Ascending to the throne of England in 975 upon the death of his father, Edgar the Peaceable, Edward the Martyr is primarily remembered for being assassinated after only three years on the throne. Though Edward subsequently entered the rolls of Anglo-Saxon royal saints, his was a largely inconsequential reign, and its violent end is often seen as a key progenitor to the Anglo-Saxon crown’s terminal decline.
This article on Edward’s demise is one of a number examining Anglo-Saxon royal saints, with a particular focus on those whose hagiographies also feature the trope of the ‘wicked step-mother.’ The tropes of betrayed innocence and the wickedness of female agency are prevalent in the hagiographical portrayals of not just Edward the Martyr, but also Æthelberht of East Anglia and Kenelm of Mercia. My purpose here is to analyse the narrative transmission of the tales surrounding these saints and what they portray of shifting societal and political concerns. As such, I am treating Edward and his fellow martyrs as primarily hagiographical rather than historical figures, which means that this biography will focus more on Edward’s death than on his life.
Unlike the climactic events of many Anglo-Saxon saints’ lives, Edward’s assassination can be grounded historically and explained within the contemporary political milieu, making it of abiding interest. The entry for the year 978 in the D-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that:
In this year King Edward was killed at the gap of Corfe on 18 March in the evening, and he was buried at Wareham without royal honours. And no worse deed than this for the English people was committed since first they came to Britain. Men murdered him, but God honoured him. In life he was an earthly king; he is now after death a heavenly saint.
The entry continues in a similarly hyperbolic fashion with clear borrowings from hagiographical narrative; however, the entry for 979 in the same version of the Chronicle is prosaic:
In this year Æthelred succeeded to the kingdom, and very quickly after that was consecrated king at Kingston with much rejoicing by the councillors of the English people.
Despite the forays into eulogising narrative, the political bones of this story are straight-forward. In 978 Edward was killed through treachery and his body buried without any acknowledgement of his station. There is likely a two-fold reason for the unusual burial: by denying his body royal treatment, the enactors of the plot deprived Edward of a legitimising symbol Anglo-Saxon kingship, while also depriving his followers of a shrine that could become a cultic centre of discontent. Upon his death, Edward’s half-brother Æthelred II (‘the Unready’) took the throne and was thus the obvious benefactor of the murder. Yet Æthelred was only twelve years old in 978 and therefore unlikely to have been directly involved. So who then killed Edward the Martyr? It is that question which I most wish to examine.
Edward is perhaps the most recognised and widely studied of the murdered royal saints of Anglo-Saxon England, and certainly the best attested in contemporary sources. In part this represents the temporal proximity of Edward’s martyrdom to the literary endeavours of late Anglo-Saxon and early Anglo-Norman England. Within thirty years of his death in 978, his martyrdom had passed into hagiographical narrative in the Vita S. Oswaldi. This narrative informs the reader that it was ‘magnates of this realm’ who organised the assassination of the king, as they felt his younger brother would provide for a more compliant ruler. The only account more contemporary than that provided in the Vita S. Oswaldi are the quoted entries from the Chronicle. It is notable that the scribe of the 978 entry decries the murder of the young king, and subsequently limits the rejoicing at Æthelred’s 979 coronation to ‘the councillors of the English people.’ From these earliest accounts it certainly seems Edward’s murder was plot conceived by the nobility of the English realm.
Yet it is notable that the place where the assassination occurred is known to have been owned by Edward’s step-mother – Æthelred’s mother Ælfthryth. With her son taking the throne at an age when her personal influence could still be significant, Ælfthryth clearly benefited politically from Edward’s death, and it is not difficult to see why she came under suspicion. Yet a cultural distrust of female power must be taken into consideration, and the wicked step-mother trope is a common one throughout European literature. The presence of Edward’s treacherous step-mother is not noted until the late eleventh century, when his story was expanded into an independent narrative in the Passio S. Eadwardi regis et martyris, forming a basis for the transmission of Edward’s martyrdom into the histories of Anglo-Norman era. In this narrative, while visiting his step-mother Ælfthryth and half-brother Æthelred, Edward was stabbed upon Ælfthryth’s order, clearing the way for Æthelred to ascend the throne. As the inheritors of this hagiographical tradition in which the step-mother’s role as conspirator to the murder of the king was considered fact, the Anglo-Norman historians made this the dominant narrative. In the eyes of historians like William of Malmesbury and John of Worcester, the truth of this version of events was confirmed by the manifestation of God’s retributive hand in the penuries England was to face.
Modern historians are naturally uncomfortable with ideas of divine retribution and, as such, have taken a somewhat more subtle and politically oriented view, in which literary tropes of treachery and retribution form only a passing ideological interest. Yet their conclusions are not dissimilar from their medieval counterparts: in Edward’s death we can see the genesis of the chaos into which England would descend over the subsequent fifty years. The young king’s death was pivotal to the accession of Æthelred and the attendant discord of a weak ruler, a fractious nobility, and a resurgence of Viking aggression, which led to the overthrow of the Anglo-Saxon kings and the establishment of a Danish dynasty. Whoever killed Edward, it was a short-sighted act of personal greed and desire for power. Edward’s assassination was divisive and undermined the authority and legitimacy of the young Æthelred. Edward may have struggled as much as his half-brother in facing the resurgent Viking threat, yet there seems little doubt he would have faced it with a more unified nobility behind him.
So who killed Edward the Martyr? The conclusions of the Chronicle and the Vita S. Oswaldi are both contemporary and the reasoning seems logical. Edward’s reign came at the tale-end of an extended period of peace and stability – the nobles of England were not concerned with intangible external threats, but rather with personal gain. A compliant teenager on the throne would have helped them to this end. While the Ælfthryth narrative makes for a wonderfully salacious story, her characterisation and motivations are far too archetypal within hagiography to be considered a genuine social memory of Edward’s assassination.
- Feature image: Edward the Martyr (r. 975 – 978), BL Royal MS 14 B VI, f. 3r.
- Byrhtferth of Ramsey, The Lives of St Oswald and St Ecgwine, ed. and trans. Michael Lapidge. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009.
- Catherine Cubitt, ‘Sites and Sanctity: Revisiting the Cult of Murdered and Martyred Anglo-Saxon Royal Saints,’ Early Medieval Europe 9 (No. 1, 2000): 53 – 83.
- R.R. Darlington and P. McGurk (eds), The Chronicle of John of Worcester: The Annals from 450 – 1066, vol. 2, trans. Jennifer Bray and P. McGurk, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
- Christine Fell (ed. and trans.), Edward, King and Martyr, Leeds: University of Leeds, School of English, 1971.
- Christine Fell, ‘Edward King and Martyr and the English Hagiographical Tradition,’ in Ethelred the Unready: Papers from the Millenary Conference, ed. David Hill, Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1978, pp. 1 – 13.
- Matthew Firth, ‘Allegories of Sight: Blinding and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England,’ Cerae: An Australasian Journal of Medieval Studies 3 (2016): 1 – 33.
- Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.
- William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, vol. 1, ed. and trans. R.A.B. Mynors, R.M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.