King Eadwig ‘All-Fair’ and the Coronation Scandal

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King Eadwig

While researching Edward the Martyr and his stepmother, Ælfthryth, I came across a very interesting character. Eadwig (or Edwy) was young Edward’s uncle; the elder brother of Edward’s father, Edgar the Peaceable. Eadwig has one of the worst reputations of the Anglo-Saxon kings, even though he only reigned for 4 years; he was, supposedly, found in a compromising situation when he was meant to be presiding over his coronation feast.

I just had to know more about this king!

Eadwig was born around 940. He had an impressive royal pedigree, being the eldest surviving son of Edmund I (the Elder) and his 1st wife, Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, who was later known as St Elgiva. Edmund was the son of Edward the Elder and, therefore, the grandson of King Alfred the Great, thus making Eadwig King Alfred’s great-grandson.

Eadwig’s mother Ælfgifu died in 944, and was buried at Shaftesbury Abbey; she left little Eadwig and his baby brother, Edgar, to be raised by their father. Although Edmund married again, he only survived his 1st wife by 2 years; he was stabbed by Leofa, an exiled thief, on 29 May 946, possibly as part of an assassination plot, although later sources suggest Edmund had recognised Leofa in the crowd and was killed while trying to arrest him.

With his eldest son no more than 6 years old, Edmund was succeeded as king by his brother, Eadred (known as Eadred Debilis Pedibus (“Weak-in-the-Feet”). Eadred’s chief supporters included his mother, Queen Eadgifu the 3rd wife of Edward the Elder, Archbishop Oda (or Odo) of Canterbury, Dunstan, abbot of Glastonbury and Æthelstan Half-King ealdorman of East Anglia.

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Edmund I, Eadwig’s father

As Eadred’s health failed, more responsibilities were entrusted to his chief supporters. Dunstan, for instance,  as well as being entrusted with the production of charter in the king’s name he was also given the guardianship of the royal treasures. Æthelstan is said to have been foster-father to Edgar, Eadwig’s younger brother, so it is possible that both boys were raised in his household.

Although we know nothing of Eadwig’s childhood it is assumed he was raised away from court, as his name does not appear on any charters during the reigns of his father or uncle. Eadwig and his brother only start appearing in authentic texts in 955, Eadred’s final year.

Eadred died on 23rd November 955 and was succeeded by 15-year-old Eadwig. A typical teenager, Eadwig immediately set about trying to assert his independence. He made appointments that were calculated to reduce the power and influence of Æthelstan Half-King, and then turned his attention to his grandmother, Queen Eadgifu, depriving her of all her possessions.

The most powerful and influential people in the country were probably pulling their hair out in frustration in no time. However, life carried on and Eadwig’s coronation took place at Kingston-Upon-Thames, probably at the end of January 956. And it was at the feast, to celebrate the coronation, that Eadwig’s reputation took a spectacular nosedive.

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Eadwig defending Aelfgifu to Archbishop Oda

Eadwig seems to have grown bored – or tired – of the celebrations and retired to his own apartments, even though the coronation feast was in full swing. When Archbishop Oda noticed Eadwig’s absence, he sent Abbot Dunstan (the future saint and archbishop of Canterbury) in search of the errant king. Dunstan supposedly found Eadwig in a compromising situation with a young woman, ‘a girl of ripe age’¹ … and her mother. It is said that Dunstan was so furious he physically attacked the 2 women before dragging Eadwig back to the banquet.

The younger lady involved was most likely Ælfgifu, soon to be Eadwig’s wife. The story, however, is related in the life of St Dunstan and could well be an invention or, at the least, an exaggeration designed to highlight the conflict between Eadwig and the church, over his choice of bride. And during the battle of wits between king and church Ælfgifu’s mother, Æthelgifu, pressed Eadwig to have Dunstan deprived of all his possessions and sent into exile.

However, it seems the church held the upper hand; Eadwig and Ælfgifu were separated in 957 or 958 on the orders of Archbishop Oda ‘because they were too closely related’². Research suggests that Ælfgifu was from a junior or dispossessed branch of the royal family, possibly descended from Æthelred I (r. 865-71), brother of Alfred the Great, thus making the young lovers 3rd cousins. Ælfgifu lived on into the reign of king Edgar the Peaceable, but disappears from the historical record after 96.

Eadwig did not remarry.

Other aspects of Eadwig’s life appear to have been just as chaotic; his reign taken up with political disputes and trying to pacify his rebellious nobles. Eadwig’s surviving charters show a favouritism towards laymen, rather than the church, although he is remembered as a benefactor of Abingdon Abbey. Eadwig appointed 3 new ealdordoms during 956 alone, including Æthelwold, son of Æthelstan Half-King and 1st husband of Ælfthryth, the wicked stepmother of Edward the Martyr.

