Category: Famous Anglo-Saxons

Eadric Streona

Hemming’s Cartulary
Hemming’s Cartulary, a collection of charters from the late 10th century, where Eadric acquires his epithet “Streona”, MS Cotton Tiberius A xiii, folio 121, British Library

In 2005 BBC History Magazine readers voted Eadric Streona as the 11th century’s worst Briton.

It is true that Eadric is portrayed as a villain in the various Chronicles, betraying first one side and then the other. He is not mentioned once by John of Worcester without a negative term being attached. William of Malmesbury described him as “the refuse of mankind and a reproach unto the English”. His nickname “Streona” first appears in Hemming’s Cartulary, a collection of charters from the 10th-11th centuries compiled by a monk named Hemming from Worcester. 

It is argued that his twisting and turning and treacherous betrayals ultimately saw Edmund Ironside fail to defeat Cnut at Assandun on 18th October 1016. At that battle, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Eadric:

“betrayed his royal lord and the whole people of the English race. There Cnut had the victory; and all the English nation fought against him.”

But why would a man who had achieved immense power and wealth risk it all by turning his coat, then flipping this way and that? Did he seriously think he would get away with it?

Eadric was born 975 AD into a large, moderately wealthy family without titles. His father was Athelric and he had interests in Shropshire and Herefordshire, and attended court under King Athelred Unrede. The year of Eadric’s birth was the year in which King Edgar died, to be succeeded by his sons Edward the Martyr, and then Athelred.

It is possible that Eadric’s relatively humble origins may be one reason for the energy directed against him as he may have been seen as reaching above his station. By 991 AD Eadric is described as the faithful thane of Oswald, bishop of Worcester, who granted him land. This implies he was from the upper echelons of the peasant class, and not a warrior family. John of Worcester is clear that he was “a man of low origin”. However, Oswald’s support enabled him to progress through the ranks. Oswald sponsored a number of men, including one called Wulfgeat who was a great favourite of the king.

However, in 1006 Eadric appears to have become useful to the king directly. It was a momentous year for his career. The Chronicle says that:

“Wulfgeat deprived of all his possessions, and Wulfeah and Ufegeat were blinded, and Aelfelm the ealdorman was slain.”

Later records, possibly less reliable, claim that it was Eadric who was involved in the killing of the Ealdorman of York, Alfhelm. He was a Mercian too, the brother of Wulfric Spot whose will has survived and tells us that Alfhelm had two sons called Wulfheah and Ufegeat, the two men who were blinded.

John of Worcester provides much more detail:

“King Aethelred deprived his especial favourite Wulfgeat, son of Leoueca, of his possessions and dignities; [this he did] because of his unjust decrees and haughty deeds. The crafty and perfidious Edric Streona, plotting mischief against the noble ealdorman Alfhelm, prepared a great feast for him at Shrewsbury: and on his arrival pursuant to the invitation, Edric welcomed him like an intimate friend. On the third or fourth day of the entertainment, having laid an ambush, he took him into a wood to hunt. There, when all were occupied in the chase, the hangman of Shrewsbury, called Godwin Porthund (which signifies, The town’s hound), whom Edric had long before steeled to commit the crime by great gifts and many promises, suddenly leapt out of ambush, and vilely slew the ealdorman Alfhelm. A short time afterwards, his sons Wulfheag and Ufeget were by king Aethelred’s orders deprived of sight at Cocham, where he was then staying.”

The following year Eadric was made Ealdorman of Mercia, a title which had been held in abeyance for some time since the death of it previous holder, the anti-monastic Alfhere in 983 AD. Not long after that Eadric even married the king’s daughter, Ealdgyth. And he made sure his family shared in his rise, and various brothers begin to appear witnessing the king’s charters.

Eadric appeared set to play the part of the king’s right-hand man, ready to do what he was asked no matter how dubious. In 1009 he tried to negotiate the release of Archbishop Alfheah who had been taken hostage by the Vikings, but without success. He also encouraged the increasingly enormous payments of Danegeld to the Vikings even when Athelred was ready to fight. While Athelred was rallying forces to oppose the Vikings in Hampshire, John of Worcester tells us:

“On one occasion, when they [the Vikings] had been pillaging further inland than usual, and were on their return laden with booty, the king took possession, with many thousand armed men, of the road they had to pass in their way to their ships; and as his whole army was assembled, resolved either to conquer or die. But the traitorous ealdorman Edric Streon, his son-in-law (for he had married his daughter Elgitha), used every effort by insidious and perplexing counsels to prevent a battle and persuade the king, for that time, to let the enemy pass. His policy prevailed, and like a traitor to his country, he rescued the Danes from the hands of the English, and suffered them to escape.”

Eadric skilfully managed to increase his wealth during the taxations, by manipulating the system to his great personal advantage, buying up confiscated land taken for non-payment of tax, and selling it back later at profit. This included church lands which earned him a great deal of resentment and bitterness from the ecclesiastical community (who wrote the chronicles).

However another event in 1009 stands out when Eadric’s brother Brihtric brought unknown charges against Wulfnoth Cild of the South Saxons (Sussex) to the king. Wulfnoth was the father of Godwin. He was also involved in the fleet Athelred had had built to protect the coast from Viking attack. In revenge Wulfnoth took 20 ships and ravaged the coast himself. Brihtric chased after him with 80 ships but these were destroyed in a storm and Athelred’s mighty fleet was no more.

Eadric himself remained loyal to Athelred until the king’s death in 1016, in spite of all the difficulties that that entailed. He was capable of military endeavours; in 1012 he went to Wales and devastated Dyfed on the orders of the king, and plundered some treasure for himself as he went. In 1015 he killed Sigeferth, chief thegn of the Seven Burhs, and his brother Morcar, at Oxford.

“AD 1015. While a great council was being held at Oxford this year, the traitorous ealdorman, Edric Streon, perfidiously invited to his lodgings two of the most considerable and influential persons in the Seven Burghs, Sigeferth and Morcar, and there caused them to be secretly murdered.”

The murders seem to have caused a split in the royal family. The king took over the dead men’s possessions and estates but his son, Edmund Ironside, eloped with Sigeferth’s widow and married her. Athelred was sick by now and following his deathon 23rd April 1016 the throne of England was fought over between Edmund and Cnut.

Eadric now took his chance to defect to Cnut and so his reputation was brought to its lowest.

Let’s follow the Chronicle:

“AD 1016. In this year came Cnut with his army, and Eadric the ealdorman with him, over Thames into Mercia at Cricklade. And then they went to Warwickshire, during the mid-winter’s tide, and ravaged, and burned, and slew all that they could come at. Then began the etheling Eadmund to gather his forces.”

The epic series of battles between Cnut and Edmund ensued. Edmund had support from Uhtred of Northumbria but Uhtred had to break off from the main army when he heard Cnut was ravaging York. Again Eadric is involved in what followed:

“Then rode the etheling Eadmund into Northumbria to Uhtred the earl, and every man thought that they would assemble forces against king Cnut. Then marched they into Staffordshire, and into Shropshire, and to Chester; and they plundered on their part, and Cnut on his part. He [Cnut] went out through Buckinghamshire into Bedfordshire, and thence to Huntingdonshire, and so into Northamptonshire along the fens to Stamford, and then into Lincolnshire; then thence to Nottinghamshire, and so to Northumbria towards York. When Uhtred heard this, then left he off his plundering, and hastened northwards, and then submitted, from need, and all the Northumbrians with him ; and he delivered hostages: and, notwithstanding, they slew him, through the counsel of Eadric the  ealdorman, and Thurcytel, son of Nafena, with him.”

