Tag Archives: Anglo-Saxon Studies

Easter in Athelney – King Alfred and the Great Viking Army

As Alfred (r. 871 – 899) led the remnants of his gathered followers into the Somerset fens in 878, it was unlikely that the celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ was foremost among his concerns. The Viking force under the leadership of Guthrum had stealthily entered the Kingdom of Wessex during the winter and, surprising a likely de-militarised region (winter being outside the usual campaigning season), began to conquer the kingdom, forcing the inhabitants into hiding. Alfred, seeking protection among the swamps and forests of Somerset, is reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as having decided upon the Island of Athelney as the ideal place to establish a stronghold and begin his reconquest of Wessex. So it was that on Easter 878 (March 23) he arrived at his new abode with a small force of fighting men.  Alfred, ever the devout king, undoubtedly ensured a mass was duly celebrated, marking the feast (Easter was of course, as now, the most important feast on the church calendar). However, as Alfred raised his praises to the unconquered Christ in the morass of his exile, it was surely the matter of the Viking settlers that weighed most heavily upon his mind.

A cynical reader will probably note the parallel redemptions tales. On Easter day Alfred rose from the ignominy of certain defeat and death to reconquer his kingdom, just as Christ had done a millennium before, defeating the certainty of death and taking his place in the Kingdom of Heaven. This of course raises a question as to whether Easter day 878 was genuinely the day upon which Alfred turned the fortunes of Wessex and began his own journey of redemption. Our main sources for this event are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser’s Life of Alfred. Both are products of the Alfredian Renaissance – Alfred’s program of education and vernacular learning. They are both also products of Alfredian propaganda – while many of Alfred’s chosen literary endeavours were translations of established religious texts and commentaries, here his scribes were being enjoined to produce history.

As historical documents, neither the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle nor Asser’s Life of Alfred can be taken at face-value. In the case of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the compendium of historical events leading to Alfred’s own reign must be viewed to a degree as a history of the house of Wessex. Entries up to 899 have a strong focus on the actions and lives of Alfred’s ancestors, with events elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon England being cursory to the primary narrative. In its turn, Asser’s biography of his master – despite its value as a unique narrative account of an Anglo-Saxon life – is panegyric that verges upon hagiography. It is upon the authority of this document that the title ‘the Great’ has been bestowed, and Alfred’s reputation has been established, but it does require careful reading – in effect, Alfred had commissioned the fabrication of his own legend. But you know your propaganda is good when it is still working 1,100 years after your death, and Alfred retains popular prestige as the greatest of Anglo-Saxon kings.

On the matter of Alfred’s establishment of a base of operations at Athelney at Easter 878, the documents provide near-identical accounts. Asser tells us that:

In the same year, after Easter, King Alfred, with a few men, made a fortress at a place called Athelney, and from it with the thegns of Somerset he struck out relentlessly and tirelessly against the Vikings.

                                         Asser’s Life of King Alfred, 55.

The Chronicle account clearly either draws from the same source as Asser, or is textually interrelated with Asser’s narrative:

And afterwards, at Easter, King Alfred with a small force made a stronghold at Athelney, and he and the section of the people of the Somerset which was nearest to it proceeded to fight from that stronghold against the enemy.

                 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, C-text, 878

Both entries were near-contemporaneous and very likely drew upon eye-witness accounts of events (it is also quite likely that one of said eye-witnesses was Alfred himself). Though evidence from the dating of the texts indicates that Asser drew on the Chronicle account for his narrative, he was writing within fifteen years of events and it seems probable that his account was corroborated by the king, who had commissioned the work. This may explain why Easter is provided as the specific date for the establishment of the fortress in Athelney. The specificity of an exact day is a level of detail more likely to come from someone who had a personal memory of events, while Easter, as a memorable feast within the religious calendar, would temporally contextualise a memory of the past for a witness.

