Before we talk of Judith’s recent terror, let us look closer at Judith and her history- both real and imagined. In our world, Judith is the daughter of King Aelle of Northumbria.
In actual history, not a lot is known about Aelle other than the fact that he was partially responsible for the Great Heathen armies of the Vikings descending on England for a long and bloody war. A war which would set Aethelwulf’s son, Alfred the Great against the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, first in revenge for their Father’s death, then in fights for land all over England.
Ælla became king after Osberht was deposed. This is traditionally dated to 862 or 863, but may have been as late as 866. Almost nothing is known of Ælla’s reign. Symeon of Durham states that Ælla had seized lands at Billingham, Ileclif, Wigeclif, and Crece, which belonged to the church. While Ælla is described in most sources as a tyrant, and not a rightful king, one source states that he was Osberht’s brother.
The Great Heathen Army marched on Northumbria in the late summer of 866, seizing York on 21 November 866. Symeon of Durham, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser, and Æthelweard all recount substantially the same version of events in varying detail. Symeon’s Historia Regum Anglorum gives this account of the battle on 21 March 867 where Osberht and Ælla met their deaths at the hands of the Vikings:
In those days, the nation of the Northumbrians had violently expelled from the kingdom the rightful king of their nation, Osbryht by name, and had placed at the head of the kingdom a certain tyrant, named Alla. When the pagans came upon the kingdom, the dissension was allayed by divine counsel and the aid of the nobles. King Osbryht and Alla, having united their forces and formed an army, came to the city of York; on their approach the multitude of the shipmen immediately took flight. The Christians, perceiving their flight and terror, found that they themselves were the stronger party. They fought upon each side with much ferocity, and both kings fell. The rest who escaped made peace with the Danes.
Ragnarssona þáttr (The Tale of Ragnar’s sons) adds a great deal of colour to accounts of the Viking conquest of York. This associates the semi-legendary king of Sweden Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons, Hvitserk, Björn Ironside, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, Ivar the Boneless, and Ubba. According to the stories, Ragnar was killed by Ælla, and the army which seized York in 866 was led by Ragnar’s sons who avenged his death by subjecting Ælla to the blood eagle. Earlier English sources record that both Ælla and Osberht died in battle, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stating that “both the kings were slain on the spot”. The main figure in the revenge tales is Ivar, who is sometimes associated with the Viking leader Ímar, brother of Amlaíb Conung, found in the Irish annals. Dorothy Whitelock notes that “it is by no means certain that he should be identified with the son of Ragnar, for the name is not uncommon”. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not name the leaders in Northumbria, but it does state that “Hingwar and Hubba” slew King Edmund of East Anglia (Saint Edmund) some years later. Hubba is named as a leader of the army in Northumbria by Abbo of Fleury, and by the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto. Symeon of Durham lists the leaders of the Viking army as “Halfdene, Inguar, Hubba, Beicsecg, Guthrun, Oscytell, Amund, Sidroc and another duke of the same name, Osbern, Frana, and Harold.
Aelle and his wife, Ealhswith
Aelle with the rest of the family while attending the baptism of Rollo.
King Aelle traded Judith to Ecbert as part of a peace agreement and alliance between the two countries. Young Judith became what was known as a peace weaver or peace cow in her marriage to Ecbert’s son Aethelwulf. She did not seem overly displeased about the arrangement. Why should she… she knew her place and duty as a Noble Royal daughter, it was getting her away from the disagreeable and disgusting King Aelle, and as far as husbands went- Aethelwulf would seem to be a decent match. He was at least young and not bad looking, he was a Prince in line to a throne, and his household was probably much more friendly and comfortable than her Fathers. What was there to disagree about in this arrangement! She was herself, a rather pious and devoted to God young woman so Aethelwulf’s initial devotion to his religion would have probably set well with her.
The marriage for all appearances, seemed to be going well. She quickly proved her breeding ability and provided a son as was her main duty in life. After this accomplishment, Judith could rest somewhat easily in her new household, though she really should at some point put efforts toward providing additional sons… It was unwise to rely on just one heir back then as children could die so easily. And, even once they reached adulthood, a King’s life was filled with dangers- there really should be at least one or two back up heirs in case of some tragedy. But, for the time being, Judith was comfortable in her position and could relax. She was well liked by her husband’s family- King Ecbert and much of the time, it appeared that she served as the Lady of his court. She was present at various family events and functions, both with and without her husband in attendance. Judith got along well with King Ecbert, which would serve to her benefit in the future tragedy to come.
When Ragnar and his group arrived in Wessex, Aethelwulf and Judith were both present at their arrival and later at the feasting in their honor.
Later, after the warriors- including her husband prepared to do battle, Judith was left on her own at court with King Ecbert as her company. As I have mentioned, they seemed to get along well, were quite friendly with each other, and Judith was included in the various visits with the Pagans… whether she wanted to be there or not- as was the case in a few instances. It was during this time that she first met the Priest who would so fascinate her and forever change her life. She had heard many rumors about this Holy man, Athelstan from Ecbert and from church members. Most of the talk was indeed positive and glowing, among the dissenters though, was her husband Aethelwulf. Aethelwulf could not get his mind past the fact that Athelstan lived among the Pagans and so must be a traitor to the true God, the true religion of Christianity. Aethelwulf is so devout in his beliefs that any dissent from the Christian way is to be viewed with suspicion, contempt and mistrust. He is truly intolerant of any other way of thinking. This will not bode well for Judith in the future.
Judith was insistant and determined to meet this priest. After her first meeting, she was completely infatuated and entranced with Athelstan.
Athelstan was a bit smitten by her as well…
King Ecbert had an idea what was beginning to happen between the two…
Judith went so far as to visit Athelstan in his private quarters…a highly inappropriate and risky action on her part.
King Ecbert did warn Judith that she should be careful of those she chooses to be fascinated with… she is playing a very dangerous game.
