The First Kings of England

The First Kings of England

(Dacre in Cumberland; Burnley in Lancashire; Milton Abbey in Dorset; Malmesbury in Wiltshire, etc.).

On the death of Alfred the Great in 899 A.D, of which was wrote of in the last chapter, the throne passed to his son Edward, generally called Edward the Elder, who ought really to be spoken of as Edward the First, though that designation has now been solong applied to his descendant, the Plantagenet Edward who came to the throne in 1272 A.D., that the mistake cannot now be rectified. There were three English Kings of England of the name of Edward before the Norman Conquest; and had not the Anglo-Saxon period been so unfortunately ignored by historians, the last King Edward VIII who abdicated a year after becoming king, would have been known to us by the more correct designation, Edward the Eleventh.

This Edward the Elder in 910 A.D., was at war with the Danish settlers who had rebelled against him, but he defeated them at Wednesfield (i.e. Woden`s Field), near Wolverhampton in Staffordshire, now a small town of no antiquarian interest, and most of their chief men, including three so-called “kings,” were left dead upon the field. In 913 A.D., a great Viing fleet joined the disaffected settlers, but again they suffered defeat, and we hear of no further attack from the Continent for the ensuing sixty years or so.

During the next ten years we see the gradual submission of all the Danes living in England, and their conversion into lew-abiding residents. The chief centres where they congregated – York, Derby, Northampton, Leicester, Stamford, Linclon, Nottingham, Colchester, Cambridge, and elsewhere – surrendered; and the Danish leaders all accepted Edward as their overlord. The Britons of Wales, too, acknowledged his sovereignty, as also did Constantine, King of the Scots and Picts.

Thus in the year of Edward`s death, 924 A.D., all England was in his hands, and he has the proud distinction of being the first real King of a united country, although Wessex had claimed a nominal overlordship of the whole island ever since the time of Ecgbert, a century before. In spite of this important fact, however, very little is known about him, and can hardly be said to stand out as a personality. We read that he was an educated man, fond of books, and finding great pleasure in Anglo-Saxon poetry; and his excellently minted coins are very noticeable. He married three times, and was the father of fourteen children, being succeeded by his eldest son Aethelstan, who was crowned at Kingston-on-Thames in Surrey. This prince had early come under the norice of his grandfather, Alfred, who had made him a knight while he was still a child, and had given him a scarlet cloak, a girdle studded with jewels, and a small sword in a golden scabbard. His childhood was spent in Mercia under the guidance of his great aunt Aethelflaed, who now doubt gave him a great insight into leadership.

Shortly after his coronation Aethelstan went to Tamworth in Staffordshire, and there received the homage of Sihtric “Caoch,” the Danish sub-King of York; and although this personage was advanced in years, and, as his name “Caoch” implies, had only one eye, Aethelstan gave one of his sisters in marriage to him. The unfortunate lady`s sacrifice to national politics, however, was not of long duration; for Sihtric died just over a year later, whereupon Aethelstan marched north and suppressed the little vassal kingdom.

Aethelstan then proceeded to Dacre, near Ullswater in Cumberland, and there received the homage of Eugenius, or Owain, the British King of Strathclyde ( a realm then restricted more or less to Cumberland), and Constantine, King of the Scots and Picts, while several British princes from Wales, and other semi-independent rulers made their vows of allegiance.

The ancient castle at Dacre, long used as a farmhouse, dates in part from this age, and there is a room in it still called “the room of the three Kings” in memory of this meeting. Scotland and Strathclyde had suffered very severely from the Viking raids, and there were powerful Scandinavian settlements in the Orkneys, Caithness, Sutherland, the Hebrides, the western coasts of the mainland, Argyle, and the west of Cumberland and Westmorland (now known as Cumbria); and the two northern Kings must have been ready enough to place themselves under Aethelstan`s protection.

In the year 933 A.D., however, Constantine renounced his allegiance, and joined forces with the Danes, whereupon Aethelstan and his English army marched north as far as Aberdeen, while his fleet wrought destruction on the Scottish shores as far north as Caithness.

In 937 A.D., Constantine again joined with the Vikings and this time also with Eugenius of Strathclyde and the Danes from Dublin in Ireland, (Dublin was created them) under the leadership of the outlaw Anlaf, a son of the one-eyed old Sihtric, who was trying to regain his father`s Kingdom of York; but Aethelstan, with his brother Prince Edmund (afterwards King), inflicted so tremendous a defeat upon the allies at a place called Brunanburh that for generations the battle was remembered with awe. Constantine`s son, five “Kings,” seven earls, and probably Eugenius of Strathclyde himself, were slain; and Anlaf was forced to fly back to Ireland.

Many sites have been suggested for this memorable battle, but that proposed by Mr. J. T. Marquis seems to be the most probable, namely Burnley in Lancashire, the actual battleground being on the east of the river Brun, in the fields overlooking by the high ground of Brunshaw, which seems to be the Brunan-burh itself, time will tell on this.

