Edward the Confessor: The Man and the Legend 

Edward the Confessor: The Man and the Legend.

Fig. 1. Edward the Confessor: The Man and the Legend.

Edward the Confessor: The Man and the Legend, Edited by Richard Mortimer, Hardback, xii, 203 pages, Illustrations, Woodbridge, U.K., The Boydell Press, 2009, £45.00, ISBN 978-1-84383-436-6.

Images of the Anglo-Saxon king, St Edward the Confessor (c. 1005–1066), appeared in English and French stained glass from the 13th century onwards reflecting his status as England’s pre-eminent royal saint during the late Middle Ages. For Vidimus readers eager to learn more about the ‘man behind the glass’, the nine essays in this volume – the product of a conference held at Westminster Abbey in 2005 to commemorate the 1000th year of Edward’s birth – will be welcome on several grounds. They provide both an excellent update to Frank Barlow’s superb life of the Confessor first published in 1970 and break new ground in contextualising the story of his life and legacy. [Fig. 1]

Edward was born c. 1005, the son of the Anglo-Saxon king, Æthelred, pitied in history as ‘the Unready’, and his second wife Emma, the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy. The realm he grew up in was frequently despoiled by Viking (Danish) raiders and in 1013 he and other members of the royal family were forced to flee to Normandy after the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard effectively replaced them. It was the opening shot in a succession of upheavals which saw Sweyn perish within a year, Æthelred restored to the throne only to die two years later, the accession of another Danish king, Cnut (sometimes Canute) who married Edward’s mother and declared their son Hathcnut his official heir, the usurpation of the throne after Cnut’s death by his illegitimate son, Harold Harefoot (reigned 1035–1041), and the beginning of almost twenty-five years in political exile for Edward until he was invited to return to England in 1041 by Harthcnut before finally acceding to his father’s crown in 1042 following his half-brother’s death.

St Edward the Confessor with his ring, York Minster.

Fig. 2. St Edward the Confessor with his ring, York Minster.

During the next twenty-odd years Edward rebuilt St Peter’s Abbey at Westminster (replaced by Henry II in 1245). His death in 1066 prompted the Norman invasion and conquest of England. 

St Edward, Ludlow.

Fig. 3. St Edward, Ludlow.

In 1138 Osbert of Clare, the prior of Westminster, wrote a life of the King citing his miraculous healing powers through the water in which he washed his hands or by the royal touch. Other authors followed, praising his chastity and charity, his qualities as a just and saintly king, the peace he brought to England and his place in a line of saintly royal predecessors. One important legend associated with the king saw him give a large ring to an elderly beggar seeking alms. Several years later two pilgrims who were travelling in the Holy Land were helped by an old man and when he knew they came from England he told them he was St John the Evangelist and asked them to return Edward’s ring to the king. Some stained glass windows show Edward holding his attribute of a large ring, as in the East window of York Minster. The story is depicted in the windows of church of St Lawrence in Ludlow (Shropshire). [Figs. 2 and 3] 

In 1161 Edward was canonized by the Pope and in 1163 a shrine was created in Westminster by Henry II (1133–1189: ruled as King of England 1154–1189) who, as Edina Bozoky’s essay in this book explains, was keen to legitimise the Plantagenet dynasty by ‘linking it to the ancient Anglo-Saxon lineage’. Although Edward’s cult was promulgated by Henry III (1207–1272: ruled as King of England 1216–1272) who named his son after the saint and rebuilt the Abbey in the new gothic style, Edward remained primarily a ‘Westminster’ saint whose cult was confined to the upper class elite, rather than the wider population. Thus the scenes of his life in stained glass made around 1310 in the Lady Chapel of the Benedictine Abbey at Fécamp (Normandy) have been linked to the marital allegiances of England and France under either Edward I or Edward II, while his appearance in the ‘royal window’ commissioned for All Souls College, Oxford, by Archbishop Chichele in the mid-15th century has been seen as part of an attempt to legitimise the Lancastrian dynasty by linking its founder Henry Bolingbroke, who had seized the throne as Henry IV in 1399, to past English monarchs such as Edward.

The first essay in this book examines Edward ‘the man and legend’ and examines how ideas about his sainthood developed in Anglo-Norman England. Next up is Simon Keynes who explores the history of Edward’s childhood and his formative years. Elisabeth van Houts examines his exile in Normandy and new material about his sister, Godgifu, and their relationship to the dukes who protected them. Stephen Baxter suggests that Edward changed his mind about his successor as king on at least three occasions, favouring first William of Normandy, then his great-nephew Edgar the Aethling, and finally, on his deathbed the Anglo-Saxon aristocrat, Harold Godwinson. The last major essay in the book by Pauline Stafford discusses accusations of adultery against Edward’s queen, Edith. Four brief pieces also deserve special mention. Edina Bozoky provides a good survey of Edward’s posthumous cult and canonisation while three essays on the architecture of Westminster abbey by Richard Gem, Eric Fernie and Warwick Rodwell are packed with interesting discoveries. While none mention stained glass, the contribution of the last named includes fascinating information about what may have been the tomb chamber of St Edward between 1163 and the rebuilding of the abbey in the 1240s, now under the Cosmati pavement in the Confessor’s chapel; a number of some inscribed tiles that were used as wall decoration; and a wooden door, certainly the oldest surviving in England, made from timber cut before 1064.