Despite Ecbert’s warnings, Judith continued to be fascinated with Athelstan and continuously put herself in his close company. She did however, hold on to her virtue and her pious religious upbringing for the most part. There were times when Ecbert’s more enlightened ways caused her much stress and undue embarrassment but she made every attempt to go along with activities. One such example was the visit to the Roman bath… Poor Judith was much out of here element and comfort zone in this situation but tried hard to participate in it. It was probably overwhelming and shocking to her, but in some part of her being, it was also too tempting to pass up. She was religious but not to such an extent as her husband, and she was learning to be more open minded about life and other cultures from Ecbert as well as Athelstan and the other Pagans she encountered such as Lagertha. Judith’s eyes and heart were opening to the bigger world and it was causing her to question all of her so strongly held beliefs.
After the event in the tub, Judith was torn and at her breaking point. She pours out her heart to Athelstan in a few simple words… I am so tired, tired of everything.
Athelstan made attempt to comfort her, he was as heart weary as her and understood her words well.
Judith did confess the sin in heart, her deepest feelings for Athelstan… the sin was not hers alone because Athelstan held the same feelings for her.
Eventually the feelings were too much for them to ignore and they gave in to their desire for each other
It was a bittersweet short lived affair and it was not so secret as they might have assumed that it was. I am quite sure that Ecbert had his suspicions about it even though he did not come outright with it. He did make references to their feelings for each other and their relationship when he was attempting later to get Athelstan to remain with them in Wessex.
The men returned from battle victorious over Mercia. This brought the affair to an end as it brought Aethelwulf home, full of crowning glory for feats that he did not accomplish. It also brought Judith’s Father King Aelle to visit and check up on his daughter. Judith was suffering much anguish at this time as well as possibly some other ailments. Her Father’s harsh comments and concern only pertained to her not doing her duty as wife of a Noble conquering hero returning home. His concern was not for her happiness or her health, it was for his own personal issues. He was more concerned that her behavior would cause them to look bad and it would affect their so far steady treaty with Wessex. He was not a loving or forgiving Father or ruler for that matter… if she had done anything to affect this peace agreement, she would find no sympathy or forgiving sanctuary from this man!
King Ecbert was determined to dissuade any thought or rumor of Judith’s possible indiscretions. As in any small community, there were always rumors and gossip concerning the Nobles and their personal behaviors. Ecbert most probably knew full well of Judith’s affair with Athelstan and possibly even the result of it… But, at this point he needed her to present a loving and devoted wifely attitude towards her husband, Ecbert’s son. This was not a time for womanly hysterics or fits of stubbornness. This was a time to present a united front to all that were watching.
Judith was able to pull herself together and maintain her false pretense until she glimpsed her Athelstan watching from a distance.
During later events of that evening Ecbert used the relationship between Judith and Athelstan in attempt to get his beloved friend to remain with him in Wessex.
When Athelstan mentioned his indecision, Ecbert hinted as to the ongoing relationship… he talked of how he knew that Judith spent much time with Athelstan, held him so dear to her heart and even used him as her personal confessor. He also asked Athelstan if he had discussed this decision with Judith?
Athelstan’s decision to leave brought panic and fear along with heartbreak from Judith…
His decision brought a different but equally somber response from Ecbert. Ecbert was disappointed, told him it was the wrong decision and also left him with a final disturbing message…”You have made the wrong decision, your future lies here in Wessex.” Was that just Ecbert’s frustration speaking, or did he know more than he was willing to say.
In any event, all of their heart wrenching personal discussions and feelings were overshadowed by the final event of that evening… the death of Kwentirith’s brother. That event seemed to unsettle Judith even more.
It was not until after Ragnar’s group, including Athelstan, departed back to Kattegat that the real consequence of Judith’s affair and her distress were revealed. Judith spent more and more time by herself, avoiding Aethelwulf and instead devoting her attentions to prayer and to God.
Eventually Aethelwulf inquired of what was bothering her… then demanded to know what her problem was as her husband it was his right to know.
Judith finally told Aethelwulf of what was bothering her…
To say that Aethelwulf did not take the news well would be an understatement! He had not slept with Judith since the birth of their son… this child could not be his! He was beyond words, he was filled with uncontrollable rage, then with sheer terror and panic. There was his rage at his wife’s unfaithfulness and desire to abuse her brutally, but then there was his panic and his fear as well. His fear of his own anger, his fear of God’s punishment upon them both for this act.
His anger and bitterness at Judith’s betrayal were set aside temporarily when Ecbert employed him to go the North Settlement and end the disputes going on there. There was much betrayal in that act- the betrayal was between Ecbert and Ragnar, as well as in Ecbert and his own son… Ecbert used his own son to carry out the horrific act, but that story does not have a part in Judith’s personal story, other than the fact that in the act Aethelwulf showed his own brutality, his own berserker qualities and his growing extremism with his Christian faith. He would later use those qualities in his treatment of Judith. As to the most violent act that he bestowed on the settlement, I think that some of it involved his venting his rage at Judith.
What ever retribution or revenge that Aethelwulf would want to extract upon Judith for her adultery and her betrayal could not be implemented while she was with child. While his Christian church and faith would allow for many atrocities, even they would not condone or sanction killing a pregnant Noblewoman and her unborn child. No, that was just not acceptable in any of their Church guided laws. Really, even killing her after a birth would not be truly acceptable. There were other ways of punishing such a woman for her sins, ones which would ensure that she would go through life marked with her sin for all to see. Of far greater importance in this matter would be what to do with the child of such sin? Of course, realistically child birth was such high risk back then that very often a Mother and or her child did not survive it anyway. That would end the whole situation very easily and they could be done with this mess…
Judith did not follow along that most easy plan of dealing with her. She and her child survived the ordeal of childbirth. She gave birth to what we would initially assume to be a healthy son. (I say, assume here because from what is know about this child’s later life, he was not really so healthy.)
So, Judith gave birth and with both her and child having survived it, Aethelwulf did show up if only for proper appearance’s sake. No need to cause such scandal quite yet… perhaps Mother and child were at death’s door and he could put the mess behind him. No, it did appear that they were both healthy and not about ease his problems by dying any time soon.
