[This is one of those historical murders that have always interested me, because
we know so little about it, and you get the definite impression that there is a lot
more to it than those damned monkish scribblers let on. - HAC]
St. Edward the Martyr was the son of King Edgar the Peaceable by his first wife,
and succeeded to the throne of his father as King of England in 975 A.D. Despite
the opposition of some of the nobles, Edward was confirmed by the primitive parliament
of the time and crowned. Of his character and piety we have yhis testimonial from
Theodoric Paulus: "St. Edward was a young man of great devotion and excellent conduct;
he was wholly Catholic, good and of holy life; moreover, above all things he loved
God and the Church; he was generous to the poor, a haven to the good, a champion
of the Faith of Christ, a vessel full of every virtuous grace."
Uhhh … yeah. Right.
According to less biased (or possibly more biased) accounts, Edward was actually
a nasty young punk. He was about fifteen when he came to the throne, and it seems
to have gone to his head. The boy king quickly gained a reputation for arrogance,
childish petulance, stubbornness, and rudeness to his counselors and his earls and
ealdormen, as Saxon barons were called. He was frequently drunk and beat his servants.
He also had an unpleasant habit of helping himself to any comely female he fancied,
from slave girls on up to the wives of his nobles and his friends. He had a special
predilection for young nuns, a quirk which his churchly boosters seem to have passed
over in discreet silence. His court seems to have been kind of a Dark Ages Animal
House. Well, he was just a teenager on spring break, after all.
However, in politics he was an earnest supporter of the monastics in the life of
the Church, as his father had been before him, and when you've got monks writing
the chronicles it sure helps to have them on your side. Sometimes, as in Edward's
case, you even get canonized. Edward's preference for ecclesiastical advisors despite
his disorderly personal life, and his habit of granting the Church all kinds of land,
privileges, and goodies aroused the displeasure of the powerful secular party within
England, and some of the secularists were sufficiently pissed off to have the boy
The main shaker and mover in the plot was old King Edgar's second wife and widow,
a slinky lady named Aelfrida. She was apparently the proverbial Wicked Stepmother
of fairy tales. Her motive was simple: she wanted her own son Aethelred to inherit
the throne and become king.
On March 18th, 978 A.D., King Edward rode alone to Queen Aelfrida's crib at Corfe
Castle in the Purbeck Hills of Dorsetshire. (The castle still stands after more than
1,000 years, one of the oldest surviving in Europe.) It has always been a mystery
as to why the boy went alone into a den of people whom he must have known were his
enemies, and who had every reason to desire his death. Legend has it that Queen Aelfrida
had a particularly beautiful Welsh girl among her maids and the king was lured to
the castle anticipating an encounter of fiery Celtic passion. Other more sleazy versions
claim that it was the mature yet still beautiful Queen herself who beckoned the come-hither
to her stepson. Still, let's face it, this kid doesn't appear to have exactly been
the sharpest knife in the drawer. In our own era, we have all too much experience
of being ruled by the sons of great men who have room-temperature IQs, bad tempers,
and drinking problems.
Be that as it may, the wicked stepmother made the most of her opportunity. Queen
Aelfrida herself met the king at the castle gate, still on his horse, and offered
him a drink, a goblet or wine or possibly a horn of beer. While the king was chug-a-lugging,
a couple of Aelfrida's male retainers attacked him and stabbed him in the belly with
a sword and a dagger. Edward's horse bolted, and the royal rider fell off, but his
foot was caught in a new-fangled invention just coming into use called a stirrup,
and his body was dragged down over the rocks Homer Simpson-style. In the early 20th
century Edward's skeletal remains, remarkably intact, were exhumed and examined by
the forensic pathologists of the British Home office. They were able to detail with
remarkable accuracy all of his injuries, from his broken ribs and ankle and fractured
skull due to the dragging, to the nick from the assassins' blades on his spinal column,
thus confirming the historical account of his death.
Edward's body was moved to Shaftesbury, where miracles were reported at his tomb,
and he was regarded as a saint and martyr by the people, which was confirmed by his
formal canonization some years later. The monks gratefully remembered the wealth
and privilege he had heaped on them; it was the least they could do. His feast day
is the day of his murder, March 18th.
Aethelred became King of England at something like the age of seven, and needless
to say mama was quite ready to step in and act as regent for him during his minority.
However, regardless of what they thought of being ruled by a drunken teenager, the
rough-hewn Saxon thanes and earls didn't appreciate being ruled by a murderess either.
Regicide was a man's job, dammit! A short time after Aethelred's accession, a group
of them staged a coup and locked Queen Aelfrida up in a convent, where according
to one account she lived a long life of devout repentance for her crime, and according
to another she was shortly afterwards discreetly strangled. (The farther back you
go in history, the more you get these extreme discrepancies, and at this distance
there's no way to tell.)
Aethelred's reigned for many years, and he proved to be an incompetent and a disaster.
He lost most of the country to the Danes under the Viking King Canute, and went down
in history as Aethelred the Unready.