Edward the Elder

Summary

Edward the Elder was king of the Anglo-Saxons from 899 until his death on July 17, 924.

On the death of his father Alfred the Great in 899, Edward was faced with the revolt of his cousin Æthelwold, who claimed the throne. His quick death in 902 left Edward free to pursue the reconquest of the Danelaw with the help of his sister Æthelflæd, who ruled the western half of Mercy with her husband Æthelred. The campaigns of Edward and Æthelflæd were successful and saw the recapture of the main Viking strongholds in the Midlands. After his sister”s death in 918, Edward dethroned her daughter Ælfwynn, who had succeeded her as lady of the Mercians, and annexed the region to his kingdom. By the end of the 910s, he reigned over all of England south of the Humber, and the kings of Wales recognized his sovereignty. He died in 924, after having put down a revolt of the Mercians and Welsh at Chester. His eldest son Æthelstan succeeded him.

If medieval chroniclers praise Edward”s military successes, modern historians tend to neglect him, notably because of the scarcity of written sources dating from his reign. He also suffers from the comparison with his father. His role in the formation of a unified kingdom of England is re-evaluated from the end of the twentieth century.

Childhood

Alfred the Great married Ealhswith, daughter of the ealdorman Æthelred Mucel, in 868 and they had five children who reached adulthood. Edward was their second child, after Æthelflæd, and their first son. His name (Eadweard in Old English) is composed of the elements ead “fortune, wealth” and weard “guardian, protector”. These two roots have never before been used to name male members of the house of Wessex. According to historian Barbara Yorke, Edward”s name may have been chosen to recall that of his maternal grandmother Eadburh, from the royal family of Mercy, in order to strengthen the ties between the two kingdoms.

Edward was probably born in the mid-870s. In his History of King Alfred, the monk Asser reports that he was raised with his younger sister Ælfthryth rather than with his older sister Æthelflæd, who was born shortly after their parents married. This suggests that he is closer in age to Ælfthryth than to Æthelflæd. He is further described as leading troops in 893, and his eldest son Æthelstan was born around 894. Asser reports that Edward and Ælfthryth were educated by male and female tutors who had them read religious and secular texts in Old English. This is the only known case among the Anglo-Saxons of a prince and a princess receiving the same education.

As a king”s son, Edward was an ætheling, i.e. a prince of royal blood eligible for the kingship. His succession is by no means assured, however, for Æthelhelm and Æthelwold, the sons of Æthelred (Alfred”s older brother and predecessor), may also have a claim to the throne. Asser”s detailed description of Edward”s education may have been prompted by Alfred”s desire to present his son as the most worthy of power after his death. If Æthelhelm seems to have disappeared in the second half of the 880s (he is only mentioned in Alfred”s will), Æthelwold enjoys a certain status: he even appears before Edward on the only charter he attests, a sign that his rank is superior to that of Alfred”s son. Being the king, the latter nevertheless had many opportunities to favor his son. In his will, he bequeathed only a handful of estates to his nephews and reserved most of his property for Edward. He also promoted men who could support his succession plans, including his brother-in-law Æthelwulf, ealdorman in Mercy, and his son-in-law Æthelred, Æthelflæd”s husband. Edward appears as a witness on several of his father”s charters and frequently accompanies him on his royal wanderings. He even appears with the title of rex Saxonum on a Kentish charter of 898, which suggests that Alfred may have followed his grandfather Ecgberht”s example in appointing his son to head a sub-kingdom of Kent.

Edward began to participate in the war against the Danelaw Vikings in the 890s, and in 893 he won a major victory at Farnham in Surrey. He was unable to capitalize on this success because his troops had been mobilized for too long and he had to send them home. Nevertheless, the arrival of Æthelred at the head of a London army saved the situation. The victories of the period 893-896 seem to be credited to Edward and Æthelred rather than to King Alfred.

The young prince seems to have married around 893 a certain Ecgwynn who gave him two children: a son, Æthelstan, born around 894, and a daughter who later married the Viking king Sihtric Cáech. Ecgwynn is named only in sources after the Norman conquest, which do not agree on her rank: she is of noble birth for William of Malmesbury, while Hrotsvita of Gandersheim describes her as of low extraction and unworthy of being queen. Her status remains debated. Simon Keynes and Richard Abels believe that Ecgwynn was only Edward”s concubine, which would explain the resistance observed in Wessex to the accession of Æthelstan. On the other hand, Barbara Yorke and Sarah Foot consider that it was the succession dispute that gave rise to the accusations of illegitimacy, and not the other way around: according to them, Ecgwynn was indeed Edward”s legitimate wife. She probably died before 899, since at the time of his father”s death Edward was married to Ælfflæd, the daughter of an ealdorman (probably from Wiltshire) named Æthelhelm.

