Tales from old Dorset

Murder of Edward the boy-king:-


The Church, made strong in the West by Aldhelm and Alfred and Dunstan, was to hold men's imaginations for six

centuries more, under the impulse of such scenes as were inspired by the murder of Edward. Follow the path of the

martyr from Corfe to Shaftesbury.


The story of the murder is simple and well known.* The boy-king had reigned three years and eight months,

when, having hunted in the woods round Wareham (" now only a few bushes," says the chronicler, writing perhaps in

the twelfth century), he remembered that his younger brother Ethelred lay at Corfe a few miles away (" where now" and by implication not then "a large castle has been built."). He loved Ethelred with a pure and sincere heart. He dismissed his attendants, and rode to Corfe alone, fearing no one, since not even in the least thing was he aware that he had offended any man.


Word of his approach was brought to Elfrida, his step-mother, who, " full of wicked plans and guile," rejoiced at

the opportunity of obtaining her desire, and hastened to meet him and offer him hospitality. He said he had but

come to see his brother, whereupon she invited him to refresh himself with drink. As the cup touched his lips,

one of her servants, " bolder in spirit and more vile in crime " than others, stabbed him from behind. He fell

dead, " changing his earthly kingdom for a heavenly one, his transitory crown of a day for the unfading diadem of

eternal happiness."


The body was hurriedly carried for concealment to a cottage (local tradition says it was thrown into a well)

* The account here given is freely adapted, from the St. John's College, Oxford, MS. life in monkish Latin, first printed by the present Dean of Winchester in 1903.

Mr. W. H. Hudson has given a fine romantic version of the story in Dead Man's Plack.

The chronicler states that a spring of pure water broke out from the place where the body was cast later.


But that night the woman of the cottage, old, and blind from birth, a pensioner of the Queen's, watching by the

body, had a vision : the glory of the Lord filled her hovel with a great splendour, and she recovered her sight and saw

that which she guarded. When the Queen heard of this, she was struck with terror, and had the body cast out into the

marshes that lie between Corfe and Wareham. Herself she went hastily to her house at Bere Regis, northward across

the Heath, taking the new king, Ethelred the Redeless, with her. He, poor boy, gave way to grief, and did not cease

to weep and lament. But Elfrida, driven to fury, beat him with candles so savagely (" she had no other weapon to her

hand ") that ever after he could not bear candle-light.


But her bitterness could not prevail to hide her deed. In a short time, the legend says, a column of fire stood over

the spot where the body had been thrown down. Certain devout men of Wareham perceived it, found the body,

and bore it to their town, amid a great concourse of people mourning as it were with one voice. They carried it past

the Priory to the church of Lady St. Mary, and laid it in a rude shrine there. The shrine still stands, in part, at the

south-east of that gracious and beautifully placed house of God ; and still St. Edward's stone coffin rests in the


The divine pillar of light must have shone down on the same brown heathlands of Stoborough (mother-town of old

Wareham, it is said) as the sun looks down upon to-day. Had the devout men had our book-learning, they might

have had a vision of another old chieftain, a nameless king of the Neolithic Age, who lay buried in a deer-skin near their

path : they might have remembered those strange British or Danish Christian chieftains whose memorial stones, in

Wareham Church, were plainer then, perhaps, than in the poor fragments left to-day. They must have seen the almost

newly built castle by the river as they crossed it to go to the shrine, and have thought of this fresh renewal of the terror

their town seemed to have passed through not knowing that worse was to come. Their act, however, was perhaps

just what the chronicler calls it devout, a duty of religion and the expression of human grief. There were other miracles during the year the body rested at Wareham in its simple shrine : and at last, after the end of the year, it was exhumed and found to be yet incorrupt. It was lifted by the hands of reverent men and set on a bier, and borne with a great following of clergy and

people to Shaftesbury, to the famous abbey of Mary the Mother of God.