Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ælfred (d.1036)

ÆLFRED (d. 1036), ætheling, was the younger of the two sons of King Æthelred and Emma, daughter of Richard the Fearless. On the conquest of England by Swend in 1013, Ælfred and his brother Eadward were sent over to Normandy under the care of Ælfhun, bishop of London. The æthelings were received at the court of their uncle Richard the Good, whither their mother had fled not long before they came. A promise obtained by Emma from Cnut as a condition of her marriage to him, that the succession to the English throne should be limited to such children as she might bear him, shows that she was careless of the claims of her sons by her former marriage. The English æthelings were, however, held in honour at Rouen, and their cousin Duke Robert attempted to enforce their rights by an invasion of England. His fleet was kept away from our shores by a contrary wind, and the attempt failed. The story told by William of Jumièges that, in spite of this failure, Cnut, feeling his end near, offered that half his kingdom should go to the æthelings, may be rejected as wholly improbable. At the death of Cnut, in 1035, their rights were disregarded by the English witan, for the remembrance of the ill conduct of their father set men against them. The kingdom was divided. Harold reigned at London over the land north of the Thames, and Emma, at Winchester, ruled Wessex in the name of her son Harthacnut, whose cause was upheld by Earl Godwine. The next year Ælfred, with the consent of his brother Eadward, and perhaps in concert with him, made an attempt on England. He landed at Dover, with some force which must have been composed of Normans, and marched westward, intending to have an interview with his mother at Winchester. Owing to the absence of Harthacnut, English feeling had begun even in Wessex to turn towards a union of the kingdom under Harold. His accession in Wessex would have entailed the downfall of Emma, and Ælfred had reason to believe that his mother would favour his enterprise. Earl Godwine met him at Guildford. Convinced of the weakness of the party of Harthacnut, the earl was now on the side of Harold. He set on the company of Ælfred, some he slew outright, some were sold as slaves, others were blinded, scalped, or otherwise cruelly used. Ælfred was taken alive and sent to Ely. As he was in the ship which brought him to the island, he was blinded. He dwelt awhile with the monks, and when he died of the hurts which he had received they buried him in their church. Miracles were said to have been wrought at his tomb. Of no fact in our history have so many different accounts been given as of the death of Ælfred. It forms the subject of a poem in the Abingdon and Worcester versions of the Chronicle. This poem, with one or two additions from other writers, which do not contradict its statements, is the authority for the story here given. Mr. Freeman, by an ingenious course of argument, comes to the conclusion that in this matter ‘the great earl is at least entitled to a verdict of Not Proven, if not of Not Guilty.’ Setting aside all vague conjectures and considerations of possible motives, it is impossible to deny that the weight of written evidence is distinctly on the side of those who believe that Earl Godwine took Ælfred captive and slew his companions in a fearfully cruel manner, though it cannot be ascertained whether he acted treacherously towards the ætheling. The murder of Ælfred was made the subject of accusation against the earl in the reigns of his brothers Harthacnut and Eadward the Confessor, and was used as an accusation against England and as a plea for the Norman conquest.

[A. S. Chron. Abingdon and Worcester; Florence of Worcester; Will. Gemm. vi. 11, 12, vii. 11; Will. Pict. ed. Giles, 78, 79; Encomium Emm. iii. 2–6; Vit. Ead. ed. Luard, 400; Will. of Malm. lib. ii. cap. 188; Henry of Hunt. Mon. Hist. Brit. 758, 761; Freeman, Norman Conquest, i. 542–569.]

W. H.