Edgar (944-975) (DNB00)

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EDGAR or EADGAR (944–975), king of the English, the younger son of Eadmund the Magnificent [see Edmund] and the sainted Ælfgifu, was born in 944, the year of his mother's death, for he was twenty-nine at the time of his coronation in 973 (Anglo-Saxon Chron. sub ann. 972; Flor. Wig. sub ann. 973). He was probably brought up at the court of his uncle Eadred [see Edred], for his name, coupled with that of his brother Eadwig [see Edwy], is appended to a charter of Eadred dated 955 (Kemble, Codex Dipl. 435). After his brother's accession he resided at his court, and was there on 9 May 957 (ib. 465), when the insurrection of the north had already broken out. Some time, probably, before the close of that year he was chosen king by the insurgents. The kingdom was divided by a decree of the ‘witan,’ and he ruled over the land north of the Thames. He begins to issue charters as king the following year. In a charter of 958 he styles himself ‘king of the Angles and ruler of the rest of the peoples dwelling round’ (ib. 471); in a charter of the next year ‘king of Mercia,’ with a like addition (ib. 480); and in another charter, granted probably about the same time, ‘king of the Mercians, Northumbrians, and Britons’ (Wells Chapter MSS.) As he was now scarcely past childhood he must have been little more than a puppet in the hands of the northern party. As soon as he was settled on the throne he sent for Dunstan [q. v.], who was then in exile, and who from that time became his chief minister and adviser. The other leading men of his party were Oskytel, archbishop of York; Ælfhere, ealdorman of Mercia; Brihtnoth [q. v.], ealdorman of Essex; and Æthelstan, the ‘half-king,’ ealdorman of East Anglia, whose wife, Ælfwen, was the young king's foster-mother (Historia Ramesiensis, 11), a connection that may have had a curious bearing on the rivalry between him and his elder brother, for it has been suggested that Æthelfgifu, the mother of Eadwig's wife, and a person of great weight at his court, stood in the same relation to the West-Saxon king (Robertson, Essays, 180, 201).

On the death of Edwy [q. v.] or Eadwig in October 959 Eadgar, who was then sixteen, was chosen king by the whole people ({{sc|Flor. Wig.), and succeeded to the kingdom of the West-Saxons, as well as of the Mercians and Northumbrians (A.-S. Chron.) His reign, though of considerable historical importance, does not appear to have been eventful. It was a period of national consolidation, peace, and orderly government. Much of the prosperity of the reign should certainly be attributed to the wisdom of Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury (960–988), who served the king as well and faithfully as he had served his uncle Eadred. In 968 (?) Eadgar made an expedition into Wales because the prince of the North Welsh withheld the tribute that had been paid to the English king since the time of Æthelstan, and, according to William of Malmesbury, laid on the rebellious prince a tribute of three hundred wolves' heads for four years, which was paid for three years, but was then discontinued because no more wolves were left to be killed, a highly improbable story (Gesta Regum, 155). It seems as though the Welsh were virtually independent during this reign, for their princes do not attest the charters of the English king, and so may be supposed not to have attended his witenagemots. Eadgar's relations with the Danish parts of the kingdom are of more importance. From the time of the death of Eric Haroldsson and the skilful measures taken by Eadred and Dunstan to secure the pacification of Northumbria, the northern people had remained quiet until they had joined in the revolt against Eadwig. By the election of Eadgar and the division of the kingdom they broke off their nominal dependence on the West-Saxon throne. Now, however, Eadgar himself had become king of the whole land, and Wessex was again the seat of empire. It was probably this change that in 966 led to an outbreak in Northumbria. The disturbance was quelled by Thored, the son of Gunner, steward of the king's household, who harried Westmoreland, and Eadgar sought to secure peace by giving the government of the land to Earl Oslac. It is said, though not on any good authority, that as Kenneth of Scotland had taken advantage of this fresh trouble in the north to make a raid upon the country, Eadgar purchased his goodwill, at least so it is said, by granting him Lothian, or northern Bernicia, an English district to the south of the Forth, to be held in vassalage of the English crown. (This grant, which has been made the subject of much dispute, has been fully discussed by Dr. Freeman, Norman Conquest, i. 610–20; and E. W. Robertson, Scotland under her Early Kings, ii. 386 sq.).

