Edward the Martyr
gigatos | April 8, 2022
Edward the Martyr (962 – March 18, 978) was King of England in 975-978. A representative of the Wessex dynasty. Son of Edgar the Peaceful and his first wife Ethelfleda. He was canonized in 1001. Revered as a saint in the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches.
Crowned at Kingston in 975.
On March 18, 978 (another version says 979), the young king was invited to Corfe Castle in Dorset, where Prince Ethelred and his mother Elftritha, the late Edgar”s second wife, were living at the time. Elftritta”s servants surrounded Edward in a sham salute, suddenly grabbed him by the arms, and one plunged a dagger into the king”s chest. Edward fell out of the saddle, and the horse carried him toward the woods near the castle. The king”s foot caught in his stirrup as he fell, and terrified bystanders watched as the body of the mortally wounded ruler dragged along the ground behind the horse. When the king”s men finally caught up and stopped the horse, Edward was already dead.
In 1982 Edward”s relics were transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, which placed them in St. Edward the Martyr Church at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey County. Since the reunion of the ROCOR and the Russian Orthodox Church, it has been under the jurisdiction of the “Synod of Opposition.
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Origins and Inheritance
Edward”s date of birth is unknown, but he was the eldest of Edgar”s three children. He was most likely still a teenager when he inherited his father, who died at age 32 in 975. It is known that Edward was the son of King Edgar, but was not the son of Elfrida, his third wife. This, but no more, is known from Anglo-Saxon documents.
Later sources of dubious reliability refer to the identity of Edward”s mother. The earliest such source is Osbern of Canterbury”s hagiography of Dunstan in the 1080s. Osborne writes that Edward”s mother was a nun from Wilton Abbey who was seduced by the king. When Edmer wrote about Dunstan”s life decades later, he set out a different story about Edward”s origins, which denied that Edward was the son of the bond between Edgar and the nun, and represented him as the son of Ethelfleda, daughter of the “Eldorman of Eastern England,” whom Edgar had married in the reign of Mercia (between 957 and Edwig”s death in 959). Further information may be obtained from the hagiography of Edgar”s daughter St. Edith of Wilton by Gosselin and the chronicles of John of Worcester and William of Malmesbury. All of these various sources suggest that Edward”s mother was a noblewoman named Ethelfleda, with a middle name of “Candida” or “Eneda” – “White” or “White Duck.”
In the charter of 966, Elftritta, whom Edgar married in 964, is described as the king”s “lawful wife” and their eldest son Edmund as a legitimate son. Edward is marked as the king”s son. However, a genealogy created around 969 at Glastonbury Abbey gives Edward superiority over Edmund and Ethelred. Elftritta was the widow of an Ealdorman from eastern England and possibly Edgar”s third wife. Inconsistencies in the identification of Edward”s mother, and the fact that Edmund seems to have been regarded as the rightful heir until his death in 971, suggest that Edmund may have been an illegitimate child.
Edmund”s own brother Ethelred may have succeeded to the position of heir to the crown. A charter to one of the abbeys of Winchester mentions the names of Elftritta and her son Ethelred. When Edgar died on July 8, 975, Ethelred may have been nine years old, but Edward was only a few years older.
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Disputes over inheritance
Edgar was a strong ruler who undertook monastic reforms, perhaps not desired by the church and nobility, relying on the chief clergymen of the time: Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, Oswald of Worcester, archbishop of York, and Ethelwold bishop of Winchester. In endowing the reformed Benedictine monasteries with the land necessary to support them, he deprived them of many of the lower nobility, and rewrote leases and loans of land in favor of the monasteries. The white clergy, many of whom were members of the nobility, were excluded from the new monasteries. During Edgar”s lifetime there was strong support for the reforms by the king, but after his death the discontent provoked by these changes came out.
All the leading figures supported the reforms, but they were not united now. The relationship between Archbishop Dunstan and Bishop Ethelwold could be strained. Archbishop Oswald was at odds with Elfhir, the Eldorman of Mercia, and Elfhir and his kinsmen were competing for power with Ethelwyn, the Eldorman of East Anglia. Dunstan was said to have questioned Edgar”s marriage to Queen Dowager Elfrida and the legitimacy of their son Ethelred.
