Leofric, Earl of Mercia

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Leofric
Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry
Reign c.1017 - 1057 AD
Predecessor Eadric Streona
Successor Ælfgār
Spouse(s) Godiva

Issue

Ælfgār
Father Leofwine
Mother Alwara
Born 14 May 968 AD
Died 31 August 1057 AD (aged 89)
Kings Bromley, Staffordshire, England
Buried Coventry

Leofric (died 31 August or 30 September 1057) was the Earl of Mercia. He founded monasteries at Coventry and Much Wenlock. Leofric is most remembered as the husband of Lady Godiva. He died at Kings Bromley in Staffordshire of old age.

Rise to power[edit]

Leofric's father was Leofwine, who was the Ealdorman of Hwicce, and his mother was Alwara. Leofric was a native of Hwicce and he had three brothers: Northman, Edwin and Godwine. After Cnut seized the throne of England in 1016, he divided England into four great provinces: Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria each of which he eventually placed under the control of an earl (a title new to the English, replacing the Anglo-Saxon "ealdorman"). Mercia he initially left in the hands of Eadric Streona, who had been Ealdorman of Mercia since 1007, but Eadric was executed later in the same year of 1017 along with Leofric's brother Northman who was guiltless, Mercia may have been given to Leofric immediately after that.[1]

Earl of Mercia[edit]

Having become earl of Mercia it made him one of the most powerful men in the land, second only to the ambitious Earl Godwin of Wessex among the mighty earls, Leofric may have had some connection by marriage with Ælfgifu of Northampton, the first wife of Cnut. That might help to explain why he was the chief supporter of her son Harold Harefoot against Harthacnut, Cnut's son by Emma of Normandy, when Cnut died in 1035,[2] However, Harold died in 1040 and was succeeded by his brother Harthacnut, who made himself unpopular with heavy taxation in his short reign. Two of his tax-collectors were killed at Worcester by angry locals. The king was so enraged by this that in 1041 he ordered Leofric and his other earls to plunder and burn the city, and lay waste the whole area.[3] This command must have sorely tested Leofric. Worcester was the cathedral city of the Hwicce, his people.

When Harthacnut died suddenly in 1042, he was succeeded by his half-brother Edward the Confessor. Leofric loyally supported Edward when he came under threat at Gloucester from Earl Godwin in 1051. Leofric and Earl Siward of Northumbria gathered a great army to meet that of Godwin. Wise heads counselled that battle would be folly, with the flower of England on both sides. Their loss would leave England open to its enemies. So the issue was resolved by less bloody means. Earl Godwin and his family were outlawed for a time, Earl Leofric's power was then at its height. But in 1055 his son Ælfgar was outlawed, "without any fault", says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He raised an army in Ireland and Wales and brought it to Hereford, where he clashed with the army of Earl Ralph of Herefordshire and severely damaged the town. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle wryly comments "And then when they had done most harm, it was decided to reinstate Earl Ælfgar".

Leofric died "at a good old age" in 1057 at his estate at Kings Bromley in Staffordshire. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he died on 30 September, but the chronicler of Worcester gives the date as 31 August. Both agree that he was buried at Coventry.[4]

Leofric used a double-headed eagle as his personal device, and this has been adopted by various units of the British Army as a symbol for Mercia.[5]

Historians disagree extensively on the character of Leofric. Folklore tends to depict him as an unfeeling taxer of the people, whereas many object to this as part of the Lady Godiva myth and claim that he was a strong and respected leader. There is also great differentiation in interpreting his reputation as a military leader, with some believing Leofric to have been weak in this respect, but others go as far as even giving him the title 'Hammer of the Welsh'.

Religious works[edit]

Earl Leofric and Godiva were noted for great generosity to religious houses. In 1043 he founded and endowed a Benedictine monastery at Coventry.[6] John of Worcester tells us that "He and his wife, the noble Countess Godgifu, a worshipper of God and devout lover of St Mary ever-virgin, built the monastery there from the foundations out of their own patrimony, and endowed it adequately with lands and made it so rich in various ornaments that in no monastery in England might be found the abundance of gold, silver, gems and precious stones that was at that time in its possession."[4]

In the 1050s Leofric and Godiva appear jointly in the grant of land to the monastery of St Mary, Worcester,[7] and the endowment of the minister at Stow St Mary, Lincolnshire.[8] She and her husband are commemorated as benefactors of other monasteries at Leominster, Chester, Much Wenlock, and Evesham.[4]

Family[edit]

Apart from Northman, killed in 1017, Leofric had at least two other brothers: Edwin was killed in battle by Gruffydd ap Llywelyn in 1039 and Godwine died some time before 1057.

Leofric may have married more than once. His famous wife Godiva survived him and may have been a second or later wife. Since there is some question about the date of marriage for Leofric and Godgifu, it is not clear that she was the mother of Ælfgar, Leofric's only known child. If Godiva was married to Earl Leofric later than about 1010, she could not have been the mother of Ælfgar, Ælfgar succeeded Leofric as Earl of Mercia.

In popular culture[edit]

On screen, Leofric has been portrayed by Roy Travers in the British silent short Lady Godiva (1928), George Nader in the film Lady Godiva of Coventry (1955), and Tony Steedman in the BBC TV series Hereward the Wake (1965).

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Cawley, Charles, ENGLAND, Anglo Saxon nobility, Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, retrieved August 2012 ,[better source needed]
  2. ^ M. Lapidge, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England (1999), p.282; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 1036 E.
  3. ^ The Chronicle of John of Worcester ed. and trans. R.R. Darlington, P. McGurk and J. Bray (Clarendon Press: Oxford 1995), pp.533.
  4. ^ a b c The Chronicle of John of Worcester ed. and trans. R.R. Darlington, P. McGurk and J. Bray (Clarendon Press: Oxford 1995), pp.582-3.
  5. ^ http://mercianregiment.org.uk/page1.html
  6. ^ Anglo-Saxons.net : S 1226
  7. ^ Anglo-Saxons.net : S 1232
  8. ^ Anglo-Saxons.net : S 1478
Peerage of England
Vacant
Title last held by
Eadric Streona
Earl of Mercia
c.1017-1057
Succeeded by
Ælfgār