Ælfgar (also known as Algar) was the formidable son of Earl Leofric of Mercia and Godgifu. Of a like mind with the formidable House of Godwin, Ælfgar was a powerful vassal who did not shy away from clashing with his liege, King Edward the Confessor of England (r. 1042-1066). Although Ælfgar was already the heir to the earldom of Mercia, he was given the title of earl of East Anglia around 1053, after Harold Godwinson shed that earldom to take up his late father’s claims in Wessex. In 1055, Harold’s brother, Tostig Godwinson, became the earl of Northumbria. As Ælfgar’s father, Leofric, was still earl of Mercia at that time, an incredible amount of England was ruled by those two families. King Edward the Confessor, likely feeling suffocated by these powerful noble houses, was apparently desperate to free up one of these earldoms from the bloated vassal families. Presumably inspired by such fears, King Edward decided to outlaw Ælfgar in 1055. On this move, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stated, “Ælfgar, Earl Leofric’s son, was outlawed without any guilt” (ASC 1055), and the Chronicle of Florence of Worcester similarly stated that Ælfgar was outlawed “without any just cause of offence” (AD 1055).
The House of Godwin had, within that very decade, provided a game plan for Ælfgar to follow. Edward the Confessor had exiled the Godwin clan around 1051, but they soon returned to England with their own personal army and navy, which prompted the king to restore their lands and power in 1052. Learning from this, Ælfgar fled to Ireland and recruited a mercenary fleet of eighteen ships. He then sailed this force to northern Wales, where he made an alliance with the local Welsh king, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, who is often called Griffith by English sources.
After building this Irish-Welsh Coalition, Ælfgar and Gruffydd invaded England and marched their forces in the direction of Hereford. A certain Earl Ralph hurriedly pulled together an army and intercepted the invading forces before they could reach the city. Ralph’s troops, however, were in no fit state for a battle, and they reportedly fled from Ælfgar and Gruffydd almost as soon as the fighting began. In the chaos, the outlawed earl’s troops were said to have cut down between four and five hundred Englishmen, whereas the coalition from Ireland and Wales reportedly lost not a single man. With Earl Ralph’s force in tatters, Ælfgar and Gruffydd broke into Hereford and plundered the city. They did not stay in the city for long, but instead withdrew back into Wales to await the inevitable English backlash. Harold Godwinson did indeed arrive with an army, but he did not chase Ælfgar very far, and instead focused on reassuring and fortifying the city of Hereford. During this standoff, Edward the Confessor was convinced, as Ælfgar likely hoped, to restore the outlawed noble’s legal status and titles. King Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, losing his ally, apparently agreed to a precarious truce with the English—Yet, he would be back at war with England as early as 1056.
Within the decade, history would repeat itself. A second bout between Edward the Confessor and Ælfgar was set in motion in 1057, when Earl Leofric of Mercia died. As Ælfgar was Leofric’s son, he inherited the earldom of Mercia and became even more of a threat to the king. King Edward the Confessor lashed out at Ælfgar as early as 1058, sentencing the nobleman to banishment. Ælfgar, for his part, stuck to the same plan as before, fleeing to Wales and forming an alliance, once again, with the Welsh king, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. Yet, Wales was not the only region in which Ælfgar had been cultivating relationships. Instead of turning once more to Ireland for naval support, Ælfgar shocked his English countrymen by calling in a fleet directly from Norway. Florence of Worcester described the banished earl’s quick and effective comeback campaign, saying “supported by Griffyth, king of Wales, and aided by a Norwegian fleet, which unexpectedly came to his relief, he speedily recovered his earldom by force of arms” (Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, AD 1058).
Fortunately for King Edward the Confessor, the troublesome Earl Ælfgar died of vague causes around 1062. The earl’s frequent ally, King Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, followed Ælfgar into death a few years later. Around 1064, Gruffydd was assassinated by his own countrymen after his wars with the English had taken a turn for the worse.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene of the Battle of Hasting by James William Edmund Doyle (1822–1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester translated by Thomas Forester. London: Petter and Galpin, originally published 1854.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.