Of good and loyal workmanship.

It was Edward's work which set up a new standard to the Normans themselves when they came here. The first impulse came from Normandy, but England at once surpassed its teacher. Englishmen suddenly found a new field opened out for their energies, and wrought with a skill and deftness which enabled them to give back a new impulse to the land whence they first learned. After two generations of efforts unparalleled in the history of architecture, a chronicler could still write: "Edward first built in England a church in the new style, which nowadays all are imitating at great expense". It is true to say that Edward imposed upon posterity a sense of grandeur and dignity which they had not known before.

This was not accidental, for the whole heart and mind of Edward were given to his church. He watched it grow, and saw it rise and speak out what he had not the power to say. He wished to live long enough to see it finished and then to lay his bones within its walls, and his wish was fulfilled. The church was consecrated on Holy Innocents' Day, 1065, but its royal founder was too ill to take part in the ceremony; yet such was his interest in it that he struggled against his malady till he heard the sounds of the chanting, and received the news that the sacred rite was accomplished. Then he fell into a swoon, and lay for some days speechless. He presently rallied and addressed his weeping wife and the friends gathered round his bed. He spoke of a time of evil coming on the land as a punishment for injustice and wrong-doing, but foretold a future restoration. All listened in awe save Archbishop Stigand, who muttered that the old man doted. Then Edward bade farewell to his wife, and commended her to the care of her brother Harold. He received the last sacraments, and then almost immediately he died.

He was buried next day in the church which had just been prepared for his burial-place. Scarce had the joyful psalms of its consecration died away before its walls echoed with Edward's dirge. So close and so immediate was the connexion between the founder and the church which he raised—a connexion which, in spite of all changes, has never been broken. Still the shrine of Edward the Confessor occupies the most honourable place in his Minster of the West.

Men cherished his memory, and the Church ratified their sentiment. We need not stop to examine the ways in which that sentiment displayed itself, or criticise the legends to which it gave birth. Appreciation of the finer forms of thought and feeling was hard to express or justify. The Church set up its system after the pattern of the system of the world, and clothed spiritual attractiveness with the attributes of power. Power of course it had, but it was that of mute intangible appeal, which could not be defined or classified. This was felt to be unsatisfactory; holiness must have its record of definite success, of mastery over the material world. Such a record does not move us nowadays, and we wish that we had more knowledge of the spirit of the man. It is this which I have tried to set before you. Edward was a poet, whose poem was written in stone. "He sang of what the world would be when the ages had passed away." He set up the palace and monastery of Westminster as a symbol of that Divine order which must bring harmony into the world's affairs. Century after century the burghers of London looked out upon it, and learned something of its lesson. Age after age the rulers of England entered upon their high office in the walls of Edward's minster, under the shadow of Edward's shrine. Beside that minster England's business has constantly been transacted. That business was beyond Edward's power; rulers and statesmen have nothing to learn from his achievements. But his gracious spirit, his fine feeling, his love of righteousness, his care for justice—these are qualities which can never be out of date. The world amply recognises and rewards the qualities which it needs for its own purposes. It is the great function of the Church to be the home of men's finer feelings, of their unexpressed aspirations, of their vague searchings after something which they could not compass. These made the atmosphere of Edward's life, and his minster was the result of a conscious effort to hand them on to others, who might win from them the inspiration needed to face life's problems with a bolder spirit in happier times that were to be.


  1. This was said by Sir Walter Mildmay, founder of Emmanuel College.