12 The last King in Jorvik


Edmund the Magnificent and Eadred finally defeat Eric Bloodaxe, the last king of Jorvik. But there are some social clouds on the horizon.

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Edmund the Magnificant and Eadred finally defeat Eric Bloodaxe, the last king of Jorvik. But there are some social clouds on the horizon in the History of England.

Last week we talked about Athelstan the Glorious; this week it’s the turn of his brother, Edmund the Magnificant, Edmund the Just and er, Edmund the Deed Doer. Athelstan ended his reign on a high, but pretty much as soon as he died, Humpty fell off the wall, and Edmund was to spend a fair proportion of his unfortunately short life putting him back together again.

Edmund was born in 922, and therefore was just 24 when his brother died. His life and his reign was short, but by the time he died in 945 after a 6 year reign Humpty had indeed been put back where he belonged.

The first thing Edmund actually did was get married, to Aelgith. We know very little about here, except that she was later declared a saint, and that she was the mother of Edwig and Edgar, and died young in 944. Edmund immediately re-married, but there were to be no more children.

While Edmund was getting hitched, Northumbria and the Norsemen were again causing problems. Olaf Guthfrithson had been decisively defeated by Athelstan, and his 15 year old brother Edmund, at the battle of Brunanburgh in 937, and fled on his ships back to Dublin. But when he heard of Athelstan’s death, he clearly felt he should have another go, and set sail for Northumbria with a fresh army.

He appears to have caught Edmund napping, and by the end of 939 he was in possession of York again, apparently without having met any resistance. So, safely established in York, Olaf decided he wanted more; or possibly he knew from previous experience that the English would not just leave him alone, and that if wanted to be safe in Northumbria, we would at some point have to deal with Edmund. He also probably figured that there is no time like the present, while Edmund would be feeling his way on the throne. So he gathered his army, and went South.

Opinion in the Danish lands of England was probably split about whether Olaf was a good thing or a bad thing, but Olaf could not not rely on getting much support from the Danish people. Olaf was a Norseman, a Norweigan, and the Danes had no great love of the Norsemen. However, one of the later chroniclers gives a lot of credit to one of Olaf’s supporters called Orm. Orm was a Danish Jarl, i.e. the equivalent of a Saxon Thegn, and clearly an important man in Athelstand and Edmund, having signed charters under their rule, and it is likely that he was in control of the Borough of Leicester

Jarl Orm joined Olaf, helped his invasion succeed, and married his daughter to him. So there were clearly great men who wanted to see Olaf succeed.

It’s also a good time to introduce you to the Archbishop of York, Wulfstan. We know that Olaf is a pagan, because he minted a silver penny in York, which is famously in Old Norse and bears the Raven, the symbol of Odin. Despite this, it seems reasonably clear that Wulfstan was on Olaf’s side, and with him throughout his second shot at the Northumbrian rule. Wulfstan will continue to be a player in this story, and some have even attributed to him the roll of Northumbrian king maker.

It’s terribly difficult to tell, because the records are so patchy, but see what you think and maybe we can have a ‘Fool or a knave’ vote at the end. Certainly as you’ll see, the English Kings know something’s up, but he manages to survive.

Olaf Gurthfrithson was also joined by Olaf Sihtricson, who’s father we have already met as rule of York in the early part of Athelstan’s reign. I’m going to call him Sihticson, and the other one Olaf. I’m sorry for this, but you try to say Guthfrithson a few times – it’s not easy.

After 50 years of pretty much continuous English success, Olaf would have come as something of a shock to Edmund. Edmund had very probably thought Olaf beaten for ever at the battle of Brunanburgh in 937, but before he knew it, Olaf had carried his raid over the Midlands, and arrived at the gates of Northampton. There Olaf had his first setback and was apparently unable to take the burgh, and so turned North West to the traditional centre of Mercian power, Tamworth.

Olaf ransacked Tamworth and the surrounding countryside. In the process, one of the prisoners he took was a noblewoman called Wulfruna. Wulvfruna was very well off, and as you may or may not know Saxon women held property in their own right on an equal basis to men. Anyway, Wulfruna was apparently ransomed or rescued since she is subsequently credited with found the town of Wolverhampton.

By this time, Edmund had finally recovered from his shock, gathered his wits and got an army together. He found Olaf’s army returning with it’s plunder near the Danish burgh of Leicester.

