On This Day in April

Battle of Whalley, 2nd April 798

Field on Broken Brow, Whalley
Field on Broken Brow, Whalley by Mr T, CC BY-SA 2.0

On 2nd April 798 AD, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that:

“AD. 798. This year there was a great fight at Hwealleage [Whalley], in the land of the North-humbrians, during Lent, on the 4th of the nones of April [2d April], and there Alric, the son of Heardbearht, was slain, and many others with him.”

Northumbria at this time was in chaos with a number of families fighting for supremacy. Following the assassination of King Athelred Moll in 796 AD was the spectacularly brief reign of Osbald, who was expelled after only 27 days. Eardwulf then took control until 806 AD. Eardwulf had himself been the target of an assassination attempt by Athelred at Ripon in 791/2 AD, but survived having been nursed back to health by the monks.

According to Simeon of Durham, a conspiracy was formed by the murderers of Athelred:

“A. D. 798. Duke Wada, entering into a conspiracy formed by the murderers of king Etheldred, fought a battle against king Eardwulf, in a place called by the Angles Billingahoth, near Walalege; and many on both sides being slain, duke Wada, with his men, was put to flight, and king Eardwulf royally gained the victory over his enemies.”

Wada seems to have gone into exile in Mercia after the battle. It is recorded that Eardwulf attacked Mercia in 801 AD because the king of Mercia, Coenwulf, had given shelter to Eardwulf’s enemies, and this probably included Wada. Here’s Simeon again:

“At this time [801 AD], Eardulf, king of the Northumbrians, led an army against Kenwulf, king of the Mercians, because he had given an asylum to his enemies. He also, collecting an army, obtained very many auxiliaries from other provinces, having made a long expedition among them. At length, with the advice of the bishops and chiefs of the Angles on either side, they made peace, through the kindness of the king of the Angles. An agreement of sure peace was made between them, which both kings confirmed by an oath on the gospel of Christ, calling God as a witness and surety, that as long as they retained this life, and bore the crown of government, a firm peace and true friendship should exist between them, unshaken and inviolate.”

It’s not clear why Eardwulf and Wada were at odds; possibly Wada had supported the unlucky Osbald. He clearly wasn’t a supporter of Athelred, although he may have gone further and conspired to remove Eardwulf. There is a letter from Alcuin to Osbald, who was in exile among the Picts, referring to an earlier letter advising him to enter a monastery. Osbald had clearly not followed Alcuin’s advice and may have planned a further attack on Northumbria around 798 AD although he is not noted as being at Whalley. Osbald is known, however, to have become an abbot and to have died in 799 AD, being buried at York.

Eardwulf was not supported by Eanbald, the Archbishop of York either. In 801 AD Alcuin also wrote to Eanbald, suggesting that he was bringing troubles upon his own head by supporting the enemies of Eardwulf.

Eardwulf was eventually expelled from his kingdom, and he went to the continent to seek support from Charlemagne and the pope. In a letter to Charlemagne, the pope referred to letters he had received from Coenwulf, Eanbald and Wada in connection with Eardwulf’s expulsion.

The Chronicle also names Alric, son of Heardberht, as a casualty during the battle. It is not completely certain who he was, but the annals record that in 778 AD, by order of King Athelred, the nobles Athelbald and Heardberht slew three ealdormen: Eadwulf, Cynewulf and Ecga. Alric may have been the son of this Heardberht, but whether he fought on the side of Eardwulf or of Wada at Whalley is unknown.

Alhred expelled, 3rd April 774

Sceat of Alhred of Northumbria
Sceat of Alhred of Northumbria, York Mint, by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Prior to the events culminating in the Battle of Whalley (see 2nd April), there was a number of earlier nobles and royals whose behaviour was seen as unacceptable. We’ll take a quick look at the example of Alhred.

Alhred was a member of a Northumbrian royal dynasty who had driven out and replaced Athelwold Moll as king in 765 AD. He was the son of Eanwine and grandson of Beornholm and the family was rooted in Bernicia, the northern half of the Kingdom of Northumbria.

After being chosen to succeed Athelwold, Alhred married Osgifu, the daughter of Oswulf. Who was Oswulf? Well, he was the king before Athelwold. The marriage would have strengthened Alhred’s position by allying him with another royal line opposed to Athelwold. The couple had at least two sons.

For a while he reigned successfully and was known as a patron of the Church, supporting missionary activity to the Continent. He called a Synod in 773 AD which sent Willehad to preach to the Frisians; Willehad later became Bishop of Bremen. Alhred also corresponded with Charlemagne. The Archbishop of York, one Athelred, was a relative and no doubt was supposed to be a supporter. However, the two fell into a dispute.

However, on 3rd April 774 AD at Easter the Council, led by Archbishop Athelred, expelled Alhred, and raised Athelwold’s son, Athelred Moll to the throne. Simeon of Durham tells us that:

“king Alcred, by the design and consent of all his connexions, being deprived of the society of the royal family and princes, changed the dignity of empire for exile. He went with a few companions of his flight, first to the city of Bebba [Bamborough], afterwards to the king of the Picts, Cynoht by name.”

Athelred Moll didn’t rule for long – he was expelled as well in 779 AD. His successor was Alfwold, the son of Oswulf and brother of Osgifu (although Athelred Moll did make a return in 789 AD for an unprecedented second term as King). Athelred Moll ended his life being assassinated on 19th April 796 AD by a man called Ealdred.

However, one of Alhred’s sons, Osred, did briefly become king in 788 AD, and another son, Alhmund, was murdered in 802 AD.

Feast Day of Athelburh of Kent, 5th April

Stone commemorating the burial place of Queen Athelburh
Stone commemorating the burial place of Queen Athelburh on the south wall of the church of St Mary and St Ethelburga, parish church of Lyminge, Kent, by BabelStone [CC BY-SA 3.0]

5th April is the feast day of Athelburh of Kent, daughter of Athelberht and Bertha of Frankia. She was also the second wife of King Edwin of Northumbria.

