Hagiography is defined simply as the life of a saint. Though today more often used pejoratively to describe overly idealized accounts of people’s lives, it still serves as a label for the genre of books that arose during the early Christian era about pious men and women produced to provide moral and spiritual examples for their audience. Never having read hagiography before, Aelred of Rievaulx’s Life of Saint Edward was my introduction to the form, and I knew it would prove interesting reading for this reason if for no other. But it proved even more fascinating for the contrast it provided with other accounts of his life, both for what it featured and how it portrayed the major figures in his life.
Aelred’s account of
Edward’s life rests heavily on the Vita
Eadwardi regis, which Aelred rewrote so as to emphasize
the Christian elements of Edward’s life. Throughout the book he recounts
several visions and cures involving Edward (both during the king’s life and
after his death) and makes repeated assertions of Edward’s inherent goodness,
to the point where his subject comes across as something of a holy fool.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated then in the famous anecdote about Edward’s
reaction to the thief who was stealing his treasure, in which the king declared
“He has more need of it than we do.” Such a statement may underscore the
personality one might expect a saint to possess, but it certainly flies in the
face of the Edward that Barlow describes in his book.
Given Edward’s saintliness and his chaste marriage to a dignified woman, the problem arises for Aelred as to who to blame for the less than saintly aspects of his reign. Here the Godwins come to the rescue, serving as the villains of Aelred’s narrative. Earl Godwin is the most prominent of the foils, suffering what Aelred deems a “miserable” death for his sins. While Godwin’s son Harold fares a little better, Aelred follows the Norman portrayal of him as a usurper, with even the credit for his victory over Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge diminished by Edward’s promise of victory to an abbot in a vision prior to the battle. Even after his death, it seems, Edward proved himself to be a better king than his successor.
While it may be unfair to judge Aelred’s book by modern standards, in the end it shouldn’t serve as anyone’s basis for understanding Edward as a person or his policies as king. As Jerome Barton, the book’s translator, acknowledges, its main value today is primarily as a historical source about later medieval devotion. Nevertheless, for anyone interested in learning how people in the later Middle Ages saw Edward it’s an invaluable work, one that as a true hagiography is unique among biographies of British monarchs.
When Frank Barlow published his biography of Edward
the Confessor in 1970, it was not his first contribution to studies of the
king, Six years earlier, he published a translation of a much older Latin work,
Vita Eadwardi regis qui apud
Westmonasterium requiescut, or The
Life of King Edward, who rests at Westminster. Written in the early 12th
century, it is attributed to “an anonymous monk of Saint-Bertin” whose identity
is unknown to us today. Though the text was likely revised and portions of it
are missing, it offers nonetheless a rare near-contemporaneous account of Edward’s
life and reign.
Yet Barlow does more than simply provide a translation of the work. In a substantial introduction taking up nearly half of the book, he summarizes Edward’s life, recounts the history of the Vita Eadwardi, situates it within contemporary literary traditions, and considers the evidence for the two monks, Goscelin and Folcard, whom he regards as the most likely candidates as the anonymous author. It is scholarly work of the highest order, and it does an excellent job of giving the reader a context in which to understand the Vita Eadwardi and the circumstances in which it was written. He supplements this with four appendices which detail the textual relationship between the Vita Eadwardi and two other contemporary historical works, subsequent interpretations of Edward’s Prophecy of the Great Tree, a biography of Goscelin and list of his works, and a history of the cult of Edward that anticipates his later work on it for his biography of the king
Sandwiched between these two sections is the text of
the Vita Eadwardi itself, which
Barlow divides into two parts, designated as books i and ii. The first book is
the more straightforwardly historical account of the two of them, and presents
a number of different episodes from Edward’s life. The Godwins feature
prominently in them, which Barlow notes reflects the patronage of Queen Edith –
to whom the work is dedicated – and suggests some of the original intentions of
the book when it was first commissioned. The second book is an account of
Edward’s religious life, and includes accounts of the miraculous cures
attributed to Edward as king, as well as a pair of visions he had. The text
itself is in both Latin and in English, with the Latin on the left-hand page
and Barlow’s English translation on the right, which adds to the value of the
book and provides Latin-proficient readers with a handy means of checking
Barlow’s tradition with the original text.
