Edwin & Morcar


Enigmatic Earls


Geoff Boxell

'These brothers were zealous in the service of God, and well disposed to good men. Both were remarkably handsome, nobly connected with kinsfolk whose power and influence were widespread, and well loved by the people at large.' Orderic Vitalis.

Edwin and Morcar were the son's of Ælfgar, who was Earl of East Anglia. Ælfgar's father was Leofric, Earl of Mercia. Ælfgar's mother was Godgifu, a powerful landowner in her own right and today remembered as Lady Godiva. Their family had connections to the old royal house of the kingdom of Mercia. As such the family was often seen, and indeed used by King Edward the Confessor, as a counterpoint to the power of the house of Godwin, headed by Godwin, Earl of Wessex.

In the crisis of 1051, when Edward exiled Godwin and his sons, Leofric of Mercia had supported the king. However, when Godwin and his kin returned in force in 1052, whilst Earl Ralph of Hereford, the king's half Norman nephew and the Earl of East Wessex, Odda responded, Earl Leofric of Mercia and Earl Siward of Northumberland were noticeable by their absence. It may be that they were uncomfortable with the way in which Edward had dealt with Godwin and his kin. Or it may have been that they were concerned at the increased power of Edward's French and Norman friends.

With Bishop Stigand acting as intermediary, a truce was made and a meeting of the Witan called. When it met the Witan included Leofric and Siward. Godwin and his family, except his son, Swein, who was on a pilgrimage, were restored to their lands and positions. This affected Earl Leofric considerably, but an arrangement was held that, should Harold be appointed to Wessex on his father's death, Leofric's son, Ælfgar would take over East Anglia.

On Easter Monday 1052, during a royal feast, Godwin suffered a stroke, and died three days later. Harold was appointed Earl of Wessex and, as arranged, Ælfgar became Earl of East Anglia.

In 1055 Siward of Northumberland died. His eldest son, Osbeorn, had died helping Malcolm Clanmore evict Thorfinn MacBethog (McBeth) from the Scottish throne. His only remaining son was Waltheof, a child. The north needed a firm hand, so Edward appointed Harold's brother, Tosti, to the empty position. Earl Ælfgar of East Anglia thought that the earldom should have been his. His complaints upset Edward, who outlawed him! The fact that Leofric did nothing to save his son, indicates that there may have been justification in the sentence of outlawry.

Ælfgar fled to Ireland where he raised a force of mercenaries, which sailed to Chester to await payment. The exiled earl also spent time persuading the King of North Wales, Gruffiðð, to join him in an attack on England. The allies turned on Hereford. The choice of target was probably dictated by Ælfgar's need to avoid armed conflict with his father, Leofric Earl of Mercia. Opposing them was Ralf, Earl of Hereford. Ralf decided to make the defending English force fight on horseback. This break with normal English military tactics, where horses were only used for transport, led to a monumental defeat. With the shire Fyrd shattered, King Edward looked elsewhere for a force to defend England's borders. He called on Harold, Earl of Wessex.

Harold moved cautiously. After a short stab into Welsh territory to draw Gruffiðð back to protect his own, Harold returned to fortify Hereford. He then opened negotiations with the invaders. In view of the many successes that Gruffiðð had had against the English over a period of years, and the fact that he had a doubtful Mercia at his back, this was not a silly thing to do. The terms were that Ælfgar was to be reinstated as Earl of East Anglia, Gruffiðð gained the marcher land of Archenfield, and Ælfgar accepted Tosti as Earl of Northumberland.

In 1056 Earl Leofric died. The succession of Earl Leofric was also easily solved; his son, Ælfgar, who had served his apprenticeship as Earl of East Anglia, would succeed him. The replacement in East Anglia was another Godwinson, Gyrth.

There was another important death that year. On 21 December, Ralf the Timid, Earl of Hereford, died. Ralf's son, another Harold, was an infant. As Ælfgar would not be welcomed by the men of Herefordshire given his activities a few years earlier, the solution was to divide the earldom in three; Harold gained the Welsh border counties, Ælfgar some of the eastern counties and Leofwine, Harold's brother, the eastern counties. Of all the earls of England, only Ælfgar was not a Godwinson.