Cnut now besieged London and Edmund raised an army in Wessex.

Eadric continued to support Cnut at the second battle at Sherston. Edmund was doing well though and when he brought his army to Brentford Eadric went back to him again:

“Then king Edmund assembled, for the fourth time, all his forces, and went over the Thames at Brentford, and went into Kent; and the army fled before him, with their horses, into Sheppey: and the king slew as many of them as he could overtake. And Eadric the ealdorman went then to meet the king at Aylesford: never was anything more ill-advised than this was.”

Finally battle was joined at Assandun.

“Then did Eadric the ealdorman, as he had oft before done, begin the flight first with the Magesaetas [from Mercia], and so betrayed his royal lord and the whole people of the English race. There Cnut had the victory; and all the English nation fought against him. There was slain bishop Eadnoth, and abbat Wulsige, and Aelfric the ealdorman, and Godwine’ the ealdorman of Lindsey, and Ulfcytel of East-Anglia, and Aethelweard, son of Aethelwine the ealdorman; and all the nobility of the English race was there destroyed.”

The story is recorded in John of Worcester that:

“the king would have utterly defeated the Danes had it not been for a stratagem of Edric Streon, his perfidious ealdorman. For when the fight was thickest, and he perceived that the English had the best of it, he struck off the head of a man named Osmser, whose features and hair were very like king Edmund’s, and holding it up, shouted to the English that they were fighting to no purpose: “Flee quickly,” he said, “ye men of Dorsetshire, Devon, and Wilts; ye have lost your leader: lo! here I hold in my hands the head of your lord, Edmund the king: retreat with all speed.”

And so in the end Edmund had to negotiate with Cnut to split the rule of England. Edmund died on 30th November 1016 not long after they agreed the division of England, and so Cnut took the entire country.

By the time of the Easter Conference in 1017 Eadric had already suggested that Athelweard (the man banished at this time) might be a good candidate to assassinate the atheling Eadwig (Edmund Ironside’s brother) who was a threat to Cnut’s throne. Although Athelweard agreed to carry out the deed, he supposedly did not intend to do it, and presumably his failure was behind his banishment. Eadwig was executed in any case.

Eadric had also tried to persuade Cnut to kill Edmund’s sons, who were still young, but Cnut banished them instead; one of them, Edward, known to us now as “the Exile”, later came back to England at the request of Edward the Confessor in an attempt to resolve his succession crisis. He was the father of Edgar the Atheling and Queen Margaret of Scotland.

Eadric finally came to a bad end. In 1017 at his Christmas Court Cnut had him executed:

“on the feast of our Lord’s Nativity, which he [Cnut] kept at London, he ordered Edric the perfidious ealdorman to be slain in the palace, apprehending that he himself might some day become a victim to his treachery, as he had his former lords Ethelred and Edmund frequently deceived; and he caused his body to be thrown over the city walls, and left unburied.”

William of Malmesbury has a longer and more lurid account of Eadric’s final demise. Writing some time after the period he is describing, he reported a version of events claiming Eadric had been responsible for the death of King Edmund Ironside, but this is not supported by other chroniclers of the time:

“The same year, Edric, whom words are wanting to stigmatize as he deserved, being, by the king’s command, entrapped in the same snare which he had so frequently laid for others, breathed out his abominable spirit to hell. For a quarrel arising, while they were angrily discoursing, Edric, relying on the credit of his services, and amicably, as it were, reproaching the king, said, “I first deserted Edmund for your sake, and afterwards even despatched him in consequence of my engagements to you.” At this expression the countenance of Canute changed with indignation, and he instantly pronounced this sentence. “Thou shalt die,” said he, “and justly; since thou art guilty of treason both to God and me, by having killed thy own sovereign, and my sworn brother; thy blood be upon thy head, because thy mouth hath spoken against thee, and thou hast lifted thy hand against the Lord’s anointed” and immediately, that no tumult might be excited, the traitor was strangled in the chamber where they sat, and thrown out of the window into the river Thames: thus meeting the just reward of his perfidy.”

Why would Eadric have betrayed the son of the man he served faithfully for many years? Had Edmund made it clear he would not retain his honours? Edmund had married the widow of Sigeferth and the daughter of Athelstan Half-King of East Anglia. The complexities of early 11th century politics and the ruling families may have put any kind of reconciliation out of reach.

Eadric must have been a very convincing man to persuade various crafty political operators of the period to listen to him and reward him so generously.

Hengest, Horsa and the Coming of the English

by Matt Love, 2009

This story is in note-form, for story-tellers to embellish to taste…

Vortigern, a prince of Britain in the last days of the Romans, and before the coming of the English

He was an ambitious man, who would be High King of the whole Island

He hired Picts to wage war on his rivals, and to assassinate their leaders.

In particular the High King Constan and his son Ambrosius

His Picts won many battles for him, and secretly killed Constan, so that Vortigern became high King himself.

But the boy Ambrosius fled across the sea to Brittany with his mother…

The Picts, meanwhile, demanded higher and higher wages, and blackmailed him

One day, two men introduced themselves at his hall

They were Hengest and Horsa, sons of the king of Saxony, across the Great North Sea.

They said they came in search of a new home, a new master, war, glory and honour

They had three shiploads of warriors at their backs.

In return for their services, they would accept whatever land and gifts Vortigern might offer them.

Vortigern saw a solution to his problems: Their first task, he said, was to rid him of his troublesome Pictish mercenaries

This they did, with great slaughter –

– but they realized that Vortigern might treat them the same way they had treated the Picts.

From that moment, they plotted the eventual downfall of Vortigern, and the acquisition of Britain for their own people, though outwardly they seemed loyal.

When a new Pictish army bent on revenge landed on the eastern shores, Hengest and Horsa met them man for man and drove them back into the sea, although they were outnumbered, for they were fierce warriors: there was great rejoicing in Vortigern’s Hall that night.

But Hengest warned him the Picts would be back again in even greater numbers, and that his brave Saxons would be too few in number to oppose them.

Vortigern thought on this

Hengest then suggested that some of his kin still in Germany might join him and Horsa here in Britain: in return for land, they would defend Vortigern against any number of enemies.

So more Saxons came to Britain, and their kin-folk the Angles, and just in time…

For the Picts send a greater army than ever – but Hengest and Horsa beat them back

This time for good, and Vortigern is overjoyed. He invites Hengest to name his reward

Just as much land as as I can encircle with a single leather thing.   Willingly!

But Hengest kills the biggest bull he can find, and cuts its hide in an intricate pattern so that the whole skin is one huge long strip of delicate thin leather. He can enclose a vast amount of land within it, but Vortigern cannot refuse. He builds a hall, an estate and a great fortress for himself within it.

He invites Vortigern to feast there, and at the feast Vortigern sees Hengest’s daughter Hronwen  and falls in love with her.

‘If you will give me your daughter,’  he says,   
But you are married already…..I will send my wife away
But you’re a Christian ….. I will send away my priests
But she is not sufficiently noble birth …..I will make you a British nobleman
What bride-gift will you offer ….. the kingdom of Kent!

The Britons are appalled, and the priests, and Vortigen’s sons, and his wife’s family, and the exile Ambrosius – but the wedding goes ahead, and Hengest becomes Vortigern’s father-in-law.

When Hengest brings news of pirate raids in the north of the kingdom beyond the Humber, Vortigern agrees to even more Angles and Saxons being brought across from Germany to fight them off… they spread west and north until most of the Island of Britain is under their control.

And then the Britons lose their patience with Vortigern. He is deposed as king, and his son Vortimer succeeds him. Vortimer pledges to fight the Saxons and drive back into the sea whence they came.