These leaders had different opinions as to who would inherit Edgar: Edward or Ethelred. Neither law nor precedent gave sufficient guidance. The choice between Edward the Elder”s sons divided the kingdom, and Edgar”s older brother Edwig was forced to give most of the kingdom to him. The dowager queen naturally supported her son Ethelred”s claim, together with Bishop Ethelwold; Dunstan supported Edward, as did Archbishop Oswald. It is probable that Ealdorman Elfhir and his kinsmen supported Ethelred, and that Ethelwyn and his kinsmen supported Edward, though some historians claim otherwise.
Subsequent sources suggest that notions of legitimacy played a role in the argument, as does the relative age of the two candidates. In time, Edward was anointed by Archbishops Dunstan and Oswald at Kingston upon Thames, most likely in 975. There is evidence that the decision was the result of compromise. Ethelred took possession of lands that normally belonged to the king”s sons, some of which had been granted by Edgar to Abingdon Abbey and had now been forcibly taken away.
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After the record of Edward”s accession to the throne, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports a comet that appeared, followed by a famine and “numerous disturbances. “Numerous outrages,” sometimes called the anti-monarchical reaction, began soon after Edgar”s death. At this time the experienced Ealdorman Oslake of Northumbia, who had successfully ruled much of northern England, was exiled for reasons unknown. Oslak”s place was taken by Thored, either son of Oslak or son of Gunnar, mentioned in the Chronicles in 966.
Edward, or rather whoever governed on his behalf, also appointed a number of Ealdormen to positions in Wessex. Little is known of two of them, and it is difficult to determine to which party they belonged. Edwin, who probably ruled Sussex and perhaps parts of Kent and Surrey, was buried at Abingdon, an abbey patronized by Elfhir. Ethelmer, who ruled Hampshire, owned lands in Rutland, possibly with connections to Ethelwyn.
The third Aethelward, best known for his account of Latin history, ruled in the west. Ethelward was a descendant of King Ethelred I and possibly the brother of King Edwig”s wife. He was most likely a supporter of Edward.
In some places the white clergy returned to the monasteries. Their main opponent was Bishop Ethelwold, and Dunstan does not seem to have been particularly supportive of his fellow reformers at this time. In general, the large landowners seized the opportunity to reclaim many of the lands granted by Edgar to the monasteries and forced the abbots to rewrite the leases and loans in favor of the local nobility. A leader in this regard was the eldorman Elfhir, who attacked the network of monasteries in Mercia. Elfhir”s rival, Ethelwyn, fiercely defending Ramsey Abbey, which his family owned, meanwhile dealt harshly with Illy Abbey and the other monasteries. At some point in this turmoil, Elfhir and Ethelwyn moved into a state close to open warfare. This may have been caused by Elfhir”s abominations in eastern England and his attacks on Ramsey Abbey. Ethelwyn, supported by his kinsman Brixnoth, the eldorman of Essex, and others, gathered an army, and Elfhir retreated.
Few charters remain from Edward”s reign, perhaps three, so not much is known of his short reign. On the other hand, there are many charters from the reigns of his father Edgar and his half-brother Ethelred. The surviving charters are all drawn up in Wessex; two relate to Crediton, where Edward”s former teacher Sideman was bishop. In Edgar”s reign, mint stamps were made only at Winchester and from there distributed to the other mints of the kingdom. In Edward”s reign, stamps were also allowed to be made at York and Lincoln. The general impression was that the power of royal authority in the north and middle of the country had diminished. The apparatus of government continued to function, councils and councils met at Kirtlington in Oxfordshire after Easter 977, and again the following year at Calne in Wiltshire. At the Calne meeting, some councilors were killed and others were injured when the floor of their room broke through.
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The most detailed version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles says that Edward was murdered on March 18, 978, while visiting Elftritha and Ethelred, perhaps near the hill on which the ruins of Corfe Castle now stand. It also says that he was buried at Warham “without any royal honors.” The compiler of this version of the Chronicle, called the Peterborough Chronicle, says
“Since the English came to the island of Britannia, they have not committed an act more terrible than this. Men killed him, but God exalted him: in life an earthly king, but in death a heavenly saint. His earthly kinsmen did not avenge his death, but his heavenly Father avenged it in full.
Other versions of the Chronicles contain fewer details; the oldest text states only that he was killed, while the 1040s version says that he died a martyr”s death.
