Monday, 9 July 2018

Odda of Deerhurst - Omitted from the Novel?

A very short walk from Deerhurst Church, in Gloucestershire, there is another Anglo-Saxon place built for worship. It’s known as Odda’s Chapel.

In 1675 a tree fell down in the orchard outside a half-timbered manor house and revealed an inscription stone embedded in its roots. The stone recorded - in Latin - the founding of a chapel by Odda in remembrance of his brother, Ælfric, who had died in 1053. Odda died in 1056, only a few months after the consecration of the chapel. It was originally thought that the stone referred to Deerhurst Church, but in the nineteenth century renovations to the house revealed the chapel, which had been incorporated into the later building.

Even today, repairs are ongoing

The dedication stone reads: Earl Odda ordered this royal hall to be built and dedicated in honour of the holy Trinity & for the soul of his brother Ælfric who died in this place. Bishop Ealdred dedicated it on 12 April. The fourteenth year of Edward, king of the English (1056)

A replica of the dedication stone

Odda and his brother both died at Deerhurst, but were buried at Pershore.

Pershore Abbey today (public domain image)

Talbot & Whiteman's book has this to say about Pershore: that the monks were ejected shortly after King Edgar's death in 975, probably by Ælfhere of Mercia. They were reinstated when Ælfhere died. His grandson was Earl Odda, who founded the Saxon chapel at Deerhurst in memory of his brother, and who was a benefactor of Pershore.

Wait, what? A grandson of Ælfhere? But I've written a whole novel about the grandfather without once mentioning the existence of this progeny. Had I made a terrible mistake?

John Leland (the 16th century antiquarian) suggested that Odda was ‘Elfer’s (Ælfhere) son’. Son? This was even worse!

So, grandson, or son? Well, as I'd always believed, neither.

Ælfhere, who was probably around twenty in 956, died at a date which makes it unlikely that he was Odda’s father. (Odda first appears in the records in 1013) So was he his grandfather?

The two men certainly had landholdings in the same area of Mercia, and both were seemingly connected to the West Saxon royal house.

There also seems to be some shared link to Pershore. Annals recorded by Leland seem to assume that because Odda restored lands which had been allegedly seized by Ælfhere that there must have been some family connection.

But Ann Williams has suggested that Odda was more likely to have been related to Æthelweard, ealdorman of the Western shires (also known as Æthelweard the Chronicler - and in this capacity he informed us that he was descended from King Æthelred I, Alfred the Great’s brother).

The presumed connection to Ælfhere seems to stem partly from the association with a man named Godwine, who appears on a charter from 1014, along with Odda. This Godwine may well have been a nephew of Ælfhere’s.

Does this confirm the idea that Odda was related to Ælfhere? Another charter attestation shows Odda preceded on the list by a man named Ælfgar mæw, a man associated with monasteries at Tewkesbury (nearby) and Cranborne (not so near, in Dorset). The Tewkesbury chronicle recorded that he, and his father, Æthelweard, were related to the royal house of Wessex. If this is the same Æthelweard as the man who was ealdorman of the Western shires, then some conclusion may be drawn from the fact that in 1051, after the ealdordom had passed through the hands of the powerful Godwin family, it was then given to Odda, as if there were some family connection.

Pershore, too, had associations with Ealdorman Æthelweard, where Odda was remembered as a benefactor, and where he and his brother were buried. 

The precise nature of their relationship to  Æthelweard is not clear, but the suggestion of kinship seems more plausible than that Odda was a son or grandson of Ælfhere’s.

Ælfhere was succeeded as ealdorman of Mercia by a man named Ælfric cild who was probably his brother-in-law, rather than a son. 

None of this is provable beyond all doubt, but it seems that I was right, after all, not to have a character named Odda in the novel.

Still, that’s not to say that the chapel is not of interest to me. Anglo-Saxon buildings are rare enough, and this one, though only a shell, is a site worth visiting.

According to John Blair, the precinct of the minster of Deerhurst was divided, with the northern half being retained by the monastic community and the southern half becoming the earl’s residence. The chapel was built a small distance from the church and, although it is unusual in that the dedication stone exists, the building is very typical of its age, showing similarities with many parish churches of that time with what Blair calls ‘overlap’ details.