There may have been some tension between Alfred and Edward. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, produced under the auspices of the court in the 890s, does not mention Edward”s military successes. These are mentioned only in the Latin chronicle of Æthelweard (late tenth century), which describes the prince”s military skills and his popularity with young warriors. Æthelweard”s source could be a pro-Edwardian version of the Chronicle. Towards the end of his life, Alfred held an investiture ceremony for his grandson Æthelstan. The exact significance of this ceremony is uncertain, but it is possible that Alfred considered dividing his kingdom between Edward and Æthelstan.

Kingdom

When Alfred died on October 26, 899, Edward succeeded him, but Æthelwold also claimed the throne. At the head of an army, he seized the royal estates of Wimborne and Christchurch, in Dorset. The former was of particular symbolic importance, as it was where his father Æthelred was buried. Edward responded by leading troops to the nearby fort of Badbury Rings, whereupon Æthelwold fled to Northumbria, whose Danish population accepted him as king. Edward was crowned on June 8, 900, at Kingston upon Thames according to the 12th century chronicler Raoul de Dicet, but the ceremony may have actually taken place in Winchester.

Æthelwold gathered a fleet and landed in Essex in 901. The following year, he convinced the Danes of East Anglia to invade Mercy and Wessex, where they pillaged before returning to their bases. Edward in turn led a raid into East Anglia, but the Kent troops did not obey his order to retreat and were intercepted by the Danes. The two armies clashed at the Battle of Holme (possibly Holme, in Cambridgeshire) on December 13, 902. Although the Danes were victorious, they suffered heavy losses, including their king Eohric and Æthelwold himself. His death ended the threat to Edward”s throne.

Although there is no mention in the sources of any confrontation in the years following the battle of Holme, the state of war between Wessex and the Vikings apparently continued until 906, when Edward made peace with the Danes of East Anglia and Northumbria. One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that he acted “out of necessity”, which could imply that he was forced to pay them tribute. In 909, he sent an army of Saxons and Mercians to attack Northumbria. This expedition succeeded in recovering the relics of St. Oswald from Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire, and the Danes had to accept peace on Edward”s terms. The following year, they regained the initiative by attacking Mercy, but their troops were intercepted on their way back and suffered a heavy defeat at the battle of Tettenhall. From then on, the Danes of Northumbria no longer ventured south of the Humber, allowing Edward and his allies to concentrate their efforts on recapturing East Anglia and the Five Boroughs (Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford) of East Mercy.

When Æthelred died in 911, his widow Æthelflæd continued to rule the Mercians, but Edward took control of the London and Oxford areas. Together they led a campaign to fortify the areas taken from the Vikings. In November 911, Edward founded a fortress at Hertford, north of Lea, to defend the surrounding area against the Danes based in Bedford and Cambridge. The following year, he led his troops to Maldon, in Essex, and ordered the construction of a fort at Witham and another fortification at Hertford. In doing so, he strengthened the defenses of London and increased his authority over Essex.

In 914, a Viking fleet from Brittany entered the Severn estuary and attacked Ergyng, in southeast Wales. To save the bishop Cyfeilliog, captured by the invaders, Edward paid a substantial ransom of forty pounds of silver. Beaten by the troops of Hereford and Gloucester, the Vikings swore oaths and offered hostages to obtain peace. The Saxon army left by Edward in the region in case the oaths were broken repelled two more attacks before the Vikings left for Ireland in the fall. This episode suggests that Ergyng is within the sphere of influence of Wessex, unlike its northern neighbor, Brycheiniog, which belongs to the Mercian orbit.

In late 914, Edward founded two fortresses at Buckingham and received the submission of Count Thurketil, the leader of the Danish army based at Bedford. He occupied this city the following year and founded a fort on the south bank of the Great Ouse, opposite the Viking fort on the other bank. In 916, Edward returned to Essex to fortify Maldon, which improved Witham”s defenses. He also helped Thurketil and his people to leave England, thus reducing the Viking forces in the Midlands.

