When the Wicked Step-mother Strikes: Dark Ages Tragedy

When my daughter was small she was a little put out that her parents were married and living together. The reason being that many of her friends had two homes, two bedrooms, an abundance of grandparents and a step-mother.

“You don’t want a step-mother,” I told her. “Step-mothers are wicked.” God forgive me.

And, because I’m an historian, I told her the story of Edward the Martyr. Much more believable than Cinderella, which is a bit of a rom-com kind of fairy tale. So listen up.

Once upon a time there was a king called Edgar the Peacemaker. He married the beautiful Ethelflaeda Eneda, whose skin was as white and soft as a duck’s feather. She bore the king a son, Edward. But the beautiful queen died shortly afterwards.

Edgar the Peacemaker needed another queen to help him rule his kingdom so he remarried, to a lady called Aelfthrith. She also bore the king a son, whom they named Aethelred.

In 975, King Edgar the Peacemaker died. The wise men of the kingdom, the witan, had to choose a new king. The king’s first born son, Edward, was thirteen years old, but he was an admirable youth. But some nobles said that his mother was not a lawful wife. So the new king had to be Aethelred. He was very, very young and was unready. After much arguing and squabbling, it was decided that Edward would be king of the English.

The wicked step-mother, Queen Aelfthrith, hated Edward because he became king instead of her son. She plotted to have him murdered and have Aethelred crowned.

One day, on the 18 March 978, the royal party was hunting in the forest near the mound of the palace at Corfe. King Edward became tired from the hunt and left the party to take some refreshment and rest. As he passed by the palace gates, the queen came to him, greeted him with a kiss and sent for a cup of wine. While he drank, his wicked step-mother gave a sign to one of her servants who came forward, drew his dagger and stabbed Edward in the back.

The king yelled in pain but managed to spur his horse in an attempt to escape from his vicious step-mother. But he was in a lot of pain and could not manage to stay upright on the horse. He slipped from the beast’s back and his leg caught in the stirrup. King Edward was dragged along the ground, his head banging on the floor and blood seeping from his knife wounds in his back.

King Edward died, aged sixteen.

Queen Aelfthrith sent out her men to follow the King’s bloody trail and retrieve the body. Some say that Edward was burned before she ordered his body to be buried in Wareham Priory, but not in holy ground or with any royal ceremony.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says:  “No worse deed for the English race was done than this was, since they first sought out the land of Britain. Men murdered him, but God exalted him. In life he was an earthly king; after death he is now a heavenly saint. His earthly relatives would not avenge him, but his Heavenly Father has much avenged him.” It does not mention who the killer was. Henry of Huntingdon says that King Edward was killed by his own people. Florence of Worcester, that he was killed by his own people by order of his step-mother, Queen Aelfthrith. Modern historian, Frank Stenton, argued that Edward “had offended many important persons by his intolerable violence of speech and behaviour. Long after he had passed into veneration as a saint it was remembered that his outbursts of rage had alarmed all who knew him, and especially the members of his own household.” In other words, someone in the family. Like his wicked step-mother.

In reality, Edward’s death was the result of a power struggle brought about by the monastic reforms Edward’s father, Edgar, had made. But for my daughter, he died because he had a wicked step-mother.

And they all lived happily ever after.

 (See more at http://www.ajsefton.com)

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