Europeenses

The ætheling Æthelstan’s deathbed will of 1014

On the Friday after the feast of midsummer in 1014 Ælfgar, the son of Æffa, brought the reply of King Æthelred Unræd to his son, the ætheling Æthelstan. The ailing prince was informed by his father that he could dispose of his estates and possessions as seemed fit. In a will that must have already been prepared Æthelstan passed on land and property in his possession to the Church, his family, his household, and other individuals. Later that day the heir to the English throne passed away.

Æthelstan is a shadowy figure in English history and little is known of him. He does not appear in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and his will is the primary piece of contemporary evidence we have for his life. His date of birth is unknown but it is likely that he was born in the early or mid 980’s shortly after the marriage of Æthelstan to Ælfgifu of York. He first appears in a royal charter of 993 confirming the rights and privileges of Abingdon Abbey, which he witnesses as Æþelstan eiusdem regis filius.[1] He continues to witness charters to 1013, invariably appearing first in the list of his brothers indicating his status as Æthelred’s heir. In his will he states that he was raised by his paternal grandmother, Ælfthryth, possibly at the royal estate at Æthelingadene (Dean, West Sussex). His will also tells us that he had a foster-mother, Ælfswith, to whom he gave land at Westune.

His death came at a critical juncture in Æthelred’s reign. In 1013 the Danish king Swegen had invaded England, forcing Æthelred to flee to Normandy where he sought refuge with his brother-in-law Duke Richard II. Swegen was declared king of England on Christmas Day, 1013, but died on February 3, 1014, opening the way for Æthelred’s return. Swegen’s son, Cnut, was forced to retreat, leaving Æthelred in possession of his kingdom once more. Little more than a year after Æthelstan’s death Cnut began his conquest of England which culminated with his coronation at Christmas, 1016, following the death of both Æthelred and of Æthelstan’s younger brother, King Eadmund.

Æthelstan’s will offers a fascinating insight into the world of the late Anglo-Saxon high-born. It reveals a male dominated world in which the Church and ownership of land and high status possessions figured large in the estimations of the wealthy aristocrat. In total Æthelstan bequeathed twenty-one estates located in at least ten counties of south-eastern England. His possessions included a string of horses, eleven swords, a byrnie, a silver-inlaid trumpet, a bohscyldes (? curved  shield or bow-shield), a drinking horn, items of silver plate, an arm ring, a golden belt, and a golden cross.

Æthelstan’s first bequest was the manumission of “every penally enslaved man whom I obtained through litigation;” a reminder that Anglo-Saxon society made a sharp distinction between the free and unfree in society. Manumission had been a feature of ecclesiastical wills following the statute of the Synod Chelsea, 816, which required that on the death of a bishop every man enslaved during his lifetime was to be freed.[2] It is possible that the presence of Bishop Ælfsige of Winchester and Abbot Byrhtmær of the New Minster at Winchester influenced this bequest but it should be recognised that it fits a pattern of manumission that appear in Anglo-Saxon lay and ecclesiastical wills as an aspect of alms made with the hope of receiving spiritual benefits.[3] Æthelstan’s will emphasises the centrality of religious belief. His ‘property’ and ‘chattels’ are disposed of, “to the glory of God and for the redemption of my soul and that of my father,” no mention being made of the financial or social benefits his bequests had. In addition to the freeing of slaves Æthelstan’s alms-giving included the transfer of a loan made by him to Æthelwold’s widow worth ‘twelve pounds by tale’, or weight, which was to be entrusted to Bishop Ælfsige ‘for my soul’. Presumably to ensure that Requiem Masses would be held for him. The land bequeathed to his brother, Eadmund, at Peacesdele (unidentified) came with the provision that one day’s food-rent be paid annually to the Benedictine monastery at Ely on St Æthelfryth’s day. This payment was to be used to feed one hundred paupers, with one hundred pence going to the monastery coffers.

