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Who was the first bastard slip to grab hold of the crown of all England….?

simple-blue-question-mark-icon-9

Bearing in mind that I am  NOT a historian, here is a little teaser to pass the time. We all know the texts from the Bible about bastard slips not taking root, and the sins of the fathers being visited on subsequent generations. Right, so what happens if we apply that literally to the throne of England? Just how far back do we have to go to find the first illegitimate person to sit on the throne of all England?

Charlemagne_and_Pope_Adrian_I

Pope Adrian I and Charlemagne

In 786, Pope Adrian I announced that a king could not be begotten in adultery or incest, and if he wasn’t either of those but illegitimate anyway, he still couldn’t have the throne of any kingdom. Should this decree be my quest’s starting point? There were different kingdoms within England, but they were Christian, and if the Pope decreed, then he ought to have been abided by. Right?

Egbert of Wessex - Ruler of England

Egbert of Wessex – Ruler of England

The first king to be known as the Ruler of England was Egbert III of Wessex, 827-839, but the one to be truly the King of all England was, apparently, Aethelstan, August 924 – 27th October 939.

wessexaethelstan

Athelstan

Harold I - Harefoot

Harold I – Harefoot

There is an interesting timeline of our early kings at http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/KingsQueensofBritain/ and if I follow it, the first mention of an illegitimate king (after the all-important 786 date) is Harold I, 1035–1040, known as Harefoot. The English line of kings had been ousted by the Danes, led by Sweyn Forkbeard. Sweyn’s son Canute had succeeded him, and Harold Harefoot was Canute’s baseborn offspring.  

Tut, tut, Harold Harefoot. You broke the Bible’s rules, because on Canute’s death you sneaked the throne from behind the back of your legitimate half-brother, Harthacanute, who was abroad at the time. BUT—big but—Harthacanute took the throne back, had the by-then-dead Harold dug up, beheaded, and chopped into bits to be thrown in the Thames. There’s nothing like making absolutely sure someone ain’t gonna come back!

Harthacanute

Harthacanute

So, illegitimate Harold Harefoot was a mere blip. But he had been crowned king, which was one in the eye for Pope Adrian. We have to ignore the fact that coronation vows and anointing make a man a king regardless. We’re talking the Bible’s texts mentioned at the beginning of this article. And because we’re talking the Bible, if Harold I had sons, legitimately born or not, they could not have succeeded. So any line that might have descended from him would be illegitimate, to the whatever generation.

Next the throne zipped back to the English line. Harthacanute had been the Danish-line son of Canute by Emma of Normandy. Emma had been married before, to English-line Aethelred the Unready, by whom her eldest son was Edward. The Danes had pushed Edward aside, but now his half-brother Harthacanute declared him to be his heir.

Emma of Normandy

Emma of Normandy

Aethelred the Unready

Aethelred the Unready

Edward, who became known to posterity as  St Edward the Confessor, became king and was married, but died childless. Dang! Another crisis.

Edward the Confessor's death

Death of Edward the Confessor

After the Confessor, the throne went to someone who was elected by the Witan, Harold Godwinson, who was, of course, the King Harold who was defeated at Hastings in 1066.

Harold - Bayeux

Harold Godwinson

And who conquered him? Why, someone known as William the Conqueror, and also as William the Bastard! Oops! We have to stop right there, because the Bible says that anyone, anyone, who descended from William would be forbidden to ascend the throne.

William of Normandy

William of Normandy – the Bastard

Which brings me to the next question. Let’s imagine Hastings went the other way, and William escaped back to Normandy, or died in battle or was captured and executed. Who should have been king after Harold Godwinson? Well, he was famously connected with Edith Swan Neck, who was judged by the Church to be merely his mistress because they only married according to Danish law. So their six children were all barred. It was Edith Swan Neck who was said to have identified Harold’s mutilated body after Hastings, recognising it by a mark only she knew.

Edith Swan Nack identifies Harold after Hastings

Edith Swan Neck recognises Harold’s mutilated body by a mark only she knows.

But in January 1066 (presumably because he needed an undeniably legitimate heir) Harold had married another Edith, the widow of the Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Llewelyn. In church this time. One wonders if Edith Swan Neck really was the only one who knew his body that intimately. Perhaps this second Edith had spotted the mark too! Anyway, by Edith II he had two sons, another Harold and Ulf, who might have been twins, given that their father died at Hastings in the September.

Both boys survived into adulthood, and in all likelihood sired offspring of their own. Mind you, the legitimacy of said offspring remains unknown. They too could have hooked up with unacceptable partners like Edith Swan Neck! Or become monks, been gay, or not interested in anything. It’s all annoyingly shrouded in mystery.

So, is it at this point that the true line of the Kings of England disappears into the mist?

