Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Eadric of Mercia: History or Calumny?

By David Mullaly

Making sense of the past is a challenging enterprise, especially when historians have generally concluded that a man or woman was demonstrably a villain, or when we are left with little actual reliable information because the person lived so long ago. In the case of Eadric of Mercia, a.k.a. Eadric “Streona,” both elements are involved.  However, I would suggest that another factor is involved in a realistic assessment of this controversial figure: the potential bias of the chroniclers who have provided the only narratives about him.

A little historical background might be helpful. King Edgar (959-975), had been very generous to the Church, and the ecclesiastical land holdings had increased substantially during his reign. That meant that there were potentially many more armed men available to do the bidding of the church authorities, and fewer who would be required to answer the call of the king or his representative and join the citizen army or fyrd.

King Edgar - detail from New Minster Charter

In Mercia, a man named Aelfric Cild served as ealdorman for only two years, and in 985 he was convicted of treason and exiled. The current king, Aethelred II (978-1016), did not replace him for over twenty years. As a result, for two decades there was no secular authority in that domain, and the Church was probably even more successful at expanding its holdings there than elsewhere.

Perhaps distracted by continual threats from the Vikings, King Aethelred did nothing to curtail Church expansion in Mercia until he named the youthful Eadric to be the ealdorman in 1007.  In fact, I would suggest that the king’s primary reason for re-establishing a representative in that domain was to recover lands and men which had been lost to the Church, and to reassert a secular authority there. He needed another strong ally.

Eadric began to get approval of charters--essentially land transfers--with the consent of the witans, which were assemblies of powerful men headed by the king himself. Presumably, the ealdorman was doing all of this with the encouragement of the king. Of course, churchmen were outraged to see lands and men being returned to private hands at the expense of the Church. Holdings in both Mercia and in nearby areas--including within the diocese of Worcester--were lost.

The young Eadric was not the only official from that part of the country accused of stealing from the Church.  Leofwine was the ealdorman of Hwicce, a domain subservient to Mercia which included Worcester itself. He--and his sons--were also accused of despoiling the Church for their own benefit.  And, like Eadric, Leofwine was probably acting with the approval of the king.

A charter from the reign of Aethelred II

Unfortunately for Eadric’s reputation, most of the clerics who wrote the chronicles--the thin narrative accounts which provide us with virtually the only historical information we have about the early 11th century in England-- lived and worked at Worcester Priory.  The one narrative roughly contemporary with Eadric was a part of what we now call The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  While we don’t know who the writer was who made the earliest scandalous accusations about Eadric, it wouldn’t be shocking if he turned out to be a cleric at the Worcester Priory.

He accused Eadric of being responsible for the murders of two thegns from the Daneland, although it was Edmund, the heir to the throne, who directly benefited from their deaths, defying his father by illegally marrying the widow of one of the victims and taking control of that family’s estates. The writer blamed Eadric for the killing of the ealdorman Uhtred, although two other accounts gave responsibility to an enemy of Uhtred’s family.  And of course he reviled Eadric for betraying the English army and leaving the battlefield at Assandun , which gave Cnut the victory--and ultimately the throne of England.  That may be the only factual accusation that this chronicler made about Eadric.

A page from Hemming's cartulary
Who else contributed elements of the Eadric story? A monk named Hemming, who lived at the Worcester Priory around fifty years after the death of Eadric, wrote his Cartulary summarizing the property losses suffered by his diocese at the hands of powerful people, and included both Eadric and Cnut among the evil takers of Church lands. He likely originated the appellation Eadric “Streona” (the grasper or taker) as he has been named ever since. One should remember that in this document intended to support land claims of the Church, he provided between twenty-five and thirty fraudulent land charters to buttress his case.

Two other monks from the area added to the condemning narrative. John of Worcester, living at the priory, wrote about Eadric being responsible for the assassination of Ealdorman Aelfham while they were hunting together. He provided this story, as well as other condemning descriptions, approximately one hundred years after the death of Eadric. William of Malmesbury, a monk living in the early twelfth century at Malmesbury Abbey, from a neighboring diocese which probably also lost property to the ealdorman, railed against Eadric’s calumny and deceptions.

