Lighting Up The Dark Ages

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1066 – The Mercian Perspective

 

In 1066, when Edward the Confessor died, Harold Godwinson was declared king. Yet he felt the need to ride north to secure the pledges of the northern nobles, and thought it prudent to forsake his long-term partner and marry the sister of two powerful northern earls. Why?

Let’s go back a bit…

Readers of To Be A Queen will recall that in Aethelflaed’s day, Mercia was still a kingdom in its own right, albeit one which was fast running out of kings. Forty years later, in Alvar the Kingmaker, Mercia has become a powerful ealdordom (later known as earldoms.)

And there is a new problem: the Danelaw.

However much Aethelflaed, her father, husband, and brother fought against them, inevitably some of the Danes who came over in their dragon boats stayed, and settled in the north and east. In the 10th century, King Edgar was careful to preserve the rights and traditions of the Danelaw, as well as the erstwhile independence of Mercia.

Edgar’s dealings with the Danelaw can be found in the law code known as IV Edgar, or the Wihbordesstan Code. It has often been said that Edgar was creating something new with this code, but technically speaking this is a letter to the Danes, showing Edgar eager to respect an autonomy which was already a fact.

220px-New_Minster_Charter_966_detail_Edgar

King Edgar depicted in the New Minster Charter

It is probable that Edgar became king of England in 959 with the help of a powerful group of magnates who wanted a king who would not encroach on the customary law. Edgar stresses five times that he has every intention of respecting the Danelaw. It is possible that although IV Edgar is a recognition of established fact, Edgar himself created the Danelaw, as there are no earlier references to it. In all probability these privileges were granted by Edgar in 957, in gratitude for the support given him in the north against his brother Eadwig (Edwy.)

Although Edgar’s reign was notable for being free of invasion – his epithet was ‘The Peaceable’ – it was a time of great change. As well as this identification and recognition of the Danelaw, there began a shift in the power and influence of the nobility. As ealdormen died, their lands were given to neighbouring nobles – Alvar (Aelfhere), already earl of southern Mercia, gained the northern portion when the earl of Chester died – until the earldoms were as big as the old kingdoms. By the time of Edgar IV, there were three principal noblemen, and in the law code he demands that:

“Earl Oslac (Northumbria) and all the host that dwell in his aldermanry are to give their support that this may be enforced” and that “Many documents are to be written concerning this, and sent both to ealdorman Aelfhere (Mercia) and ealdorman Aethelwine, (East Anglia) and that they are to send them in all directions, that this measure may be known to both the poor and the rich.” [IV Edgar 15. & 15.1]

Royal control was difficult to establish in areas with separatist feeling, and Mercia was another of these areas. Edgar was respectful of these regional differences, as his charters show – a land charter of 969 carefully states the ‘boundary of the Mercians’ – but his successors were not.

Edgar was succeeded by his famously ‘unready’ son – who infamously ordered many Danes massacred on St Brice’s day, 1002 – and so there followed a period of Danish rule, most notably by King Cnut (Canute). Long-held separatist and nationalist sentiments remained, and now, as Barlow puts it,

“The Danish rulers having no attachment to any of the kingdoms, widened the concept of England. Cnut’s plan of reserving no English province for his direct rule and his grant of Wessex to the ‘upstart’ Godwine had weakened the position of any successor who had not his ‘quasi imperial’ power.”

King Cnut

King Cnut

How did this situation contribute to the problems faced by Edward the Confessor in his final years?

The three leading earls were Leofric of Mercia, Siward of Northumbria, and Godwine. Of those three, only Leofric came from an old ruling family; he was the son of Leofwine, ealdorman of the Hwicce – whom readers of my novels will know to be the core Mercian tribe. Their centre was Deerhurst and the church there was very important to the Mercians – and he gave, according to Barlow, “loyal and disinterested service.” Siward, meanwhile, with lands bordering Scotland, probably looked more north than south.

The rise of the House of Godwine was phenomenal. Moving from thegn to king in three generations, it proved the theory of upward social mobility which, in fact, most people found impossible to attain, and which might have been denied in this case also had it not been for the reign of Cnut.

I have some university notes in which I quote one of my lecturers: “1066 lasted a whole year.” I followed it with an exclamation mark, but I know what was intended by this seemingly obvious remark. 1066 was not just a battle near Hastings; events took a turn for the dramatic in January when Edward the Confessor died, and culminated with William’s coronation on Christmas Day. But there were more people involved than just Harold and Edward, and the turmoil had really begun as far back as 1051.

