Writers of Anglo-Saxon literature: Patricia Bracewell on Edmund Ironside

Thank you, Paula, for inviting me to your blog site and giving me an opportunity to offer a brief sketch of the career of one of the heroic figures of late Anglo-Saxon England.
Edmund Ironside, Warrior King.
In preparing to write my novels about Emma of Normandy I immersed myself in everything I could learn about the 11th century Anglo-Saxon royals, including Emma’s stepchildren, the elder sons and daughters of Æthelred the Unready. Not surprisingly, the royal child who received the most documentation was Edmund Ironside who, after his father’s death, ruled England for 222 turbulent days.
A contemporary account of that period appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), written by a clinically depressed monk who lamented the events in the reigns of both Edmund and Æthelred but offered the historian and the novelist few details. We know the WHAT, but we rarely know the WHY or the HOW. As a result, historians have to speculate, and novelists like me turn those speculations into story.
Edmund was born in about 989, the third of six sons from his father’s first marriage. He and his siblings were raised by their somewhat notorious grandmother, dowager queen Ælfthryth, at her estate about 10 miles from Winchester. They grew up in an England that was repeatedly assaulted by the Danish king Swein Forkbeard and his allies. By 1013 three of Edmund’s brothers had died in their teens or early twenties—illness? Misadventure? Battle wounds? We don’t know. They simply disappear from the records. That left Edmund, his eldest brother Athelstan (presumed heir to the throne), and younger brother Edwig.
In July 1013 a massive fleet led by Swein and his son Cnut landed in northern Mercia, intent on conquest. By year’s end Æthelred, Queen Emma and their young children had been forced to flee to Normandy. Did the sons from Æthelred’s first marriage accompany them across the Channel? The ASC doesn’t say, but it’s likely that they remained in England and may have led forays against the Danish garrisons that were now scattered across the kingdom.
Swein, though, was able to call himself king of England for only two months before he died suddenly in February 1014—an unwise move that brought Æthelred roaring back from exile in April. Cnut, who believed (mistakenly) that he’d inherited England when dad breathed his last, was sent pelting back to Denmark with the remnants of Swein’s fleet.
Two months later Edmund’s brother Athelstan was dead at age 28, unwed and without issue. Again, we don’t know how he died. Edmund was at his bedside and was executor of his will, suggesting that they were close, and the will itself provides a glimpse into their lives. Athelstan had servants, retainers, and numerous associates among the English elite. He owned armor, weapons, horses, movable wealth, and 16 estates in 9 different shires. Presumably Edmund had similar possessions. Athelstan left Edmund properties and weapons that included an heirloom sword of the 8th century Mercian King Offa. Historian N.J. Higham interprets this bequest as Athelstan passing “the mantle of succession” to Edmund, urging him to lead the English against the Danes.
Edmund surely got the message, but he wasn’t king yet. He was forced into action, though, when Æthelred made another of the questionable decisions that characterize his reign. In August of 1015 he ordered his son-in-law Eadric Streona, the ealdorman of Mercia, to murder two powerful northern Mercian nobles—associates of Athelstan and Edmund. The king confiscated their possessions and imprisoned one of the widows. Edmund, in a move that could not have pleased papa, seized the widow, married her, and took her north to claim her dead husband’s properties and the fealty of his men. This was not romance, but politics. (The bride’s sentiments are unrecorded, of course, but she gave him 2 sons.) The marriage gave Edmund control of a wide swath of northern Mercia, an area that two years before had harbored Swein and Cnut. It’s possible that what Æthelred probably interpreted as Edmund’s rebellious power grab was actually an aggressive response to rumors of a new Danish threat; because while Edmund was fetching his bride and claiming lands in the northeast, Cnut of Denmark landed in the southwest and began plundering.
Cnut, like Edmund, was now about 27 years old and his father had been, albeit briefly, king of England. Cnut wanted the throne. Æthelred was near 50, ill, and unable to respond to this Danish upstart. But Edmund gathered an army from his new lands and marched south to confront Cnut. He was thwarted by his treacherous brother-in-law Eadric Streona who had also raised an army and “meant to betray Edmund”. (ASC) We don’t know what Eadric intended exactly. Did the two men meet and quarrel? Did Eadric hope to curry favor with Cnut by ridding him of this fierce claimant to the throne? The novelist wonders, too, where Eadric’s wife, Edmund’s sister, was when this was going on. Were her sympathies with her husband or her brother? We know only that Edmund and his army sheered away from Eadric’s force. Eadric submitted to Cnut (which may have been his plan all along), and took with him many of the magnates in the southwestern shires of England (ie. an army). So now, Cnut had English allies riding with him.
Cnut and company ravaged northward throughout the winter of 1015, a tactic that fed and rewarded their men, terrorized the English and discouraged any resistance. Edmund twice gathered an army but his war leaders were reluctant to fight. They might not have known who to trust— Eadric, who was a powerful ealdorman of Mercia and had apparently accepted Cnut’s claim to the throne; or Edmund who was the king’s son but who had rebelled against his father, and where was the king anyway? They wanted Æthelred in their midst to be certain that they were fighting on the right (winning) side. Meantime, Æthelred dithered, and although he finally led a force from London to join Edmund, a rumor of treachery (real or imagined) sent him haring back to the city, and again Edmund’s army dispersed.
Ever resourceful, Edmund turned for aid to another brother-in-law, Uhtred, Ealdorman of Northumbria up in York; but instead of attacking the Danes who were terrorizing Eastern Mercia, they ravaged Eadric’s lands in Western Mercia, a move that puzzled even the monk writing the ASC. Perhaps Edmund hoped to deprive Eadric and Cnut of food and forage; perhaps he hoped to draw Eadric away from Cnut and so reduce Cnut’s numbers. Later chroniclers suggest he was punishing those who refused to take up arms against the Danes. Meanwhile Cnut and Eadric stormed into Uhtred’s Northumbria, and Uhtred was forced to return home to defend his people. Edmund, his army again depleted, headed for London, perhaps drawn there by news of the king.
It was now well into March of 1016. While Edmund rode south, Uhtred attempted to submit to Cnut but was murdered by one of Cnut’s allies. With Uhtred dead and Northumbria now securely under Scandinavian control, Cnut returned to his ships on the Dorset coast. Possibly hoping to trap both Edmund and Æthelred in London by laying siege to the city, Cnut sailed for the Thames estuary. Before Cnut made it to London, though, Æthelred died on 23 April, and Edmund was proclaimed king.
Edmund’s coronation must have been a hurried affair, and his first move as king was to get out of London before Cnut’s fleet arrived. He led his retainers deep into Wessex where he cajoled or coerced the West Saxons to give him their support. Cnut was laying siege to London, and Edmund needed an army to relieve the city.
Throughout 1016 Edmund Ironside’s movements and those of Cnut over hundreds of miles, each man probably leading 2000-3000 men, looked like this:
PHOTO #1 OF MAP

