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.
King Edgar’s first wife had died shortly after giving birth to Edgar’s first son, Edward. Later, Edgar married a widow named Aelfreda and by her had a second son, Ethelred. After Edward was crowned as King, Aelfreda, ambitious for her son, formed an alliance with noblemen who were antagonistic to St Dunstan’s religious reforms. During King Edward’s short reign, the opposition between the two political groups became more distinct. On one side were the former queen and her allies, who supported Prince Ethelred, and more or less overtly resisted the King and his policies. On the other side were King Edward and his advisors, who included St Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury; Oswald, the well-respected Archbishop of York and fellow Benedictine reformer; and Bryhtnoth, alderman of Essex and hero of the great Old English poem The Battle of Maldon. On March 18, 979, the party supporting Prince Ethelred decided to act.
The King, still a teenager, was invited to the royal residence in Corfe, Dorset, where the young Prince and his mother were staying. As Edward approached, Aelfreda’s servants came out to greet him. Gathering around in apparent welcome, suddenly some of them seized his arms, and one of them plunged a dagger into his chest. Edward slumped from the saddle, and his horse bolted and raced into the woods near the castle. As Edward fell, his foot got caught in the stirrup, and the horrified onlookers saw the mortally wounded King dragged on the ground behind his horse. When the King’s men finally reached and stopped the horse, Edward was dead. On the insistence of Aelfreda, the body was buried without ceremony in the churchyard at Wareham, a few miles from the place it had fallen.
Everyone knew who had ordered the murder, and for whose sake it took place. No one was ever charged with the crime. No one stood trial or was brought to justice. The murder of the King, the murder of the new King’s brother, was hushed and covered up.
But things have a way of coming to the light. For at once, the miracles began.
The first miracle occurred the night Edward died, when the old blind woman, in whose hut the body was laid out suddenly was able to see. Then a spring bubbled up near Edward’s grave in Wareham, and it was reported that people were cured who prayed and bathed in the water. Due to the growing recognition of Edward’s sanctity, his body was translated with great ceremony in 981 to the convent in Shaftesbury founded by King Alfred the Great. The healings continued even during the procession, the largest ever seen in that part of England.
Over the next 20 years, Edward’s tomb was the widespread object of devotion and pilgrimage. On June 20, 1001, Edward’s stepbrother, King Ethelred, ordered the body to be moved into a shrine in Shaftesbury Abbey. In his proclamation, King Ethelred referred to Edward as a Saint “whom the Lord deigns to exalt in our days by many signs of virtue, after his blood was shed.” In 1008, Alphege, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was himself later martyred, officially canonized St Edward the Martyr on behalf of the Church in England.
From all over England, and even from the Continent, pilgrims came to St Edward’s shrine to venerate his relics. Many were healed of their infirmities. The convent became known as St Edward’s Abbey. The town of Shaftesbury itself was called “Edwardstowe” for many years. Until the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, St Edward the Martyr was known throughout the country and prayed to by Christians everywhere.
King Ethelred ruled for 38 years, until he died in 1016. His second wife, Emma of Normandy, bore him a child whom they named Edward, and who became the last descendant of Alfred the Great to be crowned as King of England. St Dunstan played no part in Ethelred’s affairs, concentrating instead on his spiritual flock. He died in 988, the same year that Christianity was born on the other side of Europe, as Prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptized, along with, symbolically, the land of Rus. And the former queen Aelfreda, who was deeply implicated in the murder of her guest, stepson, and King on that spring day in 979? She did not enjoy the royal life as Queen Mother during her son Ethelred’s reign but instead, in apparently sincere repentance, founded two convents, one in Amesbury and another in Wherwell, where she died, a poor nun, in 999.
What then is the significance of King and Martyr Edward? What is the meaning of a murdered young monarch who did not have time to stamp his character or judgment upon his subjects’ fortunes and lives? What is important about this figure who became far more well known for his death than for his life? Just this: his death is the hidden turning point in early English history.
