Leofric, Earl of Mercia
Leofric was the son of Leofwine, Ealdorman of the Hwicce, who witnessed a charter in 997 of King Æthelred II. Leofric had three brothers, they were Northman, Edwin and Godwine. It is likely that Northman is the same as Northman miles ("Northman the knight") to whom in 1013 King Æthelred II granted Twywell in Northamptonshire. Northman, according to the Chronicle of Crowland Abbey, the reliability of which is often dubious, says he was a retainer of Eadric Streona, the Earl of Mercia. It adds that Northman had been killed by Cnut along with Eadric and others for this reason. Cnut "made Leofric ealdorman in place of his brother Northman, and afterwards held him in great affection."
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. 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. 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 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. Leofric was succeeded by his son Ælfgar as Earl.
Earl Leofric and Godiva were noted for great generosity to religious houses. In 1043 he founded and endowed a Benedictine monastery at Coventry. 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."
In the 1050s Leofric and Godiva appear jointly in the grant of land to the monastery of St Mary, Worcester, and the endowment of the minster at Stow St Mary, Lincolnshire. She and her husband are commemorated as benefactors of other monasteries at Leominster, Chester, Much Wenlock, and Evesham.
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.
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'.
In popular culture
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).
- Baxter, Earls of Mercia, p. 31; PASE, s.v. Northman 5; Sawyer 931
- Baxter, Earls of Mercia, pp. 29–30, and n. 45 for reference
- Darlington et al (eds.), Chronicle, vol. ii, pp. 504, 505
- M. Lapidge, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England (1999), p.282; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 1036 E.
- The Chronicle of John of Worcester ed. and trans. R.R. Darlington, P. McGurk and J. Bray (Clarendon Press: Oxford 1995), pp.533.
- The Chronicle of John of Worcester ed. and trans. R.R. Darlington, P. McGurk and J. Bray (Clarendon Press: Oxford 1995), pp.582-3.
- Anglo-Saxons.net : S 1226
- Anglo-Saxons.net : S 1232
- Anglo-Saxons.net : S 1478
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|Peerage of England|
Title last held byEadric Streona
|Earl of Mercia