This 14th Century diptych portrays King Richard II kneeling before Our Lady and the Christ Child. Standing behind him are his patrons: St. Edmund the Martyr (left), St. Edward the Confessor (center), and St. John the Baptist (right).
This glorious Saint was like a beautiful lily, crowning the ancient branch of the kings of Wessex. The times had progressed since that 6th century, when the pagan Cerdic and other pirate chiefs from the North Sea scattered with ruins the island of Saints. Having accomplished their mission of wrath, the Anglo-Saxons became instruments of grace to the land they had conquered. Evangelized by Rome, even as the Britons they had just chastised, they remembered, better than the latter, whence their salvation had come; a spring-tide blossoming of sanctity showed the pleasure God took once more in Albion, for the constant fidelity of the princes and people of the heptarchy towards the See of Peter. In the year of Our Lord 800, Egbert, a descendant of Cerdic, had gone on pilgrimage to Rome, when a deputation from the West Saxons offered him the crown, beside the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles, at whose feet St. Karl the Great, at that very time, was restoring the empire. As Egbert united under one sceptre the power of the seven kingdoms, so Saint Edward, his last descendant, represents today in his own person the glorious holiness of them all.
Nephew to Saint Edward the Martyr, our Holy King is known to God and man by the beautiful title of the Confessor. The Church, in Her account of his life, sets forth more particularly the virtues which won him so glorious an appellation; but we must remember moreover that his reign of 24 years was one of the happiest England has ever known. Alfred the Great had no more illustrious imitator. The Danes, so long masters, now entirely subjugated within the kingdom, and without, held at bay by the noble attitude of the Prince; Macbeth, the usurper of the Scottish throne, vanquished in a campaign that Shakespeare has immortalized; St. Edward's Laws, which remain to this day the basis of the British constitution; the Saint's munificence towards all noble enterprises, while at the same time he diminished the taxes: all this proves with sufficient clearness, that the sweetness of virtue, which made him the intimate friend of St. John the Beloved Disciple, is not incompatible with the greatness of a monarch. The Breviary tells us:
Edward, surnamed the Confessor, nephew to St. Edward, King and Martyr, was the last of the Anglo-Saxon race. Our Lord revealed that he would one day be king, to a holy man named Brithwald. When Edward was ten years old, the Danes, who were devastating England, sought his life; he was therefore obliged to go into exile, to the court of his uncle the Duke of Normandy. Amid the vices and temptations of the Norman court, he grew up pure and innocent, a subject of admiration to all. His pious devotion towards God and holy things was most remarkable. He was of a very gentle disposition, and so great a stranger to ambition that he was wont to say he would rather forgo the kingdom than take possession of it by violence and bloodshed.
On the death of the tyrants who had murdered his brothers and seized their kingdom, he was recalled to his country, and ascended the throne to the greatest satisfaction and joy of all his subjects. He then applied himself to remove all traces of the havoc wrought by the enemy. To begin at the sanctuary, he built many churches and restored others, endowing them with rents and privileges; for he was very anxious to see religion, which had been neglected, flourishing again. All writers assert that, though compelled by his nobles to marry, both he and his bride preserved their virginity intact. Such were his love of Christ and his faith, that he was one day permitted to see Our Lord in the Mass, shining with a heavenly light and smiling upon him. His lavish charity won him the name of the father of orphans and of the poor; and he was never so happy as when he had exhausted the royal treasury on their behalf.
He was honored with the gift of prophecy, and foresaw much of England's future history. It is remarkable that when Sweyn, King of Denmark, was drowned in the very act of embarking on his fleet to invade England, Edward was supernaturally aware of the event the very moment it happened. He had a special devotion to St. John the Evangelist, and was accustomed never to refuse anything asked in his name. One day St. John appeared to him as a poor man begging an alms in this manner; the King, having no money about him, took off his ring and gave it to him. Soon afterward the Saint sent the ring back to Edward, with a message that his death was at hand. The King then ordered prayers to be said for himself; and died most piously on the day foretold by St. John, the Nones of January, in the year of salvation 1066. In the following century Pope Alexander III enrolled him, famous for miracles, among the Saints. Pope Innocent XI ordered his memory to be celebrated by the whole Church with a public Office on the day of his Translation, which took place 36 years after his death, his body being found incorrupt and exhaling a sweet fragrance.
O Saint Edward, thou dost represent on the sacred cycle the nation which Saint Gregory the Great foresaw would rival the angels; so many holy kings, illustrious virgins, grand bishops, and great monks, who were its glory, now form thy brilliant court. Where are now the unwise in whose sight thou and thy race seemed to die? History must be judged in the light of Heaven. While thou and thine reign there eternally, judging nations and ruling over peoples; the dynasties of thy successors on earth, ever jealous of the Church, and long wandering in schism and heresy, have become extinct one after another, sterilized by God's wrath, and having none but that vain renown whereof no trace is found in the book of life. How much more noble and more durable, O St. Edward, were the fruits of thy holy virginity! Teach us to look upon the present world as a preparation for the everlasting one; and to value human events by their eternal results. Our admiring devotion seeks and finds thee in the royal abbey of Westminster; and we love to contemplate, by anticipation, thy glorious resurrection on the day of judgment, when all around thee so many false grandeurs will acknowledge their shame and their nothingness. Bless us, prostrate in spirit beside thy tomb, where heresy, fearful of the result, would fain forbid our prayer.
St. Edward the Confessor directs the construction of Westminster Abbey.
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