Edmund I

Dafato Team | Jul 31, 2023

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Edmund I, born in 920 or 921 and died on May 26, 946, was king of the English from 939 to his death.

Son of Edward the Elder and grandson of Alfred the Great, his mother was Eadgifu, Edward's third wife. He came to the throne upon the death of his older half-brother Æthelstan and found himself confronted by the Viking king Olaf Gothfrithson, who seized the Viking kingdom of York and extended his authority over the region of the Five Boroughs. Edmund was forced to accept this division of England, but he took advantage of Olaf's death in 941 to reverse the situation. He reconquered the Five Boroughs in 942, then drove Olaf Kvaran from York in 944. The following year, he led a devastating campaign against the Bretons of the kingdom of Strathclyde and entrusted the custody of the kingdom to the Scottish king Malcolm I.

Edmund placed his trust in the same advisors as Æthelstan, foremost among whom were bishops Ælfheah of Winchester and Oda of Ramsbury, who was appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 941, as well as the ealdorman Æthelstan Half King. There are three surviving legislative codes promulgated during his reign, which seek to control murderous faides and testify to the increasingly sacred nature of the royal institution.

After a reign of barely six years, Edmund died in a fight at the age of twenty-five and was succeeded by his younger brother Eadred. His two sons Eadwig and Edgar, from his marriage to Ælfgifu, became kings in their turn after Eadred.

At the beginning of the tenth century, England was divided in two: to the north and east was the Danelaw, a Danish settlement born of the Viking invasions of the previous century, while the south and west were occupied by the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, which had victoriously resisted Viking assaults under the reign of Alfred the Great (r. 871-899). His son and successor Edward the Elder (r. 899-924) conquered the Five Burghs region and East Anglia.

Edward's eldest son, Æthelstan (r. 924-939), completed the unification of England by seizing the Viking kingdom of York in 927. He also received the submission of the other sovereigns of Great Britain: the king of Scotland, the king of Strathclyde, the lord of Bamburgh (an Anglo-Saxon pocket that remained north of the Danelaw, in the former kingdom of Northumbria) and the kinglets of Wales. His supremacy was challenged in 937 by the Viking king of Dublin, Olaf Gothfrithson, who allied himself with Constantine of Scotland and Owain of Strathclyde to invade England. Their combined armies were defeated by Æthelstan at the battle of Brunanburh, a victory that reinforced the dominant position of the house of Wessex in Britain.


Edmund was the son of King Edward the Elder and his last wife Eadgifu, daughter of the ealdorman of Kent Sigehelm. William of Malmesbury indicates that he was about eighteen years old when he came to the throne, which implies that he was born in 920 or 921. He had a younger brother, Eadred, and two sisters, Eadburh, who became a nun at Nunnaminster in Winchester, and Ælfgifu, wife of an unidentified "Louis, Prince of Aquitaine.

Edward had fourteen children, including five sons, by three different women. His eldest son, Æthelstan, was born about 894, but his mother Ecgwynn seems to have died or been repudiated before Edward's accession in 899. Edward married Ælfflæd shortly afterwards and they had two sons: Ælfweard, who died a few weeks after his father in 924, and Edwin, who was drowned in 933. Edward's last marriage, to Eadgifu, seems to have taken place around 919.

Under the reign of Æthelstan

Edward died on July 17, 924. Edmund, who was still very young, grew up at the court of his older half-brother Æthelstan, who welcomed two exiles from continental Europe: the future duke of Brittany Alain Barbetorte and the future king of the Franks Louis d'Outremer, who was about Edmund's age. William of Malmesbury states that Æthelstan has a great affection for Edmund and Eadred. It is possible that Edmund accompanied him on his great expedition to Scotland in 934: according to the Historia de sancto Cuthberto, Æthelstan asked Edmund to bring his body back to the shrine of St. Cuthbert in Chester-le-Street in the event of his death.

In 937, Edmund participated in the battle of Brunanburh alongside his older half-brother. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the confrontation in the form of an alliterative poem that particularly praises Edmund's heroism, so much so that the historian Simon Walker believes it must have been written during his reign. In 939, the year of Æthelstan's death, Edmund and Eadred appear as witnesses on the charter (S 446) which attests a gift from the king to their sister Eadburh. They bear the title of "brother of the king" (regis frater). Beyond their kinship with the donee, their presence may reflect their position as potential heirs to the throne, especially if the king knew his death was near. This is the only known authentic charter of Æthelstan to which Edmund bears witness.

