The Life of Edward the Martyr

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Edward the MartyrThe Son of Edgar the Peaceable

Edward the Martyr was the King of England from 975 until 978.

The son of Edgar the Peaceable, Edward was not originally designated as Edgar’s heir. However, Edgar’s death triggered a power struggle for the throne that nearly resulted in civil war.

Edward’s Childhood

The exact date of Edward’s birth is not known, but given that he is described as being a teenager when he claimed the throne in 975, it is speculated that he was born sometime in the early 960s. All that can be said for certain is that King Edgar was his father and that the queen was not his mother. Edward is thought to be the product of an encounter between King Edgar and a nun that he seduced around the time of his coronation.

According to a royal charter written during the reign of King Edgar that has been dated to the year 966, Edmund Ironside is described as Edgar’s legitimate son, while Edward is merely acknowledged as Edgar’s son. This would seem to confirm that Edward was illegitimate.

During his rule, Edgar was regarded as a strong, but unpopular king. In spite of opposition from the Church and certain factions within the nobility, Edgar forced through a number of monastic reforms that resulted in numerous gifts of land to the Benedictine monks in England. They also resulted in the displacement of a number of lesser nobles, some of whom were completely dispossessed of their lands. At the same time large numbers of secular clergy also forced the ordained priests from their parishes.

Following the death of King Edgar, the discontent these actions had stirred up, coupled with a falling out among the supporters of Edgar’s reforms led to many of Edgar’s monastic reforms being overturned. Edgar’s death also caused a power struggle between Edward and his half-brother Ethelred the Unready.

King Edward the Martyr

Edward was crowned king at Kingston-Upon-Thames, sometime in 975.

Following Edward’s coronation, a comet appeared and that “famine and manifold disturbances” were the result. Around the same time Ealdorman Oslac, who was effectively the King of Northumbria in all but name, was exiled for unknown reasons.

In some parts of the kingdom, the ordained priests returned, forcing the secular clergy from their parishes. They also rewrote many of the leases and loans so that much of the land appropriated for the monasteries during the reign of King Edgar was returned to its original owners.

Very few royal charters have survived from the reign of Edward the Martyr. As a result, much of the information depicting his time on the throne comes from unreliable second hand sources. Based on what is known, Edward experienced extensive opposition to his rule in the north and in the English Midlands. This has been determined by the fact that during Edward’s reign coins were minted locally in York and Lincoln, as opposed to being minted only in London as during the reign of Edgar the Peaceable.

Edward’s Death and Canonization

As with most everything else during Edward’s reign, very little is known about his death. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Edward was murdered in 978 at Corfe Castle. Later sources claim that Edward was martyred, probably on the orders of King Ethelred’s mother.

A year after his death, Edward’s body was disinterred and reburied at Shaftsbury Abby, which was founded by Alfred the Great.

The rise of Edward’s cult, and his eventual canonization, have been interpreted a number of different ways by historians over the centuries. Some have seen it purely as a popular grassroots movement, while others have tried to argue that Edward’s canonization was politically motivated.

The location of Edward’s remains was lost during the reign of Henry VIII and was not rediscovered until 1931. Due to a conflict of interests between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Anglican Church, Edward’s remains were stored in a bank vault in Wonking, Surrey until 1970, when they were reburied in near-by Brookwood Cemetery.

Sources

Ridyard, Susan J. (1988), The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: A Study of West Saxon and East Anglian Cults, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Fisher, D. J. V. (1952), “The Anti-Monastic Reaction in the Reign of Edward the Martyr“, Cambridge Historical Journal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 10 (3): 254–270,Oct.

Higham, Nick (1997), The Death of Anglo-Saxon England, Stroud: Sutton

Williams, Ann (2003), Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counselled King, London: Hambeldon & London

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