Deerhurst Church contains many fine examples of Anglo-Saxon carvings, walls and windows, and the atmosphere inside it is calm, peaceful and conducive to contemplation, for this is a building which has been used continuously for worship for more than a millennium. Odda’s chapel is equally quiet, but in an almost eerie way, for it stands empty, showing not the same signs of continuous use, but as a stark and rare reminder of how these buildings looked, and it spoke in its own way of the passing of time.  If only more of these buildings had survived.

My novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, tells the story of the life and career of Ælfhere, ealdorman of Mercia

Further reading:

Gloucestershire People and History - Richard Sale
The Heart of England - Rob Talbot and Robin Whiteman
Land, power and politics: the family of Odda of Deerhurst - Ann Williams
The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society - John Blair
Princeps Merciorum gentis: The Family, Career and Connections of Ælfhere, Ealdorman of Mercia, 956-83 - Ann Williams 
All photographs unless otherwise stated taken by and copyright of the author.


What was I doing there? Well, I’d been up at the church, taking photos of the Anglo-Saxon architecture for my new book about the history of Mercia. Odda himself doesn’t feature in the book because, whilst he clearly had associations and lands within Mercia, his area of jurisdiction was in Wessex. And, for most of the book, Wessex is the ‘enemy’...

Available from Amazon and Amberley Publishing

Monday, 25 June 2018

Shining a Light - Authors of Dark Ages Novels: John Broughton

In 2018 I'm featuring other authors who write books set in the so-called 'Dark Ages'. This month, I'm delighted to hand the blog over to guest John Broughton, who will introduce himself and then interview one of his characters:

Hi there, I’m John Broughton, my first historical novel The Purple Thread is available as e-book and paperback from Amazon and was published in 2017 by Endeavour Press. 

As with all my historical novels it is set in the Anglo-Saxon period. My second novel, Wyrd of the Wolf is set mainly in seventh-century Sussex and the Isle of Wight. It contains my own convincing theory as to why Caedwalla’s wound never healed. I would like to interview one of the main characters in this novel – the beautiful, beguiling Cynethryth – Caedwalla’s wife. My next venture after Wyrd of the Wolf was meant at the outset to be a trilogy dealing with the long reign of Aethelbald of Mercia but it transformed into a duology to be published in the summer and the autumn of 2018. 

The first book is entitled Saints and Sinners and deals with the contrasting lives of the young Aethelbald and his best friend Guthlac, who gives up his martial lifestyle to become a hermit and a saint. The sequel, Mixed Blessings follows Aethelbald from his coronation to his murder at the end of his triumphant reign. Finally, I have just completed my fifth novel, Perfecta Saxonia set in the ninth/tenth century. This, as the title implies, deals with the formation of a whole unified Saxon England under the remarkable king, Aethelstan, who fulfills the dream of his grandfather, the great Alfred, who laid the foundations of modern England. Anyone wishing to find out more about our Anglo-Saxon heritage or about the author is welcome to visit my website   or visit my Facebook page devoted to my writing: 


The Interview

J. Hello Cynethryth, nice to have a chat with you: I hope you appreciate how I portrayed you in my novel.
C. I think you tried your best to put me over as a strong and fascinating girl but if I had written my own tale, I would have made it clearer how much my apparent betrayal of my dear father hurt me.

J. But by agreeing to marry Caedwalla, you betrayed not only your father but also your betrothed, the aetheling of Kent.
C. What choice did I have? I thought my father was dead and I realised when I met Caedwalla that I could love no other man. anyway, he wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer.

J. Do you think the book could have worked with you as a minor character?
C. How could it? Isn’t the main theme about betrayal and forgiveness. In the end, love triumphs even if you snatched Caedwalla away from me.

J. Me? No, I just related the facts. He was doomed from the moment his wound was infected. Give me credit, Cynethryth. Some people have portrayed Caedwalla as a blood-thirsty monster. I think I’ve shown the better side of his character – courageous, coherent, intelligent and loving.
C. There’s truth in that but there's one thing I’d criticise you for.

J. What’s that? 
C.You reconcile me with my father and take me home from Rome to the Isle of Wight but leave me at that point. Remember, I was carrying Caedwalla’s child and you don’t bother with the rest of my life or the child’s.

