King Eadwig inherited the throne of Wessex in 955 at age fourteen. Like any fourteen year-old given unlimited power, he proceeded to live it up. In four short years on the throne he kicked out established court advisors, gave excessive gifts of land to followers, lost half his kingdom to his brother, married a girl that the pope subsequently told him he couldn’t marry, and famously escaped his own coronation to have a threesome with said girl … and her mother. Needless to say, Eadwig does not rank among the boy-king martyrs of England. But is all as it seems? There is the faint suspicion of propaganda and character assassination that lingers around these depictions of Eadwig. The salacious and oft repeated incident of the royal ménage à trois – a tale with distinctly folkloric elements – is particularly suspect. The narrative is loaded with symbolism depicting Eadwig’s disregard for his office and, so the tale goes, upon this event hinges both the fate of kingdom, and the fate of a saint. So naturally, it is on this dalliance that I will be dwelling.
There is little question that Eadwig was a weak king – that he alienated an extraordinary amount of royal land is not in doubt as per charter evidence. Neither is it in doubt that his brother was either granted, or seized, control over half the kingdom and Eadwig never regained that authority. Indeed, that Eadwig ousted long-standing advisors is also verifiable, however it does begin the take us into murkier historical waters. Why did Eadwig exile the great men of his predecessors’ court?
We have little by way of historical record from the king’s household to provide evidence of Eadwig’s reasoning, and the sources we do have must be suspected of significant bias. The sordid details of Eadwig’s sex life come to light in the biographies and hagiographies of one Saint Dunstan, which also paint a picture of a capricious and misguided boy who sidelined experienced politicians when they resisted his whims. In fact, it is reported that one of these politicians was ejected from the realm for his role in breaking up the king’s coronation threesome. Which seems fair. But when it is taken into account that that politician was Dunstan himself, we can begin to suspect character assassination. Eadwig may well appear in late Anglo-Saxon hagiography, but unlike Edward the Martyr and Kenelm of Mercia, he is not the titular hero, but the antagonist, constructed as a foil to the saintly Dunstan, as demonstrated in the account of Eadwig’s private coronation party.
On the very same day, after the king’s ritual installation and anointing, his lust suddenly prompted him to rush out and caress whores in the manner I have described, leaving the happy feasters … At Archbishop Oda’s request, Abbot Dunstan and Bishop Cynesige attended the royal apartments to bring the king back to the feast, whereupon they … went in and found the royal crown … tossed carelessly on the ground some distance from the king’s head, while he was disporting himself between two women as though they were wallowing in some revolting pigsty … Dunstan first told off the foolish women. As for the king, since he would not get up, Dunstan put out his hand and removed him from the couch where he had been fornicating with the harlots … parted from his women if only by main forced.
B, Vita S. Dunstani, 21. 2 – 4
It was a bold move by Dunstan. Not only had he gone against the king’s desires, but upon finding the young king in flagrante delicto, he had publicly humiliated him in front of his nobles at his own coronation. Given the easily wounded egos of both kings and fourteen-year-olds, it is not difficult to imagine why Dunstan was forced to flee English shores. Yet Dunstan quite possibly felt at ease with his actions: he was a man with the courage of his own political and religious convictions (frighteningly so); he had dealt with difficult kings before and survived; and he once fought off the devil with a pair of tongs.
One of these is not like the others. As tempting as it may be, I will not go into the popular history of Dunstan and the Devil, but refer you instead to this blog entry by the inimitable Clerk of Oxford.
St Dunstan was a critical figure in late Anglo-Saxon religious and political history. Born c. 909 and rising from humble origins, Dunstan would be advisor to seven kings, become the Abbot of Glastonbury, and end his long life as Archbishop of Canterbury. Best known for his system-wide reforms of monastic houses in England, it is unsurprising that, after his death in 988, Dunstan was rapidly canonised, and that the extant accounts of his life are hagiographical biographies.
Of particular interest for this discussion is the Vita S. Dunstani, written within ten years of Dunstan’s death by the anonymous author ‘B’. B quite clearly knew Dunstan and seeks to extoll his virtues in life and his sanctity in death in true hagiographical style, though the personal connection adds a dimension of personal testimony from an eyewitness to events. While there are numerous accounts of Dunstan’s life, and many individual events are independently corroborated by chroniclers, the Vita is frequently the source of these alternative accounts. Though it does engage in hagiographical invention, as well as pro-Dunstan propaganda, B’s account of Dunstan’s life is rather less sensationalist than most of these other vitae. The early dating of the Vita and the association of its author as a companion of Dunstan’s lend an authority to the narrative that is unusual in hagiography.
There is near universal acceptance that Dunstan was exiled by the young King Eadwig in 956. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recounts that in that year Dunstan was driven across the sea, and the exile is recounted throughout the early Anglo-Norman histories without fail. And interestingly, Eadwig was not the first king that these sources, and the Vita, declare that Dunstan fell out with. As a young man, Dunstan had been exiled by Æthelstan – an event that was the catalyst for his taking holy orders. Dunstan later reingratiated himself with the king and was an influential member of the court when Æthelstan’s successor Edmund took the throne. It did not take long for Edmund to similarly exile him, though once again he would make a triumphant return during that king’s life.