All of this makes Barlow’s work an indispensable resource for anyone studying Edward’s life, especially for those seeking to understand how he was viewed by his contemporaries. The impressive part is that Barlow even makes the Vita Eadwardi work as a biography for a modern reader who picks it up without any real background knowledge about Edward or his times. It really is a remarkable effort, and while people today may prefer a more up-to-date work in terms of interpretation and accessibility, it can definitely be recommended for someone seeking something a little different from the norm for English royal biography.
Frank Barlow was one of the most distinguished
medievalists of his era. A prolific author, he wrote and translated over a
dozen other books, including biographies of William Rufus and Thomas Becket and
an anonymous account of Edward the Confessor’s life originally written in the early
12th century. Over the course of his career he was elected to both the
British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature, and he capped it all off
by being appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his work as
a historian. Reading his biography of Edward, it’s easy to see how he earned
his accolades. Not only is it among the best books that I have read so far for
this project, it’s one of the best historical biographies I have ever read,
After beginning his book by describing the world into
which Edward was born, Barlow takes his readers through Edward’s early years
abroad, through the circumstances that led to his ascension to the throne in
1042, to his twenty-four year reign as king. Throughout the book Barlow is
careful not to go beyond the evidence, and he is candid about the gaps in what
we know about Edward’s life. But he makes the best use of the available sources
(which are more extensive than they are for most of Edward’s predecessors) to explain
Edward’s achievements as king, particularly in his management of the Godwin
family and the challenges they posed during the first decade of his reign.
What makes Barlow’s book stand out from the others
that I’ve read, though, is his ability to use his materials to bring his
subject to life in his narrative. Barlow gives his reader a real sense of
Edward’s personality, one that penetrates through the hagiography and the
misconceptions it generated to show him for the ordinary person that he was.
While giving Edward due credit for his achievements as king, in the end he
concludes that he was a mediocrity lacking in distinction beyond surviving on
How this mediocrity became a saint is the subject of
the penultimate chapter of the book. In it Barlow identifies the intermittent
development of Edward’s saintly reputation in the decades after his death and
notes the agendas of the people who cultivated that image opportunistically
into a figure worthy of canonization. How they achieved it makes for an account
of religious politics that benefits enormously from Barlow’s matter-of-fact retelling
of how it happened.
The result is a sober, evenhanded account that brushes
past the image of the saintly king to show how Edward reclaimed the crown and
survived nearly a quarter-century on the throne. In some respects reading it
first may be unfair to the other Edward biographies awaiting me, as thanks to
its measured analysis and clear judgments this will be a very difficult book to
match in terms of quality, much less surpass.
Edward the Confessor had a circuitous path to the
English throne. The eldest son of Æthelred the Unready by his second wife
Emma, he was twice forced into exile as a boy by the Scandinavian conquest of
England. After a quarter of a century on the Continent, he was invited to
return by the childless Harthacnut, whom Edward succeeded on the throne upon
Harthacnut’s death in 1042. Though Edward spent over two decades on the throne,
his rule became notable only in retrospect, as he was the last king of the
House of Wessex and, nearly a century later, canonized by the Catholic Church
as a saint, the only English king ever to enjoy such treatment.
such a historic king, I expected there to be more biographies of him than is
the case. Yet the options are disappointingly few. I will start with Frank Barlow’s biography of Edward for the
English Monarchs series. Judging from other sources, it seems to be the
standard work on Edward’s life, though if that is because of its quality or
because the lack of new material on his life remains to be seen.
After that I’m going to try something different by
reading two near-contemporary biographies of Edward. The first of these is the
anonymous Vita Ædwardi Regis, or Life of King Edward.
Written around 1100, it is easily the oldest biography of a monarch that I am
evaluating for this site, and I’m especially interested to see how royal biographies
were written nearly a millennia ago. After that I will read Aelred of Rievaulx’s
The Life of Saint Edward, King and Confessor, which was written after
Edward’s canonization and is the only literal example of a hagiography that I
will read for this project. That fact alone has me looking forward to it with
last of the four biographies of Edward that I will read is Peter Rex’s 2008
book King & Saint: The Life of Edward the Confessor. I hoped that I would also have James’s
Campbell’s biography of Edward for the Penguin Monarchs series as an option,
but from what I can gather it seems that Campbell passed away before completing
the manuscript. Because of this Rex’s book represents the most modern take on
Edward’s life, and if it’s anything like Rex’s biography of Edward it should be
a highly accessible work.