Thoughts on Edward the Confessors shrine

I have always been mystified by Edward the Confessors shrine.  It is unlike any other I have seen (keep in mind that I’m no expert on shrines). 

The coffin is raised high up on a platform.  There are six niches, three on each side, so that people could kneel in each niche and pray to the saint.  In fact, if you look at the stone at the base of each niche you can see that it is worn down by all the people kneeling down on it over the years!  That is a testament to the power and influence of Edward.  It’s generally assumed that people prayed to Edward for physical ailments but I see no reason why it could not be for other reasons as well.  This design seems unique and unusual.

This current shrine was made when King Henry III rebuilt Westminster Abbey beginning in 1245.  Edward’s coffin was put into this new shrine in 1269.

Originally Edward the Confessors tomb was below the floor directly below where the current shrine is, as recent archaeological research has shown. 

Henry II was supposed to of moved Edward’s coffin to a new shrine in 1163.  I’ve found two pictures that might show this shrine. 

The first comes from an Anglo-Norman verse of the life of Edward from about 1255. 

At the time this picture was made Westminster Abbey was being rebuilt.  The new shrine may not of even been built at this time, as I’d think that the shrine would have been one of the things built later, after the Abbey was completed.  Not only that, it shows the coffin on the shrine and being venerated.   Edward’s coffin wasn’t put in the shrine until 1269, after the document was drawn.  In addition, the shrine shown does not match the current shrine of Henry III.  This suggests that it was not meant to portray the shrine of Henry III.  Is this an accurate portrayal of what the shrine that Henry II built looked like? 

If you look at it you can see people at his shrine.  You can see three round holes in the sides and people in these holes.  The coffin seems to be low, about waist high. The drawing shows people crawling underneath the coffin, which suggests, of course, that there was already a practice where people prayed under the coffin even before the new shrine was built.    

I come across another picture of the shrine of Edward the Confessor.

I do not know where it came from or when it was made. I’m no expert of medieval pictures but I’d say it was made in the 1200’s.

 It shows a line of people in front of the shrine on the left side and a priest on the right. Behind them is the coffin of Edward on a stand about waist high. There is a round hole in the stand. There is a man crawling into that hole. This is almost an exact duplicate of the manuscript of 1255!

Since there are now two documents showing this type of shrine I’m inclined to think that this is probably the shrine built by King Henry II in 1163. It also confirms that, with this shrine, there was a custom of people crawling under the coffin. This, no doubt, supports the idea that the six niches on the sides of the current shrine are, in fact, intended as ‘praying niches’.

Looking at both pictures it appears the coffin is indeed waist high with large round holes on the front of the stand. This new picture suggests that there may have been a decorative sculpture, probably, behind the coffin. Because of its design I would think it was made in the 1200’s. The manuscript of 1255 shows a coffin (or a box containing the coffin) with a pitched roof. This new picture may or may not show this pitched roof. The new picture also shows the coffin as decorated whereas the 1255 manuscript shows it as plain. They are not exactly the same but amazingly close.

The shrine of Henry II didn’t last long. Edward was placed there in 1163. Henry III probably relocated Edwards coffin in or after 1245, when the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey began. This means that this shrine only existed for 82 or so years. Edward was placed in a new shrine 106 years after Henry II placed him in his.

One of my theories is that maybe the shrine of Henry II was not intended for people to get underneath it originally.  It appears that the coffin is placed on a stand for display at a convenient height to suit that purpose.  People had to crawl underneath it which means that it was not designed for that.  If this is the case then, for some reason, a custom was developed over time where people would crawl under the coffin and pray.  For King Henry III to of designed the new shrine to specifically allow for this must show that this was a very common and popular thing to do.  It shows that Edward must have been a very popular saint at the time.  And, accordingly, it would explain the unique and unusual way in which Edward’s shrine is made.

Another theory is that the document shows the coffin on a temporary stand where it was placed while the abbey was being rebuilt.  Perhaps this is when the custom of crawling under Edward’s coffin to pray began?

There is still another theory that, perhaps, the artist somehow knew how Henry III was going to build the shrine before it was built.  The artist then drew his conception of it.  If that’s the case then it may show that Henry III came up with the idea for people to pray under his coffin.  This seems unlikely though.

Regardless of how accurate the drawing portrays the shrine it shows that before Henry III there was already a custom of crawling below Edward’s tomb and praying.  I doubt the artist would of just showed it that way as a stylized picture of a shrine, as I’ve never seen a picture showing a similar situation.  This makes me think that this was drawn specifically for Edward’s shrine depicting a custom that took place there.  This also suggests the artist has probably seen the shrine.

Another interesting custom about the shrine is that they often drap the coffin with a big cloth.  I do not know when or why this is done, no less where this custom began.  My guess is that it is done on October 13, Edward’s feast day.

(I wrote this in late 2009 or early 2010)

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