Famous Exhumations English King Edward the Confessor

About the English King Edward the Confessor and his exhumation.


EDWARD THE CONFESSOR (c. 1005-1066), king of England

Edward was a holy figure in his lifetime. His long white hair and beard and pale skin (some believe he was an albino) were striking. His touch was believed to heal sores and ulcers, and many flocked to him for cure. He died of natural causes and was buried in Westminster Abbey, which he founded.

Edward's holy reputation continued after his death, and he was canonized in 1161 after an appropriate bribe was paid. His coffin was also believed to have healing powers, and his resting place was considered the holiest part of the abbey.

Edward was exhumed, examined, and moved many times in the following centuries. In 1098 Henry I--still a prince at the time--and his wife had the coffin opened to prove the "incorruptibility" of the corpse. Edward was found, according to the story, to be fresh and rosy-cheeked, with soft skin and flexible joints. Bishop Gundulf of Rochester, present at the exhumation, actually succeeded in plucking out a hair from the long white beard. Shocked by the bishop's temerity, the abbot soundly scolded him.

In 1163 the coffin was moved to a new shrine by Henry II and again it was opened. Edward's robes were removed at a ceremony presided over by Thomas a Becket, and three copes were made from the garments. Also, Edward's pilgrim's ring was stolen by the king at this time.

Henry III had the abbey completely rebuilt. An admirer of Edward, he personally helped carry his coffin to its new, jewel-encrusted shrine in 1269. During the Dissolution, the abbey was sacked, the jewels were seized by Henry VIII, and the relics were scattered, but in the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, the shrine was restored to much of its former glory. The last and most dramatic time the coffin was opened was in 1685, shortly after the coronation of James II. When workmen were removing scaffolding used during the ceremony in the abbey, a rafter crashed down and broke open the coffin. A crucifix and gold chain were discovered underneath the shoulder bones of Edward and taken to the king on July 6--the day of his victory over the Duke of Monmouth at the Battle of Sedgemoor. The crucifix and ring reputedly were stolen from James II when he was captured by fishermen during his flight from England in 1688. Today, St. Edward's shrine is still the centerpiece of the abbey he founded.

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