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Sunday, 12 October 2014

Henry III and Edward the Confessor

Edward the Confessor, 
 BL Royal 20 A II f.5
13 October is the feast of the translation of Edward the Confessor, spiritual patron of Henry III. In 1245, Henry began to rebuild Westminster Abbey in the Confessor’s honour and, from around the same time, made every effort to be present at Westminster on both of his patron’s feastdays (the other being the anniversary of the Confessor’s death, 5 January).  

How and why did Henry become attached to the Confessor? In an article for English Historical Review of 2007 David Carpenter argued that, in the mid-1230s, Henry began to look to the Confessor for a model of consensual kingship. This followed the fall of Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester, who had exercised a malign influence upon the king between 1232 and 1234. ‘Imperious and impervious... he had boasted of “the plenitude of royal power”, ridiculed the principle of “judgement by peers” and hurried Henry into a series of disseisins per voluntatem regis . During his regime, the very future of Magna Carta had seemed at stake. It was on this form of rule that Henry turned his back.’
‘The spiritual life of King Henry III revolved around his veneration for Edward the Confessor. The abiding testimony to that, of course, is Westminster Abbey which Henry rebuilt in Edward’s honour, and where he still lies entombed beside the battered remnants of the jewelled and tessellated shrine to which he translated Edward’s body. The pre-eminence of the cult in Henry’s mind can be gauged from the number of paupers he fed each day, as revealed by the household roll for the regnal year 1259 – 60. On 5 January 1260, the anniversary of Edward’s death in 1066, the number was 1,500; on 12 and 13 October 1260, the vigil and anniversary of the saint’s translation in 1163 (always the more important feast), it was 5,016. The next largest total during the year was the 464 fed on the vigil and feast of Pentecost.
Many scholars have written about Henry’s devotion to the Confessor, none more brilliantly than Paul Binski in his book, Westminster Abbey and the Plantagenets: Kingship and the Representation of Power 1200 – 1400. But there exists no detailed consideration of exactly when and why Henry became attached to the saint. Binski himself assigns the process to the 1220s and 1230s, without being more precise. He observes that "why Edward suddenly came to prominence early in the reign of Henry III is unknown". This paper will argue that Henry’s devotion to the Confessor was established in a very few years in the 1230s, to be exact between 1233 and 1238. It was the result of the peculiar circumstances of those years, circumstances which made Westminster Abbey redouble its efforts to attach Henry to the saint, and rendered Henry desperate for the support of a spiritual patron. A particular Westminster monk, Richard le Gras, the disastrous regime of Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, and Henry’s marriage to Eleanor of Provence are also part of the story.’

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