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Edgar The Peaceable

The river Dee at Chester. This image is copyright free

History is full of stirring tales of tragedy and triumph, as people struggle through troubled times towards days that they hope will be better. This is the kind of life that ninth century King Alfred lived. Alfred lived an action packed existence, fighting desperate battles against the Vikings. A few years before his death Alfred wrote of a dream for the future: in years to come people might build "many a fine wall, and put up many a peerless building, and build a farm enclosure with them; and may dwell therein pleasantly and at his ease winter and summer, as I have not yet done" (quoted Richard Humble P63).

With the rule of Edgar the Peaceable, beginning in 959, Alfred's vision came true, at least for a while. And the sad fact is that such times are not considered noteworthy. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle launches in with eulogies to Edgar's peaceful rule: "Things improved greatly, and God granted him that he lived in peace as long as he lived... Without battle he brought under his sway all that he wished. He came to be honoured widely throughout the countries." (Quoted in The Saxon Kings by Richard Humble P 114)

And then after all this praise the Chronicle struggles to find anything to say. It records such things as Dunstan, abbot of Glastonbury Abbey being made Archbishop of Canterbury in 961. In 962 Edgar's kinsman Aelfger died. There was a big fire in London in 962 which destroyed St Paul's Minster. It was rebuilt. Out of the fifteen years of Edgar's rule, four years are not mentioned at all in the chronicle which is our main source of information about the Saxon period.

 

A lot of work went into this lack of news. Edgar took a very active role in reforming England's law system. The Hundred Ordnance, which may have its origins among Edgar's predecessors, created the Hundred as England's basic land division. Each Hundred had a regular assembly, called a moot, which met every four weeks to make sure the king's laws were being obeyed. Edgar's laws were "to be common to all the nation, whether Englishmen, Danes or Britons, in every province of my dominion" (quoted Humble P 118). To balance this central control there was a recognition of provincial independence. This balance and poise is reflected in charters of the period. One of Edgar's predecessors, Athelstan, ruling in difficult times had written panicky charters full of curses from God on all those who disobeyed. In contrast Edgar's charters are business-like and sensible.

 

 

Ruins of St John's Church, Chester. This image is by John Turner and is copyright free

One of the most significant moments of Edgar's idyllic reign was his coronation. This was long delayed as Archbishop Dunstan tried to work out a new coronation ritual. Dunstan wanted not to have the king crowned so much as anointed, as if he were a priest. The ceremony of anointing survives in the English coronation service of modern times. Edgar, it appeared, was not appointed by men, but by God, as reflected in the religious ceremony of his crowning. This must have added to the sense of stability that seemed characteristic of the age.

After Edgar's coronation finally took place, at Bath on Whit Sunday 973, the king sailed to Chester to meet the six (eight in some accounts) British regional kings. These kings are supposed to have demonstrated their submission and respect by rowing Edgar from his palace in Chester along the river Dee to the Church of St John. This boat trip is a great symbolic moment of Edgar's reign. It is used by some authors to define, no less, the beginning of England as a country. Norman Davies in The Isles for example presents early moves towards a united country beginning with King Alfred and culminating in this river trip. It is certainly a powerful image of peace and harmony. Edgar's story, however, or the lack of it, is also a reflection on the nature of history and human aspiration. We all try to live better lives, but heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.

Edgar died two years after his coronation, on 8th July 975. He was buried at Glastonbury Abbey. His two sons, Edward and Ethelred were fifteen and ten respectively. Very quickly the stability of the preceding twenty five years was to fall apart. For good or ill the news was about to begin again.

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