Lighting Up The Dark Ages

The home of Author Annie Whitehead

Tag: Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

Military Service in Tenth-Century England

Aethelred II (Unready)

In a previous post, I looked at duties and obligations in tenth-century England and this time I’m concentrating on military service.

Land granted by the king was known as ‘bookland’ and was absolved from all service with the exception of three. According to a grant by King Edgar [1] those three things were fixed military service, the restoration of bridges, and of fortresses. A grant by Aethelred II [2] calls for national military service, the construction of fortresses and the restoration of bridges. The Thegn’s law [3] tells us that:

“He be entitled to his book right, and that he shall contribute three things in respect of his land: armed service, and the repairing of fortresses and work upon bridges. Also in respect of many estates further services arise on the king’s order, … equipping a guardship, and guarding the coast, and guarding the lord, and military watch …”

The king was prepared to grant away rights privileges but not, it seems, his right to military service. The exact nature of the service is not stipulated, but it must have been important. Archbishop Wulfstan and Aelfric the Homilist divided Anglo-Saxon society into three orders: those who fight, those who labour, and those who pray. This would mean that the aristocracy was a warrior class. The nobility was required to provide military equipment [4] and there can be no doubt that a substantial part of their service was of a military nature.

Just as the heriot (war gear) varied according to rank, so the military service requirement differed for men of varying resources. The king had at his disposal his household troops.* Mercenaries were employed, (the career of Thorkell the Tall is evidence of this) but in essence the composition of the fyrd was based on a territorial levy. The requirement was for one man from every five hides of land. Service was basically for sixty days, in a system of rotation, but only in times of war. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 920 tells us that “when this division of the English levies went home, the other came out on military service and occupied the fortress at Huntington.” [5] A landowner with more than five hides of land would be responsible for providing the requisite number of men.

A fine was payable for neglect of military service, and this ‘fyrd-wite’ was set at around forty shillings per man. Commutation, a payment in lieu of service, was lower, at around twenty shillings per obligation. A thegn liable to service could have his lands confiscated if he defaulted. [6] This did not necessarily mean that a thegn had to fight. He could send the required number of men without going himself; he would still be fulfilling his obligation.

Mention is made of two types of fyrd (army), the select fyrd and the gelect fyrd. The distinction between the select fyrd and the great fyrd might have been thus: the select fyrd consisted of soldiers who fought in battle, and the great fyrd may have been the back-up, repairing bridges and fortresses. [7]

The expensive equipment of the ealdormen, king’s thegns and the lesser thegns would have set the aristocracy apart from the ordinary fighting ceorl. The Battle of Maldon describes the ornate trappings of a nobleman in battle:

“An armed man then went to the Earl,
Wanting to strip him of his armbands, armour,
Ring-mail and ornate sword.”

Site of the Battle of Maldon – Ken Eckert *

Clearly the nobility who fought did so with expensive war gear, but to fight was not their only obligation. As landlords, they were responsible for the organisation, summoning and assembling of the fighting forces. They were also involved in the essential organisation to ensure that competent levies turned out to perform military duties on behalf of their estates.

The military crisis precipitated by the resumption of Danish raiding served to place emphasis on the fighting role of the thegn. But was the aristocracy a warrior class?

Their military equipment set them apart in wealth and status from the rank and file, and their bookland was held from the king immune from all except military service. Yet if this was a warrior aristocracy one would expect to see them holding their land as a reward for military service, and their status deriving from their military rank. This was clearly not the case; that land was not held as reward for military service is a major stumbling block for any historian trying to prove that pre-Conquest England was feudal.

Land was granted for many reasons. King Aethelred II granted Aethelwig land because he did not wish to sadden him. [8] Apart from his being a servant of the king there seems to be no other reason for the grant. A ceorl could amass all the weapons of a thegn and still remain a ceorl if he did not possess five hides of land. [9] Land remained the source of wealth and the indicator of status. Military service was an important part of a nobleman’s duties, but, as we have seen, it was only one of many. [10] One might also expect that in times of peace less emphasis would be placed on the thegn as a warrior than in times of war.

*During the time of Cnut, the household troops were referred to as housecarls. Cnut’s reign was not in the tenth-century, though, and Nicholas Hooper’s article [11] provides, for me, compelling argument to suggest that the housecarl differed little from the English thegn.

[1] Grant by King Edgar to his thegn Aelfwold 969 EHD (English historical Documents) 113 p519
[2] Grant by King Aethelred to his thegn Aethelwig 992-995 EHD 117 p525
[3] Origins of English Feudalism 61 p145 “The Rights and Ranks of People”
[4] For more on this, see Defining ‘Nobility’ in Late Anglo-Saxon England

[5] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (A) 921 (920)
[6] This point is discussed by DJV Fisher in the Anglo-Saxon Age Ch13
[7] See Warren hollister, Anglo-Saxon Institutions. There is also a possibility that the Select fyrd served locally, and that the Great fyrd was the national army
[8] EHD 117 p525
[9] See HR Loyn The Governance of Anglo-Saxon England p167
[10] See the previous article on duties and responsibilities – link at top of post

[11] The Housecarls in England in the Eleventh Century – N Hooper

Further General Reading:
The Foundation of England – HPR Finberg
The Beginnings of English Society – D Whitelock
Anglo-Saxon England – FM Stenton
From Roman Britain to Norman England – PH Sawyer

(Above illustrations – public domain unless otherwise accredited)

*https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Keneckert&action=edit&redlink=1

This article originally appeared on the EHFA Blog Site 22nd July, 2016

Duties and Obligations in Tenth-Century England

Placing oneself under the protection of a lord was a solemn and ceremonious affair. In England it took the form of a hold-oath, or fealty oath. The physical act of bowing was accompanied by the oath:

“By the lord before whom this relic is holy, I will be to N [name of lord] faithful and true, and love all that he loves, and shun all that he shuns, according to God’s law, and according to secular custom; and never, willingly or intentionally, by word or by work, do aught of what is loathful to him, on condition that he keep me as I am willing to deserve, and all that fulfil that our agreement was, when I to him submitted and chose his will.” [1]

Essentially this is a negative commitment, a promise not to act against the lord’s interests. Nevertheless, a personal bond of this nature carried with it certain positive obligations.

