Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia

Lady Godiva by Jules Joseph Lefèbvre Source: Wikipedia

Remember Lady Godiva, who is legendary for riding around town naked on a horse, long hair covering her body, to protest her husband’s high taxes? Well, she was not a myth, and was known as the mother of Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia.  His father was the great Leofric of Mercia, powerful Earl and counter-balance to Godwine’s influence.

Aelfgar had an illustrious heritage, although he is remembered more for his troublemaking than for any great deeds he might have done.  He was contemporary with Harold Godwineson, and much of his life, Aelfgar was frustrated by the apparent favoritism shown to Godwine’s brood at his expense.

His first opportunity arose when Godwine and family were exiled in 1051 and he was given Harold’s earldom of East Anglia.  This only lasted a year or so, because upon Godwine’s successful return, Harold was restored to his old earldom.  No mention is made of Aelfgar’s reaction to this demotion, and indeed he received East Anglia again in 1053 when Godwine died and Harold moved up to the earldom of Wessex, leaving an opening which Aelfgar promptly filled.

All was well until 1055, when Siward Earl of Northumbria died.  Because Siward’s only surviving son was still a child, King Edward awarded the earldom to Harold’s inexperienced brother Tostig.  It appears that Aelfgar thought that he was next in line to Northumbria and vociferously contested this appointment, because in the same council he was declared traitor and sent into exile.

This was a big setback, but Aelfgar had earl Harold’s example to follow: in 1051 when Godwine and family were outlawed, Harold had made his way to Ireland and enlisted the aid of the Irish king, who willingly lent  him several ships of mercenaries with which to raid the coast of England.  In 1055 Aelfgar did the same, and returned with 18 ships.  More importantly, he joined forces with Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, Prince of Wales – a mutually beneficial partnership that came in handy every time there was trouble on the borders.

City of Hereford in flames 1055, image by Enok Sweetland

Aelfgar is said to have used his mercenaries to help the Welsh prince eliminate his rival to the South and make Gruffydd ap Llewellyn King of all Wales.  They then turned their attention to Herefordshire and defeated a Saxon force led by Earl Ralph, nephew to King Edward (allegedly the first—unsuccessful—attempted use of cavalry on English soil). Hereford was sacked and even the Bishop was killed while trying to defend his church. This direct attack on English soil prompted Edward to send Harold Godwineson to Hereford so he could deal with the recalcitrant Aelfgar.  After an aborted foray over the Welsh border, Harold opted to negotiate, and offered to give Aelfgar back his earldom, provided that Aelfgar accept Tostig’s appointment.  The Earl of East Anglia jumped at the chance, and for the moment peace was achieved.

In 1057 Earl Leofric died and the earldom of Mercia passed to Aelfgar; East Anglia was given to yet another of Godwine’s sons.  It is said at Aelfgar was beginning to feel threatened by the power of Godwine’s family, and decided to protect himself by giving his daughter Ealdgyth to Gruffydd ap Llewelyn.  This alliance was considered treason, and King Edward banished Aelfgar a second time, who immediately took refuge with Gruffydd.

Once again, the same tactics were used, and the mercenary/Welsh harassment prompted yet another negotiated settlement.  Aelfgar got his earldom back, and his alliance with Gruffydd kept the opposing forces at bay at least until 1062.  At Christmas this fateful year, Harold made a lightning strike at Gryffudd’s court in Rhuddlan, nearly catching the King of Wales at his palace and forcing him to flee by sea. Gryffydd got away but Harold burned his palace to the ground.

It is thought that Aelfgar must have died just days before this raid.  There’s a good chance that Harold heard the news at Christmas court and decided to strike at once before Gryffydd knew of his ally’s death.  None of this is certain…but it follows!  Plagued by the sons of Godwine for his whole life, wouldn’t it be ironic that Aelfgar’s plans would be foiled even after his death. You can read more about Aelfgar in THE SONS OF GODWINE.

3 thoughts on “Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia

  • Or was Aelfgar, who suddenly disappears from history) quietly assassinated at Edward’s Christmas Court in 1061?

    This was what happened to a Northumbrian rival of Tostig’s (Gospatric) at such a court in 1064.

    • That’s an interesting concept, but I’m not sure I’m ready to ascribe that kind of behavior to Harold (who else would have benefitted from Aelfgar’s assassination?). Also, if foul play was suspected, wouldn’t we have heard about it somewhere?

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