Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Who Are All These Kings?: Edgar I

Edgar was born in 943, the second son of King Edmund.

When Edmund was murdered in 946, he and his elder brother Edwy were still only little boys, and could not be considered for the kingship, so their uncle Edred succeeded, and in fact was a very strong king.

Edred died in 955, and was succeeded by Edwy, who did little to endear himself to the church, the nobles or the ordinary people.

Edgar had been brought up in the East Anglian household of the powerful Athelstan Half King, and was well known to the people of the Danelaw.

In 957, the nobility in Mercia and Northumbria renounced their allegiance to Edwy, and made Edgar their king, shortly after which Edgar recalled Bishop Dunstan, whom Edwy had expelled. He appointed Dunstan Bishop of Worcester.

Edwy died in 959, perhaps of the family illness and perhaps with help from an assassin. Either way, his death was little regretted, while Edgar was welcomed by everybody as King of all England.

One of his first acts was to appoint Dunstan Bishop of London, and shortly afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, succeeding Oda, who had recently died.

Dunstan, with Edgar’s support, embarked on a major programme of monastic reform. One of the creations at this time was the Soke of Peterborough, over which the abbot had almost unlimited authority.

Edgar also advanced the career of St. Ethelwold, who had been his tutor, appointing him Bishop of Winchester, and he made important reforms to the quality of the coinage.

In 962, St. Pauls Cathedral was burned down, but a replacement was built without delay.

He also made significant changes to the local government system, including the confirmation of the subdivisions of counties known as Hundreds (or Wapentakes in the Danelaw), and a significant amount of self-rule for the Danish people living in the East Midlands and East Anglia. Fifty years later, Cnut praised Edgar’s laws and announced that he wished to confirm them.

He was not afraid to use force, on the rare occasions when it was necessary. In 969 he ordered that the Isle of Thanet should be ravaged. This was punishment for the islanders, who had imprisoned and robbed a group of Northumbrian merchants. Edgar wanted it to be known that all his subjects could rely on the king’s protection.

Edgar was probably crowned, at the beginning of his reign, at Kingston-on-Thames, as was the custom. But in 973 he had a major coronation at Bath Abbey. The ceremony had been devised by Dunstan, and is essentially the same ceremony that is still used for coronations today.

The coronation had been delayed for some years because Dunstan was not satisfied with Edgar’s lifestyle. Although he gave great support to the church in general and to Dunstan in particular, he was not especially religious, and there were many scandalous rumours about his private life.

He had married Ethelfleda the Fair, daughter of Ordmaer, the ealdorman of Hereford, in 960, but she died in childbirth in 961, and was buried at Wilton Abbey. Their son was Edward, who succeeded Edgar as king and later became known as Edward the Martyr.

While married to Ethelfleda, he had an affair with St. Wulfrith, who bore him a child but later entered a nunnery. The story got around that he had seduced a nun. Wulfrith became Abbess of Wilton. Their daughter, St. Edith of Wilton, became Abbess of both Barking and Nunnaminster.

His next affair was with Elfrida, daughter of Ordgar, ealdorman of Devon, who was already married to Ethelwald, ealdorman of East Anglia and son of Athelstan Half King, in whose household Edgar had been brought up. In 964, Ethelwald died, causing more rumours involving murder, and Edgar and Elfrida married. They had two sons, Edmund, who died in 970, and Ethelred, who later became king and is known to posterity as Ethelred the Unready.

Perhaps understandably, Dunstan was unhappy about all this, but by 973 it seems that Edgar had become more responsible, and the historic coronation took place.

Edgar then put on a series of shows of force. His army showed his authority over the Welsh by marching along the border from Bath to Chester, while his fleet sailed through the Irish Sea, showing authority over the Norse kings in Dublin and on the Isle of Man.

At Chester, the famous event took place where eight kings rowed Edgar on the Dee, to show submission. He was acknowledged as overlord by the kings of the whole British Isles except Orkney.

Edgar was known as “the Peaceable”. It should be noted, however, that this was mainly because he had the good fortune to be king at a time when there were no invasions.

He died at Winchester in 975, and was buried at Glastonbury Abbey, where Dunstan had earlier been abbot.

Edgar was succeeded by the elder of his young sons, later known as Edward the Martyr.