While Eadgar thus provided for the peace of the north, he seems to have carefully forborne from interfering with the customs and internal affairs of the Danish district. He declared in his laws: ‘I will that secular rights stand among the Danes with as good laws as best they may choose. But with the English let that stand which I and my witan have added to the dooms of my forefathers.’ Only the police arrangement of the hundred was to be common to all his peoples, ‘English, Danes, and Britons.’ But in the case of powerful offenders, while in the English districts their punishment was decided by the king and the witan, the Danes were to choose according to their laws the punishment that was to be awarded. This self-government was granted, Eadgar tells the Danes, as a reward ‘for the fidelity which ye have ever shown me’ (Thorpe, Ancient Laws, 116, 117). The two peoples, then, lived on terms of equality each under its own law, though, indeed, the differences between the systems were trifling, and this arrangement, as well as the good peace Eadgar established in the kingdom, was no doubt the cause that led the ‘witan’ in the reign of Cnut to declare the renewal of ‘Eadgar's law’ [see under Canute]. Besides this policy of non-interference he favoured men of Danish race, and seems to have adopted some of their customs. The steward of his household was a Dane, and a curious notice in the ‘Chronicle’ concerning a certain king, Sigferth, who died by his own hand and was buried at Wimborne, seems to point to some prince of Danish blood who was held in honour at the English court. Offices in church and state alike were now open to the northern settlers. While, however, Eadgar was thus training the Danes as good and peaceful subjects, his policy was looked on with dislike by Englishmen of old-fashioned notions, and the Peterborough version of the ‘Chronicle’ preserves a song in which this feeling is strongly expressed. The king is there said to have ‘loved foreign vices’ and ‘heathen manners,’ and to have brought ‘outlandish’ men into the land. The same principle of non-interference was carried out in church matters, for on the death of Oskytel in 972 the king, by the advice of Dunstan, conferred the archbishopric of York on Oswald, who was by birth a Northumbrian Dane, and possibly set aside the election of the English Æthelwald in his favour (Symeon, col. 79; T. Stubbs, col. 1699; Robertson, Essays, 214). Oswald, though, in his diocese of Worcester and elsewhere, he continued to carry on his efforts to promote the Benedictine reform that was strongly favoured by the king, did not attempt to introduce it into Northumbria, where it would certainly have met with considerable resistance, and in this matter he must have acted with the approval of Eadgar, who had a strong affection for him (Vita S. Oswaldi, 435).