BattleMap (1)
From The Cambridge Illustrated Atlas of Warfare: The Middle Ages.

This map, though, only hints at the logistical difficulties that Edmund overcame in raising, arming, supplying, and transporting, on horse and on foot, at least five different armies in his effort to defeat Cnut, who had the advantage of a fleet and probably had horses as well. Edmund must have been a skilled commander and strategist, and a man forceful enough to bend men to his will. Twice Cnut laid siege to London, and twice Edmund’s armies drove him off. Battles fought at Penselwood, Sherston, and Brentford in the southwest led to casualties on both sides, but no definitive victory for either.
In September, 1016, Edmund chased the Danes across Kent to Sheppey, an easily defended island that had often been a haven for viking armies. Edmund halted his troops fifteen miles west of the island, at Aylesford, where good old Eadric Streona sought him out and offered his allegiance. Remember, Eadric had murdered (among others) the first husband of Edmund’s wife; had conspired in some way against Edmund himself; had been Æthelred’s favorite, but had betrayed the king by submitting to Cnut; and had convinced the lords of Wessex to betray the king as well. Now he was offering to switch sides a third time by throwing his support behind Edmund. Historian Simon Keynes uses the word “unscrupulous” to describe Eadric Streona; the ASC calls him “treacherous”; Jamie Jeffers of The British History Podcast calls him “a traitorous little shit”.
Edmund, though, accepted his allegiance.
“No measure could be more ill-advised.” (ASC)
Edmund!! Why??? We can only guess. Eadric was powerful, wealthy, and had a large English army with him. Edmund couldn’t kill him without huge repercussions. There were likely complex familial, political and moral complications in their relationship that we can only imagine. And if Eadric, scoundrel that he was, was fighting at Edmund’s side, at least he wasn’t fighting on Cnut’s side. Numbers in this conflict were crucial.
Cnut’s fleet left Sheppey, and Edmund may have believed that they were making for Danish-controlled York before the winter gales set in. Perhaps Eadric convinced him of that. But Cnut did not sail to York. He sailed to Essex where he beached his ships and plundered toward Cambridge. Historian Timothy Bolton suggests that Cnut wanted to draw Edmund into a final battle. He describes Cnut as cunning, and Edmund as a straightforward warrior; and Cnut’s cunning worked.
Edmund gathered another army and on 18 October 1016 he attacked Cnut at Assandun (Ashdon) in Essex. It was a long, fierce battle. The Encomium Emmae Reginae, written 3 decades later, claimed that the Danes raged rather than fought, and that they were determined to conquer or perish to a man. But at the height of the battle, that treacherous little shit Eadric Streona, fighting on the English side, turned tail and fled with all his men, “and so betrayed his natural lord and all the people of England.” (ASC)

