Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Who Are All These Kings?: Edward the Martyr

Edward the Martyr was the eldest son of King Edgar, by his first wife Ethelfleda, who died in childbirth. He was born in 962.

When Edgar died in 975, the thirteen-year-old Edward was just about old enough to be taken seriously as King, and he was duly crowned at Kingston-on-Thames.

There was, however, serious opposition to his accession. It was known that Edward was an unpleasant youth given to violent tantrums, and there was certainly a faction who saw the possible succession of his younger half-brother, the seven-year-old Ethelred, as a way of acquiring power for themselves. Prominent among these were Alfhere, Ealdorman of Mercia, and Ethelred’s mother Elfrida.

Some of the more honourable opposition came from those opposed to Dunstan’s monastic reforms, carried out during the reign of Edgar, and which Edward was expected to confirm.

In any event, Dunstan’s party, a prominent member of which was Britnoth, Ealdorman of Essex, secured the accession of Edward.

However, he turned out to be as unpopular as expected, and opposition to his reign grew.

Shortly after Edward’s succession, a bright comet, always regarded as an ill omen, was seen in the sky over England, and this was followed by a famine.

It was late in the reign of Edward, in 978, that a disaster happened at Calne in Wiltshire. A meeting of important councillors was being held in an upper room when the floor gave way, killing everybody except Dunstan, who had been standing on the only rafter to have remained intact. This was of course claimed as a miracle.

But it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened, and Edward was murdered in 978.

He was calling to see his stepmother and his half-brother at Corfe Castle in Dorset. As he arrived and started to dismount, a group of retainers went to greet him, but one of the group stabbed him to death.

Ethelred, at ten years old, was probably too young to have been implicated in the plot, but it would be na´ve to suggest that his mother knew nothing about it. Amazingly, nobody was ever punished for the murder.

Edward was unmarried and had no children, so it was natural that Ethelred succeeded to the throne, but of course had no real power for some years, and when he did acquire power he was so badly advised that he has gone down in history as Ethelred the Unready.

Edward the Martyr was buried at Wareham Abbey, but a few years later his body was translated to the more important Shaftesbury Abbey. Miracles were being attributed to him, and Ethelred declared him a martyr and a saint. There are churches dedicated to him (“Edward King and Martyr”), notably at Castle Donington in Leicestershire.

It seems astonishing that such an unpleasant and unsaintly young man should qualify for sainthood. It should be realised, though, that in those far off times the killing of a King was regarded as a blasphemous act. A King was a King because God had decreed it. A murdered King could therefore fairly be called a martyr.

In 1931, an archaeological dig at Shaftesbury found what are believed to be Edward’s remains. Both the Anglican and Catholic churches declined to accept these for reinterment, and they were eventually reburied at the Russian Orthodox Church’s cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey, and afterwards passed for safe keeping to the Midland Bank at Croydon.