Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plate 1.16: Shrine of Edward the Confessor

Plate: Engraved by George Vertue (1684-1756) after John Talman (1677-1726) in 1724. Talman's drawing was originally made in 1713.

Object: 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). The shrine is composed of marble, stone and inlaid cosmatesque ornament, and remains in its original location in Westminster Abbey, London.


Bottom: MAUSOLEUM Sive FERETRUM S.ti EDUARDI CONFESSORIS REGIS ANGLIÓ”. / Marmore Porphyritico & Serpentino. Opereque insuper musivo elegantissime ornatum uti hodie in Ecclesia Westmonasteriensi conspicitur. / sumptibus Societatis AntiquariÓ• Londinensis MDCCXXIV.



Bottom: 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.

On the Image: “Famed for all virtues, here great Edward lies, / Confessor, king, and saint” (Cheales 1877, 40)

Commentary by Matthew M. Reeve (assisted by Bradley J. Fuller): 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 that the reader turn the book upwards to fully 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 Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) minutes record that in November 1721 the Fellows decided to commission this engraving after a drawing by John Talman of 1713. The engraving was complete by 1725, when George Vertue brought the prints and gave three copies to each Fellow. Vertue went on to write an essay on the monument in 1741, and it was published in the first volume of Archaeologia (Vertue 1770). The decision to publish the engraving in a larger format surely reflects the elaborate artistry of the monument itself, which is executed in opus sectile with inlaid marble, stone, and glass, as much as it does the cultural significance of England’s royal shrine.

King Edward, who reigned 1042-1066 and was canonized St. Edward in 1161, 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 (Porter 1710). Edward was the main commemorative focus of Westminster Abbey, and his special spiritual and dynastic relationship with Henry III has been broadly understood to have inspired Henry’s campaign to rebuild the abbey, beginning with the Lady Chapel in 1220 and the body of the church from 1245. The present shrine in fact 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, 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 the shrine base with foramina (similar to that to St Thomas at Canterbury) may represent a generic type of monument rather than the monument itself.

The current shrine was set upon a platform and originally bore a metalwork feretory. The base is composed of Purbeck marble from Dorset, with stone, metal and glass inlays. The base is punctuated by three trefoiled arches that served as foramina or “squeezing spaces” into which worshippers could insert sick or wounded body parts in the hope of a miraculous cure by St. Edward. Within these squeezing spaces are hybrid French Gothic tracery forms based upon Reims Cathedral with an underlying matrix of inlaid Italianate work. Italian in style and manufacture, the shrine drew typologically from the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury and other English monuments. It was located in the center of the sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, aptly called “an elect and introspective chapel” (Binski 1995, 91), and formed the core of the royal necropolis that would develop 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 shrine base of St. Edward and the tomb of Henry III form part of a celebrated sequence of monuments made by Cosmati marblers at Westminster during the reigns of Henry III and Edward I, which also included the great sanctuary pavement. The “Cosmati episode” at Westminster now represents a celebrated moment in English art historiography, and the dating, sequence and meaning of these commissions is still debated (Grant 2002). These monuments form part of what appears to be a new taste for opus sectile in English medieval art, including the shrine pavement at Canterbury (before 1220), and the recently published fragment from Wimborne Minster, Dorset (Rees and Lewis 2014). Modern scholarship on the shrine begins with George Vertue’s aforementioned essay in the first issue of Archaeologia. Vertue, via Giorgio Vasari, attributes the shrine to Pietro Cavallini (1259-1330). Vertue’s influential essay would be followed closely in Horace Walpole’s (1717-1797) Anecdotes on Painting, which likewise ascribes the authorship to Cavallini (Walpole 1826, 31-35). The shrine of St. Edward would inspire a number of potential imitations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including at Walpole’s Strawberry Hill. In 1768 Walpole wished to model a chimneypiece after it but found the commission too expensive and in the end the architect Robert Adam offered a cheaper version of an opus sectile fireplace for the Strawberry Hill Round Room. Walpole did, however, acquire a related Cosmati monument from Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome for Strawberry Hill via William Hamilton in 1768 for his Chapel in the Woods (Walpole 1973, 406-7). A fragment from what may have been the shrine of St Cuthburga at Wimborne Minster entered the collection of Pierre Romilly (1712-84) in the later eighteenth century (Rees and Lewis 2014).

The shrine of St. Edward was dismantled and partially destroyed in 1540 and then reassembled during the reign of Mary I. The present feretory replaces a thirteenth-century metalwork feretory that was destroyed in 1540 during the dissolution of the monasteries. 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 undisclosed 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 note that the current state of the shrine suggests an incorrect assembly by Feckenham, pointing out 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 (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 1951-73.

The origin of 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 on the engraving. This epitaph is in three Latin hexameters:

Omnibus insignis virtutum laudibus heros,
Sanctus Edwardus Confessor Rex venerandus
Quinto die Januarii moriens super aethera scandit.
Sursum corda.
Moritur Anno Domini MLXV

Confessor, king, and saint, he sought the skies.
Friends, lift to heaven your hearts as well as eyes.
Died 5 January 1065/66 (Cheales 1877, 40)]

Works Cited:

Binski, Paul. 1990. “The Cosmati at Westminster and the English Court Style.” Art Bulletin 72, no. 1: 6-34.

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

Cheales, Alan Benjamin. 1877. Epigrams & Epigraphs by the Author of Proverbial Folk-Lore. London: Simpkin, Marshall, & Co. 

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

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

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

Porter, Jerome. 1710. The Life of St. Edward, King and Confessor. London.

Rees, Lawrence and Michael J.T. Lewis. 2014. “A Fragment of Cosmatesque Mosaic from Wimborne Minster, Dorset.” The Antiquaries Journal 94: 135-51.

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

Vertue, George. 1770 [1736/41]. “A Dissertation on the Monument of Edward the Confessor.” Archaeologia 1: 32-39.

Walpole, Horace. 1826. Anecdotes on Painting. Edited by Rev. James Dalloway. London: Shakespeare Press.

------. 1973. Horace Walpole’s Correspondence. Vol. 35. Edited by W.S.Lewis. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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