Eadgar: The Last Happy King?

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In 957, in the middle of the reign of King Eadwig of Wessex, Eadgar became King of Mercia and Northumbria. The two were brothers, and they became rivals.

Eadwig was a teen king, driven to impulses but also generosity. The people of Mercia and Northumbria didn’t trust him all that much, despite his sometimes lavish gifts to the church, so they chose Eadgar as their leader. The “Kingdom of England” was divided in two.

When Eadwig died, two years later, Eadgar inherited the rest of the kingdom. Bishop Dunstan, whom Eadwig had dismissed as advisor, became a trusted friend to Eadgar and also became Archbishop of Canterbury. With this new authority, Dunstan instituted a period of major ecclesiastical reform. Secular clergy were let go, and the remaining clergy were granted a large degree of independence from the crown. Many of the church buildings devastated during Norse invasions were rebuilt, with Eadgar’s blessing.

Eadgar had married a childhood friend, Athelfleda, earlier in life; but she had died by the time he became king. Being a young man himself when he became king, he found the company of women enticing and almost irresistible. It is particularly interesting to note that the church leaders continued to work with Eadgar during this time, even though the king had some “dalliance” problems of his own, much like his brother before him did. Among these “problems” were affairs with a married woman, a woman who later became a nun, and a third woman who bore Eadgar a child.

Nonetheless, Eadgar remained in power and in favor, both with his people and with the church. As he aged, he became more and more aware that he needed to set an example and so decided to have a huge coronation for himself, with the approval of the church, of course. This took place in 973, at Bath.

Historians looking for technicalities can find a mammoth one here: During his coronation, Eadgar was referred to as king of all English, the first time that a king had been so named during a coronation. Other monarchs had assumed the title (or at least the semblance of the role) but had not been so named in front of God and country. The heads of the smaller political areas of England were there, as were Welsh leaders in abundance. They all swore their allegiance to Eadgar.

It must have been thrilling to the king, who by that time had married again, this time Elfrida, with whom he had been romantically involved while she was still married. She was conveniently unmarried at this time, her husband having died under mysterious circumstances a few years back. Still, they made a happy couple, to themselves and to all onlookers.

England, then, was happy at this time, perhaps moreso than in several generations’ time. The happiness would not last.

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