The tenth century was a time of extreme disruption in Anglo Saxon England. Fuelled with power, hormones and alcohol the “boy kings” of Wessex excelled at poor decision making, with one apparent exception. Edgar the Peaceable.
Before we look at Edgars reign it’s important to obtain some context by looking at the reign of his predecessor. King Eadwig ascended to the throne at the age of 13. Infamously he missed his coronation celebrations because he was busy having a threesome with his future wife and her mother (it’s good to be king). This did not go down well with the clergy. In particular Bishop Dunstan, later Saint Dunstan who reportedly dragged the young King away from his fun. It is reported that the events were instigated by his future mother-in-law, which would make sense. Over a thousand years may have passed but some things don’t change, sex was undoubtedly a very easy way to exert control over the young king and put her daughter in a position of power.
For a Saxon King to maintain the throne they need the support of the magnates and the church. Eadwig stripped the lands and titles of any magnate who even raised an eyebrow at his excesses and gave them to his friends who were generally junior in both age and standing. Expanding on a popular analogy, I like to think of court at the time as a skatepark in an urban area, where youths gather to communicate in grunts, taking drags of cigarettes and necking white lightning. So, that’s destabilised the nobility.
Dunstan clearly realised that he overstepped in dragging Eadwig from his games and tried to keep his head down in the church for a bit. However, the King was not skilled at making level-headed decisions and ordered that Dunstan’s eyes should be put out. The priest escaped this fate and fled to an exile on the continent.
At the time there were three men who held power over the church in England. Dunstan, Bishop of London, Oda Archbishop of Canterbury and Wulfstan who seemed to change roles as regularly as he changed his socks but eventually landed on Archbishop of York. With Dunstan in exile, Wulfstan disappeared for a bit to avoid the king’s attention. Oda, clearly having a finely honed political radar and knowing which way the wind was blowing threw his weight behind the Kings brother Edgar. And thus, Eadwig destabilised the church in England.
Eadwig didn’t have a hope in hell of holding on to the throne and before long the country was divided. Eadwig holding a tokenistic rule in the south and his brother Edgar being styled “King in the North”. Its important to remember rule at the time wasn’t held by divine right, at least not entirely. The Witan, a group of senior nobles chose who was to be their king. This division in the country appears to indicate that Eadwig was, if not sacked outright, put on gardening leave.
At the age of sixteen Edgar ascended to the throne of England as head of the royal house of Wessex. His early years appear full of academic and sporting accomplishments. Whilst he doesn’t appear to have directly observed and learned from the rule of his predecessors, there does seem to have been much more investment in his education. He was directly tutored by the three church leaders and is described as much more gregarious than Eadwig. It is fair to say as he first sat on the throne, he had inherited an utter mess. His first actions can be seen in the rapid return of Dunstan, who became his chief advisor. Then the land grants …. Oh, so many land grants, reinstalling the ancient noble houses that Eadwig had removed. In this he regained support of the magnates and the church. Cementing the authority of the crown. He also seems to recognise that the turmoil the country had experienced over the last few years made the country an extremely attractive target for raids and for invasion. He started fortifying the old Burghs which were set up by his grandfather, he then raised a navy to levels that have not really been matched before or since. For the first time England had a standing Army and a Standing Navy, one third of which was always on exercises. Within a year most of the damage done by three hilariously bad kings was repaired and the country was looking as strong as it had at the point of Alfred’s Death.
