Seminary XLVI: Agatha Christie and Edward the Martyr

The last Earlier Middle Ages seminar of term at the Institute of Historical Research saw a rare event, viz. a visit from a Cambridge academic, something which doesn’t happen as often as it perhaps should. (If you wanted to know about one of the earlier ones that I missed, by the way, Magistra has very thoughtfully blogged on Laurent Feller’s paper of a few weeks before.) This time the academic in question was none other than Professor Simon Keynes, and he was speaking to the title “The Cult of Edward the Martyr in the Reign of King Æthelred ‘the Unready'”. Since there are few people more learned about Æthelred than Simon, and several of those who could compete were there, it was an unusually full gathering, and the questions afterwards were very lively.

Simon’s talk essentially centred on one question, but it’s one question that hangs off a far bigger one, which is, what happened to Edward the Martyr? It may be simplest to go from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to demonstrate the issue:

This year was King Edward slain, at eventide, at Corfe-gate, on the fifteenth day before the calends of April. And he was buried at Wareham without any royal honour. No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain. Men murdered him but God has magnified him. He was in life an earthly king – he is now after death a heavenly saint. Him would not his earthly relatives avenge – but his heavenly father has avenged him amply. The earthly homicides would wipe out his memory from the earth – but the avenger above has spread his memory abroad in heaven and in earth. Those, Who would not before bow to his living body, now bow on their knees to His dead bones. Now we may conclude, that the wisdom of men, and their meditations, and their counsels, are as nought against the appointment of God. In this same year succeeded Ethelred Etheling, his brother, to the government; and he was afterwards very readily, and with great joy to the counsellors of England, consecrated king at Kingston.

You can immediately see that even this, which is based on the Northern Recension and may well therefore be informed by the later views of Archbishop Wulfstan of York, was written some time after the fact, and this is basically the problem. The A manuscript only says: “Her wearð Eadweard cyning ofslegen. On þis ylcan feng Æðelred æðeling his broðor to rice”, ‘here was King Edward slain. In this same [year] came his brother Prince Æthelred to the throne’. It seems that after Edward’s death there was general confusion. There was nearly a year’s delay between that event and the inventio of his body and the burial that is here talked of; his body was subsequently translated to Shrewsbury and then moved again later on inside the cathedral, so that he has three feasts. It is also not clear from the documents and records, such as they be, whether Æthelred was consecrated before or after the body was found, and this makes a big difference for Simon’s question, which was: who was driving the cult? Was it, as has been said, a cult of opposition to Æthelred that fatally undermined his consensus as the Danes came (the traditional Stentonian view)? Was it powered mainly by Shaftesbury wanting a royal saint and managing to spread this to several other cult centres? Was it in fact driven by the king and his counsellors doing a Louis-the-Pious-type more-atonement-than-thou act to promote the idea of holy royalty? Or some other answer? At which point, it becomes quite important whether the quite young Æthelred delayed his consecration until his late half-brother was properly buried, or steamed ahead despite that not having happened.1

The parish church of St Mary, Cholsey, mostly twelfth-century as stands but with some Anglo-Saxon fabric

The parish church of St Mary, Cholsey, mostly twelfth-century as stands but with some Anglo-Saxon fabric

Simon’s answer to the question was basically `look to the king’, whose efforts at foundation and expiation were so considerable, and the early date for Edward’s death and therefore his inventio, meaning that Æthelred was indeed not consecrated till after that, so plausible, at least as Simon argued it though others have disagreed.2 An interesting sidelight is that alluded to in the title, that one of the places Æthelred founded, apparently in expiation of his failure to track down the murderers, who were never brought to book, was the abbey of Cholsey, where Agatha Christie now happens to be buried. Almost as if she were there, it became clear that in questions that, as we the audience were basically convinced by Simon’s argument except in minor details, we were now much more interested in the whodunnit. Later sources blame Æthelred’s mother for arranging Edward’s death so that her own son might succeed before Edward had offspring, but this was apparently not something anyone would say close to Æthelred, and the later writer of the Northern Recension of the Chronicle, as you see above, seems to think the death a failing of the English people as a whole.

