On March 18, 978, King Edward the Martyr was hunting with dogs and horsemen near Wareham in Dorset. During this activity, the king decided to visit his young brother Ethelred who was being brought up in the house of his mother Ælfthryth at Corfe Castle, near Wareham. Separated from his retinue, the King arrived alone at the castle. While still on his horse in the lower part of the castle, Ælfthryth offered Edward a glass of mead and, while he was drinking it, he was stabbed by one of the queen’s party. He rode away, but soon fell from his horse and was dragged with one foot in the stirrup until the corpse fell into a stream at the base of the hill upon which Corfe Castle stands.
Æthelred himself was then only ten years old, so was not implicated in the murder. An alternative account comes from Henry of Huntingdon who alleges that Ælfthryth herself committed the murder: “Edward was treasonably slain by his own family… it is reported that his stepmother, that is the mother of King Ethelred, stabbed him with a dagger while she was in the act of offering him a cup to drink.”
His body was hastily buried without royal honours at Wareham. The queen then ordered that the body be quickly hidden in a hut nearby. Within the hut, however, there lived a woman blind from birth whom the queen supported out of charity. During the night, a light reportedly appeared and filled the whole hut. Struck with awe, the woman cried out: “Lord, have mercy!” and suddenly received her sight. At this she discovered the dead body of the king. The Church of St. Edward at Corfe Castle now stands on the traditional site of this miracle.
At dawn the queen learned of the miracle and was troubled, and again ordered the disposal of the body, this time by burying it in a marshy place near Wareham. A year after the murder however, a pillar of fire was seen over the place where the body was hidden, lighting up the whole area.
This was seen by some of the inhabitants of Wareham, who disinterred the body. Immediately, a clear spring of healing water sprang up in that place. Accompanied by what was now a huge crowd of mourners, the body was taken to the church of the Most Holy Mother of God in Wareham and buried at the east end of the church. This took place on February 13, 980.
Corfe Castle from below.The stream where his body had first been found was also believed to have healing properties, particularly for the blind. On account of this and a series of subsequent miracles, the relics were translated to the abbey at Shaftesbury. When the relics were taken up from the grave, they were found to be whole and incorrupt.
The translation of the relics was overseen by Dunstan and Earl Ælfhere of Mercia, who in Edgar’s lifetime had been one of his chief opponents. This occurred in a great procession on February 13, 981 and arrived at Shaftesbury seven days later. There the relics were received by the nuns of Shaftesbury Abbey and were buried with full royal honours on the north side of the altar.
On the way from Wareham to Shaftesbury, a further miracle had also taken place; two crippled men were brought close to the bier and those carrying it lowered the body to their level, where upon the cripples were immediately restored to full health. This procession and these events were re-enacted 1000 years later in 1981. Many other miracles are said to have been obtained through his intercession. Ælfthryth, struck with repentance for her crimes, built the two monasteries of Wherwell and Ambresbury, in the first of which she ended her days in penance.
In 1001, it was recorded that the tomb in which the saint lay was observed regularly to rise from the ground. King Ethelred was filled with joy at this and instructed the bishops to raise his brother’s tomb from the ground and place it into a more fitting place. As the tomb was opened a wonderful fragrance issued from it, such that all present “thought that they were standing in Paradise.” The bishops then bore away the sacred relics from the tomb and placed them in a casket in the holy place of the saints together with other holy relics. This elevation of the relics of Edward took place on 20 June 1001.
Edward was officially glorified by the All-English Council of 1008, presided over by St Alphege, archbishop of Canterbury (who was later also martyred by the Danes in 1012). King Ethelred ordered that the saint’s three feast days (March 18, February 13 and June 20) should be celebrated throughout England. Shaftesbury Abbey was rededicated to the Mother of God and St Edward. Shaftesbury was apparently renamed “Edwardstowe,” only reverting to its original name after the Reformation. Many miracles were recorded at the tomb of St Edward, including the healing of lepers and the blind.