The Extraordinary Life Of King Edmund The Elder

King Edmund I, or Edmund the Elder, as he was better known, is one of the lesser-known monarchs here in the UK, despite leading an extraordinary life.

Edmund ruled as King of the English from the 27th of October, 939 until he died on the 26th of May, 946.

The eldest son of King Edward the Elder, he was also a grandson of Alfred the Great. With blood like that flowing through his veins, you just knew that he would be a fierce warrior, and he certainly was that. King Edmund, I helped to retake many areas of Northern England which had been taken and occupied by the Vikings.

But how did all of this come about, how did his reign over the English go, and what ultimately lead to his downfall? All of that, and much more besides, will soon become clear, as we learn more about King Edmund I ‘the Elder’.

The Extraordinary Life Of King Edmund The Elder
Edmund in the late thirteenth-century Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings | Image: Wikimedia

Viking Invasions

During the ninth century, the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms consisting of: East Anglia, Mercia, Wessex, and Northumbria, were invaded and attacked by hoards of Vikings.

Mercia, Northumbria, and East Anglia fell to the Vikings. Only Wessex withstood the onslaught, thanks to Alfred the Great and the Battle of Edlington.

The Extraordinary Life Of King Edmund The Elder
Silver coin of Alfred the Great. The coin is property of the British Museum | Image: Wikimedia

When Alfred died, he was succeeded by his son Edward. Much of England was overrun by Vikings and it was clear that something needed to be done.

Edmund was born to King Edward the Elder and his third wife Edgiva. He was born at a time when England was under Viking rule and constantly under attack, meaning he grew up fighting.

At just 16 years of age, Edmund fought with honour alongside King Athelstan, his older half-brother, at the Battle of Brunanburh. There they took on a combined army of both Vikings and Scots.

Two years later, aged 18, King Edmund succeeded his elder brother to the throne and became King of the English.

Inheriting A Country

York, which is to this day historically linked to the Vikings, was taken by Danish leader Olaf Guthrithson.

In 943, King Edmund would besiege Olaf, and the King, supported by the Danish Archbishop of Canterbury, Odo, would force Olaf to accept his overlordship and strike a deal. The pact stated that King Edmund would rule the south, and Olaf would rule the north. In the event of either of the other’s passing, full inheritance of the country would be granted to the survivor.

Luck would be on King Edmund’s side because a year later, Olaf died. The King did not waste any time and marched an army of English and Welsh soldiers into Strathclyde.

The Extraordinary Life Of King Edmund The Elder
The name ‘Anlaf’ as it is shown in ASC C, folio 141v of British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B | Image: Wikimedia

The province was quickly conquered by Edmund and his forces. In 946, Edmund ceded the province to Malcolm I, King of Scots. They formed a peace treaty between the two nations which ensured mutual military support.

Edmund married Elfgifu of Shaftesbury, with the couple producing a daughter and two sons.

Elfgifu died soon afterward and in 946 Edmund would marry again to Ethelflaed of Damerham. This time they produced no children.

Louis IV

Edmund’s nephew was Louis IV. Because of this, Edmund played a key role in restoring the French king back to the throne.

The Extraordinary Life Of King Edmund The Elder
Louis_IV_denier_Chinon_936_954 | Image: Wikimedia

In 943, Louis was captured and released to Duke Hugh the Great, who would hold the French king in captivity. His mother wrote to both Edmund and Otto I to request aid for Louis. Edmund, who was fiery of temperament, would send aggressive letters to Hugh, threatening him with severe repercussions if he didn’t release Louis.

These threats did not fall on deaf ears and the Duke subsequently released Louis and restored the kingdom to Louis.

Death

After an impressive six years of ruling over the country, Edmund’s reign came to a violent and bloody halt.

On the 26th of May, 946, during the Feast of St. Augustine – a traditional festival amongst Anglo-Saxon people, at Pucklechurch, Gloucester, the king had consumed far too much wine and was extremely inebriated.

Edmund became infuriated when he noticed a man named Liofa, whom he had previously banished from the kingdom for being an outlaw a couple of years ago. Edmund saw Liofa’s presence as a slap in his face, as he believed this gave the message that he wasn’t to be feared or respected.

Edmund needed to prove his authority and consequently, he challenged Liofa and launched him onto the floor. In the scuffle, however, Liofa, or Leofa, as some claim, fatally stabbed the king. He was aged just 25 years of age when he was killed.

He was subsequently buried in Somerset, at Glastonbury Abbey. Some believe that Glastonbury Abbey was chosen because of its spiritual prestige, though the more likely scenario is simply the fact that, as he died suddenly and out of the blue, the abbot St. Dunstan would lay claim to the body.

Now, there are some theories that Edmund was not stabbed to death in a drunken scuffle with an outlaw, but rather, was the target of a calculated political assassination. That theory, however, appears to have been debunked and the vast majority of historians do not accept it.

Because his sons were still young children when he was killed, it was instead Edmund’s brother Eadred who succeeded Edmund as King. In 955, Edmund’s oldest son Eadwig succeeded Eadred.

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