Life in the time of King Eadred
By Christine Hancock
When the Anglo-Saxons are mentioned, most people will know about King Alfred, at least that he burnt some cakes. Some will know a bit more, that he fought against the Danes. Thanks to the books written by Bernard Cornwell, and the television series, The Last Kingdom, based on them, some will now know a bit more; that he had a daughter, Aethelflaed, and a son, Edward. Those who have an interest in the period will also have heard of Aethelstan, Edward’s son, who became the first King of England.
But what about the rest of the family? Who came next? Did nothing happen in the next hundred plus years until 1066 and the Normans took over?
When Aethelstan died in AD939 he was in his mid-forties. He never married and had no children. Some experts say that since he was not a legitimate son of Edward he made a vow not to marry, so that there would be no competition for the “real” heirs of Edward. They were too young to rule after Edward’s death, especially as the war against the Danes had continued.
Edward had no surviving sons by his second wife Aelfflaed, so it was the son of the third, Eadgyfu, who became king after Aethelstan. Eadmund was only 18 when he came to the throne. He married quickly and his wife produced two sons. The future of the kingdom looked secure.
Despite the efforts of previous kings, the fight to take back the whole of England continued. The former kingdom of Northumbria, without an Anglo-Saxon king of its own since the invasion by the Great Heathen Army in the 860s, had become the target of every powerful man in search of a throne. Most of them were the children, or grandchildren of the original Viking invaders, some of whom had taken over Dublin and thought of York as part of the package.
Eadmund carried on the good work of his father and uncle, winning back swathes of the former Danelaw, took over Northumbria and even overran Cumbria (which he promptly gave to Malcolm of Scotland). All was going well, until he died, in a pointless brawl during a feast. He had been king for only seven years and left two sons, too young to rule. History was repeating itself.
|Eadred in the early fourteenth century Genealogical Roll of the Kings of England — Wikipedia.
Luckily, he had a brother, Eadred. King Eadred took the throne in 946. He continued his brother’s work and by the following year had signed a truce with the pretenders to the throne of York and Northumbria – which was immediately broken This time Erik Haraldsson claimed the throne.
Erik, better known as Bloodaxe, had been King of Norway from 931 to 933 and after being deposed by his younger brother Haakon the Good, his career is somewhat confused, but by 946 (or 7), after hanging around in Orkney he decided to try Northumbria.
|Coin of Eric Bloodaxe as King of York 952-954.
King Eadred spent the rest of his short reign battling for Northumbria against Erik (twice – he tried to return in 952!) and the kings of Dublin. He suffered from ill health – possibly the same complaint suffered by his grandfather, King Alfred. The biographer of St Dunstan, described how “the king sucked out the juices of his food, chewed on what was left and spat it out”. King Eared died on 23 Nov 955, at the age of 32, He never married and left no known children.
He was succeeded by his nephew, Eadwig, the eldest son of Eadmund. Eadwig just 15, was legally an adult, but was not popular and conflict broke out between him and his brother Edgar. For a while Edgar ruled Mercia and Northumbria while Eadwig ruled in the south. Eadwig ruled for less than four years before his death and Edgar took over the whole country. He later became known as Edgar the Peaceable.
For a period that is barely mentioned in most history books there was a lot going on and some colourful personalities Apart from Erik Bloodaxe, there was St Dunstan.
When Eadmund came to the throne, Dunstan was an ordinary monk at Glastonbury. King Eadmund made him a minister and Abbot of Glastonbury. He started the reform of monastic life in England. When Eadred became king, Dunstan was by his side, twice refusing the office of bishop. Things changed when Eadwig came to the throne and Dunstan was exiled, returning only when recalled by Edgar.
When I decided to write about the early life of Byrhtnoth, I thought I would have a problem with the plot; surely nothing much was happening in that period of kings with strange, forgotten names. Instead, I found a time of sudden death and shifting alliances. It is no straightforward story like King Alfred’s fight against the Danes, but a time when who you knew, or who you were related to could sometimes be a matter of life and death.
How did my protagonist survive into his sixties only to be killed by Vikings at the Battle of Maldon in AD 991? By keeping his head down, or being a member of, or marrying into, the right family?
Byrhtnoth married the sister of King Edmund’s second wife, stepmother of King Edgar. It seems he knew how to pick the right side. Did he learn how to do it during the short reign of King Eadred?
AD 947: Byrhtnoth has received his father’s sword. But his hall is burnt and the sword stolen. Learning that his father still lives, he swears a solemn vow to find him.