Nonetheless, the provision of a specific day upon which an event is occurred is unusual for both texts; they usually narrate events of a given year without further temporal detail. How definitive is the designation of Easter day though? Asser indicates that Alfred went to Athelney ‘after Easter,’ while the Chronicle states ‘at Easter,’ but neither states ‘on Easter Sunday,’ or ‘on the feast of Easter.’ The Old English support the translators’ interpretations of the texts, and perhaps the best way to reconcile the two accounts is to say that Alfred established his stronghold at Athelney ‘around Easter.’ The establishment of a military base would not have occurred in a single day, and the recollections of those who were present do not necessarily need to be tied to the day of Easter beyond the fact that events began to unfold in the Easter period.

It was fortuitous to the narrative that Alfred’s plans began to take effect around this time and, by mentioning Easter, his scribes undoubtedly meant for their account of Alfred’s return from exile to allude to Christ’s own return from death. Yet I do not doubt the veracity of Alfred’s Easter in Athelney. The run of events that follow Alfred’s establishment of a command post on Athelney supports a reading of a genuine transitional period that started around 23 March 878, with Asser and the Chronicle providing a detailed timeline.

From his base in Athelney, Alfred had immediately begun to harry the Vikings and, having broken from his isolation, within seven weeks of Easter was able to draw together an army from Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire. This army travelled over two nights before meeting the Viking army at Edington and putting them to flight. Over the next two weeks, Alfred besieged the Vikings in the fortress where they had sought refuge, at the end of which the Vikings capitulated. With the terms of peace organised, the Viking leaders came to Alfred for baptism three weeks later, and Guthrum spent the subsequent twelve days as a guest of the court. Alfred was ascendant: the resurrection of the Kingdom of Wessex had begun.

Easter 878 represents both the best and worst of Alfred’s kingship. Whether Alfred was on the run to Athelney on March 23; whether he was in the process of establishing his base at Athelney; or even if he had already setup his headquarters to mastermind the return to power, he remained an exiled king, caught off guard by an intelligent enemy, reduced to hiding in the swamps of Somerset. It is likely that that Easter 878 was one of the less salubrious Easter celebrations of his life. Yet he was not idle in his exile, and within three months he would burst forth from those swamps and breath life back into the Anglo-Saxon resistance.

-Matt Firth

References:

1) Feature image: King Alfred, BL Royal MS 14 B VI, f. 2r.

2) Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (eds and trans), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred, London: Penguin, 1983.

3) Charles Plummer (ed.), Two of the Saxons Chronicles Parallel. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892.

4) Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.

King Eadwig, St Dunstan, and the Ménage à Trois – Propaganda in the Anglo-Saxon Court

King Eadwig inherited the throne of Wessex in 955 at age fourteen. Like any fourteen year-old given unlimited power, he proceeded to live it up. In four short years on the throne he kicked out established court advisors, gave excessive gifts of land to followers, lost half his kingdom to his brother, married a girl that the pope subsequently told him he couldn’t marry, and famously escaped his own coronation to have a threesome with said girl … and her mother. Needless to say, Eadwig does not rank among the boy-king martyrs of England. But is all as it seems?  There is the faint suspicion of propaganda and character assassination that lingers around these depictions of Eadwig. The salacious and oft repeated incident of the royal ménage à trois – a tale with distinctly folkloric elements – is particularly suspect. The narrative is loaded with symbolism depicting Eadwig’s disregard for his office and, so the tale goes, upon this event hinges both the fate of kingdom, and the fate of a saint. So naturally, it is on this dalliance that I will be dwelling.

There is little question that Eadwig was a weak king – that he alienated an extraordinary amount of royal land is not in doubt as per charter evidence. Neither is it in doubt that his brother was either granted, or seized, control over half the kingdom and Eadwig never regained that authority. Indeed, that Eadwig ousted long-standing advisors is also verifiable, however it does begin the take us into murkier historical waters. Why did Eadwig exile the great men of his predecessors’ court?

We have little by way of historical record from the king’s household to provide evidence of Eadwig’s reasoning, and the sources we do have must be suspected of significant bias. The sordid details of Eadwig’s sex life come to light in the biographies and hagiographies of one Saint Dunstan, which also paint a picture of a capricious and misguided boy who sidelined experienced politicians when they resisted his whims. In fact, it is reported that one of these politicians was ejected from the realm for his role in breaking up the king’s coronation threesome. Which seems fair. But when it is taken into account that that politician was Dunstan himself, we can begin to suspect character assassination. Eadwig may well appear in late Anglo-Saxon hagiography, but unlike Edward the Martyr and Kenelm of Mercia, he is not the titular hero, but the antagonist, constructed as a foil to the saintly Dunstan, as demonstrated in the account of Eadwig’s private coronation party.