Like her mother, and latterly her father, Athelburh was a Christian. When the marriage of Edwin to Athelburh in 625 AD was agreed, it was on the condition that she could continue to practise her faith, and so she took a retinue with her including Bishop Paulinus whose mission was to convert the people of Northumbria. As part of this agreement she also promoted the conversion to her husband, and was encouraged in this by the Pope, who wrote to her and sent her gifts of a silver mirror and a gilt ivory comb.

Edwin converted and many of his people followed him, including his two sons from his first marriage, Osfrith and Eadfrith. Edwin’s and Athelburh’s own children were raised as Christians. Bede tells us their names, and their sad history:

“Afterwards other children of his by Queen Ethelberga were baptized, viz. Ethelhun and his daughter Etheldrith, and another, Wuscfrea, a son; the first two of which were snatched out of this life whilst they were still in their white garments, and buried in the church at York. Iffi, the son of Osfrid, was also baptized, and many more noble and illustrious persons.”

Edwin was killed in 633 AD and Athelburh fled to Kent, for safety. With her went Paulinus and her children Eanflad and Wuscfrea, as well as Yffi, the son of Osfrith mentioned above. Osfrith had been killed at the Battle of Hatfield Chase with his father and Eadfrith taken prisoner.

Wuscfea and Yffi were threats to Oswald, who became king of Northumbria, as they were the male descendants of Edwin, so they were sent to the court of Athelburh’s cousin King Dagobert in Frankia for safekeeping. Sadly nether survived the perils of childhood and died of illnesses while still very young. Meanwhile Athelburh retired to the monastery she had founded in Lyminge and became abbess. She died in 647 AD.

In a personal touch, Bede records her pet name was Tate.

She was pivotal in the conversion of Edwin and his people to Christianity, although following his death, the Northumbrians returned to their old beliefs for a while.

The period during which she was in Northumbria is one full of stories, recorded in Bede and still told today: Lilla’s heroic defence of the king, the story of the sparrow in the meadhall, the birth of Eanflad and the building of the first minster in York. In all of this Athelburh fulfilled her role as peaceweaver between kingdoms.

Death of Richard Rawlinson, 6th April 1755

Portrait of Richard Rawlinson, Engraver William Smith, after George Vertue [Public domain]
Portrait of Richard Rawlinson, Engraver William Smith, after George Vertue [Public domain]

Richard Rawlinson died on 6th April 1755. He was an English clergyman and antiquarian collector of books and manuscripts, which he bequeathed to the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

His father, Sir Thomas Rawlinson, was a wine merchant, and lord mayor of London in 1706. Richard was educated at St Paul’s school, Eton, and at St John’s College, Oxford, where he matriculated as a gentleman commoner on 9 March 1708, and proceeded BA in 1711, MA in 1713, receiving the honorary degree of DCL in 1719. He was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1714 and was inducted by Isaac Newton. He was also a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

In 1716 he was ordained as a Deacon in the non-juring Church of England. As a non0juror, he supported the exiled Stuart dynasty of James II of England and VII of Scotland and refused to swear allegiance to William and Mary who were the King and Queen of England following the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

In 1719-26 he travelled in Holland, France, Germany and Italy, gradually amassing a foreign, classical and English library, as well as coins. When his elder brother Thomas, who was also a great book collector, died in 1726, Rawlinson catalogued his manuscripts, and at the sale in 1734 acquired many of them for himself.

He became a Bishop in 1728 but seems to have preferred continuing to collect books and coins. In 1750 he also endowed a professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, and was a benefactor to St John’s College. The professorship, later to become the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship, was the one held by JRR Tolkien and is currently held by Andy Orchard.

He died at Islington, London, on the 6th of April 1755. Rawlinson left his manuscripts, his curiosities, and some other property to the Bodleian Library

Discovery of the Gilling Sword, North Yorkshire, 9th April 1976

Gilling Sword
Gilling Sword at Yorkshire Museum, © PWicks

On 9th April 1976 a nine year old boy playing by Gilling Beck in North Yorkshire made a discovery that later earned him one of the most coveted of all awards – a Blue Peter Badge! A second Blue Peter badge was also awarded to the sword.

Gary Fridd spotted metal about 2 feet from the water’s edge and so uncovered one of the finest Anglian swords found in Britain. Fortunately for us it was acquired by the Yorkshire Museum and is frequently on display there.

The sword dates to the 9th-10th century, and is typical of this period. It is made of iron and is about 33 inches (83 cm) long, with a maximum width of 3.4 inches (8.6 cm) across the guard. Of this the blade is about 28 inches (70 cm) tapering to a width of about 2 inches (5 cm).

It is two-edged with five silver bands on the grip and silver plaques on the pommel. The patterns are geometric with horizontal and vertical lines around a circular design.

The Yorkshire Museum gives a more detailed description here:

“Iron blade with five silver bands on grip and silver plaques on pommel. Two edged blade, pattern welding, pommel decorated with silver plates with geometric decoration, five silver bands in grip, grip missing. Elaborate pommel with large central lobe topped with a circular button below which is a silver band decorated with vertical lines, on both sides of the lobe there are small plaques with a geometric circular design. Running vertically on the shoulders of the pommel either side of the lobe are two thin silver bands decorated with horizontal lines. The shoulder beyond these are concave and curve to meet another silver band which runs along the top of the upper guard, again decorated in a geometric pattern. The tang is visible through the silver bands that remain from the grip – which too bear the geometric pattern – between there it can be seen to reduce steeply in size as it reaches the pommel. The guard is thick but short, curving at an angle similar to that of the pommel it is slightly deformed on one arm. The blade by the hilt is black and reasonably intact, it still holds a sharp edge, and the cutting edge is chipped as well as corroded. The condition of the blade becomes worse toward the tip and the wide shallow fuller or plane which runs along the blade becomes obscured in the damaged portion, the blade is also reasonably loose in its hilt.”

Baptism of King Cadwalla in Rome, 10th April 689

Chichester mural of Cadwalla issuing the charter
Chichester mural of Cadwalla issuing the charter, by Lambert Barnard, 16th c. Public Domain

On 10th April 689 AD Cadwalla, former king of the Gewisse (West Saxons) was baptised in Rome by Pope Sergius I, who also stood as his godfather. He died a few days later on 20th April and was buried in St Peter’s Church.

