Edward the Elder

Edward the Elder Portrait from a 13th-century genealogical scroll
Edward the Elder Portrait from a 13th-century genealogical scroll, MS Royal 14 B VI (c) British Library

Edward the Elder was the son of Alfred the Great succeeded his father as King when Alfred died in 899 AD.

Edward was the second of five legitimate children born to Alfred and Ealhswith; two boys and three girls. His arguably more famous sister Athelflaed was the eldest child by a few years. He was born around 875 AD, the precise date not being known making him still a toddler when Guthrum and his Danes came to Wessex in the winter of 875-6 AD and took Wareham. He was also still very young when the family had to hide at Athelney in the Somerset Levels from January-May 878 AD.

Edward grew up in a time of constant Viking attacks and battles. Like his elder sister he would have learned from his father’s victories and mistakes. He was noticeably less lenient or trusting in his negotiations when he was King than Alfred was, and developed his father’s system of burhs (fortified settlements located at strategic points around the kingdom) to great strategic advantage.

As he grew, throughout the 880s and 890s, he would have been surrounded by the scholars and churchmen at his father’s cosmopolitan court where Alfred’s educational and cultural reforms were being realised, and the security brought by the burhs and the new standing army made apparent. Alfred’s early warships would also have contributed to the king’s ability to resist attack. Some of the scholars at this time later served Edward as King, such as Plegmund, the Archbishop of Canterbury. According to Asser in his Life of Alfred, Edward and his younger sister Alfthryth learned the Psalms and made use of books under the care of tutors and nurses at the court.

As an atheling (prince) Edward would have followed his father around the kingdom and attended court when he was old enough, learning the skills he would need as king and witnessing charters. He was also given military command. In 893 AD Edward led a force against the Viking raiding army at Farnham, joining the local fyrd (militia) and driving the Vikings off. According to the Chronicle of Athelweard Edward had been leading a force elsewhere and then arrived to join the attack at Farnham, turning the course of the battle. Edward pursued the Vikings back to Thorney, in Mercian territory, and was joined by Athelred, ealdorman of Mercia who was his brother-in-law through marriage to Athelflaed. The Vikings were then under siege until the Anglo-Saxons had to withdraw because the fyrd had reached the end of its term of service, leaving Edward with only his personal retinue behind – another valuable lesson for the future king about logistics and planning.

It is possible that later in the decade Edward acted as a sub-king in Kent; he certainly had strong support from Kent in later years.

Edward’s marriages are not entirely clear. There were three women in his life: Ecgwynn, Alfflaed and Eadgifu. His relationship with Ecgwynn may not have been an approved marriage by the Church, and the lack of clarity may be related to the politics around the succession of their son, Athelstan. Alfred seems to have seen Athelstan as a potential future heir, and this may have been related to his fosterage in the Mercian Court in preparation for a role there.

When Alfred died in 899 AD Edward succeeded to the throne and was crowned on 8th June 900 AD in a service conducted by Plegmund, probably at Kingston-upon-Thames on the borders of Wessex and Mercia.

Although Alfred had tried to make the transition to his son’s rule as smooth as possible, Edward faced rebellion from his cousin Athelwold on the basis that Alfred had stolen Athelwold’s right to succession when his father (and Alfred’s brother) King Athelred had died in 871 AD. Alfred’s succession had been based on the fact the Athelred’s sons were both very young children and not suitable to rule; Athelred’s elder son had died by 899 AD.

Athelwold seized the royal manors at Wimborne (where his father Athelred was buried) and Twynham. He also abducted a nun. It is possible this was actually Edward’s sister Athelfgifu who was Abbess at Shaftesbury as marriage to her would strengthen Athelwold’s claim to the throne; if not she would have been important in some way to help his claim. However, he had misjudged his case, no one came to join him and Edward pursued him in force perhaps more quickly than anticipated. This was to be typical of Edward; he was quick and decisive in his actions. Athelwold escaped under the cover of night and went to Northumbria where he built up strong support in the kingdom, becoming supposedly (according to the Annals of St Neots) “King of the Danes” in less than two years. It is possible that the coins of this date with the name “Alwaldus” may be his.

In 902 AD Athelwold was back, landing in Essex, presumably with the support of the Eohric, the king of East Anglia on a promise of reward in Mercian territory. They moved into Mercia first heading west towards Dorset, pillaged in Wiltshire and then withdrew back to East Anglia. This may have been due to lack of support in the surrounding country or better information about relative troop sizes. Edward followed them deep into East Anglian territory but then had to call off the pursuit. The Kentish fyrd was separated from the main body of Edward’s forces and Athelwold took his chance to attack them. This became known as the Battle of the Holme, on 13th December 902 AD, late in the fighting season. Edward is said to have sent seven messages to the Kentish fyrd to re-join the main troop but this did not happen. The Kentish men were outnumbered but fought hard; in the end they were all slaughtered, but Athelwold himself was also killed along with Eohric and a number of Anglo-Danish warlords.