And for a time he succeeds, until the Anglo-Saxons are driven all the way back to Kent. In the final battle, Horsa is killed, and Vortimer too, and the old British king of Kent whose land Vortigern had taken away from him.

Hengest asks for a truce, and for talks to take place. Surely, he argues, there’s room enough in this green and pleasant island for Britons and Anglo-Saxons to live side by side in peace…

Vortigern, king once more, agrees, and a great feast is prepared, with each British noble sitting next to a Saxon warrior. Weapons are forbidden, and all the talk is of peace and reconciliation.

But Hengest now secretly wants only revenge for his lost brother, the recovery of his lands in Britain, and the death of Vortigern.

At the height of the feast, he cries out ‘Nimmt eowere seax!’ which means ‘take out your knives! And every last British chieftain is killed. As Vortigern lies cowering in a corner, Hronwen spits in his face and turns her back on him. He has lost everything, and makes no resistance when Hengest deals the fatal blow.  Britain belongs to the English!

But what of Ambrosius? He had grown up to be a strong and noble young man, skilled in weapons and fighting, and burning to drive the English out of Britain once and for all. When he hears news of vortigern’s death, he parpares to sail for Britain, together with his chosen companions, foremost among them a young warrior called Arthur.

But that’s another story…

The Story of King Alfred

By Harry Ball

This is the story of King Alfred who was a king in England more than a thousand years ago and how he fought against the fierce Vikings to defend his kingdom and his people.

It was Christmas time, and King Alfred was having a good rest. It had been a busy year for him, the Vikings had raided his kingdom three times that year and Alfred had fought five battles with them and had only won two. Things had not gone well, but now winter had come all should be quiet for a while.
Alfred had just started his Boxing day feast at Winchester when bad news was brought to him. A huge Viking army was attacking again, and it was only a few miles away. It was led by a very fierce king called Guthrum who was not a Christian but a Heathen. Alfred called his men together, but most of them were away at their own homes for Christmas. So, there was no time to loose, he must leave Winchester and escape into the countryside before the Vikings got into the town. So with only a few men to help him he fled into the countryside.
They crept through the woods and hedges to hide from the Vikings who seemed to be everywhere. Slowly, they made their way westwards into Somerset where there were lots of marshes and where they could hide where the Vikings wouldn’t find them.
Soon they came to an island in the marshes with a small village on it, and the people of the village took them in and gave them food and shelter. By this time they were all scruffy and dirty and they didn’t tell the villages who they were, or that the king was with them, just in case the Vikings found out they were there.
After a few days Alfred’s men went out hunting for food, because the village was poor. Alfred stayed behind, on his own. He was just sitting thinking about what he could do to get rid of the Vikings from his kingdom when the wife of the man whose house it was came in to put some cakes by the fire to bake. “Look after these cakes young man” said the woman rather roughly. “And don’t let them burn”. Alfred nodded and she went out, but soon he was thinking about the Vikings again.
After a while there was a strong smell of burning, but Alfred didn’t notice. But he did when the woman came back. “You dozy idiot” she shouted, “You’ve let all my cakes burn. It took me ages to make those. All you do is sit about all day doing nothing, just day-dreaming. You only wake up when you want to eat my cakes. Now you will all have to do without any.”
Just at that moment Alfred’s men got back and heard the old woman shouting. They all rushed into the hut where Alfred was sitting looking very embarrassed. “Why are you shouting like that?” said one of Alfred’s men sternly to the woman. “Because he’s let all my cakes burn” she said angrily.” “But this is the King” said the man. When she heard this the woman became very frightened. “Oh dear” she said “I didn’t know. Nobody told me he was the King” At this Alfred laughed very loudly. As well as being a great King he was also a very kind man and didn’t want to get the old woman into trouble. “It was all my fault” he said “I was thinking about what I must do about the Vikings, and I forgot all about the cakes. I’m very sorry” he said to the woman. The old lady was pleased she wasn’t going to get into trouble so she promised to make every body some more cakes. And so she did, and she made a very special cake for Alfred, now that she knew that he was the King.

Alfred and his men stayed for some months at Athelney, for that was the name of the village. And he made plans and sent out messages to all the men who lived in the countryside round about to tell them to get ready for a big battle against the Vikings. When he thought his men would be ready Alfred sent a message out for them all to meet at Ecgbyrht’s stone. This was a great big stone which had been set up on its end so long ago that nobody could remember who Ecgberht was, or why the stone had been put up. But it was so big that everybody knew where it was, and so it was a good place to meet. When Alfred got there, there were hundreds of brave men who had come to fight the Vikings with him. Alfred thanked them all for coming and they all marched off together to fight the Vikings.
The two armies met at a place called Edington and there was a big battle. The Vikings attacked first but Alfred’s men held them back. Then the Anglo-Saxons attacked the Vikings, but they were held back as well. The Vikings attacked again, and then the Anglo-Saxons, and so it went on all day.
But slowly the Anglo-Saxons began to win and the Vikings became tired till at last they gave up and ran away. They were chased by the Anglo-Saxons until they reached a wooden castle they had built earlier, and there they were safe for a while. Alfred and his men surrounded the castle and kept the Vikings inside for two weeks until they were short of food. Alfred then sent a message to King Guthrum who was inside with his men, and said that he would let them all go if they promised to do two things. First that they must leave his kingdom and promise never attack it again, and second that Guthrum and all his chief men would give up being Heathens and would become Christians. Guthrum had to think about this for a bit. He would be happy to go home and never come back because Alfred and his men were too good at fighting for him to try again. But become a Christian? He hadn’t thought about doing that before. He talked it over with his chief men. Some said they didn’t like the idea of becoming Christians but others said they had heard about it and they wouldn’t mind if Guthrum said he was going to become one. In the end they agreed to go out of the castle to meet Alfred. Alfred brought along his priests and Bishops with him and they all talked about Christianity and at last Guthrum and his men agreed. They all became Christians and Alfred and Guthrum signed a treaty with Alfred promising that neither of them would attack each other ever again. Before the Vikings left to go home to East Anglia Alfred and Guthrum had become good friends and as long as he lived Guthrum never attacked Alfred or his people ever again.

Copyright © H.B.Wulfgar


Scribe at writing desk from Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, MS26 f2r (c) British Library

The Venerable Bede died on 25th May 735 CE at the 10th hour of the day. Most of what we know about him comes from his own writings, primarily the “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” which was completed in 731 CE.

He was born on the lands of monastery of Wearmouth around 673 CE. In 680 CE, at the age of seven, he was given to the Church as a child oblate (a person dedicated to God) under Benedict Biscop. The monastery at Jarrow was founded in 681 CE and he was sent there in the care of Abbot Ceolfrith. As an oblate he followed the rule of Benedict and the routine of work, prayer, study and sleep.

According to the “Life of Ceolfrith” when a plague visited the monastery all the monks were struck down except for Ceolfrith and a young boy who between them sustained the Rule and sang the offices daily until more monks were able to join them. As he obviously survived, the boy must have been Bede and he would have been about 14 at the time.

Bede was ordained as a Deacon at the age of 19 by John of Beverley, who was at that time Bishop of Hexham. The canonical age for ordination as a deacon was 25, so the early date and the presence of John indicates that Bede was already recognised as exceptional. He became a priest at 30, again ordained by John. In due course he became probably the most learned man in Europe.