Edgar then undertook a series of monastic reforms, inviting the almost extinct Benedictine order into the country where they flourished. The idea being that the church had become too secular, and more than a little corrupt, monastic orders had strict rules about piety. One particular passage from the Anglo-Saxon chronicle states that “Edgar then drove the priests from their churches” and this is how I see that going –
Edgar sat at a great table, sipping wine and discussing his plans with Dunstan. He agrees with the archbishop that monastic reforms are needed however Dunstan can’t figure out how to clear the churches to make way for the monastic orders. The king shrugs, stands and walks to the door, looking thoughtfully at a large stick propped against the wall, picking it up and testing its weight he takes it with him “I’ll be right back” the king explains, “where are you …” Dunstan starts to question but is cut off by the barrel-chested young monarch, “I will be right back”. Two hours later he strolls back in and puts the stick down. “The churches are all clear”, a look of concern crosses Dunstan’s face, “you didn’t hurt anyone did you?”, the King smiles and says, “they just sort of ran for the nearest exit when they saw me coming”, “so no one got hurt?”, “well, a couple of them were on the top floor, and the nearest exit was a window…”.
Now the country was stable the king had to find a wife. Succession crises had been the cause of a lot of trouble since his grandfather’s reign. He needed a wife and he needed sons. Fortunately, he had heard of a lady in East Anglia whose beauty was unsurpassed. He called one of his lads to him and asked him to go and check her out, if she was as beautiful as rumour said he was to offer her marriage to the king. Let’s call his mate Dave. So, Dave rides off and on seeing the lady in question is absolutely entranced by her beauty, disregarding the Kings orders he immediately marries her himself. Upon returning to Edgar, Dave reports that the lady wasn’t actually that good looking and the King should find a Queen elsewhere. Shortly however the King learns of Dave’s deception, he calmly invites Dave for a friendly walk in the woods. Edgar walks out, Dave does not. When asked the King reports there had been a terrible accident. Dave’s body is later found, I would imagine stripped and with a pinecone shoved up his arse. Suddenly Dave’s widow finds herself available to join with the King.
This is not the only time Edgar invites someone out for a walk. Kenneth, King of Scotland is a sub-king, subordinate to Edgar, at a feast he makes a passing comment that Edgar is developing a bit of a paunch. Edgar laughs and invites Kenneth for a walk. Whilst deep in the woods Edgar turns and just stares at Ken, the silence grows and the Scot realises he is in trouble, he throws himself to the ground at Edgars feet and begs forgiveness. Edgar advises him to remember this moment and strolls back out of the woods. Remembering what happened to Dave I would imagine there was a very nervous looking crowd waiting at the edge of the woods who breathed a sigh of relief when later Kenneth out looking very pale and probably with wet trousers.
Edgar undertook a large number of legal reforms. Wolves were a significant problem on the island at the time. He instituted a criminal fine. If you broke the law, depending on the severity of your crime you would be required to provide the crown a certain number of wolf tongues. In one act he started resolving the wolf problem and hammered crime. Either the criminal obtained the tongues, or they died trying. He also reduced taxes in the marches in exchange for wolf heads. Whilst this may seem cruel England relied on cattle for its survival and wolves were a threat to that.
So, Edgar did a lot of incredible work in restoring the country to a state of security and prosperity. In Many ways he was like his grandfather Alfred the Great. There is however one stain on this man’s character that can’t be ignored. His treatment of women was absolutely appalling, even by the standards of the time. He had a bit of a thing for nuns and more than once sexually assaulted cloistered sisters. Whilst most royals, even up until more modern times, regarded consent as a formality, it appears Edgar didn’t even bother to ask. Although I am unsure who would have the confidence to deny a king with a proven history of bloody resolutions to interpersonal conflict. One of his victims he later installed as the Abbess of Wilton. He did sire more than a few illegitimate children through these assaults. There is also the story of the Maid of Andover, which appears to have some basis in truth based on, you guessed it, land grants. Edgar rocked up at the house of one of his magnates demanding to spend the night with his daughter who was reportedly very beautiful, the noble didn’t really want the king violating his daughter so plotted to dress up a servant in his daughters’ finery. Edgar, after spending the night with the maid, spotted the deception, stripped his magnate of lands and titles and gave them all to the servant. It’s a fun anecdote if you ignore the fact that the poor girl was forced into sexual servitude. Interestingly though that servant’s family became very well established and appear on royal charters up until the reign of Henry VIII. I wonder what her thoughts would have been on that.
