King Ædward "the Martyr" of England
- Born: Abt 962
- Died: 18 Mar 978, Corfe Castle, Dorsetshire, England about age 16
- Buried: Shaftesbury Abbey, Shaftesbury, Dorset, England
Edward the Martyr or Eadweard II was king of England from 975 until he was murdered in 978. Edward is thought to have been the son of King Edgar and Æthelflæd. His succession to the throne was contested by supporters of his half-brother Æthelred, but with Dunstan's support, Edward was acknowledged by the Witan and crowned king by Dunstan and Oswald of Worcester.
Edward's reign was short and disturbed by factional strife. He was killed at Corfe Castle by servants of his stepmother the Queen Dowager Ælfthryth (Elfrida) on 18 March 978. Edward became known as "the Martyr" because of his violent end, the fact that the party opposed to him had been irreligious, and the fact that he himself had always acted as a defender of the Church. Within a short time he was regarded as a saint and his cult was established at Shaftesbury Abbey where he had been reburied circa 980. Many miracles were reported at the tomb of St Edward, including the healing of lepers and the blind. He is recognized as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Anglican Communion.
Edward is generally supposed to have been the son of King Edgar and Æthelflæd, but other sources indicate that his mother may have been Edgar's second wife, or mistress, Wulfthryth, later Abbess of Wilton. By 965 Edgar had married Ælfthryth, who would give him two sons, Edmund, who died young, and Æthelred. Although Edmund died circa 970, his brother Æthelred is likely to have inherited his position as favoured heir. Edgar's actual plans for the succession can only be conjecture as he died, still a young man aged about 32, on 8 July 975, leaving two sons, neither yet an adult.
Edward's accession to the throne on his father's death in 975 was opposed by a group who was bent on securing the crown for Æthelred, then aged seven. The succession was disputed, not by Edgar's sons, but by their supporters. Æthelred's cause was led by his mother, the Queen Dowager Ælfthryth, and included Ealdorman Ælfhere and Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester. Edward's claim, however, was supported by Archbishop of Canterbury St Dunstan and Archbishop of York Oswald of Worcester. Other supporters included nobles, such as Ælfwine and Byrhtnoth.
With Dunstan's support, Edward was acknowledged by the Witan and he was crowned by Dunstan himself. Though only thirteen, the young king had already shown himself to be a serious Christian. According to Theodoric Paulus, Edward "was a young man of great devotion and excellent conduct. He lived a completely orthodox, good and holy life. Moreover, he loved above all things God and the Church. He was generous to the poor, a haven to the good, a champion of the Faith of Christ, a vessel full of every virtuous grace."
On King Edward's accession to the throne a famine was starving the kingdom and violent attacks were made against monasteries by prominent Mercian noblemen. These assaults were led by Ælfhere, who demanded the lands which his father King Edgar had endowed to the monks. Many of these monasteries were destroyed and the monks were forced to flee. The king, however, stood firm together with Archbishop Dunstan in defence of the Church and the monasteries. Many of the problems of his reign, such as this anti-monastic reaction and other disputes between the ealdormen, were made worse by the young king's lack of experience.
During his brief reign of three and a half years, it was recorded that he won the affection of his people with his upright behavior. Edward himself, however, was not without fault. He "had offended many important persons by his intolerable violence of speech and behavior. Long after he had passed into veneration as a saint it was remembered that his outbursts of rage had alarmed all who knew him, and especially the members of his own household."
Edward's short reign was brought to an end during a visit to his stepmother and stepbrother. On March 18, 978, the king was hunting with dogs and horsemen near Wareham in Dorset. During this activity, the king decided to visit his young brother Æthelred who was being brought up in the house of his mother Ælfthryth at Corfe Castle, near Wareham. Separated from his retinue, the King arrived alone at the castle. While still on his horse in the lower part of the castle, Ælfthryth offered Edward a glass of mead and, while he was drinking it, he was stabbed by one of the queen's party. He rode away, but soon fell from his horse and was dragged with one foot in the stirrup until the corpse fell into a stream at the base of the hill upon which Corfe Castle stands. Legend would later claim that his corpse was revealed by a pillar of light. Æthelred himself was then only ten years old, so was not implicated in the murder. An alternative account comes from Henry of Huntingdon who alleges that Ælfthryth herself committed the murder:
" Edward was treasonably slain by his own family... it is reported that his stepmother, that is the mother of King Æthelred, stabbed him with a dagger while she was in the act of offering him a cup to drink."
