York 975: Crisis!

By Martin Williams.

Edgar I, king of the English (and other peoples) died in 975, at the age of 32. His reign had been long for the time, and stable: Church and State had prospered under a rule that brooked no opposition, but apparently met none. He had generally favoured reform: he left behind him much new legislation, and had favoured the new models of monasticism spreading from the great abbey of Cluny in Burgundy – and a main plank of this new thinking was that the great monasteries and convents should be beholden to none for their protection but God and the Crown, and for certain that no revenue should flow from God’s houses to any secular coffers.

The cost of this reform, in both land and silver, had fallen on the greater and lesser lords of the lands below the Trent, who were accustomed to expect some return on their endowments of the Church, and an undercurrent of hostility, disappointment and faction had been created, which only took the death of a wise and active king to burst forth.

For Edgar (as virile in private as he was active in public (or so it was said)) left no adult heirs, but two young sons, each by a different wife. Edward was the elder of the two, from Edgar’s second wife, Æþelflæd Eneda, and Æþelred the younger, from his third wife and anointed queen Ælfþryþ. Both princes had factions form around them.

Edward had the advantage of age, and his faction favoured continued reform: however, his mother and the old king were related to a degree which the Church would strictly regard as consanguineous. Furthermore, the marriage had been contracted whilst Edgar’s first wife Wulfðryð yet lived, and was thus strictly adulterous. Æðelred was the younger (and still a child), but he was fully legitimate and his mother the Queen still lived and was very influential.

The senior earls of England were divided: Æðelwine of East Anglia and Byrhtnoð of Essex declared for Edward: Ælfhere of Mercia (whose personal revenues had suffered from the reforming zeal of Archbishop Oswald of Worcester and York) for Æðelred. The chronicler of Ramsey (a new abbey) recorded in later years: “Strife threw the kingdom into turmoil, moved shire against shire, family against family, prince against prince, earl against earl, drove bishop against the people and folk against the pastors set over them”. Likewise, Archbishop Wulfstan commented “And over and again widows were robbed, and many wrongs and injustices rose up thereafter, and after that it always got much worse”. Ælfhere, motivated by personal enmity as much as his political views, quickly took his revenge on the monks upon the old king’s death: the abbeys at Evesham, Winchcombe, Pershore and Deerhurst, all major props of the archbishop’s programme and in the heartland of his power, were sacked or damaged. In addition to all this, there was a comet in the sky, and a famine in the land.

The Church, seeing the partisans of a child-prince, however legitimate in the eyes of the law, engaged in assaults upon its shrines, was forced into somewhat of a volte-face, and moved swiftly to recognise Edward as king, despite his evident flaws of character and temperament.

What of York? Earl Oslac had ruled city and shire for the king since 963, by 975 he was known as a “bold-hearted hero… a grey-haired man, wise and eloquent”. A good lord in time of peace, perhaps, for we see York’s prosperity increase during his tenure, with new and larger buildings, but in a time of sudden crisis (for Edgar’s death was not expected) he may have fallen short – for we do not know upon which side of the fence he jumped, if he jumped at all, or whether he was given the chance to jump.

All that is known is that he was driven into exile “over the rolling waves, over the gannet’s bath… over the tumult of waters, over the whale’s country, bereft of homes”. Why? He was the first outsider (an East Midlander) to rule directly in the North under the new regime: his predecessor, Osulf of Bamburgh, had overthrown the Viking, Eirik Bloodaxe, and had delivered York to the English, but was himself a Northumbrian. Likewise, Oswald the Archbishop was an outsider, with his power-base in his other and richer diocese of Worcester. With a power vacuum at the centre of the State, and with the tremendous moral backing of the Archbishop distracted in the South, those opposed to reform and those who maybe hankered after the old independence, only twenty years lost, had a chance to strike, and the old earl fell,  to be replaced by Ðored Gunnarson, a noted leader of men, who had done well against the Cumbrians and the Norse in Westmorland.

But in the South the partisans of Edward, backed by the Church, had moved swiftly, and although none who rose or fell in this muddled time had their fortunes reversed, the new king was secure upon his throne.

But not for long… for there was no resolution to the issues that had sparked the turmoil, and it would not be long before there was a new king on Edgar’s throne, and as the sagas and chronicles often tell us, there was nought good came of that in the long run…