When King Edgar of England died in 975, his children disputed which of them was the rightful heir. Edward was the eldest son of King Edgar, but he was not the acknowledged heir. Two other of King Edgar’s sons had been born by his third wife, Queen Ælfrthrth. These sons, Edmund and Æthelred, were seen as the legitimate heirs to the throne, and Æthelred received the backing of his mother, the queen dowager.
Edward received critical support from the church, and was chosen as king, despite Queen Ælfrthrth’s campaign to gain the throne for Æthelred. The kingdom, however, was bitterly divided as a result of some policies that Edgar had instituted before his death. The divide was exacerbated by the succession disputes and when Edward took the throne, his rule was tenuous, at best.
Edward became king at only twelve years old, so the practical control of the government fell to his advisers. Almost all of what we know about Edward’s brief reign comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and from surviving Anglo-Saxon charters. Such charters described land grants made in Anglo-Saxon England and were kept in religious houses. There are over 1,000 Anglo-Saxon charters extant today.
The most well known event of Edward’s reign is the event that led to him being known as King Edward the Martyr. Edward was murdered on 18 March 978 while he was visiting Queen Ælfrthrth and Æthelred at Corfe Castle. As Edward arrived at the castle and dismounted his horse, he was assaulted by advisers of Æthelred and stabbed to death. Many believed that Queen Ælfrthrth was somehow implicated in the plan to murder Edward, largely because she had always pushed for Æthelred’s claim to the throne, and he did become the king following Edward’s murder.
In the centuries following Edward’s death, a cult emerged that viewed Edward as a martyr and a saint, although there is little historical evidence to support such a view. The historical treatment of Queen Ælfrthrth is also intriguing. Many medieval histories portrayed her as an evil queen and stepmother, a portrayal that has evolved into a modern stereotype (Disney movies, anyone?).