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John Clarke

Historian of Brookwood Cemetery

St Edward the Martyr

Aelfthryth invited St Edward to her hunting lodge at Corfe where she arranged for her servants to welcome him, offering St Edward a cup of wine (a traditional form of greeting). As St Edward drank the wine he was stabbed in the back whilst still mounted on his horse. He fell off, but his foot caught in the stirrup and he was dragged to his death. So Aelfthryth managed to get her son on the throne. It didn’t do her much good. Ethelred didn’t particularly like his mother, and kept her in the background. She eventually came to some form of repentance, returned to her roots in the Test valley, became a nun, and helped found a convent.

The religious motive for St Edward’s murder was that Aelfthryth had support from a group of noblemen who may be referred to as “secularisers”. King Edgar had sponsored and endorsed a massive movement of reformation within the Church in England. Inspired by the Archbishop of Canterbury (St Dunstan), the Bishop of Winchester (St Ethelwold, c.908-984), and the Bishop of Worcester (St Oswold, ?-992), this movement reinvigorated the monastic life of the church. The church had gone through a period of decadence partly on its own account, and partly for political reasons. These three great churchmen instigated a massive reform and revitalised the life of the church. This resulted in a group of noblemen who became worried that the church was becoming too powerful, that they would have less influence over it, and that it would take over greater areas of land. St Edward followed the church policies of Edgar. The nobles felt that if they could get rid of St Edward, through Aelfthryth and her son Ethelred, they would be able to take better control of events and could change policies to reflect their own particular way of thinking - a “secularising party” which would dispatch St Edward.

St Edward was murdered on 18 March, but the precise year is unknown. There is some controversy over the year being 978 or 979. The reason for this confusion is that the ways of calculating the church year has changed, along with variations in the secular calendar, all of which makes it uncertain precisely when St Edward was murdered. He was murdered at that time of year because he was planning to marry. Had St Edward married, he might have produced an heir and that child would have inherited the kingdom rather than Ethelred his half brother. St Edward couldn’t get married until Easter came, as you were not allowed to be married in Lent. So he was murdered in Lent.

The wicked Queen Aelfthryth, from Pictures of English History (1868)


“The wicked Queen Aelfthryth” from Pictures of English History (1868). It shows the Queen offering Edward a cup of wine as conspirators gather to murder the king on 18 March 978/9.

St Edward was dragged to his death by his horse. His body was taken that evening into a cottage in the village of Corfe. This is the traditional site where the parish church now stands. It was then that the first recorded miracle took place. In the cottage lived a blind woman who touched St Edward’s body and whose sight was immediately restored. Later the body was taken away and was temporarily buried at Wareham. If you go to Wareham and visit the parish church (St Mary’s), you will find there is a side chapel which is still dedicated to St Edward. Within the chapel is one of those stone coffins which they admit is not the coffin he was buried in, but it might have been. In fact the coffin is of a different period and of a different date.

Due to the number of miracles that were worked through his prayers and intercession, in the year 1001 St Edward’s body was taken to Shaftesbury Abbey. Why it was taken there is not clear. It might have been moved because Shaftesbury had the largest monastic community in the whole area at that time, and it was very well defensible. If you visit the site today you will find it is right on top of a hill and you can actually see one way to the English Channel and in the other direction out across to the Bristol Channel. The monastic community had been established there about 100 years before by Alfred the Great, one of whose daughters became a nun there. Another person who had become a nun at Shaftesbury was St Edward’s grandmother, so it may be that there was just a strong link with the royal house of Wessex. His grandmother had already died when St Edward was murdered, so her body would have already been there. The probability is that they took St Edward’s body to Shaftesbury because of the family link along with the pre-eminence of the monastic community there.

So St Edward was buried in Shaftesbury Abbey. Once again a whole series of miracles happened culminating in the last one where his grave started pushing up from the ground. They decided that the Saint obviously no longer wished to be buried, but that his relics should be properly enshrined. So his body was taken up from out of the ground and was placed in a casket in a shrine within the Abbey. Although this story of a body pushing up sounds rather odd to us (we’re not used to these things now), about three years ago exactly the same thing happened in Romania. We’re not quite sure who exactly “pushed up” there, but this incident happened after the fall of Ceausescu and the communists, when monasteries and other religious foundations were reopened. In one of the monasteries, alongside a pathway across a courtyard, this grave area pushed up. They flattened it out, and the same thing happened. After a while they looked underneath and, finding a casket containing the remains of an elderly monk, the relics were taken and enshrined in the church. (1)



