Lighting Up The Dark Ages

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Tag: Aelfhere

Wealth, Power and Influence in Later Anglo-Saxon England

The great magnates of Anglo-Saxon England were not poor men. Land has always been the most recognisable sign of wealth, and these men had plenty of it. The amount of land which a pre-Conquest nobleman could amass can be seen clearly in the case of Harold Godwineson. [1] As well as their own family lands, such men could hold land from their lord as reward for service. Bookland, as it was called, was originally granted by the king to his thegns with an ecclesiastical purpose in mind. By the tenth-century, however, land was being booked without any pretence that it would go to endow a church. Many thegns and ealdormen were benefactors of religious houses though – Wulfric Spott founded Burton Abbey, Athelstan ‘Half-king’, ealdorman of East Anglia 932-956, used his wife’s lands to form the nucleus of the large endowment of Ramsey Abbey, [2] and Aelfhere, ealdorman of Mercia 956-983, cited in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle as the destroyer of monasteries, [3] was a great friend to the religious houses at Glastonbury and Abingdon.

Dunstan – one time abbot of Glastonbury

The nature of the land grants varied little, and each one set out the conditions under which the land was booked. King Edgar granted to his thegn, Aelfwold, land at Kineton in Warwickshire as

“an eternal inheritance … and after the conclusion of his life (he may) leave it unburdened to whatsoever heirs he shall wish. Also the aforesaid estate is to be free from every yoke of earthly service except three, namely fixed military service and the restoration of bridges and fortresses.” [4]

It was not only the king who granted land. Oswald, bishop of Worcester, sets out the conditions under which he has granted his land in his letter to King Edgar. [5]

“That they shall fulfil the whole law of riding as riding men should and that they shall pay in full … church Scot and Toll. In addition they shall lend horses, they shall ride themselves, and, moreover, be ready to build bridges, … they shall always be subject to the authority and will of that archiductor who presides over the bishopric…”

King Edgar

The will of Wulfric Spott [6] is a fine example of the extent of lands in the possession of an influential thegn. He had lands in Staffordshire and Derbyshire, estates in Shropshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire. The will also refers to lands in South Lancashire and Cheshire.

The family of Wulfric Spott was one of the most influential and powerful of its day, with branches linked to the royal family and a regular involvement in power struggles and political rivalry. Wulfric Spott’s brother, Aelfhelm, ealdorman of Northumbria, was murdered in 1006, and his sons Wulfheah and Ufegeat were blinded. Wulfheah was one of the prominent ministri during the period when Aethelred II (Unready) was restoring royal favour to the Church (see below).

It is easy to believe that Eadric Streona, ealdorman of Mercia 1007-1017, was Aelfhelm’s murderer. His rise to power certainly would not have been hindered by the removal of such prominent men who had surrounded the king. The rivalry does not seem to have stopped there, for Eadric is named as the murderer of the thegns Sigeferth and Morcar.

These brothers were members of this same family; Morcar was married to Wulfric Spott’s niece. There is a possibility that they were related to King Aethelred through his marriage to the daughter of Thored of Northumbria.

Vacillating between the causes of Edmund Ironside and Cnut in the war of 1015-16, Eadric was playing a dangerous game. Edmund had defied his father, Aethelred II (Unready), and married Sigeferth’s widow, thereby gaining the allegiance of the northern Danelaw. Cnut’s English wife, Aelfgifu of Northampton, was the daughter of the murdered Aelfhelm, and the cousin of Ealdgyth, Morcar’s widow. It is also possible that this family was connected to that of Leofwine, who held Eadric’s ealdordom after the latter’s death. His son succeeded him, and his son Aelfgar married Aelfgifu who may have been the daughter of Ealdgyth and Morcar. So far, so confusing!

Encomium Emmae Reginae

But the Encomium Emmae Reginae shows us how important this family really was. It was written for Cnut’s second wife Emma, as a propaganda exercise for the claims of her son Harthacnut, and in Book III it denies that Harald is Cnut’s son. This in itself is not enough to refute Harald’s claims, and the Encomium further denies that he is Aelfgifu of Northampton’s son. Clearly his position as her son is important. If Emma denies that he is of this family, then she is not attacking them. The importance of Aelfgifu’s kinship is clear, and Emma does not wish to offend this great family.

Cnut with his sons Harald and Harthacnut

A simple equation which has always held true is that wealth equals power. King Aethelred II was called ‘Unraed’ because he was badly counselled. It is certainly true that for much of his reign he was guided by councillors acting in their own interests. The 980s were a period which Aethelred came later to regret. Many churches were deprived of their lands; an Abingdon estate was acquired by a king’s reeve, and Rochester was besieged. Aethelsige, one of the five most prominent men at this time, was responsible for the damage done at Rochester. The king himself admitted that this was a period when he was being manipulated by a group of men who, taking advantage of his youth, were acting in their own interests at the expense of various churches. In the next decade the prominent men were associated with the monastic cause and royal generosity to the Church was re-established.

