Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Battle of Hereford: Alfgar of Mercia

The Battle of Hereford: Alfgar of Mercia

Treasonable Earl, unruly son and vengeful protagonist? Or a wronged man fighting for his rights?

Earl Alfgar was the son of Leofric, Earl of Mercia. Leofric was the Earl who is mentioned in the mythical tale of Lady Godiva, the woman who rode naked on a horse to force her husband to lower taxes. As mythical as that tale may have been, there was nothing mythical about the couple and their son. In the past, Leofric has been thought to have been the father of Hereward the Wake, but research from Peter Rex has proved substantially in my view, to be wrong.
Hereward as documents show, had very similar characteristics to Alfgar and had also suffered exile for misconduct, so one can see where the confusion may have arisen. However, I am pleased to say quite clearly that there is no connection between Alfgar and Hereward.

We first see Alfgar in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle in the year 1051when he was invested with the earldom of East Anglia when its previous earl, Harold Godwinson, had fled into exile with his brother Leofwine after the Dover incident. Alfgar had been sidelined for sometime whilst the two eldest Godwinson brothers and their Danish cousin Beorn had been given earldoms in Hereford and East Anglia and other areas in England. If as his later actions imply, he was  hot-headed, easily roused man, this must have irritated him immensley and perhaps the other Northern earls who were somewhat concerned about the Godwins' 'take-over' from the South.
When the Godwinsons were reconciled with  King Edward, they were restored to their former wealth and positions, therefore Alfgar was compelled to relinquish his earldom and Harold Godwinson was returned to his earldom. One can imagine that Alfgar did not feel gracious about having his office taken away after waiting for so long to recieve an earldom. The chronicles of the time do not bestow upon us great insight into the minds and emotions of the people they report on, however it should not be hard to conjure up images of the crest-fallen Alfgar, informed of his demotion, forming bitter and resentful thoughts within his mind.
But it was not to be too long before Alfgar was handed the Earldom of East Anglia back to him. Harold's father, the mighty Earl Godwin of Wessex, who had seen service with 6 kings throughout his life, finally met his demise after suffering a seizure, possibly a stroke at Easter time in 1053. This meant that Harold was able to step into his shoes thus creating a vacancy for Alfgar to be back in the seat of East Anglia.This meant that with Swegn and his father Godwin dead, the balance was tipping back against the Godwinsons, with Siward still in charge in Northumbria, Leofric in Mercia, the king's nephew, Ralph de Mantes was Earl of Hereford and now Alfgar of Mercia was to become earl again in East Anglia, leaving Harold the only Godwinson with an Earldom, albeit a large one. But the scales were soon to change when when during the Easter Witanemegot in 1055, Alfgar managed to get himself outlawed. According to the Abingdon (C) version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, he was said to have been innocent of the crime and  the northern (D) chronicle states that he'd hardly committed any crime. The (E) version states that Alfgar was a traitor to his king and his people. Whatever his innocence or guilt, we cannot be sure of the real reasons, he fled to Ireland, gathered up an army of Irish and probably Norse mercenaries, brought them in ships to Gruffydd in Wales, knowing that Gruffydd would have his own beef with the English along the Welsh borders, and together they formed an alliance. Alfgar most likely assisted Gruffydd in killing the King of the Deheubarth, another Gruffydd, and subjugated the people under his own yoke. Then in late Autumn 1055, the alliance invaded the English lands around Hereford, slaughtering Earl Ralph's mounted cavalry and burned and ravaged the burgh of Hereford. He was eventually restored to his Earldom after coming to terms with the King. Gruffydd too escaped punishment for the time being and it is thought that he was given lands around Archenfield.

Alfgar's career after that was very turbulent. He married his daughter to Gruffydd which could not have pleased his father. Gruffydd had been the cause of Leofric's brother some years earlier. This alliance would not have pleased the Godwinsons or the people of Hereford who ahd suffered greatly in the last raid on their burgh. He was in trouble again around 1058 when he and Gruffydd, along with a force of Norsemen, threatened another invasion.

Eventually, Alfgar seems to have disappeared from the chronicles after 1062 and it could be assumed that he died around this time. Without him, Gruffydd's power seems to have weakened as we shall see in the next part where we discuss the life and achievement of Gruffydd ap Llewellyn, Alfgar's partner in crime.

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