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Who were the key players in the struggle to succeed Alfred the Great?

Alfred the Great died on 26 October 899, a dark day for the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. Who would succeed the unifying ruler? Early medieval historian Ryan Lavelle rounds up the key players…

Timothy Innes as King Edward and Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred
Published: April 27, 2020 at 12:26 pm
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Æthelwold aetheling, the dispossessed prince

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.


Edward the Elder, the appointed successor

An early 14th-century portrait of 10th-century leader Edward the Elder
An early 14th-century portrait of 10th-century leader Edward the Elder. (Image by Alamy)

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’.

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Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians

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.

Millie Brady as Aethelflaed in series four of 'The Last Kingdom'. (Image by Carnival/adrienn szabo/Netflix)
Millie Brady as Aethelflaed in series four of 'The Last Kingdom'. (Image by Carnival/adrienn szabo/Netflix)

Ealhswith, the queen that never was

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.

Read more about the bitter struggle to succeed the great ruler, as Ryan Lavelle considers Alfred the Great's rebel nephew, Aethelwold


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


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