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The saint who ruled England

St Edward the Confessor's Westminster Abbey

The patron saint of troubled marriages as well as royalty, St Edward is one of only two kings of England to be canonised (the other, Edward the Martyr, was murdered as a boy, almost certainly by the Confessor’s own grandmother in order to place her son Ethelred on the throne).

Edward was born of a difficult union and would go on to form an even more painful one himself; his father was Ethelred the Unready (badly advised), a king who ascended the throne during a period of extreme difficulty forthe Anglo-Saxon state. The Danes, newly converted to Christianity, had become even more of a threat and Ethelred’s policy of paying them off – Danegeld – was a memorable failure. The throne was also divided between different court factions, and a political culture of extreme violence and revenge had developed, which ultimately had disastrous consequences in 1066.

When Ethelred ordered the massacre of Danes in the kingdom, some of whom were settled, integrated and English-born, the Danish warlord Sweyn Forkbeard invaded and forced the king into exile. Within two years both Ethelred and Sweyn had died and the throne shared between their sons Edmund Ironside and Canute, before the former died in mysterious circumstances. Before his death Ethelred had made an alliance with the Normans by marrying a princess, Emma, a union that produced a number of sons but little love (Emma would then marry Canute).

Under Canute’s rule Ethelred and his surviving brother Alfred were in exile while power increasingly formed around a former pirate turned baron called Godwin. Canute was followed by his two sons, under whose rule Prince Alfred returned to England, where he was murdered by Godwin’s son Harold. Edward assumed the throne in 1042, after the death of Canute’s second son, but his reign was dominated by the conflict with Godwin and his six psychotic sons. Things came to a head when the king’s brother-in-law Eustace came to Dover on a diplomatic mission and ended up starting a brawl in an inn that left 20 dead. Godwin sided with the Kentishmen and the two clans were in open dispute.

Peace, however, was finally made with a deal that Edward would marry Godwin’s daughter Edith. Their marriage remained unconsummated – or, at any rate, barren – perhaps because the king could not bear to merge his family with the pirate’s. Instead, the king focused on God, spending an enormous amount of energy and revenue on the great Westminster Abbey, which was complete just before Christmas 1055. By Twelfth Night the king was dead, and Harold Godwinson made the fateful decision to seize the crown.
Edward’s cult really developed under Henry III in the 13th century. He was another holy king who idolised Edward and encouraged devotion to him, naming his eldest son after him and continuing the Confessor’s tradition of touching scrofula victims in order to cure them. This continued until the reign of Queen Anne, when a young Samuel Johnson was among the last people to receive the “royal touch” to cure them of the King’s Evil, or scrofula.