Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments

Plate XVI: The Tomb of St. Edward the Confessor, King of England


Caption: Mausoleum sive Feretrum Sti Eduardi Confessoris Regis Angliae. Marmore Porphyritico et Serpentino Opereque insuper musivo elegantissime ornatum uti hodie in Ecclesia Westmonasteriensi conspicitur. Sumptibus Societatis Antiquariae Londiniensis MDCCXXIV.
On the image: Omnibus Insignis Virtutum Laudibus Heros Sanctus Edwardus.


Caption: The Tomb, or Feretory, of St Edward the Confessor, King of England.  It is decorated with red and green marble and is very elegant, covered with artistic carving. [It is here] as it appears today in the Chapel of Westminster Abbey. SAL 1724.
On the image:
Famed for all virtues, here great Edward lies,
Confessor, king, and saint, [he sought the skies.]
                                    Trans. Alan Benjamin Cheales (1877)


Engraved by George Vertue after John Talman 1724.  Talman's drawing was originally made in 1713.  


Shrine base and feretory of St Edward at Westminster Abbey, complete by 1279-80.  Forming part of a broader collection of monuments at Westminster created under the leadership of the Cosmati family of marblers from Italy, the shrine may be attributed to Petrus civis Romanus (thus identified in the related sanctuary pavement inscription), who may be the same craftsman as Petrus Odoricus (or Pietro di Oderisio). Marble, stone and inlaid cosmatesque ornament.

Provenance and Location: 

Westminster Abbey, London

Commentary [MR assisted by BF]

The engraving of the shrine of St Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey is the first two-page image in Vetusta Monumenta.  Located across two pages, the image demanded the reader turn the book upwards to full appreciate the image, thus marking a decisive break in representation within the series, and indicating a special status for St Edward’s shrine within the volume as a whole.  The SAL minutes record that in November 1721 the Fellows decided to commission an engraving after a drawing by John Talman of 1713.  The engraving was complete by 1725, when Vertue brought the prints and gave three copies to each Fellow.  The decision to publish the engraving in a larger format reflects the elaborate artistry of the monument itself, which comprises polychromatic marble, stone, and inlaid ornamentation.  More significant, however, is the historiographical location of Edward the Confessor in the imagination of eighteenth century English antiquarians.  King/ St Edward (d. 1066) bridged the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman periods in England (a role celebrated in the Bayeux Tapestry), and his canonization endowed the Plantagenet house with a significant royal saint and ancestor.  Edward was the main commemorative focus of Westminster Abbey, and his special spiritual and dynastic relationship with Henry III (1216-72) has been broadly understood to have inspired the monarch’s campaign to rebuild the abbey from 1220/ 45.  The special status awarded to the monument thus reflects its central importance in the contemporary historiographical imagination, in which it represented an originary monument in the formation of English kingship and of the English nation itself.
Located in the centre of the sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, aptly called “an elect and introspective chapel” (Binski 1995: 91), the shrine was the core of the royal necropolis that developed around it in the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  Immediately to the north was the tomb of Henry III that was built between the sanctuary piers, forming a pair of monuments that manifested the spiritual and familial kinship between royal saint and royal patron.  The tomb of Henry III and the shrine base forms part of a celebrated sequence of monuments made by Cosmati marblers at Westminster during the reigns of Henry III (1216-72) and Edward I (1272-1307), which also included the great sanctuary pavement.
The monument was dismantled and partially destroyed in 1540 and reassembled during the reign of Mary I (1553-58).  The present feretory replaces a thirteenth century metalwork feretory that was destroyed in 1540 during the dissolution of the monastery.  At the same time the marble base of the shrine was likely dismantled and the golden feretory removed, while the remaining gold and jewels were placed in the Royal Treasury.  The body of St Edward was removed and kept in an uncertain location by the monks of Westminster Abbey until the restoration of the monastery by Mary I in 1556.  In this same year, John de Feckenham was appointed Abbot of the monastery and placed in charge of reconstructing the shrine (completed 1557).  J. G. O’Neilly and L. E. Tanner suggest that the current state of the shrine suggests an incorrect assembly by Feckenham, noting several architectural incongruities in the base, including the absence of Cosmati flooring around the shrine step and an improper placement of the upper slabs that disrupts the mosaic patterns (O’Neilly and Tanner 1966: 134-139).  The current wooden canopy has traditionally been attributed to Feckenham, but the date of its actual construction remains uncertain.  The shrine was further restored to its present condition by the architect Stephen Dykes Bower between the years 1951-1973.

St Edward’s shrine base is almost completely undocumented.  As a result, aspects of the constructional sequence for the shrine and its components are debated, as indeed are aspects of the Cosmati work at Westminster in general.  Fortunately, Richard Sporley, a monk at Westminster, recorded the inscription in lettering with inlaid blue glass which ran around the top of the shrine base prior to its destruction in 1540.  It read:
In the thousandth year of the Lord, with the seventieth and twice the hundredth with the tenth more or less complete this work was made which Peter the Roman citizen brought to completion.  O Man, if you wish to know the cause, the king was Henry, the friend of the present saint (trans: Binski 1995: 99).
The inscription records the date of the completion of the monument (1000 + 70 + 200 + c. 10) as 1279/80 and also records its authorship by Peter the Roman.  Other aspects of the shrine, namely the metalwork feretory, were recorded as being incomplete in 1269 for the translation of Edward’s remains, and a series of payments were recorded up to 1272.  The inscription on the shrine in our engraving appears to be a later addition.  Only the first half of the text, from the south side of the shrine, is visible here. [1]
The present shrine represents the last of a sequence of monuments to Edward the Confessor, beginning with his initial eleventh-century burial represented in the Bayeux Tapestry.  Following canonization in 1161, Edward the Confessor’s body was formally translated from a tomb to a shrine in 1163 at Westminster in the presence of Henry II.  The appearance of the original shrine and feretory, or perhaps a later version of it, may be recorded in a number of illuminations in the c. 1255 Estoire of St Edward (Cambridge UL MS Ee.3.59), which show pilgrims being healed at the shrine.  The representations of the monument are, however, “bewilderingly inconsistent” (Crook 2011: 189), and the representation of shrine base with foramina (similar to that to St Thomas at Canterbury) may represent a generic type of monument rather than the monument itself.

Works Cited: 

Binski, Paul.  1995.  Westminster Abbey and the Plantagenets: Kingship and the Representation of Power 1200-1400.  New Haven: Yale UP.

Crook, John. 2011.  English Medieval Shrines.  Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

O’Neilly, J.G., and L.E. Tanner.  1966.  “The Shrine of Edward the Confessor.” Archaeologia 100: 129-54. 

Society of Antiquaries of London.  1718-.  Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

Further Reading: 

Barlow, Frank. 2011.  Edward the Confessor. New Haven and London: Yale UP.

Carter, John.  1890.  Architectural Antiquities, Vol. 1. 46-51.  London. 

Gough, Richard.  1797.   Sepulchral monuments in Great Britain applied to illustrate the history of families, manners, habits, and arts,… edited by Richard Gough. Vol.1 in 2 parts, vol.2 in 3 parts. From vol.1. pt.2

Grant, Lindy and Richard Mortimer, eds. 2002. Westminster Abbey: The Cosmati Pavements.  Aldershot: Ashgate.

Flete, John. 1909.  The History of Westminster Abbey by John Flete, ed J. A. Robinson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Nilson, Ben.  1988.  Cathedral Shrines of Medieval England, Woodbridge: Boydell.

Vertue, George. 1741.  “A Dissertation on the Monument of Edward the Confessor.”  Archaeologia I: 32-39.

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