The death of Eadred however was a signal for the outbreak of political strife. The boy-king Eadwig was swayed by a woman of high lineage, aethelgifu; and the quarrel between her and the older counsellors of Eadred broke into open strife at the coronation feast. On the young king's insolent withdrawal to her chamber Dunstan, at the bidding of the Witan, drew him roughly back to the hall. But before the year was over the wrath or the boy-king drove the abbot over sea, and his whole system went with him. The triumph of aethelgifu was crowned in 957 by the marriage of her daughter to the king. The marriage was uncanonical, and at the opening of 958 Archbishop Odo parted the king from his wife by solemn sentence; while the Mercians and Northumbrians rose in revolt, proclaimed Eadwig's brother Eadgar their king, and •recalled Dunstan, who received successively the sees of Worcester and of London. The death of Eadwig restored the unity of the realm. Wessex submitted to the king who had been already accepted by the north, and Dunstan, now raised to the see of Canterbury, wielded for sixteen years as the minister of Eadgar the secular and ecclesiastical powers of the realm. Never had England seemed so strong or so peaceful.
Without, a fleet cruising round the coast swept the sea of pirates; the Danes of Ireland had turned from foes to friends; eight vassal kings rowed Eadgar (so ran the legend) in his boat on the Dee. The settlement of the north indicated the large and statesmanlike course which Dunstan was to pursue in the general administration of the realm. He seems to have adopted from the beginning a national rather than a West-Saxon policy. The later charge against his rule, that he gave too much power to the Dane and too much love to strangers, is the best proof of the unprovincial temper of his administration. He employed Danes in the royal service and promoted them to high posts in Church and State. In the code which he promulgated he expressly reserved to the north its old Danish rights, "with as good laws as they best might choose." His stern hand restored justice and order, while his care for commerce was shown in the laws which regulated the coinage and the enactments of common weights and measures for the realm.
Thanet was ravaged when the wreckers of its coast plundered a trading ship from York. Commerce sprang into a wider life. "Men of the Empire," traders of Lower Lorraine and the Rhine-land, "men of Rouen," were seen in the streets of London, and it was by the foreign trade which sprang up in Dunstan's time that London rose to the commercial greatness it has held ever since. But the aims of the primate-minister reached beyond this outer revival of prosperity and good government. The Danish wars had dealt rudely with aelfred's hopes; his educational movement had ceased with his death, the clergy had sunk back into worldliness and ignorance, not a single book or translation had been added to those which the king had left. Dunstan resumed the task, if not in the larger spirit of aelfred, at least in the spirit of a great administrator. The reform of monasticism which had begun in the abbey of Cluny was stirring the zeal of English churchmen, and Eadgar showed himself zealous in the cause of introducing it into England. With his support, aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, carried the new Benedictinism into his diocese, and a few years later Oswald, Bishop of Worcester, brought monks into his own cathedral city.
Tradition ascribed to Eadgar the formation of forty monasteries, and it was to his time that English monasticism looked back in later days as the beginning of its continuous life-But after all his efforts, monasteries were in fact only firmly planted in Wessex and East Anglia, and the system took no hold in North-umbria or in the bulk of Mercia. Dunstan himself took little part in it, though his influence was strongly felt in the literary revival which accompanied the revival of religious activity. He himself while abbot was famous as a teacher. His great assistant aethelwold raised Abingdon into a school second only to Glastonbury. His other great helper, Oswald, laid the first foundations of the historic school of Worcester. Abbo, the most notable scholar in Gaul, came from Fleury at the primate's invitation.
After times looked back fondly to "Eadgar's Law," as it was called, in other words to the English Constitution as it shaped itself in the hands of Eadgar's minister. A number of influences had greatly modified the older order which had followed on the English conquest. Slavery was gradually disappearing before the efforts of the Church. Theodore had denied Christian burial to the kidnapper, and prohibited the sale of children by their parents, after the age of seven. Ecgberht of York punished any sale of child or kinsfolk with excommunication. The murder of a slave by lord or mistress, though no crime in the eye of the State, became a sin for which penance was due to the Church. The slave was exempted from toil on Sundays and holydays; here and there he became attached to the soil and could only be sold with it; sometimes he acquired a plot of ground, and was suffered to purchase his own release. aethelstan gave the slave-class a new rank in the realm by extending to it the same principles of mutual responsibility for crime which were the basis of order among the free.
The Church was far from contenting herself with this gradual elevation; Wilfrid led the way in the work of emancipation by freeing two hundred and fifty serfs whom he found attached to his estate at Selsey. Manumission became frequent in wills, as the clergy taught that such a gift was a boon to the soul of the dead. At the Synod of Chelsea the bishops bound themselves to free at their decease all serfs on their estates who had been reduced to serfdom by want or crime. Usually the slave was set free before the altar or in the church-porch, and the Gospel-book bore written on its margins the record of his emancipation. Sometimes his lord placed him at the spot where four roads met, and bade him go whither he would. In the more solemn form of the law his master took him by the hand in full shire-meeting, showed him open road and door, and gave him the lance and sword of the freeman. The slave-trade from English ports was prohibited by law, but the prohibition long remained ineffective. A hundred years later than Dunstan the wealth of English nobles was said sometimes to spring from breeding slaves for the market.