THE great King Edgar died in the year 975. He had ruled not only the West Saxons, but all England nobly and Well, as the old Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us:--
No fleet was so daring,
Nor army so strong.
That 'mid the English nation
Took from him aught,
While that the noble king
Ruled on his throne.
Edgar it was, you will remember, who destroyed all the wolves in England, so thoroughly did he look after his people's welfare.
But, when the strong king was gone, there was much rioting and disturbance. Everybody thought to have his own way; for St. Dunstan, the archbishop and prime minister, who had managed the affairs of the kingdom so well, was now an old man, and the two princes, Edward and Ethelred, were only boys. Edward, our hero, was thirteen years old, and Ethelred, his half-brother, was but seven. Now, Edgar's widow the Queen-mother Elfrida, wanted her own little son, Ethelred, to be king; for she did not care about Edward, who was only her step-son. So they quarrelled over who should be king; till one day, when all the Wise Men were assembled together, St. Dunstan took his archbishop's cross in his hands and crowned Edward king before them all.
It was a terribly difficult thing for a young boy of thirteen to govern all the country in these troublous times. He could not, of course, have done it at all, had he been like some boys, who want to have their own Way in everything. But he was wise and obedient; he did what St. Dunstan advised, and so the government went on as well as it had in former times. There you might have seen the rough earls in their helmets and chain armour, and the silent clerks, gathered together in the council-chamber; and, at the top of the table, the fair-haired little king, with his golden crown on his head, and the grey-headed Archbishop, in his vestments, sitting near to whisper to him what he should do.
Such a good boy he was! Everybody loved him, except the wicked step-mother and her followers. His gold crown did not make him conceited, his riches did not make him greedy; he was so pure and simple in his life that all the other boys in Wessex were told by their mothers to try and be like him.
When he went about on his journeys, the people would all come to their cottage doors; the workmen would take off their hats and grin with delight; the mothers would smile at him till the tears ran down their cheeks; and the boys and girls would stare with their mouths wide open, and try and be good all the rest of the day. When he saw poor people he always went and spoke with them and helped them. Whenever he passed by a church he never forgot to go inside and pray before the altar. Men looked up from earth, and the saints looked down from heaven, and blessed him.
Thus he grew up till he was a strong lad of seventeen, nor knew that any there were who hated him. But all the while the Queen-mother and her followers looked upon him with evil eyes. She lived in Corfe Castle (which you can still go and see when you are at Bournemouth) with her own stupid son Ethelred, like a lioness in her cave; and she waited for some chance of getting rid of Edward.
One day the young king was hunting in a forest near Corfe. He became very tired and thirsty, and longed for a quiet place to rest.
So he said to himself, "I will go and rest myself at Corfe Castle with my step-mother and my little brother, Ethelred."
He left his attendants with the hounds in the forest, and jogged away on his weary horse till he came to the castle. From her window his step-mother watched him coming; and when he blew his horn for admittance down she walked to the gate.
"Good-morrow, step-mother," cried Edward. She came to him, and he leant over his horse's neck while she kissed him. He did not see the wicked light in her eyes.
"Give me to drink, good step-mother," he said, "for I am thirsty."
An evil-looking man was lounging in the hall. When Elfrida beckoned to him, he fetched a cup of ale, and brought it to Edward with a low bow.
How pleasant it was to drink after that hot day! The young king threw down his lance, leant back in his saddle, and raised the cup eagerly to his lips.
The Queen's eyes flashed with joy; she turned to the servant, and in a moment he had rushed at Edward and plunged a long dagger into his body.
Edward gave one cry, and then drove his spurs into his horse, and rode off wildly to get back to his attendants. But, alas! it was too late. In a few moments he fell off his saddle, and his feet caught in the stirrups, and the horse dragged his poor body far away into the marsh lands.
They found his body afterwards by the track of blood which it had left, and took it for burial. The wicked Queen would not let them bury it in holy ground or with any royal pomp. Bat what mattered holy ground for one who was himself so holy? or royal pomp, when the sobs of every mother in the land joined with the dirge of those who knelt by his grave?
Even the poor foolish little Ethelred wept when he heard that his half-brother was dead. This made his mother angry.
"He was a wicked lad, who took your crown from you," she screamed.
"But he was always very, very kind to me," moaned poor Ethelred, and bewailed him so much that the Queen became furious, and, seizing a great wax candle, beat him with it till it was broken into bits.
Thus she lived on with her complaining son, in the great lonely castle. The place seemed to become gloomier and gloomier, till the Queen scarcely dared go along the passages by night.
One day messengers came to her and said: "Do yon know, most noble Lady, that the people are worshipping the young Edward for a saint? They say that a strange light has appeared over his grave, and that many sick who have come there have been healed."
"What is this?" said the Queen. "I must go and see if it be true!"
So she mounted her horse that she might ride to Edward's grave. But the horse would not move. Try as she might, it would not go one step.
Then the Queen's hard heart was shaken with terror. "I have murdered one of God's saints," she thought to herself, "and even this horse knows what I am."
She left her castle, and went far away to a convent, where the nuns took her in. There she lived, doing great penance for her crime; every day she wept and sorrowed, and spent her money in God's service, till her heart was changed. Thus she lived, and thus she died, doing penance even to the day of her death, though she was now a happy woman, because her sins were put away.
And the Saxon people ever after honoured the boy-saint, calling him a martyr because he had been so cruelly murdered. The old Saxon chronicler sang his praises in these rough verses:--
There hath not been amid the Angles
A worse deed done
Than this was,
Since they first
Men him murdered,
But God him glorified.
He was in life
An earthly king:
He is now after death
A heavenly saint ....
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 counsels,
Are like nought
'Gainst God's resolves
Indeed the Queen's devices came to nought. For her son Ethelred was as bad a king as St. Edward had been a good one. The Danes came back into England and beat him in battle after battle, till they made Canute king of England; and that Ethelred has ever after been called Ethelred the Unready.