Formal heraldry only appeared in the twelfth century, therefore this shield cannot be considered historically accurate. However later generations liked to design arms like these for the pre-Conquest Kings of England. Compare this version with the one you can see at the shrine. (2)

The relics of St Edward remained at Shaftesbury. At some time they did not remain whole and incorrupt. In the Abbey’s latter period it is recorded that they had his bones and his heart. They also had another curious relic - the heart of King Canute (or Cnut, born c.995; reigned 1016-35). The King had died at Shaftesbury having gone there to pray at the shrine of St Edward. Among the items found at Shaftesbury this century was a kind of urn which was of the late Saxon period and was exceptionally well preserved. Inside they found a kind of rubbery glob which they threw away. This glob may have been the heart of King Canute. We don’t know for sure, but only the urn survives.

The relics of St Edward were venerated in the monastery’s shrine until the period of the dissolution under Henry VIII in the mid-sixteenth century. Then the monastery was dissolved and also (unusually) almost completely destroyed during a period of about 3 years. Just prior to the Reformation, Shaftesbury was one of the biggest and richest communities in the country. It was still a female community and it was said that if the Abbess of Shaftesbury could marry the Abbot of Glastonbury, the two would have controlled more property in England than the king. The Abbess had her own private army - probably because the community was so rich. The monastery was situated on the end of the promontory upon which Shaftesbury is built, then there was the army’s quarters, and then the town itself. The army effectively defended the monastery from the town. It was during this period that the relics disappeared.

The St Edward Brotherhood

How our community came to be custodians of St Edward’s relics is a long and complicated story. The relics were not seen again until 1931 when they were found in the grounds covering the ruins of the Abbey Church. The grounds were then in private hands (they are now owned by a Trust called “The Friends of Shaftesbury Abbey”). The site is divided since a massive late Victorian house was built over the old west end of the Abbey Church, and about three quarters of the site is “next door”. The Claridge family then owned this site, and there were two sons. One was John Edward Wilson (1905-1993), who was destined to give the relics to our church in Brookwood. He was an interesting character who died not long ago, and is buried just outside our church.

THE RELICS OF St. EDWARD THE MARTYRIn 1931 he was a young man, interested in the history of Shaftesbury and a keen amateur archaeologist. At the end of the nineteenth century there was a dig over the site, and John Wilson-Claridge decided to do another. Helped by his local gardener, they came across a package of bones which we believe to be the relics of St Edward. The “package” comprised six pieces of lead which would have formed a box, but the pieces were not made into a box, they were just lying together. Inside were the bones.


The casket containing what are thought to be the remains of St Edward the Martyr following their discovery on the site of Shaftesbury Abbey in 1931. The remains were found 2 ft. Below ground, close to the top of a set of steps during the uncovering of part of the walls of the abbey.

John Wilson-Claridge was alerted to the fact there was something special about these bones as they were in this “package”, and also because they were not in a grave. They were found under what would have been a monument. John Wilson-Claridge explained to me that you can tell the difference as both appear like the foundation of a building. If there is a grave inside, the four sides will be smooth to allow the coffin to slide down. However, if it is a monument, only the outside will be of finished stone. It was an eccentric place to find these bones, and they had obviously been specially put there in this “box”. Mr. Wilson-Claridge thought they were probably the relics of St Edward, although they could of course have been those of his grandmother.

Having found the bones he kept them. Dr. T.E.A. Stowell (1890-1970), an osteologist, eventually compiled a 20 or 30 page Report on the Relics of St Edward. This was subsequently published in The Criminologist. He divined that they were the bones of a young man of about 20 (which is the approximate age of St Edward when he died), that he was a Saxon and not a Celt (because of the shape of his bones), that certain bones were missing, and that certain bones were injured. These injuries corresponded to a person being dragged backwards over the pommel of a saddle and having their leg twisted in a stirrup and so on. From all this evidence Dr. Stowell concluded that these were indeed the bones of the martyred St Edward. Another report, of about two pages long, and compiled by another expert, challenged these findings, arguing that the bones were of an older man.

ST EDWARD THE MARTYRMr. Wilson-Claridge built a little kiosk near where he found the bones in the ruin of the Abbey and there he placed the relics whilst his family owned the property. The kiosk is still there. Sometime in the 1950s the family sold the property to two old ladies, and they wanted to keep the relics. But Mr. Wilson-Claridge had the idea that they ought to be deposited in a Christian church, and he didn’t wish to lose control of the relics. So he agreed that the relics could remain in the kiosk so long as the ladies paid him 6d. a year for the right to do so. Thus he demonstrated that he had rights of ownership over the relics so that when he could think of what to do with them he might claim them back.


