Saintly Rivals – a brief comparison of the cults of Thomas Becket and Edward the Confessor

Harley 5102 f.32Saintly Rivals – a brief comparison of the cults of Thomas Becket and Edward the Confessor

By Steffen Hope

Published online on My Albion (2012)

Excerpt: The two cults came about within the reign of the same pope, Alexander III (1159-81). By the time of Edward the Confessor’s canonisation (1161), there was a papal schism which divided Latin Christendom between Alexander and his rival, antipope Victor IV, and each of the contestans vied for the loyalty of Europe’s secular princes. It was then the English clergy and King Henry II decided to re-apply for the canonisation of Edward the Confessor (an attempt of 1138 had fallen through on grounds of insufficient ecclesiastical support), and the request was granted. This was possibly due to Henry II’s support of Alexander, but it may also have been because the English clergy was now united behind this claim and thus provided the support that had been lacking in 1138.

Edward the Confessor (d. 1066) provided Henry II with a sainted forebear that could legitimise his own rule, which was still a matter of contention in the 1160s. However, there is nothing to suggest that Henry expressed any personal devotion to Edward, he was more interested in the political aspect of the saint – this claim is supported by the enthusiasm Henry dedicated to the genesis of Wace’s Roman de Rou. In ecclesiastical circles, however, Edward did not achieve any wide popularity, and it was primarily at Westminster – where the king lay buried – that any significant devotion could be found. This can be seen clearly by the fact that Archbishop Thomas Becket himself applied to Pope Alexander at the Council of Tours in May 1163 for the canonisation of his predecessor Anselm (1109) – quite possibly to counter the English monarchy’s brand new saint. Although Pope Alexander expressed sympathy for the cause and allowed veneration, he refused to canonise the famous archbishop and theologian. Becket’s petition is suggestive of the growing hostility between him and the king, an hostility that was to reach new heights at the council of Westminster in October that year. Edward’s lack of wide ecclesiastical support can also be seen in the fact that at Edward’s translation, October 13 1163, only the archdiocese of Canterbury was represented, not the archdiocese of York.

At the time of Thomas Becket’s canonisation the papal schism was still ongoing, but the murder of an English archbishop within the confines of a cathedral enraged both lay and cleric, and both Becket’s ecclesiastical supporters (many of whom were French clerics who had entertained him during his exile in the period 1164-65) and the lay populace expressed their horror. In 1173 Pope Alexander canonised Becket (without much ado, as had been the case with the Confessor) and the following year Henry II performed a public penance for his role in the murder. Henry was also forced to make certain concessions to the pope regarding royal interference in ecclesiastical matters, which had been one of Becket’s major causes. Through his martyrdom, in other words, Thomas Becket provided the English church with exactly the kind of saintly figurehead he had sought in Anselm seven years prior to his death.

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