Bede tells us:

“For coming to Rome, at the time that Sergius was pope, he was baptized on the holy Saturday before Easter Day, in the year of our Lord 689, and being still in his white garments, he fell sick, and departed this life on the 20th of April, and was associated with the blessed in heaven.”

Unusually for kings of the time he had abdicated in the previous year and travelled to Rome on pilgrimage, following a campaign of conquest in Sussex, Surrey and the Isle of Wight.

Cadwalla was a West Saxon atheling, or prince, and had spent some time in exile before coming to power in 685 AD. It was during his exile that he ransacked Sussex and killed King Athelwalh. During this time he was befriended and supported by St Wilfrid of Ripon.

He succeeded Centwine in Wessex and expanded the kingdom into Kent and the Isle of Wight, destroying the latter’s royal blood line as part of his campaign. During the fighting he was seriously injured, however, and so in 688 AD he left for Rome on pilgrimage. His late baptism was not unusual for the time.

His brother Mul was burned to death by the Kentishmen in 687 AD but it was Cadwalla’s successor Ine who claimed the wergild owed for the death.

Cadwalla left a quarter of the Isle of Wight to Wilfrid for religious use and founded the monastery at Farnham in Sussex. In 686 he issued a charter confirming the rights and territories previously given to Wilfrid by king Athelwalh and the estate of the Hundred of Pagham including Shripney, Charlton, Bognor, Bersted, Crimsham, Mundham and Tangmere.

The scene is imaginatively depicted in the 16th century mural in the south transept of Chichester Cathedral

Death of Guthlac, 11th April 714

Roundel from the Guthlac Roll
Roundel from the Guthlac Roll depicting Guthlac receiving his tonsure at Repton, c.1175-1215, Guthlac Roll, © British Library, Harley Roll Y6 f.3r

Guthlac. Hermit of Crowland, died on 11th April 714 AD.

He was the son of Penwealh and Tette, and an atheling of the Mercian royal house. He also had a sister called Pega who was a hermit too and lived at Peakirk.

At the age of 15 he became the leader of a war-band, fighting on the western borders with Mercia, although his biographer Felix claimed he always restored a third of the stolen treasure to its owners. He may have lived in exile among Britons for a while and he understood their language.

By the time he was 24 he decided to become a monk and went to the monastery at Repton where he was received by the Abbess Alfthryth. It is recorded that he was unpopular there because he abstained from alcohol and preferred an austere lifestyle.

After two years there he left the monastery with a companion called Beccel and became a hermit in the East Anglian fens at Crowland, arriving at his new home on St Bartholomew’s Day (24th August). He wished to emulate the secluded and aesthetic life of the Desert Fathers among the desolate marshes and fens.  He lived a life of penance, fasting every day, only eating barley bread and drinking marsh water in the evenings. He wore animal skins for clothing. He was often tormented by visions of demons and devils, which are described in gruesome detail in record of his life.

His remote location did not protect him from those seeking his advice and spiritual intervention however.

These visitors included Bishop Headda, who was made Bishop of Leicester in 709 AD, the Abbess Ecgburgh who was the daughter of King Aldwulf of the East Angles and his kinsman Athelbald who had been exiled by King Coelred of Mercia. Guthlac prophesied Athelbald’s future success, and when this came about in due course, Athelbald repaid Guthlac by promoting his cult vigorously.

During his life, many miracles were associated with Guthlac. Sources tell us of how he was able to predict the actions of birds and animals. A year after he died, Guthlac’s sister Pega opened his grave and found his body uncorrupted. It was subsequently moved to a shrine which became a place of veneration.

Two Old English poems have survived, celebrating his life, as part of the Exeter Book.

“There is no worry for death in me. 
Though my bones and blood both will be rendered to the earth’s profit, 
the perpetual part of me shall voyage into bliss, 
where it may enjoy a homestead more fair.”

Baptism of King Edwin and his court at York, 12th April 627

Study of a Flying Sparrow, c 1515-1520, by Giovanni da Udine
Study of a Flying Sparrow, c 1515-1520, by Giovanni da Udine, Public domain

On 12th April 627 AD Edwin of Northumbria and his court were baptised by Bishop Paulinus at York.

It had been a relatively quick turnaround from pagan warlord to Christian king, although he had spent some of his early years in exile at the Christian court of Gwynedd and may have been baptised as a boy during this time. Edwin had married Athelburh in 625 AD, as we saw when looking at her feast day on 5th April. This had heralded the mission to convert the Northumbrians to Christianity, led by Paulinus who travelled with the Kentish princess.

Edwin’s successes had established enemies and he was the target of an assassination attempt in 626 AD which was only thwarted by his thegn, Lilla, who threw himself in the path of the poisoned knife.

Edwin was willing to convert to his wife’s faith, on the basis of a vision he had received while in exile at the court of King Radwald. However he didn’t feel able to agree to baptism of his people without the consent of his counsellors. Bede describes the counsel which took place, when Coifi the heathen priest is alleged to have advocated the conversion on the basis that his gods had failed to reward his dedication to them.

Another of the king’s counsellors is said to have offered the famous analogy of the sparrow in the hall as a reason for accepting the new religion:

“The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.”

Death of Paul the Deacon, 13th April 796/799

Paulus Diaconus
Paulus Diaconus. Detail of fol. 34r of Laurentian Plut. 65.35, 10th century, Public Domain
History of the Lombards
History of the Lombards, 11th century copy from Mont St Michel, © British Library Royal MS 13 A XXII

On 13th April 796/799 AD Paul the Deacon died.

Paul was born probably in the 720s to a family of Lombard aristocrats fallen on hard times. His original birth name was probably Winfrid, and his parents were Warnefrid and Theodelinda. Despite family difficulties he received an excellent education and may have served as secretary to the Lombard King, Desiderius. At least he did tutor the king’s daughter, Adelperga.

