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.