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Edward the Martyr

975-978


coin of Edward the MartyrAt his death, King Edgar the Peaceful had left two sons, the elder of these, Edward, was the child of his first marriage to Æthelflæd, the daughter of Ealdorman Ordmaer.

Æthelflæd had been divorced by the king in around 964 to enable King Edgar to marry his second wife, Ælfthryth, a notorious character and the widow of Ethelwald, Ealdorman of East Anglia, her mother was a member of the royal family of Wessex. Elfrida was said to have had an adulterous affair with the King prior to her first husband's death. This second marriage produced two further sons, Edmund and Ethelred, but the elder of these had predeceased his father.

Ælfthryth was crowned Queen on 11th May, 973, at Bath Abbey, which was the first instance of a coronation of a Saxon Queen of England. She was the first consort to be termed Queen since the infamous Judith, daughter of Charles the Bald, in the previous century.

His father's will named his elder son, Edward, (or Eadweard in Old English) as his heir and he had the support of the influential but now aged St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury. Many of the nobility of the realm, including the powerful Alfere, Ealdorman of Mercia were in favour of the seven year old Ethelred succeeding, as they themselves had much to gain from the crown being subjected to a long minority government. The nation was divided over the issue of which of his sons should suceed King Edgar. A meeting of the witan was arranged at Calne, in Wiltshire were the matter was debated at length. Eventually, the influence of Dunstan prevailed and accordingly Edward was elected King

Edward was crowned by St. Dunstan at Kingston upon Thames in 975, at the age of thirteen. After recording Edward's succession, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that a comet appeared, and that famine and "manifold disturbances" followed.

Despite what had passed, the two brothers, Ethelred and Edward themselves seem to have remained attached to each other. Queen Elfrida, however, thoroughly detested her step-son and strongly wished her own son to succeed his father. .At her instigation, plot was hatched to murder the young King.

Corfe CastleEdward visited his half-brother Ethelred at Corfe, in the Purbeck Hills of Dorset, probably at or near the mound on which the present ruins of Corfe Castle now stand. He arrived on the evening of 18 March 978, at the invitation of his step-mother.

Ælfthryth treacherously met him at the door with a kiss of welcome. King Edward was then offered the traditional drink to refresh him. As the young King heartily quenched his thirst after the dusty journey, one of the Queen's attendants treacherously stabbed the sixteen year old in the back. Though severely wounded, he managed to spur his horse and escaped, making an attempt to re-join his companions, but died on the road. His bloody corpse, dragged in the stirrups by the terrified animal, revealed his fate to his attendants.

Edward was buried at Wareham and his murder went unpunished. Said to deeply repent this deed, Queen Ælfthryth became a nun at her foundation of Wherwell Abbey in Hampshire and died there on 17 November 999, 1000 or 1001.

The Cult of Edward the Martyr

Edward's body lay at Wareham for a year before being disinterred. Ælfhere initiated the reinterment, perhaps as a gesture of reconciliation. According to the life of Oswald, Edward's body was found to be incorrupt when it was disinterred (which was taken as a miraculous sign). The body was taken to Shaftesbury Abbey in Dorset, a nunnery with royal connections which had been endowed by King Alfred the Great and where Edward and Æthelred's grandmother Ælfgifu had spent her latter years. A cult dedicated to the martyred King sprang up, bringing pilgrims flocking to Shaftesbury to seek miracles at his shrine. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Edward's relics were hidden by the monks to escape desecration.

During the course of an excavation of the Abbey in 1931, Edward's remains were unearthed by a Mr. Wilson-Claridge. An examination of the relics was carried out in 1970, when Edward's skeletal remains, remarkably intact, were examined by Dr. T.E.A. Stowell, an osteologist of the British Home office. They concluded that the remains were those of a young man of about 20, (Edward was 17 when he was murdered) and were able to detail with remarkable accuracy all of his injuries, from his broken ribs and ankle and fractured skull due to the dragging, to the nick from the assassins' blades on his spinal column, thus confirming the historical account of his death.

Wilson-Claridge wanted the relics to go to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. His brother, however, wanted them to be returned to Shaftesbury Abbey. For decades, the relics were kept in a bank vault in Woking, Surrey because of the unresolved dispute about which of two churches should have them They were later donated to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which had Edward's remains respectfully reburied at Brookwood Cemetery, Woking, Surrey.