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Streona with his countrymen leaves the battle

The Danes held the slaughter field at Assandun, but Edmund still lived. He rode west with the remnants of his army, and seems to have wanted to fight on. But too many of his warlords had been killed, including two ealdormen and another brother-in-law. His councilors urged him to meet with Cnut and make peace. Eadric Streona, with a foot in both camps, (still!!!) played intermediary, and at a meeting on the isle of Alney in Gloucestershire on a date that went unrecorded, England was divided between them. Cnut could call himself king of Northumbria and Mercia, including the trading powerhouses of York and London; Edmund remained king of the West Saxon heartland, Wessex.

Fredericksborg_Alney
The 2 young princes meet at Alney and decide on the division of England

The two men made pledges of friendship and, according to the ASC, of brotherhood. That pledge of brotherhood, I think, is important because as Edmund’s brother, Cnut could lay claim to Wessex if Edmund should die. And 43 days later, on 30 November, 1016, Edmund died.
We don’t know what caused his death. Later chroniclers blamed Eadric Streona and there were lurid tales of an iron hook in the king’s hinder parts. A far more likely cause: a wound taken at Assandun. Of course, it could be argued that if Edmund had any inkling that his death was imminent he would never have made an agreement with Cnut at Alney that disinherited his remaining brother and his sons; but in the 11th century even a slight wound, easily dismissed, might fester and lead to death. Or, Edmund’s loss at Assandun may have made his position too weak militarily to oppose anything that Cnut demanded.
Edmund was buried at Glastonbury Abbey. As is usually the case, we have no idea what happened to his wife, Aldyth. She may have accompanied her infant sons to Hungary where one of them grew up, married and had children. Edmund’s grand-daughter would wed the king of Scotland, and her daughter would wed William the Conqueror’s son, Henry I. Edmund’s Anglo-Saxon blood line continues today in the English royal family.
None of this tells us what Edmund was like as a person, although it’s safe to say that he was bold and courageous. He hounded Cnut all over England, and faced him in hand to hand combat. But we don’t know what he felt toward his father, his wife, his sons, or even his stepmother, Emma. That emotional territory is the province of the novelist. In my first two novels I imagined Edmund as a quiet youth, but watchful; suspicious of his father’s Norman bride—something I believe was quite likely. In my third novel, not yet published, I have given him a viewpoint and a voice, and I have pitted him against an enemy far more dangerous than his stepmother. He is a vigorous man of forceful character who steadfastly defends England against Danish conquest. He is a heroic figure in the image of his forbears Alfred the Great and King Athelstan. I based that on how the ASC portrays him: a warrior king who raised and led five armies, but who lost half a kingdom through treachery, and before he could win it back, lost his life.

Sources:
Bolton, Timothy, Cnut the Great. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2017

Campbell, Alistair, Ed., Encomium Emmae Reginae, Cambridge University Press, 1998

Higham, N. J., The Death of Anglo-Saxon England, Sutton Publishing, Gloucestershire, 1997

Rodwell, Warwick J., “The Battle of Assandun and its Memorial Church: A Reappraisal”, The Battle of Maldon: Fiction and Fact, Cooper, Janet, ed., London, 1993

Savage, Anne, Trans., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, CLB, Wayne, New Jersey,1997

Whitelock, D., English Historical Documents, London, 1979

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Patricia Bracewell’s first two books, Shadow on the Crown (2013) and The Price of Blood (2015) are available in paperback, e-book and audio book formats. Her novels have been published in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, Italy, Germany, Russia and Brazil. In the fall of 2014 she was honored to serve as Writer-in-Residence at Gladstone’s Library, Wales, and she continues to travel extensively for research. She holds a Masters Degree in English Literature, lives in Oakland, California, and has been in love with England and its history since childhood. She is currently completing the third novel in her series about the 11th century queen of England, Emma of Normandy.