The year 917 was decisive. Edward founded two more fortresses, at Towcester against the Danes of Northampton and at Wigingamere (unidentified location). A Danish offensive on Towcester, Bedford and Wigingamere ended in failure, while Æthelflæd took the city of Derby, taking advantage of the lack of coordination between the Viking armies. Tempsford, in Bedfordshire, fell to the English in late summer and the last Danish king of East Anglia was killed; Colchester was also captured. The Vikings responded by sending a large army to besiege Maldon, but the garrison held out and the Danes suffered heavy losses. Back at Towcester, Edward built a stone wall to reinforce his defenses and received the submission of the Vikings of Northampton, soon followed by those of Cambridge and East Anglia. At the end of the year, the last Danish armies resisting the English were those of the Five Burghs of Leicester, Stamford, Nottingham and Lincoln.

Leicester peacefully submitted to Æthelflæd in early 918, and the Danes of Jórvík also approached her to pledge allegiance, presumably because they feared the Norwegians from Ireland who threatened them, but the Lady of Mercy died on June 12 before she could accept. This offer does not seem to have been renewed to Edward, and Jórvík is conquered by the Norwegians in 919. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that Mercy submitted to Edward after Æthelflæd”s death, but Mercian versions of this text indicate instead that the king of Wessex ousted his niece Ælfwynn, Æthelflæd”s daughter, to annex the region to his kingdom. Stamford and Nottingham recognized Edward”s authority around this time, suggesting that his authority then extended over all of England south of the Humber, with the possible exception of Lincoln, where York Viking coins appear to have been minted in the 920s. Some Danish chieftains retained their estates, but Edward also had to reward his followers with land in the region, not including that which he kept for his own use. His coinage suggests that he exercised more authority in the East Midlands than in East Anglia. The Welsh kings Hywel Dda, Clydog and Idwal Foel, hitherto vassals of Æthelflæd, also swore allegiance to Edward after the death of their liege.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports the submission of many British rulers to Edward in 920 :

“… and from there went to Bakewell, in the Peak District, and ordered the building of a fortress in the region. And then the king of the Scots and all the nation of the Scots chose him for father and lord; and Rægnald and the sons of Eadwulf and all who live in Northumbria, English as well as Danes and Norwegians and others; and also the king of the Bretons of Strathclyde and all the Bretons of Strathclyde.”

Modern historians have long accepted this passage as an account of authentic facts, with Frank Stenton pointing out that “each of the rulers mentioned in this list had something to gain by acknowledging Edward”s suzerainty.” It has been viewed with much more skepticism since the 1980s. Unlike the submission of the British kings to Æthelstan in 927, the events of 920 are known only from the Chronicle: there is no trace of them elsewhere, neither in other literary sources nor in coins. If this meeting between kings did take place, it probably did not involve any submission to Edward, who was in no position to demand it anyway. The location of this meeting argues in favor of this view: Bakewell is on the border between Mercy and Northumbria, no doubt to avoid any implication of domination by one side over the other.

Edward continued the defensive efforts begun by his sister in northwestern Mercy. He founded burhs at Thelwall and Manchester in 919, then at Cledematha (Rhuddlan), at the mouth of the Clwyd, in 921. His relations with the Mercians are not documented until the last year of his reign, during which he subdued Mercian and Welsh rebels in Chester. This revolt could have had several motives, such as the fiscal pressure exerted by Edward”s governors or resentment towards distant Wessex. The division of Mercy and the Danelaw into counties, in defiance of the traditional divisions of these regions, appears at an unknown date in the tenth century: if it dates back to the reign of Edward, it could also constitute a subject of discontent.

Death and succession

Shortly after suppressing this revolt, Edward died at the royal estate of Farndon, some 15 km south of Chester, on July 24, 924. He was buried at the New Minster in Winchester. This abbey was moved outside the city walls in 1109 to become Hyde Abbey, where the remains of Edward and his family were transferred.

In its entry for the year 924, manuscript A of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle simply reports the death of Edward and the accession of his eldest son Æthelstan, but the succession may have been more complex. Manuscripts C and D, of Mercian origin, also report the death of Ælfweard, Edward”s second son, very shortly after his father (only 16 days according to D), and state that Æthelstan is chosen as king by the Mercians. It is possible that both sons of Edward were elected kings, Æthelstan by the nobility of Mercy and Ælfweard by the nobility of Wessex. The list of kings of Wessex in the Textus Roffensis, a twelfth-century manuscript, attributes a reign of four weeks to Ælfweard between Edward and Æthelstan. Edward”s intentions regarding his succession are unknown, but there are indications that he may have favored Ælfweard. In any case, Ælfweard”s untimely death allowed Æthelstan to receive the entire succession.