Later he moved to the kingdom of Benevento. He then became a monk at the monastery of Lake Como and by 782 AD had moved to the monastery at Monte Cassino; it was around this time he came to the attention of Charlemagne and he became an influential force in the Carolingian Renaissance at the court from 782-787 AD, where Alcuin from York also worked from 782 – 796 AD. He had already earned a reputation as an historian, and as a man of good character, and had written for Adelperga a history continuing from the Breviarium of Eutropius. This was written while he was at Benevento and covered history from 364 AD (where Eutropius ended) to 553 AD.

Paul also wrote a history of the Bishops of Metz until 766 AD at the request of Angilram (who was then the Bishop of Metz).

He was also rather liberal in his attitude to children, advocating the avoidance of beatings and the provision of time to play outside in the fresh air.

His great work was the History of the Lombards written between 787-795 AD, drawing on lost works as well as Bede, Isidore of Seville and Pliny. In it he recounted the treachery of Rosemund who murdered her husband, the King of Italy, and married her co-conspirator Helmechis before fleeing to Ravenna. There she was persuaded by the prefect Longinus to murder Helmechis so that they could marry, but things did not go to plan:

“There the prefect Longinus began to urge Rosemund to kill Helmechis and to join him in wedlock.  As she was ready for every kind of wickedness and as she desired to become mistress of the people of Ravenna, she gave her consent to the accomplishment of this great crime, and while Helmechis was bathing himself, she offered him, as he came out of the bath, a cup of poison which she said was for his health. But when he felt that he had drunk the cup of death, he compelled Rosemund, having drawn his sword upon her, to drink what was left, and thus these most wicked murderers perished at one moment by the judgment of God Almighty.”

In 787 AD Paul returned to Benevento and died on 13th April, between 796 and 799 AD, the exact year not being known.

Paul’s works were extremely popular and influential and provide a unique insight into the perspective of European history from that of a Lombard.

Death of Earl Godwin, 15th April 1053

Death of Earl Godwin by William Blake
Death of Earl Godwin by William Blake, 1779 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Earl Godwin, father of Harold Godwinson, died on 15th April 1053. He was taken ill at dinner on 12th April 1053, a few days earlier, probably from a stroke.

He was probably born to the South Saxon thegn Wulfnoth Cild, and at that time his family was not of more than local importance. His father had been accused of treason by Eadric Streona (or Eadric’s brother) and had persuaded 20 ships from the English fleet to follow him in revolt. The resulting fighting destroyed most of the fleet and allowed the Vikings to invade Kent with ease.

Little more is known until Godwin was made an Earl by Cnut in 1018 and was promoted to command the whole of Wessex in 1020. He married a Danish noblewoman, Gytha, whose brother married Cnut’s sister, ultimately providing Godwin with family connections to Danish royalty when her nephew became King Sweyn II of Denmark. Godwin’s power grew steadily and inexorably.

After Cnut died he supported Harthacnut and Emma against Harold Harefoot, but then changed sides. He was then implicated in the murder of Alfred Atheling on Harefoot’s orders, according to the later chronicler, John of Worcester, when he turned on Alfred’s escort and

“some he put in fetters and afterwards blinded, some he tortured by scalping and punished by cutting off their hands and feet; many also he ordered to be sold, and he killed by various and miserable deaths 600 men at Guildford.”

His defection was remembered by Harthacnut when he came to power in turn following Harold’s death and he accused Godwin of Alfred’s murder. At that time Godwin was able to buy his way out of trouble.

When Alfred’s brother Edward the Confessor became king, Godwin continued to wield influence. Edward married his daughter Edith, and Godwin’s sons Swein and Harold were made Earls. Although Edward exiled him in 1051 he was back the following year and remained powerful until his death in 1053.

His career was long and contentious. His family was hugely influential in the development of the kingdom of England. His father had rebelled against the English king, but Godwin thrived in the political turmoil of 11th century England and left his children a solid base of power from which to grow with one son eventually becoming the last Anglo-Saxon King of England.

The people of Leighton defeat the Viking Army, 17th April 914

Map of Burhs
Map of Burhs based on information ‘The Defence of Wessex’ by Hill and Rumble, by Hel-hama / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Around 17th April 914 the folk of (probably) Leighton in the kingdom of Mercia and on the front line of the Danelaw engaged a Viking raiding party. This may be Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire, or possibly Leighton Bromswold in Cambridgeshire, or another Leighton altogether.

We turn to John of Worcester for the details:

“AD 914 After Easter [17th April] a Pagan army from Northampton and Leicester came plundering into the province of Oxford and slew great numbers of people in the royal vill of Hockernetune  (Hockerton), and many other vills. Shortly after they returned home another expedition was equipped, consisting of horsemen, and dispatched in the province of Hertford, towards Ligetun (Leighton ?); but the people of the country flocked together to oppose them, and slaying many of them and putting the rest to flight, took some of their horses and most of their arms, recovering also the booty they had collected.”

This was the period when Edward the Elder and his sister Athelflad, Lady of the Mercians, were fighting back against the invaders and building a series of burhs across the country. In 914 AD Edward was concentrating on Essex while Athelflad was in Tamworth and Stafford.

“After Rogation days [23rd May], king Edward detached part of his troops to build a town on the south side of the river Lea, and, marching the rest into Essex, pitched his camp at Maldienne (Maldon?). He took up his quarters there while a town was building at Witham, which was afterwards fortified; and a great portion of the inhabitants who were enthralled by the Pagans submitted themselves to him, with all they possessed. In the early part of the summer, Ethelfleda, the lady of the Mercians, led her people to Tamworth, and by God’s help rebuilt that town; from thence she went to Stafford, and built or threw up a fort on the north bank of the river Sowe. The following winter was exceedingly long and severe. Athelm, bishop of Wells, being promoted to the archbishopric of Canterbury, was succeeded by Wulfhelm.”

The campaign was clearly providing people with a sense of confidence, demonstrating that the Vikings were hardly invincible, but it was still going to be another 60 years until England was finally established as a single nation under Edgar.

Assassination of King Athelred Moll, 18th April 796

A base silver styca of Aethelred I, second reign (789 - 796)
A base silver styca of Aethelred I, second reign (789 – 796), moneyer Cudcils, “shrine” type. See North number 184 or Abramson page 130, Sub Group 3, Series Y, number Y290. It is 14mm in diameter. © The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-SA 2.0

18th April was the assassination of Athelred Moll, king of Northumbria (see 3rd April for more about Northumbria at this time).

