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 Edmund I (920/21–946), coin Edmund I (920/21–946), coin
Edmund I (920/21–946), king of England, was the elder son of and his third wife, , daughter of the Kentish ealdorman, Sigehelm (d. 903). Since he was eighteen years old at his succession in 939, he was born in 920 or 921. He had one full brother, , and two full sisters, , who married Louis of Aquitaine, and , who became a nun at Winchester. Edmund grew up at the court of his half-brother (r. 924–39). He fought beside Æthelstan at the battle of ‘Brunanburh’ in 937 and was perhaps already his half-brother's intended heir; certainly he succeeded to the kingship immediately on Æthelstan's death on 27 October 939. It was probably then that he married his first wife, Ælfgifu, for their second son, , was born in 943. Ælfgifu died in 944 and was buried at Shaftesbury, where she was soon venerated as a saint. Edmund then married Æthelflæd of Damerham (d. after 991) (AS chart., S 513, 1494), daughter of Ælfgar, later ealdorman of Essex from 946 to 951; the king gave him a sword finely embellished with gold and silver, which Ælfgar later presented to King Eadred (AS chart., S 1483).

The struggle for the north

Æthelstan was the first of the West Saxon kings to rule the whole of England, including York, and his overlordship was acknowledged by the Northumbrians of Bamburgh and by the rulers of Wales, Cornwall, Scotland, and Strathclyde. Edmund inherited his half-brother's realm, but had to fight hard to retain it; much of his short reign was occupied in struggling against the viking rulers of Dublin for control of the north-east midlands and the kingdom of York. Æthelstan's dominance had been based on military force and his own formidable reputation and his death encouraged the York vikings to acknowledge Olaf Guthfrithson of Dublin as king. Olaf was in England by the end of 939. He clearly had ambitions to recreate the York–Dublin axis destroyed by Æthelstan; among the coins struck for him at York, one series bears the figure of a raven, recalling the ‘Raven banner’ captured by the English from the brother of his great-grandfather, Ivarr (ASC, s.a. 878).

Olaf also aimed to recover the southern territories of the kingdom of York, overrun by Edward the Elder and Æthelflæd of Mercia. In 940 he led his armies as far south as Northampton, and, being repulsed there, turned north-west to the old Mercian royal centre at Tamworth. The town was taken by storm, with much loss on both sides. It is clear that in order to campaign so far into Mercia, Olaf must already have overrun the old Danish strongholds to the north-east, and indeed it was at Leicester that he was overtaken by King Edmund's army. Edmund besieged Leicester, but there was no decisive engagement. Instead a truce was made, in which the north-east midlands, so laboriously won, were conceded to Olaf.

The agreement at Leicester was brokered, on the English side, by Oda, archbishop of Canterbury, and, for the Danes, by Wulfstan (d. 956), archbishop of York. Earlier archbishops of York had come to terms with the York vikings, which is presumably why Æthelstan had taken some trouble to engage their support, notably by the grant of Amounderness in 934 (AS chart., S 407). Wulfstan himself had been consecrated at Æthelstan's court, but ceases to attest his charters after 935, for reasons which can only be guessed at. Though secure in York itself, Olaf had enemies to the north as well as the south; in 941 he launched an expedition to Lothian, in the course of which the church of St Balthere at Tyninghame was burnt down, and in the same year the men of York raided Lindisfarne, within sight of Bamburgh, the main residence of the high-reeve Osulf, ruler of northern Northumbria.

The recovery of the north midlands

Olaf Guthfrithson's death in 941 allowed Edmund to retrieve his position. In 942 he recaptured the lost territories in the north-east midlands, and even went further, for he succeeded in detaching Lincoln and its dependent territory, Lindsey, from the control of the York kings. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which breaks into alliterative verse at this point, presents Edmund's conquests as a ‘redemption’ of the Danes in these regions, hitherto ‘subjected by force under the Norsemen, for a long time in bonds of captivity to the heathens’ (ASC, s.a. 942, text C). Whether contemporaries saw the matter in these terms is debatable; the chronicle is not contemporary for this period, and the ‘redemption’ poem was probably not composed before the late 950s. It cannot therefore be taken as evidence that the Five Boroughs (Lincoln, Stamford, Nottingham, Derby, and Leicester) existed at that time as an organized confederacy, nor that the shires later dependent on these boroughs had already been formed. In 942 the territory of Nottingham probably consisted only of the valley of the Trent, perhaps including Derby, with the rest of the later shire dependent upon a borough at Blyth or possibly Tickhill; likewise, the southern parts of what was to become Lincolnshire (Kesteven and Holland) were probably dependent upon Stamford. It was only after the English conquest that the Five Boroughs were organized as an administrative unit, probably in the 950s or 960s.

