Rhetoric and Royal Reputation: The Coronation Scandal of Vita S. Dunstani

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


According to the earliest Vita S. Dunstani, the short-lived reign of the English King Eadwig (955-959) began in ignominy. On the day of his coronation, Eadwig absented himself from the event, only to be found shortly after by Abbot Dunstan, ‘disporting himself disgracefully in between two women as though they were wallowing in some revolting pigsty.’ Eadwig, the Vita goes on to narrate, could only be separated from the women – a mother and her daughter – by force, being marched back to the coronation by Dunstan.

It is a tale so salacious as to be scarcely creditable and, indeed, it is rarely credited. It is a propagandist narrative rooted in political factionalism. Far from the anonymous ‘whores’ and ‘Jezebels’ of the Vita, the female participants of this supposed liaison were noble women, Eadwig’s queen-consort Ælfgifu and her mother Æthelgifu. Yet their alignment with King Eadwig placed them in opposition to the alternate royal faction backed by Dunstan, a powerful cleric and politician. And it is these royal women, particularly Æthelgifu in her anger at Dunstan’s interruption and temerity, that the Abbot’s hagiographers blamed for his alienation from Eadwig’s court.

In this paper I will interrogate the tale of Eadwig’s elicit liaison. Following a brief retelling of the story from Vita S. Dunstani and a synopsis of the political context of its setting, I will primarily focus on authorial intent. There is no contemporary account of such scandal, nor is the ménage-à-trois a stock trope of pre-Conquest hagiography. Why then was Eadwig’s posthumous reputation singled out and deemed vulnerable to such an accusation? It is this question I will seek to address and, in so doing, also establish the extent to which the charge of sexual impropriety should be understood as levelled at Ælfgifu and Æthelgifu, more so than the king.
Period5 Jul 2021
Event titleInternational Medieval Congress: Climates
Event typeConference
LocationLeeds, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational