This illustration, created by the German artist Joseph Martin Kronheim (c. 1810–1896), depicts the final moments of King Edward the Martyr of England, who ascended to the throne in 975. He was one of two sons fathered by King Edgar the Peaceful (r. 957-975). When King Edward became the ruler of England, he was reportedly only thirteen years of age, and his position was precarious, as his stepmother, Queen Ælfthryth (or Elfthritha), was an ambitious woman whose son, Æthelred, was next in line to the throne.
Unfortunately, Edward’s reign was destabilized by natural disasters such as famines, as well as several incidents that caused superstitious fear, including untimely collapses of buildings and a sighting of a comet, all of which emboldened Edward’s enemies. Assassins finally struck in 978, successfully murdering the young king. Although there was no definitive proof, it was widely believed in England that Edward’s stepmother was involved. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refrained from openly accusing the queen, but later chronicles were less hesitant. The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester (d. 1118), was one such source that implicated the queen, writing, “Edward, king of England, was foully murdered at Corvesgeate (Corfe), at the instigations of his step-mother, queen Elfthritha, and was buried at Wareham without royal pomp” (chronicle entry for year 978). Such is the scene that Joseph Martin Kronheim depicts in the illustration above. It shows, Queen Ælfthryth and her henchmen assassinating Edward to clear the way for Ælfthryth’s own son, Æthelred the Unready (r. 978-1016). During Æthelred’s chaotic reign, England would become overwhelmed by Viking raids and invasions by the Danes.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester translated by Thomas Forester. London: Petter and Galpin, originally published 1854.