Friday, December 6, 2013


Welcome back, History Fans. We last saw King CNUT as he was attempting to improve his status as not just the King of England, but as an emperor that could carry his weight alongside any other European ruler. Let's see what kind of wacky adventures he gets into today!

During the early part of the 1020s, we see CNUT doing what he does best: ruling shrewdly. He expelled Thorkell from England only to be reconciled with him two years later. He was sending a message. Throkell couldn’t be trusted because he had served Ethelred and betrayed him. Thorkell may have been one of the lucky ones. Some who served both kings saw their lives end either in death or in exile. But CNUT proved how cunning he really was during this time when he embraced not only the English culture but more importantly the English Church. The church was a huge part of the way of life in England. Being a part of the Roman Empire helped them develop that wonderful bureaucratic system that the Christian church filled out so nicely. Denmark, however, was just outside the reach of the Romans. There was no central church the way there was in England. The priests, bishops, and monks served more than a spiritual purpose: they helped run the country. CNUT was quick to recognize this and also that it would be impossible for him to replace these members of societies with Danish men of his choosing. Instead, he swore to be a good Christian king, to fight for the church, and to keep most of the Anglo-Saxons in their positions.

Something happened at the end of the decade that flared up that natural opportunistic Viking feeling inside of King CNUT. I mentioned above that CNUT’s father had for a time put Norway in his empire and under the rule of Eric of Lade. Well, Eric shows up in England in 1016 as one of CNUT’s earls. Eric left the country’s fate in his brother’s hands, who was quickly disposed of by Olaf Haraldson (another Olaf!). Olaf of Norway teamed up with the King of Sweden, Anund Jacob, and attacked a CNUT-less Denmark in 1027. In 1028, CNUT sailed to Norway with 50 ships. Before any battle was fought, CNUT bought off a large part of Olaf’s army. Once again, we see CNUT’s shrewdness: he takes Ethelred’s defense of tribute and turns it into an offensive. Olaf offered little resistance and CNUT took Norway back and even claimed a part of Sweden as his own, thus regaining, for the moment, the North Atlantic Empire that his father Svein had worked so hard to get. He left Hakon, nephew of Eric of Lade, in charge in Norway and returned to England as an emperor. But, like everything in CNUT’s life, this position would soon be gone.

CNUT continued to be the king he swore to be. He traveled to Rome in 1030, and there he asked for the dues of the English churches to be lowered. He also secured a lower toll for trading vessels in Italy. He probably got a glimpse of the emperor’s life there in Rome and thought he would love to have that kind of power. But that same year, Hakon passed away in Norway. Olaf tried to return but was actually killed by his own people! CNUT put one his oldest sons, Svein, back in power in Norway until he was run out in 1034. So the empire already started to crumble before CNUT’s death in 1035. His death caused one of the craziest chain reactions in all of history. This is where it gets real good!

Here was CNUT’s plan of succession. His son Svein was supposed to inherit Norway, Harthacnut to stay in Denmark, and Harold Harefoot to take the English throne. Svein’s reign was cut short before CNUT’s death by Olaf’s son, Magnus. The rest of the plan may have worked if it weren’t for the fact that Harold Harefoot was the son of CNUT’s first wife, while Harthacnut was the son of Emma of Normandy. So after King CNUT’s death, his son Harold Harefoot wanted to succeed him, but had a weak claim to the throne. To make matters worse, Ethelred’s younger sons, seeing their opportunity, return from exile to try and reclaim the throne from the Danes.  

The story of Ethelred’s exiled children is fascinating. Remember: when Ethelred had to flee England during the invasion, he took with him two sons, Edward and Alfred, who, had they had a force behind them, could have made a very real threat to the throne. Before CNUT’s death, Duke Robert of Normandy had asked the king to return the children to England and restore their property. He backed up this request by raising a fleet. CNUT went to meet him, but Duke Robert decided to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem instead. Probably a good call, but whatever deal CNUT had with Normandy through his wife Emma died with him. Alfred wastes no time returning, but immediately is captured by Earl Godwin. Edward, however, buys his time. In 1037 Harold Harefoot was sworn in as king. He ruled for three years before his untimely death. Harthacnut came over from Denmark and took his rightful place as King of England. His reign was even shorter than his brother’s. In 1042, the last of CNUT’s sons died, putting Edward the Confessor, son of Ethelred, champion of the Anglo-Saxons, back on the throne.

