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