Tuesday, 22 January 2019

1066 - The Mercian Angle

In 1066, when Edward the Confessor died, Harold Godwineson was declared king. Yet he felt the need to ride north to secure the pledges of the northern nobles, and thought it prudent to forsake his long-term partner and marry the sister of two powerful northern earls. Why?

Let’s go back a bit...

In my last blog post I explored the history of Mercia. Readers of To Be A Queen will recall that in Æthelflæd’s day, Mercia was still a kingdom in its own right, albeit one which was fast running out of kings. Forty years later, the setting for Alvar the Kingmaker, Mercia had become a powerful ealdordom (later known as earldoms.)

And there was a new problem: the Danelaw.

However much Æthelflæd, her father, husband, and brother fought against them, inevitably some of the Danes who came over in their dragon boats stayed, and settled in the north and east. In the 10th century, King Edgar was careful to preserve the rights and traditions of the Danelaw, as well as the erstwhile independence of Mercia.

Edgar’s dealings with the Danelaw can be found in the law code known as IV Edgar, or the Wihtbordesstan Code. It has often been said that Edgar was creating something new with this code, but technically speaking this is a letter to the Danes, showing Edgar eager to respect an autonomy which was already a fact.

It is probable that Edgar became king of England in 959 with the help of a powerful group of magnates who wanted a king who would not encroach on the customary law. Edgar stresses five times that he has every intention of respecting the Danelaw. It is possible that although IV Edgar is a recognition of established fact, Edgar himself created the Danelaw, as there are no earlier references to it. In all probability these privileges were granted by Edgar in 957, in gratitude for the support given him in the north against his brother Eadwig.

King Edgar 

Although Edgar’s reign was notable for being free of invasion (his epithet was ‘The Peaceable’,) it was a time of great change. As well as this identification and recognition of the Danelaw, there began a shift in the power and influence of the nobility. As ealdormen died, their lands were given to neighbouring nobles - Ælfhere (Alvar in the book), already ealdorman of southern Mercia, gained the northern portion when the ealdorman of Chester died - until the earldoms were as big as the old kingdoms. By the time of Edgar IV, there were three principal noblemen, and in the law code he demands that:

'Earl Oslac (Northumbria) and all the host that dwell in his ealdormanry are to give their support that this may be enforced' and that 'Many documents are to be written concerning this, and sent both to ealdorman  Ælfhere (Mercia) and ealdorman  Æthelwine, (East Anglia) and that they are to send them in all directions, that this measure may be known to both the poor and the rich.' [IV Edgar 15. & 15.1]

Royal control was difficult to establish in areas with separatist feeling, and Mercia was another of these areas. Edgar was respectful of these regional differences, as his charters show - a land charter of 969 carefully states the ‘boundary of the Mercians’ - but his successors were not.

Edgar was succeeded by his famously ‘unready' son, Æthelred - who infamously ordered many Danes massacred on St Brice’s day, 1002 - and so there followed a period of Danish rule, most notably by King Cnut. Long-held separatist and nationalist sentiments remained, and now, as Barlow put it,

'The Danish rulers having no attachment to any of the kingdoms, widened the concept of England. Cnut’s plan of reserving no English province for his direct rule and his grant of Wessex to the ‘upstart’ Godwine had weakened the position of any successor who had not his ‘quasi-imperial’ power.'

Æthelred the 'Unready'

How did this situation contribute to the problems faced by Edward the Confessor in his final years?

The three leading earls were Leofric of Mercia, Siward of Northumbria, and Godwine. Of those three, only Leofric came from an old ruling family; he was the son of Leofwine, ealdorman of the Hwicce - whom readers of my novels will know to be one of the core Mercian tribes, originally with their own kings; their centre was Deerhurst and the church there was very important to the Mercians - and he gave, according to Barlow, 'loyal and disinterested service.' (Disinterested here in its original meaning, that of being impartial.)  Siward, meanwhile, with lands bordering Scotland, probably looked more north than south.

The rise of the House of  Godwine was phenomenal. Moving from thegn to king in three generations, it proved the theory of upward social mobility which, in fact, most people found impossible to attain, and which might have been denied in this case also had it not been for the reign of Cnut.


I have some university notes in which I quote one of my lecturers: '1066 lasted a whole year.' I followed it with an exclamation mark, but I know what was intended by this seemingly obvious remark. 1066 was not just a battle near Hastings; events took a turn for the dramatic in January when Edward the Confessor died, and culminated with William’s coronation on Christmas Day.  But there were more people involved than just Harold and Edward, and the turmoil had really begun as far back as 1051.

Eustace of Boulogne arrived at Dover to visit his former brother-in-law (Edward) and Godwine was at the wedding feast of his son Tostig and Judith. There was a violent brawl involving the people of Dover and the visitors from Boulogne. Godwine was ordered to punish the people of Dover and he refused. The result of this stand-off was the exile of Godwine and his family, and Leofric of Mercia’s reward for supporting the king was that his son, Ælfgar, was granted Harold Godwineson’s earldom of East Anglia.

