Assassination of Edmund I, King of the English (946)

by Susan Flantzer

On May 26, 946, Edmund I, King of the English was stabbed to death at a royal hunting lodge in Pucklechurch, north of Bath, England while celebrating the feast of St. Augustine of Canterbury. Recent research indicates that Edmund may have been the victim of political assassination.

Edmund I, King of the English

Credit – Wikipedia

Edmund I, King of the English was born in 921, the elder of the two sons and the eldest of the three children of Edward the Elder, King of the Anglo-Saxons and his third wife Eadgifu of Kent, the daughter of Sigehelm, Ealdorman of Kent. He was also a grandson of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, King of the Anglo-Saxons.

Edmund was just three years old when his father died on July 24, 924. Succeeding his father was Edmund’s 30-year-old half brother Æthelstan, King of the English. When the unmarried Æthelstan died in 939, he was succeeded by his 18-year-old half-brother Edmund I, King of the English. Edmund was the first Anglo-Saxon monarch, whose dominion extended over the whole of England at the time of his accession.

Edmund married Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury around 940. They had two sons who both became King of England: Eadwig and Edgar the Peaceful. In 944, after Ælfgifu’s death, Edmund married Æthelflæd of Damerham but the couple had no children.

The Assassination

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An 18th-century engraving of the murder

On May 26, 946, Edmund I, King of the English was celebrating the feast of St. Augustine of Canterbury at a royal hunting lodge in Pucklechurch, north of Bath, England. During the celebrations, twenty-four-year-old Edmund was stabbed to death. Because Edmund’s two sons were very young, he was succeeded by his brother Eadred. Edmund was buried at Glastonbury Abbey in Glastonbury, Somerset, England but his tomb was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of King Henry VIII.

The story usually told is from The Chronicle of John of Worcester: “While the glorious Edmund, king of the English, was at the royal township called Pucklechurch in English, in seeking to rescue his steward from the hands of Leofa, a most wicked thief, lest he be killed, was himself killed by the same man on the feast of St Augustine, teacher of the English, on Tuesday, 26 May, in the fourth indiction, having completed five years and seven months of his reign.”

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Edmund seizing Leofa by the hair, from The Comic History of England, circa 1860

William of Malmesbury described the murder a bit differently in his chronicle Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings): “A thief named Leof, whom he had banished for his robberies, returned after six years, and on the festival of St Augustine, archbishop of Canterbury, at Pucklechurch, unexpectedly took his seat among the royal guests. It was the day when the English were accustomed to hold a festival dinner in memory of him who had preached the Gospel to them, and as it happened he was sitting next to the thegn whom the king had condescended to make his guest at dinner. The king alone noticed this, for all the rest were aflame with wine; and in sudden anger, carried away by fate, he leapt up from the table, seized him by the hair, and flung him to the ground. The man drew a dagger in stealth from its sheaf, and as the king lay on him plunged it with all his force into his chest. The wound was fatal, and gave an opening for rumours about his death that spread all over England. The robber too, as the servants soon came running up, was torn limb from limb, but not before he had wounded several of them.”

A Victim of Political Association?

Recent research indicates that Edmund may have been the victim of political assassination and suggests that the characterization of Edmund’s killer as a thief was fabricated by later chroniclers to counter rumors that the king had been the victim of a political assassination. Kevin Halloran published a paper in 2015, A Murder at Pucklechurch: The Death of King Edmund, 26 May 946, explaining such a possibility.

In 944, Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, the mother of Edmund’s two sons, Eadwig (born circa 940) and Edgar (born circa 943) died. She may not have been legally married to Edmund. No record of any marriage exists and she may not have been officially recognized as queen. Ælfgifu was styled as concubina regis (royal concubine) in a charter. In two later chronicles, she was styled as queen but this may be the result of her higher status after death as a saint and the mother of two kings. Possibly, the lack of a legal marriage of their parents could have questioned the succession rights of Eadwig and Edgar. Edmund’s brother Eadred appears to have been acknowledged as Edmund’s successor throughout his reign but if Edmund reigned until his sons reached maturity, the likelihood that Eadred would succeed to the throne would diminish. Edmund’s long absence from away from court in 945 while on a military campaign in the north, could have provided Eadred the time to contemplate the situation and come up with a plan.

Halloran theorized that it is probable that Edmund’s killer was not apprehended or identified and so no motive for the murder could be established. Edmund’s killer was not named in any chronicles for more than 100 years after Edmund’s death and the name that eventually appeared was probably chosen on purpose because its meaning was understood all too well. In Old English leof(a) meant “beloved” and so the use of the name Leofa for an assassin seems quite ironic.

William of Malmesbury says in his chronicle that “…rumours about his death…spread all over England.” Some of these rumors may have blamed the person who had the most to gain from Edmund’s death – his brother Eadred. It is odd that a thief returned from an exile of six years and decided to attend a royal feast, uninvited, and that he did not hide in the back of the hall but sat next to a special guest. Furthermore, none of the guests recognized him but after his body is hacked, he is positively identified. It is also odd that King Edmund definitely recognized the uninvited guest and attacked him.

Halloran says that the accounts of John of Worcester and William of Malmesbury, who were both monks, are “improbable and conflicting” and that they “may have been written deliberately to counter any suggestion that the king’s death resulted from a politically motivated conspiracy.” He further suggests that prior accounts of the murder that suggested a conspiracy were revised and that Leofa was invented with two storylines – the thief who returned from exile intent upon killing the king or the thief who wanted to kill the king’s unnamed steward. Halloran says that the purpose of John of Worcester’s and William of Malmesbury’s stories about King Edmund’s death was to protect the reputation of the monarchy and the church which greatly benefited from kings.

Works Cited

  • Ashley, Mike. (1998). The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens. New York: Carroll & Graf Pub.
  • Cannon, J. and Griffiths, R. (1988). The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Monarchy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Dodson, A. (2004). The Royal Tombs of Great Britain. London: Duckworth.
  • En.wikipedia.org. (2019). Edmund I. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_I [Accessed 14 Feb. 2019].
  • Flantzer, S. (2019). Edmund I, King of the English. [online] Unofficial Royalty. Available at: https://www.unofficialroyalty.com/edmund-i-king-of-the-english/ [Accessed 10 Dec. 2019].
  • Halloran, Kevin. (2015). The Murder of King Edmund 26 May 946. [online] academia.edu. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/799350/The_murder_of_King_Edmund_26_May_946 [Accessed 10 Dec. 2019].
  • Williamson, D. (1998). Brewer’s British Royalty. London: Cassell.

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