Paula Says

Thank you so much, Pat, for coming on my blog to talk about one of my greatest heroes of the 11th century. Like many others who have had their lives cut short before they could reach their full potential, Edmund never had the chance to fight to regain England back from Danish rule, and I definitely think he would have given Cnut a run for his money. He was, unfortunately, the only leader at the time who seemed to have the wherewithal to stand up and take the English forces to the fight. He was indeed a great hero. Your extensive research really shows here and I am grateful that you have shared so much of it here!

One question I have is that I notice you don’t mention Godwin, later Earl Godwin under Cnut. I have always thought that Godwin was a member of Edmund and Aethelstan’s retainers, due to being returned his father’s land in Aethelstan’s will, I just wondered what your thoughts are regarding him?

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Death of an Exile

 

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public domain

Edmund Ironside died in November of 1016. He was known as the  _Ironside_ for his strength and prowess in battle. There is mystery surrounding his death. Some say that he was murdered – something nasty involving the call of nature and a spear from the rear – but the general consensus seems to be that he died of his wounds three weeks or so after the Battle of AshingdonAssundun in Old English). The agreement he’d made with Cnut following the battle was that the Dane should rule the North of England, and Edmund the lands in the south and south-west – Wessex. Included in the agreement, was this clause: whomever died first, the other would take over their crown. The next year, whilst he was on a housecleaning excersize (getting rid of anyone who’s loyalty to him he believed questionable) it occurred to Cnut that Edmund’s infant sons, Edward and Edmund, would grow to become a real threat to his rule. He asked his wife what she thought about the boys and she urged him that he could not allow them to live. So he had them banished – snatched, apparently, by the treacherous Eadric Streona, from their mother’s arms. They were sent to Sweden with a message that they should be put to death. But the King of Sweden was not having any of it, infanticide wasn’t his thing, and so he let them go. This led to the boys  embarking on a long journey through Eastern Europe, ‘on the run’ so-to-speak, until they settled eventually in Hungary at the court of King Stephen.

Edmund_Ironside_-_MS_Royal_14_B_VI

At this point, I am not sure what happened to Ironside’s son Edmund, but he doesn’t seem to have been alive when Bishop Ealdred is sent to seek out his brother Edward. However, it comes to the attention of the Confessor that Edward Ætheling, his brother’s son, is alive and well and living in state at the court of Hungary, married to a European noble lady and with a ready-made royal House of Wessex family. This came about when discussing a succession plan in a meeting with the Witan in May 1054, that did not include William of Normandy. King Edwardof England and his wife, Edith, had failed to produce an heir for the English throne, and it must have looked unlikely by now, as they had been married for 9 years, that it would happen any day soon. There were few other candidates apart from this lost exile living in Hungary, but these men, Ralph and Walter de Mantes, might have been in the running as Edward’s sister’s (Goda) sons; Ralph would later turn out to be incompetent, and Walter later dies at the hands of William, imprisoned in 1061. But seeing as they were not sons of a king, it obviously seemed the rational thing, to send a mission to Hungary to find King Edmund’s son.

Edward, it seemed, caused himself much grace and favour at the Hungarian court, and lived under five kings during his life there. When he eventually returns to England, he is sent home with an entourage of servants and much gold and treasures to support his family, so he must have been well regarded and treated and possibly a particular favourite of King Andrew.  King Stephen I died in 1038 without any issue to take his throne, his nephew, Peter Orseleo, son of the Doge of Venice, promised to protect the people of Hungary and Stephen’s wife and  took the throne with the support of the dowager queen’s German faction and terrorised the Hungarian people, and started senseless wars abroad (Ronay 1989). An uprising got rid of him in 1041, but he was restored in 1044 with the help of  Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor. In thanks for the emperor’s assistance, he accepted Henry’s overlordship.  With Peter restored, the Hungarians were not happy to live under his rule, and were most likely also unhappy with the Holy Roman Emperor’s interference. They decided they needed a hero, and suddenly remembered one who had been living in exile in Bohemia for 15 years, Andrew  who was descended from the Árpád dynasty, offspring of Stephen’s dynasty. It was when the envoys came to Kiev, where the English exiles were at this time said to be living, in 1045, they decided to join Andrew’s crusade to help free Hungary from the tyrannical rule of Peter (Ronay 1989).* And so when the Confessor agreed to send a delegation from England to Europe to help find his long lost nephew, they must have already heard that Edward son of Edmund Ironside, was living in Hungary.

