Although few people have heard of him, King Edgar is regarded as the first ruler of a consolidated England. Today, other Anglo-Saxon monarchs such as Alfred the Great or King Æthelstan are more famous, but it would be incorrect to describe either of them as 'King of all England'. As well as being the first to rule the three major kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex, King Edgar is also credited with introducing a number of successful religious and legal changes.
Edgar, great-grandson of Alfred the Great, was born to King Edmund the Magnificent and St Elfgiva around 943 - 4 AD1. Sadly, Elfgiva died within a year and Edmund was stabbed to death three years later, leaving the young Prince Edgar orphaned. Æthelstan Half-King, a noble who controlled a large area of land, and his wife Elfwynne were selected as foster parents. It is likely that this choice had a considerable influence on Edgar's development, as both were keen supporters of monastic reform - an important issue in their foster child's later leadership.
At the will of his pro-reform parents, Prince Edgar was sent to be educated by St Æthelwold2, a staunch advocate of monastery construction and the following of Benedictine principles. Æthelwold also had a close relationship with St Dunstan, a man who would prove important in King Edgar's rule.
Rise to Power
Edwy succeeded to the kingdom of the West- Saxons, and Edgar his brother succeeded to the kingdom of the Mercians: and they were the sons of King Edmund and of St Elfgiva
It is more likely that the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria were taken by Edgar when the regions' thanes switched their allegiance in 957 - a move which was formalised in 958 after Edwy's loss of a battle near Gloucester. Edwy was not a popular king and his reign was blighted by conflict with the Church - chiefly St Dunstan and Archbishop Odo - and the nobility. He died at the age of 20 in 959.
With the death of his elder brother, Edgar was no longer obliged to share power. Consolidating his existing territory in Mercia and Northumbria with that in Wessex which had previously belonged to Edwy, Edgar became 'King of all England' aged just 16.
King of England
One of King Edgar's first acts as ruler was to order the return of St Dunstan, who had been exiled after a falling out with Edwy. Dunstan was almost immediately made Bishop of Worcester and then Bishop of London, indicating the respect that Edgar gave him. After the death of Archbishop Odo in 961, St Dunstan was elevated to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury himself.
AD 961. This year departed Odo, the good archbishop, and St Dunstan took to the archbishopric
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Such a close relationship between King and Archbishop precipitated a number of religious actions. Around 40 monasteries were founded during King Edgar's reign, with many more, such as the one at Peterborough, being repaired. The appointment of new bishops and priests also appears to have been influenced by Edgar and Dunstan's favour for monastic reform, with important positions going to monks and abbots. In Winchester in 964, for example, Edgar is said to have driven out the existing secular priests and replaced them with monks. A good deal of land also passed into the ownership of the Church, greatly increasing its wealth. Furthermore, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that this transfer of land included a considerable amount of power:
These lands and all the others that belong to the minster I bequeath clear; that is, with sack and sock, toll and team, and infangthief4; these privileges and all others bequeath I clear to Christ and St Peter. And I give the two parts of Whittlesey-mere, with waters and with wears and fens; and so through Meerlade along to the water that is called Nen
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 963.
Attempts, with debatable success, were made to enforce the following the Rule of St Benedict on secular priests who were perceived as rather corrupt. With King Edgar's investment and a respite in Viking raids, monasteries were of increasing cultural importance. Works such as Regularis Concordia (c970 - 3), which aimed to provide a universal code of practice for English monasteries, are of great artistic and intellectual value. As well as illuminated manuscripts, metalwork, painting and poetry were art forms that blossomed during King Edgar's reign, earning the suggestion that it was a 'Golden Age' for the Anglo-Saxons.
Legal legislation was also introduced in many areas during King Edgar's reign including, most interestingly, increased punishments for the failure to pay church taxes and a clarification of the iron weights to be used in torturous ordeals. The boundaries of shires and law enforcement at local levels were also dealt with. The reform of the system of coinage in 973 changed little until the reign of King Stephen.
