09.07.05, Scragg, ed., Edgar, King of the English

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Renée Trilling

The Medieval Review baj9928.0907.005


Scragg, Donald, ed.. Edgar, King of the English, 959-975: New Interpretations. Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2008. Pp. 274. ISBN: 9781843833994.

Reviewed by:
Renée Trilling
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

As Donald Scragg notes in his Preface, "The reign of King Edgar is undoubtedly a crucial one in the history of tenth-century England, yet it remains an enigmatic one in many respects because of the paucity of reliable evidence for it" (xi). This volume, which grew out of a 2005 conference hosted by the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies, attempts to reconstruct a holistic picture of Edgar's reign from a range of evidence--diplomatic, numismatic, literary, liturgical, archaeological, art historical--in order to better understand how King Edgar shaped the history of England. Its four parts are arranged chronologically, taking readers from an in-depth analysis of Edgar's rule over Mercia in tandem with his brother, Eadwig, through his accession to the whole kingdom of the English, to his role in the monastic revival and the propaganda surrounding his death.

Part I focuses on "Documentary Evidence," comprising two essays by Simon Keynes. The first, a 60-page opus, evaluates Edgar's reputation as rex admirabilis against the sociopolitical background of the second half of the tenth century, tracing how the womanizing, nun-pursuing Edgar came to be admired as a paragon of Christian kingship. It begins, not surprisingly, with reform writers like Byrhtferth and Wulfstan of Winchester, in whose works "the superlatives are simply heaped upon the king" (4), and ends with the Anglo-Norman historians who admired Edgar "as a fine example of firm rulership" (58). Keynes' wide-ranging and extremely thorough overview of the documentary evidence for Edgar's reign paints a vivid picture of the period, and is complemented by his briefer, but equally detailed, overview of charters attributed to Edgar; this conspectus lists authentic charters chronologically, and also has lists of charters considered "problematic" or "lost."

The essays contained in Part II look at Edgar before 959, when he was king of Mercia while Eadwig ruled in the south. Frederick Biggs' essay considers the possibility that this arrangement was actually a form of joint kingship, common enough in early Anglo-Saxon England but less palatable to the ecclesiastics who argued that "a divided kingdom is not part of God's plan" (135). Indeed, such divisions could have severe political repercussions; Shashi Jayakumar, for example, sketches the personal and political relationships at the courts of Edgar and Eadwig in the late 950s, seeing in these dynasties and kin-groups the roots of later factionalism at court. C. P. Lewis takes a similar approach to the young Edgar's circle of support in Mercia through a closer look at a 958 charter for the church of St. Werburgh in Chester. Put together, these essays show Edgar's path to the throne as a gradual process that depended heavily on personal relationships, both between Edgar and his brother and between both kings and the Anglo-Saxon nobility.

Part III covers the years of Edgar's reign as king of the English, viewing Edgar's relationships with various constituencies as a matrix of the tenth-century social world. Edgar's dealings with women, through marriage and otherwise, offer Barbara Yorke a window into the political tensions brought to light by the hagiographers who wrote about the king in their biographies of these women. Lesley Abrams, taking a different tack, focuses on Edgar's evolving relationship with the men of the Danelaw, from his dependence on supporters of Scandinavian descent during his rule of Mercia to his edicts concerning the Danelaw as a region, rather than an ethnic identity, in the early years of his reign. Abrams seems to chart a movement away from regionalism to a more national focus for Edgar, and this movement is mirrored in Julia Crick's analysis of Edgar's connection to the idea of Albion in the sixteenth century. Crick sees the use of "Albion" in connection with Edgar as an imperializing move, both for the reformers who wrote immediately following his death and for the Early Modern antiquarians who seized on Edgar as a symbol of Empire. And the movement from regional to national is further highlighted in Hugh Pagan's study of Edgar's coinage, which reveals a series of regional administrative areas giving way, with the coinage reform ca. 973, to a more uniform national system.

Coinage was not the only system to undergo reform during Edgar's reign, of course, and Part IV turns to Edgar's role in the monastic revival, arguably the most influential event of the late tenth century. Julia Barrow offers a useful reevaluation of the chronology of the "reform," suggesting that the Regularis Concordia may be better placed in the mid-960s, rather than at the end of Edgar's reign, and that Ælfthryth's role in the revival was greater than has been hitherto acknowledged. Catherine Karkov, too, offers a new perspective on old evidence, reexamining the frontispiece to the New Minster charter as an evocation of the dedication ceremony itself, with the image of Edgar standing in for both the royal authority upholding the foundation and for the community of the Minster. Edgar thus appears as a central figure in the reform, and Alexander Rumble further elaborates on the crucial role of the laity in bringing about the monastic revival; as he puts it quite plainly, "the reform could not have succeeded without the power and authority of the king and his officials," nor without the generous support and patronage of various noble families. But the reformers themselves, and their successors, gave the credit to Edgar above all other lay patrons, as Mercedes Salvador-Bello argues in her analysis of the Edgar poems of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. She suggests that these two poems belong to a tradition of praise-poetry authored by reform monks in honor of the patron of the monastic revival.

As a whole, Edgar, King of the English, 959-975 offers a comprehensive picture of the social and political world surrounding Edgar's reign, as well as the combination of personalities and histories that gave rise to the Benedictine Reform. It is a useful reference volume for students of the period, and provides a great deal of necessary background for anyone wishing to understand the events of the later tenth century. Its production value is perhaps not as high as its scholarly value; the binding is weak, and the text contains more errors than one would like to see, especially for the volume's steep price. But its contents offer a significant contribution to a better understanding of a watershed period in early English history and the hidden drama and political machinations of what would quickly come to be seen as a golden age of English politics make for interesting reading indeed.

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Author Biography

Renée Trilling

University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign