Through the
Ignorance of Childhood

Eadred, king of the English, died on 23rd November 955. He had apparently suffered a long illness. William of Malmesbury writes:

… [Eadred] prostrate at the feet of the saints, devoted his life to God and to Dunstan, by whose admonition he endured with patience his frequent bodily pains …
GR II §146

Dunstan (St Dunstan) had been made abbot of Glastonbury by Eadred’s brother (and predecessor), Edmund. In fact, by this time, it seems that organised monastic life had virtually died out in England. Dunstan was to be one of the chief architects of the restoration of monasticism – the so-called ‘Benedictine Reform’. He was apparently a trusted friend and counsellor to Eadred. He conducted Eadred’s funeral, as he had that of Edmund.

Eadred was succeeded by his nephew, Eadwig – eldest son (around fifteen years old) of Edmund. Æthelweard, writing just a couple of decades after Eadwig’s reign, notes:

… he [Eadwig] for his great beauty got the nick-name ‘All-fair’ from the common people. He held the kingdom continuously for four years, and deserved to be loved.
Chronicon IV, 8

Æthelweard was a kinsman of Eadwig, and his somewhat sympathetic review of Eadwig’s career is not typical. Dunstan gave Eadwig cause to regard him as his enemy, and, since most of the history of Eadwig’s reign is ultimately derived from a ‘Life’ of St Dunstan, written c.1000 by an author (evidently he had been a priest in Dunstan’s entourage) who is identified only by his initial, B, Eadwig has generally received, what today would be called, a bad press.[*] A famous story, worthy of any modern tabloid, makes its earliest appearance in B’s ‘Life’:

A certain woman, foolish, though she was of noble birth, with her daughter, a girl of ripe age, attached herself to him [Eadwig], pursuing him and wickedly enticing him to intimacy, obviously in order to join and ally herself or else her daughter to him in lawful marriage. Shameful to relate, people say that in his turn he acted wantonly with them, with disgraceful caresses, without any decency on the part of either. And when at the time appointed by all the leading men of the English he was anointed and consecrated king by popular election, on that day after the kingly anointing at the holy ceremony, the lustful man suddenly jumped up and left the happy banquet and the fitting company of his nobles, for the aforesaid caresses of loose women. —
— When Archbishop Oda saw that the king’s wilfulness, especially on the day of his coronation, displeased all the councillors sitting around, he said to his fellow-bishops and other leading men: “Let some of you go, I pray, to bring back the king, so that he may, as is fitting, be a pleasant companion to his followers in the royal banquet.” But one by one, fearing to incur the king’s annoyance or the women’s complaint, they withdrew themselves and began to refuse. Finally they chose from them all two whom they knew to be the most firm of spirit, namely Abbot Dunstan and Bishop Cynesige [of Lichfield], Dunstan’s kinsman, that they should in obedience to the command of all bring the king, willing or unwilling, back to his deserted seat. When in accordance with their superiors’ orders they had entered, they found the royal crown, which was bound with wondrous metal, gold and silver and gems, and shone with many-coloured lustre, carelessly thrown down on the floor, far from his head, and he himself repeatedly wallowing between the two of them in evil fashion, as if in a vile sty. They said: “Our nobles sent us to you to ask you to come as quickly as possible to your proper seat, and not to scorn to be present at the joyful banquet of your chief men.” But when he did not wish to rise, Dunstan, after first rebuking the folly of the women, replaced the crown, and brought him with him to the royal assembly, though dragged from the women by force.
Vita Sancti Dunstani §21

B proceeds to name the “disgraceful woman” Æthelgifu, and says that she (“this shameless virago”) stoked Eadwig’s anger at Dunstan. How much truth the story contains is open to speculation, but Dunstan certainly fell foul of Eadwig – his property was seized, and he was driven into exile (he found refuge in Ghent). It is evident that Æthelgifu’s daughter (“of ripe age”) was called Ælfgifu, and that she, in fact, married Eadwig. Both mother and daughter actually seem to have been perfectly respectable ladies. Ælfgifu features in a list of “illustrious women” in the Liber Vitae of the New Minster, Winchester;[*] and both “Ælfgifu the king’s wife” and “Æthelgifu the king’s wife’s mother” appear in the witness-list of a charter (S1292) in the company of three bishops.

