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.