The Tale of A Murdered King
Please welcome my special guest Patricia Bracewell
I am pleased and honored to be a guest blogger today at The Review, and grateful to Paula Lofting for inviting me. Thank you, Paula!
My debut novel, Shadow on the Crown, is set in 11th century England during the reign of Æthelred II, an Anglo-Saxon king who came to the throne in 978 under a cloud of suspicion and mistrust. It is that story – of a disputed succession and the brutal murder of a young king – that I wish to share with you today. But first I must introduce Æthelred’s father, King Edgar, whose complicated marital history would lead to trouble between his sons.
Edgar seems to have had three wives in a row, and children by each of them. The contemporary sources for this are scanty, but later chroniclers (monks, usually) were utterly fascinated with the king’s sex life. There are reports, for example, of shenanigans in a convent with one woman, and of the murder of the inconvenient husband of another so that Edgar could wed the beautiful and not-very-grief-stricken widow. Most modern historians regard these as heavily embroidered tales, so let me set those aside and give you the (probable) facts.
When Edgar’s father died in 957 England was divided between his two sons. Edgar inherited the northern kingdoms of Mercia and Northumberland, and it was about this time that he had a relationship with the daughter of a Mercian landowner. Her name was Æthelflæd, and she gave birth to his first son, Edward, probably in 958 or 959.
In 960 Edgar became king of all England when his brother died childless. He also began some kind of relationship with Wulfthryth, the daughter of a southern lord. Was Edgar’s first wife still alive? We don’t know. We only know that in 961 Wulfthryth (wife #2) gave birth to Edgar’s daughter Edgyth, and that mother and daughter would spend their lives in a convent. Was Wulfthryth already a nun when she began her liaison with Edgar? We don’t know. (You can see why the chronicler monks got so excited. A nun! A king! There must have been royal debauchery!)
But Edgar wasn’t finished with women yet. In 964, with Æthelflæd (wife #1) a shadowy memory and with Wulfthryth (wife #2) and baby Edgyth permanently stowed behind convent walls he married Ælfthryth (wife #3), the widow of a wealthy and powerful nobleman. She gave Edgar two sons: Edmund was born in 966 but would die in 971 at age five; and Æthelred, the youngest of all of Edgar’s sons, was born in 967 or 968.
Here’s the really important thing, though, about Ælfthryth: she was the only one of Edgar’s consorts who was a crowned queen of England. Because of that crown, her sons were considered more royal – more throne-worthy – than Edgar’s other children.
Alas, King Edgar died quite unexpectedly in 975 at age thirty-two. Soon afterwards a comet blazed across England – a thing of wonder, but also a portent of catastrophe as far as the English were concerned, especially since there were two half-brothers now eyeing the throne, each with supporters urging their claims. Edward was the eldest at 15, but he was the son of a perhaps dodgy early liaison. Æthelred was only about eight, but his mother was the Dowager Queen and she had friends in high places. The stage was set for conflict, and the debates must have been long and acrimonious. In the end, Edward and his supporters won, but not everybody was happy about it; Edward’s brief reign was characterized by unrest among the nobles of England.
Things came to a bloody pass in 978. Æthelred and his mother were staying at Corfe, and King Edward stopped by to visit. He never left alive. He was murdered there, stabbed, we’re told, as he was welcomed by his stepmother. He fell from his saddle, was dragged some distance by his horse, and was hastily buried in a churchyard about five miles away.
And so, in 978, Edgar’s youngest son Æthelred was crowned king. The murdered Edward gained a certain renown, though: for centuries he would be revered as St. Edward the Martyr.
Nobody was ever officially blamed for Edward’s death, but there were rumors. In the decades that followed, Æthelred’s mother would be branded the wickedest of stepmothers who had arranged the murder of her stepson so that her boy could take the crown. How accurate that was, or how active a role she played is still open to debate.
But chroniclers who lived 900 years closer to the event than we do, who saw the hand of a wrathful God at work in the Viking raids that beset England throughout Æthelred’s long reign had no doubts: Queen Ælfthryth was guilty of murder, and her son was tarred with the same brush. Twelfth century chronicler William of Malmesbury even went so far as to report a dire prophecy made by the archbishop who placed the crown on Æthelred’s young head:
Inasmuch as you aimed at the throne through the death of your own brother, now hear the word of the Lord. The sin of your shameful mother and the sin of the men who shared in her wicked plot shall not be blotted out except by the shedding of much blood of your miserable subjects.Gesta Regum Anglorum
William of Malmesbury
Ed. & Translated by R.A.B. Mynors, 1998
Twenty four years after that coronation and after countless Viking raids had shed a great deal of English blood, Emma of Normandy arrived to be crowned Æthelred’s queen and to become stepmother to his six sons and four daughters. For just like his father, Æthelred had made an earlier marriage to a woman who was never given a crown. The king and his sons would have known that family history – that tale of an ambitious queen who plotted the murder of her stepson so that Æthelred could rule. As they greeted the new queen and stepmother from Normandy, did they worry that Emma might have a son, and that their bloody family history might one day be repeated?
It is in such an atmosphere of tension and misgiving that my novel, Shadow on the Crown, begins.
Based on real events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Patricia Bracewell’s historical novel Shadow on the Crown introduces readers to a fascinating, oft-forgotten period of history, when ghosts stalked the halls of power, God’s hand was at work in the affairs of men, and death was never more than a whisper away.
Now available in paperback in the U.S. and the U.K.
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