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ealdorman in early usage could indicate a patriarch, prince, or ruler. This should nuance the impact of the term in the laws of King Ine, c.700, where the ealdorman appears as a functionary, in charge of a scir (shire) and subject to dismissal. In another context such men would probably appear as subreguli (under-kings). The shires concerned may already have been the historic shires of Wessex, which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's account of the Vikings showed to have been in existence by the 9th cent., the forces of each led by an ealdorman. A grander usage of the term is its application to King Alfred's son-in-law, Æthelred, ealdorman of the Mercians. He was almost a king. In the 10th cent. shire ealdormen disappear. The term is then applied to such great men as Athelstan ‘half-king’, ealdorman of much of eastern England. From the early 11th cent. the Scandinavian term ‘earl’ is used for such potentates. But the general sense of ‘ealdorman’ as indicative of authority gave the term lasting life, in particular in towns.

James Campbell