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Sons and Mothers: Family Politics in the Early Middle Ages

  • Pauline Stafford (a1)

In this year (975) Edgar, king of the English, reached the end of earthly joys, chose for him the other light, beautiful and happy and left this wretched and fleeting life’ (ASC MS A). Edgar died in his thirty-second year. He had ruled the whole of England for sixteen years, since the age of sixteen, and the northern parts of it at least since the age of fourteen. He left three known surviving children, each by a different mother. Eadgyth, his daughter, was abbess of the nunnery at Wilton, appropriately enough since she was the daughter of the nun Wulfthryth. He left two sons. The eldest Edward the martyr was the son of his first marriage to a lady named Aethelflaed. Edward’s mother was dead or otherwise disposed of by 975. She had disappeared early in the reign, before Edgar took as his wife and queen the lady Aelfthryth in 964. Aelfthryth was the mother of two sons: Edmund, who pre-deceased his father in 972, and Aethelred, better known to history as Aethelred Unraed. The reputation which has attached to the mild Aethelred would hardly apply to his mother, who involved herself with great purpose in the advancement of her two sons. Aethelred was at most nine years old in 975, making all possible allowance for the speedy consummation of his mother’s marriage and the birth of his elder brother. We do not know the age of Edward, but he is called a ‘child ungrown’ in MS C of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which should make him no more than twelve, the age of social maturity in tenth century England. These two children, or more accurately their supporters, immediately flung themselves into a battle for the throne.

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1 References to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle throughout are to the edition and translation of D. Whitelock, D. C. Douglas and S. Tucker (London 1961).

2 William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Pontificum, ed N. Hamilton, RS 52 (1870) pp 188-9.

3 Florence [of Worcester, Chronicon ex Chronicis], ed B. Thorpe (London 1848) 1 p 140.

4 For her marriage see ASC MS D sa 965 rede 964. Her consecration as queen is described in the Life of St Oswald, Historians of the Church of York and its Archbishops, ed J. Raine, RS 71 (1879-94) 1 (1879) P 438.

5 What follows is based on accounts in the Passio Sancti Edwardi, ed C. Fell (Leeds 1971), the Life of St Oswald pp 443-5, 448-51, and the ASC. I have discussed this question more fully in a forthcoming paper ‘The reign of Aethelred’.

6 Edgar was thirty when consecrated in 973, hence sixteen in 959. His brother Eadwig is unlikely to have been more than two years his senior. Edmund was eighteen on his accession in 940 [ASC MS A), twenty four at his death in 946, and Edmund’s brother, Eadred, can have been no older than thirty-two or thirty-three in 956 since he must have been born 923/4.

7 See Wallace-Hadrill, J. M., The Long-Haired Kings (London 1961) pp 134, 161 , and on the Merovingian dynasty, its wives and children see E. Ewig, ‘Studien zur merowingischen Dynastie’, Fruhmittelalterliche Studien 8 (Berlin 1974) pp 15-59.

8 De Geslis Regum, ed W. Stubbs, RS 90 (1887-9) 1 (1887) paras 137, 139.

9 Aelred of Rievaulx tells us the name of Aethelred’s first wife, Aelfgifu daughter of earl Thored. Florence 1 p 275 makes her the daughter of an otherwise unknown ealdorman Aethelberht. Are these garbled accounts of the same marriage or of two separate ones? The second known marriage was to Aelfgifu/Emma daughter of Richard of Normandy. Her first charter signature occurs in AD 1002 in Kemble no 1296.

10 Einhard, , [Life of Charlemagne], ed Garrod, H. W. and Mowat, R. B. (Oxford 1925) caps 18, 20.

11 See for example Dhondt, J., ‘Election et Heredité sous les Carolingiens et les premiers Capetiens’, Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire, 18 (Brussels 1939) pp 91353 ; Patourel, J. Le, ‘The Norman Succession, 986-1135’, EHR 86 (1971) pp 22550.

12 ASC MS A, sa 716, 626 and 757. A necessary note of caution on the use of regnal lists and genealogies has been raised by Dumville, D., ‘Kingship, Genealogies and Regnal Lists’, Early Medieval Kingship, ed Sawyer, P. H. and Wood, I. N. (Leeds 1977) pp 72104 . But whatever the truth of these claims for Offa and Aethelbald, it was clearly felt that claims of such remoteness were worth making.

13 For his birth see Douglas, D. C., William the Conqueror (London 1964) p 15 and pp 37982.

14 On the whole question of succession rules and their relations to marriage patterns and family disputes see Goody, [J.], [Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology] (Cambridge 1966) esp Goody’s own introduction and the contribution of [M.] Southwold. Also Richards, [A. I.], Journal ojthe Royal Anthropological Institute, 91 (London 1961) pp 13550 . General discussion of the role of wives, mothers and sisters in Lucy Mair, Primitive Government (London 1962).

15 Asser, ed W. Stevenson (Oxford 1904) pp 11-13.

16 Goody p 33.

17 Asser pp 9-11, 16.

18 Bede, , HE ed Plummet, C. (Oxford 1896) bk 2 cap 5.

19 Freeman, [E. A.], [History of the Norman Conquest], 6 vols (Oxford 1873) 1 p 567.

20 De Cestis Regum paras 126, 139 on Ecgwyna; Gaiinar, , [L’Estorie des Engles], ed Hardy, T. D. and Martin, C. T., RS 91 (1883) lines 3939 seq. on Aelfthryth. Aelfgifu of Northampton and ‘Danish Marriages’ are discussed by Freeman, 1 pp 733-5, 624-6. On such marriages and on Charlemagne’s birth see Fichtenau, [H.], [The Carolingia» Empire] (Oxford 1963) pp 389.

