Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Dead King Watch: Saint Edward the Martyr

Edward the Martyr was sadly murdered on 18 March 978, which makes today the 1018th anniversary of his death.

Edward was born in 962, in Wessex, first son of newly crowned King Edgar. King Edgar's reign really was the high point of Anglo-Saxon England and was generally a peaceful one. However, on Edgar's death in 975, there was a power struggle between Edgar's first wife Ethelfleda (mother of Edward) and his second wife Elfrida, (who wanted her son with Edgar - the young Ethelred to take over).

One doubts the two half-brothers really gave that much of a shit about which one of them became King - in 975 Edward was only thirteen years old and Ethelred was only seven. Yet, perhaps given the slight advantage in age - and the crucial support of Archbishop Dunstan - Edward was duly crowned King.

On King Edward's accession to the throne a great famine was raging through the land and prominent rich nobles led violent attacks against the monasteries (which had been given land by Edgar). Many monasteries were destroyed, and the monks forced to flee. Archbishop Dunstan persuaded the young King to stand firm in defence of the Church and the monasteries - but this obviously made him powerful enemies among the nobles.

With hindsight, it is easy to see this was a mistake. I mean, if you are a weak King - surely it is better to make enemies among the clergy (who are at least supposed to live up to some sort of pretence to be 'men of peace') rather than the nobles who tend to have gangs of armed men at their beck and call. Anyway, poor Edward was not to know this - nor that the nobles were plotting to remove him and replace him with his younger brother Ethelred who still only a child would presumably be more, er, 'accommodating' to the feelings of the nobles.

On March 18, 978, young King Edward was hunting with dogs and horsemen near Wareham in Dorset. Leaving his retainers, he decided to make a personal visit to his young kid brother Ethelred who was being brought up at Corfe Castle, near Wareham. Whilst still on his horse in the lower part of the castle, Ethelred's mother Elfrida welcomed him and offered Edward a glass of mead, which the young King took (underage drinking was clearly encouraged at this time). According to Henry of Huntingdon, who sounds like a reliable sort of chap, Edward's 'stepmother, that is the mother of King Ethelred, stabbed him with a dagger while she was in the act of offering him a cup to drink.' Immediately following the murder, the body of the murdered king slipped from the saddle of his horse and was dragged with one foot in the stirrup until it fell into a stream at the base of the hill upon which Corfe Castle stands. Elfrida then ordered that body be hurridly hidden in a hut nearby. Nice.

The strange afterlife of Edward.

However, the hut was inhabited by a blind woman and, according to Catholic mythology, that night 'a wonderful light appeared and filled the whole hut and struck with awe, the woman cried out: "Lord, have mercy!" and suddenly received her sight'. Either that - or else she noticed that a wet and smelly body had been dumped in her front room and screamed bloody murder. Whatever exactly happened here, the point is that at dawn Elfrida learned of the 'miracle' and 'was troubled' and again ordered a better disposal of the body, this time by burying it in a marshy place near Wareham.

A year after the murder however, in 979, 'a pillar of fire was seen over the place where the body was hidden, lighting up the whole area'. Perhaps I am being too cynical here, but this sounds a bit like a lightning strike to me - a storm in a tea cup as it were. Anyway, this 'pillar of fire' was seen by some of the inhabitants of Wareham, who raised the body. 'Immediately a clear spring of healing water sprang up in that place'. Hmm. Accompanied by what was now a huge crowd of mourners, the body was taken to the church of the Most Holy Mother of God in Wareham and buried at the east end of the church. This took place on February 13, 980.

On the account of a series of subsequent 'miracles', what was left of the body was moved to the abbey at Shaftesbury. On the way from Wareham to Shaftesbury, a further 'miracle' had also taken place; two crippled men were brought close to the bier and those carrying it lowered the body to their level, 'where upon the cripples were immediately restored to full health'. In Shaftesbury, the relics were received by the nuns of Shaftesbury Abbey and were buried with full royal honours on the north side of the altar. In 1001 the tomb in which Edward's body lay 'was observed to regularly rise from the ground'. King Ethelred was filled with joy at this and instructed the bishops to raise his brother's tomb from the ground and place it into a more fitting place. As the tomb was opened 'a wonderful fragrance issued from it' - such that all present 'thought that they were standing in Paradise'.

Given these slightly spooky goings on, and his earlier defence of the monasteries which had got him killed in the first place, the bishops decided to make Edward a 'Saint' that year, in 1001. It was the least they could do really. King Edward was now described as 'a young man of great devotion and excellent conduct. He was completely Orthodox, good and of holy life. Moreover, he loved above all things 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.' Doubtless he was 'a young man of great devotion and excellent conduct', but given the control of Archbishop Dunstan over him and his tragic early murder aged only sixteen - after reigning for less than three years - it is hard to see how he was ever really going to be anything else.

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At 1:02 pm, Blogger Cie Cheesemeister said...

Great tale of revenge from beyond the grave. If true, one can only say, "you go, Edward!"


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