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!