Bede left Jarrow only twice, visiting Lindisfarne in 721 CE and York in 733 CE. He lived the life of a scholar-monk, delighting in learning, teaching and writing. In this, he benefited enormously from Benedict Biscop’s collection of books acquired on his many trips to the Continent. Among his pupils was Ecgberht, later Bishop of York (whose ordination was the reason for his trip in 733 CE); Ecgberht invited Bede to the ceremony for his elevation to Archbishop in 735 CE but Bede was already too frail to make the journey.

His most famous work is of course the “Ecclesiastical History”, but he also wrote a huge range of other works, some of which have been lost but others survive. He was an historian, poet, musician, scientist, theologian and hagiographer. His major early works include “On the Nature of Things” (De Natura Rerum) and “On Time” (De Temporibus), which established the basis for his future intellectual development.

“On the Nature of Things” aimed to refute superstition by the rational explanation of the nature of the universe. This included phenomena such as earthquakes, eclipses, and thunder and lightning. Bede also aimed to foster appreciation and admiration for the beauty of the natural order.

His preface says:

“In brief chapters, I, Bede, the servant of God,

Have lightly touched on the varied natures of things

And on the broad ages of fleeting time.

You who study the stars above,

Fix your mind’s gaze, I pray, on the Light of the everlasting day.”

“On Time”, as well as being a reflection on the divinely instituted order of time, also represented the new Christian genre of the computus manual for calculating the date of Easter – a genre which Bede himself played a very significant role in developing.

Both works were in the format of question and answer and could easily have been adapted for teaching.

In his later expanded work, “The Reckoning of Time” (De Temporum Ratione), Bede took up and promoted the ideas of Dionysius Exiguus and Isidore of Seville and embedded the concept of the “Years of Grace” or “Anno Domini” method of dating which led to it being widely adopted.

In the “Reckoning of Time” ch 32 Bede describes the Earth as a globe:

“It is not merely circular like a shield [or] spread out like a wheel, but resembles more a ball, being equally round in all directions.”

In addition to these scientific endeavours Bede is known for writing the “Lives of the Abbots”, a history of his own monastery. He also wrote two versions of the “Life of Cuthbert”, one in prose and one in verse.

In the “Ecclesiastical History” Bede shows himself to be a true historian, collating and analysing his sources and quoting his authorities. Five 8th century copies still remain and it was chosen by Alfred for translation as one of the books “most needful for men to know.”

Bede was buried at Jarrow and was later translated (relocated) in the early 11th century to Durham under slightly questionable circumstances; the monks of Durham stole his remains to bring to their church, being dissatisfied that Bede’s relics were held at Jarrow. He now lies in the Galilee Chapel beneath a quotation from his own writings:

“Christ is the morning star, who, when the night of this world is past, brings to his saints the promise of the light of life, and opens everlasting day.”

But perhaps we should finish with another poem, credited to Bede (although not known certainly) about final thoughts before death and which is known as Bede’s Death Song:

Bede's tomb at Durham Cathedral
Bede’s tomb at Durham Cathedral

“Before the journey that awaits us all
No man becomes so wise that he has not
Need to think about, before his going hence,
What judgement will be given to his soul
After his death, of evil or of good.”

Alcuin of York

Letter from Alcuin, Harley MS 208 f. 34r. Image from the British Library.

Letter from Alcuin, Harley MS 208 f. 34r (c) British Library

The 7th century polymath studied at York and became a leading figure of Charlemagne’s Renaissance, before ending his career as Abbot of Tours.

He was born in Deira (approximately modern Yorkshire). Little is known about his parents, although his own writings suggest his family owned land in Yorkshire.  As a child he was handed over to the Minster community under the care of Ecgbert. He was always a promising scholar: it is said that he had mastered the Psalms by the age of 11 and showed a precocious interest in the works of Virgil. 

Alcuin was probably the most famous alumnus of the school at York. A lberht, the master of the school, sought learning and rare books during his travels to the continent. He used them to establish a curriculum at York which surpassed, in the range of subjects taught, all other schools in England and Western Europe at the time. This curriculum was based on the Trivium and Quadrivium subjects of Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, and Astronomy, Geometry, Arithmetic and Music. Alcuin studied under A lberht, and took over as master of the school in 767 CE when A lberht became Archbishop, also inheriting his library.

After A lberht died, Alcuin was sent to Rome to collect the pallium for the new archbishop and on his return in March 781 CE, as we have previously discussed, he met Charlemagne. At this point Alcuin was not a famous scholar and Charlemagne was not an emperor, but they saw potential in each other. Within the year he had joined Charlemagne’s court and spent the rest of his life on the Continent, apart from a couple of visits home. He became Charlemagne’s chief adviser on religious and educational matters. 

As head of the palace school at Aachen, he established a great library.  As well as revising church liturgy and the Bible, Alcuin helped create the intellectual movement where schools of learning were attached to monasteries and cathedrals. This was under direction for Charlemagne, who had a great project in mind to restore learning, combined with a legislative programme for reform of the Frankish Church and society. To this end he gathered the greatest scholars available to help see it through. They collected classical texts, created books and studied writers such as Cicero and the Roman poets. According to J. A. Willis, 94% of classical Latin literature was lost in the period between the Fall of Rome and Charlemagne’s rise to power. The remaining 6% was saved by the scholars at Charlemagne’s court.

Alcuin, as the leading scholar of his time, wrote to Charlemagne that the king’s noble efforts had ‘brought about a rebirth of civilised standards in every kind of knowledge and useful erudition.’

Alcuin also left us his definition of the meaning of “Wisdom”:  ‘the knowledge of things divine and human’ which is sought by the whole people. In this search for wisdom, the scholar must debate with and learn from pagan, Jew and Byzantine alike, in his effort to catch a vision of a nobler, more truly Christian, society

He and Charlemagne were close, and in 796 CE the Emperor gave Alcuin the abbacy of St Martin at Tours, and this was where he finally died eight years later. Even after his retirement, Charlemagne would ask for Alcuin’s advice, invite him to visit and ask him to accompany the emperor on campaign.

Alcuin wrote endless letters as well as a famous poem about York. He retained a keen interest in events back home, writing about the Viking raid on Lindisfarne as well as providing advice and guidance.

Alcuin’s influence was profound. At court and later at Tours, he imported the York curriculum, reintroducing books and subjects which had been neglected for centuries but saved in Northumbria. His works covered every area of his time’s intellectual endeavour: grammar, astronomy, hagiography, biblical commentary and theology. His pupils came from all over the empire to study with the famous teacher, and went on to become abbots and bishops, including Rhabanus Maurus (Abbot of Fulda, Archbishop of Mainz) and Einhard (Charlemagne’s biographer).

Alcuin’s remarkable influence on contemporaries reflects not only his learning, piety, and prolific writing, but also the effects of his personality, especially his gift for friendship expressed in letters and poems. He inspired devotion from his students and corresponded with kings, abbots and bishops, as well as the Patriarch of Jerusalem. His letters were copied and preserved in monastic centres across Europe and his writings recopied in every century, until the age of print.    

And finally, he was an organised man – he even wrote his own epitaph:

“tu mihi redde vicem, lector, rogo, carminis huius

  et dic: ‘da veniam, Christe, tuo famulo.’

obsecro, nulla manus violet pia iura sepulcri,

  personet angelica donec ab arce tuba:

‘qui iaces in tumulo, terrae de pulvere surge,

  magnus adest iudex milibus innumeris.’

Alchuine nomen erat sophiam mihi semper amanti,

  pro quo funde preces mente, legens titulum.”

“Now I ask you, the reader of this poem, say:

‘O Christ have mercy on your servant here’

I pray that no hand violate the holy tomb

Until the Angel’s trumpet calls from heaven:

‘Arise from the dust of the earth, you who lie in this tomb.