His body was hastily buried without royal honours at Wareham. The queen then ordered that the body be quickly hidden in a hut nearby. Within the hut, however, there lived a woman blind from birth whom the queen supported out of charity. During the night, a light reportedly appeared and filled the whole hut. Struck with awe, the woman cried out: "Lord, have mercy!" and suddenly received her sight. At this she discovered the dead body of the king. The Church of St. Edward at Corfe Castle now stands on the traditional site of this miracle. At dawn the queen learned of the miracle and was troubled, and again ordered the disposal of the body, this time by burying it in a marshy place near Wareham. A year after the murder however, a pillar of fire was seen over the place where the body was hidden, lighting up the whole area. This was seen by some of the inhabitants of Wareham, who disinterred the body. Immediately, a clear spring of healing water sprang up in that place. Accompanied by what was now a huge crowd of mourners, the body was taken to the church of the Most Holy Mother of God in Wareham and buried at the east end of the church. This took place on February 13, 980.
The stream where his body had first been found was also believed to have healing properties, particularly for the blind. On account of this and a series of subsequent miracles, the relics were translated to the abbey at Shaftesbury. When the relics were taken up from the grave, they were found to be whole and incorrupt. The translation of the relics was overseen by Dunstan and Earl Ælfhere of Mercia, who in Edgar's lifetime had been one of his chief opponents. This occurred in a great procession on February 13, 981 and arrived at Shaftesbury seven days later. There the relics were received by the nuns of Shaftesbury Abbey and were buried with full royal honours on the north side of the altar. On the way from Wareham to Shaftesbury, a further miracle had also taken place; two crippled men were brought close to the bier and those carrying it lowered the body to their level, where upon the cripples were immediately restored to full health. This procession and these events were re-enacted 1000 years later in 1981. Many other miracles are said to have been obtained through his intercession. Ælfthryth, struck with repentance for her crimes, built the two monasteries of Wherwell and Ambresbury, in the first of which she ended her days in penance.
In 1001, it was recorded that the tomb in which the saint lay was observed regularly to rise from the ground. King Æthelred was filled with joy at this and instructed the bishops to raise his brother's tomb from the ground and place it into a more fitting place. As the tomb was opened a wonderful fragrance issued from it, such that all present "thought that they were standing in Paradise." The bishops then bore away the sacred relics from the tomb and placed them in a casket in the holy place of the saints together with other holy relics. This elevation of the relics of Edward took place on 20 June 1001.
Edward was given the title of Martyr for three reasons: his violent end, the fact that the party opposed to him had been irreligious, and the fact that he himself had always acted as a defender of the Church. This title was given to him in a number of church calendars. Edward was officially glorified by the All-English Council of 1008, presided over by St Alphege, archbishop of Canterbury (who was later also martyred by the Danes in 1012). King Æthelred ordered that the saint's three feast days (March 18, February 13 and June 20) should be celebrated throughout England. Shaftesbury Abbey was rededicated to the Mother of God and St Edward. Shaftesbury was apparently renamed "Edwardstowe," only reverting to its original name after the Reformation. Many miracles were recorded at the tomb of St Edward, including the healing of lepers and the blind.
Since the Reformation
During the sixteenth century, under King Henry VIII, the monasteries were dissolved and many holy places were demolished, but Edward's remains were hidden so as to avoid desecration. In 1931, the relics were recovered by Mr. Wilson-Claridge during an archaeological excavation; their identity was confirmed by Dr. T.E.A. Stowell, an osteologist. In 1970, examinations performed on the relics suggested that the young man had died in the same manner as Edward. Mr. 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.
In time, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia won out and placed the relics in a church in Brookwood Cemetery, in Woking. The St Edward Brotherhood of monks was organized there, as well. The church is now named St Edward the Martyr Orthodox Church. In the Orthodox Church, St Edward is ranked as a Passion-bearer, a type of saint who accepts death out of love for Christ. Edward is recognized as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. His feast day is celebrated on March 18, the day of his murder.