Colin Barker

Further Reading: St Edward the Confessor and Stained Glass

  • Harrison, M., ‘A life of St Edward the Confessor in early 14th-century stained glass at Fecamp, in Normandy’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XXVI, 1963, pp. 22–37
  • Ganderton, E. W. and Lafond, J., Ludlow Stained and Painted Glass. Ludlow: Friends of the Church of St Lawrence, 1961.
  • Hutchinson, F. E., Medieval Glass at All Souls College: A History and Description, Based upon the Notes of the Late G.M. Rushforth, London: Faber & Faber, 1949.
  • Marks, R., Stained Glass in the Middle Ages, London, 1993

Lumen Christi: the Stained Glass Windows of Mount Saint Joseph Abbey 

Lumen Christ: The Stained Glass Windows of Mount Saint Joseph Abbey.

Fig. 1. Lumen Christ: The Stained Glass Windows of Mount Saint Joseph Abbey.

Lumen Christi: the Stained Glass Windows of Mount Saint Joseph Abbey by Laurence Walsh, OCSO, with a foreword by Nicola Gordon Bowe. xviii+256pp. Over 1,000 illustrations, 9” x 12”, Hard cover with dust jacket and bookmark ribbon. Cistercian Press, Mount Saint Joseph Abbey, Roscrea, 2009. Price €50. ISBN 978-1-900163-03-3. Available from the Roscrea website.

This is a lovingly written and beautifully produced book about the stained glass windows at Mount Saint Joseph Abbey, Roscrea, co. Tipperary in the Irish republic. [Fig. 1]

Compiled by the current abbot, it charts the history of the windows, explains the subjects depicted, lists the donors and sheds interesting light on the artists and their relationship with the abbey. 

The Sacred Heart, Early & Powell.

Fig. 2. The Sacred Heart, Early & Powell.

Founded by a group of Cistercian monks in 1878, Mount Saint Joseph Abbey contains some excellent Victorian and early 20th-century stained glass. Between 1881 and 1903 twenty four windows were supplied by the Dublin-based firm of Thomas Earley and Henry Powell; three by Earley’s nephew and heir, John Bishop Earley (trading as John Earley and Earley &Co) and three by John Hardman & Co of Birmingham. Thereafter, a further six were commissioned from Harry Clarke’s studio between 1931 and 1961, and in 2003 two more were made by the Abbey Stained Glass Studio, also in Dublin. [Fig. 2]

Thomas Earley (1819–1893) had been trained by Augustus Welby Pugin (1812–1852) and his Dublin firm had initially been set up as the Irish agents of Hardmans. The windows he produced show strong affinities with Pugin Gothic revivalist designs and colours.

An interesting feature of the early commissions is that Earley often extended generous credit terms to the abbey, supplying windows before he was paid in full. In at least one case the credit line lasted two years. Another interesting detail concerns the design for the triple aspect west window of the church made in 1893 depicting the Virgin Mary with Cistercian saints – male and female. Earley’s design was based on an engraving published in Belgium in 1877 which had been given to him by the Abbot.

The later windows embrace a range of different influences. John Earley’s contributions are less Gothic than his uncle’s; the earliest Harry Clarke (1889–1931) windows made after the artists’s death possibly by Charles Simmonds, are very different to the 1960 designs produced by the same studio. One of the great pluses of this book is that the huge number of illustrations make it possible to compare and contrast these different designs and the evolution of taste and craft they embody in exceptional detail.

Everyone responsible for this excellent publication deserves credit. 19th-century glass remains largely under-appreciated and at mounting risk. Books like this are indispensable in the battle to save this these important legacies.

Patrick Grant

Name that Roundel! Solution.  

The Stoning of the Elders.

Fig. 1. The Stoning of the Elders.

This month’s roundel shows the final act in the story of Susannah and the Elders as told in the Catholic Bible, Book of Daniel, Chapter 13 (the story was regarded as apocryphal by Protestants and thus appears in the English King James’s Bible under Apocrypha). Susanna was a beautiful married woman. Two elders of the tribe secretly spied on her as she bathed. As she left her private garden they tried to blackmail her. Unless she agreed ‘to lie’ with them, they threatened to tell her husband that they seen her committing adultery. When she refused their advances, they kept their threat and testified against her. Just as she was about to be condemned to death, the trial was interrupted by Daniel who cross-examined her accusers individually asking them under which tree in the garden they saw her committing adultery. When one said a mastick tree and the other a holm oak, their lies were exposed. Susannah was acquitted and her accusers were condemned to death.

This month’s roundel depicts their execution – The Stoning of the Elders. [Fig. 1]

This scene is often displayed as a reminder to judge wisely and honestly.

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