Lighting Up The Dark Ages

The home of Author Annie Whitehead

Tag: Aethelflaed

The Attack on Llangorse 19th June AD916

It is not often that the early medieval chroniclers provide us with specific dates. And of a period about which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is almost silent – Aethelflaed’s ‘reign’ – we are incredibly lucky to have not one date, but two, while the second date enables us to identify a third. The Chronicle tells us that she died on June 12th, 918. But the third, implied, date is the one that interests me today: June 19th, two years before her death, and exactly 1100 years tomorrow.

The ‘C’ Chronicle of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, incorporating the annals known as The Mercian Register, tells us:

“In this year before midsummer, on 16th June, the day of the festival of St Quiricus the Martyr, abbot Ecgberht, who had done nothing to deserve it, was slain together with his companions. Three days later Aethelflaed sent an army into Wales and stormed Brecenanmere [at Llangorse lake near Brecon] and there captured the wife of the king and thirty-three other persons.”

We cannot know much about the unfortunate abbot, (a search of the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England [PASE] reveals only that single mention of him) save that he was sufficiently dear to Aethelflaed that she was prepared to avenge his life in such a forceful manner.

So what can we discover about Brecenanmere, and the unnamed king, whose wife was captured?

In his book, The Making of Mercia, Ian Walker says that the Mercian Register “… records the destruction of the royal crannog of Tewdr, king of Brycheiniog, on Llangorse lake in Brecon and the capture of his queen.”

PASE lists two kings named Tewdwr. One of them is the father of Elise and both of these men are mentioned in Asser’s Life of Alfred [1] as having submitted to Alfred. Alfred died in 899 so either of these men could, in theory, have still been alive and militarily active in 916.

The other Tewdwr is listed as Tewdwr ap Griffi ab Elise, who, as Teowdor, Subregulus, witnessed a charter of King Athelstan in 934. [2] The Welsh system of patronymics suggests that he must have been the grandson of Elise, although Kari Maund names him as Tewdwr ab Elise, suggesting a closer consanguineal relationship [3]

We cannot know why this abbot was killed, or why a king who had submitted to Alfred the Great chose to anger Alfred’s daughter in this way. Perhaps he fancied his chances against a weak female ruler. At this time, the king of Wessex was Alfred’s son, Aethelflaed’s brother, Edward the Elder. He and his sister were engaged in an active campaign of building fortified towns, such as the fortress at Chirbury (on the Welsh/English border, in 915) and perhaps there were hostilities between the English and the Welsh which have gone unrecorded.

In 916 Edward is recorded as being engaged in Essex, building a fortress at Maldon. Is it possible that this King Tewdwr thought that Aethelflaed, a mere woman, would do little in retribution while her brother was busy elsewhere? We cannot know, because as previously mentioned, we have few specific dates and only know that Edward was in Essex in ‘the summer.’ Tempting as it is to join these two facts together, we cannot be certain.

There can be no doubt, though, that Edward was busy, and that he trusted his sister with power and authority. Her husband, Ethelred of Mercia, had died in 911 but had, for some years before that, been incapacitated in some form. Edward, whilst minting Mercian coins in his name, had allowed Aethelflaed to lead Mercia during her husband’s prolonged illness and in 911, although Edward took control of London and Oxford, previously handed to Mercia by Alfred, he left his sister as nominal head of Mercia.

Brother and sister worked as a team in 917: while Edward built fortresses at Towcester and Wigingamere (unidentified), and received the submission of ‘Viking’ armies of Northampton, East Anglia, and Cambridge, Aethelflaed took the borough of Derby, one of the prized ‘five boroughs’ which Edward had vowed to prise back out of the invaders’ hands. [4] In 907, Chester had been ‘restored’ [5] although no mention is made of the person who led the army which starved the occupying Vikings out. Professor Simon Keynes confirmed my suspicion that it is safe to assume that Ethelred was, by this point, unwell, and that in all likelihood it was Aetheflaed who took the fight to the walls of Chester.

We have therefore, enough evidence, however scant in detail, from 907 and 917, to be comfortable with the notion that she led an army into Wales. What would she have found there?

The ‘crannog’ mentioned above probably looked something like this:

Credit – Garnet Davies (Llangorselake.co.uk – Lakeside Bar/Caravan Park)

It seems likely that this was the only crannog in Wales and the museumwales website [6] has this to say:

“The crannog was carefully constructed of brushwood and sandstone boulders, reinforced and surrounded by several lines of oak plank palisade. Tree-ring dating of the well-preserved timbers has established that they were felled between AD889 and AD893. The site seems to have been influenced by Irish building techniques, and was possibly constructed with the assistance of an Irish master craftsman.

The kings of Brycheiniog claimed to be descended from a part-Irish dynasty, and their use of such an unusual and impressive construction may have enhanced their political standing and strengthened their claims to Irish ancestry.”

Of Aethelflaed’s attack, the site says: “This record of an attack probably refers to the crannog, and the capture of the wife of king Tewdwr ap Elisedd. During excavation, a charred, burnt layer was uncovered – probably representing this attack.”

If this was indeed the structure which Aethelflaed attacked, and where she took a queen prisoner, then this place was being used at a royal ‘llys’, a high status secular site. Tewdwr himself obviously survived this battle, but of course we cannot be sure if he was even in residence on the day in question. The only information we have is that his wife and thirty three other persons were captured. Conjecture is the preserve of the novelist, and I had a lot of fun filling in the gaps of this particular incident, but the historian cannot afford such luxuries.

Map of medieval Wales showing Brycheiniog

What we can infer, though, is that retribution was swift but relatively merciful. The Chronicle mentions the killing of the abbot, but no revenge killings of any high-status Welsh. Aethelflaed had no further trouble from beyond the border. As we have seen, she went on to retake Derby (although the chronicle laments the loss of “four of her thanes, who were dear to her.”)

Early in 918, she obtained control of Leicester (another of the five boroughs and, later in the year, the second battle of Corbridge, involving Ragnall against the Scots with the English Northumbrians, seems to have brought the people of York, wishing for a strong southern ally against Ragnall and his Norse Vikings, to Aethelflaed’s court, seeking her assistance.

What at first glance seems an unlikely entry in an 1100-year old chronicle, that a woman marched into another country to avenge a death of a friend, seems more plausible when we piece together all we know of Aetheflaed’s life. However few those facts are, they add up to one – that she was indeed, a remarkable woman.

[1] Asser Vit.Alfredi 80
[2] Charter S425 King Athelstan to Ælfwald, minister; grant of 12 hides (cassatae) at Derantune. (probably Durrington, Sussex)
[3] The Welsh Kings – Kari Maund (Tempus)
[4] the five boroughs: Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford.
[5] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
[6] http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/
(all images in the public domain, unless credited)

This article first appeared in the EHFA Blog on June 18th 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

Buy

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