Edward the Confessor had some big shoes to fill. His father earned the nickname “the Unready” because of his failure to defend the country. By the time of Edward’s ascension, England probably looked just as vulnerable as it did back in 1013 when Svein Forkbeard conquered it. His enemies are the Scandinavian men who found a role in Anglo-Saxon England. The powerful Earl Godwin wanted a shot at the throne and threatened to take it from Edward. In 1051, Edward showed that he meant business. He stopped paying the tribute to the Danes and he also outlawed Godwin and his son who were making trouble. Over the next ten years, Edward ran all over the country, from town to ports, trying to defend England from the Scandinavian armies who were supported by Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. To keep this brief, I won’t go into detail as to the inner workings of England at this time. It is fascinating and difficult to follow, but our focus is on 1066. In that year, King Edward died. Godwin’s son, Harold, who had inherited his father’s earldom, lays claim to the English throne. And here’s where things get really crazy: Harold’s brother, Tostig, decided to support a different Harald. This was the King of Norway, Harald Hardrada. He too threw his name into the hat for future kings of England. He and Tostig had earlier campaign in Wales. His return to England was anticipated by Harold Godwinsson, who went to go meet him at Sandwich.

Here we see some of the difficulties of Ethelred echoed in King Harold’s reign. While waiting at Sandwich, he realized that he could not afford to keep his whole army together. Harald Hardrada finally does show up to join with Tostig, but not at Sandwich. King Harold rides hard to meet the invading force. Before he reached them, two earls from Northumbria, Edwin and Morcar, try to take the force head on. These men replaced Tostig when he was expelled from Northumbria. The Norwegians defeat the earls and their force and continue on to York. There they are met by King Harold and the rest of his forces. King Harold wins decisively at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Both Tostig and Harald Hardrada are killed. And things are finally looking up for the Anglo-Saxons!

Yet while Harold was busy fighting off the Norwegians, an unseen foe crossed the English Channel and landed at Hastings: Duke William. William the goddamn Bastard! Did his Viking roots kick in when he saw the turmoil in England? The perfect opportunist, the duke got wind of Harold Godwinsson heading north to fight off a large invading force. He took his chance. Landing in Hastings on September 29, 1066, he quickly built a classic Norman castle and prepared his defenses. He knew Harold would come to meet him. Indeed, Harold meets his end at the Battle of Hastings and William becomes the Conqueror.

Now, William’s claim to the throne was shaky at best. The story is that while Edward the Confessor grew up in Normandy, he and William became buddies. An agreement was made. If Edward could regain the throne, William would be his successor. The validity of this rumor is suspect, but William defended the realm with a ferocity that had not been seen England for many years. He chased off multiple invaders. Prince Edgar, a distant relative of Edmund Ironside, tried to stir up a rebellion that was quickly put down by William.

So why do we remember and celebrate William’s victory in 1066 and not Svein’s in 1013, or CNUT’s in 1016? The simple reason: longevity. CNUT’s early death led to the tumultuous environment within his empire. Instead of leaving everything in the hands of one capable heir, he split up his kingdoms. This may have worked if any of his sons had any of the charisma and skill that CNUT displayed in winning over the English people, going from enemy to beloved king in a matter of decades. But none of CNUT’s sons lived past the age of 30. Without a proper heir to rule the empire, each country fell to its enemies, including England. William on the other hand secured an heir (Henry I) and protected England in a way that CNUT’s successors could not. William also had an advantage over CNUT. In Normandy, there was a central church, which meant that William could indeed replace English priests and bishops and administrators with his own. In the end, William may have proved to be shrewder than CNUT, but the Danish king brought England into the circle of European powers. His daughter married a Roman emperor and he attended the coronation of another emperor. An English king had never enjoyed these privileges.  Beyond that, CNUT displayed an incredible talent of recognizing strengths and weaknesses and adapting to the throne of England, rather than forcing his Danish touch on England. This, I think, is what makes his story so compelling and why the invasion of 1013 is worth learning about. Accepting his role as the head of Church, CNUT really put his whole self into it, working with the clergy, keeping the English in their administrative roles, and even going to the Pope for a break on tributes.

Pleasing the church wasn’t his only accomplishment as king. He became committed to justice, even though he was behind some of the worst crimes against the English people. He fought off his Scandinavian contemporaries and put back together the North Atlantic Empire that had once been held by his father.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is an amazing piece of writing that does a wonderful job of spelling out just how everything fell into place for CNUT, and how everything eventually slipped from his grasp. And while Lawson’s book is mostly speculation, it still put into perspective just how daunting of a task it was for CNUT to do what he did.

The moral of the story, History Fans, is to keep your children healthy. Who knows when they could become emperor!

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Greetings, History Fans! Today is part one of a two part series on our favorite Viking king: CNUT! I have a post the recounts a lot of the same information when I was first listening to Professor Kenneth Harl's lecture series, but I wanted to go into a little more detail about the Danish conquering of England. I hope you find this as fascinating as I do!