The king's conciliatory policy met with signal success, and the Danish population lived peacefully under his supremacy. Nor did this success lack definite acknowledgment. On the return of Oswald from Rome, whither he had gone not merely to fetch his pall, but to transact several matters of state, probably to obtain the pope's assent to the step the king was about to take, Eadgar was ‘at length’ solemnly crowned (Æthelweard, 520). The ceremony took place at Bath on Whitsunday, 11 May 973, in the presence of a vast assembly of the ‘witan,’ and was performed by both the archbishops; it is the first recorded instance of a coronation of an English king in which the archbishop of the ‘Northumbrians’ (Vita S. Oswaldi) took part, and this is certainly not without significance. It is also the first coronation of which we have a minute description (ib. 436–8). It will be sufficient to note here that the king entered the church wearing his crown, and laid it aside as he knelt before the altar; that Dunstan then began the ‘Te Deum;’ that at the conclusion of the hymn the bishops raised the king from his knees; and that at Dunstan's dictation he then took a threefold oath that the church of God and all christian people should enjoy true peace for ever, that he would forbid all wrong and robbery to all degrees, and that he would command justice and mercy in all judgments. Then the consecration prayers were said, the archbishops anointed him, the antiphon ‘Zadok the priest’ was sung, and all joined in the shout ‘Let the king live for ever.’ Dunstan next invested him with the ring and sword, placed the crown on his head and the sceptre and rod in his hands, and both the archbishops enthroned him. Although this ceremony is sometimes spoken of as a second coronation, there is no good reason for supposing that the king had ever been crowned before. No contemporary chronicler assigns any reason for this delay of the rite, or for the special time chosen for its performance; the story that connects it with a penance will be noted further on. It may, therefore, be held to have been, to quote the words of Dr. Stubbs: ‘a solemn typical enunciation of the consummation of English unity, an inauguration of the king of all the nations of England, celebrated by the two archbishops, possibly with special instructions or recognition from Rome, possibly in imitation of the imperial consecration of Eadgar's kinsmen, the first and second Otto, possibly as a declaration of the imperial character of the English crown itself’ (Memorials of St. Dunstan, introd. ci.; this view was first propounded by Robertson, Essays, 203–15; comp.Freeman, Norman Conquest, i. 639, 3rd edition). It evidently took strong hold on the imagination of the people, and was made the subject of one of the national ballads preserved in the ‘Chronicle’ (Anglo-Saxon Chron. sub ann.; Æthelweard, 520). After this ceremony the king with all his fleet sailed round to Chester, and there six (A.-S. Chron.), or rather eight (Flor. Wig.), kings met him and swore to be faithful to him, and to be ‘his fellow-workers by sea and by land.’ They were the kings of the Scots, of Cumberland, and of the Isles, and five Welsh princes, and it is said that they further declared their vassalage by rowing Eadgar in a boat which he himself steered at the head of a great procession from his palace to the minster of St. John Baptist, where they prayed, and then returned in the same manner (ib.) While this may be a later embellishment, the ‘commendation’ of the kings is beyond doubt. (On the nature of such commendations see Freeman's Historical Essays, i. 56; Norman Conquest, i. 142; Robertson, Scotland under her Early Kings, ii. 386 sq.) The Danes of Ireland were friendly, and acknowledged the power if not the supremacy of the English king, for coins of Eadgar were minted at Dublin (Robertson). The relations between Eadgar and the other kings and princes then reigning in these islands are probably signified by his use of grandiloquent titles borrowed from the imperial court. Following the example of his predecessors since the reign of Æthelstan, he describes himself in his charters as ‘Albionis Imperator Augustus,’ and the like (Norman Conquest, i. 623; Stubbs, Constitutional History, i. 177). As a near kinsman of Otto I and II, he may well have been influenced by the imperial ideas of western Europe. He made alliance with Otto the Great, and received splendid gifts from him (Flor. Wig. sub ann. 959). This alliance was probably renewed at the accession of Otto II, when other kings are said to have marvelled at the profusion of Eadgar's gifts. His fame was spread abroad, and Saxons, and men of Flanders, and Danes are said to have sailed hither constantly; all were welcomed, but their coming was evidently disliked by the more conservative part of the English (Gesta Regum, 148, where William of Malmesbury expands the notice of the Peterborough chronicler, which as it stands seems to apply chiefly to the Danes, the men of ‘heathen manners’).

