BBC History Magazine

England’s holy hardman

Think of Edward the Confessor, and you’ll probably imagine an old, grey king, approaching death. This is how we see him depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, in iconography inspired by his saint’s cult, and in TV dramatisations of the Norman conquest. We think of Edward the saint, preparing his soul for heaven, and we regard his reign as a prelude to the more exciting events of 1066. Like Charles Dickens, in his A Child’s History of England, we quickly pass over “the dreary old Confessor” to get to “the brave Harold”. Edward has become linked in our minds with the decline of Anglo-Saxon England, Harold to its final defence. Yet Edward’s reign is the key to many mysteries, including how England came to be conquered.

Reputations can be misleading. It can take centuries for historians to rewrite them. It was Edward himself, or his courtiers, who planted the idea that he was a holy king who worked miracles. This boosted his mystique. Later, his image was reshaped by medieval monks who wanted to portray him as one of their own. Reinventing him as a ‘Confessor’ (a saint who ‘confessed’ the faith by virtuous living), they created a cipher who was revered by pious monarchs, notably Henry III. Edward came to be seen as an otherworldly king, more interested in preparing his soul for heaven than in governing England. The idea soon grew

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