He stayed only long enough to assure himself that they would live… It was then that Judith’s real terror and nightmare began.
She asked for her child so she could hold him, but before that could happen the group of women were interrupted by soldiers and churchmen.
The priest said he was acting on the King’s orders, and he probably was. But, I do think in part it was more due to Aethelwulf’s demands and insistence. Aethelwulf would have felt so betrayed and enraged by Judith’s act that he would have insisted on this punishment by the Church… especially with the child being a boy. This is the most important matter in this whole event. Judith had just given birth to a son, an imposter, a usurper of a son who, by being born within the confines of marriage would be looked at as a legitimate heir to the throne! This would have cause Aethelwulf even more inner rage than he already had and he would have been determined to see things set right. If it had been a girl, he may have been able to contend himself with keeping quiet, and then found reason to ship both Judith and said daughter off to a nunnery. But, a boy… No a boy changed the situation entirely. Now, Judith must be convicted of adultery if for no other reason than to disinherit this child from any chance at the throne. Even King Ecbert may have seen the need, the justification for such an act seeing as Judith has never admitted to them as yet who the Father may be. Ecbert could have all the suspicions he chose, but until Judith admitted it publically, he had no choice but to go along with some trial and punishment to be on the safe side…. because, really, what if he was wrong, what if she had been with someone else, someone who she did not him to know about? No, he could not take that chance when the matter of future kingship was at stake.
Judith had no idea what was taking place, what was happening to her or why… She was in a true panic and feared for her life.
The terror that Judith was put through on this day was so horrific and brutal. In Judith’s own words it was barbaric and not an act that her God or Jesus Christ would ever condone. I am quite sure that the event will remain forever in Judith’s mind and heart. Aside from any physical reminder, it will color and affect the way that she looks at life and the Church in the future!
Judith was left to the judgement and punishment of the Church on that day. She was tied to a stake and put on public trial for all to witness her punishment for the sin of adultery.
No, she would not be killed, only tortured, maimed and scarred for life as well as being disavowed, disowned and publically humiliated by everyone in attendance. This public trial and humiliation would scar and mark her for life as an adultery in the eyes of everyone who would see her in the future. If she survived the injuries, she would have no other choice but to hide herself in some nunnery and repent for her sins the rest of her life. And, most likely her baby would not be killed but abandoned to the fate of being a bastard child of an adultering Mother.
The church’s Bishop presided over the trial and the given punishment.
Judith’s heartfelt response was “My Lord Jesus Christ never advocated such punishments”
It was barbaric, brutal and horrifying. Judith endured it and staunchly refused to confess who the Father of her child was. All the while, Aethelwulf watched with no remorse or guilt, on disgust and anger towards her.
Ecbert watched with some grim determination
Ecbert pleaded with her to tell them the name of the man.
Judith staunchly refused to tell the name, perhaps in some desperate act of trying to protect Athelstan from any future retribution… little did she realize there was no point in this. For one thing he had gone with the Vikings- that had already sealed his fate in some eyes such as Aethelwulf’s. For another, he had already suffered his own fatal consequences. But, she was determined to keep the secret and gave up an ear in the attempt…
Finally, in shock, Judith could take no more and uttered a small whisper of Athelstan…
This was the admission that Ecbert needed in order to ensure her safety. She needed to admit it publically before he could attempt to do any damage control in this situation. He immediately called a halt to the proceedings.
Aethelwulf looked as if he had been the tortured one on hearing her admission… Oh My Dear God, she slept with the Priest!
Ecbert quickly took control of the event and used his powers of persuasion to convince his son that this was really a miracle, an event touched and blessed by God. Aethelwulf was so devout and rigid in his thinking about his faith that this story actually began to have impact on him. He showed that where matters of religion and faith were concerned, he could be as easily swayed and as gullible as many others were. Ecbert told Aethelwulf that Athelstan was indeed a very holy man, blessed by God and this was a special child, chosen by God. In his own thought, perhaps Ecbert felt that if he could not have Athelstan near to him, then he could at least have his child to raise up as a holy Christian… against the Pagans who had stolen away the heart and soul of his beloved friend Athelstan.
Judith and her son were saved by Ecbert and he vowed that there would be a christening of the child.
Athelstan has after all left a legacy, a child who will be raised as a devout and holy Christian. A child who will become a King that works tirelessly to unite the Kingdoms of England and stop the advance on their lands by the Heathen armies, the Vikings. A child who will become one called Alfred the Great and fight against the sons of Ragnar Lothbrock. But, that is all in the distant future of this infant. What now might be in store for the child’s mother who fought so hard to keep him safe, who almost lost her life because of religious zealots such as her husband and power brokers such as King Ecbert. The only thing we can be certain of for now is that she is alive and she is now deeply in Ecbert’s debt… which is not always such a good place to be. Ecbert want this son of Athelstan’s so the boy will be safe, well cared for and well raised despite any possible objections from Aethelwulf. Will Ecbert continue to show the same care for Judith? That does remain to be seen, but I believe that being so much in Ecbert’s debt, this makes her an even greater pawn for him to use to his advantage.
I have recently realized that with all of the events going in France at the end of our last raiding season, I failed to catch up on Wessex, and with Judith’s situation. I do apologize for that, but in my defense, things were and are still a bit messy to say the least in Paris right now! The events of Wessex were not of high importance to those of us remaining in France with Rollo. Now that things have calmed down somewhat and we are playing a waiting game whilst trying to establish ourselves here with the Franks, I can take some time to share what is taking place in Wessex and ponder what the future might hold for my friend Judith.
