Alfred the Great’s rebel nephew

At the turn of the 10th century, King Alfred's carefully crafted royal dynasty was almost wrecked by an ambitious prince, Æthelwold. Ryan Lavelle describes a bloody civil war that split Anglo-Saxon England's most powerful family

Illustration by Luke Waller for BBC History Magazine.

This article was first published in the Christmas 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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The 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.

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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.

Painting of Alfred the Great

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

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 eighth-century 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.

Bernard Cornwell. (Photo by Felix Clay)

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.

Alfred the Great

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.

ilver penny of King Alfred

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.

Ryan Lavelle is reader in early medieval history at the University of Winchester. His books include Cnut: The North Sea King (Allen Lane, 2017).


Killing cousins

The players in a bitter succession struggle

1

The dispossessed prince

Æthelwold aetheling

Æthelwold was a son of Æthelred I, king of Wessex from 865–71, and nephew of Alfred the Great. Perhaps born in the 860s, he was too young to succeed his father in 871. Æthelwold expected to be bequeathed lands in the will of his uncle, but these would have provided little recompense for the loss of the crown. He launched a rebellion against Edward the Elder, Alfred’s son and heir, which ended in his own death in battle in 902.

2

The appointed successor

Edward the Elder

Edward was the eldest surviving son of Alfred the Great. Born in the early 870s, he was intended for his father’s throne, and led a faction of the West Saxon army during the 890s. Quick to respond to his cousin’s rebellion, he put these military lessons into practice during campaigns in the early 10th century. His reign (899–924) was marked by the conquest of Danish and Viking lands as he built a ‘kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons’.

3

The Lady of the Mercians

Æthelflæd

The elder sister of King Edward, Æthelflæd was likely born around 870. At the time of Alfred’s death she was married to the Mercian ealdorman, Æthelred, and after Æthelred’s death in 911 led a force against the Vikings, establishing Mercian dominance in the Midlands and north before she died in 918. Æthelwold’s alliance with Mercian royal family members suggests there were some in the kingdom who lost out through the rise of King Alfred’s daughter.

4

The queen that never was

Ealhswith

This daughter of a nobleman and a Mercian princess was mother of Edward the Elder and wife of King Alfred – though she was never able to assume the title of ‘queen’ due to ninth-century West Saxon customs. The property she controlled hints at her influence in Winchester. Born perhaps in the 840s or 850s (she married Alfred in 868), Ealhswith died in December 902 when her son Edward was at war with Æthelwold.

5

The legendary unifying ruler

Alfred the Great

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The youngest of four royal brothers, Alfred came to power in his early twenties. Through a string of military victories and peace treaties, he maintained a hold on the West Saxon throne and built a kingdom that dominated southern England until his death in October 899. His dispossession of his nephews suggests a ruthless streak and a wish to secure succession for his immediate family.