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The king who fostered a Benedictine revival

With Edgar behind him Oswald was able to revive Pershore Abbey, above

Among the many privileges of royalty is that kings and queens seem to have a greater chance than commoners of being recognised as saints.

Materials for the reign of King Edgar (959-75) are scant, though he gained the reputation of presiding over a golden age of peace and plenty in Anglo-Saxon England. Clearly he was an able and efficient ruler; also, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle “beauteous and winsome”.

Whether he possessed heroic Christian virtue is another matter. If he was married to Wulfthryth, the mother of his daughter Edith (both of whom became saints), the details of the ceremony have been lost to history.

Still, Edgar unquestionably played an important part in fostering the Benedictine revival which took place in his reign. So naturally the monks whom he assisted gave him a very good press.

Born in 944, Edgar was the younger son of King Edmund (929-46), the grandson of Edward the Elder (899- 924), and the great-grandson of Alfred the Great (871-899). Edgar’s mother, Aelfgifu, was venerated as a saint. It was his maternal grandmother Eadgifu, however, who influenced his education. In 954 she persuaded King Eadred to give Abingdon to Bishop Aethelwold, who established its church as a Benedictine house, where Edgar was schooled.

Clearly the boy responded enthusiastically to his monkish tutors. When he succeeded as king he lost no time in summoning the exiled Dunstan, formerly Abbot of Glastonbury, back to England, and installing him as Archbishop of Canterbury.

From this position Dunstan led the Benedictine recovery. Equally, he obliged the clergy to lead more austere lives, without the distractions of hunting, hawking, dicing, drunkenness and sex.

Edgar was also closely associated with Oswald, successively Bishop of Worcester and (from 971) Archbishop of York. With the King behind him, Oswald was able to re-found Ramsey Abbey in Cambridgeshire, to establish a monastic church in Worcester, and to help revive Pershore Abbey. He also created a house for training monks at Westbury-on-Trym in Gloucestershire.

Meanwhile Aethelwold, Edgar’s old tutor at Abingdon, now Bishop of Winchester, concentrated on the eastern shires, founding or re-founding monasteries at Peterborough, Ely, Crowland and Thorney.

Evidently the King played far more than a passive role in this work. His charters bear witness to massive transfers of land to the new monasteries.

In secular affairs Edgar and Duncan strove to bring all the people in England under a single authority, paying especial attention to reconciliation with the Danes. In 973, this policy reached its apotheosis with the coronation service which Dunstan organised for the King in Bath Abbey.

The ceremony, complete with the reference to Zadok the Priest, became the basis for all subsequent coronations of English monarchs, right down to that of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.