Malmesbury Abbey - image Adrian Pingstone

In fact, some have suggested that a denunciatory saga about Eadric, presumably produced at the Worcester Priory, existed during the eleventh century, but no copy has ever been found. Whatever were the sources of these stories, Eadric was reviled by churchmen from that small area of England, and the chances that his role in the history of the period would be presented without malice or distortion are pretty small.

A little information about an eminent churchman may be instructive in this regard.  The Bishop of Worcester Wulfstan, for much of his life also Archbishop of York, was one of the most highly regarded clerics of his day. He is most famous for his homily entitled Sermon of the Wolf to the English, in which he identified the attacks by the Vikings as God’s punishment for the lax ways of the English people.

However, he also created from whole cloth two non-existent historical works, Laws of Edward and Guthrum and the Canons of Eadgar because they were useful to him as precedents from the past. He had points to make, and he had no problem fabricating early writings to support them. I do not believe that he was the only cleric to be “creative” in his writing. In fact, he may have been more honest and reliable than many of his contemporaries, who were more concerned with defending the Church than they were with providing completely factual narratives.

A page from a Wulfstan manuscript

All of these chroniclers were among the very few literate people in England during this period, and their writings help us to tentatively add to what would otherwise be an almost empty slate. We can be grateful for their accounts, no matter how flawed they might be. However, we cannot forget that these churchmen had powerful agendas to further, some ecclesiastical, some political, and some personal.

Is it conceivable that a collection of Christian monks were responsible for the same sort of distortions involving Eadric of Mercia as Shakespeare committed in his portrayal of Richard III? The Bard did a wondrous hatchet job merely because he wanted the favor of Queen Elizabeth, whose ancestors were the Tudor adversaries of Richard III, and the House of York. The recent discovery of Richard’s remains has confirmed that he was not significantly deformed physically, and it’s almost certain that Shakespeare’s portrayal was less than accurate in other ways as well.

Ironically, the people who were most hostile toward Eadric of Mercia were the only historians whose accounts have survived. The monks, especially those from the Worcester diocese, saw Eadric as an enemy of the Church and its interests, and we should expect that they savaged him and his reputation in retribution. As someone suggested on a history blog a few years ago, “History is not written by the winners but by those who know how to write.” Perhaps they won’t--or at least shouldn’t--have the last word.

[all above images are in the Public Domain]

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David Mullaly’s first book is Eadric And The Wolves: A Novel Of The Danish Conquest of English. He bought and sold Viking artifacts for a dozen years, and he lives in Annapolis, Maryland. However, he remains desperately in love with English history, and is fascinated by what we know and what we don’t know about the Viking Age, especially in England and Ireland.

4 comments:

  1. I think we have to take a lot of stuff written about the past with a grain of salt, unless there are accounts of the individual's life from both sides of the story. I think you're right in concluding that Eadric wasn't as bad as we think because the accounts of his life are a bit one sided. Of course going that far back, the only people who were literate and could read were those in the Church so they always have the upper hand when it comes to history.

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    1. It's likely that, certainly towards the end of the period, the nobility were literate. They wouldn't have written much themselves, but I put this question to eminent Medieval Historian Ann Williams when I was researching my novels set in this period and she concurred that whilst they wouldn't have written much, if anything, having 'lackeys' to do it for them, they probably could, and did, read. However, one thing is certainly clear - propaganda is not a new invention and the Church scribes almost certainly often wrote only what they were told to write, or worse, wrote their opinions as fact.

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  2. More to the point about the commentary, the monks were pretty much the only people who wrote, so whatever versions of events and individuals they provided are practically all that we have.So, as Blue suggested, grains of salt are a really good idea when dealing with the Anglo-Saxon period.

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  3. Thanks for sharing your post. It was most interesting.

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