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Eadred [Edred]locked

(d. 955)
  • Ann Williams

Eadred (d. 955)


© Copyright The British Museum

Eadred [Edred] (d. 955), king of England, was the younger son of Edward the Elder (d. 924) and his third wife, Eadgifu (d. in or after 966). Eadred succeeded his elder brother, Edmund, who was murdered on 26 May 946. He was consecrated at Kingston upon Thames on 16 August 946, by Oda, archbishop of Canterbury; his coronation was attended by Hwyel Dda (‘the Good’), king of south Wales, with his brothers Morgan and Cadwgan, and by four earls bearing the Scandinavian names Orm, Morcar, Grim, and Coll (AS chart., S 520).

The struggle for the north

Eadred stepped into the same pre-eminence among the rulers in Britain which his brother, Edmund, had inherited from their half-brother Æthelstan (d. 939) but (like Edmund) he had to fight to retain it. It is unfortunate that all the chroniclers of this period wrote after the event, and doubly unfortunate that they often contradict both each other and the surviving charters which are the only strictly contemporary source. It seems, however, that Eadred's authority over the kingdom of York was challenged both by Olaf Sihtricson (called Cuarán, ‘sandal’, in Gaelic), king of Dublin (d. 981), who had ruled (briefly) in York in Edmund's time, and by the Norwegian prince Erik Bloodaxe. The position was complicated by the presence within the kingdom of York of rival factions, one of them led by Wulfstan, archbishop of York, and by the rivalry between the Anglo-Scandinavian rulers of York and the English of Northumbria beyond the Tyne, led by Osulf of Bamburgh, a supporter (when it suited him) of the West Saxon kings.

Olaf Sihtricson seems to have established himself at York in 947, possibly with Eadred's approval, or at least his acquiescence; Olaf was, after all, King Edmund's godson, and it is noticeable that his coins followed the designs of those issued by English kings, whereas Erik's issues include a sword type, like that used by the viking rulers of the early 920s. Olaf's expulsion, by the Northumbrians themselves, is recorded in the E version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under 952, but the true date is likely to be 949. Five of the eleven charters issued by Eadred in 949 and 950 describe him as 'king of the English, Northumbrians, pagans and Britons' (or variants thereof), and three of the five are attested both by Osulf of Bamburgh and by a group of earls with Scandinavian names who appear for the first time since 947. It seems clear, then, that Eadred had direct control of York in these years, and that the formal submission to Eadred on the part of Archbishop Wulfstan and the Northumbrian magnates, recorded in the D version of the chronicle under the year 947, should probably also be dated to 949. Soon, however, 'they were false to it all, both pledge and oaths as well' (ASC, s.a. 947, text D), and accepted Erik as king.

The advent of Erik presented a serious threat to West Saxon power in the north. Eadred's response was a punitive raid on Northumbria, in which 'the glorious minster' built by St Wilfrid at Ripon was burnt down. As the English returned southward, the army of York overtook the rearguard at Castleford and 'made a great slaughter there'; but when the enraged king threatened to return in force to Northumbria and 'destroy it utterly', the Northumbrians (or at least those associated with Archbishop Wulfstan) abandoned Erik and paid compensation to Eadred for their actions (ASC, s.a. 948, text D). The date of the expedition is disputed; the D text of the chronicle gives 948, but the Historia regum (compiled, from earlier materials, in the early twelfth century) has 950. Moreover, the church of Ripon was closely associated with the archbishopric, and its spoliation may reflect the king's displeasure with Archbishop Wulfstan; if so, the whole campaign may have taken place in 952, when (according to the D text) Wulfstan was arrested on the king's orders and deprived of the archbishopric. Wulfstan was later reinstated, but his successor at York was Oscytel, bishop of Dorchester-on-Thames (d. 971), who was appointed by Eadred. It was probably at this point that the relics of St Wilfrid (d. 709) were seized and brought south to be enshrined at Canterbury, where the Life of Wilfrid of Stephen of Ripon was later rewritten by the Frankish scholar Frithegod of Canterbury. The appropriation of such important cults was one of the means employed by the West Saxon kings to fasten their authority on conquered territories; the removal of the relics both identified the new rulers with the cults of the regions and weakened the local centres of allegiance around which resistance might form.

The D text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Historia regum agree that the Northumbrians submitted to Eadred after the defeat at Castleford, and it was perhaps at this point that Erik Bloodaxe was ousted from the kingship, for the Historia regum adds that it was in 952 that 'the kings of the Northumbrians came to an end, and henceforward the province was administered by earls' (English Historical Documents, 1, ed. D. Whitelocke, 1955, no. 3). The circumstances of Erik's death (which probably occurred in 954) are related by the thirteenth-century historian, Roger of Wendover, who, however, had access to earlier material. Wendover names the actual slayer as Earl Maccus (Magnus), but says that Erik was betrayed by Earl Osulf of Bamburgh. Some colour to this is given by the site of the killing, at Stainmore, on the frontier of Osulf's territory, where the Roman road to Carlisle crosses the Pennines; and by the fact that it was Osulf whom Eadred chose as earl of Northumbria after the ending of the independent kingdom of York.