On the very same day, after the king’s ritual installation and anointing, his lust suddenly prompted him to rush out and caress whores in the manner I have described, leaving the happy feasters … At Archbishop Oda’s request, Abbot Dunstan and Bishop Cynesige attended the royal apartments to bring the king back to the feast, whereupon they … went in and found the royal crown … tossed carelessly on the ground some distance from the king’s head, while he was disporting himself between two women as though they were wallowing in some revolting pigsty … Dunstan first told off the foolish women. As for the king, since he would not get up, Dunstan put out his hand and removed him from the couch where he had been fornicating with the harlots … parted from his women if only by main forced.

                                   B, Vita S. Dunstani, 21. 2 – 4

It was a bold move by Dunstan. Not only had he gone against the king’s desires, but upon finding the young king in flagrante delicto, he had publicly humiliated him in front of his nobles at his own coronation. Given the easily wounded egos of both kings and fourteen-year-olds, it is not difficult to imagine why Dunstan was forced to flee English shores. Yet Dunstan quite possibly felt at ease with his actions: he was a man with the courage of his own political and religious convictions (frighteningly so); he had dealt with difficult kings before and survived; and he once fought off the devil with a pair of tongs.

One of these is not like the others. As tempting as it may be, I will not go into the popular history of Dunstan and the Devil, but refer you instead to this blog entry by the inimitable Clerk of Oxford.

St Dunstan was a critical figure in late Anglo-Saxon religious and political history. Born c. 909 and rising from humble origins, Dunstan would be advisor to seven kings, become the Abbot of Glastonbury, and end his long life as Archbishop of Canterbury. Best known for his system-wide reforms of monastic houses in England, it is unsurprising that, after his death in 988, Dunstan was rapidly canonised, and that the extant accounts of his life are hagiographical biographies.

Of particular interest for this discussion is the Vita S. Dunstani, written within ten years of Dunstan’s death by the anonymous author ‘B’. B quite clearly knew Dunstan and seeks to extoll his virtues in life and his sanctity in death in true hagiographical style, though the personal connection adds a dimension of personal testimony from an eyewitness to events. While there are numerous accounts of Dunstan’s life, and many individual events are independently corroborated by chroniclers, the Vita is frequently the source of these alternative accounts. Though it does engage in hagiographical invention, as well as pro-Dunstan propaganda, B’s account of Dunstan’s life is rather less sensationalist than most of these other vitae. The early dating of the Vita and the association of its author as a companion of Dunstan’s lend an authority to the narrative that is unusual in hagiography.

There is near universal acceptance that Dunstan was exiled by the young King Eadwig in 956. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recounts that in that year Dunstan was driven across the sea, and the exile is recounted throughout the early Anglo-Norman histories without fail. And interestingly, Eadwig was not the first king that these sources, and the Vita, declare that Dunstan fell out with. As a young man, Dunstan had been exiled by Æthelstan – an event that was the catalyst for his taking holy orders. Dunstan later reingratiated himself with the king and was an influential member of the court when Æthelstan’s successor Edmund took the throne. It did not take long for Edmund to similarly exile him, though once again he would make a triumphant return during that king’s life.

It is in Dunstan’s relationships with the Anglo-Saxon kings that B’s adroit use of propaganda is most clearly on display. The trope of the holy man being afflicted by the hardships of the world permeates the Vita, and Dunstan’s conflict with the kings serves to enhance his reputation as a pious man setting himself against worldly authority. Yet B is subtle. The rightly crowned king of the realm was an agent of God and it would have both been impious and impolitic to directly attack the kings.