Head of St Edward the Martyr from a reredos at Shaftesbury Cathedral

Head of St Edward the Martyr from a reredos at Shaftesbury Cathedral

From this Simon took the lesson that the cult might have been being promoted as part of the whole salvific effort to stave off the Danes, along with the various fasts and penances prescribed by the king and, of course, by Wulfstan, who is omnipresent in the sources for eleventh-century English government, what can make them rather hard to read clearly…3 We still wanted to know the missing bits however: how on earth could a ruling king have been murdered in such a way that his body was lost for a year? Was it really his body that was found or would any have done? (Apparently when the Shaftesbury tomb was last opened Carbon-14 dates were taken from the body which at least covered the right period, but all that means is that if there was a deception it was contemporary… ) Who benefitted from the murder? Who benefitted from the delay in consecration? Who was in charge meanwhile? (Simon put Ealdorman Æfhere, Archbishop Dunstan and a few others up for this in uneasy collaboration.) There is room for a great many conspiracy stories here, of course, but in the end I thought that, though life is often not so simple as this, Occam’s Razor suggested that, really, Edward did meet with some unpleasant incident at unknown hands, brigands or disinherited men of low intellect and realism or whatever, and the body was honestly lost, and no-one at court even knew for sure that the king was dead, which is why they don’t crown Æthelred. Then a body is found, whether it’s Edward’s I don’t know though it could be, and government is able to resume, but for a while they just don’t know what’s happened or what is safe to do without causing civil war. Anything else seems to me to make it very hard to explain the subsequent actions of not just the king and his penitence, but his courtiers and family; nobody seems to do what you’d expect if it was known who was to blame… So Agatha Christie probably rested well that night, given that a whole room of academics were discussing a real murder mystery that she now lies right next to some of the evidence for!


1. Best place to get the background, including the dramatis personae of royal family and court, is Pauline Stafford’s Unification and Conquest: A Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries (Oxford 1978), unless (what is quite possible) work that I haven’t yet read like Ann Williams’s Aethelred the Unready: the ill-counselled king (London 2003) gets into the messy personal side so well.

2. Mainly David Dumville, “The death of King Edward the Martyr – 18 March, 979?” in Anglo-Saxon Vol. 1 (Aberdeen 2007), pp. 269-284, to which paper Simon’s might be seen as an extended rebuttal really.

3. I still need to read Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century volume I: legislation and its limits (Oxford 2001), in which I’m told our source base for English law is more or less grown through by Wulfstan, like ivy that’s all that’s holding together a ruinous building…

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6 responses to “Seminary XLVI: Agatha Christie and Edward the Martyr

  1. Thanks for this. This is a subject I’ve thought about fairly often, and even though of producing a novel around the death of Edward. As much as I would like to blame Aethelred or his mum, I’m inclined to other readings of the sparse evidence. Given Simon’s previous work on Aethelred, I’m not surprised that he seeks to rehabilitate the king’s rep on this matter too. I think he’s probably right though.

  2. I’m not sure Simon was as easy on the evil mother-in-law as I am, actually. I think, as you imply, he was mainly keen to exonerate, or at least suggest genuine upset and concern on the part of, the “ten-year-old” Æthelred. And the whole whodunnit qustion was more explored in the questions than in the paper. There was a suggestion that someone might have accidentally said “oh who will rid me of this turbulent [brother|son-in-law|king]?” and then had to swallow the consequences :-) I think I agree that none of the obvious suspects seem to act in a way that would make much sense if they’d planned the situation, though.

  3. The problem with your brigands etc is surely opportunity (rather than means or motif). How can you kill a king and it not be known, when he goes round with an entourage at all times (unlike Agatha Christie, who can therefore disappear for eleven days)? Charlemagne has a hundred men with him when he goes for a swim etc. Unless you suppose Edward is being like Harun al-Rashid and going off in disguise on his own? If he has even a relatively small entourage, either they all get killed, which is getting fairly conspicuous, or some of them keep quiet, which suggests some kind of conspiracy.

    Actually, if you want murder without forethought, then maybe we ought to start looking harder at the entourage. Consider what happened to Charles the Younger (Charles the Bald’s son) in Annales Bertiniani 864. He is mucking about with his entourage and gets a wound which is later fatal. Suppose something like that happened at Corfe Castle and Edward was possibly to blame for his own death. That might explain the chaos afterwards and the time taken to fix on a line about him being a noble martyr killed by persons unknown (rather than just a very naughty boy).

  4. Charles the Younger’s not a patch on Louis III. Now that’s an unroyal way to die: both crass and stupid. But you’re quite right; the entourage have to feature, unless he was hunting and managed to outdistance them or something. In which case, perhaps I fall back on the disinherited again.

  5. Interestingly enough Edward the Martyr is not the first English king to die under unclarified circumstances. Edmund was stabbed by a certain ‘Leofa’ according to [i]ASC[/i]D 946, and John of Worcester later adds that Edmund had been trying to rescue his seneschal from being killed by a robber, Leofa. Whilst John may well have just been extrapolating from a rather brief chronicle entry, certainly he seemed to think that brigandage was not out of the question.

  6. That’s an interesting comparator, but Magistra’s right: in that case there were clearly witnesses…

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