King Edgar the Peaceable of England (959-975) died a young man still, perhaps no older than thirty-two. He left two surviving sons, (one of his sons, Edmund, having died in 971 at a young age.) Neither of his surviving children was an adult and they both had different mothers. Edward, the child of a woman perhaps named as Æthelflæd, and Æthelred, the surviving child of Edgar and his queen, Elfrida, who had ruled at Edgar’s side for about a decade. Edward was probably no older than fifteen in 975, Æthelred perhaps as young as eight. While the kingdom of the English might well have endured years of peace, the same could not be said for the royal court.
The factionalism of the great Benedictine monastic reform movement has much to do with this. As part of the reform movement, a huge amount of land changed hands. As ever, religion was a mask for what was happening at a more basic level. It could just as easily be interpreted as a land grab. In the wake of the death of the king, ‘Attacks on church property were widespread. From York to Kent and Sussex, from the Severn valley to the Fens the death of Edgar was a signal to those who wished to recover property.’ Whether Edgar intended for his royal son, born to a consecrated mother and father to succeed after him or not might have been irrelevant when faced with two opposing parties – one supporting the older Edward and one Æthelred, both of whom had religious men as their supporters.
Essentially, both sons would have been too young to rule England. King Eadwig, their uncle, had hardly provided good and secure rule during his brief reign from 955-959, when he was no older than fifteen. But, there was no other choice unless note was made of the family of Ælfgifu, wife to Eadwig, and her collection of brothers, the most famous of whom was Æthelweard, an ealdorman who is thought to have written a Latin translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle referred to as the Chronicon. The family claimed descent from Æthelred I (865-871), Alfred’s older brother.
Edward was chosen to rule with the support of one of these two powerful factions, and Edward’s coronation was conducted by Archbishop Dunstan. Yet some believed Æthelred should be king, no matter his young age, and Æthelred’s support was led by Ealdorman Ælfhere of Mercia. Ealdorman Ælfhere had gained his position under King Eadwig, and had remained powerful despite the seeming division of England back into its constituent parts of Mercia and Wessex in 958 and 959. Perhaps this then, might have been a solution – a division of England once more. Yet ‘questions of division or underkingship were replaced by a straightforward struggle for the throne of the entire kingdom.’
Young Edward was murdered. What we don’t know, unlike with the murder of his grandfather (Edmund (939-946) was murdered by Liofa, possibly a thief), is who killed Edward, known as Edward the Martyr.
The A text of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle is the simplest version of the story for 978, ‘Here King Edward was killed.’
The C text offers, ‘Here in this year King Edward was martyred, and his brother, the young ætheling Æthelred, succeeded to the kingdom; and he was consecrated as king the same year.’
‘Here King Edward was killed in the evening-time in 18 March at Corfe passage; and they buried him at Wareham without any royal honours.’ The ASC E (979 for 978) text reads.
Elfrida was known to live close to Corfe, but the E version of the ASC is one of the youngest manuscripts to have survived, dated to about 1121, when it was written in one hand. It is possible then, that the entry in the E version of the ASC had benefitted from some much later additions, thanks to the Saints lives which portrayed Elfrida as the murderer of her husband’s oldest son! It is the A version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which is the more contemporary of our surviving sources.
It was openly acknowledged that Edward was killed, and in his place, Æthelred, at no more than perhaps twelve years of age, became king. This can only have been possible with support for Æthelred. Those backing Æthelred’s claim must have been strong enough to counter any other bid for the kingdom. It no doubt helps that there were few others who could legitimately claim the kingship for themselves. Had they turned to any latent claim presented by Ealdorman Æthelweard, who by now was possibly a man in his late thirties or forties (his death is believed to have taken place in about 998 when he stops attesting Æthelred’s charters), then his sons might not have been deemed acceptable to rule after him, having been born to a man not consecrated as king, and a woman who was certainly not regarded as a queen. This, then, would have merely delayed the inevitable question of the succession once more after Æthelweard’s death.
So, who killed Edward, or ordered his death? Did Elfrida, England’s first anointed queen, commit regicide in an attempt to win back the influence she unexpectedly lost on the death of her young husband, when her step-son was appointed as king?
There were certainly some who believed she had a hand in the murder of the young man.
The involvement of Elfrida directly in the murder of her step-son is ‘derived ultimately from the Passio Sancti Eadwardi Regis et Martyris, an account of Edward’s life, murder and miracles probably written in the 1070s by the Anglo-Norman hagiographer Goscelin and itself based partly on an earlier account of St Edward which may have been written at Shaftesbury in the early years of the eleventh century.’
‘When a certain day was nearing evening, the illustrious and elected king came as we have said to the house where his much-loved brother dwelt with the queen, desiring the consolation of brotherly love; there came out to meet him, as was fitting, nobles and chief men, who stayed with the queen, his mother. They formed among them a wicked plan, for they possessed minds so accursed and such dark diabolical blindness that they did not fear to lay hands on the Lord’s anointed….The thegns then holding him, one drew him on the right towards him as if he wished to give him a kiss, but another seized roughly his left hand and also wounded him. And he shouted, so far as he could: ‘What are you doing – breaking my right arm?’ And suddenly leapt from the horse and died.’ So informs the Life of St Oswald written during the life of both Elfrida and Æthelred II, by Byrhtferth, although we will never know if they were aware of what was written. It does not specifically name Elfrida as responsible for the king’s murder.