For the Great Judge is here with countless throngs’

Alcuin was my name. I always loved wisdom.

Pray for me, as you read this.”

Athelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

Statue of Athelflaed
Statue of Athelflaed with Athelstan at Tamworth

Athelflaed was the daughter and eldest child of King Alfred of Wessex and his wife Ealhswith, who was of the Mercian royal house. She was born around 870 CE and grew up in a court which included some of the greatest scholars of Europe. She had a full education as befitted a royal princess, and was highly literate and intelligent. Alfred’s biographer, Bishop Asser, was at pains to record the thorough education that Alfred provided for all his children.

Later she married Athelred of Mercia, uniting Mercia and Wessex during the Danish encroachments. She was first recorded as Athelred’s wife in a charter of 887 CE, when he granted two estates to the see of Worcester ‘with the permission of King Alfred’ and the witnesses included “Athelflaed conjux (wife)”.

However the marriage may have taken place even earlier, perhaps when Athelred submitted to Alfred, following the recovery of London in 886 CE. Their status and titles are unclear: Athelred is always referred to as the Ealdorman of Mercia rather than King, at least in the English Chronicles, and Athelflaed as the Lady of the Mercians (“Myrcna hlæfdige”); however some other sources, including the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, do refer to her by the title of Queen.

Both she and Athelred are mentioned in Alfred’s will, which probably dates to the late 880s. Athelflaed, described only as “my eldest daughter”, received an estate and 100 mancuses, while her husband Athelred, the only ealdorman to be mentioned by name, received a sword worth 100 mancuses. A mancus was a gold coin probably about 4.25g, and used as a measure for value; it is possible she received her inheritance in silver worth the equivalent amount as gold was in very short supply at this time.

In 883 CE Athelred granted privileges to Berkeley Abbey and in the 890s he and Athelflaed issued a charter in favour of the church of Worcester. This was the only occasion in Alfred’s lifetime when they are known to have acted jointly; generally Athelred acted on his own, usually acknowledging the permission of King Alfred. However, Athelflaed did witness charters of Athelred in 888, 889 and 896 CE. Another charter, dating to the end of the 9th century, records that Athelred and Athelflaed fortified Worcester, with the permission of King Alfred and at the request of Bishop Werferth, who is described in the charter as ‘their friend’ and who was the leading English scholar of the time. They granted the church of Worcester a half share of the rights of lordship over the city, covering land rents and the proceeds of justice; in return, the cathedral community agreed in perpetuity to dedicate a psalm to them three times a day and a mass and thirty psalms every Saturday.

Then in 901 CE, after Alfred’s death, Athelred and Athelflaed gave land and a golden chalice weighing thirty mancuses to the shrine of Saint Mildburg at Much Wenlock church.

Athelred and Athelflaed had one daughter, Alfwynn, who seems to have been expected to take over from her parents as the Mercian leader. In 904 Bishop Werferth of Worcester granted a very valuable lease of land in the city to Athelred and Athelflaed, to be held for the duration of their lives and that of their daughter Alfwynn. Alfwynn is recorded witnessing charters from 903 CE onwards, and at a relatively high ranking among the signatories; by 915 CE she was second only to her mother in the secular list. Athelflaed also fostered her nephew, Edward’s son by his first marriage, Athelstan. Interestingly he does not appear on the Mercian charters.

Meanwhile Athelred had health problems and probably declined after Alfred’s death. Athelflaed may have become the ‘de facto’ ruler of Mercia by 902 CE. According to the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, the Norse Vikings were expelled from Dublin and made a failed attack on Wales. Then they applied to Athelflaed, her husband being ill, for permission to settle near Chester. Athelflaed agreed and for some time they were peaceful. The Norse Vikings then joined with the Danes in an attack on Chester, but this failed because Athelflaed had fortified the town, and she and her husband persuaded the Irish among the attackers to change sides. Other sources confirm that the Norse were driven out of Dublin in 902 CE and that Athelflaed fortified Chester in 907 CE.

Much of the information we have about Athelflaed’s activities derive from the Mercian Register which was partially copied into some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and cover the period of her and Athelred’s reigns. The Mercian Register covers the years 902 to 924 CE, and focuses on Athelflaed’s actions; her brother King Edward is hardly mentioned and her husband only twice, on his death and as father of their daughter.

In 909 CE Athelred and Athelflaed managed to extricate the relics of St Oswald from Bardney in Lincolnshire to their new foundation in Gloucester; the record is confusing and it is not clear if this was part of a raid into Danish territory, or whether it was a separate transaction which occurred around the same time. The focus on Gloucester was probably motivated by political as well as religious reasons. Mercia had been divided with the Danes in 877 CE, so that the former East Mercia had become a series of small realms with various leaders, centred around the Five Boroughs of Lincoln, Nottingham, Stamford, Leicester and Derby. This put greater pressure on the old Mercian royal centre of Tamworth close to the boundary. However, Gloucester also brought them closer to Worcester as well as moving them deeper into Mercian territory and nearer to Wessex. A further advantage was that it kept the Mercian ruling family distinct and independent from Wessex without being overly provocative by returning to traditional seat of Mercian royal power.

Mercia had a long tradition of venerating royal saints and this was enthusiastically supported by Athelred and Athelflaed. Saintly relics were believed to give legitimacy to rulers’ authority, and Athelflaed was probably also responsible for the foundation or re-foundation of Chester Minsterand the transfer to it of the remains of the seventh-century Mercian princess Saint Werburgh from Hanbury in Staffordshire.

The raid on Danish territory, whether related to the relics or not, may have contributed to the Danish incursions the following year as it broke the peace agreement that had been made in 905 CE at Tiddingford by her brother King Edward with the Danish leaders. The Danish incursion in 910 CE as far west as Bridgnorth ended in an English ambush and victory at Tettenhall in Staffordshire which was sufficiently devastating to the Danes to open the way for the recovery of the Danish Midlands and East Anglia over the next decade.

Athelflaed and her brother, King Edward, seem to have co-ordinated their campaigns against the Danish. Athelred died in 911 CE after a long illness and Athelflaed buried him at Gloucester and took sole control of Mercia. She and Edward continued their programme of building burhs (fortifications) at strategic locations; Edward along the boundary of the Danelaw and Athelflaed along the Welsh marches and up towards the north west to deter Irish Viking incursions.  Her burhs included Bremesburh, Sceargeat (unknown), Bridgnorth, Staffford, Tamworth, Eddisbury, Warwick, Chirbury, Weardbyrig (unknown) and Runcorn.

As well as fighting Danes, Athelflaed had wider responsibilities to all those sworn to her. One of her Abbots, called Ecgbriht, appears as a witness to a charter issued at the burh at Weardbyrig (location unknown) in 915 CE, so was probably a close adviser of Athelflaed. He had been travelling in Brycheiniog under Athelflaed’s protection when he was attacked on 16th June and killed. On 19th June 916 AD Athelflaed sent an army into Wales and took the royal residence at Brecenanmere, capturing the wife of King Tewdr of Brycheiniog along with 33 other people.

