Tag Archives: England

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As historical documents, neither the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle nor Asser’s Life of Alfred can be taken at face-value.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


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


  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


  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.

Edward I’s Welsh Crusade

Any journey to Europe to visit medieval castles is incomplete without a trip to the Welsh countryside to appreciate arguably the most impressive ring of fortifications from the middle ages. Edward’s imposing strongholds are not only an example of the craftsmanship of Master James of St George, but are an enduring representation of the military aptitude of the forceful and dynamic English king. From Flint, to Rhuddlan; through Harlech, Conwy and Caernarfon, and ultimately concluding at Beaumaris, Edward literally set in stone his victories against the Welsh. In this article we will take a brief look at the military background of Edward I, his dealings with Wales, and the experiences of his crusading journey.

So, lets get to the history…

Despite his many victories against his northern enemies in Scotland, those that earned him the moniker, the Hammer of the Scots, it was to the west where Edward would leave arguably his most prevailing legacy, the fortified remains of his Welsh ‘crusade’. As a prince, the future King Edward I of England sought to establish his military prowess by taking part in the greatest adventure of the day; campaigning as a warrior of Christ in The Crusades. In comparison to his rather idealistic and arguably romantic vision, the reality of Edward’s journey was altogether disillusioning. As his dream became a nightmare, he ultimately failed to join the likes of legendary crusaders such as Richard the Lionhearted. Nevertheless, the lessons and experiences that Edward gained on pilgrimage had a profound and lasting importance in his own life, helping to shape the man, and king, that he would become.

The presence of English soldiers on Welsh soil was far from a new occurrence when the then prince, son of Henry III, first set his soon to be soggy feet into the Welsh marches. In fact, by the thirteenth century most of the marches and some of the southern and border districts were under English control. The purpose of Edward’s visit in 1256 was not one of conquest, but due to a dispute over lands, taxes, and associated grievances. Edward was granted an area of Welsh land at the time of his wedding, and as a result his father was adamant that any disputes were his to solve. In the ensuing Welsh revolt, Edward would see his English forces defeated in 1257 in a series of events that would prove highly beneficial for Edward’s most aggressive Welsh foe, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. It is worth noting that although Edward’s forces were defeated, the English forces as a whole were not, and the revolt was quashed. Unlike his father, and indeed their many predecessors, Edward would not only go on to capture large chunks of land in Wales, but would ultimately conquer the Welsh late in the 13th Century. It is in the process of his victories, split into clearly definable eras, that Edward began construction on his famed fortifications.

Edward was crowned in 1274, two years after the death of his father. At the time of his ascension to the throne of England, Edward was still abroad as a result of his crusading misadventures. After the disappointing results of his exploits in the Hold Land, Edward no doubt sought redemption in the form of military conquests. Considering fresh and innovative avenues in which he could achieve the glory he so desperately craved. Prominent Plantagenet historian Michael Prestwich avows that ‘the decade of the 1280s was the period when Edward I’s prestige on the continent was at its height’.[1] Significantly, this period in Edward’s life followed shortly after his crusading adventures and as noted, shortly after his coronation. It was also during this time that Edward would achieve his greatest successes in Wales.

The conquest of Wales by the English under Edward I, as briefly noted earlier, can be split into three key campaigns. The first stage of these stages occurred in 1277, when Edward’s forces partially occupied the country, the second in 1282-3, when the English conquered the Welsh, and finally when the enormity of Edward’s previous victories resulted in the crushing of the the final major rebellion under the leadership of Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294-5. The manner in which Edward achieved his success was not revolutionary, but his triumph in Wales was absolute; although seemingly small in scale, the conquest was – as Prestwich so aptly puts it – ‘exceptional in its totality’.

So, where is the link to the Crusades? I can hear you asking…

Throughout his expedition, Edward distinguished himself as a thoroughly devoted Crusader, resolute in his determination to reach the Holy Land. The prince was recorded (see Prestwich, Edward I) ‘swearing by God’s blood that he would go to Acre and carry out his oath even if all deserted him’. The disasters that constantly arose on his journey failed to dissuade Edward from his quest and he ultimately landed at Acre on 9 May 1271. Upon Edward’s arrival, the city was under siege by a feared host of Mamluk forces that had already tasted victory over Crusaders. As basic necessities became scarce, the city’s inhabitants were nearing surrender.  Arriving in a seemingly impossible situation, the dismal nature of Edward’s Crusade becomes evident. It should be noted however, that Edward’s arrival was the pivotal factor in the decision not to surrender the vital port city.  The stubbornness the English prince had displayed in his journey manifested itself in the defence of Acre. Edward inspired the citizens to further resistance. It is this character, his determination and unwillingness to compromise, that forecasts the future king’s successes in the battles ahead.

