The Devil’s Church

Saint Thomas Becket, Pucklechurch

James Lloyd visits a small village in Gloucestershire, named after a church named after a devil and once the scene of a regicide.

Her Majesty’s Prison Ashfield is a long established royal residence, situated in the south-western quarter of the Gloucestershire village of Pucklechurch. As has been expounded in a previous entry, “puckle” comes from the Old English word for a little demon and shares the same derivation (though by a different route) as “pixie”. What devilish associations the church once had are now, lamentably, lost to time but they were not enough to deter royal patronage of the village, where the West Saxon kings owned an estate some time prior to the tenth century.

I write “West Saxon”, rather than “English”, because in the early tenth century England was still newly minted. Under their kings Egbert, Alfred the Great, Edward the Elder and Athelstan the Victorious, the West Saxons expanded over most of what we would now call England but the term “English” was still cultural and linguistic, rather than national and political. People were far likelier to identify with the old kingdoms, such as Kent or Mercia, than they were with this new-fangled union that did not even have a name yet (the very word “England” is not recorded until a hundred years later).

Compounding these difficulties, the invasions by Danish and Norwegian raiders over the ninth century had saturated large parts of Britain with people who were emphatically not English. Norse-speaking, Odin-worshipping and with their own laws by which even those under English rule were allowed to live, the Scandinavians were an unwelcome complication and no where were they more troublesome than in Northumbria, which their invasion had split in twain.

The northern half of Northumbria, ruled by the high-reeves of Bamborough, remained English in sympathy and was at least nominally loyal to the West Saxon kings but they were cut off by the kingdom of York, a strip of territory running east to west and controlled by a Norwegian family who had also founded colonies on the east coast of Ireland. After the death of King Sihtric of York in 927, Athelstan invaded his territory and drove out Sihtric’s brother Gothfrith. Ten years later, Gothfrith’s son Olaf, who had established himself as King of Dublin, formed an alliance with the other kings of Britain and tried to overthrow Athelstan but they were defeated at the unidentified field of Brunanburh.

Fighting alongside King Athelstan at Brunanburh was his sixteen-year-old half-brother Edmund. When Athelstan died in 939, Edmund was chosen by the nobles of Wessex and Mercia to succeed him but the Norse of York and their secessionist Archbishop Wulfstan restored Olaf Gothfrithson, who then invaded Mercia, capturing Northampton and Tamworth. Edmund besieged him in Leicester but Olaf escaped. Archbishop Wulfstan, acting on Olaf’s behalf and Oda, Bishop of Ramsbury, acting for Edmund, negotiated a truce under which Olaf would retain what he had captured, as long as he stopped there. It was not an auspicious beginning to Edmund’s reign but it boosted Oda’s career, for Edmund made him Archbishop of Canterbury the following year, which was a pretty rapid turnaround for a man whose own parents were pagan Danish immigrants.

York (secessionists not shown)

Fortunately for Edmund, Olaf pushed his luck by invading Bernicia, the northern part of Northumbria that had remained loyal to Edmund, in 941, where he was killed. He was succeeded by his cousin Olaf Sihtricson but in 942 Edmund re-captured the north-east Midlands. Olaf immediately looked like a loser and Archbishop Wulfstan had him replaced by his uncle Ragnald but in 945 Edmund invaded York and Ragnald was killed. Olaf had sought refuge in Cumbria, a sub-kingdom of Scotland but Edmund pursued him there and chased him across the Irish Sea. For good measure, Edmund also deposed the king of Cumbria, blinded his sons and gave the territory to King Malcolm I of Scotland, in exchange for keeping the Irish Sea clear of the Norse.

Edmund had restored the empire of Athelstan. Although people could not have known it at the time, the secessionists were now a dying breed. England was here to stay. With his borders secure, Edmund turned to domestic policy. He issued three law-codes, which codified the system of local government and justice which had been in development since his half-brother’s reign. All freemen of the age of twelve were to swear an oath of allegiance and thereupon become members of a tithing, a group of (approximately) ten men who were responsible for one another’s good behaviour. If any of them was accused of a crime, the whole tithing was responsible for ensuring that he presented himself in court. Around ten tithings were in turn grouped into a body called a hundred and it was these hundred men who formed the court for less serious offences. Tithings and hundreds, which quickly became geographical, rather than personal, terms, would continue as the basic level of local government and justice in England into the nineteenth century.

More serious offences, including murder, the king reserved to his own jurisdiction, which in practice meant the jurisdiction of his representative, the ealdorman or the sheriff. The king’s own residence was to be a place of sanctuary, like a church and there were special penalties for those who committed crimes on its soil. Unfortunately, not everyone got the memo.

It was the twenty-fourth of May 946. King Edmund was throwing a feast at his hall on the Pucklechurch estate to celebrate Saint Augustine’s Day. In the crowd, he recognized the notorious thief Leofa, whom he recalled sending into exile some time before. The King ordered his steward to arrest the criminal but Leofa resisted, drawing a knife. Edmund rushed forward to save his steward and, presumably yelling a dramatically elongated “No!”, he interposed himself between intended victim and blade.

The wound was fatal. King Edmund was dead. He was only twenty-four years old.

Despite its unpropitious start, Edmund’s reign had been a great success, in both peace and war. His brother Eadred, who succeeded him, was another strong ruler who managed to hold the nascent new kingdom together despite further attempts at secession in the north. One can only wonder what further deeds of glory Edmund might have achieved if his life had not been cut short at the aptly named Devil’s Church.

Edmund enjoyed a good press in his own time. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he was dubbed “Doer of Deeds” and the twelfth-century Norman historian John of Worcester would be equally effusive, naming him “Edmund the Magnificent”. As the restorer of Athelstan’s conquests, he deserves to be considered one of the founding fathers of the country of England.

Photo credits: Saint Thomas Becket (Neil Owen) / CC BY-SA 2.0

York Minster (Robin Drayton) / CC BY-SA 2.0