As depicted on a stamp issued in 1977 by the island of Staffa to commemorate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

Eventually the two ladies died and the property was sold on again, and Mr. Wilson-Claridge no longer continued this arrangement. By this time he had emigrated and lived in Malta, so he had the bones placed in the local bank vault in Shaftesbury. He also began to get the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile interested. I myself remember hearing something about the relics as a child, but it was one of those things that you hear and it sort of passes over you. Then about 20 years later it all comes back!

In the late 1970s there was on Orthodox Church based in Guildford. For a period I was detailed to go there and serve. The Guildford group heard about the relics of St Edward and in the 3 months when I served there, they asked me to follow this up. So I contacted Mr. Wilson-Claridge, because it seemed wrong that the relics were just deposited in a bank vault: this didn’t seem the proper way to treat the remains of a Saint and King. So I entered into correspondence with Mr. Wilson-Claridge in 1977 and eventually, in 1984, he presented the relics to us. There was an awful lot of correspondence between us. To cut a very long story short, in the end he agreed to donate the relics to our church on two conditions: (1) that we recognised them as the relics of a saint, and (2) that we established a shrine for him. This second point was quite difficult because our church - the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile - was one where you couldn’t just go ahead and organise things. I had to contact a number of bishops in New York who had no idea who St Edward was, and try to persuade them to say yes. In the end all this was worked out. Then we had to find a place to establish the shrine and this is how we came to Brookwood.

St Edward the MartyrWhy Brookwood? It’s at the depressing end of suburbia: wet, boggy, miserable and in the middle of a huge cemetery! But it happened that in the Guildford group there were a few members who lived nearby and who were without a church. They used to go up to London for services. One lady in this group pointed out to me that there was a church available in the cemetery, and she suggested it might be suitable for their services. One of the old Anglican chapels was up for sale at the time so we went and had a look. Quite frankly it utterly depressed me: it was half derelict, and I managed to dampen her enthusiasm. About 2 years later, the question of the relics surfaced and she came back to me, again suggesting the church in the cemetery. Frankly it was the only thing we could have afforded, and so we came to suburbia and commuter-land.

We managed to buy not only the chapel which was very derelict (this is the smaller one where we now live) but also the larger church. I felt that if we were going to enshrine the relics of St Edward, then it should be done properly. The church originally offered for sale was the older of the two and was very obviously secondary to the main one. It wouldn’t seem right to place the relics of a Saint and King in a secondary building. So I thought we ought to acquire both and put St Edward in the larger church. We managed to negotiate that. At the time the asking price was £33,000 for 5 acres of land and the two buildings. We suggested to our solicitors that we should get it valued, but he said it had no value as such because it wasn’t a marketable property. He suggested we make an offer £5,000 less, which was accepted. So we managed to buy the buildings and land for £28,000 and then set about restoring it all.

Meanwhile we moved in on site in our caravan. Here we made a series of mistakes. We estimated that we’d be in the caravan for 6 months to a year at most. Everyone we asked said the climate was mild and pleasant, so when we purchased our mobile home we didn’t bother to get a properly insulated one. We were in it for 3 years! There was no water supply, so we had to bring water from half a mile down Heath House Road then across half a mile of cemetery land. The water board wouldn’t allow us to pay for a proper supply in instalments, so we had to save up for the whole amount before it could be installed. So for about 2 of those 3 years we had no water.

We eventually moved into our new home in March 1982. On 15/16 September 1984 we actually received the relics of St Edward and had the church blessed. I personally would have preferred to wait a bit longer before the relics were received, but Mr. Wilson-Claridge was pushing hard for it to be done and so we went ahead. On the Tuesday before the enshrinement, everyone involved got a High Court summons. Mr. Wilson-Claridge’s brother -Colonel Claridge, whom I had never heard of - had sought a High Court injunction to prevent us receiving the relics. It turned out that the brothers had been feuding about anything and everything for 50 years. His brother’s petition was backed up by a group of people from Shaftesbury who felt that the relics should remain in Shaftesbury. Certainly they had a proper historical claim. But the relics had been found in 1931, and now we were in 1984, and in all that time nothing had been done by Shaftesbury as a community regarding the relics. In fact the question of the relics had been raised at their Town Council on several occasions and it had always been shelved. Also a group of people from our own church joined Colonel Claridge in claiming he had a half share right in the relics, and therefore we shouldn’t have them.



15/16 September 1984.

