The Wessex king who took over Mercia
WHEN King Alfred the Great died in 899, his eldest son – the man history knows as Edward 'the Elder' – became king of Wessex.
Edward's court was at Winchester, the capital of Wessex, but the new king had ambitious plans to expand his kingdom into neighbouring Mercia, of which Tamworth was a most important town.
His opportunity came in 918, upon the death of his sister Ethelfleda, the beloved 'lady of the Mercians' who had ruled Mercia alone since the death of her husband Ethelred.
When he heard of Ethelfleda's death, Edward rode 30 miles on horseback – from Leicester to Tamworth – to kidnap her daughter Elfwynn, who the folk of Tamworth had earmarked as the next Queen of Mercia.
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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that Elfwynn was "deprived of all control in Mercia, and was led into Wessex three weeks before Christmas".
Unlike her mother, Elfwynn may have lacked broad support because no opposition to Edward's decision to remove her from power and send her to Wessex in December 918 is recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or elsewhere.
Elfwynn simply disappears from history.
Some suspect she was murdered, others believe she was sent to a nunnery. To this day, whatever became of her remains a mystery.
Long before Edward's birth, the Anglo Saxons had been fighting off relentless Danish attacks, and it was up to the new king to take up the gauntlet.
Edward was about 30 years old and was already a veteran of many battles alongside his illustrious father, the only king to be honoured with the eponym 'the Great'.
His elder sister, Ethelfleda, had also been a great warrior.
Her marriage to Ethelred of Mercia was the result of some clever matchmaking by Alfred, not without good reason.
In 895, Edward had sired a son, Athelstan, and it was rumoured that he had been conceived 'on the wrong side of the blanket'.
In spite of this, King Alfred gave the lad all the regalia of kingship, meaning that he wanted him to be king, one day.
Alfred also directed that young Athelstan should be brought up and educated by his Aunt Ethelfleda as a Mercian.
This turned out to be a clever piece of political foresight by Alfred.
On June 8, 900, great crowds at Kingston-upon-Thames celebrated the Coronation of Edward and new coins were minted with the inscription, 'EADVVEARD REX'.
Edward's own succession to the throne had not been without complications.
A cousin of his, known as Athelwold, also claimed the throne.
He was the son of Alfred's elder brother, Ethelred, King of Wessex, and his wife, Wulfthryth.
As the youngest of four brothers, Alfred was never expected to become king but, one by one, all his brothers died in battle.
Alfred's wife, Ealshwith, was never crowned queen, but Athelwold's mother was.
This strengthened Athelwold's claim, apart from the fact that he was around 10 years older than Edward.
Athelwold seized the towns of Christchurch and then Womborne, where his father was buried, hoping to spark off a popular uprising.
But when push came to shove, he was found wanting.
Edward had Womborne surrounded with troops, only to find the upstart had fled to Northumbria.
Like a bad penny, Athelwold turned up a year into Edward's reign.
He arrived on the Essex coast with a fleet of ships, full of Danish warriors and Saxon rebels.
He also enlisted some support from the Danes of East Anglia, then attacked both Wessex and Mercia.
Edward retaliated by razing several Danish settlements to the ground.
The war was fierce and long, culminating in December of 902 in the 'Battle of the Holme', when Athelwold was killed.
Both sides suffered heavy losses, but it was the end of the rebellion.
The following few years saw the Mercian leaders Ethelred and Ethelfleda push rebellious Danes further north, on the west side of the Midlands, whilst Edward did the same on the east.
The war was going the way of the Saxons.
Then in 909, Edward made incursions into Danelaw, provoking the Norse invaders into retaliation.
A year later came the 'Battle of Tettenhall, near to what is now the city of Wolverhampton.
The Northumbrian army was utterly destroyed after meeting up with the combined forces of Wessex and Mercia.
This was seen as a massive victory for Edward.
In 912 Edward's most tried and trusted ally, Ethelred, died after a lifetime of fighting the invaders.
His widow, Ethelfleda, ably assisted by Athelstan, now 17 years of age and well versed in the art of warfare, carried the torch for the Mercians.
Within 12 months they drove the Danes out of Tamworth, built fortifications and made the town their home.
Ethelfleda was hailed as Queen of Mercia and a great heroine.
In the next few years Edward pushed further north, towards the Humber Estuary.
Meanwhile, the indefatigable Ethelfleda conquered Derby and Stafford.
Ethelfleda died suddenly at Tamworth on June 12, 918, and Elfwynn was for a short time ruler of Mercia.
But Edward, who was staying in Leicester at the time, immediately left with a few henchmen and rode on horseback to Tamworth to remove her.
There was now only one kingdom in Edward's eyes – and he was the King.
Much as they had loved Ethelfleda, the people of Tamworth disliked her brother.
But although Athelstan was Edward's son and belonged to Wessex, it is believed the Mercians accepted him as one of their own, justifying Alfred's shrewd matchmaking all those years before.
That is why he insisted that Athelstan be brought up in Mercia and that his daughter should marry a Mercian king.
Although he never lived to see it, Alfred had indeed been working on the merger of Wessex and Mercia into one kingdom, under the command of Wessex.
Edward went on to capture all the territory South of the River Humber.
He won the acknowledgement of the Norse, Scots and Welsh as their 'Father and Lord', but at the same time, suffered problems with Mercia.
Then, early in the year 924, Edward named his second son, Athelweard, as his successor – cutting out Athelstan.
This leads us to suspect that he must have had a serious rift with Athelstan, who was probably administering Mercia.
Edward died leading an army against a Welsh-Mercian rebellion, on July 17, 924, near the River Dee in Cheshire, and was buried in the New Minster in Winchester, which he himself had established.
His designated heir Athelweard, however, outlived him by only two weeks, paving the way for Athelstan to take the throne after being elected by a meeting of the Witan (wise council) at Tamworth church.
Athelstan was to become the first King of all England and one of our greatest monarchs.
It is said that Edward married twice and, apart from Athelstan, sired about 14 children – proving he was as busy off the field of battle as he was busy on it.
No-one seems to know who Athelstan's mother was, although there are plenty of theories.
Edward's eponym, 'the Elder', was given to him by historians of the 11th century, to distinguish him from Edward 'the Martyr' (975-78).