It’s once again not exactly clear what happens. The version of the ASC I have would have me believe that Edmund probably had Olfa and Wulfstan whipped, but the sneaky Norseman managed to slip out, and then Edmund decided to be nice to him, despite all the ravaging and stuff. This doesn’t seem entirely convincing, or rather not at all convincing, and the story is more likely that Edmund tried to get into Leicester, and doesn’t manage it. So they came to terms, and quite likely brokered by the Archbishops of York and Canterbury. The treaty established peace, but it also gave the 5 boroughs back to Olaf, and has to be regarded as a stunning defeat for Edmund.

Edmund returned to Winchester to lick his wounds and probably plan vengeance; Olaf turned his mind to Bamburgh. Clearly his earlier success had delivered him most of Northumbria, but not the very northern part of the Kingdom, formerly known as Bernicia north of the River Tees, and he wanted that too.

We know that Olaf got to the very far north, ravaging the church at a place called Tyninghame, now in Scotland. We also know that he died up there, but we don’t really know if Bernicia is brought back into the Northumbrian old or not. We will see later in 949 that there is a ‘High Reeve’ in Bamburgh called Oswulf.

Anyway, the main point is that Olaf Guthfrithson died in 941, to be succeeded by his friend Olaf Sightricson, great grandson of Ivarr the Boneless, who now wanted to have as second go at being King of Northumbria.


To be brutal, his second attempt was no more successful than his first, because Edmund had recovered his wa, and was going back on the offensive. In 942, just two years after he had lost them, Edmund stormed back through the 5 Boroughs and won them back permanently. The ASC breaks  into poetry again and sings:

‘The Danes had been long under the Norseman’s rule, forced at need

Held in chains of heathen slavery

Suffering long until released again’


If we take this at face value, the Danes saw Edmund as a liberator, and certainly there is clearly great rivalry between Danes and Norsemen, and many historians do accept the point. So despite the example of Jarl Orm, the Anglo Danes appear to be well on the way to assimilating into a new English society.


Up in Northumbria, the Norsemen did their best to make things easier for Edmund by starting a Civil war. Wulfstan and the Northumbrians appeared unimpressed by Olaf Sihtricson’s performance, and went back to Olaf Guthfrithson’s family for a king, bringing in his brother Raegnald in 943 and chucking Sihtricson out. But Sihtricison had no intention of going quietly and he’s back in 944. Meanwhile both of them decide that having Edmund’s friendship and support was doubly important – to stop Edmund coming north, and to help against their Norse rival. So both of them appear that Edmund’s court, and are baptised into Christianity, presumably in the currying favour process.


It doesn’t work. Edmund brought an army north in 944 and retook York, against a Northumbria divided amongst itself. Both kings were thrown out, but we will be seeing Sihtricson again for a 3rd hack at Northumbria before too long.


Throughout the crisis, the Kingdoms of the Scots and the Kingdom of Strathclyde had taken different approaches to the Northumbrians and English, with Strathclyde supporting the Norsemen, and the Scots supporting the English. So there is now a frighteningly confusing series of events, which I should really avoid, but am not going to. But I look forward to a series of complaints and corrections


OK, so the King of Strathclyde at this time is one Domnall ap Owein, or Domnall IIIrd, while in Scotland we have Malcolm. Edmund gathered an army that also included the King of Dyfed, and therefore presumably a major expedition that needed all his resources.


This is where we get confusing. It’s clear that Edmund ravaged the part of Strathclyde that we now call Cumbria. One tradition has it that he fought a battle against a King called Dunmail in the passes of Cumbria, with Dunmail dying at the hands of the king himself. Edmund then brutally blinded Dunmail’s sons, while Dunmail’s surviving warriors threw the crown of Cumbria into Grisedale Tarn. The legend has it that Dunmail lies at Dumail Raise, waiting to be called to come and free his kingdom, just like Arthur. I’d never come across this story before, and one is bound to wonder just how many kings there are elsewhere in England lying under mounds of earth waiting for the call.


Trouble is, we now that there is a Domnail as King of Strathclyde much later. So either we have 2 Donmails, or one of the sources is fibbing. The upshot was that Edmund after his victory apparently gives the lordship of Strathclyde or Cumbria to Malcolm, King of Scots, although this is clearly not a long lasting relationship – Dunmail is soon back in control, and Malcolm is soon raiding northern England. But it’s an interesting policy, and a precursor to something very similar we will see in the reign of Edgar the Peaceable.


Basically, we know 2 more things about Edmund and his reign. The first relates to a piece of foreign policy, where Edmund continues to support his brother’s policy of supporting King Louis in his attempt to regain his kingdom in Frankia.