Brecenanmere was a crannog in the lake at Llangorse, a unique and Irish-influenced royal residence emphasising the Irish connections of the Welsh ruler, King Tewdr ap Elisedd. The crannog itself was constructed with timbers felled 889-993 AD, many of them re-used making precise building dates difficult, but the crannog itself would have been unique in Wales. The link to the Irish would have been intended to support the claims of the Brycheiniog ruling elite to be of Irish descent. It was around 40m wide and 30-40m off the northern shore of the lake. It was built from planks of oak with a dwelling platform formed from layers of stone, soil and brushwood on a man-made island and was defended by a wooden palisade. There would have been a central hall and a number of smaller buildings. Archaeological excavations of the site have found a number of items indicating a substantial settlement consistent with a royal palace, as well as a burnt layer which may be evidence for Athelflaed’s attack. The kings at that time moved from site to site through the year, so it was not occupied at all times. Although the Welsh queen was taken prisoner the king was not – he may have escaped or he may not have been present.

The attack on the abbot is unexplained and perhaps the Welsh were testing the Mercian defences given the English focus on dealing with the Danish incursions. At this time Edward was away in the east of England campaigning in Essex and fortifying Maldon, and Athelflaed was busy with her own campaign. Also, a number of the burhs that Athelflaed had had built were along the Welsh / English border so it is also possible there had been a build-up of tension prior to the abbot’s misadventure; however she was also dealing with Viking threats from Ireland and Brittany which threatened her western borders.

Athelflaed responded quickly and decisively to the killing, so either the abbot was important to her personally or her general response to Welsh impudence was intended to be clear and immediate. She moved her forces quickly and stormed the crannog probably moving forces engaged in building her burhs, most recently at Warwick.

King Tewdr was required to submit to Athelflaed and pay compensation, but it seems there were no further reprisals against the Welsh for the incident, and no further disruptions are recorded. The crannog itself was not rebuilt by the Welsh king. When Athelflaed died the Welsh submitted to Edward, which possibly implies Mercian overlord(or lady)ship prior to that.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also records that in 917 CE Athelflaed took control of Derby in the Danelaw, although four of her thanes were killed in the assault “which to her was a cause of sorrow.” Then the following year, 918 CE she took the submission of another Danelaw stronghold, Leicester, apparently without any fighting. At this time it was anticipated that York also planned to submit to her, seeking her support against Irish Vikings who were threatening the kingdom. The offer of submission was not repeated to Edward after her death.

She died seemingly unexpectedly at Tamworth on 12th June 918 CE and was buried at Gloucester with her husband and Oswald’s relics. She was succeeded by her daughter Alfwynn, the only time in English history that a Queen has succeeded her mother. However, following Athelflaed’s death Edward moved quickly to take control of Mercia from his niece, and by December she was whisked away, probably to a convent.

Royal women in Mercia had a strong tradition of political involvement, unlike in Wessex, and this comparative freedom allowed Athelflaed the opportunity to flourish, applying all she had learned watching her father’s strategies in dealing with the threats to his kingdom. She was intelligent and well educated, and seems to have provoked a strong personal following among her advisers, both religious and military. After her death Edward faced a more resentful Mercia and even full fledged rebellion; he had been putting down a combined rebellion of Mercian and Welsh forces when he died in 924 CE. Her death was recorded in the Annals of Ulster as the “most famous Saxon Queen”; the annals failed to record the deaths of either Alfred her father or Edward her brother.

Edwin of Northumberland

photo of the Lilla Cross
The Lilla Cross

The main source of information for Edwin is to be found in the works of Bede, who was writing almost 100 years after Edwin’s death. Bede was a monk in Jarrow who wrote around 70 or more books, one of which was the incredibly influential “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” and he tells us much of the story of Edwin. We have to remember however that Bede wanted to tell us the story of the rise of Christianity in Britain. He was not trying to be historically objective as we would understand it today.

Bede tells us that Edwin was one of the Bretwaldas, the so-called “High Kings” of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. It wasn’t a hereditary title, but was given to the most powerful king whom the other kings were willing to acknowledge as their overlord.

In fact, Bede says Edwin was the 5th one, and the first in a line of Northumbrian Bretwaldas which went on to include Oswald and Oswy, who were his nephews. This was arguably the foundation of Northumbria’s Golden Age, as the chaos and confusion of the 5th and 6th centuries gave way to the 7th and 8th centuries which saw the production of illuminated manuscripts, and the writings of Bede himself.

Bede also tells us that in the 6th-7th century, Britain had a number of competing Anglo-Saxon kingdoms primarily divided between peoples known as Angles, Saxons and Jutes. In the north were the Anglian kingdoms of Deira (which is roughly modern Yorkshire) and Bernicia (which is roughly modern Northumberland). A number of British kingdoms were also in the region and they were in conflict with the Anglo-Saxons and with each other.

Edwin was born around 586 AD, the son of King Aelle of Deira. Aelle was in conflict with Athelric of Bernicia. When Edwin was still a small child in 588 AD, Aelle was killed by Athelric; although Reginald of Durham, a 12th century chronicler, claims it was Athelric’s son Athelfrith who assassinated Aelle. Edwin was only a toddler when his father was killed, and must have been taken into exile by the remaining members of his father’s warband who survived the attack.

Athelfrith probably then ruled as the sub-king of Deira under his father until Athelric’s own death in 593 AD. At this point, Athelfrith united the two kingdoms to become the first King of Northumbria. Conflicts with the British kingdoms continued until the Battle of Degsastan in 603 AD when Athelfrith defeated an alliance of British kings, along with an exile of the Bernician royal house called Hering, indicating all kinds of complicated political rivalries and alliances were in play. Not long after this he married Acha, Edwin’s older sister, presumably to consolidate his authority in Deira.

Meanwhile, it seems that young prince Edwin was spirited away to Gwynedd in North Wales where he grew up at the Christian court of King Cadfan. Cadfan had a son called Cadwallon and based on later events it seems the boys did not get along.

So who were the other Anglo-Saxon Kings in Britain at this time?

One of the key ones was Athelberht of Kent – he was the Bretwalda at this time and the one who in 597 CE had allowed Augustine to start his mission in Britain based at Canterbury. Athelberht was married to a Christian princess from Paris.

Another important king was Cwichelm of the West Saxons.

The king in Mercia was called Cearl, and Edwin must have visited him when he was trying to build up allies for his bid to take back his father’s kingdom, because he is recorded as marrying Cearl’s daughter Cwenburh around 615 CE, probably to forge a strategic alliance against Athelfrith who was an ever-present threat to Mercia from the north.

After his marriage, Edwin appears in East Anglia at the court of King Raedwald. Raedwald is believed by many to be the king buried at Sutton Hoo and the owner of the iconic helmet and treasures from that famous ship burial. At this time he was a sub-king of Athelberht in Kent, who by now had converted to Christianity and would have pressured his sub-kings to do the same. Raedwald was famously ambivalent about this and saw the new faith as an optional addition to the pantheon of gods he already worshipped.

King at a Barrow
King at a Barrow

However, this was a crucial period in Edwin’s life. It’s around 615 or 616 CE and by now he is a grown man actively and successfully rallying support against the usurper in Northumbria, so he is an increasing threat to Athelfrith. According to Bede Edwin was in East Anglia specifically seeking support from Raedwald against Athelfrith.

Neither had Athelfrith forgotten Edwin; he hounded him and those who sheltered him relentlessly. Athelfrith was campaigning in Mercia and North Wales, possibly in response to Edwin’s movements, and it is during this period that the Battle of Bangor Orchard (aka Battle of Chester) occurred, when Athelfrith famously ordered the slaughter of the unarmed monks praying for the success of the Christian Welsh.  At the battle, a large contingent of unarmed monks came from the monastery at Bangor to support the Welsh against the Northumbrians, and they began singing and chanting to pray for success in battle. Bede says Athelfrith ordered their slaughter because if they were praying against him, then they were his enemies.

