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The Fortunes of a King: Images of Edward the Confessor in 12th to 14th Century England

The Fortunes of a King: Images of Edward the Confessor in 12th to 14th Century England

By Jessica A. Reid

Master’s Thesis, University of Ottawa, 2016

Edward the Confessor - British Library MS Royal 14 B VI
Edward the Confessor – British Library MS Royal 14 B VI

Abstract: This thesis is an iconographic study of Saint-King Edward the Confessor. It focuses on the political and devotional functions of his images in twelfth to fourteenth century England. The images are not concerned with the historical Anglo-Saxon King, but rather depict an idealized and simplified version of Edward. The discrepancies between Edward, the Anglo-Saxon monarch, and his representation in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries provide insight into how he was perceived at the time.

Spanning the reigns of King Henry I to King Richard II, this unique study assembles both royal and ecclesiastical images of Edward to compare and contrast their intended purposes and messages. The study explores the role that Westminster Abbey had in the emergence, adoption, and transformation of Edward’s cult images, and it examines how the English crown subsequently adopted Edward as a saint-king figure under King Henry III and King Richard II. Furthermore, the study reveals elements of cooperation between Westminster Abbey and King Henry III in the presentation and interpretation of Edward’s image. In particular, the first images of Edward as a saint-king were part of a wider hagiographic image cycle developed in Westminster Abbey. The images incorporated Edward’s status as both a king and saint to promote cooperation between the Abbey and the monarchy. Similarly, coronation portraits of King Edward promoted Edward as an ideal king; these images embraced peaceful, Solomonic, and clergy-supported kingship. King Henry III’s images of Edward, found throughout his castles and palaces, built upon Westminster’s format and his messages maintained cooperation with the clergy.

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The images evolved under King Richard II as Edward was removed from his hagiographic context. Richard’s images of Edward were personal and self-serving, and Edward became a justification of Richard’s independent and sacral style of kingship. The images evolved from promoting Edward’s style of sainthood and kingship to providing overt divine support for Richard’s reign. This image study illuminates the symbolic purpose of Edward in Medieval English society and how his image was constructed and embraced by Westminster Abbey and the monarchy.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Ottawa

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