Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

King Edgar and Church Reform

Steve Muhlberger

Of all the English kings of the tenth century, Edgar, who reigned from 959 to 975, was the happiest --   in the classical sense -- , in that his rule over the still-new English kingdom was essentially untroubled.

With no serious Viking rivals, Edgar was effectively the emperor of the British isles. He did not directly control everything, but he was the acknowledged overlord of all neighboring monarchs. The climax of his reign came near the end, in 973, when six kings from around the Irish sea came to Chester, where they submittted to him, and demonstrated their inferior status by rowing him in a small boat up and down the River Dee.

Edgar did not have much need to fight, but he  was far from being a do-nothing king.  He put his energy into another project. He tackled the great challenge of church reform.

Church reform is a tricky word, because it assumes that the reformers are the good guys and their opponents are corrupt and evil people, battening on the church and misusing its power and property for illicit purposes. This is certainly the way that the reformers in any given era see the matter. It is permissible to take sides in history, and say, for instance, that the reformers were right. But it is not necessary to do so, and we certainly do not have to adopt the reformers' point of view by default.

Throughout the medieval period, the church had an uneasy relationship to its lay patrons. The church was very willing to accept material favors and privileges from nobles and kings. Land was the most secure form of wealth, and if the church was to finance ambitious projects,  it needed to have land. At the same time, the church, which saw itself as a spiritual organization essentially different from all others, wanted to enjoy complete freedom in the way it used those privileges, gifts, and lands that it received.

But a family that had endowed a church or monastery tended to think of that institution as part of their family estates. It was very common for monasteries in particular to be headed by a member of the founder's family generation after generation, in this way serving as a prop for the dynasty. In such an organization, spiritual goals and strict eccelsiastical discipline could easily be forgotten.  Institutions and property became "secularized" -- converted to worldly (ordinary) uses.  This was a perennial problem in the Middle Ages.

In times of insecurity or turmoil, more drastic secularization was likely. This might simply be theft of church property by a local warlord, or the appropriation of  church offices.   Another type of secularization involved a church corporation turning over some of its land to a protector in return for a low, low rent.

These drastic types of secularization were dangerous to church discipline, because they either removed an institution from ecclesiastical control or  impoverished the corporation.

In the tenth century, all over Europe, the most dedicated churchmen saw a crying need for reform, because Viking raids and civil wars had resulted in a lot of secularization..

The consequences for the church's mission as an unwordly institution were what you might expect. Things seemed worse in the monasteries that survived.  It was hard to find disciplined monasteries at the beginning of the tenth century.  Many so-called monks had wives and children.  Not too many people objected to marriage for the "secular" clergy (those parish priests and other clergy who lived "in the world"), but married monks could not be monks at all. Any further accusations against them -- and reformers talked about debauchery and dissipation at length -- were just icing on the cake

Most people took this stuff for granted, I suppose, but a zealous minority was really alarmed.  Some were dedicated monks; others, perhaps surprisingly, included some very influential lay people. Even people who had built their power on stolen church property sometimes put much of their ill-gotten gains into reforming monasteries.

Monasticism was the key for the reformers because there was a consensus in society that a good monk and his prayers were pleasing to God in a way that no else could be. Lay people who were religiously inclined knew that their normal lives were not pleasing to God; nor could their unaided prayers move him. They needed intercessors -- those who could speak to God for them. Dead saints might help, but among the living, the good monk held a unique place. Some very powerful and of course very worldly men and women in the tenth century became patrons of a purer monasticism because they wished to have that heavenly connection.

The new monasticism, where the rules were taken seriously, began with a few determined monks who convinced patrons to give them land for a new foundation, or to make them abbots of old monasteries that could be turned into strict communities. The reforming abbots who succeeded became monastic superstars. They were sought after by other patrons who also wanted that heavenly connection, and who gave them further monasteries to reform.

Monastic reform in England was due to the efforts of three clerics.

The first was Dunstan, who was a nobleman from Wessex with connections at the royal court. Another was his close friend Aethelwold, another West Saxon, and also of high rank. The third was Oswald, interestingly enough from a Anglo-Danish family, but one well-established in the church. He was related to two archbishops.  Their common trait was that, despite being born into comfortable circumstances, and having easy access to good careers either in the church or outside it, they felt compelled to work for radical change.

Dunstan was the first prominent agitator for monastic reform.  Dunstan, once he became a monk did not avoid the court, but seems to have hung around being obnoxious. Part of this obnoxiousness was a natural consequence of his reforming aims. The new monasticism was unavoidably an attack on the property rights of every important family in the kingdom. They all had some interest in church property. King Edmund considered exiling him, but in 940, after nearly being killed while hunting, he decided to make a pious gesture: Dunstan was given the old and prominent monastery of Glastonbury. Aethelwold joined him there.

