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)
(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!!