Coinage

The principal unit of currency in late Anglo-Saxon England was the silver penny, which sometimes bore a stylized portrait of the king. Coins minted during the reign of Edward typically bear eadvveard rex on the obverse and the name of the coiner on the reverse. The mint is not indicated, but it begins to be indicated during the reign of his son Æthelstan, which makes it possible to establish by comparison the location of a large part of the workshops of Edward. Several cities were home to one, including Bath, Canterbury, Chester, Chichester, Derby, Exeter, Hereford, London, Oxford, Shaftesbury, Shrewsbury, Southampton, Stafford, Wallingford and Wareham. No coins were minted in the name of Æthelred or Æthelflæd, but the Mercian workshops produced coins with an unusual design on the reverse between 910 and 920, probably as a way for Æthelflæd to distinguish himself from his brother. Archbishop Plegmund was also responsible for a small coinage. During Edward”s reign, the number of known coiners exploded: less than 25 in the first ten years of his reign and 67 in the last ten. The same thing is observed in Mercy (from 5 to 23), not counting the 27 coiners annexed with the Danelaw.

Knowledge and the arts

After a period of decline in the ninth century, teaching was revived under the reign of Alfred, who invested himself personally in this field. Mercian scholars, such as Archbishop Plegmund, played an important role in this revival. It is difficult to estimate the extent to which this program continued during Edward”s reign. Old English translations of Latin texts from his father”s time continue to be copied, but original works are rarer, and very few manuscripts from Edward”s reign survive. The Anglo-Saxon minuscule square was in its early stages at this time before reaching its fullness in the 930s. The main centers of learning were then the cathedrals of Canterbury, Winchester, and Worcester; it was not until the reign of Æthelstan that the monasteries began to distinguish themselves.

The only surviving Anglo-Saxon embroideries were made during the reign of Edward. They are a stole, a maniple and a possible belt found in the shrine of St. Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral in the 19th century. These objects were donated by Æthelstan in 934, but they bear inscriptions indicating that Ælfflæd, Edward”s second wife, commissioned them as a gift to Frithestan, bishop of Winchester. Æthelstan”s poor relations with Winchester may explain why they were diverted from their intended use.

The Church

In 908, Archbishop Plegmund traveled to Rome to deliver to the pope the alms of the English king and people. This was the first time in nearly a century that an archbishop had made this trip. It is possible that Plegmund also wanted to obtain papal approval for a plan to reorganize the dioceses of Wessex. At the time of Edward”s accession, the kingdom had two episcopal sees: that of Winchester, in the east, occupied by Denewulf, and that of Sherborne, in the west, occupied by Asser. After the death of Denewulf in 908 and the accession of his successor Frithestan the following year, the diocese of Winchester was split in two with the creation of a see at Ramsbury. The new diocese covered Wiltshire and Berkshire, while the authority of Winchester continued to be exercised over Hampshire and Surrey. This division is said to have taken place in 909 according to charters that are actually forgeries. Asser died in 908 or 909 and his diocese was in turn divided at an unknown date between 909 and 918 to be limited to Dorset. Devon and Cornwall were placed under the authority of the bishop of Crediton, while Somerset formed the diocese of the bishop of Wells. These divisions reinforced Canterbury”s authority over Winchester and Sherborne. It is possible that it also reflects a shift in the secular functions of the bishops, who may have become agents of royal power in the counties corresponding to their dioceses, participating in their defense against the Vikings and in the exercise of justice.

Early in Edward”s reign, his mother Ealhswith founded Nunnaminster, a convent dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Winchester. One of Edward”s daughters, Eadburh, became a nun there and was worshipped after her death. In 901, Edward undertook the construction of a large monastery for men, perhaps in accordance with his father”s wishes. It is located next to Winchester Cathedral, which is henceforth called Old Minster to distinguish it from New Minster, Edward”s foundation. Much larger than the Old Minster, the New Minster was likely designed to be a royal mausoleum. He acquired relics of the Breton saint Judoc and the body of Grimbald, an adviser to Alfred the Great who was considered a saint after his death in 901. When his mother died in 902, Edward had her buried in the New Minster and also moved his father”s body from the Old Minster. Subsequently, the New Minster also received the bodies of Edward himself, his brother Æthelweard and his son Ælfweard. Nevertheless, Edward”s son and successor, Æthelstan, did not show the same favor to his father”s foundation, probably because Winchester stood against him during Edward”s difficult succession. Only one other king of the house of Wessex is buried here: Eadwig, grandson of Edward who died in 959.