Peter_of_Hungary_(Chronicon_Pictum_047)
Peter of Hungary

Ealdred, Bishop of Worcester and his companion Abbot Ælfwin of Ramsey, set off abroad in 1054, and travelled to the court of Henry III, the Holy Roman Emperor in Cologne to request that the Emperor liaise on King Edward’s behalf for the return of his kinsman to England. Why did Ealdred’s embassy go to Germany and not direct Hungary I am not sure. It could be that perhaps historically, England had closer ties with Germany than Hungary. The Confessor’s half sister, Gunnhilda had been married to Emperor Henry III, but had died almost 20 years since. Or perhaps it was because Agatha, Edward the Exile’s wife, was a niece of the emperor. In any case, Ealdred sought Henry’s help but although Ealdred was invited whilst the emperor made the necessary inquiries, to study the German church, and Ealdred, perhaps being unusually naive, as suggested by Ronay, was in complete oblivion about the strained relations between Germany and Hungary, the mission was not successful. Given the past hostile history between the two territories, it seems strange that Ealdred should have failed to realise the situation was sensitive. Emma Mason, in her book The House of Godwine states that Henry was unable, or unwilling to help the situation, indicating that Henry might have had his own agenda in his reluctance to find the exiled aetheling. It seems that Edward arrived in Hungary with the army of Henry’s enemy, Andrew I, and even though Edward had married Henry’s niece, Agatha, Edward’s involvement in the wars against German-backed Peter Orseleo, had displeased Henry enough to try and sabotage the aetheling’s ascension to the throne of England.

Andrew_I_(Chronica_Hungarorum)

So, as the Anglo Saxon mentions, in 1055, about a year later, Ealdred returns to England with much knowledge of how the German church worked, bringing gifts  with him from Archbishop  Hermann II a copy of the Pontificale Romano-Germanicum, and a set of liturgies, with him, but no future heir to the English throne, just an empty promise that Henry would do what he could to find the missing English heir.

This obviously wasn’t good enough and the Confessor must have felt disappointed at the failed mission. Someone within the court might have had more knowledge of why the mission failed and suggested that someone more assertive and less distracted by churchly wonders be commissioned  to negotiate the return of the Exile. Whatever the case, Harold Godwinson was dispatched to St. Omer in the autumn of 1056 and eventually brought Edward, son of Edmund Ironside, the only lone male with a direct link to the royal Wessex line, and his family, home.

The fact that Harold’s delegation to collect Edward Ætheling home was successful, could have had something to do with the death of Henry III around the time of Harold’s embarkation. And so perhaps dying with him, his resentment at the Hungarian regime. Whatever the case, negotiations were successful. There does not appear to be any source that directly quotes that Harold was the man who brought the Exile home.  However most historians accept that because there is evidence that Harold was abroad at this time, travelling to Rome and witnessing documents in St. Omer, it was he who brought Edward back to England.

Edgar_the_Ætheling

We might think of this mission as bringing Edward ‘home’ but in actual fact, it was not his home, but rather his place of birth. He was at least 40 years old, and had lived abroad for nearly all of his life. He would not have recognised London the day he set foot in it. He might have stayed with Harold at one of his manors, with his family: wife, Agatha, daughters Cristina and Margaret who was later to become one of Scotland’s favourite queens, and his little son, Edgar. He must have arrived to much cheering and waving and glad tidings, but why the Confessor was not there to greet him, it is not known. It must have been a strange feeling to him, to be in the land that had allowed that treacherous Cnut to send him away with a letter of death, to deny them him his birthright and his home. Had Edward longed for restoration to his rightful place in society? Had he asked, requested, suggested, and begged for an army to support his right to the throne and it been denied? Had he just accepted his lot, and then one day, like had happened to the Confessor, he was called home, to his great surprise, eagerness, or reluctance perhaps? It is difficult to know. And it became unlikely that anyone would have got to know his thoughts, but the man who brought him home, and we have no record of their interactions, just like there is little evidence for anyone else from that time. In any case, Edward the Exile was not long for this world when he stepped off the boat and onto England’s shores on the 17th of April, for he was dead within 2-3 days.