Godwin’s meteoric career is for another blog, possibly by a different author, one who knows him better. Suffice to say that such was his influence, he managed to prosper despite his father’s humble origins and the dark stain hanging over him, that of the murder of Edward the Confessor’s brother Alfred, in 1036.

Yet the meteor appeared to crash-land in 1051.

Eustace of Boulogne arrived at Dover to visit his former brother-in-law (Edward) and Godwine was at the wedding feast of his son Tostig and Judith. There was a violent brawl involving the people of Dover and the visitors from Boulogne. Godwin was ordered to punish the people of Dover and he refused. The result of this stand-off was the exile of Godwin and his family, and Leofric of Mercia’s reward for supporting the king was that his son, Aelfgar, was granted Harold Godwineson’s earldom of East Anglia.

The Witan

The Witan

However the northern earls thought Edward went too far by subsequently giving preference to foreigners, thereby tightening his links with Normandy. Thus, in 1052, when Godwin came back, Leofric and Siward remained neutral. London declared for Godwine. His terms were not extortionate and so the neutrality of the northern earls seemed justified, and would explain why Aelfgar, according to Barlow, ‘quietly surrendered’ the East Anglian earldom back to Harold.

But Godwine’s death in 1053 shifted the balance of power and the Mercian house became stronger. Harold succeeded his father in Wessex, but this meant that Aelfgar got East Anglia back. The Mercian family was now spread right across the midlands.

Then in 1055 Siward of Northumbria died, and his second son, Waltheof, was bypassed for Tostig Godwinson. As Richard Fletcher puts it, “There was no love lost between the house of Leofric and the house of Godwin” and Tostig’s was a surprise appointment; it was the first time a southerner had held the post and he was, in Fletcher’s words, “A complete stranger.” Now, Mercia was in the middle of a Godwinson sandwich, with Harold below and Tostig above. They needed to look in a different direction for allies. Aelfgar looked westward, allied with Gruffudd of Wales, and was briefly banished before being reinstated.

Two years later, In 1057, Leofric died. Aelfgar went to Mercia and Harold’s brother Gyrth went to East Anglia. Now the Godwin family was in Wessex, East Anglia and Northumbria. Mercia was isolated.

Hardly surprising then that in 1057, Gruffudd married Aelfgar’s daughter, Ealdgyth, and in
1058 Aelfgar was outlawed again for ‘obscure reasons’. He came back with the support of Gruffudd. Kari Maund suggested that the alliance must have begun before 1055 and that’s WHY he was ousted. Perhaps Aelfgar had not so ‘quietly’ surrendered in 1052 after all. Richard Humble suggested that Harold was somehow responsible for Aelfgar’s exile and was behind his second banishment, too.

In around 1062/3 Aelfgar disappears from the record. He was succeeded by his son, Edwin, and it would seem that Harold took advantage of this and engineered the death of Gruffudd.

By October 1065, the Northumbrians had had enough of Tostig and his southern ways and attempts to impose high taxes, and they rebelled, electing Edwin of Mercia’s brother, Morcar, in his place. After the Northumbrian rebellion Morcar was very quick to get there – as if he’d been ready and waiting. As Fletcher puts it: “Here at last was a chance to hit out at the hated sons of Godwin.”

The joint northern, Mercian (and Welsh) forces marched south. Whilst Harold attempted to mediate, Edward demanded war. Harold would not fight the rebels to restore Tostig. Edward submitted, Tostig was outlawed, and Edward seems to have gone into a decline, from which he never recovered. Tostig never forgave Harold.

As I sat down to write my story for 1066 Turned Upside Down, it occurred to me that this, then, was the internal situation in 1066:  a  build-up of resentment between noble houses, and a brother with a grudge. Harold had worries long before William landed…

Available 1st August 2016

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Further reading:
King Edgar and the Danelaw – Niels Lund, Med. Scand. 9
Anglo-Saxon England – FM Stenton
The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216 – Frank Barlow
The Welsh Kings – Kari Maund
Bloodfeud – Richard Fletcher
The Fall of Saxon England – Richard Humble
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles – Ed. N Garmonsway

2 Comments

  1. Annie, thank you for this interesting, erudite and thought-provoking article.

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