The Church received sizeable land endowments from Æthelstan. The connections of the royal house of Wessex with Winchester are demonstrated in the grants its religious houses received. The Old Minster, Bishop Ælfsige’s see was granted estates at Adderbury in Oxfordshire, Marlow in Buckinghamshire, and Morden in Cambridgeshire, together with a sword, a golden belt, an arm ring, and a drinking horn. The Nunnaminster, later St Mary’s Abbey, received Hryðerafelda (? Rotherfield in either Hampshire, Oxfordshire, or Sussex) and a silver mele (bowl or ? cross). The New Minster was the beneficiary of a silver tureen. Other churches benefited too. Christ Church, Canterbury, received an estate at Hollingbourne in Kent, and one at Garwaldintune (? Garrington at Littlebourne, Kent). The Holy Cross and St Eadward the Martyr at Shaftesbury received six pounds.

This last is an interesting detail that may highlight tensions within the family, St Eadward the Martyr being the murdered king and half-brother of Æthelstan’s father Æthelred, who had died at the hands of Æthelred’s men in 978. Having been buried without “royal honours”[4] at Wareham his remains were transferred to the Nunnery at Shaftesbury where they were reburied with great ceremony, unattended by Æthelred. By 1001 Shaftesbury had become the centre of a royal cult and Æthelstan’s gift attests to his wish to at least honour the memory of his uncle. Æthelred’s involvement in the murder of Edward is unknown and most commentators are of the opinion that his young age at the time, between nine and thirteen years old, implies that he was not directly involved. This may be the case, but it is worth recalling that Æthelstan and his brothers Eadmund and Eadred were signing their father’s royal charters as witnesses at a similar age, indicating that royal children were at the least privy to the counsels and decisions of the king and his household. Æthelred may not have instigated Eadward’s murder, but the possibility exists that he was complicit.

The absence of Æthelstan’s stepmother, Emma of Normandy, may also indicate other tensions between Æthelstan and his father. Æthelred’s marriage to Emma following the death of Æthelstan’s mother, the queen-consort Ælfgifu, must have threatened Æthelstan’s position as heir apparent, particularly after the birth of his half-brothers Edward and Ælfred who are also not mentioned in the will. This may explain why Emma does not appear in the will, though it should be noted that no mention is made of Æthelstan’s mother or of his sisters, Eadgyth, Ælfgifu, and Wulfhilda. Indeed the only women mentioned in his will are his foster-mother and grandmother. A possible reason for Eadgyth’s absence might be her marriage to Eadric Streona, whose influence at court appears to have been unwelcome to Æthelstan. Two of the individuals mentioned in his will, the Yorkshire and East Midlands thegns Siferth and Morcar, were involved in opposition to Eadric. In 1015 they were betrayed and murdered by Eadric at the council of Oxford. Æthelred confiscated their property and committed Siferth’s widow, Ealdgyth, to the convent at Malmesbury, from where she was taken against the king’s will by Eadmund, who made her his wife.[5] Clearly tensions existed between opposing factions within the kingdom and Æthelstan appears to have been part of a group that stood against Eadric and presumably disapproved of Æthelred’s support of him. Eadric’s influence in Æthelred’s court can only be described as baleful. Following Æthelred’s death in 1016 he briefly supported Edmund before betraying him to Cnut. His long trail of murder and betrayal ended with his death in 1017, suspected of treason once more, this time against Cnut.

Though Eadric is the arch-traitor of Anglo-Saxon history he was not alone in taking action against the king. Forfeiture of lands was an accepted punishment for wrongdoing and Æthelstan’s will appears to give evidence of restitution of forfeited lands in at least three instances. Land at Quatt in Shropshire that had been taken from Leofwine was granted to Leofwine’s brother, Leofstan. The Land at Bygrave in Hertfordshire belonging Æthelstan was returned to Leofgar from whom it had been taken. The third instance, the return of land at Cumtune (? Compton in Sussex) to Godwine the son of Wulfnoth, is particularly interesting. Though it is not possible to confirm Godwine’s identity with absolute certainty, he is in all probability the later earl Godwine, the leading earl under Cnut and Edward the Confessor, and father of the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson.