J. It’s hardly my fault if you didn’t remarry with someone important and get mixed up again in the major events of the period.
C. Aren’t you interested in the ordinary life of men and women?

J. Of course, and to be fair, those things appear in my novels but I’m not the type of writer who can make a book out of historical romance – I really feel, with the utmost respect, it is best left to a lady writer.
C. Mmm. Maybe but you certainly knew how to make me fall in love with Caedwalla – you did quite well for a man!

J. You know what, Cynethryth? I fell more than a little in love with you myself.

Wyrd of the Wolf

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

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.

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 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.

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 thegns, 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
(all images in the public domain, unless credited)

This post originally appeared on the EHFA Blog

The life story of the Lady of the Mercians is told my novel To Be A Queen and the life and careers of her and her husband are included in my new history Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom available for pre-order at Amazon and Amberley

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Research Trip - Finding Æthelflæd

My history of the ancient kingdom of Mercia inches ever nearer to its publication date and I needed some additional pictures for the photo plates in the middle section of the book. This requirement found me in a special place at a very special time.

I'd traipsed all around the north midlands, and the east of England, and now I needed to head off to the western part of Mercia, specifically, Gloucestershire, the ancient homeland of the Hwicce Tribe.

Those who know me and/or regularly read this blog, will know that my daughter summed up my research trips by saying that I 'stand around in fields getting emotional.'

The Anglo-Saxonist has little choice but to do so, because quite often all that's left of an original Anglo-Saxon site is an empty field.

This trip was different though. This time I was visiting places which could be photographed, places with links to Mercian history, places which were much more than mere fields.

My first port of call was Deerhurst where, unusually, you can find not one, but two Anglo-Saxon buildings. I went first to St Mary's. The outside of the building gives little away with regard to its Anglo-Saxon origins:

But pause a moment in the porch, look up, and you'll see the most exquisite Anglo-Saxon carving of the Madonna, with the child Jesus in her womb (I described this carving in To Be A Queen, along with the 'Angel' high up on one of the outside walls).

Inside this chapel there is a wealth of original Anglo-Saxon stonework, from the font, to the walls and doorways, to the windows:

What struck me most about this beautiful building was the sense of calm. Its crisp white walls are plain, there are no fancy adornments (unless you count the lovely carved animal heads). This is a place used for worship over many centuries. I felt a deep connection to those who'd been in this place before me.

On the way out, I paused to photograph the carved animal head

and the 'Angel'

before walking a few hundred yards to Odda's Chapel. Odda of Deerhurst was an ealdorman in the eleventh century. Some thought that he was related to Ælfhere (Alvar in my novel) but it seems unlikely, and the connection seems to have been assumed simply because both held jurisdiction over the west midlands. The chapel was discovered by chance, in the nineteenth century. It had been incorporated into a farmhouse, hidden under the plaster. It's no more than an empty shell, but it's a gem of a find, and gives one a good idea of the typical proportions of such a building.

My next port of call was Winchcombe, site of a long-since disappeared abbey, and a royal Mercian centre. It's said that some of the stones from the abbey were incorporated into other buildings, like this pub:

How I wished I could have seen the abbey itself, where one intriguing woman was abbess for a while there (she was Cwoenthryth, daughter of King Cenwulf, and I wrote about her in this blog post). There are some of the original abbey stones at nearby Sudeley Castle, but not enough to give any impression of the original building:

A relatively short walk away from Sudeley castle is the site of St Kenelm's well. This is reputed to be the site where the funeral procession rested, on its way to burying Kenelm (brother and supposed murder victim of the afore-mentioned Cwoenthryth) at Winchcombe. The path leading to the well is overgrown with nettles, but I'm nothing if not intrepid!

I was having a great time, visiting sites where we can say with near enough certainty that my 'characters' had been present.

Not so in Gloucester cathedral, which is a much later building. Here, there is an effigy of the sub-king of the Hwicce, Osric, who is reputed to have founded the original abbey which stood at this site.

Gloucester Cathedral is a magnificent building, and you can read more about it in an upcoming post of mine on the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog on June 15th. But this was not the main draw, for me. As I said, I was thoroughly enjoying visiting all these sites, taking photos for the book, and really feeling a connection with the past. But just a short walk away from the cathedral was a really rather special site.

