Edward the Elder, King of the Anglo-Saxons

“Here died Alfred, Æthelwulf’s offspring, six days before the Feast of All Hallows. He was king over all the English race except that part of which was under Danish control, and he held that kingdom twenty-eight-and-a-half years. And then Edward, his son, succeeded to the kingdom.”

Such is the entry for 899 in the A version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, featuring the first mention of Edward as king. Born sometime in the 870’s to Ælfred the Great and Eahlswith, Edward was one of five children to survive childhood. The eldest, Æthelflæd, married Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians and would rule as Lady of the Mercians after his death. Edward was second followed by another daughter, Æthelgifu, who became abbess of Shaftesbury in Dorset. A third daughter, Ælfthryth, married Baldwin II, Count of Flanders while the youngest son, Æthelweard, was given a scholarly education and became a wealthy landowner. Edward was well placed to be Alfred’s successor: he was given first hand military experience and command when he reached adulthood, and simultaneously gained experience in the workings of royal administration. He even defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Farnham in 893. Around the same year he probably married Ecgwynn with whom he had two children, the future king Æthelstan (spoilers, sorry!) and a daughter who would marry Sihtric (Sigtrygg Gále), a Viking King of York.

If you were to just look at the story of Ælfred and his children up to his death, you could be forgiven for thinking they were somehow pre-destined for greatness. But this was categorically not the case. The opening quote from the ASC is merely a part of the entry for 899, instead it continues: “Then Æthelwold, his father’s brother’s son, rode and seized the manor at Wimborne [Dorset] and at Twinham [now Christchurch, Dorset, though formally Hampsire] without leave of the king and his councillors. Then the king rode with an army until he camped at Badbury [Badbury Rings, Dorset], near Wimborne, and Æthelwold stayed inside that manor with the men who had given him their allegiance, and had barricaded all the gates against him, and said that he would either live there or die there. Then under cover of that he stole away by night and sought out the raiding-army in Northumbria.” You may remember that Ælfred became king due to an arrangement with his brother due to the latter’s children still being underage. Yes, that’s right, little Æthelwold was all grown up, and he was perhaps understandably a bit peeved at the way he had been neatly put to the side under Ælfred’s reign. So, in the very year of the old kings death but before Edward’s ascension to the throne, he kicked up a bit of a fuss. And by kicked up a bit of a fuss I mean he seized two royal manors in open revolt, then ran to, of all people, the Danes. This is where things get interesting and the threat posed by Æthelwold is finally underlined. The Danes in Northumbria actually submitted to him and accepted him as king. There are even coins minted that show he had been proclaimed king in Jórvik. Perhaps the Danes envisaged Æthelwold as a pliable and weak client king in Wessex much like Ceolwulf had been in Mercia, or maybe Æthelwold could call on more support in Wessex than the ASC lets on. Either way at the very least Æthelwold and the Danes believed they had overlapping interests. In the Autumn of 901 the troublesome Æthelwold (described by the Annals of St Neots as the “king of the Danes” and “king of the Pagans”) landed in Essex with a fleet and by 903 had persuaded the Danish army in East Anglia to break peace with Edward and join his little soiree. Æthelwold and his new best friends then raided parts of Mercia and Wessex, prompting Edward to ravage parts of what is now Cambridgeshire in response, though the two forces did not engage one another. Edward left East Anglia for reason that are unclear, however some of his army remained and were attacked by Æthelwold and his supporters. The resulting Battle of the Holme was a Danish victory. Of sorts. Yes, at the end of the fight the Danes controlled the field, but the losses on both sides were by all accounts horrendous: Sigehelm, the leader of the men of Kent, was killed, while on the Viking side Eohric, probably king of East Anglia and, more importantly, Æthelwold himself were killed. As I said, a victory of sorts. It is not very often that you see a victory directly result in the victors actually losing. But this was the case, and without a leader or figurehead, there was no more revolt.