Æthelwold, a protégé of Dunstan, and, at this time, abbot of Abingdon,[*] maintains that Eadwig:

… through the ignorance of childhood dispersed his kingdom and divided its unity, and also distributed the lands of the holy churches to rapacious strangers.[*]

And yet, Eadwig granted land to Abingdon, and, in a later charter (S876, dated 993), Eadwig is a named benefactor of Abingdon.

12th century monk and historian William of Malmesbury writes:

… upheld by the most contemptible supporters, he [Eadwig] afflicted with undeserved calamities all the members of the monastic order throughout England, who were first despoiled of their property, and then driven into exile. He drove Dunstan himself, the chief of monks, into Flanders. At that time the appearance of the monasteries was sad and pitiable. Even the monastery of Malmesbury, which had been inhabited by monks for more than two hundred and seventy years, he made a sty for secular canons.… But my recollection shudders even at this time to think how cruel he was to other monasteries, equally on account of the giddiness of youth and the pernicious counsel of his concubine, who was poisoning his unformed mind.
GR II §147

Henry of Huntingdon, a contemporary of William of Malmesbury (but not a monk), apparently knows nothing of Eadwig’s notoriety, commenting:

The said King Eadwig was the praiseworthy possessor of the regalia of the kingdom.… when King Eadwig was enjoying the best of good fortune at the beginning of his rule, his prosperous and promising start was cut off by premature death.
HA V, 23

Eadwig, though, was certainly at odds with a section of the Establishment he inherited. Not only did he drive Dunstan into exile, but he confiscated the estates of his grandmother, Eadgifu, who features prominently in the witness-lists of many of Edmund’s and Eadred’s charters.[*] In the first year of his reign Eadwig made a particularly large number of land-grants, presumably to establish his own powerbase.[*]

Manuscripts B and C of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle carry, as their entry for 957, the announcement:

In this year Edgar [Eadgar] ætheling succeeded to the kingdom of the Mercians.

St Dunstan’s earliest biographer, B, writes:

It came about that the aforesaid king [i.e. Eadwig] in the passage of years was wholly deserted by the northern people, being despised because he acted foolishly in the government committed to him, ruining with vain hatred the shrewd and wise, and admitting with loving zeal the ignorant and those like himself.[*] When he had been thus deserted by the agreement of them all, they chose as king for themselves by God’s guidance the brother of the same Eadwig, Edgar, who should strike down the wicked with the imperial rod, but peacefully guard the good under the same rod of equity. —
— And thus in the witness of the whole people the state was divided between the kings as determined by wise men, so that the famous river Thames separated the realms of both.
Vita Sancti Dunstani §24

The kingdom was partitioned in the summer of 957.[*] B gives the impression that it was the result of a rebellion against Eadwig, but other evidence doesn’t substantiate this notion. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports Edgar’s accession to the Mercian throne as if it were a routine event, there is no indication of any military contest, and there doesn’t seem to have been a factional split of magnates between the two royal courts – ealdormen and bishops whose responsibilities lay south of the Thames attest Eadwig’s charters, whilst those whose responsibilities lay north of the Thames attest Edgar’s, including those who had been appointed by Eadwig. Further, Eadwig was evidently the senior partner – in his charters he is styled rex Anglorum, whilst Edgar is rex Merciorum. Of course, Edgar’s authority was not confined to the boundaries of the erstwhile Mercian kingdom. His realm was all of English territory north of the Thames.[*] It is not impossible that the intention had always been for Edgar to rule this domain as a sub-king under Eadwig, and that, in 957, when he was fourteen, he was considered old enough to take-on the responsibility – indeed, in a charter of 956 (S633, a land-grant by Eadwig to the monastery of Worcester), Edgar appears in the witness-list as regulus (petty king).[*]