Godwine’s father Wulfnoth Cild had been accused of an unspecified crime in 1009 by Beorhtric, the brother of who else but Eadric Streona. Wulfnoth resorted to harrying the southern coast of England with a fleet of twenty ships. Beorhtric pursued him, but his fleet of eighty ships was driven ashore with great damage by a storm, whereupon Wulfnoth had them burned.[6] These actions were set against the background of the raising of a grand fleet of three hundred ships by Æthelred to oppose the Danes.[7] The end result of the destruction and diversion of a third of this force was the disbandment of the fleet and the unopposed invasion of the Danes who landed at Sandwich in August and, having secured three thousand pounds in tribute from Kent, continued on to ravage Sussex, Hampshire and Berkshire. At the point when Æthelred and the English levies seemed in a position to bring the Danes to battle Eadric, in the words of the Chronicle, “prevented them.”[8] In 1013 Godwine’s grandfather, Æthelmær, submitted to Swegen at Bath along with the western thegns, a crucial turning point in Æthelred’s fortunes which rapidly led to Swegen’s success and Æthelred’s brief Norman exile.[9] Though no records exist it is entirely reasonable to assume that Æthelred would have punished Wulfnoth and Æthelmær with confiscations of their property. By 1014 the family, represented by Godwine, was presumably back in royal favour, or at least in good standing with Æthelstan as evidenced by the return of the lands at Cumtune.

The will also casts light on Æthelstan’s household retinue which included a mæssepreost (mass-priest or chaplain) named Ælfswine who received land at Heorulfestun (? Harston in Cambridgeshire). His cniht (retainer), Æthelwine, received back a sword which he himself had given to Æthelstan. A notched sword with inlaid ornament was granted to his swurdhitan (sword-polisher), Ælfnoth. His discþene (literally dish-thegn, steward in modern English), Ælfmær received eight hides at Catherington in Hampshire, a roan stallion, and another notched sword. This is probably the same Ælfmær mentioned in a previous clause in which eight hides of land were exempted from the bequest of land at Chalton, Hampshire, to Æthelred. It is also highly probable that the discþene  as an important functionary within Æthelstan’s household is the same Ælfmar seen witnessing the will alongside Eadmund, Bishop Ælfsige, and Abbot Byrhtmær. Æthelstan’s unnamed headeor hunton, (stag-huntsman) was granted Æthelstan’s stodes (stud farm) at Coldridge near Ludgershall in Wiltshire. Horses were an important commodity in Anglo-Saxon England in terms of status and financial wealth. As well as disposing of his stud Æthelstan bequeathed six horses to recipients of his will. The two given to his father further indicate their importance and use as gift items, one having been given to Æthelstan by Thurbrand, the other, a white horse, given to him by Leofwine.

Of equal, if not greater, value in status were swords, of which eleven were bequeathed by Æthelstan who gave swords to his father and his brothers Eadmund and Eadwig, among others. Four appear to be of special significance within a society in which swords were highly prized. With the land granted to the Old Minster came a silver-hilted sword which Wulfric made, along with a golden belt and an arm ring made by the same man. Wulfric was clearly a wundor-smiþ who made wonderful things whose name added prestige to Æthelstan’s ownership and to the bequest. Several of the swords are described as variously ornamented and one, given to Eadric, the son of Wynflæd, is described as, “the sword on which the hand is marked.” This probably referred to a hand of God motif etched on to the blade. Even if this is not the case the ‘hand’ was distinctive enough to deserve special mention.

Æthelred also received a silver-hilted sword from his son and in this case the added value came from its provenance as the sword that, “belonged to Ulfcytel.” Perhaps this was Ulfcytel Snilling, the East Anglian thegn who put up a spirited defence against the Danes and who fell fighting at Ashingdon in 1016 alongside Eadmund. If this is the case the bequeathal of the sword may also have been a pointed reminder from Æthelstan of the need for his father to resist the Danes, rather than pay them off. Of greater value than this sword was the one given to Eadmund which had belonged to King Offa. If it was the sword of Offa of Mercia (reigned 757-796) it would have been over two hundred years old and handed down through several generations. A connection with the semi-legendary Offa of Angel, however improbable, would have lent even greater status to the sword. Whichever was the case, and a connection with the historical Mercian king does seem much more likely, the attachment of a specific lineage clearly makes this an object of heirloom status. It is purely conjectural but it is not unreasonable to think that Offa’s sword had been handed down through royal lines and that by the eleventh century had perhaps become a symbolic trapping for the heir to the throne. This would at least explain why Eadmund rather than Æthelred received the sword, and why such a valuable heirloom was in Æthelstan’s possession, rather than his father’s. Of course it may simply have been due to the close bond that appears to have existed among the brothers. In either case it was a significant and valuable bequest.

