Alfred the Ætheling was the younger son of Æthelred II the Unready and his second wife, Emma of Normandy.
Emma was the daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, and his wife, Gunnora. Born in around 985/987, she was married to Æthelred at Winchester on 5 April 1002, at which time she was given the English name Ælfgifu, although in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle she is often referred to, simply, as ‘The Lady’. Her marriage with Æthelred was an attempt to seal a peace between England and Normandy, and to persuade the Normans not to allow the Viking raiders to winter in their lands between raids into England. Although the Vikings continued to shelter in Normandy during the winter, and raiding into England continued throughout the early years of the 11th century, the marriage was a success in that it produced two more sons and a daughter for Æthelred; a second family considering he was the father of as many as thirteen children by his first wife, Ælfgifu of York, including at least six sons.
Of Emma and Æthelred’s two sons the eldest, Edward, would eventually succeed to the English throne following the death of his half-brother, Harthacnut, son of Emma by her second husband, King Cnut. Edward became king in 1042 and ruled until his death on 5 January 1066, leaving the crown on his deathbed to the ill-fated Harold II Godwinson. Edward’s younger brother, Alfred, however, was to suffer a rather different fate.
Alfred was born sometime before 1012 and styled ætheling, or throne-worthy, although he had numerous older brothers also holding that title. However, whilst still a young child, his father’s hold on the kingdom was becoming ever more precarious. By 1013 Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard was gaining victory after victory. Emma and her children were sent to safety in her native Normandy. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records:
‘the Lady then turned across the sea to her brother Richard, and Ӕlfsige, abbot of Peterborough with her. And the king sent Bishop Ӕlfhun across the sea with the ӕthelings Edward and Alfred in order that he should look after them.’¹
Ӕthelred spent Christmas on the Isle of Wight, before joining his family in Normandy as Sweyn consolidated his victory. The Dane’s ascendancy was short-lived however, as he died after a fall from his horse on 3 February 1014. His death gave Ӕthelred a way back to his kingdom and he sent Edward to England to negotiate his return with the English Witan, who invited Æthelred to resume the throne ‘if he would govern them better than he did before’.¹ Unfortunately, despite his promises, Æthelred proved just as inept as before, failing to defeat the Danish invaders, led by Sweyn’s son Cnut. The beleaguered Æthelred died just two years later, on 23 April 1016, and was succeeded by his oldest surviving son by his first wife, Edmund II Ironside. Although Edmund put up a valiant fight against the Danish invaders, a summer of fighting took its toll and he died on 30 November 1016, probably from wounds received in the recent string of battles. The rumours of murder by a sword thrust into the bowels as Edmund visited the latrine, only arose centuries later.
Alfred and his brother Edward, again, sought in exile in Normandy, as Cnut consolidated his control on the whole of England.. One of the new king’s first actions was to send for their mother Emma, who he married on 2 July 1017. Marrying Emma was a sensible move for Cnut, she was a link to the old regime and provided a sense of continuity for England’s conquered people. How much choice had in accepting the most powerful man in the country as her husband, we do not know; she may have thought it the only way of ensuring Cnut did not pursue the deaths of her sons in exile. Emma gave Cnut three children including a son, Harthacnut, and two daughters; one, who’s name is lost, died aged 8 and is buried in Bosham, Sussex. A second daughter, Gunhilda, married Henry III, Emperor of Germany.
When Cnut died in 1035 Emma was in England and retired to her manor in Winchester, taking the royal treasury with her, in the hope she could pass it to her son, Harthacnut. However, Harthacnut was in Denmark and it was Harold Harefoot, one of Cnut’s two sons by Ælfgifu of Northampton, who seized the initiative. An agreement was reached whereby the half-brothers ruled as co-kings with Emma acting for Harthacnut, in his absence, and ruling in Wessex.
As it was, in 1036 Harold was accepted as England’s ruler, Harthacnut was ruling in Denmark and Emma was living on her estates in Winchester. Emma faced tragedy, however, when her son Alfred arrived in England. The ætheling was probably approaching thirty years of age and had been living in exile in Normandy for the last twenty years, arrived in England. According to Norman sources, it was Edward who had first tried to join their mother in Winchester in 1036, sailing up the Solent and winning a battle near Southampton before returning to Normandy with his plunder. It was after this that Alfred attempted to visit his mother in Winchester, but many feared he would make a play for the crown.
