Gateway to the Classics: Our Island Saints by Amy Steedman
Our Island Saints by  Amy Steedman

Saint Edward the Confessor

K ING EDWARD of England, the last of the Saxon kings, sat in his chamber deep in thought and troubled beyond all measure. It was but a short while ago that he had been living in exile at the Norman Court, with little hope of returning to his native land, and now kind fortune had not only called him home but set him there as King upon the throne. One would have thought he had been granted more than his heart's desire and should have been content, but there were troubled lines on the King's forehead as he sat and thought of those days of exile.

Amidst all the gaiety and wild revels of the Norman Court, the exiled prince had seemed to live in a world apart from the pleasure-loving courtiers, with whom he had but little in common. He was a strange, dreamy boy, and even his appearance had something dreamlike about it. His soft shining hair was almost milky white in its fairness, and the rose pink of his cheeks made that curious whiteness seem truly dazzling by contrast. He had delicate hands, with long, thin, transparent fingers, and these hands, it was whispered, held a magic in their touch and could stroke away pain and charm away sickness. While others talked of warlike deeds and boasted of wild adventures, he dreamed his dreams of the saints of old and the good fight which they had fought. Of all those saints the one he loved the best was brave, headstrong Saint Peter, so weak at first, so firm and faithful at last. And next he loved the kind Saint John with his great loving heart and gentle kindly ways. These two dream friends were far more real to him than any of the gay companions among whom he lived, and it is little wonder that the boy prince with such friends kept himself pure and unspotted from the world and earned the title of "Confessor."

The only thing outside his dream life in which Prince Edward delighted was in the chase. After long hours spent in church he would gallop off for days into the forest, hunting and hawking, no longer a dreamy youth with downcast eyes, but a keen alert sportsman whose eyes shone with daring and excitement.

It was while hunting one day that his horse stumbled on the edge of a dangerous cliff, and, with a swift appeal to his unseen friend, the Prince called upon Saint Peter to save him.

"Saint Peter," he cried, "save me, and I vow that I will make a pilgrimage to thy shrine in Rome to mark my gratitude."

The stumbling horse recovered its foothold and Edward rode safely home. Going straight to church, he knelt there giving thanks for his safety, and while he was still on his knees there came a messenger from England bidding him return and rule over the people as their rightful King.

This good fortune made him more anxious than ever to keep the vow he had made that day. The saint had been his friend and helper in the time of exile, and now, when fortune smiled upon him, he longed to show his gratitude the more.

But Edward had soon to learn that a king belongs to his people and not to himself.

As soon as it was known that the new king desired to make a pilgrimage to Rome, the people were dismayed and horrified.

"We cannot allow it," they cried. "A king can only leave his kingdom with the consent of the Commons, and that consent we will not give."

The wise councillors and advisers also shook their heads.

"The risks are too great," they said. "There are perils by road and sea, by mountain pass and river, dangers from robbers and armed foes. Who would venture among those Romans who are such villains, caring only for the red gold and the white silver?"

So it was that the King was sorely troubled that day as he sat and thought of all these things. He had sent messengers to Rome to beg that he might be pardoned for breaking his vow, and now he was awaiting their return, wondering what answer the Pope would send.

Ere long the answer came, and the Pope's message cheered Edward's heart. Instead of making a pilgrimage to Rome to do honour to Saint Peter, the King was to show his gratitude by building or restoring some monastery belonging to Saint Peter, which should be for ever after under the special protection of the Kings of England.

It was a happy way out of the difficulty, and the King began at once to consider where the abbey should be built. He was deep in thought one day, sitting with his head resting on his hand, his dreamy eyes already seeing visions of a wonderful minster pointing its spires heavenward, when a servant entered and told him that a holy man, a hermit, begged to be allowed speech with the King.

"Bring him hither at once," said Edward; "it is not fit that a holy man should be kept waiting."

It was very trying to be interrupted when his whole heart was filled with thoughts of the great plan, but he put them aside and turned to give a kindly greeting to the old man, who had perhaps come to ask a boon of his King. He little guessed that this very interruption was to bring him the help which he sought.

Very slowly and with trembling steps the old hermit came into the royal presence. King's palaces were strange abodes to one who lived in the caves and rocks of the earth. The green boughs of the trees were the only canopy which the old man knew; the daisied grass was his carpet, and for companions he had the squirrels and the birds, with whom he shared his meal of fruit and roots. But God had sent His servant with a message and he was here to deliver it to the King. The strange city, the bewildering noise, and the wonderful palace were things which had nought to do with him. His one desire was to tell his tale. The King listened with earnest attention, for the message was a strange one.

