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Leofric, earl of Mercialocked

(d. 1057)
  • Ann Williams

Leofric, earl of Mercia (d. 1057), magnate, was the son of Leofwine, son of Ælfwine. Leofwine was created ealdorman by Æthelred II in 994. He retained his rank after the Danish conquest (AS chart., S 1384), though his eldest son, Northmann, was murdered at Christmas 1017, on Cnut's orders. His sphere of office is uncertain: under Æthelred he had held Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, but these shires, with that of Hereford, were given to Danes early in Cnut's reign. It is possible that Leofwine became ealdorman of Mercia in succession to Eadric Streona (d. 1017). His son Eadwine (killed at the battle of Rhyd-y-groes in 1039) may have been Earl Ranig's deputy in Herefordshire (S 1462), and Leofric, who attests charters as minister from 1019 to 1026, was perhaps sheriff in Worcestershire under Earl Hakon (S 991). Leofwine probably died soon after his last attestation in 1023.

Leofwine was given land in Warwickshire in 998 (AS chart., S 892), but the family may have come from the east, rather than the west, midlands. In the religious houses of west Mercia they have a reputation as spoliators. Æthelred II gave Leofwine land at Mathon, Herefordshire (S 932), which probably belonged to Pershore Abbey and bestowed on Northmann an estate at Hampton, Worcestershire, later claimed by Evesham (S 873); Leofwine, Eadwine, Leofric, and a fourth son, Godwine, are accused of seizing lands belonging to the church of Worcester. In contrast, the religious establishments of the east midlands remember them kindly. It may have been Northmann who gave Twywell, Northamptonshire, to Thorney Abbey (S 931), and Leofwine was commemorated as a benefactor at Peterborough, a house ruled between 1052 and 1066 by his great-nephew, Abbot Leofric. Earl Leofric's son Ælfgar (d. 1062?) was a benefactor of Crowland. In the Confessor's reign, Sexi of Woodwalton, Huntingdonshire, a benefactor of Ramsey, claimed kinship with Earl Leofric; and descendants of the family may have survived in the east midlands even after 1066.

Leofric married Godgifu (d. 1067?), probably at some time before 1010, and he first attests as earl in 1032, though he may have been promoted in the late 1020s. John of Worcester, indeed, has Leofric succeed to the earldom of his brother Northmann, but there is no evidence that Northmann ever held the rank of earl. Whatever the extent of his father's power, Leofric himself was certainly earl of Mercia, a post which he held through the reigns of four kings. In 1035 he supported Harold I (d. 1040), Cnut's son with Ælfgifu of Northampton, against Harthacnut (d. 1042), who was backed by his mother, Emma, and Earl Godwine. Leofric's championship of Harold may stem from the marriage, probably in the late 1020s, of his son Ælfgar with Ælfgifu, arguably a kinswoman of Harold's mother. In Harthacnut's reign, Leofric participated in the harrying of Worcester in 1041, in punishment for the murder of two housecarls sent to collect the geld of 1040; but it was Earl Godwine whom Harthacnut sent to dig up the body of Harold I and throw it into the Thames marshes.

In the Confessor's reign, Leofric was among those who in 1043 advised the king to deprive his mother, Emma, of her treasure, and rode with him to Winchester to implement this decision. There seems to have been considerable rivalry between the Mercian earls and the family of Earl Godwine. In 1047 and 1048 Leofric counselled against sending ships to aid Godwine's nephew, Swein Estrithson, against his Norwegian rivals for the kingdom of Denmark; he also supported the king against Godwine in 1051, but advised him against an outright attack on the earl. When Godwine and his family fled, it was Leofric's son Ælfgar who received Harold Godwineson's earldom in East Anglia; and when the family forced the king to reinstate them in 1052, Leofric allowed Osbern Pentecost, whose castle in Herefordshire had been a cause of dissension, to escape through Mercia to Scotland. Ælfgar regained East Anglia in 1053, when Harold became earl of Wessex, though he was exiled (temporarily) in 1055. In the following year Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, Ælfgar's erstwhile ally, killed the warlike bishop of Hereford, Leofgar (formerly Earl Harold's chaplain), on 16 June, and it was Leofric who assisted Harold and Ealdred, bishop of Worcester, to make peace; the bishops of Worcester, on whose lands the Mercian earls were encroaching, had close connections with Godwine's family. This is Leofric's last recorded appearance and he died the following year.

