Edward the Martyr, king of England (975 - 18 March 978 [killed at Corfe by supporters of Æthelred])

Edward the Martyr was the son of Edgar and either Wulfthryth or Æthelflæd. On Edgar's death, there was a disputed succession between Edward and his younger half-brother, Æthelred, Edgar's son by Ælfthryth. Edward became king of England (975-78), but was murdered on 18 March 978. Within twenty-five years he was an established saint and martyr.

It is surprising to find the two pillars of monastic reform backed different candidates in the succession crisis, with Æthelwold on Æthelred's side and Dunstan on Edward's. The nobles were also divided, with ealdorman Æthelwine of East Anglia and Byrhtnoth of Essex for Edward, and Ælfthryth Edgar's widow and Ælfhere of Mercia for Æthelred. Given that in 975 Æthelred was probably nine, and Edward only a few years older, they were surely figureheads rather than active participants. The real reasons for preferring one or the other may have lain in family alliances rather than in the relative throneworthiness of the candidates.

In any event, Edward was crowned in 975, but the unrest and resistance continued, alongside what used to be called the "anti-monastic reaction". The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes this as ealdorman Ælfhere of Mercia and many others launching unprovoked attacks on monasteries. Then again, the Liber Eliensis makes clear that some of the lands given to monasteries in Edgar's reign were seized by force, so the "reaction" was probably more a recovery of territory than a revulsion against monastic ideals. Further, even people seen as pro-monastic, such as Æthelwine "the friend of God", are often merely protecting their own interests: Æthelwine was a founder of Ramsey, so naturally Byrhtferth of Ramsey's Vita Oswaldi speaks highly of him, but the monks of Ely remember him for stealing several of their estates.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that Edward's murder took place at Corfe, on 18 March 978, in the evening, and that he was buried at Wareham without royal honours. It notes further that in the following year ealdorman Ælfhere recovered the body and bore it with great honour to Shaftesbury. Byrhtferth's Vita Oswaldi adds that Edward had gone to visit his half-brother, who was staying with his mother, and certain zealous thegns of Æthelred killed him. The late eleventh-century Passio Sancti Eadwardi adds that it was Ælfthryth who plotted the killing, so that her son could be king. Ælfthryth's complicity in Edward's death cannot be demonstrated, and without earlier evidence it is simplest to assume that Æthelred's zealous thegns acted on their own initiative, perhaps expecting more advancement under Æthelred. In 1001 Edward's body was translated within the abbey at Shaftesbury. A charter that same year (S 899) calls him a saint, the celebration of his feast-day is enforced in Cnut's and Æthelred's lawcodes, and he appears in pre-Conquest calendars, litanies, and prayers.