Ælfweard and Æthelstan: were they rivals for the throne of Wessex?
Seven Kings Must Die pits half-brothers Æthelstan and Ælfweard against each other in its opening act: but how true to history is their clash for the crown? Historical consultant Ryan Lavelle considers what real history tells us about Ælfweard, and why Æthelstan may not have been first choice for king of Wessex…
It begins with King Edward the Elder’s death, a character whose somewhat tempestuous relationship with Uhtred dominated season 5 of the show, allowing the focus to shift to the reign of Aethelstan.
The film depicts Æthelstan as rightful heir to the thrones of his father, whose first concern is fending off a challenge from his “traitor” half-brother and rival claimant Ælfweard. In the show, Æthelstan is the presumed and rightful king, and that Ælfweard’s claim is that of an upstart. Real history, though, suggests that the succession might not have been quite so clear cut. Might Edward have wanted to carve up his dominions between his eldest sons?
- On the podcast | Michael Wood introduces listeners to the fascinating life of 10th-century ruler Æthelstan
How did Edward of Wessex die?
It is the fallout from Edward’s death – off-screen, in the opening minutes of the film – that reverberates through Seven Kings Must Die, though no detail is given as to how he meets his end.
Real history offers us a few clues, but not many. Edward is known to have died in July AD 924 near Chester, during or shortly after fighting a Mercian rebellion. He was buried in New Minster in Winchester – a monastery he himself had commissioned – close to his father, Alfred the Great, and mother, Ealhswith.
Ælfweard and Æthelstan: who were the candidates to succeed Edward the Elder?
The real Æthelstan (ruled AD 924-39) has been hailed by some historians as the first king who could credibly claim to rule ‘England’. He was Edward’s eldest son, born to Ecgwynn around AD 894.
From his father’s ‘Kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons’, Æthelstan conquered Northumbria and pushed his authority across the island of Britain. He proved able to match the political aspirations that are so famous in the writings associated with Alfred with a political reality of a kingship of ‘the English’.
The historical legacy of King Æthelstan is given a helping hand by the 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury. From William’s writings, Æthelstan’s reign and the continuation of the story of the dynasty of Wessex appears like the natural next step from the reigns of his father Edward the Elder and his grandfather Alfred the Great.
According to William, who claimed to have drawn from a certain old book, Alfred had bestowed upon the young boy a cloak, belt and sword; symbols of future aspirations for Edward’s eldest son. Æthelstan, then, was a successful king building on a strong inheritance, and his burial in Malmesbury meant that William had a vested interest in keeping this memory alive.
Meanwhile there was Ælfweard: Edward’s second son, and the eldest born to his second wife Ælfflæd.
Was Ælfweard ever king?
An altogether different tradition of Æthelstan’s succession seems to have emerged in Winchester, and it shows that we need to be wary of narratives of smooth continuity.
In a remarkable manuscript, the Liber Vitae (Book of Life) of Winchester’s New Minster, the names and deaths of the great and good of Anglo-Saxon England are recorded in such a way that their souls might be regularly prayed for and their Christian salvation assured. New Minster was the foundation of King Edward and this was as close to an official record as it was possible to get, at least from a Winchester perspective.
In a passage that is likely to record a late 10th-century tradition, the Liber Vitae noted that Edward the Elder was laid to rest by the high altar of the church, close to his father and mother. Alongside Edward, a certain Ælfweard, ‘crowned with kingly badges’, was buried.
Ælfweard died very soon after his father – and, if the Liber Vitae is to be believed, was interred with a certain degree of royal pomp.
Was this the fate of a lost king of Wessex? According to the 12th-century manuscript known as the Textus Roffensis, Ælfweard only ruled in Wessex for a matter of weeks, but he seems to have ruled there all the same, and Æthelstan’s succession was not initially to Wessex but to the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia.
Could it have been Edward’s plan for the second of his sons, Ælfweard, to be his sole successor, disinheriting Æthelstan of any political authority?
It is possible. In his later years, Edward had two principal kingdoms, Wessex and Mercia, which made up the ‘Kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons’. That Edward had gone himself to fight a Mercian rebellion shows how important Mercia was when he died.
A charter issued in the first full year of Æthelstan’s reign, AD 925, suggests that Æthelstan considered himself initially in terms of his rule of Mercia and during his reign he appears to have spent more time outside Wessex than any of the other pre-Conquest king of England.
Therefore, although we really only have William of Malmesbury’s word for it, the claim that Æthelstan was brought up in Mercia at the court of his aunt, the Lady Æthelflaed, seems a reasonable one.
There is no historical evidence that the young Æthelstan was trained by anyone called Uhtred, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable that it was in Mercia that Æthelstan learnt how to wage war. For an adult son to be expected to be the ruler of a second kingdom was a common political strategy in Europe at this time.
Did Æthelstan and Ælfweard fight a succession war?
In these circumstances it is also possible that Ælfweard, the second son, was seen by Edward as his successor in Wessex, despite the fact that Wessex was the kingdom of his father and his paternal line. Perhaps in the days after Edward’s death in the summer of AD 924, the two sons were planning to come to some sort of agreement, but fate intervened.
There is no evidence of foul play in the historical record of Ælfweard’s death, but that doesn’t mean to say that everyone was satisfied, particularly in Wessex.
The bishop of Winchester is conspicuous by his absence in many of the events of Æthelstan’s reign and a later plot, explained by William of Malmesbury (who liked a good story) by rumours of Æthelstan’s illegitimacy, seems to have had real historical foundation.
Would a succession war have been unusual?
This was the concern that contemporaries and later writers tried to cover over: succession was a messy business, and with the right support it could easily be contested.
A generation earlier, Edward’s cousin Æthelwold was aided by Viking allies in his attempts to seize power following Alfred’s death in AD 899. In the middle of the 10th century, Edward’s grandson Eadwig (ruled AD 955-59) saw his English realm shrink to Wessex alone when the nobility of Mercia and Northumbria supported the claim of his brother Edgar to rule over them.
Because Eadwig died soon after his brother’s actions, the split in the kingdom lasted only two years and is often hardly noticed from afar but these events go to show that an English kingdom was not a done deal in the tenth century.
Splitting territory according to the interests of particular groups in particular circumstances was quite normal and it would be unsurprising if in the case of Æthelstan and Ælfweard the two royal brothers and their supporters – or indeed their father – hadn’t considered it as an option.
In the world of Seven Kings Must Die, this all plays out very differently: Æethelstan in presented as the rightful king of Wessex and Mercia, whose position is challenged by the upstart “traitor” Ælfweard. A full-blown succession war is only avoided thanks to the guile of Uhtred – and it still ends bloodily when Æthelstan murders his surrendering half-brother.
The team behind the series have some scope to play around with history where historical evidence is lacking, allowing imagination to take us on a journey of possibilities, where the messy business of succession could get very messy indeed.
Seven Kings Must Die alludes to destiny in its title, and its story goes far beyond the question of the succession of Edward the Elder. But like the rest of the Last Kingdom series, the film reminds us that uncertainties and our attempts to negotiate them are a common thread of humanity that binds us to the distant past.
Seven Kings Must Die is available to stream on Netflix now
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Ryan Lavelle is professor of early medieval history at the University of Winchester, and worked as historical consultant for The Last Kingdom and Seven Kings Must Die
Ryan Lavelle is Professor of Early Medieval History at the University of Winchester, and historical advisor on the The Last Kingdom and Seven Kings Must Die. His books include Cnut: The North Sea King (part of the Penguin Monarchs series), which was released in paperback in November 2021.
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