In the aftermath of the revolt though, we are granted a very intriguing insight into the extent of the Edward’s power. Æthelwold, during his ‘rebellion’ could call on the support of allies from Wessex, Northumbria, East Anglia and, probably, Mercia and Essex. For a time he had a claim to be the most powerful ruler in England, so perhaps Edward’s reluctance to engage him in battle was indeed well founded. In Mercia, where Æthelred ruled, we no longer see any reference to the consent of any overlord following Ælfred’s death. In fact a number of them come quite close to describing Æthelred and Æthelflæd as king and queen. Indeed the tenth-century Chronicle of Æthelweard describes Æthelred as the king of Mercia, while a number of near-contemporary Welsh and Irish sources refer to Æthelflæd as queen. We also see in the Annals of Æthelflæa distinctively Mercian perspective on the events of the early tenth century, offering particular insight into her actions against the Vikings and Welsh after her husbands death in 911. The Annals present her as a strong ruler who pursued her own policies and strategies against Mercia’s enemies. Yet coins produced in Mercia during this period were solely in Edward’s name as king, and by 909 at least he was able to command the armies of both Mercia and Wessex to ravage and plunder Northumbria. Edward’s style of rule, then, may best be described as a tight-knit family arrangement, with Mercia having a considerable yet ultimately subordinate share of the royal authority.

Following the death of his brother-in-law Æthelred in 911, Edward gained direct control of London, Oxford and the surrounding regions while Æthelflæd became ruler of what remained of ‘English’ Mercia. From this point on until their deaths in 918 (Æthelflæd) and 924 (Edward) respectively, the recorded activities of the pair are dominated by campaigns against the Vikings in East Anglia, the East Midlands and Northumbria. The ASC records these campaigns nearly exclusively in terms of the construction of burhs at key sites, then often followed by the submission of the Viking army in that region and the people from the area who had formerly been under Viking rule. Until 909 Edward’s response to the Danes was like any of his predecessors, involving a mix of fighting and treaties. From 909 on however he appears to have taken a much more aggressive stance, sending armies to ravage Viking Northumbria. The following year, presumably as a response to this aggression, the army in Northumbria ravaged parts of Mercia but was overtaken and defeated at Tettenhall (or Wednesfield/Wõdnesfeld – literally Wodens Field, modern day Wolverhampton) in 910. The ASC recorded the deaths of two Viking kings, two earls, five holds and many thousands of men. There was a further change in strategy in 911, when Edward constructed a burh at Hertford, presumably to check Danish advances from East Anglia and the East Midlands. The next year another burh was constructed at Hertford, this time on the south bank of the River Lea, and one at Witham in Essex, to block raids from Colchester along the Roman road to London. Over the following years a further four burhs were built, with Edward pushing deeper into Danish-controlled territory. The Mercian Register (Annals of Æthelflæd) give us a similar picture in Mercia, with the northern and western frontiers being strengthened to deal with Danish attacks from the East Midlands, Vikings active in the Irish Sea and the Wirral and, one can safely assume, the Welsh from the west. By the time of her death in 918 all Danish armies south of the Humber, with the exception of those at Nottingham and maybe Lincoln, had submitted to one of the siblings.

What, though, did these submissions actually mean? If Edward did issue any charters for the period 910-924, no authentic ones survive. If his conquests were accompanied by the redistribution of land to his followers, it was not recorded in writing. There is evidence that some Viking landowners managed to retain control of their estates, or at least receive them back from Edward. Some, such as Earl Thurferth of Northampton, even maintained something of their status after their submission. Moneyers who had produced coins in Viking held burhs started minting coins in Edward’s name, implying he was either unable or unwilling to dismantle governmental or administrative structures that were already in place. Following his sister’s death in 918 Edward’s response was telling. He occupied Tamworth (Staffordshire) where she had died, and according to the main text of the ASC received the submission of all ‘English’ Mercia, as well as three Welsh kings Hywel, Clydog and Iwal, on the same occasion. The Mercian Register then describes how in the same year Ælfwynn, Æthelred and Æthelflæd’s daughter, was ‘deprived of all authority in Mercia and taken into Wessex’. It is unclear whether she enjoyed a similar level of authority to her mother or if Edward was seeking to remove a potential political focus of resistance (remember what happened with Æthelwold?), but what is clear is that from 918 on Mercia was directly under Edward’s control. What followed was further burh- building and submission-receiving.

Edward died at the royal estate of Farndon, approximately 12 miles south of Chester, on 24 July 924. In a mere two decades he had not just proven himself a worthy successor to Ælfred but, one could argue, surpassed him in his achievements. Whereas his father was a man of letters, Edward was a man of the sword. John of Worcester described him as “the most invincible King Edward the Elder”, and he has only really been overlooked in the long line of successful warrior kings of England because he didn’t have a battle like Edington or Brunanburh to his name. Similarly he has often been overshadowed by admiration (both from chroniclers and popularly today) for his sister. However this neglect could, almost,  be a result of his own neglect to leave behind some primary sources.

As always, I hope this has proved to be an interesting read!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s