Saturday, 1 October 2011

Celebrate a Peaceable King with a Bath Bun

Edgar,portrayed in a stained glass window
at All Souls College Chapel, Oxford. 
Today is the First of October, and I was going to take a look at the month ahead, but it is also the anniversary of the day in 959 when Edgar the Peaceable became King of All England, and his title sounds such an unlikely attribution for a king that I thought I would find out more. Besides, he was crowned at Bath (although not until much later in his reign) so we could honour his memory by eating Bath buns or, if you are worried about your weight, you can have a Bath Oliver biscuit instead - and, of course, you musn't quarrel with anyone or cause a disturbance!

Edgar seems to have been forgotten; his achievements overshadowed by the exploits of other Anglo Saxon Kings, including his youngest son Ethelred the Unready (his eldest son went down in history as St Edward the Martyr after being murdered just three years into his reign). Anyway, Edgar deserves to be better known, for he was the first king of England to establish a single form administration throughout the regions, he established a uniform system of coinage, reformed the church, overhauled the legal system and built up the navy.

He also gave Danes in the kingdom of York (which was then part of Northumbria) legal protection to follow ‘such good laws as they best decide on’, a concession made in gratitude for the loyalty they had shown him.  

Coins from Edgar's reign.
Born in 943, Edgar was the younger son of Edmund I. Some early records refer to him as King of Mercia, while his elder brother Eadwig is named as King of the English. It is unclear whether he seized power or succeeded when the brother died, but by 959 he was established as ruler of the whole of England, although he was not consecrated until 973, in a ceremony which took place at Bath and is mentioned in several annals in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles.

Following this event, all the lesser kings pledged their allegiance at Chester promising fealty ‘on sea and land’. The earliest chroniclers record six kings, but later writers list eight crowned heads, who rowed Edgar up the River Dee in his royal barge.

These state occasions are thought to have been organised by St Dunstan (before he was a saint, of course), who was recalled from exile to become Edgar’s chief advisor and was eventually made Archbishop of Canterbury. Together the two men restored Benedictine rule to English monasteries and set up new bishoprics.

Edgar was married twice. His first wife was Aethelfaed Eneda (not to be confused with Ethelfleda, Lady of the Mercians), who was the mother of St Edward the Martyr. His second wife was Aelfryth, with whom he had Edmund, who died young, and Ethelred. He is also reputed to be the father of St Edith of Wilton, through some kind of liaison with Wulfthryth, a nun who was later appointed abbess at Wilton.

Edgar seems to have been a capable and efficient king but when he died at Winchester in 975 he was only 32, and had failed to clarify the succession, so there was turmoil as two rival factions each claimed the crown for one of his two young sons. He was buried at Glastonbury Abbey.

 By the way, much of the information in this post came from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which can be accessed online in the comfort of your own home if your local library subscribes: all you have to do is to key in your library membership number. It’s a fantastic resource, and another good reason why libraries should be kept open.
Enjoy a lovely, sugary Bath bun in
honour of King Edgar the Peaceable
who was crowned at Bath.

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