Even though Eadwig was the senior partner, his wings were apparently clipped by Edgar’s promotion. Edgar’s first recorded act (by B) was to recall Dunstan, and Manuscript D of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has, as its entry for 958, the statement:

In this year Archbishop Oda separated King Eadwig and Ælfgifu, because they were too near akin.


Though entered s.a. 958, some scholars prefer to assign the above annal to 957. Manuscript D, which has no entries s.a. 956, had previously placed Dunstan’s expulsion in 957, but it is bundled with the death of Wulfstan, archbishop of York, which event is assigned to 956 by Manuscript E (and F), and by Florence of Worcester. Florence of Worcester and Symeon of Durham (HR Chronicle One) place Dunstan’s expulsion in 956, and, indeed, that year is implied by B’s story and by charters. In short, Manuscript D’s entries s.a. 957 should be s.a. 956. The next annal in Manuscript D is the above notice of Eadwig’s divorce, so it too could be dated a year late. The annal after that, though, is evidently correctly dated 959, by which token 958 could also be correct. Florence of Worcester places Eadwig’s divorce in 958.
Actually, in his entry s.a. 958, Florence of Worcester says: “St Oda, archbishop of Canterbury, separated Eadwig, king of the West Saxons, and Ælfgifu, either because, as it was said, she was near of kin to him, or because he loved her as if she were his own wife.”  This would seem to be an allusion to a tale that first appears in a ‘Life’ of St Oswald, written c.1000 (around the same time that B wrote his life of St Dunstan), by one Byrhtferth, a monk at Ramsey Abbey (north of Huntingdon). Oswald was the nephew of Oda. He became bishop of Worcester in 961, and was one of the leading-lights in the Benedictine Reform movement. At any rate, Byrhtferth says (I, 2) that Eadwig: “leading a wicked life – as immoderate youth is accustomed to do – loved another woman as if she were his own wife; he eloped with her, ignoring the sacred decrees of Christian law … [Oda] prompted by God’s anger, swiftly took to horseback with his companions and arrived at the estate on which the woman was staying, and seized her and took her out of the kingdom, and warned the king with gentle words and actions that he should constrain himself from wicked deeds, lest he should part from the ‘way of justice’ ”.  About a century after Byrhtferth and B, Eadmer, a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury, wrote a ‘Life’ of St Oda, in which (§13) the tale receives lurid embellishment: “Oda, exercising his pontifical authority, sent soldiers and abducted one of the women described earlier [Eadmer had previously told the story of Eadwig’s romp with two women on the day of his coronation] by force from the palace of the king where she was residing. She was the one who was disgraced, and made more notorious among men by her greater influence and more obscene impudence, and the king had more frequently cavorted with her in extremely rude embraces. Oda branded her with a white hot iron and disfigured her face, expelled her, and relegated her to perpetual banishment in Ireland. Nevertheless, some time later when the flesh of her body had closed over her scar (though the deformity of her mind still gaped wide), she left Ireland, returned to England, and arrived at Gloucester, still tainted by the darkness of her blind heart. She was seized by the servant of God’s men and hamstrung so that she could travel no further in pursuit of her vagrant and whorish way of life, and after a few days a bad death carried her off from this present life.”
Frank Stenton (Anglo-Saxon England, Third Edition, 1971, Chapter 11), in a footnote, comments: “MS. D of the Chronicle, which states that Archbishop Oda separated Eadwig and Ælfgifu because they were nearly akin, is too late to have authority on a subject which invited legendary accretions.”  Sir Frank’s dismissive opinion of the Manuscript D entry, however, seems to be very much a minority view.