Financial worth and value, as opposed to ideological or prestige value, also appears within Æthelstan’s will. The land at Adderbury was valued at 200 mancuses of gold and five pounds of silver. That at Marlow was worth 250 mancuses of gold by weight, as was the land at Cumtune.[10] The silver mele and silver tureen, the golden belt, the arm ring, the drinking horn, the silver inlaid trumpet, and the golden cross, together with the emphasis on units of weight as a measurement of value imply an awareness of the bullion value of material possessions, at least within the English elite who held substantial landed interests and were located in the comparatively rich area of southern and eastern England.[11]

We can also learn something of Æthelstan the man. The bequests to the members of his household indicate his gratitude for their services. We can infer that Æthelstan enjoyed hunting and respected the abilities of his stag-huntsman; why else bequeath him his valuable Wiltshire horse-stud? His loan to Æthelwold’s widow places him in the position of benefactor, perhaps to be expected from a man in his position. This role is reinforced by the instruction to ensure that Ælfric of Barton and the wonderfully named Godwine Drefelan, the Driveller or Slobberer, were to be as “well maintained from my gold as my brother Eadmund knows that I rightly ought to pay them.” In this clause Æthelstan appears keen to reward services or loyalty rendered to him during his lifetime. The value of the bequests to his brother and the responsibility given to him to implement parts of the will suggest a close relationship between Æthelstan and Eadmund. His action in asking for his father’s permission to make his will as he saw fit and his concern for his “dear” father’s soul suggest filial respect and a concern for conducting business in the proper manner. Æthelstan’s address to the witan may also be regarded in this latter light, rather than as an attempt to forestall opposition from the king or his counsellors. His respect for the important women in his life, his grandmother Ælthryth and his foster-mother Ælswith, is clear. Both would have played have an important part in his childhood and one wonders why Æthelstan made no mention of his mother, Ælfgifu of York.

His mother’s will is dated between 990 and 1001, and 1002 is given as her approximate date of death, based largely on Æthelred’s marriage to Emma in that year and estimations of the age of her children based on their careers. Given that the elder brothers, Æthelstan, Ecgberht, Eadmund, and Eadred were witnessing charters by 993, presumably aged between eight and eleven, the appearance of Eadwig as a charter witness in 997,[12] and of Edgar in 1001[13] would imply they were then of a similar age, giving a possible birth year of between 987-989 for Eadwig, and 991-992 for Edgar. Similarly, Æthelstan’s sister Eadgyth was born before 993 and is thought to have married Eadric Streona shortly after 1007. At the very least she would have been fifteen when she wed and very possibly older. Another sister, Ælfgifu, married Uhtred of Northumbria around 1013, while Wulfhilda married Ulfcytel Snilling at an unknown date but certainly before 1016 when Ulfcytel was killed at Ashingdon. If we posit that Ælfgifu and Wulfhilda were born by 995 neither would have been more than twenty when they were married: an age that does not seem unreasonable for the time given that Eadgyth of Wessex was twenty when she married King Edward the Confessor in 1045. With this in mind the possibility exists that Ælfgifu of York may have died in the mid 990’s, perhaps as early as 995. If this was the case Æthelstan is likely to have been little more than twelve years old and with his upbringing in the hands of his grandmother and foster-mother his relationship with his mother may not have been well developed. This is pure conjecture, but it would provide an explanation as to why Æthelstan did not name Ælfgifu in his will. In this light his mention of, “Ælfthryth, my grandmother, who brought me up,” might be seen as expressing both gratitude to Ælfthryth and a sense of loss for a mother he may not have had the opportunity to get to know.