The chronicles do not record how he died, but there is a hint of dastardly doings. The Worcester Chronicle states:

We do not know for what cause it was arranged that he might not see his relative King Edward’s face, Alas that was a cruel fate, and so harmful to this nation that he so quickly ended his life after he came to England…

So, was there foul play that befell the ætheling? Ronay, in his book about Edward’s life purports the argument that Harold Godwinson poisoned him. He states that he was closest in proximity to him and had the most to gain. It is food for thought, however I do not think that Harold was thinking that far ahead. This was nine years before the Battle of Hastings, and eight years before his trip to Normandy. I also think that had Harold decided to get him out of the way, he probably wouldn’t have done it as soon as they stepped on English soil. He was not a stupid man. I can imagine the whisperings that the ætheling’s sad demise must have caused, but as far as I know at this point in time, the accusation was never actually levelled directly at Harold in any of the contemporary sources or even later ones, though I have yet to do an exhaustive, thorough investigation.

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Harold                    Bayeux Tapestry

 

Could William of Normandy been involved? I would love to say yes, but I think not. At this time, he was just recovering from keeping his dukedom in check. Would he have wanted the Exile out of the way? Yes, definitely. And enemies had been known to die in his custody, such as Walter de Mantes, another possible heir to the English throne, albeit a bit of an outsider. But again, I do not think he would have had the wherewithal to have killed Edward. Unless perhaps a Norman supporter on the other side of the channel.

All i can say is that it is a shame that the chroniclers of the time couldn’t have been more explicit in their writings. It would have been good to have so much more detail, however this is all that we have to go on, and only two of the Anglo Saxon 6 chroniclers mention Edward’s death at all.

So what happened next? His family were taken into the care of the king’s household. His queen, Edith would have looked after Agatha and her children, possibly overseeing their education and welfare. Not long after his father’s death, Edgar was to be endowed with the appellation of  ætheling, indicating that he was accepted by the Witan as the nominated heir. The sad tragedy of Edward’s untimely death must have weighed heavily on most people’s hearts, none more, probably, than the king’s, however Edward’s need to divert the problem away from Normandy, and as some have implied, the growing power of the Godwinsons, had been accomplished. The succession was sown up (Walker). Edgar was England’s great hope for the future.

*For what the ætheling’s were doing in Kiev at this time see The Lost King of England by Gabriel Ronay.

 

References

Mason E. 2004 The House of Godwine (1st ed) Continnuum

Ronay G. 1989 The Lost King of England Bydell Press, UK

Walker I. 2010 Harold Godwinson: The Last Anglo Saxon King The History Press; New Ed edition

 

 

Ælfgyva: The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry – Introductory Part One

Ælfgifu, or as it was sometimes spelt, Alfgyva, or even Ælfgyva as it is on the Bayeux Tapestry, must have been a popular name and one of some significance, for when Emma of Normandy was espoused to Aethelred, the witan insisted that she be called Ælfgifu, which incidentally had been the name of a couple of Æthelred’s previous partners, though none of those women had been given the title of queen, unlike Emma. Perhaps they had been so used to referring to their king’s women by the same name they thought it more expedient to refer to Emma as Ælfgifu too, lest they forget themselves and mistakenly call Emma by the wrong name. I say this tongue in cheek, but it is unclear as to why the name Emma was objectionable to them, after all, it was not unlike the English,  Ymma. But changing a queen’s name is not an unheard-of phenomenon; later Queen Edith, great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, changed her Saxon name and  to become Queen Mathilda when she wed Henry the first. Ælfgifu, or as it was sometimes spelled, Ælfgyva, must have been a popular name and one of some significance, for when Emma of Normandy was espoused to Æthelred, the witan insisted that she be called Ælfgifu, which incidentally had been the name of a couple of Æthelred’s previous consorts, though none of those women had been given the title of queen, unlike Emma. Perhaps they had been so used to referring to their king’s women by the same name they thought it more expedient to refer to Emma as Aelfgifu too, lest they forget themselves and mistakenly call her  Ælfgifu anyway.   I say this tongue in cheek, but it is unclear as to why the name Emma was objectionable to them, after all, it was not unlike the English version of Ymma. But changing a queen’s name is not an unheard of phenomenon; later Queen Edith, great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, changed her Saxon name to become Queen Mathilda when she wed Henry the first. This might have been a choice she had made, wanting to please her new subjects. The nobles were made up of mostly Normans who  liked to make fun of the English language and names, so it might have not been her choice but one that was coerced from her.

