This chapel at the heart of Westminster Abbey is so named for the first king that was buried there – St Edward “the Confessor” – in early 1066.
The abbey, which had been constructed on the site of a Saxon Church at the behest of King Edward in fulfilment of a vow, was newly built when the King died. It had been consecrated on 28th December, 1065, but the king had been too ill to attend the service.
He died just a few days later some time on the night of 4th to 5th January. His burial took place on 6th January (the burial procession is actually depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry) with his body laid to rest beneath the floor of the new church (archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar believe they located the exact location of his original tomb in 2005).
He wasn’t to rest there for long. King Edward’s saintly reputation grew over the ensuing years and miracles began to be reported at the tomb – it’s also said said that when the tomb was opened in 1102, a “wonderful fragrance” is said to have filled the church suggesting that it he wasn’t embalmed the body was packed with aromatic herbs.
In 1163, two years after Edward had been made saint by Pope Alexander III, the king’s body was transferred from the tomb to a specially made shrine.
In the 13th century, King Henry III rebuilt St Edward’s church in the new Gothic-style of architecture, spending extravagant sums on the new building. His rebuilding programme culminated in 1269 when the bones of St Edward was translated into a new shrine featuring mosaics on a stone base created by Italian workmen in which the king’s coffin was placed with a wooden canopy over the top (such was his veneration of St Edward that King Henry III, his brother Richard, Duke of Cornwall, and the king’s two sons bore the coffin to the new shrine).
The shrine became a place of pilgrimage during King Henry III’s reign but his cult declined in the later years (and St Edward, who had for a time been considered patron saint of England was eventually replaced by St George).
The shrine was despoiled during King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of 1540 – the jewels were removed and presented to the King – and Edward’s body removed to another location in the abbey. But Queen Mary I had the Purbeck marble base reassembled (with new jewels added) and Edward’s body returned. The tiered wooden canopy which stands above the stone stone dates from the 16th century (and was heavily restored in the 1950s).
St Edward isn’t the only king buried in the chapel space. Others buried there – around the outer edges of the chapel – included King Henry III, King Edward I and his wife Eleanor of Castile, King Edward III and his wife Philippa of Hainault, King Richard II and his wife Queen Anne of Bohemia, King Henry V and Catherine of Valois (King Henry V had a chantry chapel built above his tomb at the eastern end of St Edward’s Chapel). Matilda, the wife of King Henry I, is also buried there.
WHERE: North Aisle, Westminster Abbey (nearest Tube stations are Westminster and St James’s Park); WHEN: Times vary – see the website for details; COST: £27 adults/£24 concession/£12 children (discounts for buying online; family rates available); WEBSITE: www.westminster-abbey.org