Tom Shippey’s LRB review (3 December 2020; archived) of Edward the Confessor: Last of the Royal Blood by Tom Licence makes a good point about one of Edward’s posthumous problems:

It didn’t help his reputation to be saddled with the designation ‘the Confessor’, for hardly anyone knows what that means. Did he have things to confess? Was he someone people confessed to, like a priest? The term seems to have been attached to him by successive biographers in an attempt to get him canonised as a saint, and in that context ‘confessor’ is a term for someone slightly lower down the sanctity scale than a martyr, one who professes his faith in and adheres to Christianity in spite of persecution (which doesn’t seem to apply to Edward at all: his enemies were all Christians too).

The OED (entry from 1891) defines it thus:

technical. One who avows his religion in the face of danger, and adheres to it under persecution and torture, but does not suffer martyrdom; spec. one who has been recognized by the church in this character. (The earliest sense in English.)

And they have this interesting note on pronunciation:

The historical pronunciation, < Anglo-Norman and Middle English confeˈssour, is ˈconfessor, which is found in all the poets, and is recognized by the dictionaries generally, down to Smart, 1836–49, who has ˈconfessor in senses 2 [the one I quoted], 3 [“One who hears confessions”], conˈfesser in sense 1b [“One who makes confession or public acknowledgement or avowal … of a crime, sin, or offence charged”]; for these, Craig 1847 has ˈconfessor and conˈfessor; but conˈfessor is now generally said for both.

Daniel Jones (13th ed., 1967) says first-syllable stress is used by “some Catholics.”

By the way, this passage of the review reminded me of my own complaint about all the Matildas:

Æthelred had six sons by his first wife, Ælfgifu, of whom the most notable was Edmund Ironside (an epithet conferred on him in admiration by his Viking enemies). As the Anglo-Viking wars reached their climax, Edmund fought even Cnut the Great, the most powerful of the Danish invaders, to a draw, the terms of which divided the realm between them, the survivor to inherit the whole. Edmund died in suspicious circumstances in 1016, perhaps of poison, leaving England to Cnut. Æthelred’s six sons by Ælfgifu were followed by two more – Edward the Confessor and his brother, Alfred – by his second wife, Emma of Normandy (who for some reason, and thoroughly confusingly, adopted the name of her predecessor, Ælfgifu, on marriage). After Æthelred’s death, also in 1016, Emma married Cnut, by whom she had a further son, Harthacnut, who followed Cnut’s son Harold Harefoot (yet another contender for the throne) by his first wife, called, of course, Ælfgifu. (Anglo-Danish royals could have been a bit more diverse in their name choices – the century is packed with Harold/Haralds and Sven/Svein/Swegns, as well as women called Ælfgifu – and Yale would have done well to add a multi-family tree to make all these relationships clear.)


  1. Dan Milton says

    The accent was on the second syllable for whoever wrote the clerihew:
    King Edward the Confessor
    Slept under the dresser
    When that began to pall
    He slept in the hall.

  2. It may be significant that the most recent English king with the same name before Edward the Confessor was his uncle Edward the Martyr. Edward the Martyr was certainly murdered, although there does not appear to have been any religious component to the killing. (It was strictly personal and/or political.) Yet Edward the Martyr* was likely already a folk saint, probably by virtue of his dubious martyrdom, by the time of Edward the Confessor’s birth around a quarter century later. The Martyr’s remains were twice translated and re-interred at Shaftesbury Abbey, already the burial place of his grandmother, Saint Ælfgifu, by 1001.

    * I was going to refer to him here as “the elder Edward,” but realized that that would conflict with his great-grandfather’s, King Edward the Elder’s, epithet.

  3. Too many Edwards!

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    You can also see this prototypical sense in the standard English translation of the annual commemoration (in late January) of the “New Martyrs and Confessors” of the Russian Church (Новомученики и исповедники Церкви Русской) under the Bolshevik Yoke, trying to include those who suffered for their witness during the dreadful 1917-91 period yet somehow managed to survive the experience.

  5. I’m reminded of the 12th-century ivory crucifix called the Cloisters Cross, one of whose many inscriptions is Rex confessorum, which Thomas Hoving, and many reviewers after him, ridiculously interpreted as anti-Jewish.

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