Originally dedicated to St Peter, St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester, was renamed when the bones of St Oswald (former king of Northumbria, nemesis of Penda) were translated there from Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire. It is also the final resting place of both  Æthelred, lord of the Mercians and his wife, Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great.

I've written about this lady, both in my novel, and in the upcoming history of Mercia. I'm revisiting all my notes about her in preparation for a talk in Tamworth in July. To stand here, at the spot where she's believed to have been buried, was a truly emotional experience for me. Last Sunday, there was a procession from here to the cathedral; just one of the many celebrations of her life on this, the 110oth anniversary of her death.

My trip to Gloucestershire was timely. It was a research trip, of sorts, since I needed the photos. But it also became something of a writer's pilgrimage, and it took 'standing around in fields getting emotional' to a whole new level.


[all photos by and copyright of the author]

You may be interested to learn that there is a possibility of a tower having been discovered on the priory site. Read more about it here: BBC News Gloucestershire

My novel, To Be A Queen, is available in kindle, paperback and hardback versions - and the kindle version is on offer all this week. Here's a link

Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is available for pre-order now:

Amberley Books

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

A New Look for To Be A Queen!

A very short post today, just to announce that there's a special anniversary coming up...

June 18 2018 marks 1100 years since the death of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, subject of my novel, To Be A Queen

There's lots going on to celebrate this anniversary, not least a talk at the Tamworth Literary Festival.

But really, I just wanted to share the beautiful new book cover, designed by the very talented Cathy Helms at Avalon Graphics

I also have a revamped website, which you can find here:

But mostly I just wanted to share this beautiful cover. I hope you like it as much as I do!

Monday, 4 June 2018

Anglo-Saxon Gossip

The word 'gossip' is derived from the Old English godsibb and didn't mean then what it means now. 

Originally it meant something more akin to sponsor. Perhaps its modern meaning came about from the women who lived together, and especially those women who assisted in the birthing chamber, who may have then played a similar role to that of godmother; although the word often used is gefædere. godsibb had much the same meaning and might have denoted a relationship (sibb = sibling).

However, read the contents of the chronicles and there is plenty of modern-day gossip.

As regular readers of this blog will know, it pleases me enormously when those who were writing centuries ago, about even earlier times, let their feelings show on the page and remind us that even historical figures were human, as were the scribes who recorded their lives.

One of the main targets for gossip was Æthelred the 'Unready' who came in for a fair amount of abuse. William of Malmesbury said that he occupied, rather than governed the kingdom, and his assessment of the reign was that it was said to be [my italics] cruel in the beginning, wretched in the middle and disgraceful in the end. William is often careful to say that he has 'heard' the stories he writes about, and this to me is what gives the sense of him passing on gossip. He says of Æthelred: 
'I have read, that when he was ten years of age, hearing it noised abroad that his brother was killed, he so irritated his furious mother by his weeping that, not having a whip at hand, she beat the little innocent with some candle she had snatched up.'
Apparently, he was so traumatised by this incident that he dreaded candles thereafter and would not 'suffer the light of them to be brought into his presence.'

Henry of Huntingdon was not above passing on embarrassing stories. Of course hindsight is a wonderful thing, and he would have known about the Viking onslaught which took place during the reign: 
'An evil omen ... had happened to him in his infancy. For at his baptism he made water in the font; whence [it was] predicted the slaughter of the English people that would take place in his time.'
William of Malmesbury was rather keen to pass on stories about the king's mother, too, and, indeed, his father. But once again, he was careful to state that he was only repeating what others had said. Before he tells his tale of Æthelred's father, he says: 'There are some persons, indeed, who endeavour to dim his exceeding glory by saying that he was ... libidinous in respect of virgins.'

He then goes on to report a story about how Æthelred's parents met. The short version is that King Edgar had sent one of his ealdormen, who was also his foster-brother, to 'check out' a young woman. This the ealdorman did, but he deceived the king regarding her beauty and married her himself. The king then met the woman, was bewitched by her, slew the ealdorman and married her. She was Ælfthryth, who was to be accused of witchcraft, the murder of a bishop, and the murder of her stepson.