Æthelstan died on 27 October 939 without leaving any children. Edmund succeeded him smoothly and may have been crowned at Kingston upon Thames on December 1 of the same year.

Coming to power and struggle for Northumbria

Although he did not face a rival ætheling, as his half-brother and father had, Edmund was not accepted as king throughout England. Manuscript D of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that "the Northumbrians betrayed their oaths and chose Anlaf of Ireland as their king". This Anlaf is none other than Olaf Gothfrithson, Viking king of Dublin since 934 and participant in the coalition defeated at Brunanburh. He arrived in York before the end of 939 and invaded the north-east of Mercy the following year. Repulsed in front of Northampton, he seized the former Mercian royal residence of Tamworth. At the head of his troops, Edmund intercepted Olaf at Leicester as he headed north. The intervention as mediators of Archbishops Wulfstan of York and Oda of Canterbury prevented a battle between the two armies. A treaty was concluded in Leicester by which Olaf obtained the whole region of the Five Burghs, i.e. the cities of Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford.

This English retreat, the first since the campaigns of Edward the Elder, was short-lived. Olaf died in 941 and Edmund was able to reconquer the Five Boroughs the following year. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle devotes an alliterative poem to this English victory, The Taking of the Five Burghs, which emphasizes the solidarity between English and Christian Danes in the region reconquered by Edmund. Nevertheless, this poem may have been written much later and may not describe the reality of the terrain at the time.

In 943, Olaf Kvaran, cousin and successor of Olaf Gothfrithson in York, was baptized. His godfather was none other than Edmund, which suggests that he recognized his suzerainty. Edmund is also the godfather of another Viking king of York, Ragnall, and a third king named Sihtric is attested at the same time. These three kings apparently wielded power jointly, judging by their coin issues, which share the same design. They were driven out in 944 by Edmund, who took control of York with the help of Archbishop Wulfstan, a former Viking supporter, and the ealdorman Æthelmund, whom he had appointed to Mercy in 940.

Relations with the Breton kingdoms

Edmund inherits the hegemony exercised by Æthelstan over the Breton kingdoms of Wales. However, Idwal Foel, king of Gwynedd, seems to have taken advantage of Edmund's difficult beginnings to disengage himself from his authority, perhaps even supporting Olaf Gothfrithson. The Annales Cambriae indicate that he was killed by the English in 942 and his kingdom was then conquered by Hywel Dda's Deheubarth. The Welsh kings appear less frequently as witnesses on Edmund's charters than on those of Æthelstan or his successor Eadred, but the historian David Dumville considers that there is no reason to see in them traces of an eclipse of English hegemony over the region.

To the southwest, a 944 charter for land in Devon (S 498) describes Edmund as "king of the English and ruler of this Breton province." This unusual wording might imply that the former Breton kingdom of Domnonea was still imperfectly integrated into the kingdom of England. Simon Keynes, however, envisages that it may be the product of a form of "local interference".

In the north, Edmund led a campaign against the kingdom of Strathclyde in 945. The 13th century chronicler Roger of Wendover reports that he had the support of Hywel Dda and that he had two of King Dyfnwal ab Owain's sons blinded, probably to deprive their father of able-bodied heirs. He entrusted Strathclyde to the Scottish king Malcolm I, who undertook to defend the region on land and sea. Historians interpret this situation in various ways. For David Dumville and Thomas Charles-Edwards, Malcolm obtained Strathclyde but had to recognize Edmund's suzerainty in exchange. On the other hand, Ann Williams believed that Edmund ceded the region to Malcolm in exchange for an alliance against the Vikings in Dublin. In the eyes of Frank Stenton and Sean Miller, Edmund recognized by this agreement that the kingdom of England could not extend beyond the borders of Northumbria.

The hagiography of the Scottish monk Cathróe indicates that he crossed England on his journey to continental Europe. Edmund is said to have summoned him to his court with Archbishop Oda before escorting him with great pomp to the port of Lympne, where the ship that was to take him across the Channel was waiting. It is likely that Edmund's court welcomed other monks of Celtic origin.

Relations with continental Europe

By inviting foreign scholars to his court and marrying his sisters to continental princes, Æthelstan established close ties with several European kingdoms. Edmund was the uncle of the West Frankish king Louis IV and the brother-in-law of the East Frankish king Otto I. The diplomatic relations of Edmund's reign are not fully documented, but he continued the alliances established by his predecessor and welcomed delegations sent by Otto to his court. In the early 940s, Edmund and Otto intervened on behalf of their nephew Louis when he was taken prisoner by the Frankish Duke Hugh the Great. The latter agreed to free the king in exchange for the city of Laon.