Æthelstan’s will reveals a warrior prince with a considerable household and with extensive land holdings throughout south-eastern England. As well as land he was richly endowed in material possessions, many of which were items of social and ideological, as well as material value. The weaponry and horses bequeathed suggest a male dominated world, reinforced perhaps by the relative absence of women as beneficiaries, though the two women that are mentioned were clearly dear to him. While his relationship with his brother Eadmund was close we can discern tensions that existed between Æthelstan and his father, Æthelred. Arguably both Æthelstan and Eadmund were associated with a disaffected aristocracy who resented the influence of Eadric Streona and his circle in royal counsel. Like all his Christian contemporaries Æthelstan was concerned for his soul and the souls of others. One wonders what thoughts passed through his mind in the hours left to him after the will was witnessed. Perhaps they turned to the poem The Wanderer[14]and the verse:

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago?         Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu?         Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune,         eala byrnwiga,
eala þeodnes þrym.         Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm,         swa heo no wære.

Where is the horse now, where the young man?
Where is the gift-giver, and where the benches
for feasting? Where the mirth of the hall?
Alas for the bright cup, alas for the mailed warrior,
Alas for the glory of the prince. That time is over,
passed into night as if it had never been.

The Will of Æthelstan ætheling.

In the name of Almighty God. I, the ætheling Æthelstan, declare in this document how I have granted my property and my chattels, to the glory of God and for the redemption of my soul and that of my father, King Æthelred, from whom I acquired it. First I grant that every penally enslaved man whom I obtained through litigation be freed. And I grant to Christ and St Peter, along with me [at the place] where I shall rest, the land at Adderbury [Oxon.] which I bought from my father for 200 mancuses of gold, by weight, and for five pounds of silver. And the land at Marlow [Bucks.] which I bought from my father for 250 mancuses of gold, by weight; and the land at Morden [Cambs.] which my father leased to me, I grant to that holy place for both our souls; and I entreat him that it may stand for the love of God, and of St Mary and of St Peter; and the sword with the silver hilt which Wulfric wrought, and the golden belt and the arm-ring which Wulfric wrought, and the drinking-horn which I had bought from the community at Old Minster [Winchester]. And I wish that the money which Æthelwold’s widow owes me in payment, which I have advanced for her benefit, be taken and entrusted to Bishop Ælfsige and the Old Minster for my soul, that is twelve pounds by tale. And I grant to Christ Church in Canterbury the estate at Hollingbourne [Kent] and what belongs to it (except for the one sulung which I have granted to Siferth) and the estate at Garwaldingtun. And I grant the estate at Rotherfield [Hants., Oxon. or Sussex] to the Nunnaminster [Winchester], by the grace of St Mary, and a silver mele [bowl or ? cross] of five pounds; and to the New Minster [Winchester] a silver tureen of five pounds, in the name of the Holy Trinity, to which that place is dedicated. And I give to the Holy Cross and St Edward [the Martyr] at Shaftesbury the six pounds about which I have given instructions to my brother Eadmund. And to my father, King Æthelred, I grant the land at Chalton [Hants.], except the eight hides which I have granted to my retainer Ælfmær, and the land at Norton, and the land at Mollington [Oxon.], and the silver-hilted sword that belonged to Ulfketel, and the byrnie which Morcar has, and the horse which Thurbrand gave to me, and the white horse which Leofwine gave to me. And to my brother Eadmund I grant the sword which belonged to King Offa, and the sword with the ‘pitted’ hilt, and a blade and a silver-inlaid trumpet, and the lands which I obtained in East Anglia, and the land in Peacesdele. And I wish that each year there shall be paid one day’s food-rent from this land to the community at Ely on the feast-day of St Æthelthryth, and that 100 pence shall be given to that monastery, and 100 paupers fed there on that day; and let this alms-payment be carried out for ever annually, whoever may possess the land, as long as Christianity shall endure. And if those who have the estates will not carry out the alms-giving, the property shall go to St Æthelthryth’s. And I grant to my brother Eadwig a silver-hilted sword. And I grant to Bishop Ælfsige a golden cross, which Eadric, Wynflæd’s son, has, and a black stallion. And I grant to Ælfmær the land at Hambleden [Berks.], which he previously possessed; and I beseech my father, for God Almighty’s sake and for mine, that he will allow what I have granted to him. And I grant to Godwine, Wulfnoth’s son, the land at Cumtune which his father had possessed. And I grant to my foster-mother, Ælfswith, because of her great deserts, the land at Westune, which I bought from my father for 250 mancuses of gold, by weight. And to my mass-priest Ælfwine I grant the land at Heorulfestun [? Harston, Cambs.] and the ornamented sword which belonged to Withar, and my horse with my trappings. And I grant to my ‘dish-thegn’ Ælfmær the eight hides at Catherington [Hants.], and a roan stallion, and the damaged sword. And I grant to Sigeferth the estate at Hockliffe [Beds.], and a sword, and a horse and my ‘bow-shield’. And I grant to Æthelweard the Stammerer and to Lyfing the estate at Tewin [Herts.]. And I grant to Leofstan, the brother of Leofwine, Quatt [Shrops.], the landed property which I had taken from his brother. And to Leofmær of Bygrave [Herts.] I grant the land which I have taken from him. And I grant to Godwine the Driveller the three hides at Ludgershall [probably Wilts.]. And I grant to Eadric, the son of Wynflæd, the sword on which the hand is marked. And I grant to my retainer Æthelwine the sword which he has given me. And I grant to Ælfnoth my sword-furbisher, the damaged ornamented sword, and to my staghuntsman the stud which is on Coldridge [i.e., on the borders of Ludgershall, Wilts.]. And Ælfric of Barton and Godwine the Driveller are to be as well maintained from my gold as my brother Eadmund knows that I ought rightly to pay them. Now I thank my father in all humility, in the name of Almighty God, for the answer which he sent me on the Friday after the feast of midsummer by Ælfgar, Æffa’s son; which, as he told me in my father’s words, was that I might, by God’s leave and his, grant my estates and my possessions as seemed to me most advisable, both for God and the world. And my brother Eadmund and Bishop Ælfsige [Winchester] and Abbot Byrhtmær [New Minster, Winchester] and Ælfmær, Ælfric’s son, are witnesses of this answer. Now I pray all the councillors, both ecclesiastical and lay, who may hear my will read, that they will help to secure that my will may stand, as my father’s permission stands in my will. I now declare that all those things which I have granted to God, to God’s church and God’s servants, are done for the soul of my dear father, King Æthelred, and for mine, and for the soul of Ælfthryth, my grandmother, who brought me up, and for the souls of all those who shall give me their help with these benefactions. And who in any matter perverts this will, may he settle with Almighty God and with St Peter and with all those who praise God’s name.[15]