Our primary sources for Eadwig’s reign come from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, a codified history as recorded by the church in England, and from a later biography of Dunstan. Neither of which were likely to offer a positive or balanced view on Eadwig. However, we can see some evidence to support much of this in the land grants signed by the king. Stripping established families of their lands and titles and granting them to previously little-known houses. We also know something of his wife and mother-in-law as they were from an established house (and thus by standards of tenth century priests they were women worth writing about). The queen-mothers seduction of the king in an attempt to place her daughter beside him on the throne is totally in keeping with other accounts of her. Before we get too judgey, it is worth noting there were almost no other ways for a woman to satisfy ambition at the time, and it worked. Much of the tension between the crown and the church appears to have stemmed from these ladies. Recognising this, Archbishop Oda tried to convince the King to annul his marriage on the grounds of Consanguinity, they were within the seven degrees of relation that the church dictated as the line for incest. One analysis I have heard does point out though that the entire population of the Island was about one million people, narrowing that down to noble families who would be a suitable match for a king, and then narrowing further to unmarried women of childbearing age. There were maybe fifty people the king could have married and whilst it would be almost impossible to explore this, I would argue a strong probability all of them were within seven degrees of relation. Annulment on this basis had never before been considered in the context of the throne and the only reason I can see that Oda would have pressed for it would be to separate the king from women who were disempowering the church.
Whilst researching this post I read at length around tenth century monastic reforms which, whilst quite a dry topic was no where near as painful as reading a biography of Dunstan. Whilst there was some minor excitement in his life, in his youth he may have had sex once. I strongly believe that Dunstan was the most boring human being who ever lived. I did have a second biography of him lined up because I don’t like relying on one source, however I frankly couldn’t face reading any more about the man after the achievement of reading the first biography.
Realistically I think history has been quite unkind to Eadwig. Yes, he was an absolutely useless king, and a randy little bugger, but he was never educated for the role, he never spent any time with his father or uncles, seeing how lords and kings should behave. He was the third boy king in a series of six and inherited an already shaky throne. His reign was short and full of bad decisions but what more could we expect from him in these circumstances? I think there is a strong argument to be made that the witan accepted him as king as they expected him to be very malleable to their will, an expectation the church seemed to share. When he found his big boy pants and made a decision that conflicted with the will of all of these people with their hands on his strings, he found his decisions were without authority. The more I read the greater sense of sympathy and pity I found for Eadwig.
Edgar was a stark contrast on Eadwig. He seems to have had a much greater sense for the tactical nature of court politics at the time. He recognised that the Magnates and the Church were his foundation and the greatest restorative act he undertook appears to be his first act as king, recalling Dunstan from his exile. As boring as Dunstan was, he was extremely popular in the church and a very savvy advisor.
At the time Edgar ascended to the throne it looked almost certain the country would devolve into a series of small kingdoms again. The impact of that would certainly be felt today. I refer to Edgar as gregarious but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t highly intelligent, and he must have been extremely charismatic. Many of the analyses I have read indicate that Edgar just reaped the rewards of Alfred’s Hard work however I think this is both unfair and untrue. In the three reigns between Alfred and Edgar a huge amount of damage had been done, the country would have been unrecognisable to Edgar’s grandfather. I would argue based on his achievements and success in saving England he was one of the greatest sovereigns in our history. Despite this almost no one knows his name.
As a bit of a side note I found a huge number of secondary sources indicating that Edgar instated a minimum age for execution at fifteen. He didn’t feel that children should be killed, regardless of their crime. However, I have been unable to find a shred of evidence of this in primary source material.
Whilst he did great things for the country there are individuals in his life for whom he wasn’t so great. His abuses toward women, particularly nuns, were barbaric even for the age. This is a perfect example of the complexity of our history. If anyone tries to offer you a simple narrative its probably either inaccurate or a lie. Of all the Saxon Kings I would want to have lived during Edgar’s reign, it was a time of peace and law. I would however not want any of my female relations anywhere near the court or the King.