In 11th century England the blending of royal families due to consecutive marriages of both king and queen could result in dissension between step-brothers and half-brothers. In one case it led to disaster: the death of Alfred Ætheling.
On 5 February 1037, Alfred, the youngest son of Emma of Normandy and her first husband, King Æthelred the Unready, died at Ely Abbey. Alfred was about 25 years old, and his death was the result of his blinding by order of his step-brother Harold Harefoot, the son of Emma’s second husband King Cnut and his first wife/concubine Ælfgifu of Northampton – the woman who appears in my trilogy as Elgiva.
What do we know about the circumstances leading to Alfred’s death? We know a few things, but there are mysteries as well.
Alfred had been living in Normandy from the time that he was 4 years old, exiled there by the Danish King Cnut when he took the English throne in 1016 and married Alfred’s mother, Queen Emma. But Cnut died in November, 1035, so the man who had exiled Emma’s sons was no longer ruler of England.
Was it news of Cnut’s death that brought Alfred to England, probably in the autumn of 1036? Did he mistakenly believe that, because his mother had been made regent for England’s southern shires, holding them in the name of Harthacnut—her son by Cnut and therefore Alfred’s half-brother—Emma’s exiled sons could safely return to England?
Or did he come in response to a letter purportedly written by Emma that urged her sons to come to her from Normandy because they were being deprived of their regal inheritance by their step-brother Harold and they needed to do something about it? And here’s the biggest mystery: if that letter existed, was it actually written by the Dowager Queen or was it, as she later claimed, forged by Harold, to lure her sons into a trap and rid him of any claimants to the English throne?
Whatever it was that drew Alfred across the Narrow Sea, he was met by armed men. Unknown to Alfred, they were agents of Cnut’s son Harold who, like Emma, was regent for part of England. Alfred and his companions were first welcomed and offered accommodation, then attacked in the night. His companions were slaughtered or enslaved, and Alfred was taken aboard a ship that brought him to Ely. At Ely, this son of an English king was likely tried as a foreign invader, found guilty, and blinded. Afterward, he was cared for by the monks at Ely until he died from his wounds. Within months Harold would claim the throne of all England as his birthright.
In medieval times, blinding was used as a penalty for treason or as a way of rendering an opponent incapable of ruling or of leading an army in war. It was also an act of revenge. I suspect that Alfred was blinded, partly to secure the throne for his step-brother, and partly in vengeance at the behest of Harold’s mother Ælfgifu for something that Alfred’s father, King Æthelred, had done before Alfred was even born.
In 1006 Ælfgifu’s father, Ealdorman Ælfhelm, had been attacked and murdered by operatives of King Æthelred for a treasonous act that was never recorded and that today remains a mystery. Her brothers Wulfheah and Ulfegeat were captured at the same time and blinded. We do not know if they survived their blinding, but it is likely that they suffered the same fate in 1006 that Alfred suffered in 1037. Harold, acting as ruler of England although not yet accepted as king by the entire realm and certainly uncrowned, would never have known his uncles. But his mother knew her brothers, and she knew their fate. She saw to it that Alfred Ætheling met the same fate as they did, not because he was a threat to her son Harold, but because she wished to exact vengeance on Alfred for the murder of her kin 3 decades before.
It is family that consumes us.
from the film THE KING