There were so many Ælfgyvas/ Ælfgifus amongst the women of the 11thc that it must have become quite confusing at times. Even Cnut’s consort before Emma, was called Ælfgifu, mother of Cnut’s sons Harold and Sweyn. She was known as Ælfgifu of Northampton, the woman whose father had been killed during Æthelred’s reign. So one can see that if anyone called Emma, Ælfgifu, by mistake, it would not have mattered as they could be referring to either of them! Even Cnut would not have been caught out by this one.
There was a story about Cnut’s Ælfgifu,  that she had been unable to produce her own off-spring and  involved a monk to help her pass off a serving maid’s illigitemate babies as her sons by Cnut. In another version, it was said that the monk himself had fathered them.  Were they a monk’s children fathered on a serving maid so that Ælfgifu could present them as hers and Cnut’s? Or, were they lovers themselves, the monk and Ælfgifu? These are questions that, after reading the evidence, I am pondering upon. However, Emma, it is said, hated Ælfgifu and the two women were at odds with each other for many years until Ælfgifu died. It would not be implausible that these tales, rumours, chinese whispers, if you may, were put about by the Queen to destroy her rival’s reputation.

Which leads me now to the mystery of Aelfgyva on the Bayeux tapestry. Ælfgyva is the same name as Aeflgifu, just a different spelling, much like Edith and Eadgyth. For centuries people must have pondered over this scene, where a slim figure, clad in what would appear to be the clothing of a well-bred woman, stands in a door way, her hands are palm upwards as if she could be explaining something to a monk, apparently behind a doorway.  He is reaching out to touch the side of her face whilst his other hand rests on his hip in a stance of dominance and he looks as if he might be touching her face in a fatherly way, perhaps admonishing her for some misdeed, or perhaps he is slapping her?  On the other hand he could be caressing her face. The text sewn into the tapestry merely states ‘where a priest and Ælfgyva…’ and the onlooker is left with no more than this to dwell on. So just what is the author alluding to? Why did he/she not finish the sentence? Perhaps they were referring to a well known scandal of the time and they had no reason to describe the events in detail, because everyone would have known about it anyway. Who knows what the truth is? It seems the answer to the question of the lady’s identity and the relevance the scene has to the story of Harold Godwinsons downfall, died with the creators of the tapestry long ago. Those who presented it to the owner must have given a satisfactory explanation to him about the scene. One can only wonder as to what it might have been and was it a truthful explanation, or did it have a hidden story?
This brings me to my burning question. Was this scene depicting the scandal of Aelfgifu of Northampton and the monk and if so why and what did it have to do with the tapestry? What was its creator  alluding to? Or had someone woven them into the tapestry, mistakenly confusing Cnut’s Aelfgifu/Aelfgyva with a similar story that did have some legitimacy with the story of the conquest? I have an interpretation, but it is just that, and most likely the fanciful ramblings of my imagination, although it could perhaps be close. I will attempt to explain my idea further sometime in part two soon. Watch this space as the mystery unfolds!

This blog post can also be read here: https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2017/11/lfgyva-mystery-woman-of-bayeux-tapestry.html

 

 

Chapter Fourteen: Behold Our New King, Edgar the II!

In London, it was said that the streets were ‘teeming’. There were so many men, survivors of Hastings, and the armies that had been summoned by Harold, but had not quite made it to the battle, that there was hardly room for them all to be accommodated. The people of London were defiant. William of Normandy might have killed their king and many of their leading nobles, but those men and women of the city and all those who had come there, stood with the hope that they ‘might live there in freedom, for a very long time,'(Carnen de Haestingae Proelio). And as Poitiers says ‘it was their highest wish that they have no king who was not a compatriot.’