"Three nights ago," said the hermit, "as I knelt at prayer, behold there appeared to me in a vision an old man, bright and beautiful like to a clerk, whom I knew to be Saint Peter. He bade me tell thee that thou wouldst even now be released from thy vow, and commanded instead to build an abbey. The place where thou shouldst build the abbey, said he, should be on the Isle of Thorns, two leagues from the city. There a little chapel of Saint Peter already stands, and there the great abbey shall be built, which shall be indeed the Gate of Heaven and the Ladder of Prayer. As soon as the vision was ended I wrote all the words down upon this parchment, sealed it with wax, and now have brought it to your Majesty."

So the spot was chosen on which the fair abbey should be built, and King Edward gave his whole heart and attention to the great work.

The little Isle of Thorns of which the hermit spoke had taken its name from the wild forest and thickets with which it was overgrown. It was also called the "Terrible Place" in the days when it was the refuge for the wild animals which came down from the hills around. In those days it was said that a heathen temple had been built on the island, and that later, in the time of King Sebert, it had been turned into a Christian chapel and dedicated to Saint Peter.

Now there was a curious old legend about the dedication of that little chapel in the midst of the wild thicket of thorns, and perhaps it helped the dreamy King to decide to build his abbey there.

The legend tells that in the days of King Sebert, when the monastery was finished, it was arranged that on a certain day Mellitus, the first Bishop of London, should consecrate the chapel. It so happened that, the night before the consecration, a fisherman named Edric was casting his nets into the Thames from the Isle of Thorns when, on the opposite shore, he saw an old man, who hailed him and asked that he might be rowed across to the little island. The old man was dressed in a curious foreign robe and seemed to be a stranger, but he had a beautiful kindly face, and Edric willingly did his bidding. Across the dark stream they rowed, and when the old man landed on the island, Edric stood watching to see where he would go.

The stranger walked straight to the chapel door, and as he entered, lo! the whole chapel was flooded with a blaze of light, so that it stood out fair and shining without darkness or shadow. Then a host of angels, swinging their golden censers, began to descend from above and to ascend, linking earth with heaven, and the sweet blue breath of the incense trailed in thin clouds around the brightness of the heavenly torches. Slowly and solemnly the service of consecration was performed, while the awe-struck fisherman, forgetting his nets and his fishing, gazed in wonder at the heavenly vision.

Presently the lights faded, the angels vanished, and the little chapel was left in darkness once more. Then the old man came out of the chapel and greeted the wondering fisherman.

"How many fish hast thou taken?" asked the stranger.

Edric stammered out that he had caught no fish, and the old man smiled kindly upon him, seeing his confusion.

"To-morrow thou shalt tell the Bishop Mellitus all thou hast seen," he said. "I am Peter, Keeper of the Keys of Heaven, and I have consecrated my own church of Saint Peter, Westminster. For thyself, go on with thy fishing, and thou shalt catch a plentiful supply. This I promise thee on two conditions. First, that thou shalt no more fish on Sundays; and secondly, that thou shalt pay a tithe of the salmon to the abbey of Westminster."

Early next day came the Bishop Mellitus to consecrate the chapel, as he had arranged, and the first to meet him was the fisherman Edric, who stood waiting there with a salmon in his hand. He told his tale, and presented his salmon from Saint Peter, and then showed the Bishop where the holy water had been sprinkled, and all the signs of the heavenly consecration.

The Bishop bowed his head in reverence as he listened, and prepared to return home.

"My services are not needed," he said: "the chapel hath indeed been consecrated in a better and more saintly fashion than a hundred such as I could have consecrated it."

In the days of King Edward the Isle of Thorns was no longer the Terrible Place, for the forest had been cleared and Saint Peter's chapel stood in the midst of flowery meadows; but still the fishermen cast their nets in the river and caught many a silver salmon, and once a year Saint Peter's fish was carried to the monastery in payment of the tithe which Edric had promised.

There were two other legends told of the little chapel which seem to have made King Edward love the place with a special love.

One story tells how a poor cripple Irishman named Michael sat one day by the side of the path which led to the chapel, watching for the King to pass. The kindly King at once noticed the lame man, and stopped to talk to him. Michael with piteous earnestness told his tale, and begged for help. There seemed no cure for his lameness, although he had made six pilgrimages to Rome, but at last Saint Peter had promised that he would be cured if only the King would carry him up to the chapel upon his own royal shoulders.

The courtiers mocked, and turned their backs on the ragged beggar, but King Edward, with kind compassionate words, bent down and lifted the cripple, and carried him up to the chapel, where he laid him before the altar. Immediately strength returned to the poor crippled limbs: the man stood upright, then knelt and thanked God and his King, and blessed the little chapel of Saint Peter.

The other legend tells of a wonderful vision sent to bless the eyes of the Confessor in the same chapel, as he knelt before the altar. Perhaps it was because his heart was pure and innocent and his faith so strong that his earthly eyes were opened to see the Christ-Child Himself standing there "pure and bright like a spirit," while a glory shone around.

