Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ælfric (fl.950?-1016?)

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ÆLFRIC (fl. 950?–1016?), ealdorman of the Mercians, was the son of the ealdorman Ælfhere [see Ælfhere], and was therefore akin to the royal house. He was called ‘Child’ Ælfric, and is spoken of as a man of some consequence during the lifetime of his father. He succeeded to his father's ealdormanship in 983. At a meeting of the witan held at Cirencester in 986, he was banished for some cause not stated by the chroniclers, but, from an apparent reference to him in a charter, he would seem to have been accused of treason against the king. Henry of Huntingdon, who often preserves local feeling, speaks of the cruelty of Æthelred in connection with this banishment, but in judging the actions of men of this time who like Ælfric were constantly guilty of treachery, allowance must be made for the utter want of governance, the alternate violence and weakness of the kings, and the evident signs of factious influence which marked the later days of the English monarchy. It was probably this Ælfric who was the father of Ælfwine, ‘of mighty kin among the Mercians,’ who, in 991, fought at Maldon in the following of Brihtnoth, and who is commemorated in the song of that battle. Before 991 Ælfric was probably restored to favour, for an ealdorman Ælfric joined Archbishop Sigeric and the ealdorman Æthelweard in buying off the Danes from attacking their lands, and in persuading the king to make a general peace with them and to pay them tribute. War soon followed this peace. In 992 a fleet was gathered at London. It was placed under the command of two bishops and two lay leaders. One of these was Ælfric, in whom the king now put more faith than in any other. For some unexplained reason Ælfric, the night before the fleets should have joined battle, gave warning to the enemy of the intended movements and fled, leaving his ship and his men to be taken by the Danes. One account represents him as fleeing to the enemy. He probably went to them under cover of night, and, having thus escaped from his own countrymen, fled away. The English fleet, when it found itself betrayed, dispersed, losing only the traitor's ship. In anger at the treachery of Ælfric, the king caused his son Ælfgar to be blinded. Ælfric appears again in 1003, restored to favour and command. In that year Swend was invading England, and was ravaging Wiltshire. A strong force of the men of Wiltshire and Hampshire was gathered to withstand him. Unhappily Ælfric was appointed leader. The armies came well in sight of each other. Then Ælfric ‘turned to his old tricks,’ he feigned himself sick and began to retch, and said that he was grievously ill and could not fight. When his men saw the unwillingness of their leader, they were discouraged. The army was scattered, and the Danes went on with their ravages. The name of an ealdorman Ælfric appears in a charter of Æthelred to Ely in 1004; this new treachery was probably therefore soon forgiven.

In 1016, when Eadmund and Cnut met in battle at Assandun, where all the great folk of England perished, an ealdorman Ælfric fell among the rest, fighting on the side of his native king. A letter addressed by Pope John (XV?) to an ealdorman Ælfric, reproving him for seizing some estates belonging to Glastonbury Abbey, can scarcely refer to the Mercian ealdorman. If the patriot of 1016 was a West Saxon, it may have been addressed to him. The name Ælfric was common at this period, and it is impossible to be sure about the identity of those who bore it.

That the traitor in 992 and 1003 was the same man may, however, be taken as certain (on the identity of the ealdormen named Ælfric see Freeman's Norman Conquest, i. 305, 306). Whether the son of Ælfhere, the traitor in the fleet and in the field, and the ealdorman who fell at Assandun, were one person, cannot be said with certainty. It may have been so, for we know too little of the causes of the events of the time to decide such a question on the mere ground of the improbability of changes in men's conduct.

[A.S. Chronicles; Florence of Worcester; Henry of Huntingdon; Historia Eliensis, ii. c. 7; Thorpe's Diplomat. p. 282; Memorials of St. Dunstan, p. 396, Rolls Ser.; Will. of Malmesbury, Gest. Reg. lib. ii. c. 151; Freeman's Norman Conquest, i. c. 5.]

W. H.