The king needed his councillors and officials. He rarely acted without the consent of the witan (council). Royal authority could only be made to be felt throughout the kingdom through the king’s representatives. Yet it was all too easy for these men to become too powerful. The king rarely strayed from the south, and to the inhabitants of England north of the Humber, royal authority was remote.

Northumbria was never free from the Scandinavian threat, and the eorls (as they were called in the north) often had to deal with this problem on their own. It must have been difficult to trust them, but many thegns were encouraged to acquire estates in areas settled by the Danes, to help break down the isolation of the north. Another policy instigated was that of appointing archbishops to York who had sees elsewhere. This pluralism was designed to ensure ecclesiastical loyalty, and would also help to bring Northumbria out of isolation. Royal control was difficult to establish in areas with separatist feeling, and Mercia was another of these areas. The ealdormen, if they wished to assert themselves, had to establish links in order to gain and retain control, and at times this must have looked suspiciously like treachery. Poor communications also did nothing to alleviate the danger of an over-concentration of power in too few aristocratic hands.

King Aethelred II

During the reign of King Alfred, ealdormen usually controlled single shires, but as the West Saxon kingdom expanded the ealdormen were given greater responsibility. Athelstan of East Anglia’s nickname ‘Half-king’ demonstrates how powerful these men could become. His ealdordom included East Anglia proper (Norfolk and Suffolk), Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, north-east Northamptonshire, and he probably governed the whole of the eastern Danelaw. [7] He kept his ealdordom under such control that Kings Edmund and Eadred were able to recover first the northern Danelaw, then Northumbria, and finally to conquer Strathclyde.

It is not surprising to discover that men like these did not always work together in complete harmony. The anti-monastic reaction which followed the death of Edgar in 975 found ealdormen Aelfhere and Aethelwine on opposing sides in the succession dispute. Doubtless Aelfhere was antagonised by the triple-hundred of Oswaldslow which had encroached upon his area of authority, but it has been suggested [8] that he had other, more personal reasons for opposing Aethelwine’s and Dunstan’s support of Edward; namely that Aethelwine’s ealdordom was East Anglia, and this meant East Anglia proper, Essex, and the shires which had at one time been the eastern part of the old kingdom of Mercia, and were still called Mercian in the tenth-century. Aelfhere, Aethelwine and Eorl Oslac of Northumbria were the most influential ealdormen of their day. Ambition and power perhaps inevitably cause conflict.

Page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Thorkell the Tall, a Danish invader turned mercenary of Aethelred II, became the leading secular lord of Cnut’s reign. He was made governor of Denmark for a time and guardian of the king’s son. Cnut’s letter to the people of England [9] instructs Earl Thorkell to deal with those who defy the laws. Dorothy Whitelock* suggested that this was because the letter was sent to him from Denmark by Cnut and that Thorkell was acting as regent in Cnut’s absence. Power and trust indeed for a man who had earlier fought on the side of the English. Doubtless this was the kind of reward Eadric Streona had been seeking to secure himself when he changed sides during the war of 1015-16. He, of course, was not so fortunate. [10]

It is interesting to note that open conflict only occurred in times of unrest, for example during the succession dispute of 975, or the war of 1015-16. Athelstan ‘Half-king’ was loyal, as we have seen; Aelfhere of Mercia was invaluable to King Edgar when he was trying to assert himself as king of the Mercians. Only after Edgar’s death did Aelfhere’s resentment manifest itself. The king may have been ill-served upon occasion, and there is some doubt as to the effectiveness of the reeves as checks against the power of the ealdormen, but there was nothing in England to compare with the rise to power of the Capetians in France, and royal authority was never seriously challenged by the servants of the crown.

[1] Ann Williams – Harold Godwineson Battle 80
[2] CR Hart (in Anglo-Saxon England 2)- Athelstan Half-king and his Family
[3] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) 975
[4] EHD (English Historical Documents) 113 page 519
[5] Origins of English Feudalism 42 p133
[6] EHD 125 p541
[7] CR Hart ibid
[8] Ann Williams – Princeps Mercorum gentis; the family, career and connections of Aelfhere, Ealdorman of of Mercia 956-983
[9] EHD 48 p415
[10] The Encomium Emmae Reginae tells us Eadric’s fate: “He (Cnut) said ‘pay this man what we owe him; that is to say kill him, lest he plays us false.’ He (Eric of Hlathir) indeed raised his axe without delay and cut of his (Eadric’s) head with a mighty blow.”
*Author of The Beginnings of English Society, & Wulfstan and the Laws of Cnut (English historical Review 62 1948)

This article first appeared on the EHFA Blog site on 30th May 2016

King Edgar, his earls, and the birth of politics in England

In AD937 King Athelstan was declared king of not only England but of the Scots and Irish too. For whatever reason (and there’s been surprisingly little conjecture about this) he never married. Upon his death the throne passed very quickly to his two brothers and then, in 955, to his young nephew, Edwy (Eadwig) who reigned for only four years and was succeeded by his brother, Edgar “the peaceable”.