Another near contemporary source. The Sermon of the Wolf to the English states that, Edward was betrayed and then killed, and afterwards burned and [Ethelred was driven out of his country].’ This dates from 1014, and therefore follows Æthelred’s loss of the kingdom to King Swein of Denmark. Again, it is not a contemporary source.
But later writers persisted with the story. Henry of Huntingdon, a Norman chronicler wrote. ‘It is said that his stepmother [Ælfthryth/Elfrida], that is the mother of King Æthelred, stabbed him [Edward] with a dagger while stretching out a cup to him.’ And so named Elfrida as the physical murderess.
William of Malmesbury, another Norman writer, also associates Edward the Martyr’s murder with Elfrida, despite that fact that Edward treated his ‘stepmother with proper warmth of feeling….The woman however, with a stepmother’s hatred and a viper’s guile, in her anxiety that her son should also enjoy the title of king, laid plots against her stepson’s life…On his arrival, his stepmother, with a woman’s wiles, distracted his attention, and with a kiss of welcome offered him a drink. As he greedily drank it, she had him pierced with a dagger by one of her servants….Ælfthryth [Elfrida] fell from her pride of royalty into a dire repentance, such that for many years at Wherwell she clad her delicately nurtured limbs in haircloth.’
It is perplexing to consider the alleged involvement of Elfrida in the death of her stepson with the cult of Edward the Martyr that subsequently developed. Indeed, it has been noted that in the will of Athelstan, Æthlered’s son who died in 1014, and who was raised by Elfrida, he makes a bequest to Shaftesbury to St Edward (where Edward was later buried). ‘And I give to the Holy Cross and St Edward at Shaftesbury the six pounds about which I have given directions to my brother Edmund.’
This then seems more than a strange thing to do if the family were keen to dismiss the concerns that Elfrida was involved in the king’s murder. Neither, and despite the reports that Edward the Martyr was not a pleasant individual, has it been considered that the murder was carried out because ALL believed they would benefit from a new king. Edward the Martyr, in the written details about him, does not have a good reputation, as the Vita Oswaldi itself states.
‘Certain of the chief men of this land wished to elect as king the king’s elder son, Edward by name; some of the nobles wanted the younger because he appeared to all gentler in speech and deeds. The elder, in fact, inspired in all not only fear but even terror, for [he scrouged them] not only with words but truly with dire blows, and especially his own men dwelling with him.’
At such a distance in time, it’s impossible to determine what happened. Dismissing the later saints lives and aspersions cast on Elfrida, by Adam of Bremen, Osbern of Canterbury, Florence of Worcester and Henry of Huntingdon (all Norman writers), one thing is clear. Whatever had happened to pave the way for Æthelred to become king, it was accepted by the vast majority of the witan and the holy men. Sometimes, mention is made that Æthelred’s coronation was delayed, taking place on 4th May 979, maybe while negotiations took place, but this delay was perhaps not that unusual – there was a delay in Edward the Elder’s coronation, and also Athelstan’s. Was it a delay because Æthelred was unacceptable, or merely one of politic? Or is it merely a confusion with the date, 979 for 978, or something else? Was Æthelred considered too young in 978 to undergo coronation? Was he ill? Sometimes, we forget the frailties of our forebears, too keen to see political intrigue everywhere.
What can be said is, no matter the alleged involvement of the royal family in the murder of one of their own, the words of later chroniclers and those who may have written at the time but with an agenda to tarnish the name of the Wessex royal family, no one faced murder charges for what happened. The murder was acknowledged, but those responsible faced no penalty for it (as far as we know – certainly, none of the prime suspects fell from favour). Whatever led to the murder of Edward, his absorption into the royal line of saints (and there were many, many royal saints in the Wessex family in the tenth century – Edgar’s mother was regarded as saintly, as was his only daughter, Edith, after her death, and indeed, that daughter’s mother, Wulfthryth) it was those looking back at the return of the Viking raiders throughout the last two decades of the tenth century and the eleventh, which resulted in not one, not two, but three Viking kings claiming England for themselves, who thought to tarnish Æthelred’s already tainted reputation as a failed military commander by adding the charge of ‘complicit in the murder of his step-brother’ to the already, very long list of charges levelled against him. But of course, none of these were contemporary accounts.
And so, it seems, we might never know the truth of what befell Edward the Martyr, and certainly, there are no truly contemporary accounts to say Queen Elfrida either physically committed the murder, or ordered that it be carried out.
 Pauline Stafford Unification and Conquest p57
 Pauling Stafford Unification and Conquest p57
 Michael Stanton, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (ASC) p122
 M Stanton, ASC p122
 M Stanton, ASC p123
 M Stanton, ASC pxxvi
 Simon Keynes, The Diplomas of King Æthelred the Unready, p168
 D Whitelock, English Historical Documents p841-3 It is believed that this work was written at Ramsey from 995-1005, and so in the lifetime of Æthelred, and indeed, his mother.
 D Whitelock, English Historical Documents p857 although Æthelred’s name is not included all of the manuscript versions.
 Henry of Huntingdon Historia Anglorum p325
 William of Malmesbury Gesta Regum Anglorum p265-7
 D Whitelock, English Historical Documents p549 (130)
 D Whitelock, English Historical Documents p841 (236)
 Simon Keynes, The Diplomas of King Æthelred the Unready, p168 for a discussion of the later sources
I’ve written extensively about Lady Elfrida, and she also features in the first Earls of Mercia book, The Earl of Mercia’s Father.