There were laws against killing people in times of peace, of course there were, and the punishments were severe, although I'll save the details for another blog post. Suffice to say that one did not murder with impunity. But there are some notable, high-profile cases which either went unpunished, or weren't murders at all.
Firstly, and sadly, there seem to be a lot of documented cases of child killings and female killers. But as I’ll try to show, they should perhaps be taken with a large pinch of salt.
In the seventh century, a Mercian king, Wulfhere, allegedly had two sons who had been baptised by St Cedd. This so offended their father that he ‘killed them both with his own hands.’ The problem with this story is that the boys, if they even existed, had a sister who was allowed to live, and became a holy woman, living as a nun on her father’s estates. It hardly seems compatible with an anti-Christian child killer.
Then we have the strange case of Abbess Cwoenthryth, who arranged to have her little brother killed and was discovered when a dove dropped a message on the altar of St Peter’s in Rome, alerting the pope to the crime. To avoid being discovered, she chanted a psalm backwards and her eyes fell out. Now, there is slightly more evidence for the existence of this brother, Cynehelm or Kenelm, but he wasn’t a child; he simply pre-deceased their father the king and, tellingly, this abbess had a long-running argument with the Church about her abbey lands, so this might be why she received such a bad press.
There’s another recorded murder of a young man, but there may be some truth in the story. He was supposedly killed for objecting to the marriage of his mother to a contender for the Mercian throne, and he may very well have been caught up in a dynastic dispute. This young man was Wigstan, and it's possible to visit the site where in all likelihood, his bones were laid to rest, in the crypt at the church in Repton which is named after him.
|My photo of the crypt at St Wystan's|
A murder which certainly happened was that of Edward the Martyr, who was allegedly killed by, or on the orders of, his stepmother, Ælfthryth. I’m not convinced, because she too was given a rather bad press, but there’s no disputing the fact that Edward died and her son, Æthelred (the 'Unready') then became king.
|Depiction of Edward's visit to his stepmother|
where he was allegedly killed on her orders
Another woman accused of murder was a Northumbrian princess, Alhflæd, who was married to the son of her father’s rival and, according to the Venerable Bede, arranged her husband’s killing. We are not told why, or whether she was punished, only that around Easter time, she killed her husband Peada, who was the son of Penda of Mercia.
We do know of a later murderess who, jealous of her husband the king’s advisers, poisoned one of those counsellors and accidentally killed her husband along with him. She was punished, banished abroad (ending up briefly at the court of the Emperor Charlemagne) and was supposedly the reason why kings’ wives in Wessex from that point on were never called ‘queen’. But this story of Eadburh, daughter of Offa of Mercia, is one which I've explored in depth in my books and there's a little bit more to this story than meets the eye...
In seventh-century Northumbria, King Edwin was establishing his supremacy when an assassin was sent from the south to his court, hiding a poisoned blade under his cloak. Lunging forward, he made a rush for the king and was only prevented from killing Edwin by the bravery of Edwin’s thegn, who put himself between the assailant and the king, although Edwin nevertheless sustained an injury. The thegn was somewhat less fortunate.
And this leads me nicely onto the second batch of recorded deaths, which I think warranted more investigation...
In 946 King Edmund was murdered, supposedly either in a brawl, or by a robber who’d been previously banished but returned, evidently with a score to settle. Investigation by historians though suggests that this was more than likely a political murder arranged by members of a rival court faction. *
His sons, Eadwig and Edgar, eventually became kings, one after the other. Trouble was, there were still rival factions at court, so much so that for a while the country was split, with one half supporting one son, the other supporting the other. And then, around two years after the partition, the elder son, still only a teenager, died. There’s absolutely nothing anywhere in the records to say how, or where, but it was very timely for his enemies.
This wasn’t the first time the country had been split. Those boys’ father had become king after the death of King Athelstan. When his father died, he left Mercia to Athelstan, and Wessex to Athelstan’s half-brother who, conveniently, was dead within the month. Again, no record of foul play.
We’re starting to get a pattern though. In the latter part of the period, England endured a renewal of the Viking incursions only this time they weren’t raiding, they were conquering. Cnut had come to stay, and after a series of bloody but ultimately indecisive battles, it was agreed that the country would be jointly ruled by him, and his English adversary, Edmund Ironside. Guess what? Edmund was dead within the month. This time, slight record of foul play, with some later sources suggesting he was murdered whilst on the privy.
|Depiction of Edmund Ironside|
Of course, it is possible that Ironside died from wounds sustained in the last battle, but this wasn’t recorded either, even though I’m fairly certain that cause and effect would have been understood: you get wounded in battle, you die a short time later, the wounds are probably what killed you.
What I love about studying this period, and writing about it, is that we have two avenues of exploration: The later, Anglo-Norman chroniclers, who tend to over dramatize and exaggerate, giving us sordid stories about child killers and evil women, and the more contemporary sources who give us minimal information and seem sometimes to ignore the obvious.