Edgar the Peaceful: King, Saint and Coxswain

Pic 1. A fanciful Victorian view of eight kings or princes rowing down the Dee from Chester in 973 with King Edgar I at the helm. At least one of the picture’s inaccuracies is that the city did not have a castle at the time. Also, a little more outboard on the oars would have helped.
A fanciful Victorian view of eight kings or princes rowing down the Dee from Chester in 973 with King Edgar I at the helm. At least one of the picture’s inaccuracies is that the city did not have a castle at the time. Also, a little more outboard on the oars would have helped.

Tim Koch writes:

I have recently published two posts on rowing and British royalty, noting that in the early twentieth century the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, who was later Duke of Windsor, was prevented from taking up coxing by his parents and that in the early fourteenth century Edward II enjoyed rowing despite the widespread view that it was not a fit pastime for a ruler chosen by God. I thought that was the end of this particular thread until I was thumbing through Boating, Chris Dodd’s 1983 anthology of rowing: a 1927 poem by writer and Cambridge coxswain R.E. Swartwout reminded me of the story of the nine (or, according to some accounts, seven) kings who took to the water together in a rowing boat in the year 973.

When Peaceful Edgar ruled the land
He had eight kings at his command;
How did he tame this royal band?
Ah, he was knowing!
These kings he did not subjugate
And make them draw his coach of state
Like Tamburlaine; he built an eight
And taught them rowing

Tamburlaine is the hero of a play by Christopher Marlowe. Tamburlaine was a Central Asian emperor who made the kings he defeated in battle pull his chariot. ‘Peaceful Edgar’ was Edgar I, King of England  from 959 to 975, also known as Edgar the Peaceful or Saint Edgar (though he was canonised in a time when local bishops and not the Vatican made saints and when there was less stress on such holy men having exemplary private lives).

Pic 2. A picture of Edgar from 966.
A picture of Edgar from 966.

Although few people have heard of him, King Edgar I, a great-grandson of Alfred the Great, is regarded as the first ruler of a united England, the first to rule its three most powerful kingdoms. He was made King of Mercia and Northumbria in 957, and, following his brother’s death in 959, succeed to the throne of Wessex when just 16. Edgar’s gradual rise to power meant that for many years there was no coronation proclaiming him to be ruler of all three kingdoms. However, in 973 after fourteen years on the throne, he was crowned at Bath in a major ceremony ‘planned not as the initiation, but as the culmination of his reign’. To quote Holmes:

The coronation had double significance. For the first time a Saxon king was crowned as king of all the English, a title used by previous monarchs but never as part of their coronation. Edgar was thus the first genuine king of England…….. Following the coronation, Edgar put on a display of force. His army marched along the Welsh border from Bath to Chester, showing his authority over the Welsh, whilst his fleet sailed through the Irish Sea, also demonstrating his subjugation of the Norse who still held power in that area at Dublin and on (the Isle of) Man. At Chester eight kings of Wales and (of Scotland) assembled to make their submission to him. A later chronicler suggested that these eight kings then rowed Edgar along the river Dee with him at the helm. 

Pic 3. The Coronation of Edgar as King of England in 973.
The Coronation of Edgar as King of England in 973

More than one ‘later chroniclers’ told a version of this story, the earlier ones claiming six kings rowed, later ones adding a couple more. Chronicler John of Worcester, for example, is quoted in Tim Clarkson’s blog, ‘Strathclyde & the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age’:

Edgar the Peaceable, king of the English, was blessed and crowned with the utmost honour and glory…. Shortly afterwards, he sailed round the north coast of Wales with a large fleet and came to the city of Chester. He was met, as he had commanded, by eight tributary kings….. who swore fealty and bound themselves to military service by land and sea. Attended by them, king Edgar on a certain day went on board a boat, and while they plied the oars, he took the helm, and steered skilfully down the course of the river Dee, and followed by his whole retinue of earls and nobles he sailed from the palace to the monastery of St. John the Baptist. Having paid his devotions there, he returned to the palace with the same pomp. He is reported to have said to his nobles, as he entered the gates,that any successor of his might truly boast of being king of England when he should receive such honours, with so many kings doing him homage.