Plainly, Eadwig’s relationship to Ælfgifu must have been known when they were married, but only now was Oda in a position to do something about it.

Oda died on 2nd June 958.[*] Sadly, his designated successor, Bishop Ælfsige of Winchester, froze to death in the Alps whilst travelling to Rome to collect his pallium. Eadwig then appointed Bishop Byrhthelm of Wells to fill the vacancy. Meanwhile, the bishop of Worcester had died. Edgar gave the see to Dunstan. Shortly after, the see of London also became vacant, and Edgar conferred that see on Dunstan as well.[*]

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 959:

In this year King Eadwig died, on the Kalends of October [i.e. 1st October];[*] —
— and Edgar his brother succeeded to the kingdom[*], as well of the West Saxons as of the Mercians and of the Northumbrians; and he was then 16 winters old.[*]
B’s ‘Life’ of St Dunstan was followed, in fairly rapid succession, by other versions – c.1010 by Adelard of Ghent, c.1090 by Osbern of Canterbury, c.1100 by Eadmer of Canterbury, and c.1130 by William of Malmesbury.
In its Liber Vitae (Book of Life), a religious establishment would record the names of its supporters. The idea being that the people named in a Liber Vitae on earth, would also be named in the heavenly Liber Vitae, which would be opened on Judgement Day. The Liber Vitae of the New Minster (British Library MS Stowe 944), was evidently written in 1031.
The New Minster was founded by Edward the Elder, Eadwig’s grandfather. It was built adjacent to the existing cathedral (founded in the 7th century), which became known as the Old Minster. The two churches were so close, says William of Malmesbury (GR II §124), that: “when singing, they heard each others voices”.  Both buildings are long-gone. The outline of the Old Minster is marked-out in tiles next to its replacement, the present Winchester Cathedral, which was begun in 1079 by the Norman conquerors.
Æthelwold had been made abbot of the, at the time, derelict, monastery of Abingdon by Eadred.
Dorothy Whitelock, whose translation this is (English Historical Documents, 500–1042, Second Edition, 1979), identified the Old English text from which this quote is taken – it is an account of the establishment of monasteries by Eadwig’s brother and successor, Edgar – as the work of Æthelwold: “for it agrees in style and diction with his translation [into Old English] of the Rule [the Rule of St Benedict, which it follows in British Library MS Cotton Faustina A x], has links with Latin charters drafted by him, and uses no terms of praise for the abbot (clearly Æthelwold) whom it mentions.”
Æthelwold became bishop of Winchester in 963. He wrote this text between Edgar’s death, in 975, and his own, in 984.
Scholars are not always agreed about the authenticity of Anglo-Saxon charters – the great majority of which do not survive in their original form. In Charters of Malmesbury Abbey (2005), Susan E. Kelly suggests (Introduction §1c) that the text of S629 is a forgery, that may have been produced c.1065: “A spurious diploma credits him [Eadwig] with the grant to Malmesbury of an estate of a hundred hides centred at Brokenborough … This fabrication seems to have been intended to function, at least in part, as a confirmation and consolidation of lands already belonging to the minster.”  But, as Dr Kelly comments: “The forger’s choice of Eadwig as a donor is noteworthy.”  It would seem that the forger (assuming Dr Kelly is correct in her analysis of S629) was completely unaware of the king’s supposed anti-monastic attitude.
B mentions (§24) that Eadwig seized his grandmother’s estates, and this seems to be substantiated by a charter (S1211) recording a land-grant made by Eadgifu after Eadwig’s demise (when her estates had been returned), to Christ Church, Canterbury. The text notes that, when Eadred died “Eadgifu was deprived of all her property”.
In 966, Edgar made land-grants (S737, S738) to “his kinswoman” Ælfgifu. In her will, Ælfgifu makes bequests, including the estates granted to her in 966, to Edgar (who is not named, but called “my royal lord”), to his queen, and to an unnamed son of Edgar.
