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All Posts, P&S History, Pen and Sword Books

Women’s History Month – M J Porter

Five royal deaths in the tenth century that almost destabilised the English kingship and why one royal woman was so important

The tenth century in Saxon England was when the English kingdom as we know it today truly formed, most notably under Athelstan, king of Mercia, then Wessex, and then ‘of the English’ from 924-939, who was named ‘King of the English’ in a series of charters from 928 onwards. Before that, Edward the Elder and his father, Alfred, had been kings of Wessex.

But throughout the period, the burgeoning kingdom of England suffered from unfortunate deaths amongst its young men. If not for the royal women, this could have brought England to its knees before it truly had time to amalgamate. Interestingly, as far as is known, none of these deaths occurred in battle, despite the near-constant threat from the Norse.

Firstly, Ælfweard, a little-known king and son of King Edward the Elder, is said to have died only sixteen days after his father in 924, perhaps no older than twenty-five. Into this breach stepped Athelstan, also a son of Edward the Elder, but with his first wife, for whom so little information has survived that her name isn’t even known for sure.

‘Here King Edward died at Farndon in Mercia; and very soon, 16 days after, his son Ælfweard died at Oxford; and their bodies lie at Winchester. And Athelstan was chosen as king by the Mercians and consecrated at Kingston.’1

Athelstan died while still a relatively young man in 939, only two years after his triumph at the battle of Brunanburh against a coalition of the Norse and the Scots. Perhaps still in his early forties, he was succeeded by his half-brother, son of Edward the Elder and his third wife, the impressively long-lived Eadgifu. Edmund is believed to have been about eighteen years old at the time. It’s suggested that King Athelstan chose not to marry to allow his half-brother to succeed him. Athelstan was, after all, encumbered with a huge extended family. He was one of five sons born to King Edward the Elder and had at least eight sisters, possibly more. The number is uncertain due to the scarcity of surviving records.

But alas, the kingship was still not secure, despite King Edmund’s victories against England’s enemies, the Norse of Jorvik. Edmund was himself, we are told, ‘murdered’ only seven years later, in May 946. While he had married, not once, but twice, to Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury and Æthelflæd of Damerham, his two sons were small children on their father’s death. He was, therefore, succeeded by the final surviving son of Edward the Elder, Eadred.

‘Here King Edmund passed away on St Augustine’s Day [26 May]. It was widely known how he ended his days, that Liofa stabbed him at Pucklechurch.’2

While ruling for longer than Edmund, Eadred was also to die a young man in 955, still in his thirties (it’s believed that Eadred may have suffered from the same condition as his grandfather, Alfred, now thought to be Crohn’s Disease.) His nephew, Eadwig, succeeded him at perhaps no more than fifteen. Eadwig’s death, unexplained, occurred only four years later, when his brother, Edgar became king of the English at a time when there were no alternatives to name as king who could claim descent from King Alfred. The sons and grandsons of Edward the Elder had finally ‘run out.’

And overseeing these turbulent years for the English kingdom, when war often took her kings to the north to combat the Norse menace from Jorvik, was one woman, Eadgifu, the third wife of King Edward the Elder. Eadgifu was young when wed to the previously twice-married king of Wessex. Edward already had children with two different women, Athelstan and his unnamed sister, believed to have been raised in Mercia (although this is from a later tradition), and Ælfweard and his many sisters and one brother. While her husband died when she was still young, it’s believed that Eadgifu, somewhat unusually, never remarried (although there is the suggestion that she may have done so in the 950s), neither did she retire from the royal court but remained a fixture witnessing charters for her two sons, and two grandsons, before dying around 966. (She witnesses the refoundation charter for the New Minster, Winchester, as her final documented act, S745.)

Tracing Lady Eadgifu’s influence is fraught with difficulty. She isn’t named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. She is not named on any of the surviving charters promulgated by her husband, Edward the Elder, or stepson, Athelstan. She does, however, witness a substantial number of charters promulgated by both of her sons: eighteen during the reign of Edmund (about 33%), and twenty-nine during the longer reign of Eadred (about 49%) (excluding charters that are deemed as spurious by academic experts). This is a high proportion. I would argue that her position as the king’s mother allowed her sons to march to war against the Norse enemy, confident that if the worst should befall them, their intended successor would be assured of her support and that of her adherents within the court.

While Lady Eadgifu is the most long-lived and visible member of the royal women of the tenth century, she was not alone in securing the English kingship during times of turmoil. The English kings might not have lived long lives, but some of the royal women are astounding, not just in terms of living longer but also remaining politically important throughout long periods of time and throughout multiple kingships. As such, I would suggest the veneer of stability that allowed England to form throughout the tenth century was entirely that, and without Lady Eadgifu and other royal women, England would have fallen prey to the Norse, the growing kingdom of the Scots, and perhaps also to the Welsh kingdoms, despite the fact that none of these kings, as far as is known, met their end on the slaughter-field.

1 The Anglo Saxon Chronicles ed. M Swanton [D] p105

2 The Anglo Saxon Chronicles ed. M Swanton [D] p112

Order The Royal Women Who Made England here.