Judith’s admission of adultery with the Priest Athelstan, and the resulting birth of her son Alfred, has put her in a very precarious position. Ecbert was able to save her and the child by citing it as a miracle, and convincing his son Aethelwulf that it was just that, a sign from God that this was a blessed event and this is a holy child. Now, we all understand that Aethelwulf is a devoutly religious man but surely he would not be so completely gullible as to not have his own personal doubts and resentments remaining about this whole sordid affair. Ecbert has managed to save Judith and the precious little Alfred, save face with the church, and avoid some tearing apart of their family reputation but rumors will continue to abound about Aethelwulf being a cuckhold to Judith’s adulterous affair. This will most likely always haunt Aethelwulf in some ways and no matter how hard he might try to forgive, I think it will always remain there in the back of his mind and his heart… causing him even more inner turmoil in his attempts to be closer to God. For Judith, the events have placed her even more in the middle of this underlying battle between Father and son. And, make no mistake, there is a underlying battle brewing between Aethelwulf and Ecbert.
Ecbert gives a clear clue that in his mind, realistically anyone is dispensable or disposable if they interfere with his plans… including family.
We have seen so many times in the past that Ecbert is indeed corrupt… ruthless and manipulative, willing to go to any lengths in order to maintain his control of Wessex and achieve his goal of becoming King or Bretwalda of all the Kingdoms. His plan is to conquer Mercia, then move on to Northumbria… with those two kingdoms taken, it would be an easy undertaking to then take East Anglia- which no one so far has made any mention of in this particular story. We’ve seen Ecbert use his son to accomplish some of these goals and as we see with the last event in Mercia, he is willing to sacrifice his son towards this end. Ecbert sees Aethelwulf as weak and easily manipulated into doing his dirty work for him in the name and reason of religious right. The best example of this was when Ecbert convinced Aethelwulf to go forth and take care of that situation in the Viking village. For Ecbert, it had little to do with religious right or beliefs but more to do with realizing he might have made a mistake with allowing that settlement in the first place. But, in refection, he did need those men to help him beat down Mercia. If it took promising and placating them with a settlement then he was more than willing to play that card at the time. The one thought or question remains in the disasterous outcome of the village. Would Ecbert have went to the same lengths had Lagertha and or Athelstan remained? Ecbert is one who needs to be in control of every situation at all times, much like Ragnar… Ecbert and Ragnar both made serious errors in judgement with this whole situation. I believe they both under estimated the outcomes and each other even though they both know how corrupt each other is. Would Ecbert resorted to such slaughter if he did not feel some rage and resentment at both Lagertha and Athelstan leaving him? And, ultimately, Ragnar must accept his own responsibility and guilt in leaving the settlement unguarded, unprotected in the first place. He under estimated just how far Ecbert might go in dealing with this mess, in fixing any possible mistake he felt he made or extracting a personal revenge on Ragnar.
Ecbert is somewhat of puzzle as far as his religion is concerned. He does not seem to be a particularly devout Christian but he does know full well that he needs the church on his side in order to achieve his goals. At times he seems more interested in what ever beliefs those ancients Romans that he is so fond of, held? Yet in contrast to his lesser faith and his affinity for more ancient practices, he seems to firmly believe that his grandson Alfred is a special holy child? He believes that there was truly something special about his friend Athelstan and that what ever that was, has been passed on to this child.
What ever Ecbert may personally believe in, he knows full well that his own goals can not be achieved with out the backing of the Christian Church. The church was unhappy with this pagan settlement so rather than deal with it himself, he sent Aethelwulf to do it. He knew that as a religious zealot, Aethelwulf would look at this as an act of God’s punishment on sinners such as those Pagans. Aethelwulf looked at that assignment as a bond of trust from Ecbert. Being as religious as he is, Aethelwulf feels he must ever be loyal to his anointed King and Father. Aethelwulf is continuously torn between his religious beliefs and the harsh realities of his life and feelings of failure with his Father. He wants to honor God and his faith, but he also wants to prove to Ecbert that he is worthy and capable of ruling an empire such as Ecbert envisions. He has the same sort of inner conflicts with Judith. I think that he is torn in his wanting to believe that this is a sign from God, that his faith tells him to forgive… yet he can not help but see her betrayal every time he looks at her son, Alfred.
We see signs of Aethelwulf’s struggle with accepting this forgiveness and this son as he makes habit of throwing Judith’s adultery and betrayal in her face until Ecbert intervenes on her behalf. What we see unfolding is Judith’s misery and her difficult plight in this household where she and her son have been saved but to what real purpose? Because of her admission and her mark of adultery, she is seen as somewhat of a pariah by Aethelwulf and most likely many others in the household. Ecbert has saved her and Alfred, but realistically, that does little to improve her circumstances in the beginning. Judith is alive but still living in fear, waiting for a next move against her or her son. She must tread even more cautiously and carefully now in order to assure the safety of her son should anything happen to her. In some ways, her predicament is even more perilous now than it was before. Now, every move she makes, she must consider the fate and future of both of her sons.
From the time of Alfred’s birth, Ecbert is completely besotted and devoted to the child to the point of ignoring his older grandson who by all rights no matter what, should be the heir as the oldest son. By all rights, this older son and his future heirs should inherit the throne and even without question as to Alfred’s parentage, he should be looked on as merely the spare. Ecbert, it seems though, has other plans which he secretly shares with Judith… he sees Alfred as blessed and it is his intent to see Alfred as ruler. This information would not bode well for Aethelwulf or his son by Judith. We know that Ecbert would easily go so far as to sacrifice his son, but would he just as easily go to that length in sacrificing this other grandson? At some point, this thought will have to play heavily on Judith’s mind and heart. How can she manage some way to keep both of her sons safe? This would be a predominant thought for any Mother put in such a situation. Judith’s ongoing thoughts must certainly be not so much of her own happiness but for the lives and the future of her children. On a historical side note here, Michael Hirst has made comments as to following more closely to history, Alfred’s path to the throne. He is on his way to taking this closer path, I think, with Ecbert’s obsessive belief that Alfred is special and should rule. In history, someone did think this and paved the child’s way to the throne with a special dispensation and affirmation from the Pope. The reason behind this special affirmation remains somewhat of a mystery yet today!