However, before he had the chance to see Emma, the ӕtheling was welcomed by Earl Godwin, taken to Godwin’s estate at Guildford, where he was seized and taken to Ely. At Ely he was blinded; blinding was a symbolic gesture aimed at destroying his worth as a king.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle retold the tale in rhyme:
‘But then Godwine stopped him, and set him in captivity,
and drove off his companions, and some variously killed;
some of them were sold for money, some cruelly destroyed,
some of them were fettered, some of them were blinded,
some maimed, some scalped.
No more horrible deed was done in this country
since the Danes came and made peace here.
Now we must trust to the dear God
that they who, without blame, were so wretchedly destroyed
rejoice happily with Christ.
The ӕtheling still lived; he was threatened with every evil;
until it was decided that he be led
to Ely town, fettered thus.
As soon as he came on ship he was blinded,
and blind thus brought to the monks.
And there he dwelt as long as he lived.
Afterwards he was buried, as well befitted him,
full honourably, as he was entitled,
at the west end, very near at hand to the steeple,
in the south side-chapel. His soul is with Christ.²
Emma’s own biography, the Encomium Emmae Reginae tells the story slightly differently, saying that Harold Harefoot forged a letter from Emma to her son, which claimed that the English would prefer Edward or Alfred as king, enticing Alfred to come to England and claim the crown. It does seem likely that Alfred received such a letter, but it may well have come from Emma herself, who sought to lay the blame on Harold when the expedition failed so abysmally.
The sources are confusing over what exactly happened. Some state that when Alfred arrived in England, he was met by Earl Godwin, who swore fealty to him and established the ætheling at Guildford, but then Harold attacked in the night and took Alfred to Ely, where he was tried, blinded, killed and buried. While others suggest that Godwin betrayed Alfred and handed him over to King Harold. Either way, the result is always the same; Alfred was blinded and either intentionally killed or died from wounds caused by his blinding, on Harold’s orders, with or without the connivance of Godwin in late 1036 or early 1037.³ This one potential threat to Harold’s crown was thus eliminated and buried in Ely.
Emma must have been relieved that at least Edward had remained safe in Normandy. Despite the fact she had not seen him for many years, the loss of Alfred must have been a cruel blow to his mother. His brothers, moreover, did not forget Alfred’s fate. On his accession in 1040, Harthacnut pursued the prosecution of Godwin and Lyfing, the Bishop of Worcester and Crediton who had also been implicated in Alfred’s death, for Alfred’s murder. Lyfing was deprived of his see in punishment. Godwin gave the king a warship carrying eighty fighting men as appeasement – an expensive sweetener – and swore that he had not wanted the prince blinded and that whatever he had done had been on the orders of King Harold.
Like Harthacnut, Edward was never convinced of Godwin’s innocence, a fact which added to the increasing distrust and conflict between the king and his most powerful earl in the first ten years of Edward’s reign. Indeed, when the Godwin family and Edward quarrelled in 1051, it was Edward’s demand to have his brother returned to him that made Earl Godwin realise there would be no rapprochement; the earl sailed into exile in Flanders with his family. When he did manage to negotiate his return the following year, Edward and Godwin were still wary of each other. Moreover, when Godwin died at Winchester 1052, having collapsed during the Easter feast to entertain the king, a story arose that Godwin had called on God to choke him with a mouthful of cake if he were guilty of Alfred’s murder. Needless to say, Earl Godwin collapsed on the floor the very next moment. Though it is a great moral story, there is probably little truth in it, and it is likely we will never know the extent of Godwin’s guilt, or innocence.
Footnotes: ¹The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James ingram; ²The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; ³Alfred Ætheling (article) by M.K.Lawson, oxforddnb.com
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia, except Queen Emma, courtesy of British Library.
Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir;The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; oxforddnb.com.
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Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
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