Who was Edward the Martyr?
Edward the Martyr was the King of England from 975 to 978. His reign was brutally cut short when he was murdered on 18 March 978. Edward became the king after his father King Edgar the Peaceful died, leaving behind a dispute about his successor. Edward had not been chosen by his father as his rightful heir to the throne and this put both him and his half-brother Æthelred II (also known as Æthelred the Unready) in contention for the leadership. Edward, despite being the elder son of King Edgar, was not recognized as the legitimate son. This was due to the fact that King Edgar had remarried and his new wife, Elfthryth, the mother of Æthelred II, had replaced Edward’s mother Ethelfled as the queen. As the tussle intensified, both the sons were backed by their respective supporters in their claim to the throne. Edward won as he was supported by the clerics and the archbishops of Canterbury and York. At that time, he was too young to understand the complexities of ruling a kingdom. He had not completed even three years of his reign when he was murdered for reasons unknown. He was ultimately recognized as a martyr and a saint in the Catholic Church.
Childhood & Early Life
Edward was the eldest child of King Edgar the Peaceful. The identity of his mother is not known for sure. According to Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, King Edgar was attracted to Ethelfled, a nun from Wilton Abbey, who he eventually seduced. Edward was reportedly born as a result of this affair around 962.
Other accounts suggest that King Edgar was married to Æthelflæd, the daughter of an ealdorman of the East Anglians, and Edward was a result of this marriage.
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Death of King Edgar & Succession Dispute
King Edgar was a man of strong will and brought about many reforms which disturbed the general functioning of the monasteries as well as the churches. He dismissed many nobilities and provided loans as well as leases to monasteries to function better without the existing restraints.
Many, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop of York, and the Bishop of Winchester were among the powerful nobilities who used to control the monasteries and the churches.
King Edgar died in July 975 without having chosen his rightful heir. Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, questioned the legitimacy of the marriage between King Edgar and his wife, Queen Dowager Ælfthryth. This directly put a question mark over the legitimacy of their son Æthelred’s claim to the throne.
No clear law was available to select the deceased king’s rightful heir. Edgar’s sons Edward and Æthelred both claimed their right to the throne. On top of that, the powerful leaders not being unanimous in their choices made the succession war even more complicated.
Edward was supported by Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, along with Dunstan’s trusted aid Oswald, Archbishop of York. Compromises were made and Edward was made the king.
Æthelred was given lands which were reserved for the king and his sons; some of these lands had been previously given to the Benedictine monastery Abingdon Abbey by King Edgar. These lands were later forcibly repossessed for Æthelred by the leading nobles.
Accession & Reign
Edward became the king with powerful backing from Dunstan and Oswald. There are different accounts available which portray conflicting images of Edward as the king.
He was a teenager when he became the king. He was too young to handle the complexities of ruling a kingdom. Some reports from the priest Byrthferth from Ramsey Abbey state that Edward was an ill-tempered ruler who made his workers fearful of him.
The Benedictine monk, Osbern, from Canterbury, gave a different picture of Edward. According to him, Edward was a very kind king who was admired by his aides. Despite being very young, he was wise enough to rule a kingdom.
King Edward faced a great deal of unrest during his reign as the secular landowners in the north had conflicting political issues. The ealdormen of Mercia (Ælfhere) and East Anglia (Æthelwine) almost started a civil war despite the best efforts of the king and his wise advisor, the Archbishop Dustan.
Some of the secular clerics, who had previously been dismissed by King Edgar, returned and took the places of the current clerics. The majority of the leases and loans which had been granted by King Edgar were rewritten by the clerics during the reign of King Edward.
According to the version given in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, King Edward was murdered on March 18, 978, while visiting his half-brother at Corfe Castle. While waiting for his entry to the castle on a horse, he was stabbed in the darkness of the evening.
King Edward’s horse dragged his body into the dark while it ran away. The reasons behind his murder couldn’t be ascertained for sure. Also, his assassin was never found. Many believed it was his step-mother who had plotted the murder so that her son could sit on the throne.
Edward's body was put to rest at Wareham until his step-brother Ælfhere, the then king, decided to rebury his remains with a lavish public ceremony at the Shaftesbury Abbey.
King Edward was given the title of ‘Edward the Martyr’, an innocent young man who lost his life because of others’ greed. While reburying his remains, it was noticed that his body was intact, and this earned him sainthood. On the anniversary of his mortal demise, 18 March, Edward the Martyr’s feast day is celebrated.