While legend has it that Eadric Streona (“Grasping Eadric” or “Eadric the Acquisitor”) irritated the monarch by beating him in a game of chess, Middle Ages chroniclers attributed his fate to the just deserts of inveterate treachery.
A couple centuries of Viking raids and conquests had just culminated with the Northmen’s outright capture of the English throne, fifty years before the better-remembered Norman invasion.
Notwithstanding his best efforts at resistance, the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelred the Unready had been briefly driven into exile by Cnut’s father, Sweyn Forkbeard, and his house then decisively dispossessed by Cnut at the Battle of Assandun. (All kings had cooler names in the Anglo-Saxon period.)
Eadric figured into this period in the timeworn role of duplicitous nobleman. The BBC named him the worst Briton of the 11th century.
Though not of the highest pedigree himself, “his smooth tongue gained him wealth and high rank, and gifted with a subtle genius and persuasive eloquence he surpassed all his contemporaries in malice and perfidy, as well as in pride and cruelty.” (Florence of Worcester, whose chronicle dates to a century later.) Eadric maneuvered himself into a union with Aethelred’s daughter, but he didn’t exactly follow Corleone rules where the family was concerned.*
Plenty of lords were playing both sides of the Anglo-Saxon/Danish conflict, but Eadric did it as well as anyone. He was an exponent of the policy of appeasing the Northmen with the Danegeld tribute, rather than resisting by arms. (Eadric might have been helping himself to a rake of the Danegeld that passed through his own hands.) He’s slated with, on one occasion, dissuading Aethelred from falling upon a crippled Danish force that might have been destroyed.
His nemesis on the policy front was Aethelred’s combative son and heir Edmund Ironside. (Seriously: cooler names.)
Anyway, in 1015, when Aethelred and Cnut were pressing rival claims at arms, Eadric “seduced forty ships from the king, and they went over to Cnut.” Early the next year, he defected back.
By this time, Aethelred had died and Eadric’s old rival Edmund Ironside inherited leadership. What terms these two old foes came to when Eadric returned are a matter of speculation, but it can be no surprise that Eadric switched sides back to Cnut yet again at Assandun. Some chronicles like to attribute the whole fall of England to this backstab, but it’s more than likely the guy just recognized the balance of forces (the English got routed) and tacked to the wind.
And Eadric sure could tack. He even helpfully cleared out his and Cnut’s mutual rival Edmund Ironside, allowing Cnut to claim all the lands he’d just recently agreed to leave to Edmund. The most flinch-inducingly scabrous version of the assassination story goes that Eadric’s guys shot Edmund up the backside from a privy-hole. Guess that side wasn’t so iron.
But Eadric’s belief that he’d ingratiated himself with Cnut was as sorely mistaken as Edmund Ironside’s confidence in the loo. Kings tend to look askance upon traitors, and not a few usurpers have been known to extend that opprobrium to the very people who betrayed their predecessors. Cnut valued loyalty, and it was pretty clear he couldn’t rely upon Eadric in that department.
After tolerating this underhanded underling for a decent year or so,
[a]t the Lord’s Nativity, when [Cnut] was in London, he gave orders for the perfidious ealdorman Eadric to be killed in the palace, because he feared to be at some time deceived by his treachery, as his former lords Ethelred and Edmund had frequently been deceived; and he ordered his body to be thrown over the wall of the city and left unburied.
-Florence of Worcester (via)
The rich English-history podcast environment has various offerings touching this period, including …
The History of England (Aethelred, Svein Forkbeard, and Years of Misery, Edmund Ironside and Cnut, Cnut the Conqueror)
Rex Factor Podcast (Aethelred the Unready, King Cnut)
* It needs to be said that Eadric is known through the testimony of hostile chronicles; given the dearth of primary documentation, his reputation lies at their mercy. One 20th century historian remarked that he takes on a bogeyman character in the texts, an all-purpose villain “to whom unknown crimes may be safely attributed.”