Alfred was born in the village of Wanating, now Wantage, Oxfordshire. He was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, by his first wife, Osburh. In 853, at the age of four, Alfred is said to have been sent to Rome where, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he was confirmed by Pope Leo IV who “anointed him as king”. Victorian writers later interpreted this as an anticipatory coronation in preparation for his ultimate succession to the throne of Wessex. However, his succession could not have been foreseen at the time, as Alfred had three living elder brothers. A letter of Leo IV shows that Alfred was made a “consul“; a misinterpretation of this investiture, deliberate or accidental, could explain later confusion. It may also be based on Alfred’s later having accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Rome where he spent some time at the court of Charles the Bald, King of the Franks, around 854–855.
On their return from Rome in 856, Æthelwulf was deposed by his son Æthelbald. With civil war looming, the magnates of the realm met in council to hammer out a compromise. Æthelbald would retain the western shires (i.e., traditional Wessex), and Æthelwulf would rule in the east. When King Æthelwulf died in 858, Wessex was ruled by three of Alfred’s brothers in succession, Æthelbald, Æthelberht and Æthelred.
Bishop Asser tells the story of how as a child Alfred won a prize of a volume of poetry in Saxon, offered by his mother to the first of her children able to memorize it. Legend also has it that the young Alfred spent time in Ireland seeking healing. Alfred was troubled by health problems throughout his life. It is thought that he may have suffered from Crohn’s disease. Statues of Alfred in Winchester and Wantage portray him as a great warrior. Evidence suggests he was not physically strong, and though not lacking in courage, he was noted more for his intellect than a warlike character.
Judith is beginning to walk a fearful and cautious path within the household, enduring Aethelwulf’s taunts and wondering about an uncertain future for her sons. Ecbert ever the manipulative one, takes advantage of her fears and uses them in his tactic to control everyone. In his ploy to gain even more control of Judith than he already has, he uses Aethelwulf and even her Father- he questions her loyalty and wonders aloud just where those loyalties might be.
Ecbert calls Judith to a private meeting to discuss the future and what it might hold for little Alfred should she not have protection against Aethelwulf in the future. He makes much of warning Judith of the dangers facing her and Alfred if they are not protected in some way from Aethelwulf’s vengeance. Ecbert vows his protection but of course there must be some return or recompense for such protection. Judith is not ignorant nor as naïve as she once might have been, she knows exactly what Ecbert is suggesting as her recompense for this protection. Ecbert also suggests that he will keep both her sons safe in recompense for any such unsaid agreement between them.
She understands just how powerful and controlling Ecbert is and knows how far he would be willing to go to get what he wants. Ecbert proposes that in return for her sharing his bed, he will assure her safety and that of her son, Alfred. She knows what Ecbert is capable of and she also had a good idea of what Aethelwulf is capable of as well. In his attempt to seal this bargain, Ecbert even goes far as to bring Athelstan into the conversation.
So, Judith becomes a pawn yet again, truly caught between Father and son in a situation that could bring danger to either or both of her sons. For Judith, this is not a matter of what is religiously moral, ethical or right in God’s eyes. In her mind, I think she has already gone beyond that with her adultery and with the church’s treatment of her for that sin. No, for Judith now, this becomes an act or an attempt to guarantee the safety of at least one of her children. If she makes this choice to become Ecbert’s mistress, she is hoping to save Alfred’s life and assure some future for him… but in doing so, there must still be some thought of what will become of her older son because of Ecbert’s insistence of Alfred being the holy one, the one who shall rule. By ensuring Alfred’s safety, is she then condemning her older son to just as much danger and uncertain fate from Ecbert in the future? As I have mentioned, and as Judith put it… she is not ignorant. This thought has to be playing in her heart and tearing her apart as she goes ahead with her decision to share Ecbert’s bed. Some part of her also has to be thinking of Ecbert’s penchant for duplicity in all matters. She has to be thinking of this trait and wondering how far she should trust him. Some part of her must be wondering when he will decide that she is of no use to him or his plans and then what would her fate be? Even if she has these doubts and does not trust him, in all reality, she has little choice in this matter and she knows it. She knows that Ecbert has spun his web around her and her children quite tightly and she must accept that once again, she is a pawn in his game.
As she enters into this arrangement and his bed, she reminds him of the terms of this agreement… that Alfred will be safe.
Ecbert has calculated this plan well, or so he assumes. He sends Aethelwulf on what should be a sacrificial fool’s errand to ensure Kwenitrith’s loyalty and remind her of her puppet status… probably fully expecting Aethelwulf to be killed in the mission thereby leaving Judith free for his continued dalliance and for baby Alfred to be named the heir because of his special holy status. This sacrificial death at Kweni’s hands would also ensure a new war against Mercia in retaliation for Aethelwulf’s death, one which Ecbert would no doubt expect to easily win and be backed by the church’s power behind him.
Aethelwulf however, realizes just how far Ecbert is willing to go and how little he really matters to Ecbert’s plans for the future. Aethelwulf survives the trip to Mercia and in his own way warns Kwentirith of how precarious her own situation is. When he returns home, he makes some insinuation and innuendo towards Ecbert that he understands how the trip was intended to play out. It is also during that dinner when Aethelwulf and Judith begin to understand more of this ultimate power game of Ecbert’s. This last family dinner gives some insight as to what the future might hold for Aethelwulf and for Judith. For Aethelfulf, there is the realization of just how devious and treacherous his Father really is along with an inner questioning of his ongoing loyalty to this Father who would so easily see him dead.
At the beginning of the meal, there is some of the usual resentment and insults from Aethelwulf but Judith refuses to be cowed this time and responds in a way that causes Aethelwulf to quiet and possibly rethink his actions in light of his current situation with his Father.
After Judith speaks up for herself, there seems to be some unsaid truce between her and Aethelwulf through the rest of the dinner. They both appear more focused on Ecbert’s responses and behavior in light of Aethelwulf’s comments. Aethelwulf for his part seems intent on some inner thoughts of trying to be more God or at least Jesus like in acceptance and forgiving attitudes… At one point a look comes across Judith’s face as if to think, “Well, Fuck! He’s trying to forgive me… I slept with that Ass for nothing!”