Simeon of Durham recounts the events for us:

“AD. 796, (which is the seventh year of king Ethelred,) Alric, formerly duke, then cleric, died in the city of York. And a little after, that is, on the fifth of the kalends of April [28th March], an eclipse of the moon took place between cockcrow and dawn. In the same year, king Ethelred was slain at Cobre, on the fourteenth of the kalends of May [18th April], in the seventh year of his reign; Osbald the patrician was appointed to the kingdom by some chiefs of that nation, and twenty-seven days after, forsaken by the whole company of the royal family and princes, having been put to flight and expelled from the kingdom, he, with a few followers, retired to the island of Lindisfarne, and thence went by ship, with some of his brethren, to the king of the Picts.”

In fact Athelred Moll was a little bit unusual in that he had two reigns. His first was 774-779 AD, and he was the son of Athelwold Moll who had previously usurped the throne. His father was deposed and forced into a monastery in 765 AD. Athelred was probably too young at that time to succeed him, and Alhred was chosen instead.  Alhred was in turn deposed in 774 AD with the support of the Archbishop of York, Athelbert.

King Athelred’s first reign shaped up to be a firm one and following the execution of some ealdormen in 778 AD, the king was deposed by Alfwald, who was another kingly hopeful and son of another previous ruler.  But that didn’t stop our Athelred and he got back into power after 10 years of turmoil. Again he showed himself to be a ruthless man and more deaths followed, including a predecessor, Osred, and the sons of Alfwald.

Athelred married the daughter of King Offa of Mercia to boost his authority. However, the Viking attack on Lindisfarne in 793 AD was seen as a judgement, by the scholar Alcuin at least, for Athelred’s vindictiveness and his extravagance. Certainly his support ran out at which point he was removed.

Discovery of the Escrick Ring, 19th April 2000

Escrick Ring
Escrick Ring, courtesy of York Museums Trust, CC BY-SA 4.0

19th April 2009 saw the discovery of an enigmatic and unique piece of jewellery near York: the Escrick Ring.

The ring was found by metal detectorist Michael Greenhorn, from York and District Metal Detecting Club. It measures around 2.5cm across and is intricately made of gold, prestige glass and a large sapphire by a highly skilled craftsman. It represents the second known use of a sapphire in jewellery found in England (the first being a 5th Century Roman example).

This beautiful and unusual ring was originally thought to date to the 11th century and to have belonged to a bishop. However, determining its provenance was proving difficult and in 2013 a conference was held in York to gather experts from UK universities and museums together to discuss its possible origins. The issue was that nothing like it had been found before, and its style and material made dating difficult without a specific context.

However it is now thought by many that the ring dates to the 5th or early 6th century. The style of the ring suggests that it was produced in a Frankish workshop, while its design and quality suggests that it was made for someone of high rank and status.

The British Museum has however retained the 11th century date in its description of the ring:

“Description: Gold finger ring set with a large blue gemstone and red glass cloisonné. The central cabochon gem is surrounded by four triangular cells. Where these meet, small round cells have been set. Three of these round cells still contain minute granular inlays, although it is impossible to determine whether they are glass pastes, glass or gem stones. A short, straight cell wall emanates from each roundel and meets the corners of the outer, square frame of the bezel, thus bisecting the space between the triangles. Glass slips are still present in one of the triangular cells and four of the interstitial spaces.

The square frame of the bezel is set onto an eight-lobed base. The lobes are alternately embellished by gold granules and by beaded wire enclosing further gold granules. Where this platform meets the round-sectioned hoop, three further gold granules are set. The underside of the lobed platform is plain.

Analysis: Non-destructive X-ray fluorescence analysis of the surface of the finger ring indicated a gold content of approximately 90%, a silver content of approximately 8%, the remainder being copper. Raman spectrometry identified the blue stone as corundum (sapphire) and Raman and XRF identified the red settings as glass. Dimensions: Diam. of hoop 25.5mm; Th. of hoop 2mm; Diam. of bezel 23.1mm max.; Th. of bezel 8.4mm (including cabochon); Weight 10.2g.

Discussion: The presence of a sapphire is not characteristic for the Anglo-Saxon or Merovingian period and in conjunction with the use of red glass, rather than garnet, for inlay suggests that this ring dates later.

Date: Parallels on stone use, granulation and layout make a date perhaps in the late 10th or 11th centuries likely.

By Sonja Marzinzik, British Museum

Update: a seminar on this ring held at the Yorkshire Museum in early 2013 included contributions from Leslie Webster and Niamh Whitfield, both of whom suggested that this ring may instead be a Continental import and perhaps as early as 5th century in date. The cabochon-cut sapphire could be a re-used classical gem.”

The ring is a rare object in itself, and unique as a find of continental gold jewellery of the broader Anglo-Saxon period from northern England. If you visit York, try and go along to the Yorkshire Museum to take a look.

Death of Archbishop Alfheah (Alphege), 19th April 1012

Martyrdom of St Alphege, 1897
Martyrdom of St Alphege, 1897, from the Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions

Alfheah (Alphege) the Archbishop of Canterbury was killed by the Danes on 19th April 1012 after he refused to allow the payment of a ransom of £3000 for his life.

Alfheah had started his monastic life at Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, and possibly spent some time as a hermit. However, Dunstan made him abbot of Bath and then in 984 AD he became Bishop of Winchester. In 994 AD he was instrumental in arranging the truce between King Athelred and Olaf Tryggvason. Then in 1005 he was made Archbishop of Canterbury, until taken prisoner by Thurkell the Tall’s men at the end of September 1011, allegedly by the treachery of the Bishop Almar, the abbot of St Augustine’s monastery.

Simeon of Durham describes Alfheah’s capture:

“The people now being slain, the city plundered and all burnt, the archbishop Alfege was dragged out bound, was driven along and severely wounded, was carried to the fleet, and then again thrust into prison, and there tormented for seven months. In the meanwhile the anger of God being aroused against the murderous people, destroyed two thousand of them by dreadful pains of the intestines. Others of them also being seized in a similar way, they were advised by the faithful to make reparation to the prelate; but they refused. Meanwhile the mortality increased, and destroyed them now by tens, now by twenties, now more.”