There is little trace of the relations between the English and continental clergy during Edmund's reign, but here, too, the links established during Æthelstan's reign must have persisted. One indication of these ties is the presence of the king's name in the liber vitae of Pfäfers Abbey, which may have been inscribed there at the request of Archbishop Oda when he went to Rome to collect his pallium.

Death and Succession

Edmund died on May 26, 946 in a scuffle at Pucklechurch, Gloucestershire. The twelfth-century chronicler John of Worcester reports that he was killed by a thief named Leofa while trying to defend his steward. Clare Downham and Kevin Halloran believe that Edmund was actually the victim of a politically motivated assassination, but most historians do not question the traditional account of his death.

Edmund has been married twice. With his first wife, Ælfgifu, he had two sons, Eadwig and Edgar. Since the latter was born in 943, his parents must have married around the time of Edmund's accession. The name of Ælfgifu's father is unknown, but his mother Wynflæd is mentioned in a charter of Edgar, which confirms a donation from her to the abbey of Shaftesbury. Like her mother, Ælfgifu was a patron of Shaftesbury Abbey, where she was buried at her death in 944 and where she was subsequently venerated as a saint. Edmund's second wife, Æthelflæd, had no children with him and survived him; she was still alive in 991. His father Ælfgar became ealdorman of Essex in 946 and Edmund gave him a sword decorated with gold and silver, which Ælfgar later gave to King Eadred. Æthelflæd remarries after Edmund's death to Æthelstan Rota, ealdorman in south-east Mercy.

The deceased king was buried at Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset, run by Abbot Dunstan. Insofar as his death was unexpected, the choice of this place probably simply implies that Dunstan was the quickest to secure control of the king's remains. It does not necessarily reflect the crown's approval of the monastic reform movement, or even the spiritual prestige that this monastery might possess.

Since Edmund's two sons were still very young, his younger brother Eadred took the throne. Edmund's eldest son, Eadwig, became king after Eadred's death in 955.

The government of the kingdom

Edmund inherited the interests of his brother and his principal advisors, including the ealdorman Æthelstan and the bishops Ælfheah the Bald and Oda. Edmund appointed Oda archbishop of Canterbury in 941, making him primate of the English Church. Æthelstan's authority extended over East Anglia, the East Midlands and Essex, earning him the nickname "Half King". In the years following Edmund's accession, his brothers Æthelwold and Eadric also became ealdormen, and his wife Ælfwynn served as foster mother to Prince Edgar. The power enjoyed by this family, which administered more than half the kingdom, was comparable to that of the house of Godwin a century later, according to the historian Cyril Hart. The king's mother, Eadgifu, also regained a prominent place at court after a period of retreat during the reign of her stepson.

Until the middle of 940, Edmund's charters present the same witnesses as Æthelstan's last ones, but thereafter they include four additional ealdormen, three of them located in Mercy, perhaps to strengthen the positions of the house of Wessex against Olaf Gothfrithson. Alaric Trousdale believes that the year 943 marks a turning point. Prior to this date, Edmund focused on strengthening ties with his subjects in Mercy and East Anglia and eliminating regionalist resistance. After 943, he focused more on governing Wessex itself.

The presence of Eadgifu and Eadred on many of Edmund's charters reflects a high degree of family cooperation, with no known parallel in the history of Anglo-Saxon royalty. His mother appears on a third of his charters, including all those concerning gifts to clergy or religious institutions, always with the title "mother of the king" (regis mater). His brother appeared on more than half of his charters, most often with the title of "brother of the king" (frater regis), but twice with that of cliton, equivalent to the Old English ætheling designating a prince of the blood eligible for succession.

The currency

In Edmund's time, the only coin in common use in England was the silver penny. The majority of pennies minted during his reign were of the "Horizontal" (H) type, with the king's name encircling a central decoration (usually a cross) on the obverse and the minter's name written horizontally on the reverse. In East Anglia and the Danish counties, another type of coin is attested, the "Bust Crowned" (BC), with an often crude portrait of the king on the obverse. A significant number of coins minted under Æthelstan indicate the name of the town where they were struck, but this detail becomes rare before the advent of Edmund, except in Norwich where it persists in the 940s on BC type coins.

The decrease in the weight of the coins, which had already begun under the reign of Æthelstan, continued under that of Edmund. It accelerated from about 940 onwards and only ended with the great monetary reform of Edgar, around 973. Nevertheless, the rate of silver in these coins does not seem to have decreased at the time of Edmund. There was also an increased regional diversity in coinage, which lasted for about twenty years, until the beginning of Edgar's reign.

