Who was Edward the Elder? A brief guide to the Anglo-Saxon king

In season 4 of The Last Kingdom, King Alfred is dead, and his son King Edward plays a leading role in attempting to keep Wessex and Mercia together, while fending off the threat from the Vikings. So, who was Edward? We bring you a quick guide to the Anglo-Saxon king…

An early 14th-century portrait of 10th-century leader Edward the Elder

Who was Edward the Elder?

He was the son of King Alfred and Ealhswith of Mercia. A man of Wessex, he was probably born in the 870s and died in 924. After his father’s death in 899, and like Alfred, he was called king of the Anglo-Saxons, reflecting his overlordship of both Wessex and Mercia. He was married three times and had an estimated 14 children. His son, Aethelstan, succeeded him. He lived in a time when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had not yet coalesced into England, and when Vikings held sway in East Anglia and Northumbria.

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Timothy Innes as King Edward and Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred
Timothy Innes as King Edward (left) and Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred in S4 of ‘The Last Kingdom’. (Image by Carnival/adrienn szabo/Netflix)

Why is he known as ‘the Elder’?

The epithet is applied after his death, in the 10th century. It was to distinguish him, probably, from another King Edward, King Edward the Martyr, who reigned later in the 10th century.

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Magnus Bruun as Cnut in 'The Last Kingdom' season 4

How did Edward the Elder become king?

We don’t know much about Edward’s early years, but we do know that King Alfred seems to have recognised Edward as his heir: he is recorded as king alongside his father in a charter of the 890s. However, not everyone agreed that Edward had the right to succeed and, after Alfred’s death, Edward immediately faced competition for the crown from the deceased king’s nephew Aethelwold. According to historian Ryan Lavelle, Aethelwold “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”.

After Alfred’s death, Edward immediately faced competition for the crown from the deceased king’s nephew Aethelwold

Edward acted similarly swiftly though, encamping his army at the nearby Iron Age hill fort of Badbury Rings, and dousing down Aethelwold’s immediate threat. Aethelwold fled in the night.

Aethelwold continued to pose a challenge to Edward. He went north and allied with the Vikings there. He is recorded as king of the pagans. That meant that he was able to return to Wessex, via Essex and Mercia, with an army in 901/902. However, he died in a battle with Edward’s army at a place called the Holme. It’s assumed that conflicts between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings continued for the next few years following this battle, because there was a peace deal made in 906, but details are unclear.

How did Edward the Elder deal with the Vikings? 

In 909, Edward led an army of West Saxons and Mercians into Northumbria. They ravaged for five weeks and it is assumed that during this assault, the relics of the seventh-century Northumbrian royal saint Oswald were removed from their resting-place at Bardney in Lincolnshire and brought to Mercia. Oswald had become a popular saint by the early 10th century (his life is explored in this feature on the battle of Heavenfield). In response to the Anglo-Saxon incursion, the Northumbrian Vikings returned the favour by raiding into Mercia. Edward’s army confronted them at Wednesfield near Tettenhall, defeated the invaders, and sent them back behind the Humber.

For the next few years after Wednesfield, Edward spent his time dealing with the Vikings in East Anglia, carrying on the fortified town network started by King Alfred, and working to secure Mercia and reclaim its lost lands with his sister Aethelflaed and her husband, Ealdorman Æthelred (until his death in 911, after which Aethelflaed took direct control of Mercia). Aethelflaed died in 918 and, though she was initially succeeded by her daughter, Ælfwynn, it seems that Edward took the submission of the people of Mercia himself. He then continued to drive north into Northumbria and managed to achieve some sort of submission by the people living there, but Sean Miller, his biographer in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, doubts that he had direct control beyond the Humber.

How did Edward the Elder die, and who was his successor?

Edward died in 924, and was buried in his New Minster monastery in Winchester. His son Aethelstan continued to expand his father’s power base and styled himself the king of England after extending control over Northumbria. The triumvirate of father, son, and grandson in the form of Alfred, Edward and Aethelstan laid the foundations of England as single polity. As Tom Holland writes, “The story of how, over the course of three generations, the royal dynasty of Wessex went from near-oblivion to fashioning a kingdom that still endures today is the most remarkable and momentous in British history”.

Edward has perhaps been somewhat overlooked in comparison to his father and son – though a conference in 1999, in Manchester, on the 1100th anniversary of his accession, did result in an interesting collection of essays, and more recently, there have been a couple of biographies published about him.

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The Last Kingdom season four airs on Netflix from Sunday 26 April.