Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, Bishop of Worcester, Eadred of England, Eadwig of England, Edgar of England, Edgar of Wesex, Edmund I of England, Glastonbury Abbey, King of England, King of the English, St. Dustan
Edgar (c. 943 – July 8, 975) known as Edgar the Peaceful or Edgar the Peaceable, was King of the English from 959 until his death. He was the younger son of Edmund I and Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, and came to the throne as a teenager, following the death of his older brother Eadwig. As king, Edgar further consolidated the political unity achieved by his predecessors, with his reign being noted for its relative stability. His most trusted advisor was Dunstan, whom he recalled from exile and made Archbishop of Canterbury. The pinnacle of Edgar’s reign was his coronation at Bath in 973, which was organised by Dunstan and forms the basis for the current coronation ceremony. After his death he was succeeded by his son Edward, although the succession was disputed.
Early years and accession
Edgar was the son of Edmund I and Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury. Upon the death of King Edmund in 946, Edgar’s uncle, Eadred, ruled until 955. Eadred was succeeded by his nephew, Eadwig, Edmund’s eldest son.
Eadwig was not a popular king, and his reign was marked by conflict with nobles and the Church, primarily St Dunstan and Archbishop Oda. In 957, the thanes of Mercia and Northumbria changed their allegiance to Edgar. A conclave of nobles declared Edgar as king of the territory north of the Thames. Edgar became King of the English upon Eadwig’s death on October 1, 959, aged about 19.
One of Edgar’s first actions was to recall Dunstan from exile and have him made Bishop of Worcester and Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, subsequently Bishop of London and later, Archbishop of Canterbury. Dunstan remained Edgar’s advisor throughout his reign. Edgar’s reign was peaceful.
The Kingdom of England was well established, and Edgar consolidated the political unity achieved by his predecessors. By the end of his reign, England was sufficiently unified that it was unlikely to regress back to a state of division among rival kingships, as it had to an extent under the reign of Eadred. William Blackstone mentions that King Edgar standardised measure throughout the realm.
According to George Molyneaux, Edgar’s reign, “far more than the reigns of either Alfred or Æthelstan, was probably the most pivotal phase in the development of the institutional structures that were fundamental to royal rule in the eleventh-century kingdom”. Indeed, an early eleventh century king Cnut the Great states in a letter to his subjects that ”it is my will that all the nation, ecclesiastical and lay, shall steadfastly observe Edgar’s laws, which all men have chosen and sworn at Oxford”.
A coin of Edgar, struck in Winchcombe in Gloucestershire (c. 973-975).
The Monastic Reform Movement that introduced the Benedictine Rule to England’s monastic communities peaked during the era of Dunstan, Æthelwold, and Oswald (historians continue to debate the extent and significance of this movement).
Dead Man’s Plack
In 963, Edgar allegedly killed Earl Æthelwald, his rival in love, near present-day Longparish, Hampshire. The event was commemorated by the Dead Man’s Plack, erected in 1825. In 1875, Edward Augustus Freeman debunked the story as a “tissue of romance” in his book, Historic Essays; however, his arguments were rebutted by naturalist William Henry Hudson in his 1920 book Dead Man’s Plack and an Old Thorn.
Coronation at Bath
Edgar was crowned at Bath and along with his wife Ælfthryth was anointed, setting a precedent for a coronation of a Queen in England itself. Edgar’s coronation did not happen until 973, in an imperial ceremony planned not as the initiation, but as the culmination of his reign (a move that must have taken a great deal of preliminary diplomacy). This service, devised by Dunstan himself and celebrated with a poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, forms the basis of the present-day British coronation ceremony.
The symbolic coronation was an important step; other kings of Britain came and gave their allegiance to Edgar shortly afterwards at Chester. Six kings in Britain, including the King of Scots and the King of Strathclyde, pledged their faith that they would be the king’s liege-men on sea and land. Later chroniclers made the kings into eight, all plying the oars of Edgar’s state barge on the River Dee. Such embellishments may not be factual, and what actually happened is unclear.
Marriages and children
Edgar is known to have had 3 relationships that produced children. His first wife (or consort) was Æthelflæd Eneda (the ‘white duck’), daughter of Ealdorman Ordmaer, who acquired land in Devon. They married sometime before he became king, about 957. Together they had one son:
Edward the Martyr (born c. 962 – died 978)
Wulfthryth of Wilton, who was educated at Wilton Abbey became his second consort. It is disputed whether they married, but Barbara Yorke argues that they did. Edgar removed Wulfthryth from Wilton Abbey, some sources say abducted, in 962 and returned her to Wilton Abbey by 964, she then took vows and became Abbess. Edgar and Wulfthryth had one daughter, who is said to have returned with her mother to the abbey:
Edith of Wilton also known as Saint Edith.
About 964/965 Edgar married again, his third relationship, to Ælfthryth, widow of Æthelwald, Ealdorman of East Anglia, Edgar’s adopted brother. Ælfthryth was the daughter of Ealdorman Ordgar and his wife, a member of the royal family of Wessex. Legend has it that Edgar heard of Ælfthryth’s great beauty and sent Æthelwald to arrange marriage for him (Edgar) but Æthelwald instead married her himself. In retaliation Æthelwald was killed ‘in a hunting accident’ and Edgar married her as he had wanted. It is not known if this is true or simply romantic fiction. Edgar and Ælfthryth had two sons:
Edmund Atheling (born c. 966 – died c.970)
Æthelred the Unready (born c. 968 – d. 23 April 1016)
After the death of Edward the Martyr in 978, Æthelred was not yet old enough to rule on his own and Ælfthryth acted as regent.
Edgar died on July 8, 975 at Winchester, Hampshire. He was buried at Glastonbury Abbey. He left two sons, his successor Edward, who was probably his illegitimate son by Æthelflæd, daughter of ealdorman Ordmaer, and Æthelred, the younger, the child of his wife Ælfthryth. Edgar also had a possibly illegitimate daughter by Wulfthryth, who later became abbess of Wilton. She was joined there by her daughter, Edith of Wilton, who lived there as a nun until her death. Both women were later regarded as saints.