Alfheah steadfastly and continuously refused to allow a ransom to be paid for his release, and this enraged the Vikings for whom he represented the most valuable of their hostages. Eventually in a drunken fury they killed him.

John of Worcester names the perpetrator:

“Presently they started up, felled him to the ground with the backs of their battle-axes, and showered on him stones, bones, and ox-skulls. At length one of them, whose name was Thrum, a man he had confirmed only the day before, with compassionate impiety, split his head with an axe.”

His body was taken to St Paul’s in London where it was buried and venerated as a martyr. In 1023 Cnut, by then King of England, had the remains translated to Canterbury under armed escort as the Londoners were furious to lose them and a riot was barely contained by Cnut’s housecarls.

Death of Edward the Exile, 19th April 1057

Edward the Exile
Edward the Exile, from a 13th century genealogy, © British Library, Royal MS 14 B V f1.r

Edward the Exile died on 19th April 1057.

When King Edmund Ironside died on 30th November 1016 he had two sons who might have succeeded him had they been more than small children: Edmund, probably born about 1015, and Edward, born about 1016. Instead Cnut, who took the throne of all England after Ironside’s death, had them sent to King Olaf in Sweden to prevent them being a focus point for rebels. Despite the alleged suggestion by Eadric Streona that the boys should be killed, they were in fact taken, possibly secretly, to Kiev under the care of the Olaf’s daughter. They eventually seem to have ended up in Hungary after reaching adulthood.

While Prince Edmund died sometime between 1046 and 1054, supposedly after marrying an unnamed Hungarian princess, Edward the Exile married a woman called Agatha about whom almost nothing is known. They had three children: Margaret, Edgar and Christina.

By 1056 the English were clear that their king, Edward the Confessor, was not going to produce an heir. Edward was looking for a successor and heard that Edward the Exile was still alive and well, and living in Hungary. The Exile was therefore recalled to England. The first attempt to bring him back by Ealdred, Bishop of Worcester, was not successful. Harold Godwinson was then despatched to try to persuade the reluctant atheling, in 1056. By 1057 the Exile was in London with his wife and children.

Unfortunately he immediately contracted an illness and died, without even meeting the Confessor. The writer of the D manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle felt moved to write a poem about it:

“AD. 1057-

Here came Edward etheling  to Engle-land;

he was king Edward’s brother’s son, Edmund king,

who Ironside was called for his valour.

This etheling king Cnut had sent away

to the land of Hungary  to be betrayed:

but he there grew up to a good man,

as God granted him, and him well became;

so that he obtained the emperor’s kinswoman to wife,

and by her, fair offspring he begot: she was named Agatha.

Nor knew we for what cause that done was,

that he might not his kinsman Edward king behold

Alas! that was a rueful case and harmful for all this nation

that he so soon his life ended after that he to England came

for the mishap of this wretched nation”

While it was the end of the Exile it was not the end of his bloodline. His son Edgar was acclaimed successor to the Confessor by a few of the Witan after the Battle of Hastings but never took the throne. The Exile’s daughter Margaret married King Malcom of Scotland, and their daughter Edith (aka Matilda) married the Conqueror’s son Henry I of England in 1100, uniting the Wessex line with that of the Norman kings.

Death of Athelred of Wessex, 23rd April 871

Athelred of Wessex
Athelred of Wessex 14th century genealogical rolls, Royal MS 14 B VI, The British Library

Athelred (of Wessex) died on 23rd April 871 AD followinga number of  battles against the Vikings. He was succeeded by his brother Alfred, later known as “the Great”.

He fought at the Battle of Meretun (see 22nd March) and so his death may have been related to wounds from that day.

The chronicler John of Worcester recorded Athelred’s death thus:

“In 871 AD, after Easter, on the ninth of the calends of May [23rd April], king Athelred went the way of all flesh, having governed his kingdom bravely, honourably, and in good repute for five years, through much tribulation: he was buried at Winborne, where he waits the coming of the Lord, and the first resurrection with the just. On his death, the before named Alfred, who had hitherto, while his brothers were alive, held only a subordinate rank, at once succeeded to the throne of the whole kingdom, to the entire satisfaction of all the people.”

Death of Athelred Unrede (“the ill-advised”), 23rd April 1016

Ethelred the Unready
Ethelred the Unready, circa 968-1016. Illuminated manuscript, The Chronicle of Abingdon, c.1220. MS Cott. Claude B.VI folio 87, verso, The British Library

Athelred Unrede died on 23rd April 1016. He died in London just as Cnut was sailing to fight him, having been sick for some time.  He had also had a confrontation with his eldest son, Edmund Ironside, over how to confront the Viking attacks and their disagreement had split opinion in the country.

Athelred had ruled for 39 years, the longest of any Anglo-Saxon King, albeit with a break in 1013/14 when Swein Forkbeard had been king for a few weeks and driven Athelred into exile in Normandy. 

John of Worcester writes:

“on Monday the ninth of the calends of May [23rd April], in the fourteenth indiction, Ethelred, king of England, died at London, after a life of severe toils and tribulations, which St. Dunstan, on his coronation day, after placing the crown upon his head, predicted, in the spirit of prophecy, would come upon him: “Because,” he said, “thou hast been raised to the throne by the death of thy brother, whom thy mother has slain, therefore hear now the word of the Lord; thus saith the Lord: ‘The sword shall not depart from thy house, but shall rage against thee all the days of thy life, cutting off thy seed, until thy kingdom become the kingdom of an alien, whose customs and tongue the nation which thou rulest knoweth not.’ And thy sin, and the sin of thy mother, and the sin of the men who were parties to her wickedness, shall be expiated only by long continued punishment.” His body was honourably interred in the church of St. Paul the apostle. After his death, the bishops, abbots, ealdormen, and all who ranked as nobles in England, assembled together, and unanimously elected Canute their lord and king, and having come to him at Southampton, and renounced and repudiated all the descendants of king Ethelred, concluded peace with him, and swore fealty to him; and he, on his part, swore that, both as respected divine and secular affairs, he would be faithful to his duties as lord over them. But the citizens of London, and some of the nobles who were then at London, unanimously chose Edmund, the etheling, to be king.”