 Ælfgar was not happy with the increased power of the Godwinsons, nor possibly the exclusion of his son Edwin from an earldom, even though he was but a boy at the time. In 1057 he turned again to Gruffiðð of Wales, sealing the alliance by giving the Welsh King his daughter Alditha for his wife. Ælfgar may only have been protecting his back on the Welsh border, whilst providing himself with a potential source of military support should he be in dispute with either King Edward or the Godwinsons. Edward saw it as a threat and banished him.

Ælfgar fled to Gruffiðð where the allies gained assistance from a Norwegian fleet under the leadership of King Harald Hardrada. The Norse raided the north-western coast of England whilst the Welsh raided the border. The Norwegians, ships full of plunder, sailed away and again Harold arranged for Ælfgar to be given back his earldom. It would seem that the allies were too powerful to ignore, and too strong to upset.

The alliance ended when Ælfgar died sometime after August in 1062. He must have died in December, for as soon as Christmas was over, Harold struck at Gruffiðð, presumably before the news of Ælfgar's death could reach his Welsh ally. Although Edwin is likely to have been appointed Earl of Mercia on his father's death he is not recorded as such until 1065.

 In 1065 there was a revolt against Earl Tosti by the Northumbrians. The revolt was ostentatiously against Tosti raising taxes higher than the northern shires were used to paying, but he had also become involved in the local politics and feuds, so the taxation issue may have been an excuse for action rather than the true cause. The result was a revolt that involved 'all the thegns of Yorkshire' so the various versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tell us. The thegns of Yorkshire and many others from throughout Northumberland seized and occupied York and in the process killed Tosti's men, including two of his Huscarls.

Having sacked the treasury and taken back what they deemed theirs by right, the northern thegns then declared Tosti outlaw and sent for Morcar, the young brother of Earl Edwin of Mercia, to be the new earl. Their choice of an outsider, with no Northumberland connection and little Norse blood, appears to have been dictated by a need to avoid splitting the rebels by picking from the local powerful families with their long running blood feuds. It would also have been influenced by the fact that Tosti was a favourite of King Edward and his brothers ruled most of England. Proclaiming Morcar earl would ally them with the next most powerful family in the land.

Lead by 'Earl' Morcar the rebels were joined at Northampton by Earl Edwin and supporters and some Welsh allies. From there they moved south. King Edward, possibly at Tosti's instigation, send Earl Harold to treat with the rebels. Tosti's position, and that of his brother-in-law King Edward, was to get back his earldom, at the risk of civil war if need be. The position of Harold and his other brothers and fellow earls, Leofwine and Gyrth, is unknown, but after he spoke with the rebels, he realised that it would be impossible for Tosti to retain Northumberland. The consensus needed by an earl to rule had gone and, rather than being opposed by a faction, Tosti was opposed by all the local thegns. Either Tosti had to give up the earldom, or there had to be a civil war.

Harold returned to the King, who was at Oxford. There, in council, Harold advised against military action and for agreeing to the rebels' demands. Edward was finally swayed, but Tosti was furious and accused Harold of fermenting the revolt, an accusation that was patently untrue. With the King's blessing, Harold went to Northampton and told Morcar he was now officially Earl of Northumberland and the rebels that they were pardoned, with the laws and tax assessments of King Knute restored. Meantime Tosti, rather than wait and see what alternative power-base King Edward would grant him argued so much with King Edward that he found himself exiled.

It was now November and the king's health, possibly eroded by the recent crisis, started to deteriorate and it became obvious that he would soon die. The traditional Witangamot and celebration held at Christmas saw all five earls, both archbishops, eight bishops and most of the country's leading thegns gathered to attend the king for what was obviously the last time. On 05 January King Edward summoned the Witan to his deathbed. There he commended his kingdom and the protection of his queen to Harold. The Witan then acclaimed Harold King of the English, and no one opposed them. Ealdred, Archbishop of York, crowned Harold the following day. Some time afterwards Harold took Alditha, sister of Earls Edwin and Morcar, and widow of the Welsh king Gruffiðð, as his official wife.

