Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2014/30 posted by hidden europe on

Today is an ordinary working day, though if history had taken a different turn, October 13 could so easily have become a national holiday in England. Many of the men and women who have occupied the English throne in the last 1000 years have aspired to sainthood. But only one of them has ever actually been canonised, namely Edward the Confessor, whose feast day is celebrated in both the Catholic and Anglican Church today.

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Dear fellow travellers

Tothill Street, in the heart of Westminster, and it's just like any other Monday. Busy, busy, busy. Office workers scurry for lunch - for in London everyone rushes hither and thither, even if they have all the time in the world.

Today is an ordinary working day, though if history had taken a different turn, October 13 could so easily have become a national holiday in England. Many of the more than four dozen men and women who have occupied the English throne in the last 1000 years have aspired to sainthood. One or two surely thought they had already achieved sainthood. But only one of those kings and queens has ever actually been canonised, namely Edward the Confessor.

In the years after Edward's death in 1066, a modest cult developed around the late king. But early petitions for Edward's canonisation fell on deaf ears in Rome - in part, perhaps, because England's post-Conquest Norman monarchs were unwilling to endorse a very English piety. But the Angevins inclined to a more positive view of Edward and, with the support of Henry II, the late monarch was made a saint of the Roman Catholic Church in 1161.

Just over 100 years later, Edward's mortal remains were moved to a splendid new tomb in a rebuilt Westminster Abbey. That took place on 13 October 1269. And thus it is that today, the anniversary of the translation of Edward's relics, is marked in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions as the Feast of St Edward the Confessor.

Henry II established an annual fair on Tothill Fields - an area of meadows and coppice woodland long since gobbled up by an expanding city. Few Londoners who today wander down Tothill Street give much thought to local history. But this area was the site of the annual Edwardtide Fair, a 15-day event held each October, which brought a bit of a buzz to Westminster. It gave a boost to the coffers of Westminster Abbey as the authorities levied a tax on sales at the fair - and they ensured that business was brisk by banning all other shops in Westminster from opening for an entire fortnight.

Cast back 700 or 800 years, and Edward was a patron saint in the making. It was only later in the 14th century that Edward III developed a strong affection for St George, a soldier in the Roman Army who came to an unhappy end in or around 303 AD. St George was the stuff of legend, a man so surrounded by myth and uncertainty that he could easily be moulded into a hero for any nation. It is no surprise perhaps that a fifth of the world's population live in territories that look to St George for patronage. But he had no connection whatsoever with England.

So a very English saint was sidelined, condemned to play second fiddle to St George. Churches were renamed. Even the royal chapel at Windsor Castle, hitherto named in honour of St Edward, was rededicated to St George.

Yet among English Catholics and Anglicans alike, Edward the Confessor maintains a certain following. He is a useful starting point for dialogue between the two Christian traditions - an issue on which they both agree. When Pope Benedict XVI visited London in 2010, he prayed at the tomb of Edward the Confessor. Benedict was the first instance of a Roman Pontiff entering Westminster Abbey (which since the Reformation has been Anglican). Each year, the abbey reminds us of Edwardtide in mid-October with a series of liturgies which recall the life of this most English of all saints. Edwardtide runs for seven days from today. It is a season to reflect on the man who was nudged aside as England's patron saint.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.