What arrangements Edmund himself made are unknown, but in 942 he granted substantial estates in what was to become Derbyshire to Wulfsige the Black (AS chart., S 479, 484, 1606). Wulfsige was probably related to a powerful north Mercian kindred, that of the lady Wulfrun, who is the only captive taken by Olaf at Tamworth in 940 to be mentioned by name in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; she later established the minster at Wolverhampton (AS chart., S 1380), and her son Wulfric Spot founded Burton Abbey (AS chart., S 1536). Edmund was continuing a policy of endowing nobles friendly to the West Saxon line with lands—and therefore an interest in retaining them—in the Danelaw; Edward the Elder had earlier given lands at Hope and Ashwell, Derbyshire, to Uhtred, son of Eadulf of Bamburgh, which were confirmed by Æthelstan (AS chart., S 397).

The recovery of York

Olaf Guthfrithson was succeeded at York by his cousin, Olaf Sihtricson, called Cuarán (‘Sandal’) by the Irish. In 943 this latter Olaf accepted baptism, with Edmund as his godfather, an act which suggests some acceptance, albeit temporary, of West Saxon suzerainty. Although the sources for this period are both late and fragmentary, it is clear that Olaf had rivals within York itself. Olaf Guthfrithson's brother, Ragnall, was at York by 943, and later in the same year he also accepted baptism under Edmund's sponsorship. Both Olaf and Ragnall issued coinages at York, as did a certain Sihtric, who is otherwise unknown. The coins of all three share common designs, also used for Olaf Guthfrithson, which may suggest some kind of joint authority. Whatever the circumstances, Edmund was able to expel both Olaf and Ragnall in 944. Æthelweard the Chronicler, writing in the late tenth century, attributes their expulsion to Archbishop Wulfstan and ‘the ealdorman of the Mercians’, who must, in the context, be Æthelmund, appointed by Edmund in 940, who probably held authority in north-west Mercia. It was Edmund himself, however, who ravaged Cumbria in 945 and had the sons of King Dunmail of Strathclyde blinded. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says he then ‘gave’ Strathclyde to Malcolm I, king of Scots, in return for an undertaking to defend the area ‘on sea and on land’ (ASC, s.a. 945), which probably means he acknowledged Malcolm's overlordship of the area in return for some kind of alliance against the vikings of Dublin. It was perhaps in the course of these campaigns that the relics of St Áedán and other saints from the Northumbrian ‘golden age’ were brought south to Glastonbury, for William of Malmesbury attributes their enshrinement there to Edmund.

England and Europe

Æthelstan's half-sisters had married into the leading royal and princely families of Europe, and his court had been open to churchmen and scholars from Ireland, Brittany, Wales, and both eastern and western Francia. Edmund's court was dominated by the men who had advised his half-brother, notably Ælfheah the Bald, bishop of Winchester, Oda, bishop of Ramsbury, whom Edmund made archbishop of Canterbury, and Æthelstan Half-King, ealdorman of East Anglia. It is, therefore, not surprising that Edmund inherited not only his half-brother's hegemony, but also many of his interests and policies. Like Æthelstan, he maintained contact with his brother-in-law, the emperor Otto I (d. 973), and the two of them supported the Frankish king Louis d'Outremer (d. 954), nephew of them both and Otto's brother-in-law, against his domestic enemies in 946. It was to Edmund also that the clergy of St Bertin (at St Omer in what was later Flanders) fled in 944 when their house was forcibly reformed by Gerhard of Brogne. The king gave them the secular minster at Bath as a refuge. He also helped the Gaelic churchman Catroe on his journey from Scotland to the continent in the early 940s. It was probably in Edmund's reign also that Archbishop Oda recruited the Frankish scholar Fredegaud (Anglicized as Frithegod) to his household.

Ecclesiastical reform

Edmund's translation of Bishop Oda from Ramsbury to Canterbury in 941 had important implications for the reform of the English church. Like Ælfheah the Bald of Winchester, Oda was a professed monk, who had served Æthelstan as counsellor and ambassador, and who had close contacts with the reform movement on the continent (especially at Fleury). His role in arranging the truce between Edmund and Olaf Guthfrithson in 940 has already been mentioned, and his hand has been detected in Edmund's first law-code, promulgated at an Easter synod held in London. It is largely concerned with ecclesiastical discipline and the collection of church dues, themes continued in Archbishop Oda's constitutions, which date from the years between 942 and 946.

Another sign of revival in the English church at this time is the number of noblewomen who chose the religious life, either as professed nuns or, more commonly, as vowesses living on their own estates, often close to ecclesiastical communities. Two of those who received grants from Edmund are the nun Ælfgyth, patron of Wilton Abbey, and the ‘religious woman’ Wynflæd, who was associated with Shaftesbury, and was perhaps the mother of Edmund's first wife, Ælfgifu. Both houses were royal foundations, much patronized by the West Saxon kings.