However the northern earls thought Edward went too far by subsequently giving preference to foreigners, thereby tightening his links with Normandy. Thus, in 1052, when Godwine came back, Leofric and Siward remained neutral. London declared for Godwine. His terms were not extortionate and so the neutrality of the northern earls seemed justified, and would explain why Ælfgar, according to Barlow,  ‘quietly surrendered’ the East Anglian earldom back to Harold.

But Godwine’s death in 1053 shifted the balance of power and the Mercian house became stronger. Harold succeeded his father in Wessex, but this meant that Ælfgar got East Anglia back. The Mercian family was now spread right across the midlands.

Death of Earl Siward - Smetham
Then in 1055 Siward of Northumbria died, and his son, Waltheof, being too young to govern, was bypassed for Tostig Godwineson. As Richard Fletcher put it, 'There was no love lost between the house of Leofric and the house of Godwine' and Tostig’s was a surprise appointment; it was the first time a southerner had held the post and he was, in Fletcher’s words, 'A complete stranger.' Now, Mercia was in the middle of a Godwineson sandwich, with Harold below and Tostig above. They needed to look in a different direction for allies. Ælfgar looked westward, allied with Gruffudd of Wales, and was briefly banished before being reinstated.

Two years later, In 1057, Leofric died. Ælfgar succeeded him in Mercia and Harold’s brother Gyrth took the now vacant East Anglia. But although the 'trouble-maker' Ælfgar had control of his father's earldom, the Godwine family was in Wessex, East Anglia and Northumbria. Mercia was isolated.

Hardly surprising then that in 1057, Ælfgar’s daughter, Ealdgyth, was married to Gruffudd. In 1058 Ælfgar was outlawed again for ‘obscure reasons’ and came back with the support of Gruffudd. Kari Maund suggested that the alliance must have begun before 1055 and that’s why he was ousted. Perhaps Ælfgar had not so ‘quietly’ surrendered in 1052 after all. 

In around 1062/3 Ælfgar disappears from the record. He was succeeded by his son, Edwin, who was a second son and seemingly still only a young man. It would seem that Harold took advantage of this and engineered the death of Gruffudd.

By October 1065, the Northumbrians had had enough of Tostig and his southern ways and attempts to impose high taxes, - the Chronicle of John of Worcester adds a story of murder and implicates Tostig's sister, Queen Edith - and they rebelled, electing Edwin of Mercia’s brother, Morcar, in his place. After the Northumbrian rebellion Morcar was very quick to get there, as if he’d been ready and waiting. As Fletcher put it: 'Here at last was a chance to hit out at the hated sons of Godwine.'

The joint northern, Mercian and Welsh forces marched south. Whilst Harold attempted to mediate, Edward demanded war. Harold would not fight the rebels to restore Tostig. Edward submitted, Tostig was outlawed, and Edward seems to have gone into a decline, from which he never recovered. Tostig never forgave Harold.

This, then, was the internal situation in 1066: a build-up of resentment between noble houses, and a brother with a grudge. Harold had worries long before William landed...

While the rest of the events of 1066 are well-established, this internal conflict is a scenario with which I played for my story in 1066 Turned Upside Down

The Mercians and their role in the eleventh century, and that of the inhabitants of the Danelaw, are explored in depth in my book Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, by Amberley.

Further reading:
King Edgar and the Danelaw - Niels Lund, Med. Scand. 9
Anglo-Saxon England - FM Stenton
The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216 - Frank Barlow
The Welsh Kings - Kari Maund
Bloodfeud - Richard Fletcher
The Fall of Saxon England - Richard Humble
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles - Ed. N Garmonsway

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

The Decline of Mercia - Kings No More

It's the time of year for anniversaries - William the Conqueror crowned on Christmas Day, 1066, Edward the Confessor's death on Jan 5 1066. For our collaborative project, 1066 Turned Upside Down, I re-imagined the events leading up to the battle of Fulford, in 1066, I pondered the fate of the northern earls who fought there.  My interest in this episode? Apart from an opportunity to join some wonderful authors on an intriguing project, it was that these earls were led by two brothers from Mercia. My next post will look at their careers in more detail, so first, a little potted history:

A once-powerful realm, Mercia produced such kings as Penda, who was overlord of the English kingdoms until defeated in 655, Offa, who built his famous dyke, as well as providing such memorable characters as Lady Godiva, and Eadric Streona, recently voted the most evil man in English history.

