In 1066, when Edward the Confessor died, Harold Godwinson was declared king. Yet he felt the need to ride north to secure the pledges of the northern nobles, and thought it prudent to forsake his long-term partner and marry the sister of two powerful northern earls. Why?
Let’s go back a bit...
Readers of To Be A Queen will recall that in Aethelflaed’s day, Mercia was still a kingdom in its own right, albeit one which was fast running out of kings. Forty years later, in Alvar the Kingmaker, Mercia has become a powerful ealdordom (later known as earldoms.)
And there is a new problem: the Danelaw.
However much Aethelflaed, her father, husband, and brother fought against them, inevitably some of the Danes who came over in their dragon boats stayed, and settled in the north and east. In the 10th century, King Edgar was careful to preserve the rights and traditions of the Danelaw, as well as the erstwhile independence of Mercia.
Edgar’s dealings with the Danelaw can be found in the law code known as IV Edgar, or the Wihbordesstan Code. It has often been said that Edgar was creating something new with this code, but technically speaking this is a letter to the Danes, showing Edgar eager to respect an autonomy which was already a fact.
It is probable that Edgar became king of England in 959 with the help of a powerful group of magnates who wanted a king who would not encroach on the customary law. Edgar stresses five times that he has every intention of respecting the Danelaw. It is possible that although IV Edgar is a recognition of established fact, Edgar himself created the Danelaw, as there are no earlier references to it. In all probability these privileges were granted by Edgar in 957, in gratitude for the support given him in the north against his brother Eadwig (Edwy.)
Although Edgar’s reign was notable for being free of invasion - his epithet was ‘The Peaceable’ - it was a time of great change. As well as this identification and recognition of the Danelaw, there began a shift in the power and influence of the nobility. As ealdormen died, their lands were given to neighbouring nobles - Alvar (Aelfhere), already earl of southern Mercia, gained the northern portion when the earl of Chester died - until the earldoms were as big as the old kingdoms. By the time of Edgar IV, there were three principal noblemen, and in the law code he demands that:
“Earl Oslac (Northumbria) and all the host that dwell in his aldermanry are to give their support that this may be enforced” and that “Many documents are to be written concerning this, and sent both to ealdorman Aelfhere (Mercia) and ealdorman Aethelwine, (East Anglia) and that they are to send them in all directions, that this measure may be known to both the poor and the rich.” [IV Edgar 15. & 15.1]
Royal control was difficult to establish in areas with separatist feeling, and Mercia was another of these areas. Edgar was respectful of these regional differences, as his charters show - a land charter of 969 carefully states the ‘boundary of the Mercians’ - but his successors were not... Read on ...