18 March 2019

Holy and Right-Believing Éadweard, Martyr-King of England

Saint Éadweard King of England

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate one of England’s saintly and martyrific princes, Éadweard (Cerdicing) of England, King and Martyr. The son of Éadgár the Frithsome by Æþelflæd the Fair (who died soon after his birth), the grandson of Éadmund Æðeling and the great-grandson of Saint Ælfrǽd the Great, Éadweard unfortunately did not live long enough to match the sæcular achievements of his great, good and illustrious forebears – though in his death he earned a crown with greater sheen than any earthly.

His father, Éadgár, was a great patron of the Church – in particular of the reformers like Saint Æþelwold of Winchester and Saint Osweald of Worcester. This set him at odds with many of his wealthier and high-born subjects. Saint Dúnstán of Canterbury, the leader of the monastic reform party, was the one who baptised and christened Saint Éadweard. According to a pious legend, before Æþelflæd gave birth to Éadweard, his father had an eerie dream in which it was prophesied to him that his elder son would be killed by his younger; and that although his younger son would reign on earth, his elder would reign in heaven. After Éadweard was born, in his youth he was reared for some years by Bishop Sidemann of Crediton, who was also Abbot at Exeter and another member of the Benedictine reform party. Meanwhile Éadgár, whose wife Æþelflæd had died, remarried twice: to Saint Wulfþr‎ýð (who bore him a daughter, Saint Éadgýð – both became nuns) and later to the beautiful but wicked and sadistic Ælfþr‎ýð, who bore him two sons, Éadmund and Æþelræd (known to history as Æþelræd Unrǽd).

Éadgár reposed in the Lord in 975, and Saint Dúnstán and Saint Osweald supported Éadweard as his successor. Having been raised in the abbey at Exeter, he was a young man of only thirteen when his father died, and yet already he was possessed of many virtues. Hospitable, open-handed to the poor, observant of the Church and stalwart in shielding the powerless from the powerful at law, he was considered an ideal candidate for kingship by most of the Benedictine reformers and they lobbied heavily to have him installed as king, even though the nobles preferred Æþelræd. Saint Dúnstán and Saint Osweald had Éadweard anointed and crowned at Kingston upon Thames on the eighth of July that same year.

His reign was ill-fated. The official histories recount various omens in his early reign. A comet appeared in the sky, a famine struck the whole of England, and England’s nobles began quarrelling anarchically among themselves, and also attacking and seizing monastic lands for their own enrichment. A dissension occurred between Saint Dúnstán and Saint Æþelwold, with the latter joining with Ælfþr‎ýð and her son Æþelræd. The boy’s mother had laid plans to seize power for herself through her son, by placing him on the throne.

Éadweard King was slain in his third year. His stepmother was indeed responsible for his murder. The king had ridden out to visit them at a barrow near Corfe Castle in Dorset with the intention of making peace with them. However, as he was dismounting from his horse, he was stabbed by Æþelræd’s men. He was then buried ‘without any royal honours’ at Wareham, at Ælfþr‎ýð’s insistence. One tale has it that Ælfþr‎ýð ordered the dead king’s body to be thrown into a tiny thatch hut near Corfe that belonged to a woman born blind. The night after this was done, the woman felt a holy dread and an unearthly light that flooded her little house – and in the morning she found to her amazement that she could see. Going to where the light had come, she found the stabbed body of Saint Éadweard. The tale soon spread around Corfe Castle, and came to the ears of the wicked queen – who then ordered Æþelræd’s men to take the body and throw it into a fen in Wareham to be forgotten forever.

Even this was not enough to keep Saint Éadweard’s death hidden from sight, because at Wareham an eerie tower of light began to shine from the stead where the young martyr had been thrown. Some of the townsfolk went out and dug up Saint Éadweard, whose relics were found whole and unharmed. That same day a spring of clean water sprang up from the fen where they had found him, and that stead became a holy well with healing waters for many centuries after. A church dedicated to the Most Holy Theotokos was built upon that same spot, which is still in use by the Church of England – and many wonders were wrought by the bones that lay there. A local cultus of veneration of the slain king arose in Wareham. Eventually it was decided to move the king’s body to Shaftesbury Abbey, which had been righted by Éadweard’s great-grandfather Ælfrǽd King. Éadweard’s half-sister Abbess Éadgýð was present at Shaftesbury when his body was translated; and along the way two lame men were healed. Shaftesbury Abbey thereafter became the single largest convent for Benedictine nuns in all England, and many wonders were wrought there – Shaftesbury was even renamed Edwardstowe after the slain king.

Here is what the Worcester Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ‘D’ has to say about Éadweard’s death:
There has not been ‘mid Angles
a worse deed done
than this was,
since they first
Britain-land sought.
Men him murdered,
but God him glorified.
He was in life
an earthly king;
he is now after death
a heavenly saint.
Him would not his earthly
kinsmen avenge,
but him hath his heavenly Father
greatly avenged.
The earthly murderers
would his memory
on earth blot out,
but the lofty Avenger
hath his memory
in the heavens
and on earth wide-spread.
They who would not erewhile
to his living
body bow down,
they now humbly
on knees bend
to his dead bones.
Now we may understand
that men's wisdom
and their devices,
and their councils,
are like nought
‘gainst God's resolves.
Ne wearð Angelcynne
nan wyrse dead gedon,
þonne þeos wæs,
syþþan hi ærest
Britenland gesohton.
Menn hine ofmyrþredon,
ac God hine mærsode.
He wæs on life
eorðlic cyning,
he is nu æfter deaðe
heofonlic sanct.
Hyne noldon his eorðlican
magas wrecan,
ac hine hafað his heofonlic fæder
swyðe gewrecan.
Þa eorðlican banan
woldon his gemynd
on eorðan adilgian,
ac se uplica wrecend
hafað his gemynd
on heofonum
ꝥ on eorþan tobræd.
Þa ðe noldon ær
to his libbendan
lichaman onbugan,
þa nu eadmodlice
on cneowum gebugað
to his deada banum.
Nu we magan ongytan
ðæt manna wisdom,
ꝥ heora smeagunga,
ꝥ heora rædas
syndon nahtlice
ongean Godes geðeaht.
Éadweard’s younger half-brother Æþelræd took the throne after him. Only twelve at the age of his crowning, although the boy was innocent of his brother’s slaying, Saint Dúnstán warned him that for his mother’s sin of regicide, his reign would be afflicted with many sorrows and troubles. Indeed, his reign would see a fresh wave of Danish raids all along the coast, and his chaotic reign and early misguided policies would lead later historians to view him unfavourably.

The English Reformation under Henry VIII saw a widescale suppression of the veneration of saints and of monasteries, and for a long time the relics of the holy English king were thought destroyed by the Protestants. However, they were unearthed in 1931 by John Edward Wilson-Claridge, who donated the relics to ROCOR, which then translated the ancient relics of Saint Éadweard to an Orthodox cemetery in Woking. There is a particular veneration of Saint Éadweard among Russian Orthodox Christians, both for this reason and because the wrongful political murder of Saint Éadweard so closely resembles that of the murdered Russian princes Saints Boris and Gleb. Holy and Right-Believing Éadweard, King and Martyr, we beseech your prayers to Christ God for the salvation of our souls!
Celebrating the newly-manifest commemoration
Of the holy King Éadweard who shone forth of old
In the virtues and suffered undeservedly,
And bowing down before his precious image,
In gladness we cry out:
Truly wondrous art Thou in Thy saint, O God!

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