That Edward chose to found a new, larger community rather than expand Old Minster suggests that he did not like Bishop Denewulf. In fact, he forced the Old Minster to give him land for the foundation of the New Minster, as well as an estate of 70 hides in Beddington as a source of income. It is fitting that the New Minster celebrates Edward”s memory as a great beneficiary, while the Old Minster remembers him as a “greedy king” (rex avidus). It is possible that he also considered the old cathedral too small to serve as a royal necropolis for the kings of the Anglo-Saxons.

Law and administration

Almost all the charters issued during Edward”s reign are copies made after his death, and the only one that survives in its original form does not come from the king: it is a donation made by Æthelred and Æthelflæd in 901. No charters are known for the period between 910 and Edward”s death in 924, an absence that has puzzled historians. The charters generally record land donations, and it is possible that Edward chose to keep all the estates he acquired behind him in order to finance the fight against the Vikings. As a rule, charters survive because they were kept in the archives of the religious institution that received them: another explanation would be that Edward”s donations were conditional on the subsequent return of the granted lands to the royal family. Churches and monasteries would therefore have had no interest in keeping track of them in their archives.

The administrative and legislative system of Edward”s kingdom may have been based largely on written texts, almost none of which survive. Nevertheless, it can be said that Edward was one of the few Anglo-Saxon kings to legislate on bookland, i.e. land held under a charter. Edward”s laws sought to clarify the exact definition of bookland, which had become confused over time, and ensured the legislative monopoly of the king and his representatives on the subject. I Edward”s Code of Laws also marks one of the earliest appearances of trial by ordeal in the history of English law (Ine”s Code of Laws, promulgated in the 690s, may include a mention of ordeal, but this is not certain). He points out that those accused of perjury can only prove their innocence in this way.

The twelfth-century chronicler William of Malmesbury described Edward as “very inferior to his father in the cultivation of letters,” but “far more glorious in the power of his reign. This view is shared by other medieval chroniclers, such as John of Worcester, who calls him “the most invincible king Edward the Elder. However, his military prowess was less conspicuous than that of other kings of the house of Wessex, partly because of the absence of a major victory to his credit, comparable to Edington for Alfred or Brunanburh for Æthelstan. Edward”s reputation also suffered from the admiration of his sister Æthelflæd. The nickname “the Elder” was first used in the tenth century by the monk Wulfstan Cantor in his hagiography of bishop Æthelwold of Winchester to distinguish this king from his distant successor Edward the Martyr.

Historians have long neglected Edward the Elder because of the scarcity of written sources dating from his reign, unlike that of his father. He received more attention at the end of the 20th century. The first monograph to be entirely devoted to him was published in 2001: it was a collection of papers presented at a conference at the University of Manchester two years earlier. This is in stark contrast to Alfred, the subject of countless biographies and articles. In the conclusion of this book, the historian N. J. Higham summarizes Edward”s accomplishments as follows:

“Under Edward”s rule, alternative centers of power were significantly reduced: the Mercian court was dissolved, Danish chieftains were subdued or driven out, Welsh princes were reduced to powerlessness, and even the bishoprics of Wessex were divided. Late Anglo-Saxon England is often described as the most centralized entity in Western Europe at the time, with its counties, reeves and system of regional courts and royal taxation. This is a debatable point of view, but if one accepts it, this centralization stems largely from the decisions of Edward, who can just as easily claim the title of architect of medieval England as others.”

Edward appears in Bernard Cornwell”s Saxon Histories, a series of historical novels set during the reign of Alfred the Great and his successors, as well as in the television series The Last Kingdom, which is adapted from them. He is interpreted by Timothy Innes from the 3rd season.

Fourteen children are known from Edward the Elder”s three unions, five sons and nine daughters. In the following list, the daughters are presented after the sons, in the order proposed by the chronicler William of Malmesbury.

Sources

  1. Édouard l”Ancien
  2. Edward the Elder
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