Al­fred’s rebel nephew

Ryan Lavelle re­veals how an An­glo- Saxon prince pitched the king­dom of Wes­sex into a civil war

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY LUKE WALLER

he 26th of Oc­to­ber 899 was a black Fri­day for the An­glo-Saxon king­dom of Wes­sex. Al­fred the Great was dead. Long live the king. But which king? Ac­cord­ing to many his­to­ries, Al­fred was suc­ceeded by his son Ed­ward, later known as Ed­ward ‘the El­der’. But in the wake of Al­fred’s death, it was his nephew Æthel­wold ‘aetheling’ – mean­ing ‘prince’ – who was first off the mark, stak­ing his claim to the Wes­sex throne by storm­ing into what is now the sleepy Dorset town of Wim­borne Min­ster. There, ac­cord­ing to the An­glo-Saxon Chron­i­cle, he shut the gates, declar­ing that he “would live there or die there”, and seized a nun, per­haps with the in­ten­tion of mar­ry­ing her. This was re­bel­lion, royal-style.

Æthel­wold’s in­sur­rec­tion is lit­tle known to­day, a mere foot­note in An­glo-Saxon his­tory. Yet aside from be­ing an in­cred­i­ble story, it’s im­por­tant for two rea­sons. It sug­gests that, de­spite Al­fred’s peer­less rep­u­ta­tion as the saviour of An­glo-Saxon Eng­land, there was sig­nif­i­cant op­po­si­tion to his dy­nasty, not just in his own king­dom but across swathes of the Bri­tish Isles. It also hints that, had Æthel­wold en­joyed a lit­tle more for­tune in the fallout from Al­fred’s death, and had one ob­scure bat­tle in 902 had an al­ter­na­tive out­come, the fu­ture of Eng­land could have been very dif­fer­ent in­deed.

Al­fred the Great’s death in Oc­to­ber 899 could hardly have come as a sur­prise. In the early 890s, Al­fred’s bi­og­ra­pher, Asser, wrote of the ag­o­nis­ing ill­ness, thought to be Crohn's dis­ease, that af­flicted the king dur­ing his fi­nal years. Ac­cord­ingly, Ed­ward the El­der was groomed to as­sume the crown. But he wasn’t the only mem­ber of the royal fam­ily with de­signs on wield­ing power in Wes­sex. Æthel­wold’s claim to the throne lay through his fa­ther, King Æthelred I. Æthelred was Al­fred’s el­der brother and, as such, had ruled the king­dom be­fore Al­fred, from 865 to 871. When Æthelred died, his sons were deemed too young to suc­ceed, so Al­fred took the throne.

A di­vided king­dom

Æthelred’s sons weren’t par­tic­u­larly san­guine about this trans­fer of power from one branch of the fam­ily to the other. It seems that ten­sions be­tween the sides of the rul­ing clan – Al­fred’s and Æthelred’s – sim­mered away through­out Al­fred’s reign. In the 890s, Al­fred re­lated that his “young kins­men” – prob­a­bly Æthel­wold and his brother, Æthel­helm – had dis­puted a ver­sion of his will. The distri­bu­tion of royal prop­erty was hotly con­tested.

Al­fred’s re­ac­tion to this fam­ily squab­bling was to an­nounce his son as his suc­ces­sor: in a char­ter of the 890s, Ed­ward is recorded as rex (“king”) along­side his fa­ther. It was a de­ci­sive – some might say ruth­less – move on Al­fred’s part, as he sought to es­tab­lish a royal dy­nasty from the chil­dren of his mar­riage to Ealh­swith, a no­ble­woman. But if the aim was to se­cure a swift and blood­less suc­ces­sion, it failed spec­tac­u­larly.

That much be­came all-too ev­i­dent when, as the An­glo-Saxon Chron­i­cle tells us, Æthel­wold seized the es­tates of Wim­borne and Christchurch, both now in Dorset. While we don’t know much about Christchurch be­side the fact that it was a burh, or for­ti­fied set­tle­ment, at this time, Wim­borne mat­tered. It was an im­por­tant royal es­tate and the place where Æthel­wold’s fa­ther, King Æthelred, was buried. If, as seems likely, Æthel­wold acted quickly af­ter Al­fred’s death, he would have struck in late au­tumn, when the har­vests had been gath­ered and sup­plies were ready for the king as he pro­gressed around his king­dom. Vik­ings tended to do this for the

prac­ti­cal pur­pose of feed­ing them­selves, but for Æthel­wold, seiz­ing Wim­borne meant that he could claim to be the right­ful re­cip­i­ent of the food and drink set aside for the king, known as the ‘ farm of one night’.

Æthel­wold’s mo­ti­va­tion for tak­ing Wim­borne was also strate­gic. Wes­sex was a di­vided king­dom, and one of those di­vi­sions was be­tween the east­ern half (which in­cluded the royal cen­tre of Winch­ester) and the west. Wim­borne lay right on this fault­line and, as far as we can tell, Æthel­wold’s sup­port­ers were west of it. His ac­tion might have been in­tended to draw out a new di­vi­sion of the king­dom.

The au­thor of the An­glo-Saxon Chron­i­cle does his best to present Æthel­wold’s ac­tions as il­le­git­i­mate, com­par­ing them to an eighth­cen­tury usurper’s seizure of a royal res­i­dence. But no mat­ter what spin Ed­ward’s sup­port­ers put on pro­ceed­ings, this was more than a lit­tle lo­cal dif­fi­culty. The fu­ture of Wes­sex was now well and truly up for grabs.