In the year 1066, William the Bastard crossed the English Channel from Normandy and conquered England. It is a date well known throughout history, made even more significant by the famous Bayeux Tapestry. But history often overlooks the conquerors from earlier in the century. In 1013, Svein Forkbeard not only had the entire of nation of England in the palm of his hand but he also held his native Denmark and even Norway for a brief period of time. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives a marvelous timeline of the events in medieval England. In this post I would like to walk us through those events, starting with ascension of Ethelred the Unready in 978 and ending with Duke William of Normandy and the incredible Battle of Hastings.

In order to understand the relationship of Ethelred and England, and just how an invading army could take over the country, we need to go back and retrace the important events that led to his sorry ass sitting the throne.

The first official Viking attack in England was in 793 at Lindinsfarne. Many people attribute this particular raid as the official beginning of the Viking Age. Of course, there had probably already been raids in the Baltics, France, or even some of the British Isles. But this attack was significant in that it focused on the monastery, which contained an awful lot of valuables. The church was also willing to pay for hostages. The Vikings got to wet their whistles in Lindinsfarne and really set a precedent for how the next two centuries would play out.

At this point, England was broken into a few different kingdoms: Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria. For the next century, the Danish Vikings really did a number on England. Northumbria was the first to fall to the enemy and would remain on the edge of Dane-English relations, switching hands and allegiances and ultimately embracing its Scandinavian roots. The other kingdoms soon fell to the might of the Vikings, except Wessex who finally got their savior in 870: Alfred the Great.

King Alfred may have been the only ruling monarch who stood up to the Vikings. Over in mainland Europe, Charles and the others were buying their peace, a strategy that did not wholly work, and one that Alfred utilized when he deemed pertinent. Alfred chose his battles. When the time seemed right, he would swoop and attack a Viking host. He wouldn’t meet an army head on. He also began building fortresses and protecting the farmers with soldiers so that harvest could be secured. He baptized some of the leaders, drove others out, and nearly succeeded in uniting a broken England. This, he knew, would be key. The Vikings were opportunists. They knew how fragmented England was and played on its fears and vulnerabilities. This charming trait would eventually come back to bite them.

Alfred the Great died in 899 after serving England for 28 years. After his death, things really fell to shit. The Danes settled in Northumbria and cut it off from the rest of the country. King after king seized the English throne, each more futile than the last at expelling the Vikings from their country. The Danes and English take turns murdering and baptizing each other, until finally Ethelred takes the throne in 978, succeeding his brother who died under some fishy circumstances. Ethelred’s reign starts off with a fresh wave of Viking attacks. Olaf Tryggvason is the culprit for many of these raids, and in 991 Ethelred pays him 10,000 pounds of silver--the first of many tributes that would come to define his time on the throne.

The year 994 was the first time we see Svein Forkbeard’s name pop up, though he was most likely in England in 991. He was the King of Denmark and joined up with Olaf Tryggvason who promised some good booty over in England. The two attack London and are eventually paid off by Ethelred with 16,000 pounds. On his return, however, he found that King Eric of Sweden had taken Denmark and expelled Svein from his own country. He was turned away by every country until Scotland let him in. There he waited until King Eric’s death. Svein then makes a deal with the new ruler in Sweden (Olaf. I know it’s confusing) and an earl in Norway, Eric of Lade, to get rid of Olaf Tryggvason. He is killed at a battle in 999 and Svein puts Eric of Lade in charge of Norway as his vassal. Svein then held both Norway and Denmark. He then turns his eyes upon the real prize in the North Atlantic: England.

Between 1003 and 1006, Svein attacks all over England, just making a real mess. Ethelred pays him 24,000 pounds. Svein returns in 1007 and is paid off with 36,000 pounds. Are you seeing the pattern here? Further raids continue by different Vikings, but the result is the same: Ethelred shelling out 48,000 pounds of silver.

                                    (Ethelred looking like a chump)

At this point in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle you can really feel the hopelessness of the authors. So much violence met with a cowardly payment. And those people who lost everything to the foreign attackers were being taxed heavily by their own king to pay off the culprits! What a miserable time!

Svein returns to England in 1013 with his son CNUT and a huge army that nobody wants to fuck with. Either that or the people are just so sick of being harassed and their king just lying down and taking it. Either way, England wholly submits to Svein and Ethelred zooms across the channel with his sons Edward and Alfred to stay with his wife’s relatives in Normandy. But the celebration was short. Svein died the very next year, leaving his son CNUT to try and hold on to a foreign throne barely won.