At the date of his coronation at Bath, Eadgar was in his thirtieth year. He is said to have been short and slenderly made, but of great strength (ib. 156), ‘beauteous and winsome’ (A.-S. Chron.) His personal character, the events of his life, and the glories of his reign made a deep impression on the English people. Not only are four ballads, or fragments of ballads, relating to his reign preserved in the different versions of the national chronicle, but a large mass of legends about him, originally no doubt contained in gleemen's songs, is given by William of Malmesbury. He is represented in somewhat different lights. All contemporary writers save one speak of him in terms of unmixed praise; the one exception, the Peterborough chronicler, while dwelling on his piety, his glory, and his might, laments, as we have seen, his love of foreigners and of foreign fashions and evil ways. As a zealous patron of the monks, he is naturally depicted by the monastic writers of his time in glowing colours, and the excellence of his government, which rests on better evidence than vague phrases, justifies all that they say of him as a ruler. On the other hand, popular tradition, represented by the stories told by William of Malmesbury, while endorsing all that the chroniclers say of the glories of the reign, conveys a widely different impression of his personal character from that which is to be gathered from his monastic admirers. He was, we are told, cruel to his subjects, and inordinately lustful; he coveted his friend's wife, and murdered her husband in order to marry her, and was guilty of other acts of immorality (Gesta Regum, 157–60; Gesta Pontificum, p. 190). The charge of cruelty probably arose from the general strictness with which he repressed disorder, and from the remembrance of certain special incidents in which his justice was too little tempered with mercy (see below). As regards his lustfulness and other crimes the historian expressly states that the legends concerning them refer only to his younger days. The two of most importance tell us how Eadgar slew Æthelwold, and married his widow, Ælfthryth, or Elfrida, and how he seduced a veiled lady of Wilton. All the circumstances of the first legend are unhistorical (the growth of this legend has been discussed fully by Dr. Freeman, Historical Essays, i. 15–25); the second rests on a firmer basis. A review of the king's life, as far as we know it, certainly goes far to show that in his early years he was flagrantly immoral, and this is borne out by the reference to his vices in the song preserved in the ‘Chronicle.’ Cnut, it should be noted, held that he was ‘given up to vice and a slave to lust’ (Gesta Pontiff. p. 190 [see under Canute and Edith, St.]) In 961 probably, when he was about seventeen, he took from the convent at Wilton a lady named Wulfthryth (Wulfrid), who, though veiled, was not a professed nun (Gesta Regum, 159). She bore him a daughter named Eadgyth (St. Edith) [q. v.] in or by 962. Her connection with the king was evidently a ‘handfast’ union, for after the birth of her child she refused to accede to his wish to enter into a permanent marriage with him, and retired to Wilton, taking as the dissenting party her child with her (Gotselin, Life of St. Edith, Acta SS. Mabillon, sæc. v. 636). As a punishment for this violation of the cloister, Osbern says that Dunstan ordered the king a penance of seven years, during which he was not to wear his crown, that he made atonement for his sin by building the nunnery at Shaftesbury, which was in fact built by Ælfred, and that at the end of the seven years he was solemnly crowned (Vita S. Dunstani, p. 111). Apart from the fact that the ceremony at Bath in 973 appears to have been the only coronation of Eadgar, it will be observed that the dates prove that this story cannot be accepted as it stands. Eadgar next took to wife Æthelflæd, who for her beauty was known as the ‘White Duck’ (Flor. Wig. sub an. 964), the daughter of an ealdorman named Ordmær, of whom little is known, and who probably owed such power as he had to his daughter's marriage. She bore the king a son named Eadward [see Edward the Martyr]. Her union with Eadgar is said by Nicholas of Worcester, writing about 1120, to have been a lawful marriage (Memorials of St. Dunstan, p. 423); this would scarcely be gathered from Florence of Worcester, and as her name does not appear in any charter, her connection with Eadgar must have terminated by the date of his marriage in 964, and as the succession of her son was disputed there is some ground for believing that this too was a ‘handfast’ union for a year, and that it was terminated by Eadgar, who as the dissenting party acknowledged and brought up her son (Robertson, Historical Essays, 169, 172–6). In 964 Eadgar took to wife Ælfthryth, the daughter of Ordgar, ealdorman of the western shires. Ælfthryth's first husband, Æthelwold, the son and successor of Æthelstan of East Anglia, died in 962. There is no reason to attribute his death to Eadgar as William of Malmesbury and later writers do; indeed it is absurd to imagine that the king would have thus injured the family in which he found his mightiest and most trusted adherents. Ælfthryth bore him Eadmund, who died in 971 or 972, and Æthelred (Ethelred the Unready), who afterwards came to the throne. Second marriages were uncanonical, and in the tenth century priests were forbidden to bless them. The name of Ælfthryth became odious, as she was held to be guilty of the murder of her stepson Eadward. These two facts are perhaps enough to account for the scandalous tales that later writers tell about this marriage. It took place just seven years before Eadgar's coronation, and in the account given of the ceremony at Bath by the anonymous author of St. Oswald's life there is a curious passage which seems as though the coronation was followed by some public recognition of it (p. 438). It seems possible, therefore, that we have here the key to the legend of the seven years' penance said to have been imposed in consequence of the violation of the ‘veiled lady’ of Wilton. Although we must reject the story of laying aside the crown, Dunstan may have imposed a penance, possibly of seven years' length, on the king for contracting a union which was uncanonical, and probably lacked the blessing of the church. Eadgar may have atoned for his sin by the foundation of a religious house, for he founded many, and the coronation at Bath may well have been accompanied by the removal of ecclesiastical censure, and, as the ‘Life of St. Oswald’ implies, by the recognition of the marriage (‘peractis egregiis nuptiis regalis thori,’ &c.).

With Eadgar's alliance with the East-Anglian house, which was perhaps drawn closer by his marriage with Ælfthryth, may be connected his zeal in the work of monastic reform which began in England that year (Robertson). He was first persuaded to undertake the work by Oswald, who was a friend of Æthelwine, the brother and successor of Ælfthryth's first husband. With the king in their favour, with Dunstan at Canterbury, Oswald at Worcester, and, above all, Æthelwold at Winchester, the monastic party was all-powerful. Eadgar upheld Æthelwold in his severity towards the clerks at Winchester (Vita S. Æthelwoldi, 260), he finished and dedicated the new minster there, and obtained a letter from John XIII authorising Æthelwold to establish monks there (Flor. Wig. sub ann. 964; Vita S. Oswaldi, 426; Memorials of St. Dunstan, 364). With his co-operation monks took the place of clerks at Chertsey, Milton, Exeter, Ely, Peterborough, Thorney, and other places. He commanded that the reform should be carried out in Mercia, ordered that new buildings should be provided for the new inmates of the monasteries, and is said to have founded forty new houses. He also gave large gifts to many other monasteries, and especially to Glastonbury. Nor was his bounty confined to the monasteries of his own kingdom, as may be seen by a letter from the abbot of St. Ouen at Rouen asking his help, and by another from the convent of St. Genevieve at Paris thanking him for his gifts (Memorials of St. Dunstan, 363, 366).