There is also a fleeting attempt towards forgiveness on his part towards Judith. For Judith, there is a revelation that she could in some way hold a bit of her own power or control in this game… as she watches this interaction between Father and son, as she sees some small glimmer of forgiveness or at least acceptance from Aethelwulf, she begins to have thoughts of how she might weigh this all to her own advantage? The last we see of Judith is her with a look of her own calculation and pondering of how she may not be as powerless as she thought she was.
Judith watches and listens to this interaction between Father and son escalate into a final rather condescending toast by Ecbert towards Aethelwulf. In the end, Judith has a look of her own possibilities for the future… as though she suddenly realizes that she is not without her own power in this game.
There is one very important thing that Judith must keep in mind and make assurances that there will be no doubts of in her future…. Judith has proven herself to be quite a proficient and fertile breeder. She has already had one instance of adultery leading to an unplanned and untimely pregnancy given the fact that Aethelwulf had been away in battle and she had not had sex with him for quite some time before she entered into the risky affair with Athelstan. Should such another occurance take place, I am quite sure there would be no acceptance or forgiveness forthcoming from either Aethwulf or the church! This affair with Ecbert has taken another turn of risk and danger for her. How could she begin to explain to Aethelwulf that she was sleeping with his Father this time? Although Ecbert probably did not bargain on Aethelwulf returning, he had returned and now Ecbert has another possible sticky situation do deal with…. I believe it would be in both his and Judith’s best interests for Aethelwulf to be placated and for him to be encouraged to see to his husbandly duties. Judith needs to do whatever possible to be in Aethelwulf’s good graces and in his bed very soon!
This brings us to a glimpse of the future where Judith seems to have found some of that power?
Looking towards that future, she has obviously survived and also managed to keep both of her sons alive! Job well done Judith! These two adorable boys play Judith’s sons Athelred and Alfred in the next season so we do know that she has succeeded in keeping them both alive so far.
Of course, what we do not know yet, is what she has had to do to ensure the safety of both boys? That all remains to be told in the next season. We do know from previews that Aethelwulf and Ecbert are both still alive so Ecbert has not yet succeeded in killing his son off. Perhaps Aethelwulf has succeeded in finding some of his own power in the future. What could any power grabbing for Aethelwulf mean for Ecbert in the future?
As we look toward the future of Wessex and Judith, there is one last thought I want to present. This is my own personal thought, a sort of What if Scenario…. In upcoming previews of next season, we see an arrest and rather brutal torture of Floki. Now, we should all understand how these images are spliced together in such a way to provoke us, to lead us to often wrong conclusions and keep us guessing or assuming as to what takes place. What we can be positive about is that Floki is arrested by Bjorn for the murder of Athelstan, that he is chained for a time in the village and rebuked by Ragnar for his disloyalty.
At some point later, we also see Floki’s gruesome torture…
Of course, we see this all together and make the assumption that this is Ragnar’s direct doing. Many have made the comment and consideration that while this could be a show of Ragnar’s deep bitterness, his increasing thoughts of personal revenge and ultimately a show of his control and force over his subjects. Many have commented that such an act would serve to alienate the villagers and some of his warriors as well, who already have serious doubts and concerns about his religious beliefs. Many of the villagers would have sided with Floki and would see this act as more of Ragnar’s disloyalty to their Gods. It certainly would not endear him to most of the villagers and all it would set up is an even stronger resentment against him along with more serious thoughts of revolt and replacing him as their King.
What Ragnar really needs to do upon his return home is salvage his reputation with the more mistrusting subject. This act is not going to accomplish anything but create more doubt, rule by fear alone and villagers or warriors becoming even more disloyal to him and possibly slipping away in the middle of the night to other sides. When one attempts to rule by fear alone, this is a common occurrence. You can not watch every single person 24 hours a day, he should be well aware of this since it was what many of them did under Harald’s and then Horik’s rule. Another thing he needs to do is get back to England. In order to do that he is going to need some help from these villagers. So, other than stringing Floki up himself what might his options be?
He has arrested Floki for his disloyalty in killing Athelstan but to kill him himself is going to make him look really bad. An alternate option would be to use the unknown fate of those massacred villagers to his favor in another devious plot or scheme. He does not have to tell the villagers anything of their fate but he could imply that they would be in grave danger if the fate of Athelstan is discovered. And he could of course imply that rumors travel, there are missionaries in their country and short of killing every single missionary- which would start an even bigger war, word will get back to England. So, what might he do to alleviate such a war and keep their settlers safe? If he were still as truly devious and manipulative as we saw him last, he would propose that they bring Floki to England to appease the English as a sort of peace offering… Now, the villagers would still be upset with the idea but if it were laid out as either Floki or their relative lives, they might grudgingly go along with proposal. To give Ragnar some credit, though I’m not really sure deserves it… he may not even be planning to actually sacrifice Floki but just put the fear of the Gods into him? He needs a way into England behind a ruse or scheme in order to find out for sure what actually happened and who ultimately was responsible. Of course he probably knows it was Ecbert, but you can’t just go knock on his Castle door and accuse him outright. No, you need a scheme to get yourself in the door. So, he uses Floki as his scheme, his scapegoat, his peace offering. He pretends to know nothing of the massacre, Ecbert claims innocence of it and would offer up Aethelwulf as his own scapegoat. Ecbert wants to get rid of Aethelwulf anyway, and what better way than to say, trade him for Floki? Because, in reality, who else would want personal revenge or vengeance on Floki besides Ragnar?
So, in my personal pondering of a possible outcome or alternate storyline… What if Ragnar brings Floki to Ecbert and this is Ecbert’s personal revenge rather than Ragnar’s? What if Aethelwulf in his attempt to save his own life, spills all he knows of Ecbert’s plans and of Kweni’s secret? Could this be the cause of the looks of puzzlement and fear on Ragnar and Kweni?
What is the fate of this baby? Who ends up with him and why does he become so important?