In addition to ensuring that he had the military might to face those who would try and take away his crown, Harold needed to be sure of the support of Northumberland. Although their earl, Morcar, had been at the Witan that had offered him the kingship, the thegns may have wondered if Harold would bring his brother Tosti back and restore the earldom to him. Harold set out with a small-unarmed party that included Wulfstan, the Bishop of Worcester, recognised as the holiest man in the land and Harold's personal confessor. It may have been during this trip that he married Alditha. Harold left York and returned to Westminster to celebrate Easter. One of the acts he performed was to create Waltheof Siwardson, Earl of Northampton, thus binding that important northern family to his side.

In May Tosti returned. After landing on the Isle of Wight he raided along the south coast to Sandwich. Tosti faced armed opposition and he turned north and raided along the coast of East Anglia, where he was repulsed by forces led by his brother Earl Gryth. Tosti moved on. He raided along the Burnham River in Lincolnshire, an area once his, but now under Morcar, and then sailed into the Humber estuary. Together with his brother, Edwin, Morcar led a land force, which expelled Tosti. Deserted by many of his men he fled to Scotland and King Malcolm. There he spent the rest of the summer.

With a threatened invasion of England by William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, King Harold set about the southern defences by basing the fleet on the Isle of Wight. Along the Channel coast he based units of the Fyrd. Across the North Sea another storm was gathering.

Harald Hardrada, the former leader of the Byzantine Emperor's Varangian Guard and now King of Norway was gathering a force from wherever the Norse lived. After joining Tosti in Scotland, Harald used the very winds that were keeping Duke William in port to sail down the English coast. Sailing up the rivers Humber and Ouse, the fleet landed at Riccall in Yorkshire. Hardrada led his force towards York, which for many years had been the capital of an independent Viking state. Outside the city Earl Morcar and Earl Edwin of Mercia, together with Earl Waltheof of Northampton waited for him. With the three young and inexperienced earls were their Huscarls and such elements of the Fyrds of their shires as they has managed to assemble in the short time they had had since the invading fleet had been sighted.

The armies clashed at Fulford on the Ouse, where the English army blocked both road and river, with their flanks protected by marshes. It was a long and bloody battle with successes and failures on both side. Eventually the experience of Harald and his men overcame the resistance of the Fyrd and the English defence collapsed. Although both Edwin and Morcar escaped with their lives, few of their army did. The Viking army then moved on and took the city of York. There they demanded, and received, supplies and hostages.

The Viking hoard needed more supplies than York and its surrounds could given them, so orders were sent out by Hardrada for these and additional hostages to be brought to a meeting place at Stamford Bridge. Awaiting the expected hand over, Harald, Tosti, and the army divested themselves of their armour, which they sent back to the ships. On seeing a dust cloud, they took it to be the men of York. Then the sun glinted on steel, and they realised that this was an army coming towards them.

King Harold and his brother Gryth had gathered their Huscarls and ridden north, collecting elements of the Mercian and East Anglian Fyrd as they went, covering 320 km in six days. Shock at the arrival of the English was soon overcome, and whilst a rearguard held the bridge, the Viking army drew itself up in battle array on the other bank. As at Fulford, the battle was long, hard fought, and bloody. The slaughter on both sides was high and the battle was balanced, then first Harald, and after him Tosti fell. The Vikings were still defending themselves valorously when reinforcements arrived. However these too, were quickly overwhelmed and put to flight. When King Harold and his men reached the Viking fleet at Riccall the surviving Vikings capitulated.

Before the army could catch its breath, King Harold was given the bad news that another challenger for the throne, William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, had landed at Pevensey in Sussex. He moved south with those of his Huscarls and thegns who were fit. In the north he left Edwin, Morcar, whom Orderic Vitalis calls; 'Harold's close friends and adherants'. There, with the help of Marlswein, who was newly appointed as a staller, they set about repairing their shattered forces ready to join King Harold in the south and help him repel the Norman invaders.

