Having ruled England for less than a year, King Edmund is primarily remembered for his unusual death. In one of the most uncomfortable murders in history, legend has it the Anglo-Saxon king was assassinated on the toilet! While the veracity of this tale is up for debate, if true, King Edmund’s passing was surely one of the messiest deaths in history.
Edmund ascended the throne amidst a tumultuous period in England’s history. He was the son of Æthelred the Unready , an Anglo-Saxon king remembered for his inability to protect England from the brutal attacks of invading Danes. The animosity between the English and Vikings was palpable, with their hostility further fueled by the St. Brice’s Day Massacre. Masterminded by Æthelred in 1002, it resulted in the death of the sister of his greatest foe, the Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard .
Forkbeard ended up forcing Æthelred into exile in 1013, becoming the first Danish king of England. But when he died just five weeks later, Æthelred swiftly returned. During the following years he had to battle it out against Forkbeard’s son, Cnut.
Following Æthelred’s death in April 1016, Edmund’s short reign was marred by warfare. In October 1016 he was thwarted at the Battle of Assandun, though his valiant efforts earned him the nickname Edmund Ironside. His devastating defeat was blamed on one turncoat earl named Eadric Streona, recently voted the 11th century’s worst Briton by BBC History Magazine .
After their continuous struggles on the left, the treaty between Cnut and King Edmund was represented in this 13th-century manuscript with a so-called kiss of peace. The untimely death of King Edmund was then portrayed right next door. (Cambridge University Library / CC BY-NC 3.0 )
After Assandun, Edmund was forced to sign the Treaty of Alney, giving Cnut power over most of England, excepting the Saxon heartland of Wessex. The treaty specified that if one of the kings were to die, their kingdom would revert to the other. Suspiciously, just a few weeks later on November 30th, 1016, the 25-year-old Edmund died only seven months after ascending the throne, making Cnut the sole ruler of England.
While certain chroniclers make no mention of foul play, the circumstances surrounding Edmund’s sudden death led to centuries of speculation. Some avowed he had been poisoned, but the most bizarre claims reported he was unceremoniously murdered on the toilet. Several sources blamed Eadric Streon.
Writing over a hundred years later, Henry of Huntingdon claimed Eadric sent his son to stab the king in his private parts after hiding in the privy. Later chronicles added additional grisly details, with the French Geoffrey Gaimar arguing that Edmund was killed with a booby-trapped crossbow hidden in the cesspit when he sat down to find some relief.
“Perhaps surprisingly, no English sources cast suspicion on Cnut,” explained A Clerk of Oxford . William of Malmesbury even wrote that Cnut posthumously referred to Edmund as his brother, making one wonder if there wasn’t a royal cover-up at play.
Top image: Detail depicting the unusual death of King Edmund Ironside as portrayed in a 13th-century illustrated Anglo-Norman manuscript of the Life of St Edward the Confessor. Source: Cambridge University Library / CC BY-NC 3.0
By Cecilia Bogaard