Younger son of King Edmund the Magnificent of England, Edgar the Peacemaker (also Edward the Peaceful) came to the throne in 959 on the death of his older brother Edwy the Fair. Edgar was only about 15 at this time. He depended for guidance on Dunstan, the abbot (later Archbishop of Canterbury) who had formerly been an advisor to Edwy until Edwy attempted to marry a woman who was a close relative. During Edgar's reign, he was able to secure tribute from northern Welsh princes, got the Scots rulers' goodwill be giving them the area of Lothian, and was acknowledged by the Danes in England as overlord, giving them partial autonomy. Edgar died 8 July 975 and was succeeded on the throne by his older son Edward the Martyr.

Edgar or sometimes Eadgar; King of the English (959-975)
Born circa 943, died 8 July 975
Known as the Peaceful or Peaceable
One of the candidates for the first true King of England

His youth

Edgar whose name apparently means 'rich' or 'blessed in spears', was the younger of the two sons of Edmund, king of Wessex and born around the year 943. As a child he was fostered by Athelstan, eolderman of East Anglia and spent his youth there. His uncle Eadred became a king on Edmund's death and when Eadred himself died in 955 it was Edgar's elder brother Eadwig that inherited the throne.

However in 957 Edgar was made king of Mercia and Northumbria. Some have suggested that Edgar's assumption of power was the result of a rebellion by Mercia and Northumbria against Eadwig's authority. Although Eadwig was an unpopular ruler there is no direct evidence of any rebellion and the division of power may well have been a previously agreed settlement. As Edgar was only around 14 at the time of his accession, he was probably only a sub-king under his brother's overall authority. It is somewhat academic however, as two years later Eadwig died and Edgar became sole king of the united realm of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria.

The revival of the church

Almost the first action that Edgar undertook was to recall Dunstan from exile in Flanders (where he had been banished by Eadwig) and appointed him as Bishop of Worcester and eventually to the post of Archbishop of Canterbury in 961 after the death of Oda. Under Edgar's patronage, Dunstan initiated a programme of widespread monastic reform, adopting the latest continental practices and including a major restoration and re-endowment of the English Benedictine monasteries. (The monastries had suffered greatly as a target for Viking raids in previous reigns.) As this involved a fairly major transfer of land from secular to ecclesiastical control it wasn't universally popular, but opposition seems to have been muted during Edgar's reign.

His private life

Edgar first married Aethelflaed Eneda, but that marriage although it produced an heir, Edward, seems to have ended around 960, although whether this was due to his wife's death or some other cause is not known. He then became associated with one Wulfthryth who bore him daughter; they didn't marry and she later entered a nunnery, leading to the accusation, almost certainly untrue, that Edgar had seduced a nun.

In 964 he married again, this time Aelfthryth the widow of his foster-brother; Edgar was also later accused of arranging his foster-brother's death, an accusation for which there is little or no evidence. His marriage to Aelfthryth produced two children including the future king Aethelred.

The coronation of 973

Edgar of course, wasn't the first king to claim the title king of the English. Although already crowned king of Wessex in 959 a second coronation was arranged at Bath Abbey on the 11th May 973. Edgar's coronation at Bath was the first time any king had been formally crowned as King of England. The choice of Bath itself, an old Roman city, was highly symbolic, marking the coronation as a new development in the notion of kingship for the English.

Following the coronation his army marched in procession from Bath all along the border with Wales, to Chester, to rendevous there with his fleet which had sailed around the Irish sea. At Chester Edgar accepted the submission of eight kings from Wales and the north of Britain including Kenneth king of the Scots and Magnus Haraldsson king the Isles. The only major absentees were Owain ap Hywel of Deheubarth (he had some local difficulties to attend to) and the Viking earl of Orkney, Thorfinn Skull-Splitter who owed fealty to the king of Norway and presumably felt he was far enough away to ignore.

The twelfth century chronicler Florence of Worcester recorded a more florid version of the tale stating that the eight kings took the oars to row Edgar up and down the river Dee. This is now generally considered to a load of fanciful nonsense, althugh some sort of ceremonial voyage may have taken place.

It has been suggested that the coronation was delayed for many years because Archbisop Dunstan was unhappy with Edgar's dissolute life, although this theory depends on believing that Edgar's was dissolute which is debatable. It is more than likely that major cerememonial innovation such as this together with the logisitics of organising the presence of so many other rulers simply took time to both conceive and arrange.


His reign came to regarded as something of a Golden Age, as the verse goes;

No fleet however proud
No host however strong
Got itself prey in England
While this noble king held the throne

Although Wulfstan, the Archbishop of York said of him that he had "one grave fault, however ... was that he far too fond of foreign, vicious customs and introduced heathen practices far too eagerly into the land: he invited foreigners hither, and encouraged harmful elements into the country" Which is generally taken as an indication of a fondness for hiring Viking mercenaries, a habit which did not endear him to god-fearing ecclesiasts.

Remarkably for the time, there were no major battles or conflicts during his reign, which is why naturally, he was known as the 'Peacable'. He seemed quite content to allow Kenneth king of the Scots to hold Lothian, in return for his submission and a promise to respect the English customs of the inhabitants, rather than take any military to recover what had, after all been part of 'England' for over three centuries. It was this period of peace that permitted the national consolidation for which his reign is noted; although, to some extent this period of peace was fortitous; marking a lull between the Viking threat that perceeded him and the more serious challenge from the Danes that was to re-appear soon after his death.

Probably the most important feature of his reign was his coronation at Bath. Modelled on the ceremonials adopted by continental rulers such as the king of the Franks the coronation was a symbolic confirmation of the military domination of Britain established by his predecessors Athelstan and Edmund. But more than that it symbolised Edgar's view of himself as king of a united England and not merely a king of Wessex that happened to be able to dominate the rest of the English.

It was this concept that was to outlive him and to prove perhaps his greatest legacy.

Edgar died at Winchester from natural causes on the 8th July 975 at the early age of 32 and was buried at Glastonbury Abbey. He left two sons; one Edward, by his first wife who succeeded him, and another Aethelred, by his second wife, who succeeded Edward.


A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain by Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby (Seaby 1991)

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