For the king’s thegn, lord and king were the same person. A thegn whose lord was not the king still had a duty to the monarch. (It should be remembered that the king’s title was “Cynehlaford” or lord-king.) Thegns in turn would have men who called them lord. The role of lordship entailed a dual responsibility, that of serving one’s lord, and that of protecting one’s men.

The king with his Witan

The king was ever mindful of the need to control his ealdormen. Their attendance at the royal council was one way of ensuring their co-operation, and failure to attend a summons to the witan was punished severely. The witan had the right, rather than the privilege, to advise the king, and at times it acted on its own; following the death of a king the election process for his successor was carried through in the witan. It was in the royal council that the laws were promulgated. Its members met indoors, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells how, in 978, “the leading councillors of England fell down from an upper storey at Calne, all except the holy Archbishop Dunstan, who alone remained standing on a beam.” [2] Business transacted in the witan included general, financial and judicial matters. Essentially though, its function was of a deliberative and consultative nature.

Saint Dunstan

The test of royal authority is how effectively it is felt in the localities. The law codes abound with directions to individual ealdormen to ensure that laws are enforced. King Edgar commands that:

Earl Oslac 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 and ealdorman Aethelwine, and that they are to send them in all directions, that this measure may be known to both the poor and the rich.” [3]

King Edgar

There is some evidence to suggest that the ealdormen disliked the king’s reeves (administrative officials.) A breach of the law by a reeve could only be dealt with by the king [4] and when Aethelred II adopted the policy of appointing reeves instead of ealdormen, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that in 1002 Ealdorman Leofsige slew Aelfric, the king’s high-reeve. The grant of Aethelred’s explains why these men were disliked. The reeve broke the law by giving Christian burial to those who had forfeited the right. Instead of punishing him, Aethelred granted the reeve their land. To the ealdormen it must have seemed that the reeves were above the law.

Naturally the king’s officials were instrumental in the enforcement of law and order, and their duties included presiding over the shire and hundred courts. The hundred ordinance [5] directs that the hundred court is to meet every four weeks. II&III Edgar acknowledges this and states that the borough court is to be held three times a year and the shire court twice a year. It also succinctly sets out the duty of those presiding over the courts:

And the bishop of the diocese and the ealdormen are to be present, and there to expound both the ecclesiastical and the secular law.” [6]

The shire court was unspecialised in the tenth-century, and did not develop into a full royal court until after the Norman conquest. It had a variety of functions, including procedures in outlawry. [7] It was here that arrangements were made for the collection of taxes. It was in the interests of landowners to be represented, and the shire-reeve gradually became recognised at the chief executive royal officer.

The hundred court met on an appointed day, and anyone who failed to appear had to pay thirty shillings compensation. Each man was to do justice to another. Great concern was shown over theft. Compensation had to be paid to the victim; half of the offender’s remaining property went to the hundred, and half to the lord. Aethelred II’s reign saw an emphasis placed on the importance of oath-taking, and the origins of the jury of presentment.

The twelve leading thegns are to come forward and swear on the relics … that they will accuse no innocent man nor conceal any guilty one.” He who pronounced a wrong judgement could forfeit his thegnly status, and “A sentence where the thegns are unanimous is to be valid.”

The importance of all courts was to provide a place where good witness could be obtained. King Edgar ordered thirty-six witnesses in each borough, and twelve in each hundred. [9]

Aethelred II

By the middle of the tenth-century it was becoming customary for lords, ecclesiastical or lay, to receive grants of jurisdiction from the king. Many hundreds fell into private hands; a lord often had considerable rights here and in his own lands. The grants were usually laid down in the charters as rights of “sake and soke”, these being rights of jurisdiction and to the profits of justice.

This usually meant the control of a court. These rights were not granted lightly, and were really intended to emphasise royal authority rather than to weaken it. Grants of rights over a hundred court involved financial advantages, and the right to appoint hundredmen. HR Loyn suggests that the sheriffs (shire-reeves) played an important part in preventing the disintegration of royal power as private jurisdiction grew. [10] Landowners exercised other specific rights on their estates. They had a right to impose a toll on goods sold within the estate, the right (known as Team) to supervise the presentation of convincing evidence that goods for sale belonged to the vendor, and the right (infangenetheof) to hang a thief caught on the estate.

A charter of Aethelred II

The nobility served the king, and were granted lands and privileges as a reward for that service. As lords they could expect service from their own men, and in turn they had a duty to protect those who called them ‘lord’.

[1] Origins of English Feudalism 59 p145 – Of Oaths (c.1920)
[2] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) 978
[3] IV Edgar 15. & 15.1
[4] EHD (English historical Documents) 117 p525
[5] This document is often called I Edgar, but was possibly written before Edgar’s reign. It was definitely in existence during Edgar’s reign.
[6] II&III Edgar 5.2
[7] HR Loyn – The Governance of Anglo-Saxon England p138
[8] III Aethelred 3.1 & 13.2
[9] IV Edgar 4. & 5.
[10] HR Loyn Op Cit p163. By 1086 approx. 130 hundreds were in private hands.

All images used above are copyright free in the Public Domain

This article first appeared on the EHFA Blog 16th July 2016

 

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

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