The Catholic Church has thousands of canonized saints. Many are well-known: St. Patrick, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux are some of the most famous people who ever lived. But many more are obscure; perhaps they were only known in the region where they lived, or perhaps their following diminished over time. Yet even the most obscure saint is still a saint, meaning that he or she lived a life of heroic virtue or gave his or her life for Christ and his Church. As such, even the obscure saints are examples we can emulate.
St. Edward the Martyr is one such forgotten saint. His obscurity might seem odd, since he was one of the first Kings of England. Royal figures are usually the most famous people of their times and are prominent figures in history books. Yet, if his name is mentioned today, he is likely to be confused for one of two other saints: St. Edward the Confessor, a well-known English King who reigned a century later, or St. Edmund the Martyr, a King of East Anglia (modern day eastern England) who reigned a century before St. Edward the Martyr, and who was England’s original patron saint. Despite his obscurity, however, St. Edward the Martyr’s story is a fascinating and inspirational tale with lessons for today.
Edward was born in AD 962, during the Anglo-Saxon Period of English history. England was less than forty years old and was the combination of many lesser kingdoms that had united under Edward’s great-uncle, King Æthelstan, in 927. For centuries the land now known as England had consisted of various lesser kingdoms, all vying for greater prominence. But more importantly, the centuries before Edward’s time also saw the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity.
Edward was the first-born son of King Edgar the Peaceful, and during Edgar’s reign (959-975) the Church achieved stability. Under St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, the monasteries—the center of medieval Christian life—had been reformed, and the people were evangelized and catechized. King Edgar supported St. Dunstan’s work, and the Church and State worked together in harmony. But despite this outward peace, an undercurrent of dissent bubbled among many prominent families. They resented the power of the Church, particularly the great land holdings of the monasteries. At the death of King Edgar, these undercurrents rose to the surface.
During this time, royal succession was not as clear-cut as it is today. Often the first-born son became the next king, but depending on the strength of his supporters, another son or brother or uncle of the recently-deceased King might be crowned instead. When King Edgar died, a dispute arose as to who should succeed him. Edward, his thirteen-year-old first-born son, was the leading candidate, but Edward’s mother was now dead, and there were rumors that she had been a nun. Another candidate was Ethelred, the seven-year-old son of Edgar and his wife, Queen Elfrida. The Queen was a supporter of those nobles who opposed the Church, and so naturally they championed her son. St. Dunstan, however, threw his considerable influence behind Edward, and after a brief conflict, crowned him King of England.
Over the next three years Edward continued his father’s work, supporting St. Dunstan and the Church. Yet, perhaps because of Edward’s youth, many noble families resisted his rule. King Edward and Archbishop Dunstan worked tirelessly to bring about a reconciliation with their opponents, but were unsuccessful. After three years, Edward’s opponents, led by Edward’s stepmother Elfrida, decided to act.
One day in the middle of March 978, King Edward was out hunting with some companions in southern England. He became separated from his party and eventually came to his brother Ethelred’s castle. Elfrida saw the young king approaching, and conspired to kill him. She came out to greet him and handed him a chalice of wine. One of her servants then kissed Edward in greeting, and as the King turned, the servant plunged a knife in his back.
After Edward’s death, Elfrida and her party quickly hid the body in the nearby home of a blind woman. The next night the woman was cured of her blindness, and credited it to the intercession of the recently-deceased King. This was the first of a flood of miracles that swept the land over the next century and were attributed to St. Edward, King and Martyr, as he was now known. The people proclaimed him a martyr, because they saw his unflagging defense of the Church as the cause of his death. Edward’s popularity soared, and by the middle of the eleventh century, the Church celebrated three separate feast days in his honor: March 18, the day of his death; February 13, the anniversary of the translation of his relics to an abbey in Shaftesbury (which became known as “Edwardstowe” in his honor); and June 20, the anniversary of his body’s placement in a new tomb.
By the second half of the 11th century, St. Edward the Martyr was one of the most popular Saints in England. Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, a monk and hagiographer living in western England, memorialized this popular saint by writing of his death and the ensuing miracles. Called The Passion of St. Edward, King and Martyr, this text captures the devotion of the English people for their former king, and their intense faith in his powerful heavenly intercession. Written in Latin, it has recently been translated for the first time into English, a work for which I had the privilege of writing an introduction and explanatory notes.
Over time, however, devotion to St. Edward the Martyr diminished. Perhaps it was due to the desire of the new Royal Family—the House of Normandy that was established under William the Conqueror in 1066—to suppress the House of Wessex, to which St. Edward belonged. Then, during the sixteenth century dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII, Shaftesbury Abbey, where St. Edward’s relics were kept, was destroyed. Fortunately, however, the holy relics were safely hidden on the monastery grounds.
In the twentieth century, devotion to St. Edward the Martyr reawakened with the 1931 discovery of his relics, which now reside at an Orthodox church in Surrey, England. A booklet was compiled in the 1980s recounting a few of Edward’s many miracles, which led to the faithful again asking for his intercession.
One of the modern miracles attributed to St. Edward during this rekindling of devotion had to do with a young woman who contracted toxoplasmosis during pregnancy. Her doctors told her that her baby would be born without arms or legs, and recommended she abort the child. As a Christian, however, she refused. Later in the pregnancy, the doctors said the baby—a boy—would have arms and legs but would be born blind. The young mother, having read about St. Edward the Martyr and how his first miracle was the healing of a blind woman, prayed for his intercession, and the baby was born with healthy sight. When the boy—named Edward—was born, the doctors noticed that the top half of the umbilical cord was completely blackened by infection, yet the discoloration was miraculously stopped midway down the cord.
St. Edward the Martyr exemplified heroic virtue, and serves the Church still as a patron for both young people and political leaders. Though Edward was but a teenager, he was steadfast in his faith and supported the Church in spite of powerful opposition. Further, as king, he recognized that his duty was not to gain power for himself, but rather to support the work of God in bringing the gospel to all the people in his land. The countless miracles that followed his death confirm for us that St. Edward the Martyr, while now relatively obscure, is still a model for us today.
Read more about this fascinating Saint in The Passion of St. Edward, King and Martyr.