On this date in 959 CE Edgar the Peaceful became king of all England. Before I get into details about Edgar let me dribble on for a while about the history of Anglo-Saxon England, particularly about how it is conceived in standard school textbooks. As a schoolboy I was taught that the BIG EVENT in English history was the conquest by William the Bastard in 1066. Anglo-Saxon history was no more than a series of cute vignettes, such as Alfred and the cakes, or Canute commanding the waves. The rest was irrelevant to the REAL history of England which began with William. This is pure propaganda, still fed to us by the line of monarchs that followed down to the current useless bunch. If you look closely at the history of post-conquest England you’ll see that for about 100 years, following William, England was nothing more than a province of Normandy (or various other French power blocs) as far as its kings were concerned. The kings spoke French and spent most of their time away from England. England was nothing more than a source of income and labor. Richard I, vaunted by Victorian Romantics as the GREAT KING, spoke French, and when he wasn’t Crusading was battling enemies in continental Europe. He spent no more than a few months in England during his entire reign. His brother, John, on the other hand, was reviled by the Victorians because of Magna Carta and the like.
Go here for much more of my thoughts on all of this:
The fact is that William, while he unified England in certain critical ways, was not by any means the first king of England. Who was the first king of a unified England will be debated endlessly, no doubt. Some say it was Alfred the Great (849 – 899), some, his grandson, Æthelstan (c. 894 – 939). I’ll leave you to read the details elsewhere. No one disputes that Edgar I was king of all England with provincial kings under him, although, like Alfred and Æthelstan, he is sometimes called king of the English.
Edgar I (Old English: Ēadgār – “happy spear” i.e. powerful) was the son of Edmund I and Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury. Upon the death of Edmund in 946, Edgar’s uncle, Eadred, ruled until 955. Eadred was succeeded by his nephew, Eadwig, son of Edmund (Edgar’s older brother). Eadwig was not a popular king, and his reign was marked by conflict with nobles and the Church, primarily St Dunstan and Archbishop Oda. In 957, the thanes of Mercia and Northumbria changed their allegiance to Edgar. A conclave of nobles declared Edgar as king of the territory north of the Thames. Edgar became king of all England on Eadwig’s death October 959, aged just 16.
One of Edgar’s first actions was to recall Dunstan from exile and have him made Bishop of Worcester (and subsequently Bishop of London and later, Archbishop of Canterbury). Dunstan remained Edgar’s advisor throughout his reign. While Edgar may not have been a particularly passive man, his reign was peaceful. The kingdom of England was well established, and Edgar consolidated the political unity achieved by his predecessors. By the end of his reign, England was sufficiently unified in that it was unlikely to regress back to a state of division among rival kingships, as it had to an extent under the reign of his uncle Eadred. In fact, some historians have argued that it was Edgar who was the truly pivotal figure in uniting all England by standardizing laws throughout the kingdom – far more than either Alfred or Æthelstan. In a letter to his subjects Canute states, ”it is my will that all the nation, ecclesiastical and lay, shall steadfastly observe Edgar’s laws, which all men have chosen and sworn at Oxford”.
The Monastic Reform Movement that introduced the Benedictine Rule to England’s monastic communities peaked during the era of Dunstan, Æthelwold, and Oswald, although the extent and significance of this movement is still debated.
Edgar was crowned at Bath and, along with his wife Ælfthryth, was anointed, setting a precedent for a coronation of a queen in England. Edgar’s coronation did not occur until 973, planned not as the initiation, but as the culmination of his reign, and which took a considerable amount of preliminary diplomacy with lesser kings. The coronation service, devised by Dunstan himself and celebrated with a poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, forms the basis of the present-day British coronation ceremony. The coronation was an important symbolic step towards further unification. Other kings of Britain came and gave their allegiance to Edgar shortly afterwards at Chester. Six kings in Britain, including the King of Scots and the King of Strathclyde, pledged their faith that they would be the king’s liege-men on sea and land. Later chroniclers made the kings into eight, all plying the oars of Edgar’s state barge on the River Dee.