Another early source, a biography of Oswald of Worcester attributed to Burtfet of Ramsey, adds that Edward was killed by Ethelred”s advisors who attacked him as he was getting off his horse. The source also writes that he was buried at Warham without ceremony. Archbishop Wulfstan mentions the king”s death in his Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, written no later than 1016. According to a recent study his words are translated (in modern English) as follows:
“And the great treachery of the master is also in this world, when a man betrays his master to death … Edward was betrayed and killed, and afterwards burned …”
Later sources more distant from the events, such as the eleventh-century work Passio S. Eadwardi and John of Worcester state that Elfrida only organized the murder of the king, while Henry of Huntingdon writes that she killed Edward herself.
Modern historians offer various versions of Edward”s death, among which we can distinguish three main ones. According to the first, Edward was killed, as recounted in Oswald”s biography, by nobles in Ethelred”s entourage, either in a personal quarrel or in a desire to enthrone his lord. Oswald”s biography portrays Edward as a fickle young man who, as Frank Stanton writes, “offended many important persons by his intolerable exuberance of speech and behavior. Long after he was numbered among the saints, people remembered that his outbursts troubled all who knew him, especially members of his own family.
According to the second version, Elfrida was involved in the murder, either by planning it or by letting the killers go unpunished.
Proponents of the third version of events note that in 978 Edward was almost ready to rule the country himself, and suggest that Ealdorman Elphir was behind the murder, who wanted to maintain his influence and prevent Edward”s revenge for Elphir”s actions early in his reign. John also notes this and interprets Elfhir”s participation in the reburial as repentance for the murder.
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Re-burial and Early Cult
Edward”s body lay in Warham for a year until it was removed from the grave. The reburial was initiated by Elfhir, perhaps as a sign of reconciliation. According to Oswald”s hagiography, the body was found incorruptible. It was moved to Shaftesbury Abbey, the royally affiliated convent to which Alfred the Great had granted lands and where Elfgith of Shaftesbury, grandmother of Edward and Ethelred, is believed to have spent the last years of her life.
The reburial of Edward”s remains was accompanied by a solemn ceremony. Later sources, such as Passio S. Eadwardi”, provide more detailed versions of the events. The said source says that Edward”s body was hidden in a swamp, where it was discovered because of the light emanating from it. “Passio” dates the reburial to February 18.
In 1001 Edward”s relics (he was considered a saint, though not canonized) were transferred to a more significant site at Shaftesbury Monastery. The ceremony is believed to have been presided over by the then Archbishop of Sherborne, Wolfsig III (Wulsin), accompanied by a senior clergyman named Elsinus in the Passio. King Ethelred, concerned about the threat of a Danish invasion, did not attend the ceremony in person, but in late 1001 he granted the nuns of Shafstbury lands at Bradford-on-Avon; these events are considered related. The 13th-century Calendar of Saints attributes the transfer of the body to June 20.
The spread of the cult of Edward is explained in various ways. Sometimes it is perceived as a popular movement, or the result of a political attack on Ethelred by former supporters of Edward. On the contrary, Ethelred was seen as a key force in promoting the cult of Edward and his sister Edith (Edith of Wilton). Some sources claim that he legislated the observance of Edward”s feast days. It is not clear whether this innovation, probably prepared by Wulfstan II, refers to the reign of Ethelred. It may have been promulgated by Knud. David Rollason draws attention to the increased importance of other royal saints at this time. These include the nephews of King Egbert I of Kent, killed by him in his struggle for power, and the saints of Mercia, Kinehelm and Wigstan.
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The Late Cult
During the Reformation in sixteenth-century England, Henry VIII proclaimed the dissolution of the monasteries and many holy places were destroyed. Edward”s relics were hidden and escaped desecration.
In 1931 the relics were discovered by Wilson-Claridge during an archaeological excavation; that the remains belonged to Edward was confirmed by osteologist Stowell. Investigations determined that the young man was likely killed in the same manner as Edward. Wilson-Claridge wanted the relics to be given to the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. His brother, however, wanted them returned to Shaftesbury Abbey. For several decades the relics lay in a bank in Woking, Surrey, due to an unresolved dispute as to which church they should be given to.
Eventually, the relics were transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and placed in the Brookwood Cemetery in Woking. A monastic brotherhood of St. Edward was also organized.
In Orthodoxy Edward is considered a martyr, a saint who died for the love of Christ. Edward was not officially canonized, but is also revered as a saint in Catholicism and Anglicanism. His day on the calendar of saints is March 18, the day he died. In Orthodoxy he is also venerated a second time on September 3.