King Edgar – detail from New Minster Charter

Athelstan’s brother Eadred had subdued the Viking kingdom of York, chasing Erik Bloodaxe to his death atop Stainmore, and Edgar was able to rule a kingdom which was free from Viking attack and, ostensibly, united.

But Edgar’s succession had only been possible by initially splitting the kingdom, with the old kingdom of Mercia allying itself to him against his brother in Wessex. And nature abhors a vacuum; so too, it seems, does human nature. Anglo-Saxon history now becomes one not of warring kingdoms and marauding invaders, but in-fighting, back-stabbing, and courtly intrigue.

Putting aside the unfortunate but very timely (for some) death of Edwy at just 19, Edgar’s court soon filled up with men seeking favour, power, wealth and influence. Edgar was young (14 or 15) and seemingly pious – he recalled the exiled Bishop Dunstan (Who’d been banished by Edwy after he caught Edwy in bed with his wife, and her mother!) and he supported Dunstan and Bishop Aethelwold in their campaign for monastic reform.

The old kingdoms had transmuted into earldoms and the earls of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria became the first ‘over-mighty barons’. The old kingdoms might have vanished but tribal sensibilities and border disputes had not (the Mercians, particularly, had rallied behind a nationalist flag when they rose up in support of Edgar)

The Churchmen had the chroniclers on their side, but there is evidence which points to their feathering their own nests, taking land unlawfully, and there is an account of Archbishop Oswald feasting royally in his abbey at Ramsey while outside, folk starved, unable to pay the food rents owed to the Church.

Ramsey Abbey gatehouse – 15thc (nothing remains of the original building)

The earls of East Anglia were members of what amounted to a dynasty, descended from a man whose epithet “Half-king” tells all we need to know about his power.

The earl of Mercia, Aelfhere, was a minor member of the royal family and equally well-connected. Notoriously tempestuous, he took exception to the bishop of Worcester’s increasingly frequent attempts to establish centres of power and authority within his earldom. That same bishop, Oswald, also illegally held in duality the archbishopric of York, and thus trod on the toes of the earl of Northumbria, too.

Bickering was kept to a minimum by Edgar. Strong, cocksure, he played the factions against one another and inspired devotion from them all. He recognised the Danelaw, he built up the fleet, and was famously rowed along the River Dee by several kings who bowed in homage to him.

But he, too, died young, although not childless. He left sons – one begotten through a nefarious relationship with a woman who had been promised to the Church and was on the brink of taking holy orders, the other to his queen, the powerful but fragile Aelfthryth.

The factions divided, with the Church and the East Anglians supporting the firstborn son, Edward, while Aelfhere of Mercia supported the queen, citing her son as having been born ‘in the purple’. What followed has been labelled the ‘anti-monastic reaction’ but was essentially a politically driven righting of perceived wrongs.

And there it might have ended, with squabbling and a few land-grabs. But someone, and many pointed fingers at the queen, decided to remove Edward from the scene. Permanently.

“Aelfthryth looks on as Edward is stabbed” Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

And so the years of ‘peace’ had seen the growth of politics, self-serving nobles and the development of sharp elbows in the corridors of power. Now, the king of England was Aethelred. He was young, he was badly-counselled, (as Christopher Brooke puts it, “Dissidence and half-suppressed revolt … in Aethelred’s time now walked openly”) and the Vikings were getting ready to sail again. So many young, strong, and politically astute Anglo-Saxon kings had died young, while Aethelred was to live long enough to see all their hard work unravel, in spectacular fashion.

(All illustrations public domain/Wiki Commons)
Select bibliography:
Papers: An Outing on the Dee (Mediaeval Scandinavia 14) & Princeps Merciorum gentis: the family career and connections of Aelfhere, ealdorman of Mercia (Anglo-Saxon England 10) by Ann Williams
Athelstan ‘Half King’ and his family – Cyril Hart (Cambridge Journals)
The Saxon and Norman Kings – Christopher Brooke
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – ed Garmonsway

This article first appeared on EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors on Sunday, Feb 28th 2016

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