Edgar died on 8 July 975 at Winchester, Hampshire. He left behind Edward, who was probably his illegitimate son by Æthelflæd (not to be confused with the Lady of the Mercians), and Æthelred the younger, the child of his wife Ælfthryth. He was succeeded by Edward.
As it happens, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management was published first on this date in 1861. I’ve mentioned it numerous times before when I’ve needed Victorian recipes as well as here:
As it also happens, she had a lot to say about Anglo-Saxons and their cooking. To begin she has a point to make about food and the English language that I have taught numerous times.
NAMES OF ANIMALS SAXON, AND OF THEIR FLESH NORMAN.—The names of all our domestic animals are of Saxon origin; but it is curious to observe that Norman names have been given to the different sorts of flesh which these animals yield. How beautifully this illustrates the relative position of Saxon and Norman after the Conquest. The Saxon hind had the charge of tending and feeding the domestic animals, but only that they might appear on the table of his Norman lord. Thus ‘ox,’ ‘steer,’ ‘cow,’ are Saxon, but ‘beef’ is Norman; ‘calf’ is Saxon, but ‘veal’ Norman; ‘sheep’ is Saxon, but ‘mutton’ Norman; so it is severally with ‘deer’ and ‘venison,’ ‘swine’ and ‘pork,’ ‘fowl’ and ‘pullet.’ ‘Bacon,’ the only flesh which, perhaps, ever came within his reach, is the single exception.
She goes on to say later:
THE HOG IN ENGLAND.—From time immemorial, in England, this animal has been esteemed as of the highest importance. In the Anglo-Saxon period, vast herds of swine were tended by men, who watched over their safety, and who collected them under shelter at night. At that time, the flesh of the animal was the staple article of consumption in every family, and a large portion of the wealth of the rich freemen of the country consisted of these animals. Hence it was common to make bequests of swine, with lands for their support; and to these were attached rights and privileges in connection with their feeding, and the extent of woodland to be occupied by a given number was granted in accordance with established rules. This is proved by an ancient Saxon grant, quoted by Sharon Turner, in his “History of the Anglo-Saxons,” where the right of pasturage is conveyed in a deed by the following words:—”I give food for seventy swine in that woody allotment which the countrymen call Wolferdinlegh.”
This all leads me to think that a dish of boiled bacon is the answer. As Beeton tells us, bacon was the common meat of the Anglo-Saxons, and boiled bacon would have been something festive for many people. We’re not talking about the common sliced breakfast bacon, but a full rolled joint. It might be a little difficult to find but you could make one yourself. That’s a recipe for another time. Here’s Beeton. I usually add some potatoes, carrots, and onions to the water when I am boiling the bacon. I serve it with hot English mustard (along with peas or broad beans to go with the potatoes and carrots). Potatoes don’t match the Anglo-Saxon period, of course, but everything else does.
- INGREDIENTS.—Bacon; water.
Mode.—As bacon is frequently excessively salt, let it be soaked in warm water for an hour or two previous to dressing it; then pare off the rusty parts, and scrape the under-side and rind as clean as possible. Put it into a saucepan of cold water, let it come gradually to a boil, and as fast as the scum rises to the surface of the water, remove it. Let it simmer very gently until it is thoroughly done; then take it up, strip off the skin, and sprinkle over the bacon a few bread raspings, and garnish with tufts of cauliflower or Brussels sprouts. When served alone, young and tender broad beans or green peas are the usual accompaniments.
Time.—1 lb. of bacon, 1/4 hour; 2 lbs., 1-1/2 hour.
Average cost, 10d. to 1s. per lb. for the primest parts.
Sufficient.—2 lbs., when served with poultry or veal, sufficient for 10 persons.
Seasonable at any time.