The second is about his death, which is a story that adds a little colour to the politics. So Edmund organised a bash on the feast of St Augustine at his royal villa in Pucklechurch in South Gloucester. During the supper, Edmund spotted a criminal called Leofa that he had previous had exiled, and in fury stormed over to where the man sat, grabbed him by the hair and threw him to the ground. But Leofa had hidden a small knife, and he stabbed Edmund and tried to escape. As the King lay dying, Leofa was hacked to pieces.


Edmund was 24 when he died. One has to wonder why he was called Magnificant, but in the end despite a pretty poor performance against Olaf Guthfrithson, he’d come good and kept the north within the Kingdom.


There’s probably one other thing worth mentioning while I think of it – and I could do this anywhere really but let’s do it here. It regards a social change that is clearly beginning to go one as the AS kingdom grows in extent. So in earlier episodes, particularly in the thrilling one where we looked at the laws of Ina – happy days – we spoke of a society which is relatively un stratified, with a direct relationship between the public governance, as identified in the body of the king, and the ordinary free person, whether Thegn or Coerl. So as part of that, we have the earldormen, the public servants who manage a shire. But as England becomes bigger and more complicated, so the power of Thegns grow, and they begin to become less of a lord who also holds a public office, and more of a great magnate, who holds a number of public offices and uses them to build his power base.


We see an example of this in the family of someone called Athelstan Half King. We don’t know his date of birth, but we do know that he died in Glastonbury Abbey in 957. The family history starts with Athlelfirth, Athelstan Half King’s father, who became an earldorman in Southern Mercia under the rule of Aethelflaed. King Athelstan then appointed Athelstan Half King as the earldorman of East Anglia in the early 930’s, and by 940 Athelstan’s brothers had become earldormen also – of Kent, Mercia and Wessex. Meanwhile, Athelstan’s wife, Aelwynn, was to be the foster mother of the future king Edgar, after his father died in his infancy.


An enormous amount of power was therefore held in the hands on one family. There appear to have been no consequences of this in Edmund or his immediate successors reigns, but it was a signpost to the future, and not a good one at that.


Meanwhile, the position of the Coerl gets progressively worse, in a gradual slide towards the serfdom that is such a characteristic of the continental feudalism that the Normans bring to England.


This happens because it doesn’t take much for the average Coerl to get pushed into an economic corner, especially during the Danish wars. One raid that destroys all his crops, and a Coerl is unable to feed his family. So he is forced to go to the local thegn for help, and the Thegn gives the ccoerl a deal – ‘OK, you can become a serf then – you become my man, swear an oath of fealty and give me payments in labour from now on. If you do that, I’ll help you out and you and your family can avoid despair, starvation and death’.


An Oath of Fealty was not lightly entered into. Here’s one from AS England:

“By the Lord before whom this sanctuary is holy, I will to ‘my thegn’  be true and faithful, and love all which he loves and shun all which he shuns, according to the laws of God and the order of the world. Nor will I ever with will or action, through word or deed, do anything which is unpleasing to him, on condition that he will hold to me as I shall deserve it, and that he will perform everything as it was in our agreement when I submitted myself to him and chose his will


This kind of serfdom was inherited as well – so once done, never redeemed.


The argument is that for good or ill, that these were inevitable developments, and part of a progression from an early settler society to a more complex one. And certainly, this is a trend that continues in late AS society.


The other subject I should introduce before we say goodbye to Edmund is that of Dunstan, who was to be a major influence in AS society for the next 40 years. He born to a noble family in 909, and was very well connected – his uncle for example was the Archbishop of Canterbury. He picked up a job at a church, and his learning, piety and connections soon landed him a job at the court of King Athelstan. He became a favourite of the King, which managed to put the backs up or various mother members of the court, resulting in him been beaten up and thrown out, on charges of witchcraft. He regained the favour Edmund however, and in 944 Edmund appointed him to be the Abbot of Glastonbury.


Dunstan was to be a major force in the forthcoming reform of the church in England, and constantly part of the political story too, whether in or out of favour.



Edmund left two sons; Eadwig and Edgar, Eadwig was the eldest but was only 5 years old when his father died. So the ever pragmatic AS did what they had done in the time of Alfred and made Edmund’s brother Eadred king.


At first all went well for Eadred. He was crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury in Kingston on Thames in August 946, and early the following year travelled north to Tanshelf, near what is now Pontefract to receive the fealty of Archbishop Wulfstan and the northern lords. But history was about to repeat itself as it had done for Athelstan and Edmund, because the Northumbrians were not yet really ready to bend the knee to a king of England.


