King Edward the Martyr, 4
What then is the significance of King and Martyr Edward? What is the meaning of a murdered young monarch who did not have time to stamp his character or judgment upon his subjects’ fortunes and lives? What is important about this figure who became far more well known for his death than for his life? Just this: his death is the hidden turning point in early English history.
Why hidden? Because no one seems to know what to make of it. Sir Winston Churchill’s otherwise wonderful The Birth of Britain, the first volume in his History of the English Speaking Peoples, makes no mention of King Edward or his murder. Churchill, referring to the reign of King Edgar, writes of a “decisive step forward in the destinies of England,” and then speaking of King Ethelred’s years, writes of a “catastrophic decline” when the “political fabric . . . was overthrown.” The black hole between the two events was the martyrdom of Edward, apparently invisible to Churchill. Sir Frank Stenton’s otherwise magisterial Anglo-Saxon England, in the Oxford History of England series, implies that Edward was killed because “he had offended many important persons by his intolerable violence of speech and behaviour,” as if that explains everything. A teenage boy, who happens to be the crowned King of England (and about whom there is absolutely no report of ever acting unjustly or cruelly) gets angry, and so he has to be ambushed and killed? This is not a reasonable explanation, and Stenton admits as much when he writes that the murder took place under “circumstances of abominable treachery.” N.J. Hingham’s otherwise thoughtful The Death of Anglo-Saxon England insists on finding “political” causes for all events, but then concludes that the political problems that had led to Edward’s murder “were not in any sense resolved by the regicide.” In other words, the whole incident is without meaning. But if looking at the killing of a King with a particular lens sheds no light on the subject, maybe there is something wrong with the lens. Maybe political causes are not always paramount.
And maybe people at the time knew more than we tend to give them credit for. Ethelred is known to history as “the Unready" not because he was unprepared, but because the Old English word “Unraed” means “no counsel,” i.e., “badly advised.” King Ethelred had bad advisors and counsellors in comparison with his predecessor, King Edward. There was no saintly Dunstan, no admired Oswald, no heroic Bryhtnoth among Ethelred’s advisors. Instead, the King and his counsellors continually misjudged the crises they faced, especially from the renewed Viking attacks on England, and as a result, the demoralized country began sliding down the slope toward foreign occupation. As the common people in Ethelred’s time saw more clearly than 20th century historians, it was the tragic loss of the wisdom the holy wisdom that had surrounded King Edward which triggered the collapse of the Anglo-Saxon state and changed the course of English history.