The legislation

Edmund continued the work of legal reform begun by Æthelstan, and his grandson Æthelred the Misguided mentions him in a list of "wise legislators" of the past. There are three surviving penal codes promulgated during his reign, which historians call I Edmund, II Edmund and III Edmund. Their relative chronology is not in doubt, although it is impossible to assign them a date. The first one deals with religious matters, while the other two are concerned with public order.

The penal code I Edmund is promulgated on the occasion of a council organized by the king in London and attended by the archbishops Oda and Wulfstan. It strongly resembles the "constitutions" promulgated at an earlier date by Oda. Clergy who were not celibate risked losing their property and being denied burial in consecrated ground. Other articles concerned tithing and the restitution of clergy property. The growing importance of the sanctity of the royal institution is seen in the clause that forbids unrepentant murderers to be in the presence of the king. The code also condemned perjury and the use of magic drugs (both crimes that involved breaking a Christian oath), making Edmund one of the few Anglo-Saxon kings to legislate against witchcraft.

In Code II Edmund, the king praises the way his subjects fight theft. The text emphasizes royal authority and dignity while encouraging local initiatives in maintaining order. The king and his advisors, however, indicate that they are "greatly disturbed by the many illegal acts of violence that take place among us" and wish to promote "peace and harmony. Their main objective with this code is to regulate and control family vengeance, the faides. Murderers are asked to pay monetary compensation (wergeld) to their victim's relatives. If the wergeld is not paid, the faide can continue, but it is forbidden to attack the murderer if he is in a church or in a royal manor. If the murderer's family abandoned him and refused to contribute to the wergeld or protect him, they were exempt from the faide, and if the victim's relatives went after them, they incurred the hostility of the king and risked losing all their property. Historian Dorothy Whitelock believes that the need for better regulation of faides is linked to the arrival of settlers from Scandinavia who considered it more virile to settle this type of conflict through violence than through a financial transaction. The text of II Edmund presents a certain number of lexical borrowings from Old Norse, such as hamsocn, which designates the crime of attacking a farm, punished by the loss of all one's possessions for the assailant, as well as death if the king so decides.

Promulgated in Colyton, Devon, the III Edmund Code clearly states, for the first time in England and in terms inspired by Carolingian law, the personal bonds of loyalty and obedience that link the great men of the kingdom to their sovereign. Divine punishment was a crucial threat in a society where the means of punishing disloyalty were limited. Several articles emphasize the duties of lords to their servants. Theft, especially cattle theft, is also the subject of a number of articles: the cooperation of the whole population is expected for the capture of cattle thieves and slaves guilty of theft are punished by death or mutilation. It is in this penal code that the first mention of the hundred, a local government unit, appears: whoever refuses to help in the capture of a thief must pay 120 shillings to the king and 30 shillings to the hundred.

Ann Williams notes that Edmund's last two codes clearly outline the functions of the four pillars of medieval society: king, lord, family and community. While noting their disparities, Patrick Wormald emphasizes their commonalities, particularly in the area of rhetoric. Alaric Trousdale argues that Edmund's legislative work breaks new ground by giving greater power to local authorities in the area of law enforcement, as well as in the funding of local institutions.


The great English religious movement of the tenth century, the Benedictine reform, reached its peak during the reign of Edgar, but its beginnings can be seen as early as the time of Edmund at the instigation of the monks Oda and Dunstan, who were elevated to the dignity of archbishop of Canterbury under Edmund and Edgar respectively. Oda was close to the reformist centers on the continent, notably Fleury Abbey, and was one of the leading figures at the English court from the reign of Æthelstan. According to his hagiographer, Dunstan was also influential at Edmund's court until his rivals obtained his dismissal, but the king changed his mind after his near-death experience and offered him an estate at Glastonbury including his abbey. Modern historians do not accept all the details of this account: Dunstan does not appear on any charter from Edmund's reign, unlike his brother, which calls into question his influence at court at that time. Even if Edmund did offer Glastonbury Abbey to Dunstan, it may have been to keep a troublemaker away from court. However, the king made numerous donations to Glastonbury which laid the foundations for the abbey's wealth and prestige. Dunstan was joined by Æthelwold and the two men devoted themselves to study in the years that followed. Under their guidance, Glastonbury became the first focus of monastic reform in England.