Glastonbury became Dunstan's experimental community, and later Aethelwold was granted control of Abingdon.   But until 957, their efforts gained halfhearted royal support (Eadred) or hostility (from his successor Eadwig).

In 957, however, the reformers got a king willing to shake things up. In that year the Mercians decided that Eadwig was no good, and chose Edgar as king, or perhaps subking, of central England. This is a curious incident, but we have almost no information on it. Edgar called Dunstan back and gave him not one but two bishoprics -- London and Worcester. When Eadwig died in 959, and Edgar became sole king, Edgar tossed out the recently appointed archbishop of Canterbury and gave the top spot in the English church to Dunstan. A little later, Aethelwold was made bishop of Winchester. About the same time Oswald, who was only in his twenties, but who had been at the French reformed monastery at Fleury, was made bishop of Worcester. Oswald later became archbishop of York, without having to give up Worcester.

Through these appointments, Edgar had made the three monks great royal deputies and extremely wealthy lords.   Edgar followed this up by generously endowing new monasteries that Dunstan, Aethelwold andOswald set up.

Reform proceded against great resistance, and sometimes involved the use of revolutionary violence. In 964, Aethelwold got fed up with the older clergy at his cathedral at Winchester, whom he considered a bunch of licentious blasphemers, and so he tossed them out and deprived them of their incomes, replacing them with monks. All these people were well connected, so this was no easy matter. It required, in fact, royal support to make the purge stick.

The sudden success of the reform in England really hung on Edgar's determination. The charter for Aethelwold's new monastery at Winchester, issued in 966, explained his motivation thus:

Fearing lest I should incur eternal misery if I failed to do the will of him who moves all things in Heaven and Earth, I have -- acting as the Vicar of Christ -- driven out the crowds of vicious canons from various monasteries under my control, because their intercessions could avail me nothing...and I have substituted communities of monks, pleasing to God, who shall intercede for us without ceasing.
Aethelwold's purge is here justified on purely religious grounds. The old clergy represent false religion. The new monks are holy and effective channels of communication to God. Indeed, in the same charter, the monks are compared to soldiers, who protect the king and the clergy of the realm from invisible enemies and "the aery wiles of the devils." [Quotations from Richard Southern, Western Church and Society in the Middle Ages (Penguin Books)]

There is a kind of partnership between the secular power and the spiritual one, both being defenders of the realm in their own way. How close that partnership was meant to be is indicated by the phrase Vicar of Christ, which means "Christ's deputy." The king, just like Constantine and Charlemagne, has the responsibility, to make sure that right religion was practiced and observed. And this responsibility implies power, power over the church and the whole Christian people, power of a very high order.

How seriously Edgar took this is indicated by one of his most sweeping acts, the imposition, in 975, of a standard rule on all monasteries and nunneries.  Only a strong king could hope to implement such decrees, to live up to the image fashioned for him by his bishops and monks as a figure with a power to reform and reshape society comparable to Christ's.

There were both risks and benefits to taking on such a role. Edgar was strong, but there were many conflicting interest groups. By supporting the monastic reformers, he was creating a new and wealthy interest group uniquely bound to him. The reformers aimed at creating a purified clerical caste that would control the church. Purity in their terms meant that clerics, celibate and disciplined, would foresake normal family ties and cleave to the artificial family of the church. If you recall how important family ties were in politics and society, this is a very radical demand. And it could only be accomplished by robbing many powerful clans of lands and privileges they had held for decades or centuries.

The reformers knew that they had no hope of gaining their goal without royal support. They would perforce be loyal to him, unless he provoked them. Edgar himself was gambling. Like the earliest Christian kings, he was imposing a new aristocracy on a society that already had one. When he gave lands to new abbeys like Ramsey, or Ely, or Peterborough, they were not empty lands.

The reform of the English church can be rated both a success and a failure. Success, in that a new, stricter monasticism was established and enforced. Even the early death of Edgar did not stop the movement, in part because the three clerical leaders lived to a great old age.

The reform movement led to a church that was better organized and more learned outside the monasteries as well as within them. On the other hand, the political resentments that resulted from Edgar's radical and sometimes high-handed actions created political divisions in the kingdom that surfaced once his strong hand left the tiller. And the tenth century was a dangerous time for a ruling class to indulge in feuding.


This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.


Original material copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.