Æthel­wold’s hand may have been strength­ened by a small but sig­nif­i­cant mi­nor­ity of nobles who har­boured grudges against the dead king. We know of an eal­dor­man, or chief of­fi­cial, of Wilt­shire named Wulfhere, who lost land dur­ing Al­fred’s reign be­cause he had de­serted the king. It is pos­si­ble that these ten­sions arose again in the up­heavals at the end of Al­fred’s life. This was, af­ter all, a pe­riod when new Vik­ing at­tacks, by war­riors fresh from cam­paigns in con­ti­nen­tal Europe, pre­sented a sig­nif­i­cant threat to Wes­sex. If, as seems likely, Æthel­wold out­lived his brother as the de­scen­dent of King Æthelred I, the royal rebel could rely on some sup­port for his cause. Not ev­ery­one had bought into the Al­fre­dian view of the Wes­sex royal fam­ily.

Ed­ward’s re­ac­tion to Æthel­wold's Wim­borne

gam­bit was swift, and re­veals much about the way he and his sis­ter Æthelflæd would work dur­ing the so-called “re­con­quest” of the Danelaw a few years later. He took the nearby Iron Age hill­fort of Bad­bury Rings, en­camp­ing his army there. Bad­bury was a place of po­lit­i­cal assem­bly, so Ed­ward’s ac­tions were a way of show­ing that he him­self had some le­gal­ity in the king­dom. By hold­ing Bad­bury Rings, Ed­ward could stop Æthel­wold mov­ing fur­ther north into Mer­cia – block­ing a pos­si­ble path to Winch­ester. A mas­ter­stroke had checked the royal pre­tender. The An­glo-Saxon Chron­i­cle’s re­mark that Æthel­wold “stole away by night” may not have been far from the truth.

A royal show­down

Æthel­wold wasn’t out for the count, though. He headed for the king­dom of Northum­bria where, one ver­sion of the Chron­i­cle ad­mits, the Vik­ings there “ac­cepted him as king and gave al­le­giance to him”. An­other ver­sion even calls Æthel­wold “king of the pa­gans”. The Vik­ings re­ferred to many of their lead­ers as ‘ kings’, and Æthel­wold might have been one of them. A rare type of coin from York at this time, record­ing the name of ALVVALDUS REX (pic­tured be­low), could in­di­cate that he was taken se­ri­ously.

West Saxon chron­i­clers were scathing about Æthel­wold's al­liance with Vik­ings, but as a tac­tic of war it wasn’t un­usual. There is good rea­son to sus­pect that Al­fred too al­lied him­self with Vik­ing mer­ce­nar­ies when cir­cum­stances re­quired. So if Æthel­wold joined forces with Northum­bri­ans and Danes, he was in good com­pany. What­ever the moral­ity of Æthel­wold’s Vik­ing al­liance, it cer­tainly seems to have breathed new life into his cam­paign to seize Wes­sex – for two years later he was back, and this time there would be no run­ning away. The sec­ond, and de­ci­sive, part of Æthel­wold’s re­bel­lion be­gan in 901, when he sailed with a fleet to Es­sex, then a place of Vik­ing set­tle­ment. Here, the Chron­i­cle tells us, Æthel­wold re­ceived sub­mis­sion. In the late au­tumn or early win­ter of 902, he ven­tured to Mer­cia, unit­ing with dis­pos­sessed mem­bers of the Mer­cian royal fam­ily. But a re­turn to Wes­sex was al­ways on the cards, and it wasn’t long be­fore he crossed the Thames back into his old king­dom at the fortress of Crick­lade. Here, he set about rav­aging royal lands in the area. Ed­ward had lit­tle choice but to re­spond to this provo­ca­tion, and did ex­actly that, send­ing an army to at­tack Dan­ish East Anglia, an­other of Æthel­wold's strongholds. What hap­pened next isn’t en­tirely clear, but it seems that Æthel­wold’s grand al­liance caught up with the rear­guard of Ed­ward’s ma­raud­ing army at a now-uniden­ti­fied place called ‘the Holme’ – a de­vel­op­ment that so spooked Ed­ward that he dis­patched seven mes­sen­gers to re­call his troops.

At the Holme, the Chron­i­cle tells us, the Vik­ing force “held the place of slaugh­ter”. In other words, they won. But they also lost the most men – and among the slain was Æthel­wold aetheling.

For three years, the king­dom of Wes­sex had been con­vulsed by Æthel­wold’s vi­o­lent op­po­si­tion to Ed­ward the El­der, his pow­er­ful claim to the throne and his abil­ity to rally sup­port from across Eng­land. Æthel­wold’s re­bel­lion had pre­sented a mighty threat to the line of suc­ces­sion mapped out by Al­fred. But now Æthel­wold was dead, and his re­bel­lion was over.

In­stead of go­ing on to dom­i­nate Wes­sex and per­haps create his own dy­nasty, this failed prince of 10th-cen­tury Eng­land was des­tined for ob­scu­rity. The stage was now clear for Al­fred the Great’s suc­ces­sors to reign supreme.

Æthel­wold's grand al­liance caught up with the rear­guard of Ed­ward's ma­raud­ing army – badly spook­ing the new king

Ed­ward the El­der en­camped his army at the Iron Age hill­fort of Bad­bury Rings in Dorset – a mas­ter­stroke that checked Æthel­wold’s route north­ward into Mer­cia

A map of Eng­land around the time of Æthel­wold’s re­bel­lion. Wim­borne, where the in­sur­rec­tion be­gan, was an im­por­tant royal es­tate

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