With the threat to his regime now removed Edward finished his father’s project of building the New Minster at Winchester. His mother Ealhswith died on 5th December 902 AD and eventually she and Alfred were moved from their resting places to the New Minster after its completion around 903 AD. Relations with the Old Minster were frosty for some time until Frithustan became Bishop.

The key aspect of Edward’s later reign was his relationship with Mercia and his campaign against the Danelaw to unite the various kingdoms under Wessex.

In 906 AD Edward agreed the Peace of Tiddingford with a number of Danish warlords, updating the agreement between Alfred and Guthrum. This peace held for three years before the Mercian raid on Bardney.

Athelred and Athelflad had been transferring their power base away from Tamworth to Gloucester, where they built a new Minster. This removed their primary power base from the border with the Danelaw. However, the new foundation at Gloucester clearly needed an important relic to attract pilgrims and enhance its status. They decided they needed the relics of Oswald held at Bardney, formerly in Mercia but now in the Danelaw. So in 909 AD they went and got them in a raid violating the Peace of Tiddingford. The Danes retaliated, aware that Edward was preoccupied with his fleet in Kent. Like Athelwold before them, they under-estimated the speed and decisiveness of his reaction.

Sometime on the 5th or 6th August 910 AD they met at the Battle of Tettenhall. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records:

“In this year the Angles and the Danes fought at Teotanheal on the ‘eighth of the ides of August [6th Aug.], and the Angles obtained the victory. And that same year Aethelflaed built the fortress at Bremesbyrig.”

Athelred had been suffering ill-health for some years and he died in 910 AD. From this time on Athelflaed is called the “Lady of the Mercians” and leads her people until her death in 918 AD.

Athelflaed and Edward now constructed a series of burhs across England as defence against the Vikings. Although seemingly acting independently their activities complement each other with devastating effect. Edward’s strategic mind and organisational ability made him a force to be reckoned with, and he developed the strategies used by his father. Edward’s burhs were not just defensive fortifications; they became an offensive technique for establishing a presence in enemy territory and consolidating his hold upon it. He also adapted continental practice of building twin burhs across a river to control traffic. Building a burh would have required an army of labourers to create the fortification, and he would then have needed to garrison it before he moved on.

In 918 Athelflaed died, and the partnership ended. Uniquely, Alfwynn, the only child of Athelred and Athelflaed, became the first, and so far the only, English woman to inherit a throne from her mother.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle record the events around the death of Athelflaed:

“918 AD: This year, in the early part of the year, by God’s help, she peacefully got into her power the fortress at Leicester, and the greater part of the army which owed obedience thereto became subject to her ; and the people of York had also covenanted with her, some having given a pledge, and some having bound themselves by oath, that they would be at her command. But very shortly after they had become so, she died at Tamworth, twelve days before Midsummer [12th June] the eighth year of her having rule and right lordship over the Mercians ; and her body lies at Gloucester, within the east porch of St.Peter’s church.

AD. 919. This year also the daughter of Aethelred, lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all dominion over the Mercians, and carried into Wessex, three weeks before mid-winter: she was called Aelfwyn.”

Edward removed his niece from Mercia and she disappears from the record. From that time he is King of both kingdoms, and continued to expand into the Danelaw. It is perhaps surprising that Athelstan did not at this time become lord or ealdorman of Mercia.

In 919 AD Edward also separated from his second wife, Alfflaed and married Eadgifu of Kent, daughter of Sigehelm, ealdorman of Kent, who had been killed at the Battle of Holme. He may have wished to secure the succession, despite having two sons by Alfflaed already, as well as six daughters. However, he had a further three or four children with his third wife, including Edmund and Eadred who later succeeded their half-brother Athelstan as kings.

Edward also gained the submission of the Welsh kings and fortified his western borders, presumably against the greater threat of the Irish Vikings. Then he fortified the border to the north-east against the Vikings in York, followed by the submission of all the major leaders in the north, including the Scots, Northumbrians and people of Strathclyde.

In 924 AD he was in Chester dealing with a rebellion, and on 17th July, having completed his task, he died at Farndon-on-Dee south of Chester. It is not clear if it was related to an injury from the fighting at Chester or in pursuing the Welsh back across the border.

His heir, Alfweard, then died on 1st August and eventually Athelstan gained the throne.

Edward is called “Elder” to distinguish him from Edward the Martyr and Edward the Confessor. Today Edward the Elder is a somewhat overlooked King of that name compared to the Confessor and the Martyr, but the leadership he showed during the Viking incursions helped forge the vision of England. It was not inevitable that he should have succeeded as he did; things were still very much in the balance. Sir Frank Stenton was of the opinion that he led

one of the best sustained and most decisive campaigns in the whole of the Dark Ages.