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Edward The Martyr

Corfe Castle

In July 975 Edgar the Peaceable's idyllic reign came to an end. For the previous twenty five years peace had almost miraculously settled on the chaotic kingdom of England. Of course good news is no news, and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, following initial eulogies about good and wise Edgar, has very little to say about him. On Edgar's death in 975 peace was soon replaced by gathering tension, and the Chronicles had something to talk about once again.

At the time of his death, Edgar's sons were still boys. Edward, son of Edgar's first marriage was fifteen, and Ethelred, son of his second marriage was ten. The young age of Edgar's heir created danger and uncertainty from the beginning. England's ruling nobles elected Edward as king. He was an aggressive boy, who found himself in the middle of a dispute over excessive royal grants of land to monasteries. Edward sided with the Church faction, which upset major landowners who feared that powerful ecclesiastical leaders would become dominant landowners.

 

 

 

Approaching Corfe Castle keep

976 saw famine, and a comet which many saw as an ill omen. The anti-Church party was supporting Ethelred for the throne against Edward, hoping for increased influence in return for their support. It is remarkable how quickly all the goodwill of the previous twenty five years came apart. It was almost as if tension had built up along fault lines in society through the years of peace. The murder of King Edward was now being planned. On 18th March 978 Edward arrived at Corfe Castle in Dorset, where Ethelred was staying with his mother. Edward rode to the hall to greet his brother. Ethelred came out at the head of the group to greet Edward. A cupbearer offered Edward a cup, and a group of men then stepped forward as if to help the king off his horse. Instead they stabbed and killed him. Edward thus became Edward the Martyr. Coming after the peace of Edgar's reign this murder seemed doubly shocking. After years of not having much to say the Anglo Saxon Chronicle lamented: "no worse deed than this for the English people was committed since they first came to Britain" (quoted in The Saxon Kings by Richard Humble P131).

Edward was buried at Shaftesbury Abbey. To try and put a favourable gloss on dark events, Ethelred encouraged the veneration of Edward's remains. The grave at Shaftesbury became a major shrine.

The quiet days of Edgar were over. Sadly interesting times had returned.

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