Pic 3a. This picture of 1808 has a strange sense of proportion.
This picture of 1808 has a strange sense of proportion.

Another chronicler wrote that Edgar:

……called (the kings) to enter into a barge upon the waters of the Dee, and placing himself in the forepart of the barge at the helm, he called those eight high princes to row the barge up and down the water, showing thereby his princely prerogative and royal magnificence, in that he might use the service of so many kings that were his subjects.

Pic 4. Edgar takes it easy in another romanticised Victorian view of his progress down the Dee. The kings adopt a laid back ‘Lady Margaret’ style of rowing.
Edgar takes it easy in another romanticised Victorian view of his progress down the Dee. The kings adopt a laid back ‘Lady Margaret’ style of rowing.

The point of the story is that the entire occasion represented an assertion of Saxon supremacy over the Celts of England, Scotland and Wales and possibly over some of the more widely dispersed Danes. Sadly, as strong as the image is, some historians doubt that this incident ever happened. Others say that Edgar may well have been rowed in ceremonial procession along the Dee but with watermen, not kings, at the oars. Yet others say that the important thing is that the common interpretation placed on the story is wrong and that those kings rowing under Edgar’s command did not do so as a display of subjugation. Unfortunately, as historian D.G. Scargg says: ‘Precisely what happened at Chester (in the tenth-century) has been irretrievably obscured by the embellishments of twelfth-century historians’. These later writers had their own agenda, driven by the attempts of the Normans to gain some control over other rulers in the British Isles, especially the Scottish kings. It suited them to show that Wales and the North had been subjugated in the past.

Pic 5.  In this imagining, the poor old kings have to carry nine passengers.
In this imagining, the poor old kings have to carry nine passengers.

In another of his blogs, ‘Senchus, notes on early medieval Scotland’, Tim Clarkson posts a piece titled ‘Nine men in a boat’. He holds that the account of the row by John of Worcester and others:

… portrays the ceremony on the Dee as a ritual of homage by under-kings to a dominant overlord……. An alternative view disregards much of the account as 12th century propaganda and instead sees the royal gathering as an assembly of ambitious rivals seeking peaceful solutions to their differences. Such high-level assemblies, where important political issues were discussed, required an appropriate setting and were often conducted on frontier rivers regarded as neutral zones….. The journey along the river from palace to monastery is usually understood as eight sub-kings hauling the oars to symbolise fealty to an over-king steering the boat. The alternative view sees the journey as a symbol of peace and co-operation between powerful rulers, each of whom helped to propel the vessel. In this scenario the nine kings can be imagined as a kind of “team” comprising eight members who hauled the oars while the ninth – their English host – held the rudder. Being a man of small stature and puny physique (which allegedly amused Cinaed of Scotland) Edgar was ideally suited for the role of coxswain. In the context of this alternative interpretation, which sees the event of 973 as a diplomatic meeting rather than as a ritual of submission, it is perhaps no coincidence that Edgar’s usual epithet is “the Peaceable”.

I suspect that Clarkson has some sort of rowing background and he raises an interesting question. Is rowing under a coxswain ‘fealty to an over-king steering the boat’ or is it ‘a symbol of peace and co-operation between powerful rulers, each of whom (helps) to propel the vessel’? I suppose it depends on which way you are facing.

Pic 6. A stained glass window in the present-day church of St John the Baptist, which stands beside the River Dee on the site of the earlier Anglo-Saxon monastery. In a reversal of the usual situation, the cox towers over the rowers.
A stained glass window in the present-day church of St John the Baptist, which stands beside the River Dee on the site of the earlier Anglo-Saxon monastery. In a reversal of the usual situation, the cox towers over the rowers.

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