Childhood & Early Years
Edwy of England, also known as Eadwig, was born in around circa 940 in Wessex, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, located in the southern part of Great Britain. By the time of his birth, the House of Wessex, into which he was born, had been ruling almost all over England.
His father King Edmund I was the ninth English monarch belonging to the House of Wessex. He ruled over England from 27 October 939 until his assassination on 26 May 946. His reign was marked by constant warfare.
His mother Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury was his father’s first wife. She had a close connection with the royal nunnery of Shaftesbury (Dorset), where she was buried after her death. Later, she became known as Saint Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury or Saint Elgiv, and her feast day falls on 18 May.
Little is known about Edwy’s childhood except the fact that he was the eldest son of his parents and had a younger brother called, Edgar (born in 943). Eventually, Edgar succeeded him as the king of England and was called, Edgar the Peaceful or the Peaceable.
In 944, when Edwy was around three or four years old, his mother passed away. In the same year, his father married Æthelflæd of Damerham, a union that produced no known offspring. Two years later, his father too passed away.
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Accession to Throne
In 946, when his father passed away, Edwy of England was barely six years old. Therefore, the reign was passed over to Edmund’s younger brother, Eadred. He was coroneted on 16 August 1946 at Kingston-upon-Thames, but he too died on 23 November 955 without leaving any offspring.
In November 955, after the death of his uncle, 15 years old Edwy ascended the throne as Edwy of England, thus becoming the 11th English monarch from the House of Wessex. Although it is known that he was coroneted at Kingston-upon-Thames, the exact date remains a mystery.
Soon after assuming power, the young king decided to side with the secular clergy, reversing many favors given to the monks during previous reigns. He also called Dunstan, a very powerful Bishop who had considerable influence in the court, to account for his share in the administration during his uncle’s regime.
Edwy’s actions triggered a conflict between him and Dunstan, who not only refused to attend his summons, but also decided to teach him a lesson. As Dunstan was waiting for his revenge, the church had it circulated that religion was in danger under the new king.
Dunstan’s chance came when the young king left the table during the coronation feast to visit his love, Ælfgifu, a woman of noble birth. According to other accounts, it was during a meeting with the court officials that the king left the table. However, the consequence was the same.
In a biography written on Dunstan in circa 1000, it has been mentioned that when the king left the table, Dunstan realized that he was going to visit Ælfgifu. Therefore, he and Bishop Cynesige followed him into his bedchamber.
In the bedchamber, they found the king supposedly coveting with two women, Ælfgifu and her mother Æthelgifu. Dunstan then dragged the reluctant king back to the banquet. However, many modern historians believe that such stories, written years later, may have been spread to deliberately malign Edwy’s image.
It is said that although the king accompanied the monks back to the feast, he did not take it lying down. Eventually, Dunstan was deprived of his abbacy of Glastonbury and sent into exile. However, the 16 years old king was no match for the seasoned monk.
On being banished from the kingdom, Dunstan fled to a monastery in Flanders. From there, he began to use the monks to influence the ordinary people of England and provoke revolt against the government of Edwy. It was also insinuated that Edwy’s brother Edgar was more suitable for the throne.
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While early writers presented the clash between Dunstan and Edwy as an ethical conflict, many modern historians believe that it was a power wrestle between the king and the powerful clergy. The monks continued to spread a spiteful propaganda against Edwy all through his short tenure.
In the summer of 957, Edgar, who was the heir presumptive, was elected King of Mercia. While some ancient authors say that his brother’s crowning resulted from a northern revolt, it might be an exaggeration because Edwy continued to retain the title "King of the English" in his charters.
According to one section of historians, Edwy’s imposition frustrated the Thanes of Mercia and Northumbria, and they switched their allegiance to Edgar. In this, they were supported by Archbishop Oda of Canterbury, a supporter of Dunstan. To avoid a civil war, the nobles then divided the country into two parts.
According to other historians, Edgar became a ‘sub-king’ under Edwy in accordance to a prior arrangement. Nonetheless, Edwy’s political position was indeed very weak. A retrospective note left by Bishop Æthelwold says that Edwy "had through the ignorance of childhood dispersed his kingdom and divided its unity".
Although the clergy was against him, Edwy of England was not against the church. It is believed that he made generous grants to religious institutions and churches during his short reign. In 956 alone, he gave sixty gifts of land, which made up around 5% of all authentic Anglo-Saxon gifts.
Marriage & Separation
Soon after becoming the king, Edwy married his love Ælfgifu, who was distantly related to him. Unfortunately, this too added to his woe. At that time, the church regarded any marriage within seven degrees of consanguinity as incestuous - a degree being determined by counting up the common ancestors.
It is possible that the church initially recognized his marriage. However, in 958, the Archbishop Oda of Canterbury, a supporter of Dunstan, annulled the marriage on the basis of their consanguinity, going against the couple’s will. Historians today believe that the reason behind the annulment was political rather than religious.
Until then, Prince Edgar who had the backing of a powerful section was the heir presumptive. But in case, the union of Edwy and Ælfgifu produced a legitimate heir, Edgar’s claim to throne would have been compromised. It is believed that Edwy’s marriage was annulled to prevent this.
By the order of Archbishop Oda, Ælfgifu was seized and branded in the face. Thereafter, she was sent to Ireland to live in exile, keeping a low profile. While she was there, Edwy was forced to divorce her. She returned to England only after her husband died.
Death & Legacy
On 1 October 959, Edwy of England died in Gloucester, possibly due to a hereditary ailment, after less than four years of reign. However, some writers believe that he was actually murdered. He was only 19 years old.
He was buried in the New Minster, a monastery built in Winchester by his ancestor Edward, the Elder. After his death, he was succeeded by his brother Edgar as King of England.
Although the image of Edwy of England had been maligned by ancient authors, his reign caught the imagination of many British authors and painters centuries later. Since the 18th century, he has been depicted in several dramas and paintings, which continue to carry his legacy forward.