It was also Edmund who gave the royal vill of Glastonbury, with its church and appurtenant estates, to Dunstan, then a protégé of Ælfheah the Bald. Much has been made of this act, since Glastonbury was the first of the old minsters to be ‘reformed’ as a Benedictine house. It has to be said, however, that at least one of Dunstan's monks (Æthelwold, later bishop of Winchester) found the observance too lax, and sought a stricter discipline elsewhere. Dunstan's earliest biographer, ‘B’, says that he was placed by Edmund among the ‘royal magnates and palace officials’ (Stubbs, Memorials, 21) but made enemies and was expelled. Edmund had a change of heart only after his miraculous escape from death in a hunting accident near the Cheddar Gorge: the stag he was pursuing plunged over the edge of the chasm, followed by Edmund's hunting-dogs, and the king pulled up his horse on the edge of the precipice, only just in time to avoid the same fate (ibid., 23–4). In fact Dunstan seems not to have had much influence at Edmund's court, and his fame lay in the future. Although his brother Wulfric was given valuable estates (AS chart., S 472–3, 504) and attests Edmund's charters in a prominent position among the thegns, Dunstan himself does not appear as a witness, and it was probably only towards the end of his reign that Edmund appointed him as abbot of Glastonbury.

Secular government

In the field of royal government, the formulation of Edmund's surviving charters follows developments already in train in Æthelstan's time, and suggests the continuing existence of a group of royal scribes, trained to produce charters and constituting a royal secretariat. Edmund also continued his half-brother's legislative tradition. Three codes in his name survive, beginning with the ecclesiastical legislation mentioned above. His second code is concerned with the need to maintain ‘peace and concord’; the king and his counsellors are said to be ‘greatly distressed by the manifold illegal deeds of violence which are in our midst’ (Robertson, 8–9). The code is largely an attempt to regulate and control the blood-feud. It prohibits attacks on any except the actual slayer, and any assault which violates the sanctuary of a church or a royal manor house. The king's agents are charged to prevent feuding by overseeing the process of mediation between the kin of the slain and the slayer, which produces the compensatory payment of wergeld; this is the clearest statement of how the feud and the wergeld actually worked in practice. The second code also contains the earliest recorded reference to hamsocn, the crime of attacking a man in his own house. Hamsocn is equated with mundbryce (breach of the king's protection or peace) and its judgment is reserved to the king. The penalty is stipulated as loss of all the offender's property, ‘and it shall be for the king to decide whether his life shall be preserved’ (ibid., 10–11).

Edmund's third code was issued at Colyton, Devon, perhaps in 945. This too is concerned with public order, and especially with the punishment of theft, in particular cattle rustling. The first clause commands that all should swear a general oath of fidelity to the king. The terms of the oath, taken on relics, are recited: to ‘be faithful to King Edmund, even as it behoves a man to be faithful to his lord, without any dispute or dissension, openly or in secret, favouring what he favours and discountenancing what he discountenances’ (Robertson, 12–13). The terminology should be compared with the tenth-century tract on how hold-oaths (oaths of fidelity) should be sworn, and illustrates that ‘tendency to associate kingship with personal lordship’ (Abels, 84) already visible in the legislation promulgated by Edmund's father and half-brother. Local communities are also important; all, both nobles and commoners, are commanded to unite and seize thieves, dead or alive, and co-operate in the tracking of stolen cattle; those who refuse to help or who hinder the process of law are to be fined. Lordship also plays its part: lords are to take responsibility for their followers, and stand surety for them, whether commended men, household dependants, or holders of lands attached to their estates; they are not to harbour fugitives or to accept the service of those whom the law is pursuing. In both the second code and the Colyton legislation, the functions of the four pillars of medieval society, kingship, lordship, family, and neighbourhood, are clearly evident.

Edmund's achievement

In view of Edmund's measures against violence, it is ironic that he was killed in a brawl, at the royal vill of Pucklechurch, Gloucestershire. ‘It is well-known how he ended his life, that Leofa stabbed him’, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC, text D, s.a. 946), and John of Worcester adds that Edmund had intervened to save the life of his seneschal whom Leofa, a convicted outlaw, had attacked (John of Worcester, Chron., 398–9).

Edmund was killed on 26 May 946 (St Augustine's day) and was buried by Dunstan at Glastonbury. It is clear that he was an energetic and forceful ruler, who, but for his early death (he was no more than twenty-five), ‘might have been remembered as one of the more remarkable of Anglo-Saxon kings’ (Dumville, 184). His widow, Æthelflæd, later married the ealdorman Æthelstan Rota; her family history can be traced in the wills of her father, Ælfgar, her sister Ælfflæd, wife and widow of Ealdorman Byrhtnoth who was killed at Maldon in 991, and Æthelflæd herself. Edmund was also survived by his two sons with Ælfgifu, and Edgar; but, since Edgar was only three years old and Eadwig no more than five or six, the kingship passed to Edmund's brother, Eadred.

Ann Williams


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coin, BM [see illus.]