Saturday, February 6, 2010

Earl Leofric's family #1

The Earls of Mercia
By Stephen Baxter.(OUP 2007)

Having sacrificed an arm and a leg to buy a copy, I have to say it’s been worth the pain. Although you’d think they'd get a decent proof reader to check a book like this. Grumble aside, this is history as careful consideration of evidence, written by someone who knows the limitations of the available evidence and keeps his arguments firmly grounded in it.
It avoids the kind of half informed wishful thinking that characterises some books about the 11th century.
This strict focus on the evidence leads to two paradoxical results.
The first is to show how very little survives from a century. The second, despite the scarcity, or even because of it, the players still emerge.
And in some cases, the evidence is incriminating in ways that speculation cannot be.

So firstly the cleaning up. I wish I’d had this when writing Lady G.
The family tree in two posts and then the more juicy stuff.

Earl Leofric’s father was Leofwine, and as Baxter says this means the Leofwinsons were the great survivors of the 11th century, holding almost continuous (though varying) office from 994 to 1070(ish). For four generations the family served nine kings representing four different royal dynasties. The Godwinsons are sexier, a family of delinquent power hungry nutters makes much better subjects for a story, but it may be better, sometimes, to serve in heaven than rule in hell?

Leofric’s grandfather is shadowy though it’s possible he is named in ‘The Battle of Maldon’ which is ironic given his grandsons’ action.

Leofric had at least three brothers, two of whom came to violent ends. Northman was executed in Cnut’s purge of 1017 although his father wasn’t. Eadwine died in battle against the Welsh in 1039. Confusingly there was also a brother called Godwine who lived til the 1050s. He’s the one who launched an attack while his son, Aelfwine, was a hostage of the Danes. Aelfwine, Leofric’s nephew, having lost both his hands, “lived out his life in the hut of an oxherd”.

Leofric and Godgifu had one son, Aelfgar. There seems to be no evidence of a daughter or any other children.

Aelfgar , who doesn’t seem to have inherited his father’s…. tact, pinballed around the 1050s in a series of banishments and returns. He is known to have had three sons and one daughter.: Ealdgyth, Eadwine, Morcar and Burgheard. The idea that Hereward the wake is a member of the family is a romantic fiction and Baxter advances the case that it is more likely that he was one of Morcar’s men.

Although at this distance it’s impossible to “know” much about Ealdgyth, the bare facts of her life provide an insight into the reality of being a member of such a powerful family. Her uncle had died fighting against Gruffudd but she married him. Dealing with the Welsh was an English problem but the border made it particularly a Mercian one. The fact that her brothers were known to have welsh allies suggests they weren’t always at each others throats. She may have been part of the price her father paid for Welsh support in his two “returns” to power. (The facts open up into speculation. Did she speak Welsh? Or did Gruffudd speak English, or did they require a Latimer? In such a marriage was conversation even necessary? )

Gruffudd was killed in 1063 after Tostig and harold raided deep into Wales. (His own men sent his head to the English). In early 1066 she married the man responsible for his death; Harold which makes her the last queen of Anglo-Saxon England. If you subscribe to the family enmity and feud version, then in theory at least it should have stopped here, not in the bathetic end of Morcar (see next post).
She had a daughter by Gruffudd, and a son by Harold, though the latter didn’t live to see him. It’s possible that if William hadn’t already been married he might have been her third husband.


Anne Gilbert said...

Just a quick comment on your Post #1here. I've been reading a novel about Hereward, by somebody who seems to more or less agree with Baxter that Hereward wasn't Leofric's son, although I suppose that's a nice idea. He could well have been one of Morcar's men, but OTOH, it's also possible that since Anglo-Saxons seem to have had what anthropologists call "bilateral kinship" systems, Hereward could have had some kind of shallow, but related connection to the Earls of Mercia. If my "bilateral kinship" idea is reasonable, then Hereward could have been related to a lot of people.

Just my 2 cents/pence,
Anne G

Liam Guilar said...

Anne, What's a "bilateral kinship system"?
You can actually pinpoint the beginning of the legend that Herward was related to the Leofwinsons. I think it's very late, may even be 19th century.

Anne Gilbert said...


A "bilateral kinship system" is a system where people trace their descent and count relationships on both the mother's and the father's side, as opposed to "patrilineal" and "matrilineal" kinship systems, which count only one side of the family and/or inherit from only one side of the family. Since the AS people apparently had the "bilateral" system, it's possible that Hereward was related in some distant way to the Earls of Mercia. Bilateral systems are found in some parts of Africa, and we have traces of it in the English-speaking world although people (usually) "inherit" their names from their fathers, unless they decide to change them for some reason or another. Similarly, in the African societies that have "bilateral" systems, some things are inherited from the paternal, and others from the maternal side of the family.

BTW, "bilateral" systems often have a very wide, but rather shallow, kinship network. You may not be able to count kin very far in the past. This is also true of English-speaking people today, and is one reason why I suggested Hereward might be vaguely related in some way to the Leofricsons.
Anne G

Liam Guilar said...

thank you for taking the time to explain this. Is there any evidence that Anglo-Saxons in the 11th century did this?

Anne Gilbert said...


I haven't seen any direct evidence, but it seems likely that they did, since kinship systems are often rather slow to change(if they really change). I have seen a book called "Women of Anglo-Saxon England" or something similar, that suggests this practice in the later 10th or early 11th century, but doesn't name it as such.
anne G