Government and administration

Eadred's counsellors were, by and large, the men who had advised his brother, Edmund and, in some cases, his half-brother Æthelstan, which made for a certain continuity in policy and practice over the three reigns. Among the greater counsellors, Oda, archbishop of Canterbury, was particularly prominent; under Eadred's will (AS chart., S 1515) he received a personal bequest of 240 gold mancuses (£30 of silver pennies). Oda was a professed monk, closely connected with the reformed house of Fleury-sur-Loire, and a leading figure in the movement to reform the English church. In contrast Ælfsige, whom Eadred appointed bishop of Winchester in 951, was a married man with a son. Among the laymen, the leading figure was still Æthelstan Half-King, ealdorman of East Anglia, who was first promoted by King Æthelstan. He was another champion of ecclesiastical reform and it is significant that his wife, Ælfwynn, was foster mother to Eadred's nephew Edgar, the younger son of Edmund and Ælfgifu. Æthelstan Half-King was also a close friend of Dunstan, abbot of Glastonbury, who attests several of Eadred's charters in the period between 949 and 955; his brother Wulfric, already favoured by Edmund, received further grants of land from Eadred. Dunstan was one of the churchmen entrusted with the king's treasures, including his landbooks (the charters which constituted his title-deeds), to be kept 'in the security of his monastery' (Stubbs, 29). He seems to have had a hand in the production of royal charters for Eadred and his successors. He himself may have written Eadred's charter of 949, granting Reculver to Christ Church, Canterbury (AS chart., S 546), and the group of royal diplomas now known as the ‘Dunstan B’ charters, written for various beneficiaries in the period between 951 and 975, seem to have been produced by someone who had been trained at Glastonbury under Dunstan and who remained there after Dunstan himself had moved on. Another influential churchman was Cenwald, bishop of Worcester, who was perhaps responsible for the series of alliterative charters produced in the 940s and 950s.

The queen mother, Eadgifu, was another important member of Eadred's court and council. Her father was the Kentish ealdorman Sigehelm, killed at the battle of the Holme in 903, and Eadgifu was a considerable landowner in Kent before her marriage to King Edward the Elder. These Kentish interests continued: she witnessed the will of a Kentish thegn in company with Archbishop Oda and therefore between 941 and 958 (AS chart., S 1511), and was remembered as a benefactor of Christ Church, Canterbury. Her importance in her son's life is shown by his bequests to her, consisting of the royal vills of Amesbury, Wiltshire, Basing, Hampshire, and Wantage, Berkshire, and 'all the booklands which I have in Surrey, Sussex and Kent, and all those which she has previously had'; the latter presumably included the estate at Felpham, Sussex, which Eadred had given his mother, described as (famosa famula Dei'a celebrated handmaid of God'), in 953 (AS chart., S 562).

Among the men promoted by Eadred himself, two are worthy of especial notice. In 951, the king gave land in Buckland, Somerset, to his kinsman Ælfhere, later ealdorman of Mercia. This is Ælfhere's first appearance in the surviving sources, though his brother Ælfheah had received lands from both Æthelstan and Edmund. Their family's power was soon to rival that of the ‘Half-King’ himself. The other newcomer is equally significant. Towards the end of his reign, the king's mother, Eadgifu, persuaded him to give the royal vill of Abingdon to Æthelwold, then a monk at Glastonbury under Dunstan. Æthelwold transformed the secular minster at Abingdon into a regular Benedictine house. A great feast was held to celebrate the foundation of the new church, at which the mead flowed like water, and the Northumbrian guests, 'after their usual fashion', got spectacularly drunk (Vita S. Æthelwoldi, Chron. Abingdon, 2.258). Whether the king enjoyed it is doubtful. Towards the end of his life Eadred was seriously ill of the malady which eventually killed him. Dunstan's first biographer, who had been in his household and was in a position to have attended him on his visits to court, describes how Eadred was unable to swallow his food, and was reduced to sucking the juice out of it and spitting what remained back onto his plate, 'a nasty practice that turned the stomachs of the thegns who dined with him' (Stubbs, 31). As if this was not enough, he may also have been lame or disabled, for the eleventh-century writer, Hermann of Bury, claims that he suffered a weakness of the feet (Arnold, 1.29).

The king's household

A charter issued on the date of the king's coronation in 946 (AS chart., S 520) grants land at Warkton, Northamptonshire, to the Mercian thegn Wulfric, described as (pedisequus) (sometimes appearing as (sequipedus)), which, like the later 'staller', denotes someone in especially close attendance on the king. Eadred's will reveals a little about the hierarchy of royal counsellors and the composition of the king's household. The largest personal bequests, as already described, are the extensive lands bequeathed to his mother, followed by the 240 gold mancuses left to Archbishop Oda. Each bishop and each ealdorman received 120 gold mancuses (£15 of silver pennies). Each discþegn, hræglþegn, and biriele received 80 mancuses of gold (£10 of silver pennies). These are the main household officials: the discþegn (dapifer, seneschal) was responsible for the provisioning of the king's household with food; the biriele (pincerna, butler) for the provision of drink; and the hræglþegn (burþegn, camerarius, chamberlain) oversaw the king's personal possessions. The chaplains in charge of the king's relics (his haligdom, which could include documents of various kinds, including royal charters), each received 50 gold mancuses and £5 of silver pennies (equivalent to £11¼ of silver pennies). His other priests received £5 of pennies each, and each steward (stigweard) and lesser official, lay or ecclesiastic, received 30 gold mancuses (£3¾ of silver pennies).

