The reign of Edgar of England, though brief, saw the nation rise to an unprecedented level of political stability and economic prosperity. A journey through the life and times of Edgar I is a journey through a transformative era. A labyrinth of power dynamics, the intricate embroidery of monastic reforms, and the standardisation of currency which helped England become one of Europe’s financial powerhouses. These achievements were centred around a monarch who deftly wielded power with a blend of charisma and insightful leadership.
The life of Edgar the Peaceful is the tale of a king who, in a remarkably tranquil reign during tumultuous times, took the reins of a divided England and set the foundation for the unification of a nation.
The Early Years of Edgar the Peaceful
Edgar was born around 943 or 944 as the youngest son of King Edmund I and his first wife, Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury. His older brother Eadwig – about whom very little is known with any degree of certainty – reigned in his teens between 955 and 959 and died before his twentieth birthday.
Despite many notable achievements, the life of Edgar I, sometimes spelled Eadgar the Peaceful, wasn’t recorded with any level of detail. At the time, the contemporary chroniclers were more focused on the activities of the church. One of the most reliable sources of information of life in England between the eighth and twelfth century, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, includes very few entries pertaining to Edgar’s reign.
During the mid to late-900s, England’s political landscape was far from unified. Before 959, when Edgar I assumed control over all of England, power was divided among its constituent regions. His older brother Eadwig, ruled over Wessex and Kent, while Edgar held sway over Mercia and Northumbria. Compounding this fragmentation was Eadwig’s unfavourable standing, particularly with the church, which resulted in further divisions and tensions.
Edgar I and the Church
In his early years as ruler of the entire nation, King Edgar the Peaceful first united the fractured state left by his brother and then embarked on a policy of monastic reforms that were central to his rule.
Initially, Edgar reinstated prominent ecclesiastical figures like Dunstan, Ethelwold, and Oswald who had significant influence within the Church. This strategic move not only solidified Edgar’s relationship with the Church but also fostered a collaborative effort between these leaders and the king to enhance the governance and discipline of monastic institutions. This collective effort culminated in the issuance of a royal charter, the Regularis Concordia, which standardised the liturgy, daily routines, and other monastic practices throughout England. This document aligned the English monastic community more closely with the broader Benedictine reforms that were taking place across Europe at the time.
In addition, Edgar extended his authority over the Church by issuing laws that are said to have reinforced the Church’s moral authority and strengthened the ties between the Church and the monarchy.
The Silver Penny
Before the reign of Edgar the Peaceful, each kingdom of England produced their own coins, varying in weight and purity. This lack of uniformity posed challenges for trade, both within England and abroad.
Edgar initiated reforms which created a more reliable system of coinage. This included standardised weights, measures, and designs.
One of the positive outcomes of this standardisation was the use of the silver penny, which became England’s principal unit of currency. This allowed for increased economic stability and facilitated local and international trade.
These reforms were significant in the broader context of consolidating royal power and unifying the country. They provided an underpinning for economic growth and the strengthening of trade relations with other countries.
Edgar the Administrator
In the sixteen years he was on the throne. Edgar enacted standardised laws in the areas of the administration of justice, property rights and forestry which made for a more united kingdom. He codified existing laws, continuing a trend of legislative efforts by earlier Anglo-Saxon kings, and attempted to establish social order.
Among Edgar I’s contributions were the expansion of the naval fleet and fortifying the existing system of local governance, organised into units known as shires – a system that would endure for over a millennium. However, due to the scarcity of surviving written records from this period, it remains challenging to fully assess the effectiveness and broader impact of his administrative reforms.
His epithet King Edgar the Peaceful was not, as some have postulated, based on perceived weaknesses, rather the fact that his reign was largely uncontested and free – unusually for the time – of Viking incursions. He maintained peace both domestically and with foreign powers.
It’s believed Edgar was married three times and had at least four children, including King Edward the Martyr, King Æthelred the Unready and Saint Edith of Wilton.
Coronation, Death & Legacy
Unusually, the coronation of King Eadgar the Peaceful took place in Bath in 973, fourteen years after he ascended to the throne. The reasons for the delay may have been due to a variety of factors, including political considerations, the desire to ensure a stable and peaceful transfer of power, or the young age of the king at the time of his ascension.
Some historians have suggested it was to crown the zenith of his reign rather than the beginning. A twelfth century prior named Nicholas wrote that Edgar I waited to be crowned until he had ‘outgrown the passions of his youth.’
The ceremony, in which his wife Ælfryth was crowned Queen consort, became the template for all modern coronation ceremonies for English kings and queens.
Edgar of England died in July 975, probably around the age of 32 or 33. He was buried at Glastonbury Abbey.
Edgar’s time as king was markedly peaceful compared to the reigns of those who came immediately before and after him – he was never compelled to marshal an army or engage in land defences. Despite the lack of dramatic events, historian Judith Green characterised his rule as the ‘apogee of Old English kingship’, signifying its importance as a high point in the era of Anglo-Saxon rule.
Choosing tranquillity over turbulence and order over disorder, Edgar the Peaceful did not embody the archetype of a warrior king, nor did he prioritise self-interest over the welfare of his subjects. With a quiet determination, he undertook the task of governance in a poised, composed, and methodical way. His careful stewardship laid the cornerstone of a legacy that profoundly and enduringly influenced the fabric of England. His reign, often conducted behind the scenes and away from the fanfare, wrote a tale of careful statecraft and diplomacy, a dramatic narrative that unfolded not on the battlefield but in the silent corridors of power and governance.