After Athelread’s death Cnut and Edmund Ironside fought for the throne and finally agreed to share it by splitting the kingdom, until Edmund’s untimely death on 30th November of the same year allowed Cnut to succeed to the whole kingdom of England.

Halley’s Comet portends doom, 24th April 1066

Comet in Bayeux Tapestry
Comet in Bayeux Tapestry, public domainComet in Bayeux Tapestry, public domain

Halley’s Comet is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (and illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry) as appearing over England in 1066. The Chronicle says:

“This year (1066 AD) came Harold the king from York to Westminster, at that Easter which was after the midwinter upon which the king died; and Easter was then on this day, viz. the 16th of the kalends of May [16th April]. Then was there seen all over England such a token in the heavens as no man had ever seen before. Some men said that it was the star Cometa, which some persons call the hairy star, and it appeared first on the eve Litania Major on the 8th of the kalends of May [24th April], and so shone all the seven nights. And soon thereafter came Tostig the earl from beyond sea into Wight, with as great a fleet as he might procure; and there they rendered to him as well money as provisions.”

Tostig was the exiled brother of King Harold II Godwinson, who had been ousted as Earl of Northumbria in the previous year. He had sought refuge with Count Baldwin of Flanders, his wife’s brother, and Baldwin provided him with a fleet and provisions which was how he came to be in the Isle of Wight.

Tostig ultimately persuaded Harald Hardrada of Norway to attempt to take the throne and is a player in one of history’s great “What if” scenarios. If the Earl of Northumbria and his son had not died fighting Macbeth, the Earldom would probably have remained stable. Without Tostig persuading Harald Hardrada and diverting Harold his brother, the English would have been waiting for William of Normandy instead of 250 miles away and suffering decreased manpower following the battles of Fulford and of Stamford Bridge. And then how might things have turned out? But perhaps the portent of the comet cannot be denied and an arrow would still have turned the day.

Presentation of Canterbury Hoard/Liudhard Medalet, 25th April 1844

Replica of the Luidhard medalet in the British Museum.
Replica of the Luidhard medalet in the British Museum. Originals in Liverpool Museum, Merseyside. © British Museum CC BY-SA 3.0

On 25th April 1844 the contents of a 6th century hoard discovered at St Martin Canterbury “a few years since” was discussed at a meeting of the Royal Numismatic Society.

The hoard comprises eight items (only three were reported in April and the rest were acquired in the following September) including the Liudhard medalet.

This gold medalet is dated to around the year 600 AD, so is very early in Anglo-Saxon Roman Christianity. It shows Bishop Liudhard, whose arrival in Kent from the Frankish court with the princess Bertha started the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity and was probably given to an early convert.

Although there has been some discussion about whether the items from the hoard are from the same grave, consensus currently points to that being the case. The grave was that of a woman who was buried with a number of items of jewellery and the medalet was probably worn to demonstrate her conversion to the new faith.

As well as offering an insight into the period of the arrival of the Frankish Christians, the medalet is also created from the oldest surviving example of Anglo-Saxon coinage, being made from a coin probably struck in Canterbury around 578-589 AD. The design of the figure on the obverse shows influences from Merovingian and Visigothic coins. However, the reverse with the patriarchal cross on it is the first known Northern European depiction of such a cross anywhere.

Feast Day of Winewald, 27th April

Beverley Minster Frith Stool
Beverley Minster Frith Stool © Steve Cadman CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

April 27th is the Feast Day of St Winewald (or Winebald), the 2nd Abbot of Beverley, who is credited with making Beverley a centre of spiritual and cultural growth. He died in 751 AD after 18 years as Abbot.

While we do not have a huge amount of detail about Winewald, we do know more about Beverley itself and the long term legacy of his leadership there.

King Athelstan granted a charter of liberties and a number of other privileges to the church and town of Beverley where John of Beverley had founded a monastery at the beginning of the 8th century. This was in return for Saint John’s intercession in a battle against the Scots in 934 AD.

One of these privileges was the right of Sanctuary invested on the Church of St John and a frithstol (Frith Stool) was placed near the altar as a symbol of protection for those in need.  The limits of the Sanctuary were a circle with the church at its centre and extending a mile in all directions. The boundary was defined by four crosses placed on the four main roads into the town, at Molescroft (near Leconfield Park), Northburton, Kinwalgraves and to the south on the road to the ferry crossing the Humber. Anyone who took hold of someone seeking refuge within the crosses had to pay a penalty of two-hundredth. If it was within the town, four-hundredth; within the walls of the churchyard, six-hundredth; and within the church, twelve-hundredth; and finally within the doors of the choir, eighteen-hundredth, as well as a penance because of the sacrilege. However, if the person was seized from the Frith Stool itself then the captor would be excommunicated and other secular penalties might also follow.

Given that the wergild for a nobleman was 1200 shillings (twelve-hundredths) the penalties can be understood to be serious or even severe as they escalated, until the ultimate penalty of excommunication was threatened.

Death of King Magnus II of Norway, 28th April 1069

Norwegian ships in the Battle of Niså, by Wilhelm Wetlesen
Norwegian ships in the Battle of Niså, by Wilhelm Wetlesen, 1899 edition of Heimskringla, public domain

28th April 1069 saw the death of King Magnus II of Norway.

Magnus was only recently included in the Norwegian regnal lists but he is of some interest to us, because he was the son of Harald Hardrada. Harald had joined Tostig Godwinson in 1066 in an attempt to take the English throne from Tostig’s brother, King Harold II Godwinson, and died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge after an early victory over the English Earls at Fulford.

As a result Magnus, who was about 18, became the Norwegian King and ruled until 1069 when he died.