Simon Keynes (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004) writes: “Unfortunately, there do not seem to be any compelling or decisive grounds for presuming that the testatrix was Eadwig’s wife, or indeed that the testatrix’s brother Æthelweard was Æthelweard the chronicler.”
Eadwig was evidently brought-up by a thegn called Ælfric. S597, dated 956, is a grant of land in Berkshire made by Eadwig to this man, who he calls his adoptivus parens (i.e. his foster-father).
Edgar had been given to Ealdorman Athelstan’s wife to raise – her name was Ælfwynn (Chronicle of Ramsey Abbey, late-12th century). Shashi Jayakumar (‘Eadwig and Edgar’ in Edgar, King of the English, 959–975: New Interpretations, 2008) suggests “the possibility needs to be seriously considered” that she was the Ælfwynn, granddaughter of Alfred the Great, who briefly succeeded her mother as Lady of the Mercians in 918.
Byrhtferth (a monk at Ramsey Abbey, north of Huntingdon), in a ‘Life’ of St Oswald he wrote c.1000, comments (III, 14): “Ealdorman Athelstan, whom the elders and all the populace called ‘Half-King’, since he was a man of such authority that he was said to maintain the kingdom and its rule with his advice to the king.”  (Ramsey Abbey was founded c.966 by Ealdorman Athelstan’s son, Æthelwine, and St Oswald, bishop of Worcester.)
Ælfhere appears as an ealdorman (dux) in a charter of Eadwig’s (S607) dated 13th February 956. Athelstan Rota appears even earlier, in a charter (S582) dated 955, so he must have been appointed between 23rd November and the end of the year.
In his ‘Life’ of St Oswald (IV, 12), Byrhtferth refers to Ælfhere as princeps Merciorum gentis i.e. ‘prince of the Mercian people’. In Oswald’s charters he features as ‘ealdorman of Mercia’ – ealdorman rendered dux and comes in Latin texts, but in Old English texts only once (S1305) as ‘ealdorman’ and usually as ‘heretoga’ i.e. ‘army leader’.
Athelstan Rota is a nebulous character. His area of authority is believed to have been south-east Mercia. In the Liber Eliensis (Book of Ely), late-12th century, an Ealdorman Athelstan is said (II, 64) to have been married to Æthelflæd, “a very wealthy woman”, who, it is evident, was the widow of King Edmund, Eadwig and Edgar’s father (she was Edmund’s second wife, not the brothers' mother). It is generally assumed that the ealdorman in question was Athelstan Rota.
Also, whilst Manuscripts A, B, C and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle state that, following Eadred’s death in 955, Eadwig simply “succeeded to the kingdom”, Manuscript D says that “Eadwig succeeded to the kingdom of the West Saxons, and Edgar his brother succeeded to the kingdom of the Mercians”. (This same phraseology has also been incorporated into Manuscript F’s Annal 955. There are four annals – 948, 955, 957 and 965 – where material from a manuscript akin to D has been worked into F.)
In a charter of 958 (S677), that survives in its original form, Edgar is titled ‘king of the Mercians and the Northumbrians and the Britons’, which would tend to indicate that the Welsh kings were also subject to Edgar (though “the Britons” could also refer to Strathclyde).
S646, which survives in its original form, records a grant of land at Ely, made by Eadwig to Oda, archbishop of Canterbury, at Edington (in Wiltshire). It is dated 9th May 957, and it is clear that it was issued before the partition. In the witness list, Eadwig is titled rex Anglorum, i.e. ‘king of the English’ (within the body of the charter he is referred to as rex totius Britanniae, i.e. ‘king of all Britain’), whilst Edgar is simply regis frater, i.e. ‘the king’s brother’.
The pall or pallium: a white, scarf-like, vestment worn by the pope, and bestowed by him on archbishops as a symbol of delegated papal authority.