And why would Aethelwulf ever think of going against his Father… besides possibly trying to save his own life of course. Could he be racked with some inner guilt about the slaughter of those innocent settlers in his ongoing battle between his own wicked ways and that which his God tells him is wrong? We do see a glimpse of Aethelwulf’s thoughts on ruling…
Is this a glimpse of a changing and evolving Aethelwulf? Could this be a path of Hirst’s back towards some actual history, such as that path with Alfred? In history, other than a few early skirmishes The Vikings did not pose a major threat during his reign. In 853 he married his daughter Æthelswith to King Burgred of Mercia, and in the same year he joined a Mercian expedition to Wales to restore the traditional Mercian hegemony. In 855 Æthelwulf went on pilgrimage to Rome. In preparation he gave a “decimation”, donating a tenth of his personal property to his subjects; he appointed his eldest surviving son Æthelbald to act as King of Wessex in his absence, and next son Æthelberht to rule Kent and the south-east. He spent a year in Rome, and on his way back he married Judith, the twelve or thirteen year old daughter of the West Frankish King Charles the Bald. When Æthelwulf returned to England, Æthelbald refused to surrender the West Saxon throne, and Æthelwulf agreed to divide the kingdom, taking the east and leaving the west in his son’s hands. On Æthelwulf’s death in 858 he left Wessex to Æthelbald and Kent to Æthelberht, but Æthelbald’s death only two years later led to the re-unification of the kingdom. In the twentieth century Æthelwulf’s reputation among historians was low, and he was seen as pious and impractical, but historians in the twenty-first century regard him as one of the most successful West Saxon kings, who laid the foundations for the success of his son, Alfred the Great.
If you look at Aethelwulf’s actual history, you might be reminded of an early conversation that might have been deemed unimportant at the time but could serve as some clue to possibilities in the future. Aethelwulf and Rollo once had a limited conversation about friendship. Floki was disgusted by the whole idea and Rollo gave a clue to his deeper thoughts that may also come up in the future as Rollo begins his relationship with the Frankish.
In history, Aethelwulf maintained good relations with other Kingdoms such as Mercia and with Wales. He was on good terms with the Frankish Carolingian dynasty and seems to have based his kingship on their system. “Æthelwulf ran a Carolingian-style family firm of plural realms, held together by his own authority as father-king, and by the consent of distinct élites.”His ealdormen enjoyed a high status, and sometimes attested charters above the king’s son. His reign is the first for which there is evidence of royal priests, and Malmesbury Abbey regarded him as an important benefactor, who is said to have been the donor of a shrine for the relics of Saint Aldhelm. In ninth-century Mercia and Kent, royal charters were produced by religious houses, each with its own style, but in Wessex there was a single royal diplomatic tradition, probably by a single agency acting for the king. This may have originated in Egbert’s reign, and it becomes clear in the 840s, when Æthelwulf had a Frankish secretary called Felix.
In 853 a Viking army defeated and killed ealdermen Ealhhere of Kent and Huda of Surrey at Thanet, and in 855 Danish Vikings for the first time stayed over the winter on Sheppey, before carrying on their pillaging of eastern England . However, during Æthelwulf’s reign Viking attacks were contained and did not present a major threat.
Æthelwulf’s reputation among historians was low in the twentieth century. In 1935 R. H. Hodgkin attributed his pilgrimage to Rome to “the unpractical piety which had led him to desert his kingdom at a time of great danger”, and described his marriage to Judith as “the folly of a man senile before his time”. To Frank Stenton in the 1960s he was “a religious and unambitious man, for whom engagement in war and politics was an unwelcome consequence of rank”. One dissenter was Finberg, who in 1964 described him as “a king whose valour in war and princely munificence recalled the figures of the heroic age”, but in 1979 Michael Enright said: “More than anything else he appears to have been an impractical religious enthusiast.” Early medieval writers, especially Asser, emphasise his religiosity, and his preference for consensus seen in the concessions made to avert a civil war on his return from Rome. In Joanna Story’s view “his legacy has been clouded by accusations of excessive piety which (to modern sensibilities at least) has seemed at odds with the demands of early medieval kingship”.
In the twenty-first century he is seen very differently by historians. Æthelwulf is not listed in the index of Peter Hunter Blair‘s An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, first published in 1956, but in a new introduction to the 2003 edition Keynes listed him among people “who have not always been accorded the attention they might be thought to deserve … for it was he, more than any other, who secured the political fortune of his people in the ninth century, and who opened up channels of communication which led through Frankish realms and across the Alps to Rome”. According to Joanna Story: “Æthelwulf acquired and cultivated a reputation both in Francia and Rome which is unparalleled in the sources since the height of Offa’s and Coenwulf’s power at the turn of the ninth century”.
Nelson describes him as “one of the great underrated among Anglo-Saxons”, and complains that she was only allowed 2,500 words for him in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, compared with 15,000 for Edward II and 35,000 for Elizabeth I. She says:
- Æthelwulf’s reign has been relatively under-appreciated in modern scholarship. Yet he laid the foundations for Alfred’s success. To the perennial problems of husbanding the kingdom’s resources, containing conflicts within the royal family, and managing relations with neighbouring kingdoms, Æthelwulf found new as well as traditional answers. He consolidated old Wessex, and extended his reach over what is now Devon and Cornwall. He ruled Kent, working with the grain of its political community. He borrowed ideological props from Mercians and Franks alike, and went to Rome, not to die there, like his predecessor Ine, … but to return, as Charlemagne had, with enhanced prestige. Æthelwulf coped more effectively with Scandinavian attacks than did most contemporary rulers.
In light of these more recent and contemporary views on Aethelwulf’s life and his guidance of Alfred toward the throne despite the claims of older brothers and even his nephews by brother Athelred, it will be interesting to see how Hirst approaches the future of Aethelwulf, Ecbert and Judith. He makes much mention of his versions of history going in round about ways to connect in some way to actual history. And, as I’ve mentioned already, if you watch closely, you can see glimpses of change and evolution in Aethelwulf and Judith’s relationship. There is one fact that does come close to Hirst’s storyline regarding Judith’s future with Aethelwulf and any children she might potentially bear him.