During his time in Acre, Edward not only played a vital role in the city’s resistance, but contributed to the upgrade and upkeep of its defences gaining a sound understanding of the importance and function of fortifications. It is without a doubt that Edward also knew of the power and influence of other critical Crusader sites, such as the famed Crusader fortress Krak de Chevaliers. Edward’s initial incursion into Wales in 1277 exhibits striking similarities to the movements of Richard I on his trek from Acre en route to Jerusalem in 1191. Both kings set out on a path following the coast, and both forces were shadowed by naval support to bolster the strength of the marching army. One of the keys to Richard’s plans was the rebuilding of fortifications to form advanced defensive positions for his men. In congruence, at the conclusion of their incursion, Edward’s forces constructed the first of his magnificent castles; Flint and Rhuddlan. Replicating this successful strategy, the subsequent Welsh campaigns were solidified in the same manner. The successes of 1282-3 saw the construction of three more of Edward’s infamous structures; Conwy, Caernarfon, and Harlech, and the suppression of the final rebellion in 1294-5 saw the construction of a palatial scale fortification at Beaumaris.

Although the scale, grandeur, and legacy of Edward’s castles is without equal, he was far from the first medieval leader to solidify his advances with the construction of fortifications. In fact, this is arguably the key purpose of their construction. To truly understand the link between Edward’s success and his crusading voyage, we need to consider some additional aspects.

At the peak of Acre’s power and influence, the Crusader’s most important city outside of Jerusalem was flourishing on the back of its financial successes and the resulting affluence of its inhabitants. Acre was at one point the principal landing point for Crusader seafaring trade and European pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. The financial strength of Acre was arguably more important to its defence than the city walls themselves. The prosperity of the city allowed for improved building materials and techniques to upgrade its defensive capabilities, and in addition, the increase in population multiplies the size of the fighting force. It is this strength of Acre that Edward sought to replicate with his newly constructed castles and their resulting towns. Not only did the encouragement of English relocation to Wales further subjugate the Welsh through the appropriation of additional Welsh land, but it strengthened the defences of the area through the growth in the surrounding economy. As a consequence, Edward’s program of castle building takes on an almost colonial element coinciding with its obvious military nature.

Finally, Edward’s experiences on Crusade did not only influence the strategy of the construction of his castles, but the journey was fundamental in determining both their nature and design. As discussed briefly, Edward constructed his castles to consolidate his victories in each of the individual stages of his overall campaign against the Welsh. In the east, Flint and Rhuddlan from 1277; closer to Snowdon, Conwy, Caernarfon, and Harlech were constructed from 1283; and on Anglesey symbolising the crushing defeat of the final Welsh uprising, Beaumaris was built from 1295. Historian Nicola Coldstream paints a fitting picture of the nature of these structures: ‘these castles are judged to be the apogee of military architecture in the late thirteenth century…imposing and stylish’, each castle commanded a ‘formidable presence’ dominating its surrounds. Significantly, the castles not only followed a common strategy, and a common plan, but the castles were all designed, and their construction was, at the least, overseen, by the same man; Master James of St George. During his markedly unhurried return journey from the Holy Land, Edward was entertained by Count Philip of Savoy as the count was to pay homage to the new, if yet uncrowned, king of England. Edward was hosted at the newly built St Georges d’Esperanche, a castle it is said he was most impressed with; it was here that Edward would first make acquaintance with his future principal mason.

Now, to go into detail of the life and work of Master James, or indeed into the evidence that suggests he was indeed the architect of Edward’s majestic structures, would take up far too much of yours and my time. But if this does interest you, check the references below and definitely check out the work of Arnold J. Taylor. So, to conclude:

Edward’s experiences on his crusading journey either forecast, or are reflected in, a multitude of elements seen later in the king’s life. Despite the moniker of the Hammer of the Scots, Edward arguably accomplished more in Wales than that which he achieved north of the border. The strategy and tactics employed by Edward in Wales were successful – the magnitude of such success is still evident – and the lessons that the great king of England absorbed in the trials and tribulations of his journey across Europe and the Middle East were fundamental. The style, character, design, and grandeur of Edward’s castles not only reflects the nature of his journey and the experiences endured upon it, but are a direct result of his travels. Without Edward’s Crusade, Flint, Rhuddlan, Conwy, Caernarfon, Harlech and Beaumaris, and the fortified ring they create, would not exist, standing as the exemplars of military and architectural might that we see today.

– Jamie


This was, as you can imagine, a very brief overview of a very complex topic. For an in depth understanding of Edward I, including an interesting insight into a rather unpleasant young prince, the work of Matthew Paris is a definite must read. When read in the context of Michael Prestwich’s Edward I, it provokes some interesting questions around Edward’s motives for crusading.

Furthermore, for more information on the castles themselves and the work of Master James of St George, check out the fantastic references listed, number 4 is one of the foremost modern works on the topic.

-Jamie Gatehouse


  1. Feature Image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/da/%28The_castle%2C_Harlech_Castle%2C_Wales%29_%28LOC%29_%283751638943%29.jpg
  2. Nicola Coldstream, ‘Architects, Advisers and Design at Edward I’s Castles in Wales’, Architectural History 46 (2003): 19-36.
  3. John R. Kenyon, The Medieval Castles of Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010.
  4. Michael Prestwich, Edward I, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998.
  5. Michael Prestwich, The Three Edwards: War and State in England 1272-1377, London: Routledge, 2003.
  6. Diane M. Williams and John R. Kenyon, eds, The Impact of the Edwardian Castles in Wales: The proceedings of a conference held at Bangor University, 7-9 September 2007, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2010.