Was Edward the Confessor an albino….?


Edward the Confessor, found at Wikimedia Commons

Researching for my writing takes me all over the place … and to numerous figures from the past. This time, needing to know the attitude of medieval people to albinism, I was led to our long-revered medieval monarch and saint, Edward the Confessor.

Now I’ll be the first to admit to not knowing a great deal about him, except that his death led to the invasion of the Normans in 1066. Other than that I’ve had no cause to investigate him. So I’m surprised to learn that he is (now) widely believed to have been albino. But was he? Sometimes the only records from the past can be read in different ways, and while appearing to say one thing are actually saying nothing of the kind. So, was the Confessor an albino?

Here is an eye-witness description of him by someone who may have been a monk from the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter at Westminster, and who was attached to the royal household:-

“….As to his physical characteristics and outward appearance he was most handsome, of exceptional height distinguished by milk-white hair and beard, with a full face and rosy complexion. His hands were thin and snow-white, his fingers long and translucent. His whole body was free from blemish and he was every inch a king. He was agreeable yet preserved a proper seriousness, walking with lowered eyes and greeting everybody with the utmost affability. If roused to indignation by some just cause he was as fierce as a lion yet he did not vent his anger in abuse….”

I have taken the above from  an excellent article entitled THE ALBINISM OF TIMUR, ZĀL, AND EDWARD THE CONFESSOR on the subject of the medieval period and albinism, from which I also quote the following:-

“….There are several phrases in this [above] passage which are suggestive of albinism. Edward’s hair is described as ‘milk-white’ but no intimation as to whether it was so at birth. This cannot be considered important as Edward may well have been middle-aged when the chronicler saw him. The writer adds that Edward had a chubby face with ruddy skin and long delicate white hands and fingers. This could be suggestive, the failure to comment on the skin of the rest of the body being unimportant as the writer can hardly be expected to have seen more than the exposed parts of the king’s body, unless the phrase ‘his whole body was free from blemish’ is genuinely objective. The only reference to Edward’s eyes is the phrase ‘walking with lowered eyes (humiliatis incedens visibus)’. This may indicate photophobia but it is a phrase often used by medieval writers when referring to scholars or ecclesiatics. Nowhere are the conclusive ocular characteristics of the albino mentioned, and the sentence ‘His whole body was free from blemish and he was every inch a king’ suggests that they were absent or not evident. In addition Edward did not lead the sequestered existence which his soubriquet suggests. He had a great enthusiasm for hunting and the chase, pastimes usually requiring something better than albinotic vision….

“….If Edward’s appearance as described in the Vita is allowed to be accurate there is not enough evidence to support a diagnosis of albinism….”

So, ladies and gentlemen, when you’ve gone to the above link and read the original article, what is your opinion? Was the Confessor an albino? Or simply very fair and blond? I’m inclined to think the latter, but it’s only a hunch….

As a footnote, I have to observe that Richard II’s superb Wilton Diptych has a wonderful likeness of the Confessor, in which he is definitely not albino. But then I don’t know how Richard would have viewed albinism—he could be very particular and awkward—-and so perhaps discretion was the better part of valour on the part of the artist?

Edward the Confessor from the Wilton Diptych

But then again, the Bayeux Tapestry didn’t credit the Confessor with albinism either, and I can’t imagine that William the Conqueror would have given a damn one way or the other. The Confessor could have been blue with yellow spots for all William cared, because all the latter wanted was the crown!

Edward the Confessor from the Bayeux Tapestry

And a final PS: Another king whose hands fit the above description of the Confessor’s, i.e. “….thin and snow-white, his fingers long and translucent….” with blue veins showing clearly, is Richard III. At least, they’re painted in this way in his portrait in the National Portrait Gallery. My point being that having such hands was definitely not an indication of any form of albinism. Richard’s skin was pale, as all his likenesses seem to indicate, but he wasn’t albino in any way, shape or form.

From the NPG portrait of Richard III



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