Before the battle Aethelstan had visited Beverley Minster in Yorkshire and had palced on the altar the sword which had been given to him as a child by Alfred the Great, promising to redeem it if he were victorious; and after this great triumph he bequeathed it to the Minster, and it now lies in the tomb of St. John of Beverley there. In 929 A.D., he had founded Milton Abbey in Dorset; and now, after the victory, he built the chapel of St. Catherine nearby, which is still to be seen in the abbey woods, though it was largely rebuilt in Norman times.

It maybe be of interest if I give here a translation of parts of the great song of victory composed after this battle, and inserted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“Here Aethelstan, King, of earls the lord, rewarder of heroes, and his brother Edmund, prince, elder of ancient race, slew in the fight with the edge of their swords the foe at Brunanburh. The(se two) sons of Edward (The Elder) their shield-walls clove, and hewed down their banners with the vengeance of their axes . . . Midst the din of the field the warrior sweated, since the sun was up at morning-tide – gigantic light, glad over earth, the bright candle of God, Eternal Lord – till the noble creature set in the western main . . . With chosen troops throughout the day the fierce West Saxons pressed on the hated forces, hewed down the fugitives, and scattered the rear with strong mill-sharpened blades. The Mercians, too, spared not the hard hand-play to any of those who with Anlaf over the Bring deep in the ship`s bosom sought this land for the hardy fight. Five Kings lay on the field of battle in the bloom of youth, pierced with swords. So seven also of the earls of Anlaf, and of the ship`s crew(s) unnumbered crowds. There was dispersed the little band of hardy Scots, the dread of northern hordes, urged to the noisy deep by unrelenting fate, the King of the fleet with his slender craft escaping (only) with his life on the felon flood. And so, too, Constantine, the valiant chief, returned to the north in hasty flight. . . . His son he lfet on the field of battle, mangled with wounds: young at the fight the fair-haired youth had no reason to boast of the slaughtering strife. No more could old Inwood and Anlaf with the wrecks of their army laugh and say that they on the field of stern command had been the better workmen in the conflict of banners, the clash of spears, the meeting of heroes, and the clattering of weapons, which they on thefield of slaughter played with the sons of Edward. The northmen sailed (away) in their nailed ships, a dreary remnant on the roaring sea: over deep water Dublin they sought, and theshores of Ireland, in great disgrace. Thus, then, the brothers both together, the King and the Prince, sought their country, the land of Wessex (having been) triumphant in the fight . . . Before this same (battle) no greater slaughter yet was made ever in this island, of people slain with the edge of the sword (so far) as the books of the old historians inform us, since hither came from the eastern shores the Angles and the Saxons over the broad sea and sought Britain – the fierce battle-smiths (who) overcame the Welsh, most valiant earls, and gained the land.”

Aethelstan was regarded in Europe as one of the most important sovereigns of the age, and an Irish chronicler speaks of him as “the main beam of the honour of the western world.” He had several sisters whom he married to the various crowned heads of the time, thus becoming brother-in-law to Charles the Simple of France, Otto the Great of Germany, Louis of Provence, Louis of Acquitaine. Hgh the Great of Paris, and an unnamed Prince of the Alps.

Many great Continental princes lived in the English court, there including Louis d`Outremer, Alan of Brittany, Haco of Norway, and others; and for the first time England seems to take her place as what would now be called a first-class Power.

Aethelstan`s reign ended in a blaze of glory. He died at Gloucester in 939 A.D., and his body was taken to the abbey of Malmesbury, which in early Anglo-Saxon days was known as Ingelburne, already possessed a monastery built in the Seventh Century by an Irish missionary called Maeldulbh or Maidulph, after whom the place was now beginning to be known as Maidulfesburgh, a name which passed into Maldelmsburgh and thence into Malmesbury; but Aethelstan reconstructed these monastic buildings, and endowed the new abbey with great estates. One of the most famous sons of Malmesbury was Aldhelm who has been already mentioned.

Aethelstan wasburied in this abbey in front of the altar of St. Mary, and though the building as have it now dates from the Twelfth Century and other later periods, the royal tomb is still to be seen.

`Malmsebury Commoners`

Members of the Old Corporation, the Warden and Freemen, all are commoners. They receive equal shares in profits from their land on Malmsebury Common or King`s Heath.

The maximum numbers of commoners is 260, which is the number of allotments laid down in the enclosure Act of 1822.

Commoners had to be married men, householders and to live withn the Malmsebury area. They also had to be the son or son-in-law of a commoner.

If any generation failed to take up their rights they were forfeited forever, However, this rule was dropped in 1990`s and in 2000 the rules were changed again to allow women equal rights. The qualifications now are to be over eighteen, to be able to prove ancestry and to live within the boundaries of Malmesbury.

King Aethelstan granted the land in around 934 A.D., if the rules had been strictly applied since then, this means that there are in Malmesbury today nearly 260 people whose ancestry stretches back over a thousand years, who havenever left Malmesbury.