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Coin of King Eadwig

By the summer of 957 the kingdom was divided in 2; the king ‘was wholly deserted by the norther people, being despised because he acted foolishly in the government committed to him, ruining with vain hatred the shrewd and the wise, and admitting with loving zeal the ignorant and those like himself’³. A political settlement was reached, probably aimed at preventing civil war, based on a geographical division of the country, rather than personal loyalties. Eadwig was to rule all the lands south of the River Thames, while his younger brother, Edgar, would rule in the north. Although the fact that it was Eadwig’s coins that were the country’s only currency until 959 suggests that Eadwig maintained overall authority.

This became the status quo until Eadwig’s death on 1st October 959 at Gloucester, when the kingdom was once again united under one ruler, King Edgar. Aged only around 19 when he died, the manner of Eadwig’s death is a mystery; it’s possible he died from some inherited family ailment, or a convenient accident, I suppose we’ll never know…. Eadwig was buried in the New Minster at Winchester, founded by his grandfather, King Edward the Elder.

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Diploma of King Eadwig for Aelfwine

Poor Eadwig’s reputation has suffered at the hands of the biographers of the early church leaders, particularly in the Life of St Dunstan, which depicts Eadwig as a debaucher, a despoiler of the church and an incompetent king. While William of Malmesbury called him a ‘wanton youth’ who ‘misused his personal beauty in lascivious behaviour’ [4], his nickname of ‘All-Fair’ suggests he wasn’t all bad. The chronicler, Æthelweard saying that Eadwig ‘for his great beauty he got the nickname Pancali [‘All-Fair’] from the common people’. [5] According to the chronicler, Eadwig ‘held the kingdom for four years and deserved to be loved.’ [6]

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Footnotes: ¹ quoted by Simon Keynes in oxforddnb.com; ² Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 958, text 1; ³ Vita S. Dunstan, ch. 24; [4] quoted by Simon Keynes in oxforddnb.com; [5] Chronicle of Æthelweard, 4.8; [6] ibid.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World, looking into the lives of some of the most fascinating women from medieval history, will be published by Amberley on 15th September, 2017. It is now available for pre-order in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; oxforddnb.com.

©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

The Short Life and Sad Death of Edward the Martyr

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Edward the Martyr

Poor Edward the Martyr is one of the great ‘what ifs’ of Medieval history. It’s not that he was anything special in the kingly department, it’s simply that he didn’t get the chance to be – or to not be – any kind of king.

Born around 962 he was the eldest son of Edgar the Peaceable, king of England. His mother was Æthelfled “the Fair”, daughter of Ealdorman Ordmaer. There seems to be some confusion as to Æthelfled’s actual status (not surprising given the distance of over 1,000 years, I suppose). Some sources say she and Edgar were married, but later divorced. However, others suggest that young Edward’s legitimacy was in doubt and that his parents never married. This last is compounded by suggestions of ‘youthful indiscretion’ on Edgar’s part.

Nothing is heard of Edward’s mother after his birth, possibly suggesting that she died shortly after. Edgar, however, married again – or at least formed another relationship. His 2nd wife was Wulfthryth, with whom he had a daughter, Edith (Eadgyth). Wulfryth became the abbess of  Wilton and young Edith followed her mother into the convent.

And then Edgar formed a 3rd and final relationship that would have far-reaching consequences for his first-born son, Edward. Edgar married the daughter of Ordgar, a powerful Devon thegn who died in 971. Unlike Edgar’s previous ‘wives’, Ælfryth was crowned and anointed as queen, following her marriage with Edgar, which was officially blessed by the church. Ælfryth gave Edgar 2 sons; Edmund, who died in 971  and Æthelred, born in 968.

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Coin of Edward the Martyr

Both Edward and Edmund appear in a charter of 966, as witnesses to the foundation of the New Minster at Winchester. Curiously, Edward’s name appears below that of his half-brother, suggesting Edmund was regarded as his father’s heir, rather than his older sibling.

Little is known of Edward’s childhood; according to Byrthferth of Ramsey he was fostered for some years by Sideman, bishop of Crediton and protégé of Ælfhere, ealdorman of western Mercia and the most powerful ealdorman in England at the time.

When his father died in 975, Edward, at 13 years of age but with doubtful legitimacy, was one of 2 rival candidates for the crown. Edward was up against his baby brother, Æthelred; undoubtedly legitimate but only 6 or 7 years old. With both too young to make an independent bid for power, each boy was backed by court factions.

Æthelred’s mother, Ælfryth, garnered support for her son from Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex, and Æthelwine, ealdorman of east Anglia and brother of  Ælfrythf’s 1st husband. However, Edward had the backing of ealdorman  Ælfhere and, possibly, Oswald, archbishop of York. However, the crucial support came from Dunstan, the highly influential and saintly archbishop of Canterbury, who crowned Edward personally.