Their efforts were in vain. By the time Edwin and Morcar reached London with such men as they had managed to gather, Harold and the flower of England's thegndom had been slain on Senlac ridge outside Hastings and William was marching to London to enforce his claim on the vacant throne. William advanced on London by a circular route that started via Kent, burning a 'ring of fire' around the country's main city. The advance was resisted and met much armed resistance. Meanwhile the Witan had proclaimed king the young Edgar Æþeling, last scion of the old Wessex royal line. William moved fast towards London to enforce his will before Edgar and the remaining English nobility was able to start an organised resistance. William sent 500 cavalry and two companies of infantry to secure the southern approaches to London. The force was repulsed at Southwark on the south bank of the Thames when they attempted to take London Bridge. William was at Seven Oaks recovering from dysentery. As soon as he was able he rejoin his army, but as London Bridge had not been taken he was forced to take a considerable detour to Wallingford, well west of London, before he could find a safe and defensible place to cross the Thames.

Meantime confusion reigned in London. In the absence of the now dead Harold there was a clear lack of military and political direction. Edgar Æþeling, Edwin and Morcar were all young and lacking experience and Harold's family was currently leaderless, with his sons by Edith Swan Neck even younger than Edgar and the surviving earls. The confusion was complicated further by the fact that William had already taken Winchester and the royal treasury it contained.

Things began to fall apart and, despite being elected king by the Witan, Edgar was not crowned as the members of the Witan began to have second thoughts about having him, a young man with no experience in either government or war as king. According to the chronicler, John of Worcester, the first to desert him were Edwin and Morcar. It can be no coincidence that just before abandoning Edgar they had sent their sister, Queen Alditha, who was carrying King Harold's child, north to Chester and well out of the reach of William. So, on the advice of Aldred, Archbishop of York, Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, Edgar Æþeling, together with Edwin, Morcar, and 'all the best men of London', as the Anglo Saxon Chronicle has it, submitted to William.

William's coronation was on midwinter's day, and shortly after he returned to Normandy taking Edgar, Archbishops Aldred and Stigand, and the earls Edwin, Morcar and Waltheof with him. He also took a huge amount of plundered English treasure with him. In Normandy crowds came to see William the Conquer and his long haired English captives.

"But meanwhile the English were groaning under the Norman yoke, and suffering oppressions from the proud lords who ignore the king's injunctions. The petty lords who were guarding the castles oppressed all the native inhabitants of high and low degree, and heaped shameful burdens on them. For Bishop Odo and William fitzOsbern, the king's vice regents, were so swollen with pride that they would not deign to hear the reasonable pleas of the English or give them impartial judgment. When their men-at-arms were guilty of plunder and rape they protected them by force and wrecked their wrath more violently upon those who complained of the cruel wrongs they suffered." Orderic Vitalis

Localised revolts by the English broke out, led by local thegns. William was forced to return to England to sort things out. The uprisings in Kent, Hereford, Devon and Northumberland were slowly put down and in the spring of 1068 King William sent for his wife, Mathilda. In early summer on Whit Sunday she was crowned Queen at Westminster by Archbishop Aldred. Shortly after Edgar Æþeling withdrew from the court and fled to Scotland with his mother and sisters. They were quickly followed by Edwin and Morcar who went to their northern earldoms where they raised up a rebellion against King William.

The chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, gives the reason for the brothers disaffection as being caused by the fact that, when they had made their peace with William, the new king had promised his daughter in marriage to Edwin. Later envious and greedy Norman followers of the king persuaded him to change his mind. The brothers must have seen their power and influence being eroded and threatened by the Normans. Besides, by now their sister, Alditha, had born a son whom she named Harold, after his father, King Harold!

Edwin and Morcar were joined by many men of Northumberland and Mercia. Also with them was Prince Bleððyn of Wales, who is generally thought to have been their nephew by Alditha's earlier marriage to Gruffiðð. Whether they intended to push their infant nephew, Harold, as a claimant for the kingship, or whether they merely used the threat to try and coerce William into honouring his promise of marrying his daughter to Edwin, is unclear. The revolt itself was complicated by the fact that there were other revolts at the same time being raised in the name of Edgar Æþeling. William's response was a slow military progression into Mercia and Northumberland, planting castles as he went. After William built the castle at Warwick, the young earls submitted to him.

