May 262015


On this date in 946 Edmund I of England called the Elder, the Deed-doer, the Just, or the Magnificent, was murdered. He was a son of Edward the Elder and half-brother of Æthelstan. Æthelstan died on 27 October 939, and Edmund succeeded him as king. I have to confess that Anglo-Saxon England has always been a bit of a blind spot for me. It was not taught in school where the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the unification of England under William were pretty much the starting points of English. Over the years I’ve dabbled a bit – even got the hang of Old English once (it’s not hard) – but the period has never grabbed me. It’s of most use when I am tramping around peripheral bits of the English countryside.


In Edmund’s time, what is now England was a series of major kingdoms plus some minor ones, with a vast swathe of the country ruled by Danish Vikings (Danelaw) whose homeland could not produce enough food to support them. There were, therefore, constant struggles between the English and the Danes – evident in Edmund’s biography. We have very few reliable primary sources for the history of the period, so details are scanty.

Edmund came to the throne as the son of Edward the Elder, grandson of Alfred the Great, great-grandson of Æthelwulf of Wessex, great-great grandson of Egbert of Wessex and great-great-great grandson of Ealhmund of Kent. Shortly after his proclamation as king, he had to face several military threats. King Olaf III Guthfrithson conquered Northumbria and invaded the Midlands; when Olaf died in 942, Edmund reconquered the Midlands. In 943, Edmund became the god-father of King Olaf of York. In 944, Edmund was successful in reconquering Northumbria. In the same year, his ally Olaf of York lost his throne and left for Dublin. Olaf became the king of Dublin as Amlaíb Cuarán and continued to be allied to his god-father. In 945, Edmund conquered Strathclyde but ceded the territory to King Malcolm I of Scotland in exchange for a treaty of mutual military support. Edmund thus established a policy of safe borders and peaceful relationships with Scotland. During his reign, the revival of monasteries in England began.

One of Edmund’s last political actions of which there is some knowledge is his role in the restoration of Louis IV of France to the throne. Louis, son of Charles the Simple and Edmund’s half-sister Eadgifu, had resided at the West-Saxon court for some time until 936, when he returned to be crowned King of France. In the summer of 945, he was captured by the Norsemen of Rouen and subsequently released to Duke Hugh the Great, who held him in custody. The chronicler Richerus claims that Eadgifu wrote letters both to Edmund and to Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor in which she requested support for her son. Edmund responded to her plea by sending angry threats to Hugh, who brushed them aside. Flodoard’s Annales, one of Richerus’ sources, report:

Edmund, king of the English, sent messengers to Duke Hugh about the restoration of King Louis, and the duke accordingly made a public agreement with his nephews and other leading men of his kingdom. […] Hugh, duke of the Franks, allying himself with Hugh the Black, son of Richard, and the other leading men of the kingdom, restored to the kingdom King Louis.


On 26 May 946, Edmund was murdered by Leofa, an exiled thief, while attending St Augustine’s Day mass in Pucklechurch (South Gloucestershire). John of Worcester and William of Malmesbury add some lively detail by suggesting that Edmund had been feasting (i.e. drinking) with his nobles, when he spotted Leofa in the crowd. He attacked the intruder in person, but in the event, Leofa killed him. Leofa was killed on the spot by those present. Both these chronicles were written 200 years after the event, so they are not really to be trusted even though they are probably based on earlier sources. Best we have. Here’s the original from William:

A certain robber named Leofa, whom he [Edmund] had banished for his crimes, returning after six years’ absence totally unexpected, was sitting, on the feast of St. Augustine, the apostle of the English, and first archbishop of Canterbury, among the royal guests at Puckle-church, for on this day the English were wont to regale in commemoration of their first preacher ; by chance too, he was placed near a nobleman whom the king had condescended to make his guest. This, while the others were eagerly carousing, was perceived by the king alone ; when, hurried with indignation and impelled by fate, he leaped from the table, caught the robber by the hair, and dragged him to the floor ; but he secretly drawing a dagger from its sheath plunged it with all his force into the breast of the king as he lay upon him. Dying of the wound, he gave rise over the whole kingdom to many fictions concerning his decease. The robber was shortly torn limb from limb by the attendants who rushed in, though he wounded some of them ere they could accomplish their purpose.

St. Dunstan, at that time abbat of Glastonbury, had foreseen his ignoble end, being fully persuaded of it from the gesticulations and insolent mockery of a devil dancing before him. Wherefore, hastening to court at full speed, he received intelligence of the transaction on the road. By common consent then it was determined, that his body should be brought to Glastonbury and there magnificently buried in the northern part of the tower. That such had been his intention, through his singular regard for the abbat, was evident from particular circumstances. The village also where he was murdered was made an offering for the dead, that the spot which had witnessed his fall might ever after minister aid to his soul.