Why hidden? Because no one seems to know what to make of it. Sir Winston Churchill’s otherwise wonderful The Birth of Britain, the first volume in his History of the English Speaking Peoples, makes no mention of King Edward or his murder. Churchill, referring to the reign of King Edgar, writes of a “decisive step forward in the destinies of England,” and then speaking of King Ethelred’s years, writes of a “catastrophic decline” when the “political fabric . . . was overthrown.” The black hole between the two events was the martyrdom of Edward, apparently invisible to Churchill. Sir Frank Stenton’s otherwise magisterial Anglo-Saxon England, in the Oxford History of England series, implies that Edward was killed because “he had offended many important persons by his intolerable violence of speech and behaviour,” as if that explains everything. A teenage boy, who happens to be the crowned King of England (and about whom there is absolutely no report of ever acting unjustly or cruelly) gets angry, and so he has to be ambushed and killed? This is not a reasonable explanation, and Stenton admits as much when he writes that the murder took place under “circumstances of abominable treachery.” N.J. Hingham’s otherwise thoughtful The Death of Anglo-Saxon England insists on finding “political” causes for all events, but then concludes that the political problems that had led to Edward’s murder “were not in any sense resolved by the regicide.” In other words, the whole incident is without meaning. But if looking at the killing of a King with a particular lens sheds no light on the subject, maybe there is something wrong with the lens. Maybe political causes are not always paramount.
And maybe people at the time knew more than we tend to give them credit for. Ethelred is known to history as “the Unready" not because he was unprepared, but because the Old English word “Unraed” means “no counsel,” i.e., “badly advised.” King Ethelred had bad advisors and counsellors in comparison with his predecessor, King Edward. There was no saintly Dunstan, no admired Oswald, no heroic Bryhtnoth among Ethelred’s advisors. Instead, the King and his counsellors continually misjudged the crises they faced, especially from the renewed Viking attacks on England, and as a result, the demoralized country began sliding down the slope toward foreign occupation. As the common people in Ethelred’s time saw more clearly than 20th century historians, it was the tragic loss of the wisdom – the holy wisdom – that had surrounded King Edward which triggered the collapse of the Anglo-Saxon state and changed the course of English history.
Was King Edward’s murder then an unmitigated disaster for the country? Was the land branded by the mark of Cain forever? Perhaps not. Once again, it may help to listen to the 10th century, this time an observation in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “There has not been among the Angles a worse deed than this was, since first they sought Britain. Men murdered, but God glorified him. He was in life an earthly King. He is now after death a heavenly saint. Now we may understand that men’s wisdom and their devices and counsels are as nought against God’s resolves.”
In other words, as tragic and evil as this crime was, we cannot simply rely on our human standards of justice and understanding. How or why, we don’t know, but what we do know is that Edward was – is – a saint. Edward knew – knows – the love of God. And sinced 979 there has been a new saint in heaven, an intercessor for our land.
The Norman invasion of 1066 brought an end to the identity and integrity of the Anglo-Saxon state, yet England did not disappear. In ways past understanding, England was invigorated by the union of the cultures and peoples, and Britain evolved into a political entity far greater than ever dreamed of by King Alfred the Great’s descendants. Under the Normans, the Old English language became the non-standard dialect of the poor, yet the English language did not vanish; instead, it changed and grew and became the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, and then spread over the entire planet. And in the early 20th century, just as the British political empire was about to begin receding while the English linguistic realm was poised to begin exploding across the Earth, another regicide took place.
The murder of Russia’s royal family and the onset of ruthless Communist rule in 1917 seemed to be the end for the identity and integrity of another historical and political state. But here, too, may be another hidden turning point. For while more Christian martyrs than the world has ever known before were suffering for their faith in Russia, the exodus of Russian refugees brought tremendous vigour to the Orthodox churches and communities throughout the West, including those in English speaking lands. The heart of Russian identity – Holy Orthodoxy – has spread rapidly across the globe through the medium of English, just as the good news of the Christian apostles once spread quickly throughout the Greek speaking lands of the Roman empire. Once again, a brutal, unjustified, criminal murder for which no one was brought to justice may – perhaps – be God’s way of sending forth the power of the Holy Spirit in a fallen world. In any case, surely this we know: there are now new saints in heaven, new intercessors for the Russian land and – dare we hope – for the world.