Meanwhile, in East Anglia Athelfrith continued his pursuit of Edwin in a different way. He threatened Raedwald, demanding that Edwin be handed over, and three times offered increasingly larger bribes of money and treasure along with threats of attack in return for the betrayal. At this time Athelfrith was a terrifyingly powerful and successful warlord and Raedwald was about to give in to his demands when his wife stepped in and dissuaded him saying he should not sacrifice his honour, which is more precious than anything.

Edwin had been warned by one of his men that Raedwald was about to betray him and was sitting outside disconsolate and alone when he was approached by a stranger who talked to him, telling him that Edwin could escape his predicament and become the greatest of kings of the English nations if only Edwin agreed to follow him when asked in the future. Edwin agreed and the stranger gave him a sign by which to recognise him when the time came.  Once Edwin had given his word to everything he was duly reassured that Raedwald had been persuaded by his wife not to hand him over to Athelfrith. One of his men then came to him and told him that Raedwald had indeed changed his mind.

Raedwald then raised an army and with Edwin set out north. Beside the River Idle near Doncaster they were able to ambush Athelfrith, although his presence there is not fully explained. One argument is that he was on his way back to Northumbria from his battle at Bangor Orchard, where Bede told us he had taken heavy losses, and if so he had probably disbanded much of his army as he approached home. Athelfrith was slain on the east side of the river, although not without the death of Raedwald’s son in the fighting. Edwin now became King of all Northumbria and proved to be a powerful warlord.

The Battle of the River Idle in 616 CE was a turning point for Edwin but it was also a significant year in other parts of the island of Britain. Athelberht, King of Kent and Bretwalda of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, died and Raedwald in East Anglia became the next Bretwalda, perhaps as a result of his defeat of Athelfrith. Cadfan of Gwynedd, who had sheltered the young Edwin, also died and was succeeded by his son, Cadwallon who was Edwin’s enemy.

Meanwhile Edwin now began to establish himself and to expand his domains. King Ceretic, the King of the British Kingdom of Elmet (near Leeds) died in 619 CE. He had been driven out by Edwin, who may have been seeking revenge for the poisoning of Edwin’s nephew’s son who had gone to Elmet seeking refuge after Aelle’s death. It was during this early part of his reign that Edwin was able to subdue the kingdom and expand his borders. And still, the expansion continued…

In 622 CE Edwin laid waste to Anglesey and Man, and drove Cadwallon from the island of Priestholm off Anglesey; Cadwallon fled to Ireland. At some time during this period Edwin also conquered the Kingdom of Lindsey (Lincolnshire).

So now his kingdom extended from the east to the west and possibly as far south as the Trent up to the Firth. He was on good terms with the kingdoms in the eastern and central parts of Britain (East Anglia and Mercia), which meant that there was increasing pressure on Wessex.

Edwin had a number of royal centres throughout his kingdom, for the collection and storage of food rents, tributes and taxes. The Anglo-Saxon kings were peripatetic and the court travelled from centre to centre to take advantage of the resources available and to dispense justice and be seen by the people. He established an enormous royal palace, 90 feet long, at Ad Gefrin (Yeavering) in Northumberland as well as other bases including at Carlisle, York, Sancton, Goodmanham and Gilling. At the palace at Yeavering there was an amphitheatre built in Roman style and Bede also tells us that Edwin always had a standard carried before him when he travelled, similar to a Roman tufa, in an attempt to enhance his prestige by recalling Roman authority and power.  

Edwin now extended his dominion across Britain and the dating of his story becomes more secure from this point. Raedwald died around 625 CE and Edwin became the next Bretwalda. He had taken control of large parts of the island, and was the first Bretwalda to control both North of the Humber and South of it – all the previous Bretwaldas had only ruled the southern kingdoms. However, Edwin did not yet control Kent. So he made another strategic alliance and married the Kentish princess Athelburh, daughter of Athelberht. It would seem his first wife Cwenburh was either no longer alive, or she may have been put aside to make room for a new wife.

Athelburh’s father Athelberht had allowed Augustine to enter his kingdom and preach, and her mother was a Christian princess from Frankia, so Athelburh was a Christian, like her parents.  The marriage was only agreed on the basis that Athelburh could continue to practice her religion, and Edwin agreed to this as well as to hearing the preaching of the priests and considering whether to convert his own kingdom. In 625 CE Athelburh went to Northumbria, taking her own priests with her including a newly consecrated Bishop called Paulinus. The result of the marriage was that the kingdoms became allies and this extended Edwin’s unprecedented influence even further.  It looks like what happened next was a response to that growing power and influence. The following Easter 626 CE Athelburh was heavily pregnant and the court was in Deira.

Lilla Cross plaque
Lilla Cross Plaque commemorating Lilla’s actions

Bede tells us that an assassin called Eomer was sent by Cwichelm of Wessex to kill Edwin. He attacked the king with a poisoned dagger when he was admitted to give Cwichelm’s greeting to Edwin. Edwin was barely saved when one of his men, Lilla, managed to put himself in front of the king in time to take the blow, and so sacrificed himself.

Edwin was saved by his men’s quick reactions and that very night his daughter Eanflaed was born. Edwin was giving thanks to his pagan gods when Paulinus claimed that the queen’s safe delivery was due to the Christian God. Edwin promised that if the Christian God helped him to successfully conclude a campaign of retribution against Wessex, then he would become a Christian. He therefore agreed to dedicate his daughter to the Church immediately.

Edwin went off to Wessex and killed 5 kings and forced Cwichelm to submit to him. When he returned to Northumbria he had stopped worshipping pagan gods but was still not quite ready to convert formally. Pope Boniface even wrote letters of encouragement to Edwin and Athelburh, sending presents. Edwin received a golden shirt and purple cloak and Athelburh a silver mirror and gilt-ivory comb. Bede has transcribed the letters in his book so they can still be read today.

Even so, Edwin was still prevaricating over whether to convert his kingdom, so Paulinus applied more pressure. He revealed to the king the sign that the stranger in East Anglia had shown him before Raedwald agreed to help Edwin win back his kingdom. Paulinus demanded that the king now keep his promise. It is generally thought likely that Paulinus had been at Raedwald’s court evangelising, probably sent from Athelberht of Kent at the time, which is how he was able to do this.

Edwin now agreed to convert personally – in fact, there is a hint that he had already been baptised while in exile as a boy in Gwynedd. However, taking his kingdom with him was a bigger matter and he called a council of his advisers to debate the issue. Anglo-Saxon kings were elected by their witan (counsellors) and could be replaced by them too, so it was imperative that Edwin only act with their support. Bede’s report on the meeting is highly biased but nevertheless beautiful writing. He tells us first that Edwin’s pagan priest Coifi consented to the conversion because the pagan gods had failed to demonstrate their power by making him wealthy and successful. At this time the power of gods was evidenced by battlefield success or the acquisition of wealth and power. After Coifi, one of the chief men of the Witan also spoke, comparing the life of man on earth to a sparrow’s flight through the hall, coming in from storm and darkness and returning to it again. He said that what follows life or even precedes it is a mystery, and if Christianity had answers to the mystery it should be adopted.

With the support of his priests and his counsellors Edwin was able to go ahead with the conversion of is kingdom. On 12th April 627 CE he was baptised in York in the first York Minster. His sons by his first marriage, his daughter Eanflaed, his niece Hild (later the Abbess of Whitby) and other nobles were baptised with him. Paulinus went on to perform hundreds, or even thousands of baptisms at royal centres around the kingdom.

Edwin’s final years of rule as a Christian King were sadly few.