Edmund was succeeded as king by his brother Eadred, king from 946 until 955. Edmund’s sons later ruled England as:

Eadwig, King of England from 955 until 957, king of only Wessex and Kent from 957 until his death on 1 October 959.

Edgar the Peaceful, king of only Mercia and Northumbria from 957 until his brother’s death in 959, then king of England from 959 until 975.


Cooking in Edmund’s time is not well documented but you can get the basic idea from chronicles. Ælfric’s Colloquy, for example, written a little after Edmund’s time, gives an account of trades in England including food production. Here’s a sample (full text here ):

Teacher: Salter, how does your craft benefit us?

Salter: Everyone benefits a great deal from my skill. No-one enjoys his breakfast or dinner unless my

skill is present in it.

Teacher: How is that?

Salter: Who enjoys his meals without the flavouring of salt? Who can replenish his saltcellars without the prompt supply which my skill provides? Indeed, all the butter and cheese would go bad unless I looked after it. You would not be able to use your vegetables without my skill.

Teacher: What do you say, baker, how does your skill benefit us, or can we lead our live without it?

Baker: You can live for some time without my craft, but you cannot live well for a long time without it. For without my craft the whole table would appear bare, and without bread all your food would become vomit. I put new heart into man, I see the strength of men and not even small children would wits to shun me.

Teacher: What can we say about you, cook? Do we have need of any of your skills?

Cook: If you drive me away from your community you would eat your vegetables raw (green) and your meat raw; and, moreover, without my skill, you would be unable to have good rich broth.

Teacher: We do not care about your skill, it is of no importance to us, since we can cook what needs to be cooked and eat what needs to be eaten.

Cook: If you did drive me out, as you would like to do, then you would all be cooks and no one would be your Lord. Moreover, without my skill you would not eat.

The Colloquy shows a clear difference between the food of the gentry and the peasantry. The former ate hunted and domesticated meats, whilst the latter ate cereals, vegetables, and fish for the most part. Chief cereals were rye for bread, barley for brewing and cooking, and oats for animal feed and porridge. I gave a recipe for Anglo-Saxon hare and barley stew here .


The two principle modes of cooking were spit roasting for the rich, and cauldron boiling for the poor. For Edmund a feast such as he was attending when he was killed would have been mainly spit roast hunted meats. From Ælfric:

Teacher: Do you have any skill?

Hunter: Yes, I have one skill.

Teacher: What is that?

Hunter: I am a hunter.

Teacher: In whose service?

Hunter: The King’s.

Teacher: How do you perform your skills?

Hunter: I take my nets with me and set them in a suitable place, and set my hounds to pursue the beasts so that they reach the nets unexpectedly and are ensnared. Then, while they are still trapped in the nets, I cut their throats.

Teacher: Do you have any other method of hunting instead of nets?

Hunter: Yes, indeed, I hunt without using nets.

Teacher: How?

Hunter: I chase the wild beasts with very swift hounds.

Teacher: What sort of beasts do you catch mainly?

Hunter: I catch harts, bears, does, goats and some hares.

Teacher: Did you go out hunting today?

Hunter: No, I did not, because I had to spend today on my lord’s estate, but I went out hunting yesterday.

Teacher: What did you catch?

Hunter: I caught two harts and a boar.

Teacher: How did you catch them?

Hunter: I caught the harts in the nets and I cut the boar’s throat.

Teacher: How did you dare to cut the boar’s throat?

Hunter: My dogs drove him towards me, and I stood against him and suddenly slew him.

Teacher: You must have been very brave indeed.

Hunter: A hunter must be very brave, since all kinds of beasts lurk in the woods.

Teacher: What do you get from your hunting?

Hunter: Whatever I capture I give to the King, since I am his huntsman.

Teacher: What does he give you?

Hunter: He feeds me and clothes me, and gives me a horse and armour, so that I can perform my duties as a hunter freely.

So, have at it; spit roast the meat of your choice.


For the rest of us peasants maybe a hearty stew? Anything and everything went into the cauldron, so the idea of a recipe, as such, is rather too modern. Instead, I suggest you just put together something akin to Scotch Broth, that is, meat stock, barley and vegetables including carrots, onions, and leeks, with sage for flavoring (available wild in Anglo-Saxon England). More or less like the Anglo-Saxon cook I do not use a recipe, but chuck in what I have. Because there’s not much to it you can understand the Colloquy’s disdain for the cook.

Put a meaty bone (preferably lamb) into a large soup pot and add 2 cups or so of pearly barley. Cover with water, bring to a boil and simmer until the barley is well cooked (usually about 2 hours). Add water as needed. Along the way add diced carrots, onions, and leeks, flavoring with salt and sage. At the end, remove the bone and strip the meat, which you return to the pot. I add lashings of freshly ground black pepper but this would have been beyond the means of the Anglo-Saxon peasant. Any root vegetable, such as turnip or parsnip can be added with the carrots. Serve with rye bread.