You’ll no doubt be pleased to know I don’t intend to investigate further, but it does make me wonder just who might be on the throne now if those texts from the Bible had been followed to the letter. The history of England would have been so different as to be unrecognisable. No Plantagenets. No House of York! No House of Lancaster. And forget the Tudors. The who? Never ‘eard of ‘em. Also no Stuarts, Commonwealth, Hanoverians or Windsors…

Of course, my reasoning above is almost certainly dodgy, as I do not doubt someone out there knows and will say. But in the meantime, might there be a busy, diligent soul somewhere (someone who only dreams in Latin!) delving into ancient records and manuscripts, trying to trace the heirs of Harold and Ulf…? How interesting if that diligent person were to discover the real present-day King (or Queen) of England.

Hmm. Would anyone dare announce such a thing? After all, William the Bastard’s White Tower still stands, and those Tudor-garbed Beefeaters still rattle lots of ominously big keys.  All I know is that I’m certainly not the rightful Queen of England – so don’t come knocking on my door in the middle of the night to haul me off to Tower Green.Imperial-State-Crown

 

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Sutton Hoo and Raedwald of East Anglia (2011)

(originally published in the Ricardian Bulletin)

Saturday 30 July saw nearly twenty of us visit Sutton Hoo, a National Trust property that overlooks Woodbridge from across the Deben. Members travelled from London, Ipswich or by themselves, using booked taxis from Woodbridge station. We were there for three and a half hours, joining an official tour of the Burial Grounds and visiting the indoor Exhibition Hall.
The main grave is supposed to be that of Raedwald, at least a third-generation Anglo-Saxon immigrant from Angeln. Like his grandfather, Wuffa, Raedwald was a “Bretwalda” or high chief of all Saxons south of the Humber and east of about Birmingham, and his “Wuffing” successors became Kings of East Anglia as part of the Heptarchy. Raedwald ruled from 599 to 624/5 and converted to Christianity late in life, yet was still buried in pagan style, possibly at the behest of his sceptical widow. Two of his great-nieces are St. Ethelreda (aka St. Audrey) who is buried in Ely Cathedral and Sexberga, who married Earconbert, King of Kent, their great-granddaughter becoming the mother of Egbert III of Wessex, grandfather of Alfred. Raedwald’s brother Eni is, therefore, an ancestor of every undisputed monarch of England (except possibly from 1066-1154). The Wuffings ruled East Anglia until 20 November 869 when their last King, Edmund, was martyred by the Danes.
In summer 1938, the widowed Edith Pretty was overtaken by her own curiosity about the estate she owned and hired an amateur archaeologist and tenant farmer, Basil Brown, to investigate. Other authorities, at county, University of Cambridge (Charles Phillips) and University of London levels became involved – before war was declared and the task was suspended, the artefacts already discovered being stored in disused Tube stations. The British Museum, under Rupert Bruce-Mitford, resumed the process in 1965.
On arrival at Sutton Hoo (a Saxon word for hill), we booked our places on the official tour. It started at twelve thirty and was barely supposed to exceed an hour but lasted about ninety minutes. Our guide was Neil Montgomery of the Sutton Hoo Society, who was knowledgeable and enthusiastic with a good voice. We first passed Tranmer House, formerly the home of Colonel and Mrs. Pretty, and reached the seventeen mounds. In the first, Brown found a random selection of rivets because grave-robbers had beaten him to it and no other evidence remained.
In the second, he found rivets arranged in the shape of a wooden ship (a “clinker vessel”), together with soil that had absorbed the wood and changed its chemical characteristics. Knowledge of pre-conversion Anglo-Saxon burial rites, the personal possessions (a helmet, bowls and spoons by the head; weapons, a purse, shoulder-clasps and a great buckle by the torso; drinking vessels and other artefacts lower down) and the size of the ship showed that only a prominent chieftain could have been laid here. Brown found no human remains, save for phosphates in the soil, but many of Raedwald’s successors were Christians and thus would have been buried differently. The important mounds were reconstructed in the sixties, to heights calculated trigonometrically, but have started to erode again.
After viewing the principal mounds, we were shown the grave of a younger man, who died in his twenties during the same era and could be Raedwald’s son, buried with his horse. There are also the graves of a number of people who were hanged or beheaded in the later Saxon era. The Exhibition Hall features a lot more information and artefacts from the Wuffings’ era, including a recreation of the burial chamber and a film shown at regular intervals.
We expected to spend just under an hour exploring Woodbridge but there was insufficient time for this although there some old buildings such as the Shire Hall and C16 Bull Hotel, visited by Defoe. Edward Fitzgerald, the translator, is also commemorated in the town. During the summer, an open-top bus runs hourly around Woodbridge on Wednesdays and Saturdays, stopping at Sutton Hoo.

Further reading:
http://www.wuffings.co.uk/MySHPages/SHPage.html (Dr. Sam Newton)

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