Ælfthryth greeting her stepson Edward, just before his murder

The stories are not all so scandalous though. Sometimes the gossip is little more than small talk, as in the case of a letter sent by (Saint)Boniface to an abbess. In the letter, he is responding to a request for advice, regarding whether or not the abbess should undertake a pilgrimage. Boniface answers her concerns, but then turns to other matters.

He apologises for not having yet copied some passages for her, 'owing to pressing labours and continual journeys', but he promises that he shall have the copies for her as soon as he has finished. He then asks her to pray for him, because of his weariness, and the fact that he is disturbed by anxiety of mind more than bodily affliction.

It's almost modern in its tone: 'Sorry I haven't got round to doing that job for you, but life has been mad. To be honest, I'm busy but I'm not sleeping that well; my mind keeps whirring.'

Not all letters were so friendly. King Burgred of Mercia must have blushed a bit when he received a letter from Pope John VIII which begins:
Since, as we have heard, the sin of fornication is especially rife among you...
Bad enough when your neighbours gossip about you, but when news reaches the ears of the pope in Rome, it's a slightly bigger problem.

Ælfheah was bishop of Winchester from 984-1005 and later archbishop of Canterbury, and is famous for his martyrdom, having been stoned to death by Cnut's forces (some sources say he was killed by the blow from an ox bone.) But earlier in his career, which began at Deerhurst in Gloucestershire and continued at Bath, he was concerned with more prosaic matters.

We find the details among the writings of that incorrigible story-teller, William of Malmesbury. 

One of the monks at Bath was in the habit of keeping up his 'carousing all night long and be still at his drinking at daybreak.'  God sent two huge demons who battered the life out of the drunkard, who begged for help but was told, 'You did not listen to God, and we shall not listen to you.'

Bishop Ælfheah witnessed this attack and, according to William, when he told the other monks about the incident in the morning, 'it is not surprising that his drinking companions turned teetotal.'

From Harvey the Giant Rabbit to pink elephants and any 21st-century hangover,  the declaration that 'I'm never drinking again' is an oft-chanted mantra.


Most of these stories, and many more besides, feature in my new history book Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, available for pre-order now.
Amberley Books

Recent Posts: ~
The 'Evil' Women of Mercia
The Battle Site of 'Heavenfield'
Anglo-Saxon Childhood

Friday, 25 May 2018

Kings' Sons Who Didn't Make It

There are some well-known younger sons in history, who became kings because their elder brothers died young, or left no heirs. 

Henry II was succeeded by more than one of his sons, the last being John. 

Edward III should have been succeeded by his son, the Black Prince. Had he been, perhaps the Wars of the Roses would never have happened.

Henry VII should have been followed by his eldest son Prince Arthur, but instead the country got Henry VIII and the seismic changes which accompanied his reign.

Henry VIII then of course famously had a bit of difficulty siring a legitimate male heir and the one he finally produced, Edward VI, also died whilst still a teenager. What would the country have been without the reigns of Mary I or Elizabeth I?

Charles I was not destined to rule; his elder brother Henry was the heir, but died when still a teenager. Would there have been civil war if Henry had lived and reigned?

Back in Anglo-Saxon times there were also some occasions where the elder brothers' deaths had far-reaching consequences.

A few instances even in the early part of the period leave me thinking, what if?

Offa of Mercia went to a great deal of time and trouble to secure the legitimate succession of his son, Ecgfrith. Offa and his predecessor, Æthelbald, were only distantly related, and neither was directly related to the kings who had come before. In Mercia during the eighth century there were several contenders for the throne upon every death of the king, and Offa was determined to make the way easier for Ecgfrith. Bloodshed was one of the preferred methods, and letters show that it was not approved of . Alcuin of York wrote a letter in 797 in which he said of Ecgfrith: 'You know very well how much blood his father shed to secure the kingdom on his son.'

But Offa went further, having Ecgfrith anointed by Hygeberht, bishop of Lichfield. (It's probable that the archbishop of Canterbury had refused to do it.)