During Edgar's reign, the Benedictine monasticism promoted by Æthelwold and his entourage was considered the only acceptable way of religious life, but this was not the case in Edmund's time. While the king wished to support the Church, he was not attached to any particular ideology or movement, and his donations were in continuity with those of Æthelstan. In 944, when Gerard de Brogne imposed the Benedictine rule on the abbey of Saint-Bertin de Saint-Omer, the monks who refused this change fled to England where Edmund welcomed them in a church in Bath that belonged to the crown. This move could be explained by personal reasons (Edmund's half-brother, Edwin, was buried by the monks of Saint-Bertin after he drowned at sea in 933), but it shows in any case that in the eyes of Edward, the Benedictine rule was not the only valid monastic rule. A charter of 945 sees Edmund granting privileges to Bury St Edmunds Abbey, an unreformed monastery, but the authenticity of this document is debated.

The religious revival witnessed by the beginnings of the Benedictine reform is also expressed by the large number of noblewomen who decide to enter the orders. Edmund made seven donations to such women, among them a nun named Ælfgyth (S 493), patron of Wilton Abbey, and a certain Wynflæd (S 485) who was almost certainly the mother of his first wife. This phenomenon extended beyond the limits of his reign: two similar donations were made by his predecessor Æthelstan and four more by his successor Eadred, after which this practice abruptly ceased. Its exact meaning remains unclear, but it probably allows religiously inclined noblewomen to choose how they wish to pursue this vocation, either by founding a convent or by leading a religious existence in their own homes.

Edmund probably took advantage of his campaign against Strathclyde in 945 to visit the shrine of St. Cuthbert in Chester-le-Street, where he invoked the saint's protection for himself and his army. His men made an offering of £60 to the shrine and the king gave two gold bracelets and two pallia græca, Byzantine silk pieces, directly to the body of the saint. He also confirmed the rights of the community of Chester-le-Street to the estates it held. His support and respect testify both to the political power of this community in the North and to the fervor with which the cult of St. Cuthbert was observed in the South. William of Malmesbury also indicates that Edmund brought the relics of several Northumbrian saints, such as Aidan of Lindisfarne, to the South and entrusted them to Glastonbury Abbey.

Edmund died at the age of twenty-five at most, after a reign of barely six years. Like his younger brother Eadred (r. 946-955) and his older son Eadwig (r. 955-959), he tends to be neglected by historians who are more interested in the great figures of tenth-century England such as Æthelstan and Edgar. For some, such as Barbara Yorke and Cyril Hart, Edmund appears as a falot ruler, subject to the authority of his mother Eadgifu and the great ealdormen of the kingdom such as Æthelstan Half-King. Ann Williams and Frank Stenton, on the other hand, believe that he was energetic and effective in the military and political fields. David Dumville suggests that he might have become one of the most remarkable monarchs of the Anglo-Saxon period had he not died so young.

Alaric Trousdale's 2007 doctoral dissertation on Edmund's reign attributes to him a crucial role in the formation of the kingdom of England in the tenth century. He discerns in his legislation a desire to increase cooperation between the different administrative levels of the kingdom, as well as a greater integration of the interests of the great families of Mercy and East Anglia, regions recently acquired by the house of Wessex. In his eyes, Edmund was also moving away from the centralizing model of Æthelstan towards a more equitable collaboration with local authorities, both secular and religious.


  1. Edmund I
  2. Edmond Ier
  3. ^ He is called Edmund the Elder in Sharon Turner's early nineteenth-century History of the Anglo-Saxons.[1] Other nicknames include Edmund the Deed-Doer,[2][3] Edmund the Just[3] and Edmund the Magnificent[3] (Latin Edmundus Magnificus).[2]
  4. ^ According to William of Malmesbury, Edmund was about eighteen years old when he succeeded to the throne in 939.[11]
  5. ^ Edmund attested one other charter of Æthelstan which some scholars regard as genuine, S 455, dated to between 934 and 939.[18] (A charter's S number is its number in Peter Sawyer's list of Anglo-Saxon charters, available online at the Electronic Sawyer.)
  6. Stenton 1971, p. 319-321.
  7. Stenton 1971, p. 339-340.
  8. Stenton 1971, p. 342-343.
  9. ASC A, s. a. 937
  10. F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, S. 356
  11. B. Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages, S. 96
  12. T. D. Kendrick, A History of the Vikings, S. 254
  13. Edmund I (king of England), "Edmund-I" Encyclopædia Britannica
  14. Edmund I (king of England), "Edmund-I" Encyclopædia Britannica
  15. David Nash Ford, Edmund the Magnificent, King of the English (AD 921-946)

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