 

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An artist interpretation of early Anglo Saxon London

 

Archbishop Ealdred of York had journeyed with the brothers, Edwin and Morcar from Yorkshire, to London, most likely hoping  to have met with the victorious King Harold back from Hastings having beaten the Normans, or to have awaited his orders to join him in the campaign to rid the Normans from their country. A council of nobles was called and it was decided that the young atheling, Edgar, should be pronounced king, ‘just as was his noble right’ (Anglo Saxon Chronicle).

Edgar Atheling was around fourteen or fifteen at this time, untried, untested and inexperienced in matters of state, kingship and war, although as a ward of the old King Edward and Queen Edith, would most likely have had some grooming in these affairs. It is interesting that he stayed behind in London. If he had gone into battle at Hastings like most boys of his age had probably done, it would have been mentioned, and one must wonder whether this was because some thought had been given as to who might succeed Harold, should he be killed at Hastings. Perhaps, unofficially, Harold had arranged for him to be his heir and successor, because of his bloodline, as opposed to his own sons. There may have been a lot of support for Edgar, when the king had died, and this might have been a compromise in the deal that allowed Harold to become king. At such worrying times, it would have seemed more expedient to have an experienced veteran on the throne, than a young boy, just in his adolescence.

 

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C/O Regia.org

 

Few people in England had known about Edgar’s existence before 1057. His father, Edward, had been a fugitive as an infant, from King Cnut’s ill wishes back in the earlier half of the 11thc. Edward’s father had been Edmund Ironside, half brother of Edward the Confessor. Both of them had been born to the same father. Edmund had defended England whilst still an atheling and when he had been proclaimed king after the death of his father, Ethelred The Unraed. Edmund had been a respected warrior, hence his name ‘Ironside’, but after  The Battle of Assandun, an agreement between King Cnut and Ironside meant that England was divided into two territories, one for each of them. Not long after that battle, however, Ironside died and his wife, Ealdgyth, fled with her two sons, one of whom was later to become known as Edward the Exile. It was this Edward the Exile, that was brought to England from Hungary where he had been given refuge and married a Hungarian noble woman, Agatha. He and his family had been sought out on behalf of the Confessor, as it had become worryingly clear that England had no heir to the throne. There had been some who had recalled that Edmund’s children had gone into exile, and so Bishop Ealdred had travelled to Europe to seek him out. However, after only being in England a few days, the Exile died before he could even meet the king. It was not known what caused his death, but the Anglo Saxon (Worcester Chronicle D) makes this observation

We do not know for what cause it was arranged that he might not see his relative King Edward. Alas! That was a cruel fate and harmful to all this nation, that he so quickly ended his life after he came to England, to this misfortune of this wretched nation.

And so, it was left to little Edgar, then aged about five, to wear the mantle of atheling, a title which was given to princes or anyone with royal blood who was considered throneworthy. Having been endowed with the title, did not mean that Edgar would definitely be raised to the throne upon Edward’s death, what it did entitle him to, was to be considered for the throne. The end decision was in the hands of the Witan.

 

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Battle of Assundon

 

There is not much known about Edgar’s early years. He and his father came to England in 1057, possibly brought over by a delegate that may have included Harold, and perhaps Bishop Ealdred. There is evidence to state that Harold was in Europe in this time and could well have been part of the contingent that brought the family back to England. It is not known in whose care Edward the Exile was in when he died, but it may well have been Harold’s who most certainly had the means to accommodate the family.

Edward and Edith are known to have care of the children of nobles, among these, may have been the children of such members of the aristocracy as, Harold, son of Ralph de Mantes, the king’s nephew. Edgar and his sisters I am sure would have also been wards, and perhaps their mother, Agatha, one of Edith’s ladies. Much more is known about the adult Edgar, who, despite being let down by his country, did his best to fight William and although he never won his crown, he was a brave contender for the throne. And if anyone had a right to be king, it was Edgar, not William, who won by right of Conquest, and nothing more.

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For those who would like to know more about Edgar you can find books about him on Amazon such as Martin Lake’s blog and also Martin’s books about Edgar, the true king of England

Primary Sources

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles Translated and edited by Michael Swanton.

Guy de Amien Carmen de Haestingae de Proelio.

William Poitiers Gesta Guillelmi.

Further Reading

Morris M. (2012) The Norman Conquest Hutchinson, London.

Walker I. W. (1997) Harold The LAst Anglo-Saxon King Sutton Publishing, Stroud.