Between around 600 and 900 AD, Mercia enjoyed what historians have called a ‘Golden Age’. This began with the emergence of Penda, a pagan vilified by history, but who, Bede conceded, was tolerant of Christian preachers in Mercia. Penda, in alliance with the Welsh, slew Kings Edwin and Oswald of Northumbria, and held the ascendancy over the main English kingdoms until he was killed by Oswii at the Battle of Winwaed in 655. The Golden Age was perhaps typified by the reign of Æthelbald (716-57) who in a charter of 736 was styled 'King of Mercia and of the Southern English.' His coinage was circulated in Mercia and Kent and was even found in Wessex. Even Bede, who rarely mentioned southern kings as overlords (Bretwaldas) acknowledged his power.

Power, of course, brings enemies, and Æthelbald was killed by his own war band. Civil war followed his murder, but in the ensuing power struggle, Offa (757-96) emerged victorious. Not only did he build his ‘dyke’, but he negotiated trade deals with the Continent,  and corresponded with the emperor Charlemagne. (There was also a teeny tiny bit of murder...)

A dynastic dispute that had begun with the death, childless, of Offa’s son Ecgfrith in 796, ended with the routing of King Burgred by the Vikings in 874/5 and the short-lived reign of his rival Ceolwulf II. History has not remembered Ceolwulf with fondness; he was described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a ‘foolish king’s thegn’. But Burgred was Alfred the Great’s brother-in-law. It is possible that Ceolwulf was the leader of a Mercian movement for independence against a king regarded as a puppet of Wessex. (Mercian independence, and separatist sentiment, was certainly to have significant impact on events in the next century.) Ceolwulf died, possibly at the hands of the Welsh, (he disappears from the records after the Battle of Conwy in 878) and it was left to Burgred’s kinswoman to fight off the Viking invaders.

Yes - a woman was now in charge. In the late 9th century, Wessex was not the ‘last kingdom’, fighting off the Viking hordes. Mercia was fighting back too, under the leadership of one Æthelred, and his redoubtable wife, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great.

But Æthelred wasn’t a member of a royal house; Mercia had run out of kings.

Fast forward forty years, and Mercia had been reduced to an - albeit powerful- ealdordom (earldom.)

Powerful because, however much Æthelflæd and her family fought against them, inevitably some of those invading Danes stayed, settling in the north and east. In the 10th century, King Edgar came to the throne of all England with the help of the Mercians, and those newly-settled Danes, and he was careful to preserve the rights and traditions of this, with the ‘Danelaw’, incorporating the rights and boundaries of once independent Mercia.

Although Edgar’s reign was notable for being free of invasion (his epithet was ‘The Peaceable’,) it was a time of great change. As well as this identification and recognition of the Danelaw, there began a shift in the power and influence of the nobility. As ealdormen (earls) died, their lands were given to neighbouring nobles until the earldoms were as big as the old kingdoms - Mercia, Northumbria, and East Anglia, while the king still essentially oversaw Wessex.

This situation changed again in the 11th century, for when Cnut (Canute) became king, he did not reserve Wessex for his direct rule, but granted it to the ‘upstart’ Godwin.

During the last years of Edward the Confessor’s reign, of the three leading earls, only Leofric came from an old ruling family; but his place in history tends to be overshadowed by the reputation of his wife, Lady Godiva, and the tales told about her. (Did she ride naked? I think not, but that’s a subject for a whole new article!)

Leofric's fortunes, and that of his son, Ælfgar, fluctuated in direct contrast to those of the Godwin family; they gained territory when the Godwins were out of favour/in exile, and lost that land when the Godwins were restored. Little wonder that they resorted to the ‘old’ alliance, looking westward as Penda had once done, and forging a connection by marriage with the Welsh.

Ælfgar married his daughter to the Welsh king, Gruffudd, but Harold Godwinson was responsible not only for the banishment - twice - of Ælfgar, but also for the death of Gruffudd, their brother-in-law. No wonder Ælfgar’s sons, Edwin and Morcar, were slow to acknowledge Harold’s supremacy upon the death of Edward the Confessor.

Early in 1066, Harold felt the need to ride north to persuade the northern earls to support his kingship, even taking Edwin and Morcar’s widowed sister for his bride. He was already at odds with his brother Tostig, who would betray him by standing against him at Stamford Bridge, but what about the Mercians, who blamed the Godwin family for their misfortune?

This, then, was where I began my retelling of this part of the year 1066

I won’t give away any spoilers regarding my story, but for the purposes of my Mercian ‘round-up’, well, an entry in Wikipedia on the English nobility has this to say about Edwin, Earl of Mercia:
“Succeeded by -
Role abolished.”

The Mercians rebelled against the Conqueror, but the uprising was quashed, brutally, in what came to be known as the Harrying (or Harrowing) of the North. And that was the end of Mercia.

Its name lives on, though, in the West Mercia Police, and the West Mercia Primary Healthcare Trust, and although it is now slowly dying out, the dialect of the ‘Black Country’, which is based on the old Mercian language and is widely regarded to be as close to Old English as it is now possible to get. I sense that Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, would be gently amused by that. She might even think it was bostin’ . *

[all images are in the public domain; photograph of Godiva statue copyright of the author]

*Dialect word for fine, good.