The High Court hearing was set for the Thursday, but it was not until Friday that a special hearing took place. The judge decided that the principal question could not be decided by that court as firstly, it would have to look into the whole documentation of the history of the relics going back over 50 years and secondly, that it would have to find out what the legal position in England was regarding the ownership of human remains. (In fact it seems that there is no legal position on this.) The judge came very close to advising the other side to drop their action, but he ruled that we should be allowed to receive the relics and to enshrine them, but that we should then deposit them back in the bank until we had security measures in our church. This was a consequence of the ownership of the relics being in dispute. When the final court case was heard, either they would win or we would win and the dispute would be ended. So we went ahead: we received the relics, the church was blessed, and the relics returned to the bank vault (now in Woking, so they were placed in our account!).

We then had a whole series of incredible happenings. We had a chap come round during our Holy Week. He told us he was a security expert, although he proved to be a private detective hired by the other side. He didn’t tell us he was coming. He happened to turn up at the beginning of our main service and had to wait seven hours until we were available! During this time he experimented with sprinting to the cemetery walls from our church to see how long it might take someone who’d stolen a relic, he stole some of our correspondence, and he took photographs of our dog Kate (for some obscure reason copies of these were sent to the Attorney General!). On another occasion a reporter from the Sunday Express came along and said he wanted to do an article on us for their colour supplement, which he did. The finished article largely comprised a series of pictures, but what he wrote contained twenty errors of actual fact. We chased them through the Press Council, which I knew probably wouldn’t do much good but would at least ensure that everything went on record. In the end the Press Council decided that twenty errors in a newspaper article was fair game and nothing to complain about.

Then another journalist rang me asking what did I think of the letter the Attorney General had sent me? I remember the date specifically because it was our Good Friday when he phoned. I said I hadn’t received a letter, and so he proceeded to read it to me. Twelve weeks later we did receive a letter from the Attorney General and substantially - as far as I could remember - it said what the press man had read to me. The letter was dated six weeks after he telephoned me, which seems a little suspicious. Now the Attorney General had decided that the bones belonged to the Queen and therefore we shouldn’t be allowed to keep them. So we replied through our solicitors asking why, if the relics did belong to the Queen, she hadn’t done anything for 54 years? And why had the Duke of Edinburgh sent us a donation when we started up, to help us get things going? We didn’t get an answer to either of these points! (It should be remembered that Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenburg (1885-1969) was an Orthodox Christian. She married Prince Andrew of Greece (1882-1944) in 1903.)

Then they responded by deciding that the relics didn’t belong to the Queen, but that they were very worried that the relics should be secure. They’ve kept to this line ever since. Eventually, as no-one could decide what “secure” meant, the Attorney General sent an expert who gave us an exact specification for a system which we agreed to install. We have to keep the relics in an unspecified place in the church, in a safe with two time locks. They are perhaps the most secure bones in the whole of Europe; which is very odd, because bones of much more illustrious kings are just buried or lost or abroad. But as the legal mind has latched onto this, we have had to provide all this security for St Edward’s bones.

The latest in this still-continuing court case is that the other side has decided to drop their case, partly because a number of the Shaftesbury people moved on in various ways. The old Colonel died, the churchman leading their campaign retired and went abroad, and the solicitor who was working for them left Shaftesbury. So there was no-one really left except the niece of the donor of the relics who sort of “inherited” the case, and she decided that she no longer wished to pursue the case. It looks like the case will end except for the Attorney General, who told us recently that although he is prepared for the case to close, he wants to “keep an interest in it”. Our solicitors tell us this is probably because the relics are those of a king.


(1) The coat of arms illustrated should have martlets, not crowns, in each quarter.

(2) Father Alexis has since seen this grave in Romania. It was opened and the relics removed into the church where they were laid to rest next to St Paisius Velichkovsky. The grave has been left slightly raised in order to show what happened. The authorities still don’t know whose grave it was.


Since this talk was delivered, the court case has at last been closed. By an Order dated 31 March 1995, the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice entirely dismissed the case. There is a remarkable significance in the date of the Order, for 31 March corresponds with 18 March in the Church calendar, the feast of the martyrdom of St Edward which is celebrated every year in the church. And so the relics of St Edward will rest in peace within the St Edward Church in the cemetery for ever.

[From Necropolis News, April 1996]

Further Reading

Hunt, William. Edward the Martyr. in Lee S (Ed.) Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 17. London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1885. pp. 5-6.

Lloyd, Rachel. Murder or Sacrifice? Saint Edward, King and Martyr 973-1978. (Wareham: Rachel Lloyd, 1978)

A booklet celebrating the millennium of St Edward’s murder. Includes a brief history and two short plays based on the stories surrounding his death. The historical notes are well presented and include references for further reading.