This time, it was the superbly named Eric Bloodaxe. Eric was the favourite son of the Norwegian king, Harold Fairhair, the king who ruled a fair proportion of what is now Norway. Being the favoured son was a good thing for the aspiring king, because Harold could accurately be described as fertile, given that he may have had as many as 20 sons. And this is where it is thought the name Bloodaxe comes from – not for his success in battle, which as we will see is a bit limited, but because he set about systematically murdering as many of his brothers as he could.


Eric would have worried little about his human right record, since it worked, and he duely claimed the throne on Harold’s death. But his reign was brutal, unpopular and short, and he was pushed off the throne with apparently very little difficulty by one of his surviving brothers, Hakon. This owes much to England, for in fact Hakon had been sent to England, and been adopted as the foster son of King Athelstan.


So Eric was at a lose end, and filled his time raiding the west coats of Scotland with more success that he’s had as a king. And that led him to Northumbria in 947, where he was enthusiastically received. The wording of the ASC definitely indicates disloyalty by the Northumbrians, and you have to wonder if our friend Wulfstan wasn’t part of the whole thing.

Eadred came north in fury. He burnt and ravaged parts of Northumbria up to Ripon north of York, but then appears to have been leaving when he was attacked crossing the River Aire at Castleford, and the rearguard of his army was badly mauled. Edred’s response though was to shout at the Northumbrians, and threaten them with an utter devastation of their country, if they did not recognise his rule, and throw Eric out. Cowed, this is just what the Northumbrians did, and Edred returned home satisfied.


Eadred’s rule lasted only a few months, before another old favourite appeared back on the scene, namely Olaf Sightricson, who re-appears back in 949. Meanwhile. Malcolm of Scotland also breaks ranks with Eadred, and raids Bernica, i.e. the very northern part of Northumbria, where an Englishman, Oswulf, ruled as the High Reeve.

At this point, Eadred seems to have thrown his hands up in exasperation, since we don’t have any record of him trying to remove Olaf. Instead, it is Eric who came back in 952 for a second go and drove Olaf out. That finally is the last we’ll hear of the persistent but ultimately unsuccessful Sihtricson, who returned to Ireland. He is the king who will have the distinction, in 980, of being decisively and comprehensively defeated by the Irish King Malachy, in a battle that broke Norse power in Ireland 25 years before the more famous battle of Clontarf. Sihtricson fled to Iona, and died there in 981.

So we are back with Eric Bloodaxe, with his court at York, called Jorvik of course by the Norsemen. His second reign itself lasted only 2 years. Eric was betrayed by Maccus, the son of an Olaf, and Earl Oswulf, the High Reeve of Bernica. The use of the word betrayed is interesting, since it suggests that Eric, Maccus and Oswulf had a deal going. Anyway, in 954 Eric, the last King of a Jorvik, was killed in battle at a place called Stainmore, which is on the roman road from York to Carlisle which is well north of York. He died with 5 Kings from the Hebrides, two earls of the Orkneys, and with his brothers Raegnald and Haeric.

And what about our friend Wulfstan? Well, in 952 Eadred lost patience with Wulfstan’s kingmaking, and had him arrested. Somehow, he manages to wriggle out of this, though he was not to be trusted in Northumbria, and was instead appointed to be the Bishop of Dorchester. He died in 956.

So this is finally the end of the story of the unification of England. Earl Oswulf was formally made the Earldorman of all Northumbria, and now there were no more Norse contenders coming to claim the Northumberia, and the battle of Stainmore was decisive in the story. Taking a more general view the failure of Eric Bloodaxe is significant; he was part of the Norwegian royal house, with the kudos and reputation needed to bring all the landless Scandinavian warriors to his banner – but despite this, he was still unable to succeed. It was clear that England was no longer easy pickings, and would not be conquered by relatively small bands, but would need a national effort.

Eadred died after his 9 year reign 955. Throughout his reign he was a sick man, suffering from a chronic digestive disorder. After 953, fewer than 1/3rd of his charters are witnessed by him, which suggests that he delegated much of his authority to others. He was buried in Winchester, and the line passed back to Edmund’s sons, Edwy and Edgar.

7 thoughts on “12 The last King in Jorvik

  1. RE: speed of speech. Another option listeners have is to adjust the play speed on the app or program (e.g. PotPlayer)they use to stream or play downloaded podcasts. Many player allow user adjustment of playback speed, and virtually any video player, with more control options, will also play audio downloads.

    1. Hi Ross – Thanks for letting me know about this; I have re-loaded the episodes, and they seem to work fine now

  2. Thanks for speaking slower. It’s tough to know how much information someone is able to absorb – even when you have them in front of you! Even harder when it’s podcast.

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