History Feature – King Edward the Elder

By Matty CA

At the end of the 9th century the King of Wessex, Alfred the Great, worked relentlessly on making Wessex a dominant force in England. With a system of fortified burhs and connecting roads, he was able to repel invading Viking parties and eventually keep them at bay. After the last big incursion in the 890s, Wessex was stronger than ever and had cemented his hold over the western part of Mercia through the marriage of his daughter Æthelflæd to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians.


Alfred died in 899 and his second born Edward, brother of Æthelflæd was prepared to ascend the throne. Edward had been educated at court alongside his youngest sister, and was later described as very strong, handsome, and of great intelligence. Despite being the King’s son, his succession wasn’t clear at first and infact Alfred’s cousin Æthelwold lost no time after the King’s death to claim the throne for himself.

What is now known as Æthelwold’s Revolt ensued in late 899. His first move was to abduct a nun, although we don’t know who she was, but it is believed that her identity had political significance. Æthelwold went on to move his troops to Wimborne in Dorset, which was strategically important, since it was the southern control of western Wessex. It was also the burial place of his father, Alfred’s predecessor. He seized control of the nearby crown lands in Christchurch and awaited Edward’s response.

When Edward arrived with his army near Wimborne however, Æthelwold was unable to gather enough support and muster a strong enough force to oppose him. Instead, he decided to take flight and disappeared in the night, to the Danes of Northumbria, whom supported his claim to the crown.

Having avoided a costly battle, Edward was crowned King of Wessex the next year. However, his rival was still scheming against him and in 901 moved a fleet to Essex and tried to rile them up to rise against the King. By the following year Æthelwold and the Danes of East Anglia attacked Mercian territory and thus forced Edward’s hand.

Edward decided to bring the fight to his enemies and invaded East Anglia, ravaging the land. Edward retreated, but some of his forces disobeyed the order and were intercepted by the Vikings and on December 13th, 902 it came to the Battle of the Holme.

Unfortunately little is known about the battle itself. It appears that the Danes remained victorious, yet they suffered heavy losses and some highly important casualties – both Æthelwold and King Eohric, most likely the ruler of East Anglia, fell alongside their soldiers.

Thus Edward, already on retreat, after winning a battle without a fight three years prior, had thus won a war without fighting a battle. Æthelwold’s Revolt had come to an end. Edward continued to have a difficult relationship with the Danes and attempted to invade Northumbria in later years and exchange blows with the Norsemen in both Northumbria and Mercia.

His lasting legacy however was the extension of Wessex’ network of burhs, many of which over time turned into medieval castles that can still be visited today, like Herfort and the impressive Warwick Castle.

Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, died in 911 and his wife, Æthelflæd took over control. When she died 6 years thereafter, Edward was in a strong position and able to unify Mercia and Wessex under the Wessex crown. Just like his father, Edward left his successor a well-fortified Kingdom that was a force to be reckoned and stronger than ever before.