Stowell, Thomas E. ‘Report on the Relics of St Edward’ in The Criminologist, vol. V (1970), pp. 97-119.

Wilson-Claridge, John. The Recorded Miracles of St Edward the Martyr. (Brookwood: St Edward Brotherhood, 1995)

Originally published in 1984 for the enshrinement of the relics of St Edward, this booklet contains notes on the life of St Edward and the recorded miracles attributed to him. It contains a very useful list of further reading inside the back cover.

The Saint Edward Brotherhood has recently published a new book on Saint Edward the Martyr. This incorporates the text of John Wilson-Claridge’s The Recorded Miracles of Saint Edward the Martyr, which has been unavailable for many years. The book also includes a section on the life of St Edward the Martyr, historical notes on his death, his relics, their loss during the Reformation, and their rediscovery in 1931 by John Wilson-Claridge.

Copies may be ordered direct from the Saint Edward Brotherhood using this link.

St Edward the Martyr & the St Edward Brotherhood

In November 1994 the Brookwood Cemetery Society invited Father Alexis to give a talk about St Edward and the Brotherhood. Most of the evening was devoted to the fascinating story of St Edward - arguably England’s least important king - and the subsequent tale of what happened to his relics, how they were lost for nearly 400 years, and how they eventually ended up in Brookwood Cemetery. The latter part of this story reflects poorly on the “Establishment” which continuously attempted to prevent the relics being properly enshrined and cared for by the Brotherhood. The talk was presented in a very amusing and entertaining form which has proved impossible to reproduce in print! Note that in this article we refer always to “St Edward”, even to events described before his canonisation in 1001.

St Edward the Martyr

ST. EDWARD was a Saxon king. He was born c.959, and reigned from 975 to c.978/9. St Edward has no number: that is, he is not any of the I - VIII. There were three King Edwards before the Norman Conquest, but all our history books are written as if the Norman Conquest was the beginning of life. He was the second of the three Saxon King Edwards and historically he was the least important of them all. St Edward’s father was King Edgar “the Peaceable”. Edgar was born c.944, and reigned from 959 to 975. He was one of the greatest Saxon kings, and was the first to be crowned king of all England.

Edgar was a man of exquisite taste and understanding, and chose to be crowned in Bath. The main reason for this was that Bath was on the borders of Mercia and Wessex, the two most important kingdoms in England; therefore Edgar was crowned in a city allied to both. Edgar had two sons that survived him: St Edward, and the man later known to history as Ethelred “the Unready” (or Ethelred II “the Redeless”). Ethelred was bom c.968, and reigned from St Edward’s death in 978/9 until 1016. Ethelred was remarkable in two ways: first, because he reigned for a very long time (unlike most Saxon kings); and second, because his reign proved to be an absolute disaster. Ethelred was the youngest son and therefore did not succeed when King Edgar died in 975.

St Dunstan anointing Edward the Martyr at Kingston, AD 975


St Dunstan anointing Edward the Martyr at Kingston, AD 975.

St Edward succeeded when he was in his mid-teens, and this is another reason for his historical unimportance. St Edward was under the tutelage of the Archbishop of Canterbury, St Dunstan (909-988), and there is very little recorded about anything he did. He in fact reigned for three years. It ended swiftly and dramatically with his murder at Corfe, on a site near the castle (which wasn’t then built). The reasons for his murder were twofold: a dynastic motive and a religious reason.

The dynastic reason stemmed from St Edward and Ethelred being half brothers. We know very little about St Edward’s mother and when she died. History suggests that she may have been called Ethelfleda, and that she probably died c.963/4. St Edward was very young when she died, or she may have died in childbirth. His father remarried a very beautiful lady - King Edgar had an eye for the ladies - called Aelfthryth or otherwise known as Elfrida (c.945-1000). The king sent a nobleman to meet this woman to see if the stories about her were true. The nobleman discovered that the stories were indeed true, and he fell in love with her. So he reported back to the king that the woman’s beauty was exaggerated. Edgar lost interest, but then noticed that the nobleman went off and married this lady. Edgar decided to visit them in the west country. The nobleman tried to get his new wife to dress down for the King’s visit but she would not: she did the exact opposite. Strangely, the nobleman died shortly after the king’s visit! She mourned her husband, and subsequently married Edgar, giving birth to St Edward’s half brother Ethelred. When Edgar died, Ethelred was about ten, and Aelfthryth determined that her son would be king. St Edward’s succession had pushed her back from the immediate circle of power, so she contrived to be rid of St Edward.