Eadric Streona

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Eadric
Ealdorman of Mercia
Reign 1007 – 1017
Predecessor Ælfric Cild
Successor Leofric
Spouse(s) Eadgyth
Father Æthelric
Died 25 December 1017
London, England

Eadric (or Edric) Streona (fl. 1002 – 25 December 1017), Eadric's epithet Streona is roughly translated as "the grasper" or the "acquisitive", was the Ealdorman of Mercia from 1007 to 1017. In addition he was the son-in-law of King Æthelred the Unready and due to his collaboration with the Vikings he is regarded by many as the greatest traitor of Anglo-Saxon England.

Origins and historical character[edit]

Eadric's family would appear to have had interests in Shropshire and Herefordshire, and may have originated in the vicinity of Shrewsbury. Much was made in the early twelfth century of Eadric's low birth, and of his ability to gain advancement by his skill in speech and by his effrontery. A Worcester chronicler names his brothers as Brihtric, Ælfric, Goda, Æthelwine, Æthelweard, and Æthelmær, of whom the last is said (probably mistakenly) to have been ‘father of Wulfnoth, father of Godwine, ealdorman of the West Saxons’ (John of Worcester, Chron., s.a. 1007, leaving a blank space between Ælfric and Goda, as if for the name of another brother). Thegns bearing these names occur among the witnesses to the charters issued in the name of King Æthelred II in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. It is striking that the thegns in question occur quite often in groups of two or three, which might be interpreted as evidence that they were members of the same family. On this basis, Eadric's father, Æthelric, can be identified (tentatively) as a thegn who attended court from the late 980s onwards, and who was accompanied from the mid-990s onwards by one or more of his sons (not including Ælfric); and if only to judge from the witness lists, it may be that the name of the other brother was Æthelnoth. Eadric himself is first identifiable in the witness lists, with his father, in 1002 and members of his family seem to have been present at court in some strength in 1004–5; there are no lists for 1006, but Eadric occurs in first place among the thegns in 1007 (AS chart., S 916, for St Albans Abbey), in which year he was appointed ealdorman of Mercia. It may have been in 1007, or thereabouts, that Eadric married Eadgyth, daughter of King Æthelred, reflecting or accounting for his sudden rise to prominence, for John of Worcester implies that the marriage had taken place by 1009.

Eadric Streona came to acquire a reputation second to none for his complicity in numerous acts of subterfuge, treachery, and murder, and it seems remarkable under these circumstances that he should have been entrusted with high office by three successive kings (Æthelred, Edmund Ironside, and Cnut). There is a wealth of information on Eadric in eleventh- and twelfth-century sources, to the extent that one might suppose that he became the subject of an oral saga, of which parts are preserved in each source. While the temptation is to assemble all the references and so to produce a single composite account, it is important to admit the possibility that elements of the story developed independently of each other, and to maintain a distinction between the portrayal of Eadric in each source.

Royal favour[edit]

According to Florence of Worcester, Eadric was of non-noble birth but advanced to high dignity through the favour of the English King Ethelred the Unready. William of Malmesbury describes Eadric Streona as "the refuse of mankind and a reproach unto the English".

In 1007, he became Ealdorman of the Mercians, and subsequently married Ethelred's daughter Eadgyth. As Ealdorman, Eadric achieved a victory over the Welsh, for reasons unknown to history. (See the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). He is described by Sir Frank Stenton as someone "to whom unknown crimes may be safely attributed". He appears to have endeared himself to Ethelred II — to whom he was (on the whole) loyal — by arranging the assassinations of his internal opponents.

Treachery[edit]

In the struggle between the English and the Danes, he appears in the character of an arch-traitor. When Ethelred in 1009 proposed a great attack on the Danes, Eadric dissuaded him from carrying it into effect. Again, on the invasion of the Kingdom of England by Canute the Great in 1015, Eadric deserted Edmund II of England and joined Canute. After the Battle of Otford he returned to Edmund, but only by his treachery at the Battle of Ashingdon to secure the utter defeat of the national Saxon cause. He is said to have killed a West Saxon soldier named Osmer who looked like Edmund II (Ironside) and held up his head, only to realise his mistake (despite being supposedly on the same side). Eadric appears to have acted as a go-between for Ethelred and the Danes, attempting to rescue St. Alphege ("Alfheah") in 1012 by collecting a ransom. He was probably involved in other payments of Danegeld. Subsequent to the unauthorised murder of St. Alphege at Greenwich by Thorkell the Tall's men, Thorkell defected to Ethelred, possibly through Eadric's agency.