Thus, the picture painted of Dunstan’s exile under Æthelstan is one which absolves the king of willing complicity. B tells us that Æthelstan’s courtiers became jealous of the well-educated young man who had become one of the king’s favourites and made allegations to the king that Dunstan was a heathen and partook of magical rites. Once Æthelstan’s proclamation of banishment was obtained, Dunstan’s enemies beat him and left him for dead in a cesspool. The narrative repeats itself with Edmund and, once again ill-advised by his courtiers, Edmund forced the holy-man into exile. It is notable that both men redeemed themselves by welcoming Dunstan back to the fold. It is also notable that, by the time of B’s writing of the Vita, both kings had obtained a reputation for good and proactive kingship. In both cases, B intelligently manages to cast Dunstan’s re-entry into the Anglo-Saxon court within the pre-existing traditions of Æthelstan and Edmund’s virtuous reputations.

Not so Eadwig. Eadwig’s age and length of rule were not conducive to his gaining such a reputation for excellence in kingship, and Dunstan’s return to the court was only facilitated by the young king’s untimely death. Further, by the time Eadwig took the throne, his power and influence were far greater than they had been under earlier kings and it seems likely that it was he and his supporters who managed to convince the pope to annul Eadwig’s marriage in 957. Here, however, an already murky tableau of politics, propaganda, and hagiography only gets murkier.

As with the accounts of the other two kings, B absolves Eadwig of independent action – this time by placing the influence of the older of Eadwig’s two coronation consorts, Æthelgifu, at the centre of the plot to oust Dunstan. Æthelgifu was the mother of the other partner in the coronation scandal, and it was to that woman Eadwig would soon be wed – thus Æthelgifu was to become Eadwig’s mother-in-law. That Dunstan’s followers had that marriage annulled on the grounds of consanguinity the following year would then seem to be a part of an ongoing battle between the monk and the mother. (Yes, according to B, Eadwig had partaken of a ménage à trois with his fiancée and her mother, both of whom were related to him – dinners must have been seriously awkward).

While the annulment is historically locatable, Æthelgifu appears only within the Vita and its derivatives. It is quite possible that she is a literary invention designed to both absolve Eadwig of direct involvement in the plot against Dunstan, while simultaneously augmenting his evident weakness as king. Thus, as an authorial invention, the coronation threesome performs as an introduction into the narrative of Eadwig’s moral weakness, and Æthelgifu’s moral wickedness. B informs his readers that Eadwig devolved power to Æthelgifu in the immediate aftermath of the coronation – an act in keeping with his alienation of the royal demesne – and she began to plot against Dunstan’s person and privilege. Indeed, as Æthelgifu moved against Dunstan’s titles and property, Dunstan fled the country just in time, for as he sailed away there arrived messengers from the wicked pirate-woman (so the story goes) who would have torn out his eyes if he had been found on these shores.

But by removing the wicked queen motif from the narrative, and ascribing direct action to Eadwig, the political situation seems rather clearer. While Dunstan may not have had designs on the throne, his tenure, authority, and patronage overshadowed that of the young king and his new advisors, threatening their political control. As an experienced politician, Dunstan saw the way the political wind was blowing and left England before he could be caught and subjected to worse punishments than exile.

Dunstan would recover from this setback, welcomed back by Eadwig’s successor, upon whom B heaps praise, the man of God went on to extend his political career by thirty-years (with no further exiles). That Dunstan was banished by half the kings he ever served does indicate that he was a problematic political player – it is difficult to say whether this because he was reformer, a rabble rouser, or an over-powerful magnate; an argument from the extant sources can be made for each. Yet while the kings Dunstan served have, in many ways, slipped into obscurity, leaving no biographies to later generations, Dunstan’s person and actions were carefully curated by his followers after his death. Thus Dunstan’s legacy as the cleric who helped forge an Anglo-Saxon world to his own vision in the face of temporal and spiritual opposition has long outlasted the kings who saw him as a threat.