Torn between his quest and duty to Lord Athelstan of East Anglia, friends are hurt when an old enemy unexpectedly reappears. Despised by his best friend for his failure, he is sent deep into Northumbria, to Bebbanburg.
Winter closes in and wolves prowl the hills. Who is the mysterious woman he encounters there? She offers him news of his father – and more.
Will Byrhtnoth remain with her, or return home to discover the fate of the friends he abandoned?
Or should he continue the quest for his father?
Excerpt from Bright Axe (Byrhtnoth meets Bloodaxe)
The entrance to the bridge was narrow, and we blocked access. The second row of shields had assembled behind us, with plenty of throwing spears. We were a serious obstacle. Many men would die. We waited for the attack. They stood quiet, bar the occasional insult, which we ignored.
We heard shouts, cheers, coming closer. We saw grins appear on the faces of the men opposite. My mouth was dry. Where was the skin of ale? I needed it to moisten my throat, and for the courage it would bring. No, a clear head was better. Sweat dripped down my face. I licked my lips, it was liquid, though it would make me thirsty. I swallowed.
Something tall moved through the trees, a monster half visible through the leaves. When it emerged into the bright sunlight, it was just a man on a horse, but what a man, and what a horse. Hooves the size of platters sent vibrations through the ground. I stared straight into a whiskered mouth. A lip curled and strings of drool dangled from long yellow teeth. The great head dropped, to reveal the rider.
"Bloodaxe." Leif spat the name with venom. The man stopped and stared at us.
Big as the horse was, it must have struggled to carry this man. It was difficult to tell his height, a match for mine, or taller? Legs like tree trunks gripped the horse's sides. His body slumped in a saddle large enough for two normal men. The links of his byrnie strained to contain the bulging body, His face was red and streamed with sweat. Grey hair hung from beneath a richly decorated, though battered helmet. It matched the beard that lay like a dead badger on his broad chest.
The axe that hung beside him was indeed red though not from blood. It was painted scarlet, and the blade was dull, a weapon for display, not use.
He spoke. His voice was loud and harsh. It would have once rung loud and commanding across the field of battle. Although age had dulled it, he still expected men to quake before him. We stood our ground.
"He's telling us to get out of the way," Leif translated.
"I got the gist," I replied.
Another man had joined him, hoisting a banner over his master's head.
"Erik Haraldsson, King of Norway and Northumbria, commands that you clear the road."
I stood silent for a moment, before giving my reply.
"I am afraid I cannot do that." To my surprise, my voice sounded clear. I ignored the servant and addressed Earl Erik. "I have heard of you, my lord. You were a great warrior, King of Norway, many years ago."
"Careful," hissed Leif. I ignored him.
"You claim to be King of Northumbria. May I respectfully remind you; Northumbria is that way." I pointed over my shoulder. "And I am here to stop you."
"Who are you?" So, he did speak our language.
"I am Thegn Byrhtnoth, of the East Anglian Ship Fyrd. I serve Ealdorman Athelstan. And Eadred, king of all England."
"You are a long way from the sea."
"So are you and I have burned your ships."
The standard bearer pointed towards the smouldering wrecks. Erik peered in that direction. How good was his eyesight? How old was he now, close to sixty? He nodded and hauled on his reins. His horse woke from its doze. Erik rumbled some words in my direction. He laughed and kicked the animal back the way he had come.
"My Lord Erik will discuss this matter with your king." The standard bearer opened his mouth to say more, had second thoughts and followed his master. The enemy shield wall broke up and trailed after them.
"What did he actually say?" I asked Leif as we stood and watched them go.
"He requested that if Gunnhild, that's his wife, tried to cross the bridge, you should stop her in the same manner. He left her in York."
"I'll do my best." I forced a laugh and tried to relax.
*Giveaway is now closed.
*Giveaway is now closed.
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I was born in Essex and moved to Rugby, Warwickshire when I married. I have a husband, two sons and two lovely grandchildren.
I am a long-term family historian, leader of the local history group and town guide.
I had never thought of becoming an author – I just wanted to write about some of my ancestors. In 2013 I joined a writing class. The class turned out to be about writing fiction. Before I knew it, I was writing a novel.
Byrhtnoth was a real warrior who died in the 991 Battle of Maldon, made famous by the Anglo-Saxon poem of that name. Growing up in Essex, I visited Maldon often, and attended the 1000 year anniversary of the battle in 1991.
I wanted to find out what made Byrhtnoth such a famous warrior.
I finished the book but found it had become a series – how long, I have yet to find out.