Florence of Worcester places Oda’s death firmly in 958. There is, though, the slightest of question marks. The text of a charter of Eadwig’s (a grant of privileges and confirmation of lands to Abingdon Abbey), dated 17th May 959 (S658), exists in two manuscripts, in one of which (the later copy) Oda is featured in the witness list. Placing Oda’s death in 959, though, would require the succeeding sequence of events to be squeezed into an implausibly short timeframe. There may, in fact, have been no incumbent archbishop of Canterbury on the date the charter was issued, hence his absence from the earliest (approx. late-12th century) copy – an absence the (slightly) later (approx. late-12th or 13th century) copyist felt obliged to rectify.[*]
A Canterbury addition to Manuscript A of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle wrongly places Oda’s death s.a. 961. This erroneous entry was subsequently incorporated into Manuscript F.
Eadgifu, Eadwig’s grandmother, whose property he had apparently seized, also witnesses this charter (in both manuscripts) – it is the only charter of Eadwig’s in which she features. Since she is credited (by Wulfstan of Winchester, ‘Life’ of St Æthelwold, written c.1000, §11) with persuading King Eadred, Eadwig’s uncle, to make Æthelwold abbot of the then derelict monastery of Abingdon: “her presence in a meeting confirming the abbey’s ancient privileges hardly needs justification.”  This is the view of Susan E. Kelly (Charters of Abingdon Abbey, Part 1, 2000, Introduction §4c), who favours the authenticity of S658. Other scholars, however, are suspicious of the charter’s genuineness. Barbara Yorke (Bishop Æthelwold: His Career and Influence, 1988, Chapter 3) states: “The grant of privileges which Abingdon claimed to have received from Eadwig is probably a forgery.”
B places Dunstan’s appointment to Worcester, and then to London, after Eadwig’s death (959). Florence of Worcester, though, disagrees – placing the death of Cenwald, bishop of Worcester, and the appointment of Dunstan as his successor in 957; and Dunstan’s appointment to London, “on the death of its pious pastor”, in the following year. There is a charter (S675) dated 958 (surviving in a mid-12th century copy) that is attested by Cenwald, however, the witness-list is, for other reasons, dubious.
Wrongly s.a. 958 in Manuscripts A and F.
Highlighted phrase in Manuscript A only.
Florence of Worcester (s.a. 959) adds that Eadwig was buried in the New Minster, Winchester.
Highlighted section in Manuscripts B and C only.
Instead of the highlighted phrase, Manuscript F has: “Edgar was king after him over all Britain.”
Æthel (Æþel) means ‘noble’ (it features as an element of many Anglo-Saxon names), and an ætheling is a male of royal blood who is an eligible candidate for the throne.
The highlighted phrase is a translation of the Latin consimiles. Some scholars interpret this to mean kinsmen. For instance, Barbara Yorke (Bishop Æthelwold: His Career and Influence, 1988, Chapter 3): “ ‘B’ spoke selectively for Eadwig did continue in office a number of men appointed by his father and uncle … But as ‘B’ indicates, Eadwig did bring forward a number of individuals of his own choosing, including several who were consimiles in the sense that they were related to Eadwig.”
C.R. Hart (The Early Charters of Northern England and the Midlands, 1975, p.322) asserts: “In Wessex, he [Eadwig] pursued a wild and irresponsible policy of packing his council with new men, whose loyalty had been purchased by large-scale hand-outs of the West Saxon royal demesne.”
s.a. = sub anno = ‘under the year’.
Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of England).
Charters are referred to by their number in Sawyer’s catalogue.
Available online: The Electronic Sawyer.
Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (Deeds of the Bishops of England).
Henry, archdeacon of Huntingdon, first produced his Historia Anglorum (History of the English) about 1130. He later revisited the work – revising and extending – several times. The final version concludes with the accession of Henry II in 1154.
Historia Regum (History of the Kings).