It was small wonder, then, that the King was glad to choose this spot on which to build a great abbey to the glory of God and Saint Peter. The work was begun at once, and the King came to live in the palace of Westminster that he might be near at hand and watch the building. A tenth part of all the wealth of the kingdom was spent upon the abbey, and it took fifteen years to build; but the King grudged neither time nor money in carrying out this, his heart's desire. Indeed the King had but little idea of the value of money, and was sometimes rather a trial to his steward Hugolin, who had charge of the chest where the royal gold was kept. Sometimes Hugolin lost all patience with his royal master, and shook his head over his dreamy ways.

Why, there had been one day when Edward had actually encouraged a thief to steal his gold! The money-chest had been left open in the King's room, and a scullion from the kitchen had come creeping in thinking the King was asleep. Edward had watched the thief help himself three times to the gold, and then had warned him to make haste and get away before Hugolin should return.

"He will not leave you even a halfpenny," cried the King, "so be quick."

The words only added to the scullion's terror, as he gazed upon the white-haired King who was watching him so intently. He fled from the room, glad to take the King's advice and to escape before the steward's return.

"Your Majesty has allowed yourself to be robbed," said Hugolin reproachfully, when he saw the empty chest and heard the King's story.

"The thief hath more need of it than we," said his master; "enough treasure hath King Edward."

The King's treasure was indeed spent lavishly upon the building of the great abbey, and soon it began to rise from its foundations like a flower, growing in beauty and stateliness year by year, while the dreamy King watched over it, and added every beauty that his fancy could devise. Rough grey stone was cut and sculptured into exquisite shapes and designs; the daylight, as it streamed through the rich stained glass of the windows, was turned as if by magic into shafts of purest colour—purple, crimson, and blue. Fair as a dream the abbey stood finished at last, built by a dweller in dreamland, but solid and firm as a rock upon its foundations, and as firmly to be fixed in the hearts of the English people, while they ever weave around it their dreams of all that is great and good—the honour and glory of England.

The King's life was drawing to a close just as the great abbey was completed, and Edward knew that this was so. All his life he had relied greatly on warnings and visions, and now strange tales were told of how the end had been foretold.

It was said that as the King was on his way to the dedication of a chapel to Saint John, he was met by a beggar who asked alms of him.

"I pray thee help me, for the love of Saint John," cried the beggar.

Now the King could not refuse such a request, for he loved Saint John greatly. But he had no money with him and Hugolin was not at hand, so he drew off from his finger a large ring, royal and beautiful, and gave it with a kindly smile to the poor beggar.

Not very long afterwards, the legend tells us, two English pilgrims far away in Syria lost their way, and wandered about in darkness and amidst great dangers, not knowing which road led to safety. They were almost in despair, when suddenly a light shone across their path, and in the light they saw an old man with bowed white head and a face of wonderful beauty.

"Whence do ye come?" asked the old man, "and what is the name of your country and your King?"

"We are pilgrims from England," replied the wanderers, "and our King is the saintly Edward, whom men call the Confessor."

Then the old man smiled joyously, and led them on their way until they came to an inn.

"Know ye who I am?" he asked. "I am Saint John, the friend of Edward your King. This ring which he gave for love of me, ye shall bear back to him, and tell him that in six months we shall meet together in Paradise."

So the pilgrims took the ring and carried it safely over land and sea until they reached the King's palace, when they gave it back into the royal hand and delivered the message from Saint John.

It was midwinter when the abbey was ready for consecration. The river ran dark and silent as on that long-ago night when the fisherman rowed Saint Peter across to the little chapel and the angels came to sing the service. Now all that earthly hands could do was done, and the greatest in the land were gathered there to be present at the consecration of Saint Peter's abbey. Only the King was absent. He who had dreamed the fair dream and wrought it out in solid stone and fairest ornament, was lying sick unto death while the seal was set upon his work.

For a few days he lingered on, and then from the land of dreams he passed to the great Reality, and the old chronicles add the comforting words: "Saint Peter, his friend, opened the gate of Paradise, and Saint John, his own dear one, led him before the Divine Majesty."

They laid the King to rest in the centre of his beautiful abbey, and, ever since, our land has held no greater honour for her heroes than to let them sleep by the resting-place of the saintly King.

All honour to those who, through the might of sword or pen, by courage or learning, have won a place within Saint Peter's abbey of Westminster! But for the simple of the earth it is good to remember, that he who was first laid there won his place not by great deeds of courage or gifts of wondrous learning, but by the simple faith that was in him, the kindly thought for those who were poor and needed his help, the loving-kindness which even a child may win, though he miss a hero's grave in the King's abbey.

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