His enemy Cadwallon by now had become a ferociously powerful leader of the British, in fact some say the strongest they ever had against the Saxon incomers. Indeed Henry Tudor, as he set out for Bosworth in 1485, considered himself to be Cadwallon’s heir. Cadwallon allied with a pagan warlord in Mercia called Penda; Penda is often described as the “last pagan king of the Anglo-Saxons” but at this time he was still relatively young although he had an extraordinary career ahead of him. Penda may have been pagan but the war was not about religion; Cadwallon was still a Christian and Penda was notoriously relaxed about matters of the faith of others, as Bede acknowledges.

On 12th October 632 CE Edwin fought Cadwallon and Penda at the Battle of Hatfield Chase and was killed, along with his eldest son by his first marriage who was butchered in front of his eyes by Penda to demonstrate that his heirs would not survive either. His second son later tried to surrender and was also killed by Penda. His wife Athelburh, their young children and Edwin’s grandson fled back to Kent with Paulinus. The children were now exiles, as Edwin had been. Edwin’s daughter Eanflaed grew up in Kent with her mother, but the other children, boys, were sent abroad for their safety to Athelburh’s uncle, King Dagobert, the king of the Franks. This may indicate a decrease in the strength of the Kingdom of Kent if the boys were considered at risk from Cadwallon and Penda while at court there. Unfortunately they died in infancy of childhood diseases, as was so common, and the male line of Edwin was extinguished.

In fact twelve months of chaos followed Edwin’s death in Northumbria until order was restored by the return from exile of the next great Northumbrian King, Oswald, nephew of Edwin through the marriage of Edwin’s sister Acha to his enemy Athelfrith.  Through Oswald the two Northumbrian dynasties were finally united.

Famous Anglo-Saxons

In this part of the website, we provide more information about some better-known Anglo-Saxons. There are lords and ladies, bishops and abbesses, poets and scholars. You can see the list of names in the menu on the right, or use the search option to look for individuals.

We will be writing new pieces regularly so do come back to see who has been added.

King Harold’s Army

Harold’s Army

The king always had with him his personal bodyguard – chosen men with no other function but to protect their lord with their lives. In return, they expected to be housed, fed, paid, and given a share of any plunder. If they survived long enough, they might be rewarded with a gift of land to retire on. They travelled on horseback, but fought on foot, grouped around their king and their standard. They used the fearsome two-handed axe, like the ‘huscarles’ of the Danish king Cnut two generations previously. They wore long mail shirts and iron helmets for protection, and carried wooden shields.


In time of war, the king called on his ‘Ealdormen’ who were regional leaders acting in his name. They would then call out their own personal bodyguards and all the ‘thanes’ of their shires – those local lords who had pledged to fight when called in return for their land. Thanes usually provided their own weapons and armour, travelled on horseback, but fought on foot. These were probably the men of the ‘fyrd’ – they had farms and estates to run and did not expect to fight for very long periods and in most years not at all. The basic weapons were shield and spear, with either a small axe, or a long knife for hand-to-hand fighting.  Richer thanes may have owned a sword. These were the warriors who wanted to return home in the late summer of 1066 to bring in the harvest.


Thanes may have called on some of their ‘churls’ as cooks, wagon-drivers, scouts, smiths or servants:  ‘churls’ were farmers who had no traditional duty to fight. They may, however, have volunteered if they were ambitious, or may have been caught up in the battle (the Bayeux Tapestry shows some Englishmen fighting with clubs and spades, and other unarmoured spearmen fighting on a hill).
Except for the king’s huscarles, therefore, the army was a rather loose and temporary affair. The men fought through duty to their lord, rather than through any sense of patriotism.


The English tradition was to fight on foot in a ‘shield-wall’ where each man interlocked his shield to his comrade’s to left and right. As long as the shield-wall held, defeat was impossible. Individuals, however, might well step out in front to perform acts of individual bravery. There seems to have been little attention paid on either side to the vulnerable ‘flanks’ of the army (the ends of the battle-line).
The best-armoured warriors no doubt stood in the front rank. There’s some debate about whether the huscarles were thinly spread all along the front line to provide a hard ‘crust’ to the army, or grouped in depth around the king and his standard – which seems more probable.
Just one English archer is shown in Bayeux Tapestry. They may have been regarded merely as skirmishers, and had no part in any coherent battle-plan. Perhaps they were the young sons of thanes, getting a first taste of war. The other English answer to Norman archery was to lock shields or throw stones.
Leaders fought on foot and seemed not to be interested in ‘directing’ a battle according to any real plan: battle-tactics seem to have involved a straight clash of arms with the best side winning. Where they wished to influence the outcome, it tended to be either by catching the enemy by surprise, or by encouraging treachery on the other side. There’s some debate about whether or not the English fought on horseback when circumstances were favourable.


At Hastings, the English warriors fought on foot against an enemy on horseback. They probably soon came to regret their apparent lack of archers, for the Norman bowmen were a constant irritation who could easily out-run the heavy English infantry if threatened. What they may never have realized during the battle, however, was Duke William’s main advantage: his control of battle tactics. William organized his army into sections which advanced or fell back at his direction, and he constantly rode up and down the battlefield to see that his orders were being carried out. Harold seems simply to have stood and slugged it out.


Battles in this period were very rare events. The role of an army was generally to ‘lay waste’ the enemy’s lands and plunder its wealth. It was essential, therefore, that warriors were mounted, for speed and mobility.  The three battles of the Hastings campaign, especially coming, as they did in quick succession, were very unusual indeed.  Hastings itself was an exceptionally long battle– the huge physical and emotional stress of a stand-up hand-to-hand fight meant that engagements could rarely last more than an hour or so before one side gave way, or both sides collapsed from exhaustion. 


We know less about the Battle of Hastings than is sometimes claimed: there are hints in the sources that Harold’s army was taken by surprise before it was ready, and that some of Harold’s men deserted before the battle even began. We don’t know exactly when Harold’s two brothers were killed, what eventually led to the break-up of Harold’s shield wall, or how Harold himself died. There’s disagreement about how many times the Norman cavalry charged up the hill to attack Harold’s men, or whether their retreats to lure the English from their position were planned or not.
The only thing that does seem certain, however, is that although Harold and the last Anglo-Saxon army fought hard and long on 14 October 1066, it was ultimately overcome by William’s ruthless and efficient fighting machine.

William’s Problems after 1066

1066 – After the Battle

With Harold fallen, and the survivors of the English fyrd having melted away into the night, Harold’s huscarles held their ground and fought on grimly until they were cut down and killed.  After the slaughter, William and his army must have been exhausted, and no doubt slept in their armour on the battlefield.

When they had rested, the army marched on London. After some resistance at first, the city surrendered. William probably received some reinforcements from Normandy, and on Christmas Day 1066, had himself crowned king of England. Now, he had to decide what to do next.

Role play

With a partner, imagine you’re William, and decide how to deal with each problem.  Some possible solutions to each problem are given, but you may think of others!

My army is quite big, and it’s expensive to keep going…
*Tell them all to go home: the war’s over.
* Keep some of them – I must have an army!
*Keep them all –the war’s not over yet
*Sell the horses and armour
*Make the English pay for my army

My knights are expecting big rewards for having risked their lives for me…
* Say ‘thanks’ and tell them to go home
* Give them English land

My mercenaries need to be paid… 
* Make the English pay, then send them home
* Tell them I haven’t got any money

I’m in a foreign city: I don’t feel safe …
*Just go home to Normandy
* Build a palace in the countryside
* Build a castle in the heart of the city
* Pretend I’m not scared

I can’t speak their language…
* Make them learn French
* Learn English
* Hire interpreters
* Who cares about their stupid language?