Ælla and the Descendants of Ivar: Politics and Legend in the Viking Age

Ælla and the Descendants of Ivar: Politics and Legend in the Viking Age

By Neil McGuigan

Northern History, Vol.52:1 (2015)

Ragnar Lodbrok cast into a snakepit by Ælla - 19th century image
Ragnar Lodbrok cast into a snakepit by Ælla – 19th century image

Introduction: In March 867 the Northumbrian king Ælla died at York during a battle against the Scandinavian ‘Great Army’. Two years later, further south, the same force dealt a similar end to the ruler of East Anglia.  King Edmund subsequently became the object of significant religious devotion. His death produced one of the most important royal martyr cults of medieval Europe, giving rise to an eponymous city and territorial honour as well as the dedicated shrine at their centre. The new cult had received significant patronage within a generation. The successors of his killers, the conquering Scandinavians who had settled in East Anglia and adjacent regions of Mercia, oversaw its rise. Like Henry II after the Becket affair, the East Anglian Norse came to honour their victim. A series of coins dedicated to Edmund as saint and king were in circulation in the region within thirty years, seemingly coming to an end only when Edward the Elder established West Saxon overlordship of Norse East Anglia in 918. Yet the West Saxon monarchs were to embrace the cult too, and at the other end of the tenth century it became one of the formally patronised cults of the ‘unified’ kingdom of England, with Abbo of Fleury’s Passio Sancti Eadmundi standardising early legends in the form expected for such a martyr.

Although both Christian kings died in similar circumstances, Ælla was to have a remarkably different afterlife. For Dorothy Whitelock, ‘to die fighting the heathen was an adequate claim to sanctity’. For Ælla, it was not quite adequate enough. Northumbria’s own Historia de Sancto Cuthberto made him one of Cuthbert’s historical persecutors. God sent Ubba’s Frisians and the Scaldingi against the Northumbrian people only because of their king’s unjust behaviour.

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Ælla’s death and that of ‘nearly all the English’ (omnes prope Anglos) could thus be blamed on the king. In the twelfth century, the anonymous Narratio de Uxore Aernulfi made Ælla the worst of lords, who brought about his own downfall by raping the women of his followers. In these accounts, there could be no question of Ælla’s sainthood. His death was retribution for moral transgression; the fast road to heaven was not an appropriate reward. Although God was involved in the death of both kings, the motivation differed.

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