In the following year of 1069, King William appointed a certain Robert de Comines, Earl of Northumberland, without asking the locals if they would accept him instead of the Morcar. The result was that the men of Northumberland massacred Robert and 900 of his men whilst they were staying in the city of Durham. Edgar Ætheling took advantage of this and came from Scotland and received the men of Northumberland at York, where the Norman garrison had also been slaughtered. William moved quickly and the new revolt was harshly suppressed. Hundreds were slain and the city torched.

Meantime three of King Harold's sons by Edith Swan Neck were back, raiding the West Country yet again. At the same time Edric the Wild and his Welsh allies had broken out from their Marcher hills and taken Shrewsbury before moving on to Chester. William had to leave them to their own devices as he had his hand's full dealing with an another uprising in Northumberland led by Edwin and Morcar, this time supported by the Danish king, Swein Esthrithson, who also had a claim to the English throne. Fighting alongside them were the Earls Waltheof and Gospatrick, together with Edgar Ætheling. The Normans in York were slaughtered yet again. William moved north laying waste as he went driving the English forces before him, still squabbling over who should be overall leader. The Danes took to their ships and commenced raiding the east. William now able to turned his attention to Chester, where the infant Harold and his mother, Alditha, were. Chester was at the northern extremity of the Welsh Marches and at the same time offered access to the Norse based in Ireland, should they decide to help their relations living in Cumberland.

In January 1070, a Norman army set off across the Pennines in bad weather through land that offered them no sustenance as they themselves had laid it waste. With a reduced force consisting of only Normans, King William arrived at Chester, and it submitted without a fight. Queen Alditha and her son Harold had escaped to Dublin.

At this stage King William seems to have come to the conclusion that his original vision of a genuine Anglo-Norman state was unrealisable, and that from now on change would be by imposition not consensus. It was at this point, according to Orderic Vitalis, that the wholesale reallocation of land holdings took place. William also gave up his attempt to learn English. New revolts broke out as a result of this appropriation of land at all levels. An obscure source tells us that included in the distribution of the spoils was the giving in marriage, together with lands, of Edwin and Morcar's sister, Lucy, to Ivo Tallis-Bois, chief of the Angevin auxiliaries.

There had been a longstanding revolt in the Fens, led by Hereward the Wake. By 1070 Hereward's forces, based on the Isle of Ely, had been strengthened by refugees from the harrowing of Northumberland following William's suppression of the revolts there. At the same time Hereward had been weakened. The Danes who had been fighting alongside him being bought off by King William.

The Danes later returned this time led by King Swein, who had a strong claim to the English throne. What happened during the years 1070 and 1071 is as much legend as recorded fact. We know that William made at least two unsuccessful attempts, either in person, or through a lieutenant, to take the Isle of Ely. We also know that Hereward kept his Danish allies paid by allowing them to sack Peterborough and its Cathedral, now controlled by a Norman Abbot. What we do not know are the exact happenings, or the sequence of events. Eventually Swein, perhaps seeing himself in a no win situation, allowed himself to be bought off. However, by 1071 many of the English leaders, including Morcar joined him. Having subdued the rest of England William gave his full attention to the revolt in the Fens.

William commenced building castles on the highland around the Fens, he blocked sea access by ships and commenced building a new causeway towards the Isle of Ely. As the net started to tighten messengers went between King William and Morcar. Orderic Vitalis tells us that the terms were 'that the earl should surrender to the king, and the king should receive him in peace and as a loyal friend'. What happened in reality was that William imprisoned Morcar without charge. He was placed in the care of Roger of Beaumont and kept closely confined. Edwin determined not to suffer the same fate.

For the next six months Edwin sought support amongst the English, Scots and Welsh. During his travels he had a band of men with him, including three brothers. These brothers betrayed Edwin's whereabouts to the Normans. Timing their attack so that Edwin and his men were penned beside a tidal stream by a high tide, they killed the earl and 20 of his followers. The traitorous brothers then cut off Edwin's head and took it to King William, hoping for reward. Instead William exiled them!

On his deathbed, in 1087, William freed many of his political prisoners, including Morcar. However, his son, William Rufus, the new King of England kept Morcar as a prisoner, albeit now at Winchester castle rather than in Normandy. He died there, still a prisoner.