Young as Eadgar was, his rule was vigorous and successful. The tendency of the period was towards provincial rather than national administration. As the theory of royalty increased, its actual power diminished. The great ealdormen, such as Ælfhere and Æthelwine, were practically independent, and local jurisdictions were in full operation. Eadgar did not attempt to overthrow the power of the provincial rulers, nor did he do anything to weaken the local courts. On the contrary he seems to have avoided all unnecessary interference, and as he had no national machinery for government he strengthened the local machinery, while at the same time he used it for national ends and as a means of making his power felt in all that concerned the good of the nation. This required wisdom and vigour—the wisdom may to a large extent have been Dunstan's, the vigour of the king's administration was due to himself. In order to rid the coasts of the northern pirates he organised, we are told, a system of naval defence. He formed three fleets of twelve hundred vessels each, and every year after the Easter festival he sailed with each of these fleets in turn along the whole coast. Within the land, to use the chronicler's words, he ‘the folks' peace bettered the most of the kings that were before him.’ He used the territorial division of the hundred as the basis of an efficient police system for catching thieves, and by organising local jurisdictions and adapting them to the needs of the people gave them new life. He desired that the local courts should suffice for all ordinary purposes of justice, and commanded that no man should apply to the king in any civil suit unless he was not worthy of law or could not obtain it at home. Nevertheless he did not allow these courts to work without control. Every winter and spring we are told, doubtless with some exaggeration, he went through all the provinces and made inquisition as to how the great men administered the laws and whether the poor were oppressed by the mighty. His laws were few, and, except the ordinance of the hundred, call for no special remark; his work was rather administrative than legislative, and the words that stand at the head of his ordinances commanding that every man should be worthy of folk-right, poor as well as rich, show the spirit of his administration. He was stern in punishing crimes, and in 968, probably in consequence of some local rebellion, caused the island of Thanet to be ravaged. His ecclesiastical laws command the payment of tithe, church-seat, and hearth-penny or Peter's pence, and the observance of feasts and fasts. The general character of the canons enacted in this reign will be found in the article on Dunstan. It is convenient to consider the secular side of Eadgar's reign as specially pertinent to his life, and the ecclesiastical side as rather appropriate to the life of the archbishop. No such division, however, is satisfactory. Dunstan's greatness cannot be measured except by taking into account the glories of Eadgar's rule, nor is it likely that the king, who was so earnest in the matter of monastic reform, was an indifferent or inactive spectator of the efforts made by the archbishop to reform the character and raise the position of the clergy. The characteristic of Eadgar's reign which impressed the men of his own time most forcibly was the peace he gave to his people. ‘God him granted that he dwelt in peace,’ and the evil days that followed his death made men dwell on this so that he came to be called Eadgar the Peaceful King (Flor. Wig.) He died on 8 July 975 in his thirty-second year, and was buried at Glastonbury. In 1052 Abbot Æthelnoth translated his body to a shrine above the altar of the abbey church; and in spite of his early vices Eadgar was at this time reverenced as a saint at Glastonbury, and is said to have worked miracles (Gesta Regum, ii. 160; De Antiq. Glaston. Gale, iii. 324).

[Anglo-Saxon Chron.; Florence of Worcester (Engl. Hist. Soc.); William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum (Engl. Hist. Soc.) and Gesta Pontiff. (Rolls Ser.); Memorials of St. Dunstan (Rolls Ser.); Vita S. Oswaldi, Historians of York (Rolls Ser.); Vita S. Æthelwoldi, Chron. de Abingdon (Rolls Ser.); Historia Ramesiensis (Rolls Ser.); Kemble's Codex Dipl.; Thorpe's Ancient Laws and Institutes; Vita S. Eadgithæ, Mabillon's Acta SS. sæc. v.; Stubbs's Constitutional History; Robertson's Historical Essays and Scotland under her Early Kings; Freeman's Norman Conquest and Historical Essays, i.; Green's Conquest of England.]

W. H.