From 939 to 959, England saw the face of five kings. The shortest reign: only four years. For certain, other English rulers experienced abbreviated reigns—Edmund Ironside and Richard III, to name a few—but the consecutively short tenures of these tenth-century monarchs has sparked an interest in some historians and historical fiction writers, as well. Annie Whitehead—author of To Be a Queen and Alvar the Kingmaker—kindly shares her research and opinion on what might have killed some of these early English kings. Was it natural causes or something more sinister?
Breaking News, October 1st, AD 959: King Edwy dies suddenly, aged 19. His younger brother will henceforth be king of the whole country.
Nobody questions. Nobody accuses. This family has a habit of dying young; it’s well documented. The younger brother goes on to reign so successfully that he gains the nickname “the peaceable.” He gets a good write-up in the press and all his favourite churchmen get Sainthoods.Case closed.
Hmm. Okay. Well, we can’t examine the facts, because that’s all we’ve got – Edwy died. So let’s do a little bit of detective work, because while the chronicles of the time called it death, I like to call it murder.
First of all, let’s take a look at this family of “Ed” kings who had such a propensity to die young:
In 937 Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, had won a decisive victory over the Scots and Irish, but died two years later. For whatever reason, he neither married nor produced offspring. Commentators kindly speculated that this was because he was nobly saving the throne for his brothers, but I don’t think so. They were not his full brothers, and I have reason to suppose that he was not overly enamoured of his half-brothers (but more of that later.)
Well, whatever the truth of the matter, when he died the throne passed to his half-brother, Edmund. It seemed the royal line of succession was assured when Edmund’s wife bore him two sons. But Edmund died when his sons were aged just 6 and 2 and he himself was only about 25.
The boys, considered too young to rule, were overlooked and the crown then passed to another of Athelstan’s half-brothers, Eadred. He managed to chase Erik Bloodaxe, the notorious Viking, out of York, but the effort seemed to have exhausted him because he, too, died realtively young at around the age of 32. He was unmarried and childless.
So the line of succession went back to his little nephews, the sons of Edmund. The eldest of the two, who was by this stage aged about 15, was crowned king. Edwy (Eadwig) was famously good-looking. In fact, he was caught in bed on his coronation night with his wife…and her mother. He was not, it’s fair to say, universally loved. And waiting in the wings was his little brother, Edgar. He actually remained fairly little throughout his life, but being short of stature didn’t stop Napoleon (yes, I know that fact’s been discredited in recent years, but it suits my point).
A lot of ink has been spilled in the debate over what happened next, but it seems that Edgar rather wanted to be a king and didn’t really want to wait for his brother to die. Edwy tried to ingratiate himself with the nobles by giving away land, but it seems they were not swayed, and in 957, two years into his reign, Edwy’s kingdom was carved up, with his younger brother being declared king in Mercia and Northumbria. Edwy was left with Wessex.
So far, so peaceful. After all, it was not unprecedented to divide a kingdom among sons – remember Athelstan? When his father died, Athelstan (his natural firstborn son) was declared king of Mercia, while his eldest half-brother was given the kingdom of Wessex. But … Mysteriously, and extremely conveniently, that half-brother was dead within four weeks, and Athelstan became king of both countries (which at this time, effectively meant being king of the whole of English England.) Now, I’m not accusing Athelstan, (okay, I am!) but I really don’t think he liked his half-brothers overly much!
Anyway, back to 957, and the two brothers who are sort of sharing the kingship. Edgar, the littlest, holds court in London and Edwy, the elder brother, remains in the Southwest. Yet for some reason, in the autumn of 959, Edwy’s to be found in Gloucester, which is not in Wessex, but the heart of Mercia. And then, on the 1st of October, aged just nineteen, he drops dead. At the time, there was no suggestion of foul play. But there’s something which needs to be borne in mind: Remember Edwy’s bedroom shenanigans on the night of his coronation? After he was chastised for having over-friendly relations with his wife’s mother, he banished Abbot Dunstan, who was subsequently recalled from exile by Edgar and became one of the leading lights of the monastic reform movement, and was eventually canonised. Dunstan’s hagiography was written, like all chronicles at this time, by a monk. Clerics writing the pages of history will tend to write favourably about those who have been generous to them, or who they think have been most pious. Edgar was known for his piety and for his support of the monastic reformers, and there is simply no chance that any finger of suspicion would have been pointed, much less would the accusations have been committed to vellum.
Yes, the men in the royal family had a habit of dying young. Yes, it’s quite feasible that Edwy choked, or had undiagnosed heart failure, or just had a surfeit of something, which was quite a favourite way to expire among later medieval kings. But add to this the fact that the new Archbishop of Canterbury, a political rival of Dunstan’s, also died in mysterious circumstances that same year, allowing Dunstan to become Archbishop in his place, and it’s starting to add up to something a bit more suspicious. I have no proof, of course, but absence of evidence didn’t help Richard III’s case much, either. Those little boys in the tower could also have died of natural causes. But does anybody believe that?
Here’s that little family tree again, just because those Ed names can get a bit confusing. And a little footnote: See ‘Edward the Martyr’? History sort of repeated itself, because when Edgar died, (aged 32, no foul play suspected) he left two young sons by different mothers. The eldest was crowned, but was murdered, allegedly by retainers of his stepmother, on behalf of his half-brother, who then became king. Sound familiar?
“Edwy’s cause of death remains unknown.” Yep, but I think I might have an idea…
Annie Whitehead is a history graduate who now works as an Early Years music teacher. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016. Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, which tells the story of Aelfhere of Mercia, a nobleman in the time of King Edgar, is available now, and is the story of one man’s battle to keep the monarchy strong and the country at peace, when successive kings die young. Attempting to stay loyal to all those who depend on him, he must make some very personal sacrifices. Annie is currently working on the novel which was a prize-winning entry in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition and which she was encouraged by judge Fay Weldon to complete. To keep up with Annie’s research and writing, follow her on her blog or on Facebook.
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