The History of Ealdorman Alfric

On the Tuesdays in between the release days of my short stories, I will post additional details about the culture and historical figures featured in the preceding tale. Often, I will offer this information in the form of large quotes from history’s primary sources for the sake of objectivity. (Please note that due to various translations and language differences, the spelling of names varies considerably.)

Here is more of the truth, as one might best determine it, about:

ALFRIC OF MERCIA

In the tale called “Golde the Mother,” Golde and Hunwald are purely fictional characters. However, Lord Alfric and his actions in warfare are very real.

Alfric was the son of the previous ealdorman, Alfer, who may have also been called “Alfhere.” Thus he was somewhat related to King Eadgar. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as written by various monks of the time period, Ealdorman Alfer died in 983, at which time Alfric succeeded him.

There is little known about Alfric beyond the various instances of his treachery and the fact that he supported the payment of Danegald. There was probably a great deal of controversy around the Danegald. It was a high tax the king imposed on the people and then paid to the Danes as if to purchase peace. Sometimes, it worked. There are instances in which it kept the Vikings from coming back for anywhere from a few months to a couple of years. However, it severely crippled the people of their valuable resources, and every time, the Vikings returned eventually.

After Alfric became Ealdorman, his next appearance in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles comes in the year 986. Below is an excerpt from the Chronicle of Florence of Worcester:

A.D. 986. Aethelred, king of the English, on account of some quarrel, laid siege to the city of Rochester; but seeing that it would be difficult to reduce it, retired in wrath, and laid waste the lands of [the church of] St. Andrew the apostle. Alfric, ealdorman of the Mercians, son of the ealdorman Alfer, was driven out of England.

–Florence of Worcester, Entry Year 986

Once again, the reason King Ethelred might have sacked Rochester is unknown. However, there are also seems to have been a quarrel between the king and the bishop in the same city. William of Malmesbury writes in his own chronicles:

A quarrel between the king and the bishop of Rochester had arisen from some unknown cause; in consequence of which he led an army against that city. It was signified to him by the archbishop, that he should desist from his fury, and not irritate St. Andrew, under whose guardianship that bishopric was; for as he was ever ready to pardon, so was he equally formidable to avenge. This simple message being held in contempt, he graced the intimation with money, and sent him a hundred pounds, as a bribe, that he should raise the siege and retire. He therefore took the money, retreated, and dismissed his army.

William of Malmesbury, Chapter X

There is another instance in which King Ethelred raids his own kingdom sometime around the year 1001. Edward Freeman mentions in “Old English History for Children” that Ethelred sacked certain lands, such as Cumberland, that had failed or declined to pay the Danegald (pg. 207-208).

We do know, however, that Alfric supported the Danegald. Once again, this information comes from the Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, entry for year 991. As it reads, an ealdorman named Byrthnoth perished in a battle against the Vikings at Maldon, and the Danish emerged as victors.

Moreover in this year, first of all, and that by the advice of Siric, archbishop of Canterbury, and the ealdormen Aethelward and Alfric, a tribute of ten thousand pounds was paid to the Danes, as the price of their cessation from the frequent plunderings, burnings, and slaughters, which they used to make on the sea coast, and their concluding a lasting peace.”

–Florence of Worcester, Entry for Year 991

This peace must have not been very “concluding,” however, for it only lasted about a year. In 992 the Chronicles provides us the story of the incoming Vikings on the River Thames, and the details of Alfric’s defection.

Whatever may have happened in Rochester, Alfric must have won the king’s favor back again. The entry for year 992 tells us, as in the story of “Golde the Mother,” Ethelred brought the strongest ships from every port of England to London. Ealdorman Alfric was one of the many men, a group of bishops and ealdormen, in charge of a fleet. Their orders were “to catch the Danish army, if they could, in some port, and enclose them there.” But if Alfric truly had been exiled by Ethelred in the past, it seems he ought to have remained an outcast, for he still could not be trusted.

“… the ealdorman Aelfric secretly sent a messenger to the enemy, advising them to be on their guard, and take care that they were not unexpectedly surrounded by the king’s army. The ealdorman himself (a singular example of wickedness), on the very night before the English had determined to fight a pitched battle with the Danes, secretly went over with all his men to the Danish fleet, and shortly afterwards made a shameful retreat along with them. The king’s fleet finding this out pursued the fugitives with all haste ; one ship only was taken, and was pillaged after all on board had been massacred; the rest were accidentally encountered in their flight by only the Londoners and East Saxons, when, an engagement taking place, many thousand Danes were slain. Moreover they captured the ealdorman Alfric’s ship, with the soldiers and arms therein, just after he had fled from it, and they got the victory.

–Florence of Worcester, Entry for Year 992

It was not until 993 that King Ethelred made his way to Alfric’s home in order to exact punishment. But even in that case, the punishment was delivered not directly to Alfric himself, but his own son: “… King Aethelred ordered Algar, son of the said ealdorman Alfric, to be deprived of eye-sight” (Florence of Worcester, Entry Year 993).

If Eadric Streona was the son of Alfric, which is one of three possibilities offered by historians (the other two being Aethelward the Historian and Wulfric Spot), then there is little question as to why he (or his mother) would not want to advertise that fact.

Nonetheless, this is not the last time Alfric makes a dark blotch in the history books. Ten years later, he shows up once again, and is yet again given a fleet. How do you think he managed to win back King Ethelred’s favor? One can only speculate.

In this year Sweyn, king of the Danes, broke into the city of Exeter through the stupidity, carelessness, and surrender of Hugo, a Norman earl, whom queen Emma had set in command over Devonshire; and he plundered it, broke down the wall from the eastern to the western gate, and having gotten great booty went back to his ships. After this, as he was ravaging Wiltshire, a strong army out of Hampshire and Wiltshire assembled, and went up boldly and perseveringly to fight against the enemy. But when the armies had approached so near as to be in sight of each other, the before-mentioned ealdorman Alfric, who then was in command of the English, immediately began his old practices—feigned illness, and began to vomit, saying that he was grievously ill, and therefore could not engage the enemy. The army, seeing his inactivity and cowardice, very sorrowfully turned aside from the enemy without fighting; as it is said in the old proverb, ‘If the leader trembles in the fight, all the other combatants are thereby made more fearful.

–Florence of Worcester, Entry Year 1003

If you think that King Ethelred must have been foolish, or poorly counseled, then you are not alone in that interpretation. Next Tuesday, I will tell the story of King Ethelred’s rise to the throne at the age of eleven. The Second Lost Tale of Mercia is a haunting one, and illustrates why the entire reign of King Ethelred seems to have been cursed.

June 1st


Primary Sources:

Florence of Worcester, The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester

William of Malmesbury, William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England

Works cited:

Freeman, Edward A. Old English History for Children. London: MacMillan and Co., 1869. Web, Fall 2009.

Giles, J.A. Comp. William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England.” London: George Bell and Sons. 1904.

Stevenson, Jospeh, ed. The Church Historians of England. Seeleys, London.1865.

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Published in: on May 25, 2010 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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