On 18th March 978 a tragic incident occurred: a young King of England was slain at Corfe Castle, having only served as king for a short three years, from 975 until his early demise in 978, when he became known as Edward the Martyr.
Born around 962, Edward was the only son of King Edgar the Peaceful and his first wife Ethelfled. Whilst he was the first son, he was not the acknowledged heir to the throne as his father had remarried twice and was now settled with his new Queen Elfthryth with whom he had another son, Ethelred the Unready. As half-brother to Edward and with a mother who was now Queen, Ethelred was a valid contender to the throne. After Edgar’s death a family dispute over power would emerge, leading to an unimaginable turn of events which even today is shrouded in mystery.
The saga began in 975 when Edgar the Peaceful passed away, leaving Edward, just thirteen at the time, as heir to the throne. However, his legitimacy was called into question and disputed by people who supported his younger brother to take up the role instead. Ethelred was indisputably also a legitimate heir to the throne; however he was only six or seven when his father passed away making his older brother the more likely choice. Nevertheless, as both sons were very young, their bids for power were strongly led by court factions and in the case of Ethelred, his mother, who was keen to see her son as rightful heir.
In due course, Edward was chosen to be the next King of England and crowned with the help of the Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury who represented Edward’s strong clerical support base which also included Oswald of Worcester, who served as Archbishop of York.
Edward was chosen as king but not much is known about his character and thus his ability to lead. At the time differing accounts from important figures paint a conflicting picture of the young king.
According to Byrthferth who was a priest and monk based at Ramsey Abbey, he had a bad temper which affected those who worked with him and created an atmosphere of fear. This account however is refuted by Osbern of Canterbury who was a Benedictine monk and who commented on Edward’s character in more favourable terms, noting that the men around him held him in high regard. These two varying accounts of his character only contribute to the mystery and intrigue of the king and his short reign.
His ascension to the throne took place amidst a power struggle, and his reign did nothing to allay fears of treachery, violence and disorder. During his three years in power, the so-called anti-monastic reaction took place, which involved members of the royal court taking their opportunity to reclaim power lost during King Edgar’s reign. Edgar had decided to increase the land ownership and power of the church, thus angering secular landowners in the process. The nobility found Edward’s weak reign as king the perfect time to seize control, leading to attacks on monasteries and property belonging to the Church.
The secular landowners increased their attacks, especially in the north which was compounded by further political issues pertaining to opposition to southern rule. Some of the greatest ranking nobles such as Aelfhere and Aethelwine found themselves embroiled in conflict, with Aelfhere portrayed as one of the main leaders of the anti-monastic movement. The dispute was escalating and civil war looked likely. Edward’s leadership was not strong enough to deal with current events, even with the assistance of the powerful Archbishop Dunstan, and the seizure of monastic estates continued. All in all, Edward’s time in power was marred by crisis.
In March 978, Edward would make his fateful decision to visit his half-brother at Corfe Castle. He arrived in the evening, accompanied only by a small group of men who were met at the gates of the castle by Elfthryth’s retainers. According to the Chronicles this was quite as usual; having alerted members of the household to his impending arrival, he would have been expecting a welcome and accompaniment into the castle. Unfortunately this did not happen. The events that followed have become enveloped in secrecy, mired by clandestine reports and cryptic accounts.
The assassination took place at the gates of the castle as Edward waited to be allowed entry, perhaps being offered a beverage of mead whilst he waited. It was here that the dark deed was committed; Edward was still mounted on his horse when he was mercilessly stabbed, dying on his horse which subsequently bolted into the darkness of the night, dragging his body along the ground. No-one really knows how these events played out: what is clear however is that an act of murder and treachery was committed that night which had enormous repercussions for the throne, for the kingdom and Christianity in the years to come.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has become the main source for this period and in particular for this event, with the Peterborough Chronicle manuscript describing the sad events on 18th March thus:
“Men murdered him, but God exalted him. In life he was an earthly king; after death he is now a heavenly saint”.
Edward’s murder was said to be on the orders of his stepmother who intended to put her own son on the throne. Although unproven, Elfthryth and her factions, including Ethelred’s main advisors appear the most likely perpetrators of the assassination as Ethelred was too young to have orchestrated such an event.
Another key figure possibly implicated in Edward’s demise was Aelfhere, one of the main conspirators in the anti-monastic movement. Some have taken his involvement in Edward’s reburial as a display of penance for the murder. That being said, the responsibility for Edward the Martyr’s death remains a source of intrigue, with power, politics and wealth at play.
Initially his body was placed in a grave near Wareham without any of the pomp or ceremony expected of a royal burial. A year later his body was disinterred and taken to Shaftesbury Abbey to receive a proper ceremony and in 1001 placed in a prominent position in the abbey, as by this point he was considered a saint.
King Edward would become known as Edward the Martyr, a representation of an innocent victim slain for power and prestige, his martyrdom status secured by his untimely death. His status as a saint however was induced by the miracles that were said to have occurred at his tomb.
His remains were said to have been miraculously intact, a sign of his sainthood; his veneration followed and to this day Edward the Martyr’s feast day is celebrated on 18th March, the day of his mortal demise.
During the Dissolution of the Monasteries the bones were removed from their resting place and hidden. In 1931, bones were discovered in the ruins of the abbey and said to be Edward’s. Today they reside in the Orthodox Church of St Edward the Martyr in Brookwood, Surrey.
His martyrdom as a good Christian at the hands of others who were considered ‘irreligious’ has allowed his sainthood to be glorified and celebrated since 1001. To this day, many from the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion and the Eastern Orthodox Church recognise and celebrate him.
Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.