James Lloyd visits the village of Corfe in Dorset, overlooked by a ruined castle and the setting for a bloody story of treachery that changed the fate of England for ever.
In 975, Edgar, “by the conferring grace of Christ King of the whole English nation and of the other peoples of island of Britain”, as he was modestly known, died unexpectedly, leaving two contenders for the throne. His first wife had apparently died in labour, leaving Edward, now thirteen years old. The other was Æthelred, Edgar’s son by his second marriage, who may have been as young as six. (The daughter Edgar had had by his mistress was ineligible for all sorts of reasons, though she did go on to become a saint.)
Despite this, there was real debate as to which of the boys should succeed. The Ealdormen of East Anglia and Essex supported Æthelred’s case, as did (unsurprisingly) his mother, Ælfthryth, by all accounts a steaming temptress, well versed in etiquette, as Freddy Mercury might have described her, extraordinarily nice and he was a brave man who stood in the way of her motherly ambition now.
Just such a man was Ælfhere, Ealdorman of Mercia, who declared for the elder brother Edward. Crucially, Edward also secured the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Dunstan, who cast aside doubts about Edward’s legitimacy and his reputedly short fuse (he was a teenager – what did they expect?) and crowned him king.
Edward seems to have borne no hard feelings against his step-mother. To avoid complications, she never kept to the same address, so Edward gave her lands in Dorset, where she established her household overlooking a cutting, or in Old English “Corfe”, in the Purbeck hills.
To understand the politics of tenth-century England it is necessary to understand the church of tenth-century England. Most cathedrals were manned by what is confusingly called secular clergy, that is to say priests who were not monks. They lived in houses, many of them with their wives and children and they owned property individually. There were also monastic cathedrals, where the clergy were monks who lived chaste lives in cells and held their property in common. King Edgar was a hearty supporter of spreading monasticism and many cathedrals were converted from secular to monastic foundations under him, with their priests banished unless they gave up their wives and became monks.
Ealdorman Ælfhere had opposed the monastic reform of Edgar’s reign, whereas Archbishop Dunstan, a Benedictine, had supported it, so the fact that both men joined forces to raise Edward to the throne suggests that the succession dispute was more about geographical politics than religion. Nonetheless, Edward’s youth meant that Ælfhere was the real ruler of the country and he immediately began to reverse the monastic reform, allowing secular clergy to return to their churches and confiscating monastic estates.
For the monks who wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, this did not bode well. In the year of Edward’s accession, a comet was seen in the sky, portending disaster. The following year there was a famine and the Ealdorman of Northumbria was banished for unknown but presumably rebellious reasons. From her base at Corfe Castle, Queen Ælfthryth put down her caviar and cigarettes and noticed Edward’s growing unpopularity with the people whose opinion mattered. She also noticed that he was growing up. The age of majority at that time was fifteen, which Edward reached in 977. He would increasingly assume personal power.
Ælfthryth’s own son Æthelred was around seven years younger than Edward and, if he were king, would rely on regents for much longer. Those regents, no doubt, would include Ælfthryth. Conversely, the longer Edward lived, the likelier it became that he would marry and have sons of his own, cutting Æthelred out of the succession and Ælfthryth out of power. This she could not allow. Edward had to die but how to kill him? Gunpowder? Gelatine? Dynamite with a laser beam?
The Passion and Miracles of King Edward, King and Martyr was written in the late eleventh century. It is not the earliest source for the manner of Edward’s death but it is the most detailed and it accords, at least in essentials, with contemporary reports. The King was visiting his step-mother and half-brother at Corfe. On the eighteenth of March 978, Edward returned from a hunt. Ælfthryth greeted him, still astride his horse, at the gate of her residence and offered him a goblet to drink. In the few crucial seconds while the goblet covered his face, one of Ælfthryth’s servants struck him in the side with a dagger.
He dropped the goblet and, in a spasm, kicked his horse, which bolted. Edward slipped off the creature’s back but one of his feet was caught in the stirrup and he was dragged upside down, leaving a trail of blood. When Ælfthryth’s servants found him, he was long since dead. They left his body overnight with some peasant and then buried it without ceremony in the church at Wareham.
Everyone knew who had done it. Everyone also knew that she would get away with it. Ælfthryth was the mother of the nine-year-old boy who now had to become king but Archbishop Dunstan, despite his own opposition to Edward’s ecclesiastical policy, could not condone the murder of the king he had crowned. A year after the assassination, Ealdorman Ælfhere recovered Edward’s body and buried it with royal honours at Shaftesbury Abbey. With the boil lanced, Dunstan agreed to crown Æthelred but at the coronation he prophesied that his reign would bring disaster upon England.
How right he was. A hundred years earlier, Æthelred’s great-great-grandfather Alfred the Great had fought and defeated the Danes, sporadic pirate raiders from their own disunited country, who had nearly overwhelmed the English. Now Denmark was a unified state and its King Swein Forkbeard, who had deposed his own father, viewed a revival of the war with England, this time with state backing, as a way to shore up his uncertain position. Æthelred’s response was a confused mixture of unco-ordinated military half-measures, bribing the Danes to leave and national prayer days. Unsurprisingly, the descendent of Alfred the Great was defeated and, as has been bewailed on this blog before, this defeat caused the succession crisis that culminated in the Norman Conquest.
That means that the worst catastrophe ever to befall this country was a consequence of that moment of ambition and violence outside Corfe Castle. England’s invasion and subjugation by a foreign power, the reduction of hundreds of thousands of free-born Englishmen to serfdom, the mass-confiscation of property, the garrisoning of the land with castles, the vicious reprisals against revolt and the demotion of the English language to a peasants’ tongue for four hundred years, all of it would have been averted if Ælfthryth had not murdered King Edward.
Ælfthryth herself eventually retired to Wherwell Abbey, where she died around 1000. After her death Edward came to be regarded as a saint, with miracles being reported at his tomb. He was not, despite his epithet, a martyr in any real sense but it had already become apparent that his murder had been a political mistake, as well as a moral crime and his cult represented both a reaction against it and a serious attempt by the state to atone for it. The Danish invasion had started and King Æthelred, though hardly culpable for his half-brother’s death, sensed that the wars might be divine retribution for his own tainted accession. In 1008, in a law-code designed to invoke God’s aid against the Danes, he ordered the anniversary of Edward’s murder to be commemorated as the feast-day of a saint.
It did not work and today Edward the so-called Martyr is barely remembered even as a king, let alone as a saint but Ælfthryth has fared hardly better. Her castle is long gone, replaced by the Normans whose invasion she was indirectly responsible for causing. That castle too was destroyed in the Civil War, leaving the gaunt ruins that now overlook Corfe village. The village itself is largely a Victorian creation but at its heart, as in any English village, is the parish church, dedicated to Saint Edward, King and Martyr.