The Killer King

Cloaked in the trees of a Hampshire forest is a memorial to a tale of murder, lust and betrayal, which, sadly, never happened.

In the opening years of the twentieth century, the naturalist William Henry Hudson was on an entomological adventure in Harewood Forest, when he came upon a stone cross, eighteen feet tall, at a place called Dead Man’s Plack. Hudson became obsessed with the cross and made it his habit, during his stay in the nearby village of Wherwell, to take a rest each day under its shade. According to its inscription, it had been erected in 1825 by the local squire, Lieutenant-Colonel William Iremonger, in memory of a murder committed on the spot by an Anglo-Saxon king of one of his own courtiers.

Last week’s blog précised the reign of King Edmund the Magnificent, who was killed in a brawl in 946. He had left two sons but they were toddlers at the time of his death, so he was succeeded by his brother Eadred. He in turn died childless in 955, passing the throne to Eadwig, at fifteen the elder of Edmund’s sons. His reign was brief and ignominious, characterized by an undignified spat with Saint Dunstan, who disapproved of the King’s skiving off his own coronation feast to get busy with a nun (and her mother). The Mercians showed their unhappiness by electing his younger brother Edgar king but Eadwig’s death only four years later re-united England under a ruler mocked in his own day for his below-average height (about which he was exceedingly touchy) but who would go down in history more flatteringly as “Edgar the Peaceable”.

The eminent historian Sir Frank Stenton once complained that Edgar’s reign was, if anything, a little too peaceable, with few dramatic incidents recorded. Fortunately for folklore bloggers, this gap has been filled by the mongers of rumour, whose fantasies were recorded, with frank scepticism, by William of Malmesbury. One of those stories would be repeated by generations of chroniclers and anecdotists, eventually being commemorated in the cross at Dead Man’s Plack. It goes something like this:

King Edgar, unmarried but freshly out of puberty and raring to go, had heard report of the fabulous beauty of Ælfthryth, daughter of Ordgar, ealdorman of Devon. Intrigued but restrained by affairs of the state from affairs of the heart, he deputed Æthelwold, ealdorman of East Anglia, to go to Ordgar’s house, appraise Ælfthryth’s looks for himself and, if he found her suitable, to extend to her the King’s proposal of marriage.

When Æthelwold arrived, he was himself captivated by the young woman’s countenance divine, which filled every part of his body with lust. Determined to make her his own bride, he reported back to the King that, contrary to popular belief, Ælfthryth was in fact a minger and he self-sacrificially offered to remove her from the pool by marrying her himself.

Edgar took Æthelwold at his word but some time later the court gossip made its way to the royal ears that the ealdorman had tricked him. Suspicious, Edgar cheerfully told Æthelwold that he intended to visit his new wife. The ealdorman was horrified, knowing that, if the King saw Ælfthryth for himself, he would discover the deception that had been played on him, so he sent word to his wife in advance of the King’s arrival, advising her to wear the least-flattering clothes in her wardrobe.

Ironically, the perfidious nobleman had reckoned without the perfidy of his wife. Ælfthryth rather fancied the idea of being the object of the King’s concupiscence, so, when Edgar arrived, she presented every detail of herself to maximum advantage. He fell in love with her immediately but there was the small detail of her husband.

Edgar invited Æthelwold to go on a hunting party at Wherwell, near Harewood. Again, the man who had betrayed his king never thought for a moment that his king might betray him. He went along and only realized what was really going on when Edgar impaled him on a javelin. For public relations purposes, it was, of course, an accident but twenty years later Queen (for such she quickly became) Ælfthryth would found a nunnery on the site. People said it was an act of atonement for her own part in her husband’s death.

It is a pretty story but nothing more. Although Edgar really did marry Ælfrthyth, widow of Ealdorman Æthelwold of East Anglia, in the year 964, her first husband had died two years earlier and no contemporary witness reports anything suspicious of the circumstances of his death. The legend is also anachronistic, for Ælfthryth’s father Ordgar was only a thegn when Edgar courted her and was not appointed Ealdorman of Devon until after their marriage. Finally, the manner and even the location of Æthelwold’s death call to mind the demise of King William II in 1099, who was killed by an arrow while hunting in the New Forest, passing the throne to his brother Henry I. It was during Henry’s reign that William of Malmesbury recorded Edgar’s own venatical faux pas.

None of these facts troubled Lieutenant-Colonel William Iremonger when he erected the cross at Dead Man’s Plack, nor did they bother William Hudson, when he heard the story in full from the villagers of Wherwell. Indeed, he became particularly defensive of the story himself when he heard that the distinguished Edward Augustus Freeman, Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Oxford, had given a lecture discrediting it.

Hudson intensely disliked Freeman, whom he regarded as an arrogant intellectual, reposing all of his faith in the written lie and disdainful of the ability of popular memory to preserve the truth. Indeed, so strong was his prejudice against Freeman that he decided the story must be true out of sheer contrarianism and wrote a novella based on it (which he claimed had been narrated to him by the ghost of Ælfthryth herself).

Despite Hudson’s passionate, emotional and utterly evidence-free case for the defence, later research has vindicated Freeman (and Edgar). It was not the story’s historicity but merely its association with Wherwell Abbey that had made it popular in the area. The only remaining mystery was why else Dead Man’s Plack was so named if not for the reasons recorded on Iremonger’s monument but in 2004 even that was solved. Local historian John Spaul discovered a reference from 1735 to a Dudman who lived in the area and suggested that “Dead Man’s Plack” might be a corruption of “Dudman’s Plot”. It was Lieutenant-Colonel Iremonger, whose family home stood on the ruins of the abbey, who connected the name with the legend.

The legend of the murder of her first husband is only one of many slanders that Ælfthryth’s name attracted from the monastic historians of her era. As it happens, however, at least one of the accusations made against her probably is true, the fount of her later reputation and it revolves around her ambitions for her son.

Edgar, like Ælfthryth, had been married before. His first wife apparently died in childbirth, for she disappears from the record with the birth of their son, Edward, in 962. Ælfthryth (who, surprisingly, was never accused of doing away with her predecessor) bore Edgar two more sons. The first died prematurely but the second, Æthelred, would live to become king. If only it had been the other way around, for Æthelred would turn out to be one of the most apocalyptically disastrous rulers England ever had, bringing a catastrophe upon his country from which it has never recovered, a catastrophe that might have been averted if it had not been for Ælfthryth’s maternal ambitions.

That, however, is next week’s story.

Photo credits: Deadman’s Plack Monument (Kelvin Davies) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Wherwell: The Iremonger Mausoleum (Michael Garlick) / CC BY-SA 2.0