In 973, according to the 12th century chronicler John of Worcester, the English king Edgar received oaths of fealty from eight vassals in a ceremony on the River Dee. The eight were powerful kings and warlords from Celtic territory in the North and West. They included Cinaed II, king of Scots, Malcolm, king of the Strathclyde Britons, Malcolm’s father Dyfnwal and the Viking chieftain Magnus Haraldsson. The rest of the group are less easy to identify but presumably comprised a selection of rulers from Scotland and Wales. Later traditions identified one of these as Scandinavian and a couple more as Welsh. All eight travelled to Chester to meet Edgar, a young West Saxon king renowned for his wisdom and piety. He was known also for his willingness to use diplomacy rather than war to achieve his aims.
The earliest reference to the event precedes John of Worcester by two hundred years and is found in Aelfric’s Life of St Swithin (written c.996). After Aelfric’s time the original story gathered various accretions, including some of doubtful value, to become the version used by John and other English writers. In the late 12th century the monks of Melrose Abbey drew on John’s version to give their own account of what had happened at Chester in 973. The following extract from the Melrose chronicle is an English translation based on the one published in Anderson’s Early sources of Scottish history. It takes up the narrative during the fourteenth year of Edgar’s reign when he was aged 30.
“Some time afterwards, after sailing round northern Britain with a huge fleet, he landed at the city of Chester; and eight under-kings met him, as he commanded them, and swore that they would stand by him as vassals, both on land and on sea: namely Cinaed, king of Scots; Malcolm, king of the Cumbrians; Magnus, king of very many islands; and another five – Dyfnwal, Sigfrith, Hywel, Iago, Ulkil. With these one day he entered a boat and, placing them at the oars, he himself took the rudder’s helm and skilfully steered along the course of the River Dee, and sailed from the palace to the monastery of St John the Baptist, the whole crowd of earls and nobles accompanying him in similar craft. And after praying there he returned to the palace with the same pomp, and as he entered it he is related to have said to the nobles that only thus could any of his successors boast of being king of England, by obtaining a display of such honours and the submission of so many kings.”
The above account portrays the ceremony on the Dee as a ritual of homage by under-kings to a dominant overlord. Modern historians have tended to share this viewpoint, seeing the boat journey as evidence of Edgar’s supremacy in areas far beyond his native Wessex. It is not, however, the only possible interpretation. 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 Dee was a suitable choice of venue, being a major waterway of the Anglo-Welsh border as well as lying close to the boundary between the English lowlands and the Celtic-Scandinavian North. 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 Peacable”.
Alan Orr Anderson (ed.) Early sources of Scottish history. Volume 1 (Edinburgh, 1922), pp.478-9
Julia Barrow, ‘Chester’s earliest regatta? Edgar’s Dee-rowing revisited’ Early Medieval Europe 10 (2001), 81-93
David Thornton, ‘Edgar and the eight kings, AD 973: textus et dramatis personae’ Early Medieval Europe 10 (2001), 49-79