Although in history, Judith was his second wife and bore him no children, there is some hint of something special regarding her and her relationship to him? Most wives at that time were not anointed Queens, they were just the King’s wife. Judith was however recognized as an anointed Queen. Part of this was due to her status as Carolingian Princess, but what ever the reason, Hirst’s manipulation of history or the actual accounting of it, it made Judith’s status special. The anointing of Judith as “a charismatic sanctification which enhanced her status, blessed her womb and conferred additional throne-worthiness on her male offspring.” Æthelwulf insisted that Judith should sit beside him on the throne until the end of his life, and according to Asser this was “without any disagreement or dissatisfaction on the part of his nobles”.
The rest of Judith’s real Carolingian status relates to Gisla as well. Gisla was a daughter, a princess of that Carolingian dynasty. Carolingian princesses rarely married and were usually sent to nunneries, and it was almost unknown for them to marry foreigners so Gisla should consider herself lucky for her marriage to Rollo considering her other options of Odo or a nunnery! So, Wipe that pout off from your face, dry your Damnable tears and Thank your God for your one chance at a possible happy marriage! Quit complaining, you could be Judith’s shoes…. or even Torvi’s with a wretched wife abusing little weasel named Erlandeur! There are other women out there in far worse circumstances than you!
Now, as to Judith in real history… because there was a Judith, wife of Aethelwulf in history. In real and accurate history, she was Judith of Flanders. She was no relation nor had any connection to Aelle of Northumbria.
Judith of Flanders
Judith of Flanders (or Judith of France) (c. 843 – c. 870) was the eldest daughter of the West Frankish King and later Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Bald and his wife Ermentrude of Orléans. Through her marriages to two Kings of Wessex, Æthelwulf and Æthelbald, she was twice a queen. Her first two marriages were childless, but through her third marriage to Baldwin, she became the first Countess of Flanders and an ancestress of later Counts of Flanders. One of her sons by Baldwin married Ælfthryth, a daughter of Æthelbald’s brother, Alfred the Great. She was also an ancestress of Matilda of Flanders, the consort of William the Conqueror, and thus of later monarchs of England.
In 855 King Æthelwulf of Wessex made a pilgrimage to Rome, and on his way back in 856 he stayed at the court of the West Frankish king, Charles the Bald. In July Æthelwulf became engaged to Charles’s daughter, Judith, who was no more than fourteen, while Æthelwulf was about fifty years old, and on 1 October 856 they were married at Verberie in northern France. The marriage was a diplomatic alliance. Both men were suffering from Viking attacks, and for Æthelwulf the marriage had the advantage of associating him with Carolingian prestige. In Wessex it was not customary for kings’ wives to be queens, but Charles insisted that his daughter be crowned queen.
The marriage provoked a rebellion by Æthelwulf’s eldest surviving son, Æthelbald, probably because he feared displacement by a higher born half brother. However father and son negotiated a compromise under which Æthelwulf received the eastern districts of the kingdom and Æthelbald the western. It is not known whether this meant that Æthelwulf took Kent and Æthelbald Wessex, or whether Wessex itself was divided.
Judith had no children by Æthelwulf, who died on 13 January 858. He was succeeded by Æthelbald, who married Judith, his step-mother, probably to enhance his status because she was the daughter of the West Frankish king. The marriage was condemned by Asser in his Life of Alfred the Great:
- Once King Æthelwulf was dead, Æthelbald, his son, against God’s prohibition and Christian dignity, and also contrary to the practice of all pagans, took over his father’s marriage-bed and married Judith, daughter of Charles, king of the Franks, incurring great disgrace from all who heard of it.
Judith was still childless when Æthelbald died in 860 after a reign of two and a half years.
In true history, Aethelwulf was married prior to Judith and it was this wife who bore him all of his children, including young Alfred.
Osburh or Osburga (died before 856) was the first wife of King Æthelwulf of Wessex and mother of Alfred the Great. Alfred’s biographer, Asser, described her as “a most religious woman, noble in character and noble by birth”.
Osburh’s existence is known only from Asser‘s Life of King Alfred. She is not named as witness to any charters, nor is her death reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. So far as is known, she was the mother of all Æthelwulf’s children, his five sons Æthelstan, Æthelbald, Æthelberht, Æthelred and Alfred the Great, and his daughter Æthelswith, wife of King Burgred of Mercia. Osburh presumably died before 856 when her husband married the Carolingian princess Judith.
She is best known for Asser’s story about a book of Saxon songs which she showed to Alfred and his brothers, offering to give the book to whoever could first memorise it, a challenge which Alfred took up and won. This exhibits the interest of high status ninth-century women in books, and their role in educating their children.
Osburh was the daughter of Oslac (who is also only known from Asser’s Life), King Æthelwulf’s pincerna (butler), an important figure in the royal court and household. Oslac is described as a descendant of King Cerdic‘s Jutish nephews, Stuf and Wihtgar, who conquered the Isle of Wight, and, by this, is also ascribed Geatish/Gothic ancestry.
One last note of interest… Michael Hirst, creator of the Vikings has confirmed that this baby is indeed the Alfred that grows up to be called Alfred the Great so we can rest assured that this baby will remain safely cared for no matter what might befall Judith in the future. There is also an interesting thought here on Alfred’s future health ailments… he suffers from ill health all of his life in true history. Perhaps it is due to the religious thought that Aethelwulf would put so much store in… The sins of the Fathers, or Mothers will be passed on to their children? Or in other terms, the children will suffer in some way because of the parent’s sins.
Alfred died on 26 October 899. How he died is unknown, although he suffered throughout his life with a painful and unpleasant illness. His biographer Asser gave a detailed description of Alfred’s symptoms and this has allowed modern doctors to provide a possible diagnosis. It is thought that he either had Crohn’s disease or haemorrhoidal disease. His grandson King Edred seems to have suffered from a similar illness.