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A One Thousand Year Old Murder Mystery

Murder of Edward the MartyrOn the evening of 18 March 978 Edward, the teenaged king of England, set out on horseback for Corfe in Dorset, intending to visit his half-brother, Ethelred, and stepmother, Elfrida. He never made it inside the building. The murder of Edward, who would later come to be known as ‘the Martyr’, coloured the subsequent reign of his half-brother. It remains a 1000 year old murder mystery. Just what happened at Corfe and who was to blame?

Edward and Ethelred were the sons of King Edgar, who ruled England from 959 to 975. Edward was the son of his first wife, Ethelflaed, who seems to have been discarded. A second marriage also ended in divorce when the king decided to marry Elfrida, the widow of his foster brother. The couple made a love match, with Edgar keen to stress the legitimacy of his third marriage. Unlike his previous two wives, Elfrida was crowned.

The legitimacy of Elfrida’s children was also stressed. In one charter her eldest son, Edmund, was referred to as ‘the legitimate son of the king’. He witnessed before the elder Edward, who was referred to merely as ‘begotten by the same king’. Edmund died young, but his younger brother, Ethelred, was similarly favoured by his father. Edgar unexpectedly died on 8 July 975, when Ethelred was only around seven years old. The fifteen year old Edward made a more acceptable candidate. Although Elfrida and her supporters disputed his succession, he was crowned in March 976.

Edward’s short reign was a troubled one. Shortly after the coronation, Elfrida’s kinsman, Ealdorman Elfhere, showed his displeasure by attacking the East Anglian monasteries. At the same time, crop failures caused famine. The final blow came in 978 at a council meeting at Calne. As the parties debated in an upper chamber of a house ‘the floor with its beams and supporters gave way suddenly and fell to the ground’. Many of Edward’s councillors and supporters were killed or injured, politically isolating him.

Sources for just what happened at Corfe on 18 March 978 are scant. The earliest, which is contained in Manuscript A of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, merely states that ‘here King Edward was killed’. It is necessary to look at manuscript E of the Chronicle, which was produced after 1116 and based on a lost early copy, for fuller details. This manuscript states that Edward was killed at Corfe ‘passage’ and that ‘they buried him at Wareham without any royal honours’. The location of the murder at Corfe, where Elfrida lived, was ominous.

The best early account of the murder is contained in the Life of St Oswald by Byrhtferth of Ramsey, which was written before 1016. According to this, Edward was murdered when ‘the zealous thegns of his brother rose up against him when he was hastening to come to talk with his beloved brother’. The noblemen of the queen’s household came out to greet him and ‘they formed among them a wicked plan, for they possessed minds so accursed and such diabolical blindness that they did not fear to lay hands on the lord’s annointed’. Surrounding the mounted Edward, one man pulled him around to the right as if to kiss him, while another roughly seized his arm. Alarmed, Edward cried out ‘what are you doing – breaking my right arm?’, before leaping from his horse and dying.

An analysis of Edward’s bones, which were discovered in 1931, supports this account. The corpse had a broken arm, while the thigh was fractured from being forced down into the saddle. The body then rolled forward, with the left foot becoming trapped in the stirrup. The stricken king was then dragged along the ground some distance as his terrified horse bolted.

The earliest accounts place the murder at Corfe and stress that it was planned and carried out by the men of Elfrida’s household. It was only later that the queen came to be considered to be the murderer. The first account to blame her, the mid-eleventh century Life of St Dunstan by Osbern, claimed that Edward was ‘killed by a stepmother’s deceit’.

With every subsequent account, Elfrida’s ‘guilt’ increased. The late eleventh century Passion of Edward the Martyr, for example, claimed that she planned the murder, leaving her followers to actually carry out the deed. William of Malmesbury, writing in the early twelfth-century, had Elfrida distracting Edward as one of her attendants stabbed him. Henry of Huntingdon believed that she stabbed him herself.

So, should the case be closed? Did Queen Elfrida carry out the murder of her stepson? She certainly had the most to gain, ruling on behalf of her son during his minority. However, while it is clear that the murder was carried out by some of the men of her household, this does not prove that she knew of the crime or approved it. There is another source, contemporary to Ethelred, which suggests that Edward was killed by renegade noblemen rather than by his stepmother.

In Archbishop Wulfstan of York’s ‘Sermon of the Wolf’, composed between 1013 and 1016, he dwelt on the disasters that England had suffered since the murder. Wulfstan claimed that ‘it is the greatest of all treachery in the world that a man betray his lord’s soul; and a full treachery in the world that a man should betray his lord to death… Edward was betrayed and then killed, and afterward burnt’. Wulfstan clearly believed that Edward was murdered by men who owed him allegiance. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also distinguishes between Edward’s murderers and his kin in the statement that ‘his earthly relatives would not avenge him’.

The location of the murder looks damning for Elfrida, but she would have needed to be a skilful actress to have lulled her stepson into such a sense of security that he was prepared to pay a social call on a woman who was plotting his murder. The increasing emphasis on Elfrida’s role had its origins among those who were politically opposed to her. For example, one hostile writer, Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, wrote at Wilton nunnery in the late eleventh century – the religious house where Edgar’s second wife had unwillingly retired as abbess.

Elfrida’s guilt cannot be disproved, but it must be doubted. The early sources blame a conspiracy within her household. The worst crime that they lay at her door is a failure to avenge Edward’s death. Elfrida had earlier made terms with Edward, but her fiery supporter, Ealdorman Elfhere, was unable to accept Edward as king. He makes a more plausible candidate for the murderer. Too powerful for Elfrida to make a show of punishing, it is telling that it was Elfhere who ceremonially took Edward’s body from its hasty burial place at Wareham to an honourable tomb at Shaftesbury Abbey in 979. This ceremony served as a public reconciliation between the parties and allowed Ethelred to finally be crowned on 14 April 979.

The reburial, at which masses were said for Edward’s soul on Elfhere’s orders, looks very much like his atonement for the crime. Elfrida was not present, but perhaps she had no need to be. Ealdorman Elfhere must be considered the leading suspect in the murder of Edward the Martyr.

photo credit: A nineteenth century depiction of the murder (image in the author’s own collection)