A contemporary portrayal of King Edgar in the New Minster Charter.
The events of 1006 were typical of the calamity that befell England between 980 and 1016: a generation of escalating misery during which time Viking armies roamed practically unopposed across the rolling hills of southern England, looting and burning at will. A sense of the scale of the violence can be gauged simply by the number of conflicts recorded, particularly once the eleventh century got under way. Across England, there were (give or take) eighty-eight instances of armed violence recorded in the written record in the thirty-five years up to and including 1016; this compares with fifty-one conflict events recorded over the whole of the preceding eighty years. For the people of southern England, whose experience of Viking incursions had dissipated in the early tenth century, it would have felt as though a forgotten nightmare had dragged itself upright from the mire – a revenant horror, long thought staked and buried, stalking abroad once more.
There are, of course, some issues here about the trustworthiness of the written record – chroniclers sometimes had a vested interest in minimizing or exaggerating the travails of various monarchs – but it is evident that the quarter-century after Eric Bloodaxe’s death in 954 had been noteworthy for its stability, its lack of dramatic incident. This seems, in large part, to have been down to the firm grip of one king – a man largely forgotten today, but with a good claim to being one of the most successful and impressive of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England: Edgar pacificus – Edgar the Peaceful. It is a name that conjures up images of quiet and contemplation, a just and gentle ruler whose benevolent rule would usher in the golden age of peace and plenty that twelfth-century chroniclers imagined he and his subjects had enjoyed. It was they, however, and not his peers, who conferred the epithet pacificus upon him: his contemporaries would take a rather different view.
King Eadred died in 955, one year after seeing his rule extended, formally and finally, to include Northumbria within the English kingdom. He was succeeded by his nephew Eadwig, Edmund’s son, but he died in 959 and was succeeded by his brother, Edgar. The most famous achievement of Edgar’s reign – and the one incident for which he is chiefly remembered – came towards the end of his life. In 973, he arrived at Chester with – according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – his entire naval force, there to meet with the other principal rulers of Britain. Different Norman historians give varying lists of the potentates who were present, but probably among them were Kenneth II of Scotland, Malcolm of Strathclyde, Iago ab Idwal Foel of Gwynedd and Maccus Haraldsson, whom William of Malmesbury called archipirata (‘arch-pirate’) and others referred to as plurimarum rex insularum (‘king of many islands’ – probably Man and the Hebrides). No doubt there were serious and practical issues to discuss – matters of borders and security and the safety of shipping and trade and so on. What Anglo-Norman historians saw fit to record happening there, however, was a most extraordinary spectacle: at least half a dozen of the most powerful men in the islands, cowed into submission by Edgar’s majestic presence (or, more likely, the menacing presence of his enormous war-fleet), rowing the English king in a barge down the River Dee. It was a very physical, and very public, demonstration of what it meant to be a ‘little kinglet’ in Edgar’s Britain.
It may be that the way this incident was reported in Anglo-Norman sources was deliberately intended to promote an anachronistic idea of English superiority – issues of insular power dynamics were very much alive in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and, indeed, have never really gone away. But there is little doubt about who was at the top of the British political food chain in the 970s and, regardless of the details of what took place, it seems likely that the meeting was partly concerned with thrashing out issues of precedence, of putting lands, people and princes into their rightful places; for Edgar seems to have been a king who was obsessed with order. His laws reveal an administration that was determined to regulate and reform – creating nationwide standards of weights and measures and ensuring that coinage was made to uniform standards everywhere it was produced: gone were the idiosyncratic designs of the old Viking kings at York. Edgar’s coinage would look and weigh the same, whether it was minted there, or in Exeter, Chester, Canterbury, Lincoln or Norwich (or anywhere else that coins were made). He was also interested in bringing the whole of his realm into administrative harmony and ensuring that justice was both available and correctly applied. Wessex had long been organized by shires and hundreds, but everywhere else had had different (though perhaps similar) systems of organization. Edgar – perhaps drawing on precedents set by his immediate predecessors – formalized this system, creating new stipulations for the way that courts were held at the hundred (or wapentake in ‘Danish’ areas) and shire level, making attendance obligatory for the land-holding class.
