The Royal Blood exhibition ‘Heads and Tales’ is now on show in three of the Hampshire Cultural Trust museums; Andover, Fareham and Aldershot. Andover features the Iron Age and Saxon periods and rehearses the story of Dead Man’s Plack, in Harewood Forest, where King Edgar the Peaceable (959-975) is reputed to have slain his right-hand man, Aethelwold.
Having sent his loyal servant on a wife-scouting mission to Devon, where the fair Aelfthryth was reputed to be a maid without compare, Edgar was just about coming to terms with the unfavourable reports when he tripped over a beautiful woman in the Forest. He followed her home and found that it was none other than Aelfthryth. Aethelwold, bewitched by her beauty, had decided to keep her for himself – a bad move. The King ordered him to saddle up and accompany him on the hunt – whereupon he ran him through with a spear. The ‘Plack’ – a stone cross – marks the spot where it happened. He then took Aelfthryth as his bride.
The story found a champion in landowner Col William Iremonger, who had the cross put up in 1825. An Oxford Professor, Edward Freeman, then poured cold water on it, but that only incensed the famous naturalist, William Hudson, who while out searching for rare spiders in Harewood Forest, ate his lunch in the shade of the cross and imagined he saw the whole tragedy unfurl in front of his eyes. He was so taken by the story he put it in print (1920).
Edgar and Aelfthryth had a son (Ethelred) and following the King’s death, Aelfthryth was implicated in the murder of his son by a previous marriage – Edward (‘the Martyr’) – at Corfe, so that her son could take the throne. Again it is thought that the medieval chroniclers painted a far worse picture of her than she deserved, and she had nothing to do with the heinous crime.
Aelfthryth’s close connection to the Harewood Forest area seems to have been through Wherwell Priory, which she is variously credited with founding, or endowing with gifts. She died there around the year 1000. Comparatively recent work has discovered the plan of the abbey (Priory) church and shown that some of the buildings still survive intact, but a number of graves found in an archaeological dig were left in situ, as the development work was tailored in such a way that they would remain undisturbed.
One hundred and fifty years after Aelfthryth, Wherwell was again at the heart of the action, following the ‘Rout of Winchester’, but that’s another chapter.
William Henry Hudson, 1920, Dead Man’s Plack and an Old Thorn
Wherwell Priory – survey and excavations – Hampshire Studies 53, Roberts; 55, Clark and Roberts; 58, Manning and Rawlings.
Series by; Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Jane King, Lesley Johnson, Peter Stone.