Immigration and a good reputation. Or, what modern politicians could learn from King Edgar.

This is an article that I wrote in April during the run-up to the general election. Having tried and failed to interest any editors in publishing it, I shelved it in frustration. Although it has perhaps lost a little of its timeliness, it still has some contemporary relevance. Anyway, I say Edgar deserves some love.  

King Edgar might not be a household name these days, but he has a just claim to being one of the most successful and impressive of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England. He is mostly famous for his nickname ‘Pacificus’ (normally translated ‘Peaceful’ or ‘Peaceable’), conferred on him in the 12th century in recognition of having presided over what was then imagined to have been a golden age of peace and plenty. In reality, he was a fairly tough customer (as all successful medieval kings had to be). The epithet ‘pacificus’ can equally well be translated as ‘the Pacifier’ (banish all thoughts of a dummy-wielding Vin Diesel), and the Welsh Annals record several brutal raids on Welsh territory during Edgar’s reign. As the current Russian government understands all too well, starting trouble beyond the borders can be a good way to foster national feeling within them. But he wasn’t just a Putin-style hard-man: he had a long-term economic plan as well, standardising weights and measures and reforming the currency to make a uniform national coinage a functioning reality. He also enforced an unprecedented period of peaceful stability within England and invested heavily in a naval deterrent (comprising, according to later accounts, an improbable 4800 war-ships); he was tough on crime too, travelling tirelessly throughout his realm to enforce justice.

EdgarMost famously of all, he ensured that power over the whole of Britain was consolidated in an Anglo-centric political executive (himself) by forcing all the other kings and princes of Britain to subject themselves to the humiliation of rowing him in a barge along the river Dee. Different Norman historians give varying lists of the kings and princes involved in this very public abasement, but probably present were Kenneth II of Scotland, Malcolm of Strathclyde, Maccus Haroldson of Man and the Hebrides and Iago ab Idwal Foel of Gwynedd. Whilst Edgar may have needed the support of these British princes to keep English borders secure, there is no doubt about who was top banana. It is a model of British federalism that might well unsettle the leaders of this island’s separatist parties (hard though it is to cast any English politician in the role of a latter day Edgar).

Edgar was, in other words, what to the later medieval mind summed up a ‘Good King’: he enforced justice, brought prosperity, upheld the church and taught those pesky Scots and Welsh who – quite literally – was boss. And yet, he was remembered in his own time as a deeply flawed ruler, almost exclusively on account of his attitudes towards immigration.

But one misdeed he practised too widely: he loved foul foreign customs and brought heathen habits into this land too firmly, and he enticed outsiders and lured dangerous foreign-folk into this country (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ‘D’).

Attitudes towards foreigners in Anglo-Saxon England were not always (by modern standards) enlightened. When the Vikings sacked the monastery of Lindisfarne in 793, Alcuin of York – writing at the court of Charlemagne – took the opportunity to castigate English monks for their adoption of foreign hair-cuts: this symbolised moral and spiritual degeneracy of the grossest kind; and, frankly, with that sort of provocation, it was no wonder that God had sent a horde of horrible heathens to put them all to the sword. The pillaging might have been regrettable, but at least a good lesson about tonsorial rectitude was being taught. Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023) was particularly bigoted in this regard, and is thought responsible for the thunderous caveat appended to Edgar’s otherwise glowing obit in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle quoted above. In the 12th century, William of Malmesbury elaborated on Wulfstan’s sentiments by explaining how the English had picked up the despicable foreign habits of drunkenness (from the Danes), effeminacy (from the Dutch) and ferocity (from the Germans).

Edgar, however, took a pragmatic and conciliatory approach to the presence of large numbers of foreigners in his realm: the peace for which he became famous was ensured by fleets of Viking long-ships, paid for out of the royal finances through English taxes. We don’t know exactly how the Anglo-Saxon population felt about the pressure placed on employment by large numbers of migrant workers filling these public sector jobs. If Wulfstan’s judgement is reflective of wider feeling, they were becoming increasingly cheesed off – not least because the kinsmen of these particular migrants had a track record of brutalising peaceful monks and civilians all over the British Isles. But, by the late tenth-century there was also a status quo to recognise. Scandinavian integration into English society, particularly in the north and east of the country, had produced a mixed society where language and culture had fused to form a distinctively Anglo-Scandinavian population that looked across the North Sea as readily as it looked south to Winchester, London and Canterbury. Edgar, culturally sensitive ruler that he was, understood that local interests and national cohesion could be jointly served by recognising a degree of devolved authority in the north, the midlands and in East Anglia. In his fourth major law-code, Edgar promised that ‘there should be in force amongst the Danes such good laws as they best decide […] because of your loyalty, which you have always shown me’. The areas where this principle applied were to become known as the ‘Danelaw’ – literally the region where Danish laws were recognised.

The king enforced his vision of a united nation with vigour. In 969, Eadgar cyning het oferhergian eall Tenetland (‘King Edgar ravaged across all of Thanet’), apparently because the locals there had roughed up some Scandinavian traders. Displays of xenophobia on England’s estuarine outposts have a long history, but a thousand years ago the reaction of central government was swift and robust. According to the Norman historian Roger of Wendover, the king was ‘moved with exceeding rage against the spoilers, deprived them of all their goods, and put some of them to death’. The EDL would have been out of luck in Edgar’s England.

After Edgar’s death, the political consensus and authoritarian grip that he had established in England slackened. By the reign of his son, Æthelred, things had gone very wrong indeed. Archbishop Wulfstan was an advisor to king Æthelred, and – perhaps unsurprisingly – anti-foreigner sentiment reached a high-water mark during his reign. In 1002 this resulted in a notorious piece of populist policy when Æthelred decreed that ‘the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination.’ It may have been a welcome initiative, and certainly was enthusiastically taken up in Oxford; there an angry mob chased a group of Danish towns-folk into the church of St. Frideswide’s before barring the doors and burning it down. Mass killings of unarmed men in Oxford and Dorset, discovered in the archaeological record, may also reflect the increasingly intolerant and violent spirit of the times. Outrages like these may not have been the direct cause of the increasingly determined Danish invasions of the following decade, but they certainly can’t have done very much for improving international relations.

It played out badly for Æthelred and for England. By 1013 a Danish king (Svein Forkbeard) sat on the English throne, and his son (Cnut) and grandsons would call themselves kings of England until 1042. The divisions that Æthelred’s policies and the subsequent Danish takeover caused within English society arguably paved the way for William of Normandy’s swift conquest of the country in the decade after 1066. Æthelred died a broken king in 1016, and was later lumbered with the epithet unraed (‘the ill-advised’), a sobriquet which tarnishes the reputations of others – including Archbishop Wulfstan. Edgar pacificus, by contrast, for all his love of ‘foul foreign customs’, bequeathed a far more robust nation to his heirs. His attitude to England’s immigrant communities was perhaps instrumental to ensuring a period of peace and prosperity, and his reputation as a good king was rooted in part on his deft handling of England’s local identities and cultural diversity. It is a lesson that those on both the right and left of English politics would do well to learn – pandering to populist sentiment can bequeath a bad odour to posterity.

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One thought on “Immigration and a good reputation. Or, what modern politicians could learn from King Edgar.

  1. robstroud says:

    Thank you for a very fascinating discussion of an era of history, as an American, I know little about. I’ve always considered Æthelred’s reign an intriguing and watershed moment in Western history.

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