Relevant History welcomes historian and award-winning novelist Annie Whitehead. Alvar the Kingmaker, a tale of love, politics and murder, begins with the story of the ‘scandal’ of AD955. To Be A Queen tells the story of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great. Annie contributed to 1066 Turned Upside Down, a re-imagining of events leading up to the Norman Conquest. She’s currently working on another anthology, In Bed with the British, which will be published in 2017 by Pen & Sword Books, in which she will investigate the ‘scandal’ in much greater depth, using a range of primary sources. To learn more about her and her books, visit her web site and blog, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
It should have been a day for celebration. The archbishop had crowned the new young king, and Abbot Dunstan had watched the ceremony and was looking forward to serving this new monarch as faithfully as he had his predecessors. But at some point during the following feast, someone noticed that the king was missing, and Dunstan was dispatched to find him.
At this point, in AD955, King Eadwig (Edwy) was possibly around the age of fourteen. It’s safe to assume that Dunstan was not expecting to find the young king in bed with his wife. Much less with her mother.
And yet this is what happened, according to the scribe who wrote the Life of Dunstan just a few years after Dunstan, by then Archbishop of Canterbury, had died. He recalled that ‘they found the royal crown, which was bound with wondrous metal, gold and silver and gems, and shown with many-coloured lustre, carelessly thrown on the floor, far from his head, and he himself repeatedly wallowing between the two of them in evil fashion, as in a vile sty.’
King Eadwig was dragged back to the feast and a terrible argument erupted between the king and Dunstan, which resulted in the latter being sent into exile.
Another tale of dubious moral standards and the king being answerable only to himself? Well, not quite.
Annulment and aftermath
Eadwig’s marriage was annulled, on the grounds that he was too closely related to his wife—another sin in the eyes of the Church—and it wasn’t long before he had his kingdom taken away from him too.
Eadwig was succeeded by his younger brother, Edgar, whose first act as king was to recall Dunstan. Edgar was remembered as ‘The Peaceable’ who actively supported the tenth-century monastic reformation.
So was the coronation incident of 955 just a tiny incident of scandal, a morsel to tempt the appetites of gossips?
The identity of Eadwig’s wife has not been established beyond all doubt, but it is generally accepted that she was the sister of Aethelweard the Chronicler, and that means that she and Eadwig shared a great-great-grandfather which would not, according to the laws of the time, have made them too closely related. So why the annulment; was it a vengeful response by the Church?
Eadwig came to the throne because his uncle, the previous king, had died childless. Eadwig’s own father had died when Eadwig and his younger brother were very small children, and the young boys were brought up separately.
And here we come to what I think is the crux of the matter. The younger of the two boys, Edgar, had been brought up in the house of the powerful earl of East Anglia, whose family lost power and position when Eadwig became king.
Eadwig’s reign saw a flurry of land charters, by which Eadwig clearly hoped to buy support from the nobility, but it was a policy which did not work. His younger brother launched a coup in 957, enlisting help from East Anglia, the erstwhile kingdom of Mercia, and most of the rest of the north and east.
For two years, Eadwig continued to rule Wessex, until he died in 959, aged nineteen. According to the chroniclers, there was nothing suspicious about his death, and I have no proof of murder, so let’s just say that the timing of his death was at the very least extremely beneficial to Edgar and his supporters.
Had Eadwig remained married to the woman who was, like him, related to Alfred the Great, (in her case, having been descended from Alfred’s brother,) their children would have been royal twice over and would have had very strong claims to the throne. It was politic to make sure that these children never arrived, hence the reason for the enforced divorce.
Edgar’s reign proved him to be a formidable king—in 973 he was paid homage by kings of Wales and Scotland—and it was in no small part due to his strength that his reign remained free from Viking invasion. He fared much better than his sons, one of whom was murdered in 978 and the youngest of whom has been remembered throughout history as Aethelred the ‘Unready’.
Edgar did not completely escape scrutiny. There is some debate as to the exact number and status of his wives, but there was a rumour that the mother of at least one of his children was herself promised to the Church and was destined to become a nun before Edgar impregnated her. There were later medieval traditions that Edgar killed the husband of his final wife because he was so besotted with her. This wife, the step-mother of the murdered son, and mother of Aethelred the Unready, was seemingly loathed by Dunstan, so Edgar did not have universal love and approval for his actions. In some ways his personal life was as chaotic and shocking as his teenaged brother’s had been.
There is no doubt in my mind that the ‘scandal’ of 955 was nothing to do with Christian morals, and everything to do with politics, and in that regard, is not so different from the modern world. The Anglo-Saxons lived a very long time ago, but the way they lived their lives is, at times, very recognisable.
A big thanks to Annie Whitehead. She’ll give away a paperback copy of Alvar the Kingmaker to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.
Did you like what you read? Learn about downloads, discounts, and special offers from Relevant History authors and Suzanne Adair. Subscribe to Suzanne’s free newsletter.