21 Gregory [of Tours], ed and trans O. M. Dalton, 2 vols (Oxford 1927) bk 4 caps 27, 28.

22 Gregory bk 5 cap 1.

23 Gregory bk 9 cap 38.

24 The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar, ed J. M. Wallace-Hadrill (London 1960) bk 4 cap 42.

25 Gregory bk 8 cap 29.

26 See the account by L. Halphen (Paris 1947 repr 1968) bk 2 caps 3, 4.

27 Leyser, K., ‘The battle of the Lech’, History 60 (1965) pp 910.

28 See my discussion in ‘The reign of Aethelred’ (forthcoming).

29 See Gillingham, J., The Kingdom of Germany in the High Middle Ages (London 1971) p 15.

30 Gregory bk 5 cap 39, bk 4 cap 28.

31 For the story of Lothair see Halphen bk 3 cap 4, and Ullmann, W., A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages (London 1972) p 104.

32 Gregory bk 9 cap 34.

33 Gregory bk 5 cap 34.

34 Einhard cap 18, and Ganshof, F. L., ‘Charlemagne’, Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy (London 1971) pp 1727.

35 ASC MS D, sa 965 recte 964.

36 She was certainly related to his brother, ealdorman Aelfheah of Wessex, see his will, Whitelock, Wills no 9.

37 Robertson, A. J., Anglo-Saxon Charters (Cambridge 1956) nos 45, 66.

38 Reference to this in the will of her grandson, Athelstan, Whitelock, Wills no 20.

39 The many legends about Aclfthryth are discussed by Wright, C. E., Cultivation of Saga in Anglo-Saxon England (London 1939) pp 14653, 15771.

40 De Cestis Regum para 157 and Gaimar lines 3649-731.

41 Liber Eliensis, ed E. O. Blake, CSer 3, 92 (1962) pp 127-8.

42 Kemble no 707.

43 ASC MS D sa 955.

44 Harmer, F., Select English Historical Documents of the Ninth and Tenth Centuries (Cambridge 1914) no 23 , an account of the estate of Cooling and of the vicissitudes of Eadgifu. On the position of the English queen in general see Campbell, [A.], [Encomium Emmae Reginae], CSer 3, 72 (1949) pp 625.

45 On Emma see Campbell and [F.] Barlow, [Edward the Confessor] (London 1970) esp pp 28-32.

46 ASC MS C sa 1035.

47 Ibid MSS C and E sa 1037.

48 Ibid MS C and Florence sa 1042.

49 Barlow p 58.

50 ASC MSS D and E sa 1043.

51 Her witnessing of charters ceases after this year.

52 ASC MS E sa 1052.

53 On the question of brothers and sons in general see Goody, Southwold and Richards.

54 Fichtenau pp 39-43.

55 Athelstan was raised in Mercia and the signatures of Edward’s other sons are rare in charters, only Aelfweard, who was probably the designated heir, appearing at all regularly.

56 Up to AD 1001 the royal children only appear with their grandmother who was bringing them up. The only exception is their witness of Kemble no 700. From AD 1002 onwards the older sons are more regularly with their father.

57 ASC MS E sa 933 and De Gestis Regum 1 para 139; for Otto’s troubles see Hill, B., Medieval Monarchy in Action (London 1972) pp 259.

58 Halphen bk 1 cap 3 on Charles’ accession.

59 The only exception is the case of Edward the Elder, married before Alfred’s death.

60 For a fuller discussion of the actions of Edmund see my ‘The reign of Aethelred’ (forthcoming).

61 Gregory bk 5 cap 3.

62 Duby, G., ‘Dans la France du Nord-Ouest au XIIe siècle, les jeunes dans la societé aristocratique’, Annales, 19 no 5 (1964) pp 83546.

63 On such relations in general see Goody, J., ‘The mother’s brother and the sister’s son in West Africa’, Comparative Studies in Kinship (London 1969) pp 3990.

64 Wallace-Hadrill, J. M., Early Germanic Kingship (Oxford 1971) pp 11516.

65 ASC MS C sa 919 and Wainwright, F., ‘Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians’, Scandinavian England, ed Finberg, H. P. R. (London 1975) pp 30524.

66 ASC MS D sa 925 and Roger of Wendover, Flores Historiaram, ed H. O. Coxe (London 1848) sa 925.

67 For the marriages of Aethelred’s daughters and their significance see my ‘The reign of Aethelred’ (forthcoming).

68 William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Pontificum, ed W. Stubbs, RS 91 (1891) para 87 p 189.

69 See for example the actions of Aethelwold in 900 ASC MSA sa, Edmund Ironside in 1015 ASC MS C sa, and Swegn in 1046 ASC MS C sa.

70 Daughter of Hereric, nephew of king Edwin, Bede, HE bk 4 cap 23.

71 Gregory bk 9 cap 39, bk 10 cap 15.

72 Gluckman, M., Politics, Law and Ritual in Tribal Society (Oxford 1965) p 163.

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