Translation of St Edward the Confessor 2008
13 October 2008 at :00 am
Geoffrey Chaucer, one of the greatest English poets, who died in the year 1400, is buried in Westminster Abbey. His burial here was not in recognition of his poetry but of his royal service. He was a member of the household of King Edward III’s son John of Gaunt and for a short time clerk of works to the king. At the time of his death his house was within the Abbey precincts. It took two hundred years for the burial places and memorials of the greatest men and women of letters of our island’s history to begin to gather around his tomb. Thus began Poets’ Corner, a place of pilgrimage for poets and actors and artists. Last week, on National Poetry Day, a group of school children from John Clare, a primary school in Peterborough, accompanied by Barry Sheerman MP, chairman of the John Clare Trust, and the actor Patrick Stewart, read poems beside Geoffrey Chaucer’s tomb. They made a pilgrimage to the pilgrim.
Chaucer was a pilgrim. His most famous writings, the Canterbury Tales, are the stories of a mixed group of folk driven from their winter fastness by the sweet April showers and the gentle west wind of spring longing to go on pilgrimage to Canterbury the “holy blissful martyr for to seek.” They left the inn in Southwark and rode or walked the 60 miles East through Kent, the garden of England, to their destination. We can imagine their sense of achievement when they arrived in the city of Canterbury, as they approached and entered the great Cathedral, and crept towards the shrine of the Saint. They were there to venerate Thomas a Becket, a former Archbishop who died a martyr’s death at the altar of the Cathedral on 29th December 1170.
King Henry II, once his great friend, had caused Becket’s death, fearful of his powerful and principled opposition. Almost four hundred years later, in 1538, another Henry, the VIII, once more in English history acting against the church, fearful of the power of the saint’s memory, caused Thomas’s shrine to be destroyed and his name and face erased from the missals and breviaries, the prayer books, of his church. In countless parish churches up and down the land, a line was drawn through the feast of St Thomas a Becket on 29th December and the image of St Thomas was defaced. In Canterbury Cathedral, the shrine was dismantled, the tomb destroyed and the contents dispersed and buried secretly. Two years later the monastery at Canterbury was dissolved. No longer would pilgrims wend their way there the “holy blissful martyr for to seek.”
The monastery here at Westminster was dissolved by King Henry VIII in the same year, 1540. But the king had no animus against his royal and holy predecessor, Edward the Confessor, and in any case the monks had taken the precaution of removing the body from the Shrine behind the high altar to a secret place. The saint’s body was restored to the Shrine when the monastery was restored under the king’s elder daughter Queen Mary I and has remained there ever since. St Edward the Confessor is the only English saint who can still be venerated at the site of his intact medieval Shrine. On this his feast day, we come to venerate the saint, as pilgrims to his shrine, much as other pilgrims through the ages. Chaucer’s pilgrims had the travel bug, and indeed many of them seem to have travelled great distances; they looked for excitement and drama in their lives; but they also sought the heavenly and spiritual assistance of the saint to alleviate the hard conditions of their earthly life. Perhaps some of us too have travelled great distances in the search for interest and drama. But gathered here at the Shrine of Edward the Confessor, we come also to ask the prayers of the saint, to gain encouragement from his life and example and to be assisted in our own greater pilgrimage through this life to heaven.
One website claiming to give young people accurate historical information about Edward the Confessor claims that “the Confessor” was a nickname, implying that it was one he earned in his lifetime. For all I know the misguided authors think he was so bad that he needed to go to confession often; or perhaps so good that he was hyper-conscious of sin. In fact, “confessor” is an ancient category of saints: some saints are apostles; others martyrs; others evangelists; other virgins; yet others confessors. A “confessor” in this categorisation is one who has lived a holy and virtuous life and been an “ensample of godly living” but who has not suffered martyrdom, in other words given his life for his faith.
The word “confession” is commonly used to refer, as I implied earlier, to confessing our sins. But it also carries a similar meaning to the modern word “profession”. So we might say of St Edward the Confessor that he confessed, or we might say professed, his faith and lived it out in his daily life. We can see the word in use in the verse from the letter to the Hebrews [3:1] with its instruction to the believer to “look to Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our Confession.” The Greek word translated “confession” implies being of the same understanding, the same mind as Jesus. So we could say that the example the Confessor sets us is one of having the same mind-set as Jesus, looking at things the way Jesus looks at them, living according to the example Jesus sets.
The historians seem divided on whether Edward was a good or a bad king. It is hard for us at this distance to make that kind of judgement, even if it were right to do so. It would smack a little of 1066 and All That. For us, Edward’s rebuilding of the Abbey and the building of his Palace right beside it is evidence enough that he sought to model his life and his reign on the example of Jesus Christ. So he was a true confessor and remains a model for us, “an ensample of godly living.”
As we make our pilgrimage to his Shrine, the “holy blissful confessor for to seek”, may we be inspired by Edward the Confessor’s example and aided by his prayers to “let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus.” I pray that for each of us our pilgrimage to the Shrine of St Edward might be a type of our earthly pilgrimage: that as we come to this holy place and receive here a foretaste of heaven, so our life’s pilgrimage here on earth may end as we believe it ended for Edward the Confessor in all the joy and glory, the bliss, of heaven.