-Matt Firth

References:

  1. Feature image: Eadwig (r. 955 – 959), BL Royal MS 14 B VI, f. 3r.
  2. B. Vita S. Dunstani. In The Early Lives of St Dunstan. Edited and translated by Michael Lapidge and Michael Winterbottom. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2012.
  3. Eadmer of Canterbury. Vita S. Dunstani. In The Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald. Edited and translated by Andrew J. Turner and Bernard J Muir. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006.
  4. Matthew Firth, ‘Allegories of Sight: Blinding and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England,’ Cerae: An Australasian Journal of Medieval Studies 3 (2016): 1 – 33.
  5. Osbern. Miracula S. Dunstani. In Memorials of St Dunstan. Translated by William Stubbs. London: Longman & Co, 1874.
  6. Ramsay, Nigel, Margaret Sparks and Tim Tatton-Brown, eds. St Dunstan: His Life, Times and Cult. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1992.
  7. Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.

 

A Brief Biography of … Kenelm of Mercia

Killed by his sister Cwoenthryth in 819, King Kenelm of Mercia – a lad of a mere seven years – spent less than a year on his throne before meeting a martyr’s death. Or so goes the 819 chronicle entry of John of Worcester. There is an immediate problem, however, for any modern historian writing a biographical account of Kenelm: he probably didn’t exist. Or, more accurately, a seven-year-old Mercian prince name Kenelm who took the throne upon the death of his father and was subsequently murdered by his traitorous sister (and had an extremely active afterlife) almost certainly did not exist. Yet this is the narrative of the Vita et miracula S. Kenelmi, the source that informed John of Worcester’s chronicle entry, and this is the Kenelm that I will be looking at here. Once again, as with Edward the Martyr, our sources dictate that a biography of an Anglo-Saxon royal saint will focus more upon his death than his life. However, in this case we also have treacherous sisters and eyes popping out of heads…

Kenelm was the son of the Mercian King Coenwulf (r. 796 – 821) and this historical Kenelm is easily dispensed with. There are few references to him within the contemporary historical record. The only charter to mention Kenelm as the ‘king’s son’ is a forgery and, while the evidence of other charters indicate a man named Cynehelm was a high-ranking member of the Mercian court, he died around 812 having never claimed the throne. A single papal grant of 799 providing Kenelm and his issue lands in Glastonbury seems genuine, and it is this that most historians rely on as a positive identification of a Kenelm who was the son of the Mercian king.

Notably though, not one of the historical records of Kenelm’s life can fit within the timeline of the Vita et miracula – according to which the seven-year-old Kenelm died in 819, and was therefore born in 812. This means that the known noble Cynehelm died in the year that Kenelm was born; that the papal grant was given to Kenelm twenty years before his birth; and that Kenelm ascended the throne two years before his father was done with it. Two things can be concluded from this mess. Firstly, that can be positively asserted from the historical evidence is that Coenwulf had a son named Kenelm who lived into adulthood yet predeceased his father, thus never attaining the throne. And secondly, that the Vita et miracula S. Kenelmi was not intended as historical record, whatever John of Worcester may think.

Though Kenelm was an early ninth-century figure, his life is recorded in a mid-eleventh century manuscript and, as such, the Vita et miracula is a product of late Anglo-Saxon hagiography and reflects the cultural concerns of eleventh-century England upon the cusp of the Conquest. Indeed, that it was at this late point that Kenelm’s passio was committed to parchment likely reflects a frenzy of hagiographical biography inspired by the murder of Edward the Martyr. The parallels between the central plot of the Passio S. Eadwardi and the Vita et miracula S. Kenelmi are immediately obvious, particularly in the person of the treacherous woman. Setting aside any dispute over historical accuracy v. narrative causality as per that particular trope, both hagiographies record the assassination of a young Anglo-Saxon king at the hands of a close female family member lusting for power.

The Vita et miracula records Kenelm’s inheritance of the kingship in accordance with his father’s wishes, but that ‘Cwoenthryth, goaded by savage envy and an ambition to rule, lay in wait for him…’.  Cwoenthryth did not personally kill Kenelm (just as Edward the Martyr’s step-mother did not herself hold the dagger), but rather convinced Kenelm’s tutor to undertake the deed. While the narrative plays up the tutor’s moral indecision – and Kenelm’s miraculous innocence – over seven chapters of prose, the young king’s death is recorded as a simple beheading in once sentence. (The addition of the authorial note that Kenelm caught his own head is a nice touch, and makes Kenelm one of not an insignificant number of cephalophores in Anglo-Saxon hagiology). In detail, this narrative holds no historical accuracy. The real details of Kenelm’s life and death were likely already obscured by the passage of time by the time of its writing, and there is no evidence of a cult of S. Kenelm prior to 970.  Indeed, as noted, there is no contemporary evidence that Kenelm ever ascended the throne of Mercia, nor that he died a martyr’s death. Similarly, though she is a better attested historical figure than Kenelm, there is no evidence of Cwoenthryth’s supposed repudiation as a consequence of her brother’s murder.

