Edward the Martyr was king of England from 975 until his murder in 978. Edward was the eldest son of Edgar the Peaceful but was possible not legitimate and certainly was not his father's acknowledged heir. This honour fell to his half- brother, the future king Æthelred the Unready, but Edgar's death, the leadership of England was contested and Edward’s supporters were able to elevate him to the position of king.
The roots of this contention lie in the strong rule of Edgar, who with the aid of Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury; Oswald of Worcester, Archbishop of York; and Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester, forced through a number of monastic reforms on an unwilling church and nobility. These reforms introduced the Benedictine Rule to England's monastic communities. He bought support from the Benedictine monasteries by endowing them with gifts of land, however to do this he had to disposes many lesser nobles. Edgar strongly supported the monasteries, but on his death, the discord this had sown was able to come to fore and rivalries were put to the test.
The architects of the reforms were now divided and split into factions and these leaders were divided as to whether Edward or Æthelred should succeed Edgar. Of course the Queen Dowager supported the claims of her son Æthelred and she found support in Bishop Æthelwold. On the other hand Archbishops Dunstan and Oswald supported Edward. It is suggested that perceptions of legitimacy played a part in the arguments, as did 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 settlement involved a degree of compromise. Æthelred appears to have been given lands which normally belonged to the king's sons, some of which had been granted by Edgar to Abingdon Abbey and which were forcibly repossessed for Æthelred by the leading nobles. Of course, Edward’s crowning did not rift cutting through the English kingdom. His early reign appears to have been one of turmoil, with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reporting a comet, a famine and “manifold disturbances”, which is likely to refer to the anti-monastic reaction that broke out following Edgar’s death.
On the 18th March 978 Edward visited his step-mother Ælfthryth and half-brother Æthelred at Corfe, in present day Dorset. There he was murdered, under circumstances and for motives that are unclear. The earliest surviving version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle only states that he was killed, while versions from the 1040s say he was martyred. The Life of Oswald of Worcester, attributed to Byrhtferth of Ramsey, adds that Edward was killed by Æthelred's advisers, who attacked him when he was dismounting. Later sources, further removed from events, such as the late 11th-century Passio S. Eadwardi and John of Worcester, claim that Ælfthryth organised the killing of Edward, while Henry of Huntingdon wrote that she killed Edward herself. All sources agree that he was buried without ceremony at Wareham. Of this fact the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says:
“No worse deed for the English race was done than this was, since they first sought out the land of Britain. Men murdered him, but God exalted him. In life he was an earthly king; after death he is now a heavenly saint. His earthly relatives would not avenge him, but his Heavenly Father has much avenged him”
Edward was succeeded by his half-brother Æthelred II, who is best known as Æthelred the Unready.
This scene was built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models on the Kings and Queens of England. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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