Lands in Warwickshire and Shropshire are still entered in Leofric's name in Domesday Book. They are probably his personal estates, for John of Worcester says that he endowed Coventry Abbey out of his own patrimony and that of Godgifu, and Coventry's manor at Southam had certainly been held by Leofwine (AS chart., S 892). Coventry was established in or before 1043 as a family monastery and mausoleum and is the only house actually founded by Leofric and Godgifu. Both Coventry's pre-conquest abbots were connected with Leofric: Leofwine (c.1043–1053) was the son of Wulfwine of Weoley, who by 1066 was commended to Leofric's grandson Eadwine [see under Ælfgar] and may originally have been the man of Leofric himself; and when Leofwine became bishop of Lichfield in 1053, Coventry passed into the control of the earl's nephew, Leofric of Peterborough, who died in 1066. In 1071 Leofwine resigned his see and returned to Coventry, apparently as abbot.

John of Worcester praises Leofric's generosity, not only to Coventry but also to Much Wenlock in Shropshire, Leominster, Herefordshire, the churches of St John and St Werburgh at Chester, Stow St Mary in Lincolnshire, Worcester itself, and Evesham; Domesday Book adds his gift of Austrey, Warwickshire, to Burton Abbey, Derbyshire, and the Evesham chronicle records his building and endowment of the church of Holy Trinity. John's praise is somewhat surprising, since the monks of Worcester remembered Leofric, his father, brothers, and grandsons, and several of the men commended to him, as despoilers of church land. His only known grant to Worcester, of lands at Wolverley and Blackwell (AS chart., S 1232), is no more than the return of two of the six estates taken from the church by his father; the others remained in the hands of Leofric and his adherents. Myton, Warwickshire, which Cnut gave to Abingdon Abbey, was also held in 1066 by Leofric's descendants (S 967).

Leofric's piety, though genuine, seems to have been of the conventional kind, which did not preclude the use of ecclesiastical land for the enrichment of his family. His relations with Burton illustrate the point. The abbey may have received Austrey, but six other estates given by its founder were held by Leofric's family in 1066 and the house itself was, like Coventry, in the hands of his nephew Leofric of Peterborough. Burton was founded by the north Mercian nobleman Wulfric Spot (d. 1002×04) but his family fell from power soon after his death; his brother Ælfhelm was murdered on King Æthelred's orders in 1006 and Morcar, husband of his niece Ealdgyth, met the same fate in 1015. Much of the land held by Wulfric and his kin is later found in the hands of Leofric's family, who probably took over the patronage of his abbey. The families may have been connected by marriage, for Ælfgifu, wife to Leofric's son Ælfgar, is probably Wulfric Spot's godchild, Morcar and Ealdgyth's daughter; it may not be coincidental that these names were given to two of her children with Ælfgar.

The same connection with Wulfric Spot might underlie Leofric's relations with Evesham. Its abbot from 1014 to 1044 was Ælfweard, also bishop of London from 1035. He was allegedly a kinsman of Cnut, but is perhaps more likely to have been related to Cnut's English wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton (fl. 1006–1036), daughter of Wulfric Spot's brother Ælfhelm. Æfic, Ælfweard's prior (d. 1037/1038), became confessor to Leofric and his wife, Godgifu, and it was he who persuaded Leofric to restore the lands at Hampton, Worcestershire, given by Æthelred II to Northmann.

Ecclesiastical benefactions were also a means to acquire influence through patronage. Leofric's gifts to Leominster may be a response to Cnut's removal of Herefordshire from Mercian control in his father's time. Leominster's support would be a powerful asset, for the estates of the church were extensive enough to put north Herefordshire beyond the control of any ordinary secular authority. After Earl Ranig's death, Leofric's rival here was Swein Godwineson, who attempted to obtain Leominster's land by marrying its abbess, an escapade which brought about his own exile and the house's dissolution. In this instance Leofric's benefactions came to nothing, but he was more successful elsewhere. Stow St Mary, Lincolnshire, had been founded by the Eadnoth who was bishop of Dorchester from 1034 to 1049 and whose successor Wulfwig (1053–67) solicited Leofric's aid to establish and endow a college of priests. Leofric's involvement with Stow extended his influence outside his earldom, into a shire where his family had become prominent by 1066; in the same way, his gifts to the two Chester churches reflect (and perhaps prefigure) the wealth and influence in the shire enjoyed by his grandson Eadwine. By 1066, when Eadwine and Morcar were earls of Mercia and of Northumbria respectively, the family's estates were worth nearly £2500, and were scattered over seventeen shires, with the greatest concentrations of land lying in Shropshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire, and Yorkshire.

Leofric died in 1057, on either 31 August or 30 September, at his manor of King's Bromley, Staffordshire, and was buried at Coventry. John of Worcester's words may stand as his epitaph: 'the wisdom of this earl during his lifetime was of great advantage to the kings and all the people of the English' (John of Worcester, Chron., s.a. 1057).

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