It is in Dunstan’s relationships with the Anglo-Saxon kings that B’s adroit use of propaganda is most clearly on display. The trope of the holy man being afflicted by the hardships of the world permeates the Vita, and Dunstan’s conflict with the kings serves to enhance his reputation as a pious man setting himself against worldly authority. Yet B is subtle. The rightly crowned king of the realm was an agent of God and it would have both been impious and impolitic to directly attack the kings.
Thus, the picture painted of Dunstan’s exile under Æthelstan is one which absolves the king of willing complicity. B tells us that Æthelstan’s courtiers became jealous of the well-educated young man who had become one of the king’s favourites and made allegations to the king that Dunstan was a heathen and partook of magical rites. Once Æthelstan’s proclamation of banishment was obtained, Dunstan’s enemies beat him and left him for dead in a cesspool. The narrative repeats itself with Edmund and, once again ill-advised by his courtiers, Edmund forced the holy-man into exile. It is notable that both men redeemed themselves by welcoming Dunstan back to the fold. It is also notable that, by the time of B’s writing of the Vita, both kings had obtained a reputation for good and proactive kingship. In both cases, B intelligently manages to cast Dunstan’s re-entry into the Anglo-Saxon court within the pre-existing traditions of Æthelstan and Edmund’s virtuous reputations.
Not so Eadwig. Eadwig’s age and length of rule were not conducive to his gaining such a reputation for excellence in kingship, and Dunstan’s return to the court was only facilitated by the young king’s untimely death. Further, by the time Eadwig took the throne, his power and influence were far greater than they had been under earlier kings and it seems likely that it was he and his supporters who managed to convince the pope to annul Eadwig’s marriage in 957. Here, however, an already murky tableau of politics, propaganda, and hagiography only gets murkier.
As with the accounts of the other two kings, B absolves Eadwig of independent action – this time by placing the influence of the older of Eadwig’s two coronation consorts, Æthelgifu, at the centre of the plot to oust Dunstan. Æthelgifu was the mother of the other partner in the coronation scandal, and it was to that woman Eadwig would soon be wed – thus Æthelgifu was to become Eadwig’s mother-in-law. That Dunstan’s followers had that marriage annulled on the grounds of consanguinity the following year would then seem to be a part of an ongoing battle between the monk and the mother. (Yes, according to B, Eadwig had partaken of a ménage à trois with his fiancée and her mother, both of whom were related to him – dinners must have been seriously awkward).
While the annulment is historically locatable, Æthelgifu appears only within the Vita and its derivatives. It is quite possible that she is a literary invention designed to both absolve Eadwig of direct involvement in the plot against Dunstan, while simultaneously augmenting his evident weakness as king. Thus, as an authorial invention, the coronation threesome performs as an introduction into the narrative of Eadwig’s moral weakness, and Æthelgifu’s moral wickedness. B informs his readers that Eadwig devolved power to Æthelgifu in the immediate aftermath of the coronation – an act in keeping with his alienation of the royal demesne – and she began to plot against Dunstan’s person and privilege. Indeed, as Æthelgifu moved against Dunstan’s titles and property, Dunstan fled the country just in time, for as he sailed away there arrived messengers from the wicked pirate-woman (so the story goes) who would have torn out his eyes if he had been found on these shores.
But by removing the wicked queen motif from the narrative, and ascribing direct action to Eadwig, the political situation seems rather clearer. While Dunstan may not have had designs on the throne, his tenure, authority, and patronage overshadowed that of the young king and his new advisors, threatening their political control. As an experienced politician, Dunstan saw the way the political wind was blowing and left England before he could be caught and subjected to worse punishments than exile.
Dunstan would recover from this setback, welcomed back by Eadwig’s successor, upon whom B heaps praise, the man of God went on to extend his political career by thirty-years (with no further exiles). That Dunstan was banished by half the kings he ever served does indicate that he was a problematic political player – it is difficult to say whether this because he was reformer, a rabble rouser, or an over-powerful magnate; an argument from the extant sources can be made for each. Yet while the kings Dunstan served have, in many ways, slipped into obscurity, leaving no biographies to later generations, Dunstan’s person and actions were carefully curated by his followers after his death. Thus Dunstan’s legacy as the cleric who helped forge an Anglo-Saxon world to his own vision in the face of temporal and spiritual opposition has long outlasted the kings who saw him as a threat.
- Feature image: Eadwig (r. 955 – 959), BL Royal MS 14 B VI, f. 3r.
- B. Vita S. Dunstani. In The Early Lives of St Dunstan. Edited and translated by Michael Lapidge and Michael Winterbottom. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2012.
- Eadmer of Canterbury. Vita S. Dunstani. In The Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald. Edited and translated by Andrew J. Turner and Bernard J Muir. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006.
- Matthew Firth, ‘Allegories of Sight: Blinding and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England,’ Cerae: An Australasian Journal of Medieval Studies 3 (2016): 1 – 33.
- Osbern. Miracula S. Dunstani. In Memorials of St Dunstan. Translated by William Stubbs. London: Longman & Co, 1874.
- Ramsay, Nigel, Margaret Sparks and Tim Tatton-Brown, eds. St Dunstan: His Life, Times and Cult. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1992.
- Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.