Ethelred sees his chance and returns to England and chases CNUT out of the country. Before he leaves, however, he mutilates some of the hostages given to his father as part of their peace agreement. In 1015, CNUT returns and begins a campaign against Wessex, the former stronghold of Alfred the Great. Ethelred’s third son, Edmund Ironside, takes up the role as champion for the Anglo-Saxons. He and CNUT go at each other. But CNUT has help from an Englishman! Eadric, the Earl of Mercia, switches sides and joins up with the Danes! In 1016, CNUT’s army arrives and he leads them against Edmund in London. Edmund holds out. Ethelred died, and Edmund claimed the English throne. He fought one last costly battle against CNUT in 1016. The latter was victorious but the cost was enormous. The two met and made oaths and pledges to live in peace. They divided the country in half—Edmund takes Wessex and London, CNUT gets Mercia and Northumbria. But once again, the victory is bittersweet. Edmund dies on November 30, 1016, leaving England to its other king: CNUT!

Now, before we get into the details of CNUT’s reign in England, I would like to point out a couple ideas that M.K. Lawson describes in his book, Cnut: England’s Viking King. I’d like to defend Ethelred for a moment. Sure, he was unorganized and mostly ineffective, but the payments of that much money may not have been such a horrible idea after all. At that time, with an enemy that was also unorganized and ferocious, keeping up an army would have been extremely expensive. Lawson suggests that Ethelred weighed the costs. Would feeding, housing, equipping, training, and replacing men cost any less than those astounding amounts of silver he forked over? Maybe Ethelred wasn’t the total bumbling idiot we make him out to be. Then again, he deserves some of the criticism. Why couldn’t he gather the forces and take a stand, the way Alfred had centuries before? Lawson also has an answer for that: Ethelred took the throne after his brother was murdered. Many believed that members of Ethelred’s camp were responsible for the assassination. There were pockets of loyal followers of the dead brother who may have welcomed a new leader.

And don’t you think at this point, the English people could give a shit who their leader was, as long as life stopped being so crazy? The people, especially the church, wanted peace and justice in the land. After thirty years of non-stop violence, it’s no wonder Svein was met with such little resistance. Ethelred was incompetent and the people had no will left to fight.

CNUT takes the throne in 1017 and immediately begins strengthening his hold on it. Remember, even though the English people were worn out and tired of violence, that doesn’t mean that they forget that CNUT and his dad burned down their villages and killed their relatives! He broke the country back into four pieces and puts one of his in each section. He takes Wessex for himself, gives East Anglia to Thorkel, Mercia to Eadric, and Eric of Lade gets Northumbria. His reasoning for doing this is two-fold. The outward reasoning was to reward his followers for their service. Eric of Lade had helped him rule Norway, Eadric secured Svein’s entry to England. But splitting the country up like that helped keep tabs on possible uprising. Remember, these men were warlords. They had small militaries of their own. So a military presence in each quarter, plus a more efficient way to collect taxes underlined the more attractive “earldom” these men received.

CNUT’s next move was to marry Ethelred’s widow. This too had a few meanings. For one, it put CNUT that much closer to a legitimate claim to the throne. Marrying a former English queen was a pretty good way to get in with the English people. But he took it a step further. He visited Normandy and got the blessing of Duke Richard II. This pseudo-treaty not only kept Normandy nearby as an ally rather than an enemy, but it also meant that Ethelred’s youngest sons, Edward and Alfred, would be discouraged from coming back to England to seek vengeance on what was rightfully theirs. Pretty dope, CNUT!

In that same year the traitor Eadric died. Something interesting Lawson says about Eadric: as an earl, he very well could have benefitted from raising tribute to pay the invading Danish armies. His nickname in some of the remaining documents was “Acquisitor,” which would lead us to believe that when the people he ruled over couldn’t afford the tax put into effect to pay the tribute, they would have to hand their land over to Eadric, who would then pay their part of the tax. This would have made Eadric a very rich man. It could also be another pass for poor old Ethelred. Imagine having a very important political presence being so in favor of paying off the Danes. Fighting them would not put money in his pocket, so he would have been in favor of the tribute every time.

In 1018, we see the Danes collect a huge payment of tribute from the English, especially the citizens of London. Then, just two years after securing a shaky throne, CNUT leaves! He heads back to Denmark with half of his army. This is an interesting move. First, it shows how unconcerned he was about someone trying to rise up against him while he was gone. He must have either trusted his Scandinavian contemporaries or had not seen a competitor in any of the remaining Anglo-Saxon nobles. Secondly, it is a reminder that his was no ordinary Viking. CNUT was a formidable military mind who now was king of two powerful countries. There were rumors of his brother Harald making trouble back in Denmark. Whatever it was, CNUT must have fixed it because he returned to England the next year. This too is telling. Why did CNUT choose England over Denmark as his residence? I think an obvious answer is that England had taxations and a coinage system whereas Denmark did not. C.R.E.A.M. Am I right? But, as we will see, CNUT used his position as King of England to make a splash on the international stage.

Pretty tight cliffhanger, huh? Tune in next time to see what happens to the new international sensation and Christian KING CNUT!!