Edward the Martyr
DESCRIPTION: Song(?) in Old English. In 978, King Edward is killed at Corfe. He is buried without honors. "Men murdered him, but God exalted him." He is now a saint, and people pray to him. The counsels of those who murdered him failed.
EARLIEST DATE: c. 979 (Peterborough Manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)
KEYWORDS: homicide royalty burial
FOUND IN: Britain(England)
REFERENCES (1 citation):
ADDITIONAL: Michael Swanton, translator and editor,: _The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle_, 1996 (I use the 1998 Routledge edition), p. 123, (no title) (a translation into prose)
NOTES: Many attempts have been made over the years to locate the "earliest English ballad." F. J. Child's candidate was "Judas" (Child 23), which at least had the virtues of being in roughly the right form and of having a plot and of being only slightly older than other examples of the type. Gummere came up with another candidate, "Merie Sungen the Muneches Bennen Ely (Merry Sang the Monks of Ely)." Others have sort of hinted at the song of Bannockburn, "Maydenes of Engelande, sare may ye morne," for which see the notes on "Hal-an-Tow."
I think, though, that this instance takes the prize. CHEL1, pp. 138-139, says of a poem found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, "The murder of Edward son of Edgar, at Corfesgeat, is related in a peculiarly distinctive poem, which is quite clearly in sung verse, and show traces of strophic arrangement. Some lines, possibly, show the earliest English seven-beat verse.... Probably the chronicler took a popular ballad or ballads, broke it up, and attempted to destroy its sing-song character by the addition of end verses."
CHEL1 does not identify the source of this alleged ballad-like piece, but discusses it in the context of poems transcribed into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Most of these appear to be in alliterative lines, but this one is described in ballad terms. The description of the content makes it seem certain that, despite CHEL1's lack of a citation, the item referred to is the elegy on Edward the Martyr found under the year 979 [error for 978] in the Peterborough copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (cited as "E" by Swanton).
I must cautiously note that Swanton, p. 123, prints the account of Edward in prose. By contrast, on p. 118 he prints an elegy on Edward the Martyr's father Edgar in poetry. Similarly, Anderson, pp. 177-178, looks at poems of history in the Chronicle and other sources, and lists the Edgar poems and others -- but not the story of Edward the Martyr. My several books of Anglo-Saxon poetry all omit it, although none of them is intended to be comprehensive. Thus CHEL1's contention that the tale of Edward is poetry is dubious. And it is, of course, in Old English; every other song claimed as a ballad is in either Middle English or Modern English. Even if "Edward the Martyr" is indeed regarded as poetry, I doubt it can be considered the earliest ballad. But better to put it in with warning notices than leave it out....
As for the situation in the song (?), it is complex. The Viking invasions of England of the late ninth century had been fought off by Alfred the Great (Brooke, pp. 107-111), and in the half-century after his death, Alfred's sons and grandsons had expanded the kingdom of Wessex -- the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom to survive the raids -- to cover most of what we now call England (Brooke, pp. 117-118).
Unfortunately, the descendants of Alfred proved rather short-lived -- Alfred himself had died at age fifty (Brooke, p. 116), and five kings reigned between Alfred's death in about 900 and the accession of King Edgar in 959 (see the genealogy on p. 211 of Brooke). Edgar himself reigned only from 959 to 975 -- and was only about 32 when he died suddenly (indeed, Brooke, p. 128, says he was not yet thirty).
And he had had two wives. By the first he had had a son, Edward, who was probably around twelve, although this is uncertain. In 964 (StentonEtAl, p. 372) or 965 (Swanton, p. 119), Edgar had married as his second wife Aelfthryth. She apparently bore him two sons, Edmund, who died in 970 (Swanton, p. 119) and Ethelred -- the future Ethelred II Unraed (whose name should be rendered something like "redeless," i.e., unadvised, un-counseled, but has been cleverly if unfairly rendered "the Unready"). Ethelred cannot have been more than ten and may well have been only six or seven when his father Edgar died (StentonEtAl, p. 372).
Edward -- the second English king of that name -- succeeded smoothly enough, but it is evident that Ethelred had many supporters who felt that he ought to be King. Or at least who wanted a King who was more under their thumb (StentonEtAl, p. 372). The next several years seem to have been unsettled, with famines and civil strife and several monasteries sacked (Swanton, p. 121).
In 978, King Edward came to visit his half-brother and stepmother at Corfe (StentonEtAl, p. 373). Exactly what happened next is unclear. It is hard to believe that Ethelred had anything to do with it -- after all, he was still only twelve or younger. Possibly his mother was in on the planning; possibly not. According to Hole, p. 150, the first chronicler to connect her with the murder lived some seven decades later, in the reign of William the Conqueror. What is certain is that, while at Corfe, King Edward was attacked and killed, then buried in unconsecrated ground (Brooke, p. 129).
What was alleged to be his body was later discovered because miracles were taking place there (Hole, p. 151)
Because Edward had no son, his half-brother Ethelred became the new King -- but a king under a cloud (StentonEtAl, p. 373), whose reign would see a disastrous resumption of the Danish invasions; Ethelred would be overthrown in 1013, restored in 1014, and might have been overthrown again in 1016 had he not himself died. It was later reported that St. Dunstan, who crowned Ethelred, spoke words of ill omen at the time (Hole, p. 151).
Edward's murderers were never punished and seem not to have been publicly identified.
There seem to have been questions about King Edward's character before he took the throne (StentonEtAl, p. 372) -- but not after. Especially not when King Ethelred proved such a disaster. Soon Edward became Edward the Martyr. Miracles were reported at his tomb. He came to be regarded as a saint; his feast day is March 18 (DictSaints, p. 75), and the great Plantagenet kings, Edward I and his successors, were named for him. Hence, presumably the work of praise in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. - RBW
Last updated in version 3.1
- Anderson: George K. Anderson, The Literature of the Anglo-Saxons, Oxford, 1957 (I use the 1997 Oxford/Sandpiper reprint)
- Brooke: Christopher Brooke, The Saxon and Norman Kings, 1963 (I use the 1975 Fontana edition)
- CHEL1: Sir A. W. Ward and A. R. Waller, Editors, The Cambridge History of English Literature, Volume I: From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance, 1907 (I use the 1967 Cambridge edition)
- DictSaints: Revd. Philip D. Noble, editor, The Watkins Dictionary of Saints, Watkins Publishing, 2007
- Hole: Christina Hole, English Folk Heroes: From King Arthur to Thomas a Becket, 1948? (I use the 1992? Dorset Press reprint)
- StentonEtAl: Sir Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 1943, 1947; third edition published posthumously in 1971 with additional revisions and notes by several collaborators (I use the 1989 Oxford paperback version of the 1971 edition)
- Swanton: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, translated and edited by Michael Swanton, 1996 (I use the 1998 Routledge edition), p. 123, (no title) (a translation into prose)
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