So, as we have established that the central event of the Vita et Miracula is largely a product of authorial invention, we may as well run with it and deal with the fate of Kenelm’s treacherous sister.  The author paints a miraculous scene in which the crime of Cwoenthryth and her accomplices is made known through divine intervention to Pope Leo III, who sends an expedition to recover Kenelm’s body. Upon seeing the joy and adulation of the people translating her brother’s body from his ignominious grave to a resting place at Winchcombe Abbey, Cwoenthryth set about cursing her brother’s memory by chanting Psalm 108 backwards; in a graphic description the author describes the curse recoiling on Cwoenthryth:

…straightway, both her eyes, rooted out from their sockets, dropped upon the very page she was reading.  That same psalter, adorned with silver, still shows the proof of this chastisement, stained on the same sentence with the blood of the fallen eye-balls.

Vita et miracula S. Kenelmi, 17

Cwoenthryth dies in disgrace having lost the crown she had snatched, with the account focussing upon the physical detail of the loss of the eyes, while making clear the crimes for which divine justice was meted out.  The commentary of the author is subtle, but the physical blindness must be considered as a somewhat felicitous punishment for the spiritual blindness Cwoenthryth displayed in her life. That the psalter ‘still shows the proof of this chastisement’ is of particular note, for the relic of the stained psalter is in fact an attestation to her crimes that has greater permanency than a visibly mutilated and blinded, yet ephemeral, body. And it is a relic with an entertaining afterlife.

In his Journey Through Wales, written over a century after the Vita, Gerald of Wales relates a miracle in which a fornicating monk of Winchcombe, carrying a psalter in the abbey’s procession for the feast of S. Kenelm, finds the psalter stuck to his hands until he repents his sin. Gerald identifies this psalter as that which bore the stains of Cwoenthryth’s divine blinding and provides a summation of that event that is a clear borrowing from the Vita. Yet it is interesting that Gerald would seek to revive the narrative with a contemporary attribution of divine intervention.

It is known that Kenelm’s cult was focussed upon Winchcombe, and Gerald’s tale indicates that the story retained some importance in the town three centuries after the alleged event and a century after its documentation. This is unsurprising if Winchcombe was indeed a pilgrimage centre for the cult of Kenelm, which seems likely. The cathedral at Winchcombe went through two rededications between 970 and 1070, the first representing an Anglo-Saxon revival, the second the introduction of the Norman church. It seems likely that the authorship of the Vita et Miracula was intended to accompany one of these events, and the author places much of Kenelm’s posthumous miracle-making within Winchcombe’s geographical bounds. Gerald’s narrative displays a sound knowledge of local lore, demonstrating the extent to which the martyrdom of a highly fictionalise Anglo-Saxon boy-king became entrenched within English hagiographical tradition.

So where does this somewhat rambling examination of the historical life, and the mythologised death of Kenelm leave us? Firstly it is clear that I have a somewhat unusual interest in the trope of blinding in medieval narrative as the vehicle for the deprivation of power and social normalcy. Secondly that, more so than many other Anglo-Saxon saints’ lives, Kenelm is largely the product of authorial invention. And lastly that, the historical accuracy of Kenelm’s hagiography is secondary to its illumination of the cultural context in which it was written.