[1] S 876 King Æthelred to Abingdon Abbey, The Electronic Sawyer, http://www.esawyer.org.uk/charter/876.html
[2] Linda Tollerton, Wills and Will-Making in Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2011), 183.
[3] Ibid., 184.
[4] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E Peterborough, entry for 978.
[5] Ibid., entry for 1015.
[6] Ibid., entry for 1009
[7] Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. and trans. by Alistair Campbell, Camden 3rd Series, no. 72 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1949), 21.
[8] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E Peterborough, entry for 1009.
[9] Ibid., 1013.
[10] A mancuse as a unit of weight approximated to 4.25 grams for gold, Rory Naismith, “Payments for Land and Privilege in Anglo-Saxon England,” Anglo Saxon England 41 (Dec 2012): 309.
[11] Naismith, “Payments for Land and Privilege in Anglo-Saxon England,” 315.
[12] S891 King Æthelred to Old Minster, Winchester, The Electronic Sawyer, http://www.esawyer.org.uk/charter/891.html: Eadwig appears as filius regis
[13] S 899 King Æthelred to Shafestbury Abbey, The Electronic Sawyer, http://www.esawyer.org.uk/charter/899.html: Edgar appears as Adgar filius regis
[14] The Wanderer is preserved in the Exeter Book, an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry which is thought to have been collated in the latter half of the 10th century.
[15] S 1503 Will of the Ætheling Æthelstan, The Electronic Sawyer, http://www.esawyer.org.uk/charter/1503.html Reproduced courtesy of The Electronic Sawyer.

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