Eadred's legacy

Although Eadred is remembered as the king who oversaw the final incorporation of the viking kingdom of York into the kingdom of the English, this was probably not apparent at the time and his will reveals the uncertainty and sense of danger still felt in the middle of the tenth century. Eadred left £1600 of silver 'for the redemption of his soul and for the good of his people, that they may be able to purchase for themselves relief from want and from the heathen army if they [have] need' (AS chart., S 1515). The money was entrusted to four leading churchmen: Archbishop Oda, who received £400 for the people of Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Berkshire; Ælfsige, bishop of Winchester, who got £200 for Hampshire and £100 apiece for Wiltshire and Dorset, plus £200 for the episcopal see itself or 'for whichever shire may need it'; Dunstan, who got £200 to keep at Glastonbury for the people of Somerset and Devon; and Oscytel, bishop of Dorchester-on-Thames, who got £400 for the Mercians (the West Saxon bias in the royal government is still strongly marked). In addition gold to the weight of 2000 mancuses (equivalent to £250 pounds of silver pennies) was to be coined into mancuses (1 mancus = 30d.) and divided between the archbishop, Bishop Ælfsige, and Bishop Oscytel 'and they are to distribute them throughout the bishoprics for the sake of God and for the redemption of my soul'.

Eadred's bequests to his household have already been mentioned. His ecclesiastical benefactions were largely to the Winchester houses: the Old Minster was left three estates in Wiltshire, at Downton, Damerham, and Calne; the New Minster received Wherwell, Andover, and Kingsclere, Hampshire; and Nunnaminster got Shalbourne and Bradford, Wiltshire, and Thatcham, Berkshire. Nunnaminster also received £30 of silver, as did the other royal nunneries at Wilton and Shaftesbury. Twelve almsmen were to be appointed on each estate (and on the others mentioned in the will) to pray for the king's soul, and their successors likewise 'so long as Christianity endures' (AS chart., S 1515). Eadred also left two golden crosses, two golden-hilted swords, and £400 to 'the foundation wherein he desires that his body shall rest'; he does not specify which it is to be, but in the event he was buried in the Old Minster, Winchester.

Eadred was clearly an able and even energetic king, hampered by debility and (at the last) by a serious illness which brought about his early death, aged not much above thirty, on 23 November 955 at Frome in Somerset. Perhaps because of his physical weakness, he never married, and his heirs were his nephews, Eadwig and Edgar, the sons of his brother, Edmund.


  • ASC, s.a. 955 [text A]; s.a. 946, 955, 971 [text C]; s.a. 946, 947, 948, 952, 954, 955 [text D]; s. a. 948, 949, 952, 954 [text E]
  • AS chart., S 163, 350, 516–580, 1211, 1212, 1511, 1515
  • P. Sawyer, ‘The last Scandinavian rulers of York’, Northern History, 31 (1995), 39–44
  • A. Campbell, ‘Two notes on the Norse kingdoms in Northumbria’, EngHR, 57 (1942), 85–97, esp. 91–7
  • A. P. Smyth, Scandinavian York and Dublin: the history of two related Viking kingdoms, 2 (1979)
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  • B., ‘Vita sancti Dunstani’, Memorials of Saint Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, ed. W. Stubbs, Rolls Series, 63 (1874), 3–52
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  • D. Rollason, ‘Relic-cults as an instrument of royal policy, c.900–c.1050’, Anglo-Saxon England, 15 (1986), 91–103
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  • S. Keynes, The diplomas of Æthelred II, ‘the Unready’, 978–1016 (1980), 158–61
  • N. Brooks, The early history of the church of Canterbury: Christ Church from 597 to 1066 (1984), 205, 222–37, 250
  • M. Lapidge, ‘B and the Vita s Dunstani’, St Dunstan: his life, times and cult, ed. N. Ramsay, M. Sparks, and T. Tatton-Brown (1992), 247–59
  • C. E. Blunt, B. H. I. H. Stewart, and C. S. S. Lyon, Coinage in tenth-century England: from Edward the Elder to Edgar's reform (1989)
  • D. Hill, An atlas of Anglo-Saxon England (1981)


English Historical Review
D. Whitelock, D. C. Douglas, & S. I. Tucker, eds. and trans., (1961)
John of Worcester, ed. R. R. Darlington & P. McGurk, trans. J. Bray & P. McGurk, 2–3; OMT (1995–) [vol. 1 forthcoming]
P. H. Sawyer, , Royal Historical Society Guides and Handbooks (1968)