While King Edgar could be portrayed as merely the enabler of the religious ideas of the three famous reformers - Dunstan, Æthelwold and Oswald - it would be unfair not to allow him some credit for introducing such far-reaching measures. It was he who had allowed Dunstan to return from exile and become Archbishop, and there was no apparent practical need for Edgar to support monastic reform and improvement.
Edgar's rather gradual rise to power at a young age meant that he never got a proper coronation. In 973, this situation was rectified when the Archbishop of Canterbury, St Dunstan, crowned him 'Emperor of Britain' at Bath. As the passage below indicates, the ceremony had diplomatic value, with many other British leaders attending and offering allegiance. Direct parallels can be drawn from the ceremony established by Edgar and Dunstan to the modern coronation.
AD 973. This year Edgar the etheling was consecrated king at Bath, on Pentecost's mass-day, on the fifth before the ides of May, the thirteenth year since he had obtained the kingdom; and he was then one less than thirty years of age. And soon after that, the king led all his ship-forces to Chester; and there came to meet him six kings, and they all plighted their troth to him, that they would be his fellow-workers by sea and by land.
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The 'six kings' mentioned above have lead to an interesting, yet debatable, legend. In an act of subservience, it is said that Malcolm of Strathclyde, Kenneth II of Scots, Maccus of the Isle of Man and several unidentified Welsh kings rowed King Edgar across the River Dee in Chester.
King Edgar the Peaceful?
King Edgar's religious improvements and lack of any serious wars have earned him the title Peaceful, Peaceable or Peacemaker, depending on how one translates John of Worcester's Latin description of him as pacificus. However, it is questionable whether King Edgar was actually a peaceful person himself. It is known that in 969 he 'ordered all Thanet-land to be plundered,' and the display of power in Chester after his 973 coronation would further suggest that he was by no means above the use of violence. The death of Erik Bloodaxe in 954 marked a period of respite from Viking attack in England, which would not resume until 980. It may be that there was merely little need for violence during Edgar's reign.
Edgar is also credited with improving the size and strength of the English navy. This was done by organising the enlistment of sailors through ship-sokes, a form of local conscription.
Crimes of Passion
Despite his close relationship with St Dunstan, Edgar's sexual conduct is rather at odds with the many religious reforms that he introduced. As a sixteen-year-old boy, he married Ethelfleda Eneda, the daughter of his foster mother. However, the sexual desires of a 16-year-old boy king proved too much for Edgar, who virtually imprisoned, seduced and impregnated Wulfrith5, a nun, in 961. King Edgar would later refuse to wear his crown for seven years, at the suggestion of St Dunstan, as penance for this crime. Perhaps the only good aspect of the sordid encounter was the birth of a child, who would become St Edith.
After the death of Ethelfleda in 963, King Edgar began searching for a new wife. After her previous experience of being little more than a sexual captive, Wulfrith wisely declined Edgar's advances. Instead, the beautiful Elfrida6 caught the king's eye and, after her husband was 'accidentally' killed by Edgar throwing a javelin into his back while hunting, the couple married in 965.
King Edgar died on 8 July, 975, and was buried at Glastonbury Abbey. His reign saw a number of religious and legal initiatives and a period of relative stability that would not be seen again for several years. Although by no means the most famous king of England, he is regarded to be the first true ruler of a consolidated English nation in a 'golden age' of Anglo-Saxon culture.
After his death, Edgar was succeeded by his eldest son, Edward the Martyr. However, Edward was murdered in 978, allowing Æthelred to rule. Compared to Edgar's reign, the rules of Edward and Æthelred saw a much greater amount of turmoil. This included an anti-monastic reaction from the landowners who had lost land to the Church (although perhaps Edgar should share some of the blame for this) and a dramatic increase in Viking violence after 980. A change of tone in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is apparent following Edgar's death:
Edward, Edgar's son, succeeded to the kingdom; and then soon, in the same year, during harvest, appeared 'cometa' the star; and then came in the following year a very great famine, and very manifold commotions among the English people
Rather surprisingly, King Edgar was later canonised, becoming St Edgar. His feast day is on 8 July.