King Edward the Martyr

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O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon it,
A brother’s murder
.
-- Hamlet, III, iii

When King Edgar, the great-grandson of Alfred the Great, ascended the English throne in 957 A.D., things went from good to better. The country had forged a new sense of unity, organization, and confidence during the past 100 years. Education and culture were on the rise, with English illuminated manuscripts much in demand throughout Europe and the first European vernacular literary language in a high state of refinement. Religious commitment and reform were widespread, under the remarkable leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, St Dunstan, who was counsellor to King Edgar as well as to his father, and later, his son.

In mid-century, St Dunstan had been abbot of the monastery in Glastonbury at the start of its ascent to the zenith of its influence and fame in the Middle Ages. The abbey and its "old church" (considered ancient even in the 10th century, and at the heart of the legendary tales that inspired William Blake to write "And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England's mountains green") were the center of the Benedictine monastic revival that, under St Dunstan's and his colleagues' direction, raised the moral and spiritual level of the nation and helped elevate the morale of the whole country. Laws were considered wise and just by rich and poor alike, and hope was high.

St Dunstan created the coronation ceremony for King Edgar (the key parts of which have been used ever since, up to and including the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II), explicitly portraying the monarch of England as one anointed by God in the same way that King David of Israel was. Edgar, known to posterity as “the Peaceable,” reigned until 975, and at his death, his oldest son Edward was crowned as King of all England. King Edward continued his father’s policies and, relying on St Dunstan as an advisor, he gave his royal support to the efforts to reform English monasteries and religious life.

King Edward's support for the Benedictine reform movement provoked the anger and envy of those who had seen the Church as a way to gain wealth and prestige. The ascetic life and the importance of monasticism promoted by St Dunstan and his colleagues were not to their liking, and so they looked for – and found – other friends in high places.

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