-Matt Firth

References:

  1. Feature Image: BL Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 255r.
  2. Catherine Cubitt, ‘Sites and Sanctity: Revisiting the Cult of Murdered and Martyred Anglo-Saxon Royal Saints,’ Early Medieval Europe 9 (No. 1, 2000), pp. 53 – 83.
  3. R. R. Darlington and P. McGurk (eds.), The Chronicle of John of Worcester: The Annals from 450 – 1066, translated by Jennifer Bray and P. McGurk, 3 vols, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).
  4. Matthew Firth, ‘Allegories of Sight: Blinding and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England,’ Cerae: An Australasian Journal of MedievalStudies3 (2016): 1 – 33.
  5. Gerald of Wales. The Journey Through Wales and the Description of Wales. Edited and translated by Lewis Thorpe. London: Penguin Books, 1978.
  6. Alan Thacker, ‘Kings, Saints, and Monasteries in Pre-Viking Mercia,’ Midlands History 10 (1985), pp. 1 – 25.
  7. Vita et miracula S. Kenelmi, in Three Elventh-Century Anglo-Saxon Saints’ Lives, edited and translated by Rosalind C. Love, 50 – 89 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).
  8. Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.
  9. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, vol. 1, ed. and trans. R.A.B. Mynors, R.M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

A Brief Biography of … Edward the Martyr

Ascending to the throne of England in 975 upon the death of his father, Edgar the Peaceable, Edward the Martyr is primarily remembered for being assassinated after only three years on the throne. Though Edward subsequently entered the rolls of Anglo-Saxon royal saints, his was a largely inconsequential reign, and its violent end is often seen as a key progenitor to the Anglo-Saxon crown’s terminal decline.

Edward is the first entry in what will be an ongoing series of biographies. These were conceived as a way to supply contextualising information on the medieval historians that provide us with the bulk of our source-material for the periods and topics we research. However, the concept has grown and we will provide biographies of historical (or semi-historical) figures who enter our research as the need arises. In my blog entry on Trinity College Dublin, I noted that my research primarily examines the saints’ lives narratives of Æthelberht of East Anglia, Kenelm of Mercia, and Edward the Martyr – as Edward will also feature in my blog on the Lambeth Palace archives, I thought he deserved a full introduction. I will be treating Edward as a primarily hagiographical figure and, as such, this biography will focus more on his death than on his life.

Unlike the climactic events of many Anglo-Saxon saints’ lives, Edward’s assassination can be grounded historically and explained within the contemporary political milieu, making it of abiding interest. The entry for the year 978 in the D-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that:

In this year King Edward was killed at the gap of Corfe on 18 March in the evening, and he was buried at Wareham without royal honours. And no worse deed than this for the English people was committed since first they came to Britain. Men murdered him, but God honoured him. In life he was an earthly king; he is now after death a heavenly saint.

The entry continues in a similarly hyperbolic fashion with clear borrowings from hagiographical narrative; however, the entry for 979 in the same version of the Chronicle is prosaic:

In this year Æthelred succeeded to the kingdom, and very quickly after that was consecrated king at Kingston with much rejoicing by the councillors of the English people.

Despite the forays into eulogising narrative, the political bones of this story are straight-forward. In 978 Edward was killed through treachery and his body buried without any acknowledgement of his station. There is likely a two-fold reason for the unusual burial: by denying his body royal treatment, the enactors of the plot deprived Edward of a legitimising symbol Anglo-Saxon kingship, while also depriving his followers of a shrine that could become a cultic centre of discontent. Upon his death, Edward’s half-brother Æthelred II (‘the Unready’) took the throne and was thus the obvious benefactor of the murder. Yet Æthelred was only twelve years old in 978 and therefore unlikely to have been directly involved. So who then killed Edward the Martyr? It is that question which I most wish to examine.

Edward is perhaps the most recognised and widely studied of the murdered royal saints of Anglo-Saxon England, and certainly the best attested in contemporary sources. In part this represents the temporal proximity of Edward’s martyrdom to the literary endeavours of late Anglo-Saxon and early Anglo-Norman England. Within thirty years of his death in 978, his martyrdom had passed into hagiographical narrative in the Vita S. Oswaldi. This narrative informs the reader that it was ‘magnates of this realm’ who organised the assassination of the king, as they felt his younger brother would provide for a more compliant ruler. The only account more contemporary than that provided in the Vita S. Oswaldi are the quoted entries from the Chronicle. It is notable that the scribe of the 978 entry decries the murder of the young king, and subsequently limits the rejoicing at Æthelred’s 979 coronation to ‘the councillors of the English people.’ From these earliest accounts it certainly seems Edward’s murder was plot conceived by the nobility of the English realm.

