Poor Edward the Martyr is one of the great ‘what ifs’ of Medieval history. It’s not that he was anything special in the kingly department, it’s simply that he didn’t get the chance to be – or to not be – any kind of king.
Born around 962 he was the eldest son of Edgar the Peaceable, king of England. His mother was Æthelfled “the Fair”, daughter of Ealdorman Ordmaer. There seems to be some confusion as to Æthelfled’s actual status (not surprising given the distance of over 1,000 years, I suppose). Some sources say she and Edgar were married, but later divorced. However, others suggest that young Edward’s legitimacy was in doubt and that his parents never married. This last is compounded by suggestions of ‘youthful indiscretion’ on Edgar’s part.
Nothing is heard of Edward’s mother after his birth, possibly suggesting that she died shortly after. Edgar, however, married again – or at least formed another relationship. His 2nd wife was Wulfthryth, with whom he had a daughter, Edith (Eadgyth). Wulfryth became the abbess of Wilton and young Edith followed her mother into the convent.
And then Edgar formed a 3rd and final relationship that would have far-reaching consequences for his first-born son, Edward. Edgar married the daughter of Ordgar, a powerful Devon thegn who died in 971. Unlike Edgar’s previous ‘wives’, Ælfryth was crowned and anointed as queen, following her marriage with Edgar, which was officially blessed by the church. Ælfryth gave Edgar 2 sons; Edmund, who died in 971 and Æthelred, born in 968.
Both Edward and Edmund appear in a charter of 966, as witnesses to the foundation of the New Minster at Winchester. Curiously, Edward’s name appears below that of his half-brother, suggesting Edmund was regarded as his father’s heir, rather than his older sibling.
Little is known of Edward’s childhood; according to Byrthferth of Ramsey he was fostered for some years by Sideman, bishop of Crediton and protégé of Ælfhere, ealdorman of western Mercia and the most powerful ealdorman in England at the time.
When his father died in 975, Edward, at 13 years of age but with doubtful legitimacy, was one of 2 rival candidates for the crown. Edward was up against his baby brother, Æthelred; undoubtedly legitimate but only 6 or 7 years old. With both too young to make an independent bid for power, each boy was backed by court factions.
Æthelred’s mother, Ælfryth, garnered support for her son from Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex, and Æthelwine, ealdorman of east Anglia and brother of Ælfrythf’s 1st husband. However, Edward had the backing of ealdorman Ælfhere and, possibly, Oswald, archbishop of York. However, the crucial support came from Dunstan, the highly influential and saintly archbishop of Canterbury, who crowned Edward personally.
We know very little of Edward the Martyr, and what we have is contradictory to the extreme. According to Byrthferth, Edward himself was known for having a hot temper; a temper which instilled fear within the people of his own household. However, Osbern maintained that men had a good opinion of Edward.
With Edward too young to rule alone, Ealdorman Ælfhere held the reins of government. Only 3 charters have survived, 2 of which were issued in Crediton, Edward’s childhood home. The regime’s influence seem to be very limited the further north you look, especially in the Danelaw. In the Five Boroughs region (including Stamford and Lincoln), coinage was below the standard of that of his father, Edgar. The short reign was overshadowed by a backlash to Edgar’s previous ecclesiastical policies, seeing a violent reaction against the expansion of the reformed monasteries; however, Edward retained the support of Dunstan, who did much to influence church policy and direction.
Dunstan’s influence saw him call a meeting of councillors in Calne in 978. Held in an upper room, the meeting turned into disaster when the floor gave way. Many councillors were killed or injured; however, Dunstan, possibly in his early 70s by then, miraculously survived when the rafter on which he was standing was the only one that didn’t give way.
Edward seems to have been benevolent towards his stepmother, bearing her no ill will following her attempts to claim the throne for her own son. He allowed Ælfryth to claim her part of his father’s dower and thus confirmed her jurisdiction over the whole of Dorset. She and Æthelred settled at Corfe, a castle and large estate in the Purbeck Hills.
Ælfryth, however, may have been less forgiving and unwilling to settle for her son being Edward’s heir. When the opportunity presented itself, she is said to have jumped at it, with few qualms.
In March 978 Edward had decided to visit his half-brother at Corfe; arriving on the evening of 18th March, with only a small band of men accompanying him. According to the chronicles, he was met at the gates of Corfe Castle by Ælfryth’s retainers; he had probably sent ahead to warn of his arrival and would have expected a welcome, someone to take his horse and lead him into the castle. Sources vary, some suggesting that he was presented with a cup; so he could quench his thirst after a long ride.
What is certain, is that Edward was pulled from his horse and stabbed – murdered. Following the stabbing, Edward’s horse bolted; with the dying king’s foot caught in the styrrup, he was dragged along the ground for some considerable distance.
He was 16.
He was buried quickly and without ceremony somewhere close by – possibly Wareham. With Æthelred considered too young to be guilty, the finger of accusation pointed straight at his mother, Ælfryth.
An anointed king was seen as God’s representative on earth, with regicide being viewed as a heinous crime. In spite of this, Edward’s killers escaped punishment. Ælfryth was the prime suspect. As late as 40 years after the killing, Archbishop Wulfstan of York laid the blame firmly at her door, in the D text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which opined:
No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain. Men murdered him, but God hath magnified him. He was in life an earthly king. He is now after death a heavenly saint.¹
However, given the political reality of her position as mother of the king, it was expedient for her to remain beyond suspicion. Although Ælfryth appears guilty, and many fingers pointed at her, it is just as likely that one of her household, as supporters of Æthelred, formed the conspiracy to advance their own aims; having a king on the throne who owes you his crown can be useful to your career.
We will never know.
Although the crown was not conferred on Æthelred straight away, whatever the dowager queen’s actions, at between 9 and 11 years old, at most, her son was now the only candidate for the succession. However, it was only after an interregnum and a period of negotiations that the crown was settled on Æthelred.
Almost a year after Edward’s death, the young king was exhumed by Ealdorman Ælfhere. Edward’s erstwhile supporter stayed a couple of days at Wareham before escorting the body to the nunnery at Shaftesbury. It was only after Edward was safely re-buried with the honour to which he was entitled as king, that Æthelred was crowned by Archbishop Dunstan; on 4th May 979.
Edward was soon venerated as a saint and martyr with Æthelred himself championing his brother’s cult, translating Edward’s bones to a new shrine at Shaftesbury Abbey in 1001. A grant of that year, in favour of Shaftesbury, stated that the gift was being made to God and to
“his saint, my brother Edward, whom drenched with his own blood, the Lord has seen fit to magnify in our time through many miracles.”²
During the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, Shaftesbury Abbey was destroyed and Edward’s shrine lost. However, in 1931 his grave was discovered and his bones were removed to a bank vault in Croydon, as neither the Churches of England or Rome would take the relics for reburial. Tests on the remains, in 1970, seemed to confirm they were Edward’s, the injuries on the bones being consistent with the wounds Edward is known to have received. The young king’s remains were finally removed from the bank, in September 1984, to be interred in a shrine in the Russian Orthodox Cemetery at Brookwood, Surrey.
And despite the fact Shaftesbury would like to have Edward back, so far as I can discover he remains the only Saxon king to be resting in a Russian Orthodox cemetery.
Footnotes: ¹ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle quoted by Martin Wall in The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts; ² AS chart., S899 quoted by Cyril Hart in Oxforddnb.com.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia
Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir;The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; oxforddnb.com.
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