Aelfthryth of Lydford and her son Aethelred

Set against the backdrop of Dartmoor in late Anglo-Saxon times, MED Theatre’s play In the Shadow of the Vikings follows the story of Aelfthryth – a Dartmoor girl, born at Lydford, who became Queen of England – and in the process charts the high politics of the time from the point of view of the house of Devon. Two twelfth century writers, William of Malmesbury and Geoffrey Gaimar, provide colourful and different versions of the love triangle between Aelfthryth, daughter of Ordgar Earl of Devon, her first husband Ethelwold Earl of East Anglia and his best friend King Edgar – a triangle which sowed the seeds of the tragedy that was to befall England at the turn of the millennium. Gaimar and Malmesbury’s historical credentials are open to question, but their storytelling helps to fill out the sparse record of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the often oblique light shed by charters and other contemporary documents.

The 960s and early 970s can be seen in some ways as a golden age, in which Aelfthryth and her second husband Edgar – who was said to have killed Ethelwold in a hunting accident – favoured the monasteries at the expense of the entrenched tribal loyalties of the nobles, and encouraged monastic learning, agriculture and crafts, making the country rich. Aelfthryth’s brother Ordulph founded Tavistock Abbey around 971. Research by Harold Fox suggests that Dartmoor at this time was used as summer pasture where girls took their cattle up from the manors of surrounding Devon to make butter. Other research by Andy Meharg, Kevin Edwards and Ed Schofield shows that the moor was also filled with tin-mining activity at this time. Lydford, one of the four Saxon burhs or fortified towns in Devon, was the site of a royal mint, producing coins of the realm, and possibly exploiting silver, copper and tin mines in the vicinity. On Edgar’s death in 975, Edward, Edgar’s son by his first wife, succeeded to the throne while still only a boy, supported by Aethelwine Earl of East Anglia and by Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dunstan was a powerful and charismatic figure and though he paid lip-service to Edgar’s pro-monastic reforms, he seems to have been more interested in statesmanship and the fate of England than the welfare of the monasteries per se, lending his backing to Anglo-Saxon nobles who resented having their lands appropriated during Edgar’s reign. At any rate he soon developed an intense antipathy towards Aelfthryth, and on Edward’s death was instrumental in having her banished from court to internal exile at Corfe.

Aelfthryth believed that Aethelred, her son by Edgar, was the rightful heir, and was thought by many to have been involved in the murder of her stepson Edward when he visited her at Corfe in 978. Thus Aethelred – the so-called Unready, but his nickname unraed translates more accurately as the Badly-advised – came to the throne of a deeply divided country, full of dark rumours and embittered nobles. Not only this, but the Danes or Vikings – the names are often used interchangeably – after a pause of some fifty years suddenly recommenced their raids on southern England. For centuries Aethelred has had a bad press as a weak and cowardly king who tried to buy off the Danes instead of fighting them, but recently several historians, for example Simon Keynes, have given a radical re-appraisal of his reign.

Guided at first by his mother, but later acting on his own, Aethelred decided to meet the threat of renewed Danish raids by playing a clever game of divide and rule. In the aftermath of the devastating defeat of the Anglo-Saxon champion Byrhtnoth and his men by the Danes under Olaf Trygvasson at the battle of Maldon in 991, Aethelred paid some of the Danes to settle on condition that they help him fight the hostile raiders. One such was Pallig Tokesen, whom he made Earl of Devon. A number of placenames on Dartmoor have Scandinavian elements – for example grim in Grimspound – reflecting a Viking presence far inland. To other Danes, such as Olaf Trygvasson, Aethelred paid large amounts of tribute in order to get them to go away completely, causing trouble back in Scandinavia and tying up troops.

When rumours (probably containing some truth) circulated that Pallig was in league with the Danish raiders who sacked Tavistock Abbey in 997, making off with what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called ‘incalculable plunder’ and later destroyed Kingsteignton, Pinhoe, Clyst and Exmouth, the pressure on Aethelred to do something about the Danes became intolerable. After the death of his mother who had remained a source of wise counsel to the end of her life, Aethelred reluctantly gave in to the advice of his stewards to take action against the many Danes dwelling side by side with Saxons in village after village across southern England.

On November 13th 1002, the King ordered the killing of all Danes living in England – an act of ethnic cleansing that must rank among the grimmest crimes in English history. The irony was that it was ordered, albeit reluctantly, by one of English history’s earliest advocates of integration, following in the footsteps of his Dartmoor mother who as a fervent Benedictine spent her last years in the nunnery she founded at Wherwell, more concerned with the spread of learning from Rome than with the political idea of an Anglo-Saxon England. In a further irony, the massacre achieved exactly what it had been designed to prevent: Pallig’s wife Gunnhild, the sister of Sweyn King of Denmark, had been killed in the massacre alongside her husband, and her murder brought Sweyn, the best general of his day in Europe, over to England with a huge army to take revenge. By 1013 Sweyn had conquered Britain and turned the whole country into a Viking kingdom.