Although loyal to Ethelred, he had a personal enmity towards Ethelred's son Edmund Ironside, who favoured a confrontational policy towards the Danes, while Eadric Streona was a major proponent of the payment of Danegeld (presumably influenced by the opportunities for corruption it offered).

This was sealed when Edmund rebelled against his father and married Aelgifu, the daughter of one of Eadric Streona's victims in his role as Ethelred's hitman, giving him a northern power base. Despite his policy of appeasement, he is said to have persuaded Ethelred to undertake the massacre of Danish civilians in the St. Brice's Day Massacre - although this is uncertain - prompting Sir Frank Stenton's epigraphic footnote about him being the usual suspect for unknown crimes.

Death[edit]

King Canute restored to Eadric the Earldom of Mercia. During Canute's reign, Eadric accompanied the Queen consort Emma of Normandy, widow of Ethelred and wife of Canute, to the Duchy of Normandy. At Christmas 1017, fearing further treachery, Canute had Eadric slain. According to the Encomium Emmae, Eric of Hlathir performed the execution. This is said to have been as a result of Eadric beating Canute at chess and refusing to change the rules in Canute's favour. During the ensuing row, Eadric is said to have argued that he had assassinated King Edmund Ironside for Canute's benefit - a fact of which Canute had been unaware - and Canute had him executed on the spot. The later chronicler Geoffrey Gaimar relates the story of Edmund Ironside being murdered on the privy by the sons of Eadric Streona, using a crossbow positioned in the midden pit to fire through the toilet seat. It is said that the missile passed so far into his body that it could not be extracted. Eadric Streona's head was said to have been placed on London Bridge and his body thrown into the Thames. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle adds: "and it was rightly done".

Reputation and Legacy[edit]

The composite picture of Eadric Streona which emerges from the sources adduced above is one of a man accused of complicity in an extraordinary assortment of politically motivated crimes: the killing of Gunnhild and Pallig (1002); the killing of Ealdorman Ælfhelm (1006); the killing of Sigeferth and Morcar (1015); the killing of Earl Uhtred (1016); the killing of Edmund Ironside (1016); and the elimination of the surviving athelings (1016–17). In addition, Eadric is said to have hindered the English army in 1009 and is known to have defected to the Danes in 1015; he tried to betray the English when fighting on the Danish side at the battle of Sherston (1016), and he precipitated the flight which led to the defeat of the English at the battle of ‘Assandun’ (1016). The question arises: was Eadric really so comprehensively and irredeemably wicked, and is he rightly regarded as the principal cause of the disastrous outcome of King Æthelred's reign? It might be argued that he is the proverbial much-maligned figure long overdue for rehabilitation: that he was no more than the instrument by which Æthelred achieved his political purposes, in an age when such purposes were often accomplished by murder, outlawry, and exile; that he was a leader whose actions were misunderstood or misrepresented by chroniclers whose natural sympathies and loyalties lay elsewhere; that it was a matter of rivalry between one faction and another, determined by family ties, local loyalties, or political interests; that his motive in 1015 had been to protect Æthelred, and Queen Emma and her children, from the ambitions of Edmund Ironside; and that when this failed, he was left with little alternative but to give his support to the Danish invader, and thereafter to watch his own back. No doubt Eadric Streona had good reasons of his own for acting as he did. It is, however, the record of his actions in 1016 which condemns him as a traitor to the English cause, and which leads to the suspicion that his reputation as an unscrupulous operator in the interests of self-advancement is most thoroughly deserved.

  • William of Malmesbury described him as "the refuse of mankind and a reproach unto the English"
  • Eadric features as the central villain in the anonymous play Edmund Ironside, now part of the Shakespeare Apocrypha. In this play, Edricus (as his name has been Latinized) is the bastard son of peasants who raises himself to the level of earl through lies and flattery. Proud of his talent for dishonesty, he would be happy to see either the Danes or the Saxons rule England, but supports the Danes for reasons of personal expediency.
  • In 2005, he was selected by the BBC History Magazine as the 11th century's worst Briton.[1]
  • Eadric is a character in a tragedy by the Danish romantic playwright Adam Oehlenschlæger "Canute the Great" (1838)

References[edit]

  1. ^ "UK | 'Worst' historical Britons list". BBC News. 2005-12-27. Retrieved 2010-06-21. 

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