England was left shocked when King Edgar the Peaceful died suddenly on July 8, 975, at the young age of only about thirty-two years old. As the late king, himself, was a youthful man, the two living sons that he left behind were also young. The eldest son, Edward, was reportedly thirteen years old at the time of his father’s death. Although Edgar had named Edward as his heir, the boy’s claim to the throne was not absolute. King Edgar had divorced Edward’s mother, Æthelflæd, and married a new queen, named Ælfthryth (also known as Elfrida). Queen Ælfthryth was the mother of King Edgar’s other living son, Æthelred, who was reportedly seven years old at the time of his father’s death in 975. As both potential claimants to the throne of England were children, the nobles of the country split into rival camps, backing either Edward or Æthelred. To Queen Ælfthryth’s annoyance, Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury and the faction backing the eldest son moved quickest and successfully placed King Edward I on the throne.
Despite being described as a saintly young man, the teenage King Edward did not have fate on his side. Edward was a magnet for unlucky natural disasters and phenomena. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, a comet appeared in the autumn of 975, a sign that was often considered a bad omen in the superstitious Middle Ages. His luck worsened in 976, when a great famine struck England, further destabilizing the realm. Additionally, Edgar was faced by a slew of disgruntled nobles who had not supported his claim to the throne—among the worst was Ealdorman Ælfhere of Mercia, a particularly insubordinate noble, who began seizing monastic lands without the king’s permission.
Although Edward had already faced incredibly rough years during his short reign, 978 would be the worst. To start the year off, the Witan—a counsel of the king’s powerful advisors—met at Calne for deliberations in an upper floor of a building. Adding to the odd disasters that plagued Edward’s period of rule, the floor upon which the members of the Witan were standing suddenly gave way, sending most of the king’s counselors free-falling to the ground. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, only Archbishop Dunstan was spared the fall, as he had unknowingly been standing atop a sturdy support beam that withstood the collapse. The other members of the Witan, however, did not fare so well. Many were reportedly injured and a few died from the incident.
Despite the drama between the rival political factions that supported Edward and Æthelred, the two young half-brothers reportedly had a warm sibling relationship. In fact, on March 18, 978, King Edward was in Corfe to spend some time with his brother. Yet, the youthful king did not enjoy any family fun on that visit. Instead, the fifteen-year-old king was intercepted and violently murdered by assassins. The slain king was eventually remembered as Edward the Martyr, but his death likely was not perpetrated for religious reasons. Although no evidence was found, many people, both medieval and modern, believe that the assassins were working for Queen Ælfthryth. After the murder of King Edward, his approximately ten-year-old brother, Æthelred, became the new king. He would be remembered infamously as Æthelred the Unready, the king who could not stop a new wave of Vikings from occupying England.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Image depicting the assassination of Edward the Martyr, by Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810–1896), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.