It was all for nothing, however. Ecgfrith died only a few months after becoming king. The history of Mercian kingship for the next almost one hundred years is one of rival families vying for the throne. The secure dynasty which Offa envisaged was not to be. It might not be stretching a point to suggest that had there been a stronger dynasty, Mercia would have remained an independent kingdom instead of being absorbed by Wessex.

Probably one of the most famous kings who should never have expected to rule was Alfred the Great. He was the youngest of the five sons of King Æthelwulf of Wessex (839-858.)

Æthelwulf went on pilgrimage in 855, taking with him his youngest son, Alfred, and leaving his domains in the hands of his eldest son Æthelbald (Wessex) and second eldest Æthelberht (Kent and the Southeast.) When he returned, he had with him his new wife, Judith of Flanders.

The welcome was perhaps not what he was expecting.  Æthelbald refused to hand back Wessex, and for a while the kingdom was divided - although historians argue the precise nature of this division. Upon his father's death, Æthelbald married his stepmother Judith, which earned him the opprobrium of the chroniclers, particularly Asser, who said that his actions were 'against God's prohibition and Christian dignity, and also contrary to the practice of all pagans ... incurring great disgrace from all who heard of it.' Asser went on to report that the king controlled Wessex for only two and half 'lawless' years after his father.

So the crown passed to his brother, Æthelberht, but he died in 865, and was succeeded by the next brother, Æthelred, who died in 871. He had children, one of whom later rebelled, but who must have been too young to rule in 871. Thus Alfred, the fifth son, became king. 

His grandson, Athelstan, famous victor of the battle at Brunanburh, was said to have been a particular favourite of Alfred's. But he was not supposed to be king.

When Alfred's son, Edward the Elder, died in 924, it seems that his legitimate son, Ælfweard, was declared king in Wessex, while it's generally accepted that the supposedly illegitimate Athelstan was chosen as king of the Mercians. The case might not have been quite so simple, but it's irrelevant because a mere sixteen days later, Ælfweard was dead. Another brother, Edwin, described as a king by Folcwin, deacon of St Bertins, drowned in rather suspicious circumstances. 

Athelstan died without issue and the throne passed to two of his half-brothers, and eventually to the young son of one of those ahlf-brothers. This young son, Eadwig, was famous for having reportedly being caught in bed with his wife and her mother, and banishing the cleric, later saint, Dunstan. He lost half his kingdom two years later and was dead by the age of nineteen. He was almost universally loathed, whereas his younger brother, who succeeded, was known as Edgar the Peaceable, whose reign was free from Viking raids, and renowned for monastic reform.

Edgar left two sons, the eldest of whom, Edward the Martyr, gained a reputation for having a fierce temper. He was king only for three years and his murder - said by some to have been arranged by his stepmother - ushered in the long, and troubled, reign of Æthelred, whose nickname was Unræd (ill-counselled.)

This reign saw the renewal of Viking raids, and the invasion forces of Swein Forkbeard and then his son, Cnut. Fighting Cnut for control of the country was  Æthelred's son, later known as Edmund Ironside. Energetic, successful as a military commander, he was nothing like his father. Unfortunately, as mentioned in my last blog post he died, possibly murdered, in 1016. He was probably still only in his twenties. 

In fact, Edmund was a son who didn't make it, having followed a brother who didn't make it. His brother, Athelstan, died while still young, and left a will which provides a wealth of information. From it, we learn that his grandmother, usually reviled for her supposed involvement in the murder of Edward the Martyr, played a huge part in his upbringing. It also shows that he was good friends with a family of Mercians who had strong links with Edmund Ironside.

With some of these cases, it might have been viewed as a good thing that the reigns were cut short; Eadwig, who tried to buy the loyalty of his noblemen, was perhaps no huge loss to the monarchy. Edward the Martyr was not shaping up to be the tactician that his father Edgar had been. 

But the loss of Edmund Ironside was perhaps more significant. He didn't die without issue, but these Anglo-Saxons' nicknames are very telling. Edmund's son became known as Edward the Exile, because he spent a considerable amount of his life abroad, some of it in Hungary. His son was a contender, for a while, for the throne in 1066. But whilst being a teenager was no bar for succession, by the time Edward the Confessor died, powerful court factions and a family named the Godwines had changed the political landscape. 

All these kings feature in my new book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, available for pre-order HERE or HERE