Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Edward (963?-978)

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EDWARD or EADWARD the martyr (963?–978), king of the English, the eldest son of Eadgar, was the child of Æthelflæd, and was born probably in 963 [see under Eadgar]. He was brought up as his father's heir, his education was entrusted to Sideman, bishop of Crediton, who instructed him in the scriptures, and he grew a stout and hardy lad (Vita S. Oswaldi, p. 449). He was about twelve years old when his father died in 975. The circumstances of his election to the throne will be found in the article on Dunstan. It should be added that the author of the 'Life of St. Oswald,' writing before 1005, says that the nobles who opposted his election were moved to do so by his hot temper, for the boy used not only to abuse but to beat his attendants. While it is likely enough that he was imperious and quick tempered, the faction that, at the instigation of Eadgar's widow, Ælfthryth, upheld the claim made on behalf of her son was of course swayed by other considerations. A notice of the meetings of the ‘witan,’ held to settle the dispute between the seculars and regulars, which constitutes the sole interest of this short reign, will also be found under Dunstan. It is evident that the monastic party was far less powerful under Eadward than it had been in the time of his father. Dunstan seems to have retained his influence at the court, though the East-Anglian party headed by Æthelwine certainly lost ground, and there is reason to believe that Ælfhere the Mercian ealdorman had the chief hand in the management of affairs. The banishment of Oslac, whom Eadgar had made Earl of Deiran Northumbria, is perhaps evidence of an intention to undo the policy of the last reign by attempting to bring the Danes of the north into more immediate dependence on the crown. Eadward was assassinated on 18 March 978. According to the earliest detailed account of the murder (ib.) the thegns of the faction that had upheld the claim put forward on behalf of his half-brother Æthelred plotted to take away his life, and decided on doing so on one of his visits to the child. On the evening of his murder he rode to Corfe, or Corfes-gate, as it was then called, from the gap in which the town stands, in Dorsetshire, where Æthelred was living with his mother Ælfthryth. He had few attendants with him, and the thegns, evidently of Ælfthryth's household and party, came out with their arms in their hands, and crowded round him as though to do him honour. Among them was the cup-bearer ready to do his office. One of them seized the king's hand, and pulled him towards him as though to kiss him—the kiss of the traitor may be an embellishment, for the salute would surely not have been offered by a subject—while another seized his left hand. The young king cried, ‘What are ye doing, breaking my right hand?’ and as he leaped from his horse the conspirator on his left stabbed him, and he fell dead. His corpse was taken to a poor cottage at Wareham, and was there buried without honour and in unconsecrated ground.

The murder excited great indignation, which was increased when it became evident that the king's kinsmen would not avenge him. ‘No worse deed was done since the English race first sought Britain,’ wrote the chronicler. In 980 Archbishop Dunstan and Ælfhere, the heads of the rival ecclesiastical parties, went to Wareham and joined in translating the body with great pomp to Shaftesbury. There many miracles were wrought at the king's tomb, and great crowds resorted to kneel before it. Eadward was reverenced as a saint and martyr. He was officially styled martyr as early as 1001 (Kemble, Codex Dipl. 706), and the observance of his mass-day was ordered by the ‘witan’ in 1008 (Thorpe), a law that was re-enacted by Cnut at Winchester (ib.). Political feelings can scarcely have had anything to do with the murder of a king whose burial rites were performed by Dunstan and Ælfhere in common. Although the biographer of St. Oswald says nothing of Ælfthryth, it is evident from his account of the murder that it was done not by any of the great nobles, but by the thegns of her household, and his silence as to her name is accounted for by the fact that she may have been alive when the biographer wrote between 990 and 1005, for she seems to have died after 999 and before 1002, and that he wrote in the reign of her son Æthelred. Osbern, writing about 1090, is the first plainly to attribute the murder to Eadward's step-mother (Memorials of Dunstan, p. 114), and he is followed by Eadmer (ib. 215). Florence (i. 145) says that he was slain by his own men by Ælfthryth's order. Henry of Huntingdon, while attributing his death to men of his own family, mentions the legend that tells how Ælfthryth stabbed him as she handed him a cup of drink (748). This legend is elaborately related by William of Malmesbury (Gesta Regum, i. 258). The fact that his body, hastily as it was interred, was buried at Wareham gives some probability to the story that he was dragged for some distance by the stirrup. The deep feeling aroused by his death seems to show that the young king was personally popular, and the affection he showed for his half-brother and the story of the child's grief at his death are perhaps evidences of a loveable nature. Osbern's remarks on the general good opinion men had of him should not, however, be pressed, for Eadward's character had then long been removed from criticism. One charter of Eadward dated 977 is undoubtedly genuine (Kemble, Codex Dipl. 611).

[Vita S. Oswaldi, Historians of York, i. 448–52 (Rolls Ser.); Adelard, Osbern, Eadmer, Memorials of St. Dunstan, 61, 114, 215 (Rolls Ser.); Anglo-Saxon Chron. sub ann. 975–80; Florence of Worcester, i. 145 (Engl. Hist. Soc.); William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, i. 258 (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Henry of Huntingdon, Mon. Hist. Brit. 748; Thorpe's Ancient Laws, i. 308, 358; Kemble's Codex Diplomaticus, 611, 706; Robertson's Historical Essays in connection with the Land, the Church, &c., 169; Freeman's Norman Conquest, i. 288–93, 341, 365, 684; Green's Conquest of England, 353–7.]

W. H.