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