St. Edward the Confessor was the patron saint of Father Edward Sorin, CSC, the founder of the University of Notre Dame. As a tribute to his patron, Fr. Sorin established St. Edward’s Hall in 1882 and it remains as the oldest residence hall on campus. It has become a University tradition to remember and celebrate the lives of these two individuals during Founder’s Day, which is celebrated throughout the week that includes October 13, the feast of St. Edward the Confessor.This modern devotion continues an ancient tradition of celebrating the life of a pious king – a tradition that has survived the test of time and was the result of royal and papal intrigue.
St. Edward the Confessor was born in 1003 at Islip, Oxfordshire to the Saxon king, Ethelred III, and his Norman queen, Emma. Life in England during this period was plagued by war, invasion and a grueling existence typical of medieval Europe. The future of European thrones was uncertain and they were often awarded to the strongest military leader. Edward defied these characteristics of his time.
At the age of ten, Edward and his older brother, Alfred, were sent to live in Normandy with their uncle after a successful Danish invasion, which resulted in the conquest of England and the marriage of their widowed mother to the victorious Canute, leader of the Danish invaders. Edward spent half of his life in Normandy, and subsequently adopted many Norman traditions and forged lasting bonds with the Norman elite. It was said of Edward, that during his time in Normandy, he abandoned his ambitions of ascending to the throne of England and instead, preferred to “spend his time assisting at Mass and the church offices, and in association with religious.” This created a lasting piety and devotion to the Church in the future English king. Edward even took a perpetual vow of chastity, which he maintained throughout his life. In 1042 the death of the last Danish king, Hardicanute, reopened Edward’s chance to become king of England. With the support of the powerful Earl Godwin, Edward was popularly acclaimed king and asked to return to claim his father’s throne. Edward married Godwin’s daughter, Edith, on the condition that she honor his vow and that they would have no children.
Edward’s role as king through divine right made him a special emissary of God and protector of the Church. His own deep religious feelings would propel him into the official canon of saints. Edward’s rule was one of peace in a time of war. He was said to be a just ruler and a peacemaker. Edward repealed burdensome taxes on his people including the Danegelt, which was a bribe paid to pacify marauding Vikings, and the tax to furnish the personal needs of the court. He instead used funds raised from his own estates. Edward gave away large sums of money to the poor and for religious purposes, especially the founding of churches and abbeys. The most famous of these is Westminster Abbey, which was dedicated just a week before his death in 1066. It was thanks to the monks of this abbey that their patron would become an official saint of the Catholic Church.
Many holy men and women are proposed for consideration as saints of the Church. Few, however, reach this accomplishment. It is true that Edward was the beneficiary of good timing and devoted followers, but he was also a very deserving candidate. Along with his aforementioned pious Christian leadership, reminiscent of such holy men as John the Almsgiver, many miracles were attributed to his intervention both in this life and the next. Edward was said to have the gift of prophesy. There were several instances where he predicted the outcome of battles or royal conflicts. The most prominent is his vision of Svein junior, king of Denmark, drowning when embarking to invade and conquer England. It was also said that Edward, along with Earl Leofric of Mercia, saw Christ in person while attending Mass at Westminster. Edward’s list of miracles also includes several other colorful accounts. In one description, Edward cured an Irish cripple, by the name of Gillomichael, by carrying him on his back from his palace to Westminster abbey on the orders of St. Peter, to whom Edward had a strong devotion. The most well known miracle, or at least the most depicted in artwork, is the story of the ring that Edward gave to St. John the Evangelist. In the account, while dedicating a church to St. John, Edward gives a ring to a beggar who in fact, is St. John in disguise. Eventually, the ring was returned to Edward by pilgrims who were lost on the way to Jerusalem and guided back to safety by St. John. It is interesting to notice the frequent ties to Edward’s miracles and Westminster, the primary beneficiary of his sainthood. This helps to demonstrate the intense interest of the abbey in the spread of Edward’s notoriety.
Entrusted with absolute power, Edward could have been a cruel tyrant like many of his peers and predecessors. However, he proved to be a Christ-like sovereign for his kingdom. He strove for peace and avoided bloodshed if at all possible. He cared for his subjects both temporally with alms and spiritually by building churches and abbeys. Edward also lived a devout and pious personal life that extended as far as to take a vow of celibacy, thus leaving no heirs. This fervent vow was a sincere religious sacrifice, but it lead to Edward’s greatest criticism. Along with his predisposition to Norman ways, having spent much of his life in Normandy, Edward is often criticized for leaving the monarchy weak and vulnerable upon his death. Edward was succeeded by Harold, who ruled only for a short period. William the Conqueror killed Harold at the famous Battle of Hastings and claimed the English crown not even a year after Edward’s death. This ushered in the Norman rule of England and the end of the Saxon kings.
Despite this possible black mark of history, Edward is better remembered for his prudent rule and pious nature. Laurence of Westminster, Ailred of Rievaulx, Thomas Becket and Henry II celebrated his canonization. He was the favorite saint of Henry III and continues to be a popular model of Christian government. Modern leaders can still look to St. Edward the Confessor as an archetype for personal piety and magnanimous use of power. And perhaps next year the men of St. Edward’s Hall will add a special prayer for Henry II and the monks of Westminster in thanksgiving for the role they played in obtaining Edward’s sainthood.