Today is the Feast of St Edward the Confessor. He was the last king of England who was also a saint. His death in 1066 led to rival claims for the English throne, the Battle of Hastings and, on Christmas Day that year, the coronation of William the Conqueror as king. You might have known all of this already but most of the people I have been speaking to lately did not. People in London might know about 1066, about Harold getting an arrow in his eye and William becoming king, but the events that preceded it cannot be counted as Universal Knowledge.
This coming weekend the Battle of Hastings will be re-enacted down in Sussex with even more gusto than usual, in honour of its 950th anniversary. (At least that’s what some of the participants were saying on BBC Breakfast earlier this week.) There is also a programme of pilgrims’ events at Westminster Abbey in honour of Edward the Confessor. His body is buried there, along with the bodies of many other English kings and queens. The shrine of Edward the Confessor is one of only two that were left in place in England after the Reformation.
Today I was able to make a quiet visit to the Abbey and pay my respects at St Edward’s shrine. The staircase that leads up to it is fragile and is roped off rather like the VIP area of a club. You need permission and guidance from one of the ushers to get in. As in previous years the staff were very helpful and made me feel like a VIP as they led me to the Abbey’s holiest of places.
Back in 2003 I attended a Catholic mass there. (It was invitation only, to continue the VIP theme.) The priest reflected on how different things were from 50 or 60 years previously. Before the 1950s Catholic worship in the Abbey was frowned upon, but over the decades things changed. It started with one or two of the ushers turning a blind eye as priests and their congregations said a few quiet prayers, and by the 1980s full masses were being said again. Two months before that service in 2003 I had seen “Richard II” for the first time, at Shakespeare’s Globe, and I spent parts of the mass leaning against Richard II’s tomb. As one of the more able-bodied in the congregation I had given up my seat. I tried to stand up straight for the whole service, without propping myself up against anything, but old habits die hard and it was the tomb of the Black Prince’s son (the grandson of Edward III, the cousin of Henry IV) that supported me on that Saturday afternoon.
That night I went to the Water Rats in King’s Cross for a gig by Eddie and the Hot Rods, a band that I have seen regularly since the 1970s. My afternoon and evening out, enjoying two of the many different cultural events available in this great city, are stored in my memory with a single phrase: Edward the Confessor and the Hot Rods.