In 1058 at the age of only 10 he was appointed the leader of an expedition into the Irish Sea to extend Norwegian influence by providing support to the irish Vikings against Diarmait mac Máel na mBó, the Irish King of Leinster. The Chronicler John of Worcester also linked his force with Gruffydd ap Llewelyn and Alfgar in Wales, who were fighting against Edward the Confessor in order to restore the exiled Alfgar to his Earldom of Mercia. Harold Godwinson was sent to quell the rising on behalf of King Edward, in which task he succeeded. However, Magnus’ main objective seems to have been to been to ensure control of the Orkneys, perhaps as part of a longer term plan by his father to invade England. Tostig’s request for support in 1065/66 would only have played into those ambitions. Harald Hardrada long considered himself to be Edward the Confessor’s rightful heir, and the Godwinson rise in power would have threatened Harald’s claim as much as it unsettled King Edward.

By 1062 Magnus was with his father in a campaign against Denmark and its king, Sweyn Estridsson. The fleets met at the Battle of Niså and the Norwegians had the victory. However, peace was not agreed between the two until 1066, and then Harald Hardrada was free to turn his attention to England. Before leaving, Harald appointed Magnus as regent and king of Norway in his absence, and this time took Magnus’ younger brother Olaf with him to fight. Olaf was one of the few survivors of the Battle of Stamford Bridge and on his return to Norway was declared joint king with Magnus. They split the country between them, with Magnus ruling Trøndelag and the Uplands, Western and Northern Norway, while Olaf ruled Viken in the south-east. Their relationship appears to have been friendly despite the division of land.

Magnus died on 28th April 1069 at Trondheim after only three years. The chronicles claimed he died of ringworm, but it is now believed it may have been ergotism, a fungal poison.

His brother continued as king until 1093 and is known as Olaf III Kyrre (Peaceful). His long reign overshadowed Magnus in Norwegian history, partly because of its longevity and partly because later royal descent was exclusively through Olaf’s line. Magnus did have a son, Haakon, who ruled jointly with his cousin, Olaf’s son, following Olaf’s death in 1093. However, Haakon also died young like his father, after only two years on the throne.

Death of Wilfrid the Younger, 29th April 745

York Minster
York Minster © PWicks

Wilfrid II (the Younger), Bishop of York, died on 29th April 745 AD.

Simeon of Durham provides the following information:

“AD 745. There appeared in the air flashes of fire, such as mortals of that period had never seen before; and they were seen almost all night, to wit, on the first of January. In the same year, also, as some say, lord Wilfrid, the second of that name, bishop of the city of York, departed to the Lord, on the third of the kalends of May [29th April].”

Wilfrid started his church career as a monk studying at Whitby under Abbess Hilda. He was consecrated as Bishop of York in 718 AD, as well as coadjutor to John of Beverley (assisting in the administration of the diocese), and served until 732 AD when he was succeeded by Ecgbert (founder of the school at York Minster where Alcuin studied as a boy). It is not entirely clear whether he resigned or was deposed; either way, he retired to a life of prayer at an unidentified monastery until his death.

During his service as Bishop he dedicated himself to education as well as ensuring the Minster’s treasures were embellished with gold and silver.

Alcuin of York, in his poem on the Saints of the Church of York, refers to Wilfrid as accepted by all, revered, regarded with honour, and loved. (He adorned that rank with kindly services and practices, and was pious and and prudent.

Wilfrid was the last Bishop of York, as the See was elevated to an Archbishopric during Ecgbert’s time. When he died he was buried at Ripon and his remains may have become confused with those of Wilfrid I, who is better known and was a much more turbulent character.

Feast Day of Walburh (Walburga), 30th April

St Walburga's Church, Bruges
St Walburga’s Church, Bruges, sadly no longer dedicated to the saint, photo (c) P Wicks

In Northern Europe there is a tradition of celebrating Walpurgis Night on 30th April. The tradition grew from the Feast Day of St Walburh (Walburga or Walpurgis), an 8th century Anglo-Saxon nun, which is marked on 1st May. She was the sister of Saints Willibald and Winnibald, and a kinswoman of Lioba, and like them she evangelised to the people in the area which is now modern Germany.

She entered the double monastery at Tauberbischofsheim where Lioba was abbess, then after a couple of years she moved to be the abbess at Heidenheim when Winnebald the abbot died in 761 AD. She died three years later and her remains were sent to Eichstatt to be with Winnebald’s.

Her Feast Day of 1st May later became confused with the pagan spring festival.

Death of Henry Sweet, 30th April 1912

Henry Sweet
Henry Sweet, public domain

Henry Sweet died on 30th April 1912. 

Born 15th September 1845, in London he studied both there and in Heidelberg. He later won a scholarship to enter Balliol College at Oxford University where he pursued his interests and was soon recognised for his work.

He was a major influence in the development of Anglo-Saxon studies. In 1872 he produced the basic edition of the “Pastoral Care” for the Early English Text Society, followed by the “Oldest English Texts” in 1885. Sweet’s “A Primer of Spoken English” in 1890 included the first description of a form of London spoken English later to be known as “received pronunciation”.  George Bernard Shaw referenced him when creating the character of Professor Higgins in “Pygmalion”. Sweet was also closely involved in the early history of the Oxford English Dictionary.

He defined language as follows:

“Language is the expression of ideas by means of speech-sounds combined into words. Words are combined into sentences, this combination answering to that of ideas into thoughts.”

As a pioneer in the study of phonetics Sweet was the first to make the distinction between early and late West Saxon dialects.

He is probably best known today for the eponymous series of primers and readers in Old English, and he outlined the principles of these in his publication “The Practical Study of Languages” in 1899. The first “Anglo-Saxon Reader” had been published as early as 1876. The readers helped to establish a canon of texts for the study of Old English literature and various editions can still be bought today. Sweet’s Readers include a variety of poetry and prose covering a range of dialects and genres, such as an early Northumbrian version of “Caedmon’s Hymn” and 9th century Kentish charters alongside longer texts such as “The Dream of the Rood” and Wulfstan’s “Address to the English”; they also include literary and historical notes to support appreciation and understanding of the texts covered.

In Henry Sweet’s memory the “Henry Sweet Society for the History of Linguistic Ideas” was founded in 1984 with the aim of promoting and encouraging the study of the history of all branches of linguistic thought, theoretical and applied, and including non-European traditions.