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Corfe Castle

We know very little of Edward the Martyr, and what we have is contradictory to the extreme. According to Byrthferth, Edward himself was known for having a hot temper; a temper which instilled fear within the people of his own household. However, Osbern maintained that men had a good opinion of Edward.

With Edward too young to rule alone,  Ealdorman Ælfhere held the reins of government. Only 3 charters have survived, 2 of which were issued in Crediton, Edward’s childhood home. The regime’s influence seem to be very limited the further north you look, especially in the Danelaw. In the Five Boroughs region (including Stamford and Lincoln), coinage was below the standard of that of his father, Edgar. The short reign was overshadowed by a backlash to Edgar’s previous ecclesiastical policies, seeing a violent reaction against the expansion of the reformed monasteries; however, Edward retained the support of Dunstan, who did much to influence church policy and direction.

Dunstan’s influence saw  him call a meeting of councillors in Calne in 978. Held in an upper room, the meeting turned into disaster when the floor gave way. Many councillors were killed or injured; however, Dunstan, possibly in his early 70s by then, miraculously survived when the rafter on which he was standing was the only one that didn’t give way.

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Aelfryth presenting Edward with a drink

Edward seems to have been benevolent towards his stepmother, bearing her no ill will following her attempts to claim the throne for her own son. He allowed Ælfryth to claim her part of his father’s dower and thus confirmed her jurisdiction over the whole of Dorset. She and Æthelred settled at Corfe, a castle and large estate in the Purbeck Hills.

Ælfryth, however, seems to have been less forgiven and wasn’t willing to settle for her son being Edward’s heir. When the opportunity presented itself, she jumped at it, with few qualms.

In March 978 Edward had decided to visit his half-brother at Corfe; arriving on the evening of 18th March, with only a small band of men accompanying him. According to  the chronicles, he was met at the gates of Corfe Castle by Ælfryth’s retainers; he had probably sent ahead to warn of his arrival and would have expected a welcome, someone to take his horse and lead him into the castle. Sources vary, some suggesting that he was presented with a cup; so he could quench his thirst after a long ride.

What is certain, is that Edward was pulled from his horse and stabbed – murdered. Following the stabbing, Edward’s horse bolted; with the dying king’s foot caught in the styrrup, he was dragged along the ground for some considerable distance.

He was 16.

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The murder of Edward

He was buried quickly and without ceremony somewhere close by – possibly Wareham. With Æthelred considered too young to be guilty, the finger of accusation pointed straight at his mother, Ælfryth.

An anointed king was seen as God’s representative on earth, with regicide being viewed as a heinous crime. In spite of this, Edward’s killers escaped punishment. Ælfryth was – and still is – the prime suspect. As late as 40 years after the killing, Archbishop Wulfstan of York laid the blame firmly at her door, in the D text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which opined:

No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain. Men murdered him, but God hath magnified him. He was in life an earthly king. He is now after death a heavenly saint.¹

However, given the political reality of her position as mother of the king, it was expedient for her to remain beyond suspicion.

Although the crowned was not conferred on Æthelred straight away, whatever the dowager queen’s actions, at only 9 or 10 years old, her son was now the only candidate for the succession. However, it was only after an interregnum and a period of negotiations that the crown was settled on Æthelred.

Almost a year after Edward’s death, the young king was exhumed by Ealdorman Ælfhere. Edward’s erstwhile supporter stayed a couple of days at Wareham before escorting the body to the nunnery at Shaftesbury. It was only after Edward was safely re-buried with the honour to which he was entitled as king, that Æthelred was crowned by Archbishop Dunstan; on 4th May 979.

Edward was soon venerated as a saint and martyr with Æthelred himself championing his brother’s cult, translating Edward’s bones to a new shrine at Shaftesbury Abbey in 1001. A grant of that year, in favour of Shaftesbury, stated that the gift was being made to God and to

“his saint, my brother Edward, whom drenched with his own blood, the Lord has seen fit to magnify in our time through many miracles.”²

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Shaftesbury Abbey

During the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, Shaftesbury Abbey was destroyed and Edward’s shrine lost. However, in 1931 his grave was discovered and his bones were removed to a bank vault in Croydon, as neither the Churches of England or Rome would take the relics for reburial. Tests on the remains, in 1970, seemed to confirm they were Edward’s, the injuries on the bones being consistent with the wounds Edward is known to have received. The young king’s remains were finally removed from the bank, in September 1984, to be interred in a shrine in the Russian Orthodox Cemetery at Brookwood, Surrey.

And despite the fact Shaftesbury would like to have Edward back, so far as I can discover he remains the only Saxon king to be resting in a Russian Orthodox cemetery.

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Footnotes: ¹ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle quoted by Martin Wall in The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts; ² AS chart., S899 quoted by Cyril Hart in Oxforddnb.com.

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©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World, looking into the lives of some of the most fascinating women from medieval history, will be published by Amberley on 15th September, 2017. It is now available for pre-order in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

 

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir;The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; oxforddnb.com.