Edward the Martyr

(c. 963—978)

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Ethelred II (c. 968—1016)

St Dunstan (c. 909—988) archbishop of Canterbury


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king of England. He was the son of King Edgar and his first wife Æthelflaed: his succession to the throne had been disputed, but he was chosen by the witan in 975 under the preponderant influence of Dunstan. His violent death at the hand of an assassin at Corfe was connected with a struggle for power among the magnates; the anti-monastic party in Mercia wanted his half-brother Ethelred, who was even younger than Edward, as king. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes his death: ‘King Edward was slain at eventide at Corfe gate and was buried at Wareham without any kingly honours.’ But miracles soon followed and his relics were translated to Shaftesbury by Dunstan in 980. In a charter of Ethelred of 1001 he was called saint and martyr; in 1008 the laws of Ethelred ordered the observance of his feast all over England; calendar and litany evidence reveal a widespread cult from the early 11th century.

William of Malmesbury, writing in the 12th century but using the 11th-century Passio, provided further details. The villain of the piece was Ælfthryth, Ethelred's mother and Edward's stepmother, who wanted power for herself and her son. Edward came to Corfe from a hunt, and while his attendants were seeing to the dogs she ‘allured him to her with female blandishment and made him lean forward, and after saluting him while he was eagerly drinking from the cup which had been presented, the dagger of an attendant pierced him through’. He clapped spurs to his horse, but one foot slipped and he was dragged by the other through the wood, his blood leaving a trail until he was dead. The wicked stepmother, who was very beautiful, expiated her crime by eventually becoming a nun at Wherwell.

This view of the responsibility for the crime gained credence and is reflected by C.S.P. describing Edward as ‘killed by the guile of his stepmother’. Edward is sometimes represented in screen paintings holding a dagger in his left hand. Evidence for the continued popularity of the cult is provided by an indulgence for visitors to his shrine, granted by Robert Hallum, bishop of Salisbury (1407–17), in a sermon on his feast which ‘portrays his ideal of a Christian prince in elegant diction’. Five ancient churches were dedicated to him. Some of his relics are now in an Eastern Orthodox church at Brookwood (Surrey). Feast: 18 March; translation, 20 June.

A.S.C., s.a. 979; G.R., i. 181–5; C. E. Fell, Edward, King and Martyr (1971); AA.SS. Mar. II (1668), 638–44; E.B.K. before 1100; s.d. 18 March, 20 June.D. J. V. Fisher, ‘The Anti-Monastic Reaction in the reign of Edward the Martyr’, C.H.J., x (1952), 254–70;W. H. Hutton, The Lives and Legends of English Saints (1903), pp. 167–80;C. E. Wright, The Cultivation of Saga in Anglo-Saxon England (1939).See also C. E. Fell, ‘Edward, king and martyr and the Anglo-Saxon hagiographic tradition’, in D. Hill (ed.), Ethelred the Unready: papers from the Millenary Conference (B.A.R., lix. 1978);S. J. Ridyard, The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England (1988).


Subjects: Christianity — History.

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