What really cemented Edgar’s legacy, however, was the unprecedented period of peace and stability that England seems to have enjoyed until his death in 975. It was a peace that was achieved to a certain degree at the expense of others: repeated punitive raids into Welsh territory demonstrate that Edgar, despite his nickname, was no pacifist. (Indeed, pacificus can be translated as ‘Pacifier’, just as it can as ‘Peaceable’ or ‘Peaceful’.) It was also a peace paid for through unprecedented investment in the kingdom’s naval defences: during his reign the number of English warships, according to later accounts, reached an improbable 4,800, and it is likely that reforms to the manner in which ships and mariners were recruited and obliged to serve the king began during Edgar’s reign. It also seems likely that the king’s naval power was founded in part on paid fleets of Viking mercenaries. The swelling of English royal authority may have meant that, for some Viking war-bands plying the seas around Britain, the risks of plunder were becoming intolerably high, while at the same time the wealth that the English king commanded may have become an increasingly attractive source of patronage to those prepared to work for him.
All of these achievements added up to what most medieval writers felt constituted a ‘Good King’: he enforced justice, brought prosperity, upheld the Church and bullied and humiliated all the other (non-English) inhabitants of Britain – especially the Welsh. This was the sort of thing that was guaranteed to ensure a favourable write-up, and indeed his obituary in the D text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is largely comprised of effusive praise. And yet, in the eyes of the chronicler – almost certainly Archbishop Wulfstan II of York (d. 1023) – all of his achievements were undermined by the ‘one misdeed […] he practised too widely’. King Edgar, Wulfstan disgustedly reveals, ‘loved foul foreign customs and brought heathen habits into this land too firmly, and he enticed outsiders and lured dangerous foreign-folk into this country’.
This censure may have stemmed in part from the pragmatic and conciliatory approach that Edgar adopted. Large parts of his realm had been settled by people of Scandinavian origin for over a century, producing a mixed population whose tastes, trading connections and family ties were as intimately tangled with the wider North Sea world as they were with the populations of Winchester, London or Canterbury. Edgar understood that local interests and national cohesion could be jointly served by recognizing the distinctiveness of local laws and customs in those regions which had become – in Anglo-Saxon parlance – ‘Danish’. In his fourth major law code, Edgar promised that ‘there should be in force amongst the Danes such good laws as they best decide […] because of your loyalty, which you have always shown me’. The sudden shift from third to second person feels clumsy when written down, but read out loud at a Northumbrian wapentake or north Mercian thing-site, it may have had real dramatic force: that sudden turn to the camera, the steady eye contact that the pronouns imply, delivered a disarmingly direct and personal address from the king exclusively to his Danish subjects.
In some ways, this recognition of a separate and parallel legal tradition stands at odds with Edgar’s stated intention (in the same code) to create laws for ‘all the nation, whether Englishmen, Danes or Britons, in every province of my dominion’. But, seen more broadly, this limited concession (it does not seem to have overruled all the king’s other edicts relating to coinage and administration) can be understood as the product of a keen political intelligence, one that recognized that – in the long term – the cause of national unity was better served by establishing trust and mitigating grievance than by lumbering authoritarianism. The result was the real ‘Danelaw’, a practical solution intended to bring the most reluctant of his new subjects willingly inside his vision for a coherent and cohesive English state.
Attitudes towards strangers in Anglo-Saxon England had not always been kind, but xenophobia seems to have peaked in the late tenth century, perhaps buoyed by the rising sense of English identity that had been growing since the reign of Athelstan but conditioned over two centuries of Viking depredations of one sort or another. For his own part, the king seems to have been alive to any threat that such sentiments could pose to the peace of his realm (and his revenues). In 969, ‘King Edgar ravaged across all of Thanet,’ apparently because the locals had roughed up some Scandinavian traders. Hostility to foreign nationals on England’s estuarine outposts has a distressingly long history, but few have responded so robustly as Edgar. According to the Norman historian Roger of Wendover, the king was ‘moved with exceeding rage against the spoilers, deprived them of all their goods, and put some of them to death’.
It was presumably this sort of thing that so offended Archbishop Wulfstan. In 975, however, he would doubtless have been relieved to discover that no longer would he have to endure the ‘foul foreign customs’ that Edgar had so perversely enjoyed. For in that year the king died. He was thirty-one years old. There followed a disputed succession and the short reign of Edgar’s son Edward, known as ‘the Martyr’ – the last of the long line of ‘Ed’ kings. When Edward died in March 978, he was replaced by his brother Æthelred. The new king was only a boy of twelve, but he came to the throne already in shadow, his people divided in their loyalties: Edward had died, not of natural causes like their father, but at the hands of men loyal to Æthelred, done to death at Corfe (Dorset). Whether the new king was himself complicit in the killing has generally been doubted by historians, but it can have done little to endear those people to him who had supported his brother’s claim. Even as stories of Edward’s (improbable) sanctity and martyrdom began to spread, so Æthelred’s reputation was stained – like Eric’s – with fratricide. Little that occurred over the following forty years would help to restore it.