Yet it is notable that the place where the assassination occurred is known to have been owned by Edward’s step-mother – Æthelred’s mother Ælfthryth. With her son taking the throne at an age when her personal influence could still be significant, Ælfthryth clearly benefited politically from Edward’s death, and it is not difficult to see why she came under suspicion. Yet a cultural distrust of female power must be taken into consideration, and the wicked step-mother trope is a common one throughout European literature. The presence of Edward’s treacherous step-mother is not noted until the late eleventh century, when his story was expanded into an independent narrative in the Passio S. Eadwardi regis et martyris, forming a basis for the transmission of Edward’s martyrdom into the histories of Anglo-Norman era. In this narrative, while visiting his step-mother Ælfthryth and half-brother Æthelred, Edward was stabbed upon Ælfthryth’s order, clearing the way for Æthelred to ascend the throne. As the inheritors of this hagiographical tradition in which the step-mother’s role as conspirator to the murder of the king was considered fact, the Anglo-Norman historians made this the dominant narrative. In the eyes of historians like William of Malmesbury and John of Worcester, the truth of this version of events was confirmed by the manifestation of God’s retributive hand in the penuries England was to face.

Modern historians are naturally uncomfortable with ideas of divine retribution and, as such, have taken a somewhat more subtle and politically oriented view, in which  literary tropes of treachery and retribution form only a passing ideological interest. Yet their conclusions are not dissimilar from their medieval counterparts: in Edward’s death we can see the genesis of the chaos into which England would descend over the subsequent fifty years. The young king’s death was pivotal to the accession of Æthelred and the attendant discord of a weak ruler, a fractious nobility, and a resurgence of Viking aggression, which led to the overthrow of the Anglo-Saxon kings and the establishment of a Danish dynasty. Whoever killed Edward, it was a short-sighted act of personal greed and desire for power. Edward’s assassination was divisive and undermined the authority and legitimacy of the young Æthelred. Edward may have struggled as much as his half-brother in facing the resurgent Viking threat, yet there seems little doubt he would have faced it with a more unified nobility behind him.

So who killed Edward the Martyr? The conclusions of the Chronicle and the Vita S. Oswaldi are both contemporary and the reasoning seems logical. Edward’s reign came at the tale-end of an extended period of peace and stability – the nobles of England were not concerned with intangible external threats, but rather with personal gain. A compliant teenager on the throne would have helped them to this end. While the Ælfthryth narrative makes for a wonderfully salacious story, her characterisation and motivations are far too archetypal within hagiography to be considered a genuine social memory of Edward’s assassination.

-Matt

References:

  1. Feature image: Edward the Martyr (r. 975 – 978), BL Royal MS 14 B VI, f. 3r.
  2. Byrhtferth of Ramsey, The Lives of St Oswald and St Ecgwine, ed. and trans. Michael Lapidge. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009.
  3. Catherine Cubitt, ‘Sites and Sanctity: Revisiting the Cult of Murdered and Martyred Anglo-Saxon Royal Saints,’ Early Medieval Europe 9 (No. 1, 2000): 53 – 83.
  4. R.R. Darlington and P. McGurk (eds), The Chronicle of John of Worcester: The Annals from 450 – 1066, vol. 2, trans. Jennifer Bray and P. McGurk, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
  5. Christine Fell (ed. and trans.), Edward, King and Martyr, Leeds: University of Leeds, School of English, 1971.
  6. Christine Fell, ‘Edward King and Martyr and the English Hagiographical Tradition,’ in Ethelred the Unready: Papers from the Millenary Conference, ed. David Hill, Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1978, pp. 1 – 13.
  7. Matthew Firth, ‘Allegories of Sight: Blinding and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England,’ Cerae: An Australasian Journal of Medieval Studies 3 (2016): 1 – 33.
  8. Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.
  9. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, vol. 1, ed. and trans. R.A.B. Mynors, R.M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.