Tuesday, 22 January 2019

1066 - The Mercian Angle

In 1066, when Edward the Confessor died, Harold Godwineson was declared king. Yet he felt the need to ride north to secure the pledges of the northern nobles, and thought it prudent to forsake his long-term partner and marry the sister of two powerful northern earls. Why?

Let’s go back a bit...

In my last blog post I explored the history of Mercia. Readers of To Be A Queen will recall that in Æthelflæd’s day, Mercia was still a kingdom in its own right, albeit one which was fast running out of kings. Forty years later, the setting for Alvar the Kingmaker, Mercia had become a powerful ealdordom (later known as earldoms.)

And there was a new problem: the Danelaw.

However much Æthelflæd, her father, husband, and brother fought against them, inevitably some of the Danes who came over in their dragon boats stayed, and settled in the north and east. In the 10th century, King Edgar was careful to preserve the rights and traditions of the Danelaw, as well as the erstwhile independence of Mercia.

Edgar’s dealings with the Danelaw can be found in the law code known as IV Edgar, or the Wihtbordesstan Code. It has often been said that Edgar was creating something new with this code, but technically speaking this is a letter to the Danes, showing Edgar eager to respect an autonomy which was already a fact.

It is probable that Edgar became king of England in 959 with the help of a powerful group of magnates who wanted a king who would not encroach on the customary law. Edgar stresses five times that he has every intention of respecting the Danelaw. It is possible that although IV Edgar is a recognition of established fact, Edgar himself created the Danelaw, as there are no earlier references to it. In all probability these privileges were granted by Edgar in 957, in gratitude for the support given him in the north against his brother Eadwig.

King Edgar 

Although Edgar’s reign was notable for being free of invasion (his epithet was ‘The Peaceable’,) it was a time of great change. As well as this identification and recognition of the Danelaw, there began a shift in the power and influence of the nobility. As ealdormen died, their lands were given to neighbouring nobles - Ælfhere (Alvar in the book), already ealdorman of southern Mercia, gained the northern portion when the ealdorman of Chester died - until the earldoms were as big as the old kingdoms. By the time of Edgar IV, there were three principal noblemen, and in the law code he demands that:

'Earl Oslac (Northumbria) and all the host that dwell in his ealdormanry are to give their support that this may be enforced' and that 'Many documents are to be written concerning this, and sent both to ealdorman  Ælfhere (Mercia) and ealdorman  Æthelwine, (East Anglia) and that they are to send them in all directions, that this measure may be known to both the poor and the rich.' [IV Edgar 15. & 15.1]

Royal control was difficult to establish in areas with separatist feeling, and Mercia was another of these areas. Edgar was respectful of these regional differences, as his charters show - a land charter of 969 carefully states the ‘boundary of the Mercians’ - but his successors were not.

Edgar was succeeded by his famously ‘unready' son, Æthelred - who infamously ordered many Danes massacred on St Brice’s day, 1002 - and so there followed a period of Danish rule, most notably by King Cnut. Long-held separatist and nationalist sentiments remained, and now, as Barlow put it,

'The Danish rulers having no attachment to any of the kingdoms, widened the concept of England. Cnut’s plan of reserving no English province for his direct rule and his grant of Wessex to the ‘upstart’ Godwine had weakened the position of any successor who had not his ‘quasi-imperial’ power.'

Æthelred the 'Unready'

How did this situation contribute to the problems faced by Edward the Confessor in his final years?

The three leading earls were Leofric of Mercia, Siward of Northumbria, and Godwine. Of those three, only Leofric came from an old ruling family; he was the son of Leofwine, ealdorman of the Hwicce - whom readers of my novels will know to be one of the core Mercian tribes, originally with their own kings; their centre was Deerhurst and the church there was very important to the Mercians - and he gave, according to Barlow, 'loyal and disinterested service.' (Disinterested here in its original meaning, that of being impartial.)  Siward, meanwhile, with lands bordering Scotland, probably looked more north than south.

The rise of the House of  Godwine was phenomenal. Moving from thegn to king in three generations, it proved the theory of upward social mobility which, in fact, most people found impossible to attain, and which might have been denied in this case also had it not been for the reign of Cnut.


I have some university notes in which I quote one of my lecturers: '1066 lasted a whole year.' I followed it with an exclamation mark, but I know what was intended by this seemingly obvious remark. 1066 was not just a battle near Hastings; events took a turn for the dramatic in January when Edward the Confessor died, and culminated with William’s coronation on Christmas Day.  But there were more people involved than just Harold and Edward, and the turmoil had really begun as far back as 1051.

Eustace of Boulogne arrived at Dover to visit his former brother-in-law (Edward) and Godwine was at the wedding feast of his son Tostig and Judith. There was a violent brawl involving the people of Dover and the visitors from Boulogne. Godwine was ordered to punish the people of Dover and he refused. The result of this stand-off was the exile of Godwine and his family, and Leofric of Mercia’s reward for supporting the king was that his son, Ælfgar, was granted Harold Godwineson’s earldom of East Anglia.

However the northern earls thought Edward went too far by subsequently giving preference to foreigners, thereby tightening his links with Normandy. Thus, in 1052, when Godwine came back, Leofric and Siward remained neutral. London declared for Godwine. His terms were not extortionate and so the neutrality of the northern earls seemed justified, and would explain why Ælfgar, according to Barlow,  ‘quietly surrendered’ the East Anglian earldom back to Harold.

But Godwine’s death in 1053 shifted the balance of power and the Mercian house became stronger. Harold succeeded his father in Wessex, but this meant that Ælfgar got East Anglia back. The Mercian family was now spread right across the midlands.

Death of Earl Siward - Smetham
Then in 1055 Siward of Northumbria died, and his son, Waltheof, being too young to govern, was bypassed for Tostig Godwineson. As Richard Fletcher put it, 'There was no love lost between the house of Leofric and the house of Godwine' and Tostig’s was a surprise appointment; it was the first time a southerner had held the post and he was, in Fletcher’s words, 'A complete stranger.' Now, Mercia was in the middle of a Godwineson sandwich, with Harold below and Tostig above. They needed to look in a different direction for allies. Ælfgar looked westward, allied with Gruffudd of Wales, and was briefly banished before being reinstated.

Two years later, In 1057, Leofric died. Ælfgar succeeded him in Mercia and Harold’s brother Gyrth took the now vacant East Anglia. But although the 'trouble-maker' Ælfgar had control of his father's earldom, the Godwine family was in Wessex, East Anglia and Northumbria. Mercia was isolated.

Hardly surprising then that in 1057, Ælfgar’s daughter, Ealdgyth, was married to Gruffudd. In 1058 Ælfgar was outlawed again for ‘obscure reasons’ and came back with the support of Gruffudd. Kari Maund suggested that the alliance must have begun before 1055 and that’s why he was ousted. Perhaps Ælfgar had not so ‘quietly’ surrendered in 1052 after all. 

In around 1062/3 Ælfgar disappears from the record. He was succeeded by his son, Edwin, who was a second son and seemingly still only a young man. It would seem that Harold took advantage of this and engineered the death of Gruffudd.

By October 1065, the Northumbrians had had enough of Tostig and his southern ways and attempts to impose high taxes, - the Chronicle of John of Worcester adds a story of murder and implicates Tostig's sister, Queen Edith - and they rebelled, electing Edwin of Mercia’s brother, Morcar, in his place. After the Northumbrian rebellion Morcar was very quick to get there, as if he’d been ready and waiting. As Fletcher put it: 'Here at last was a chance to hit out at the hated sons of Godwine.'

The joint northern, Mercian and Welsh forces marched south. Whilst Harold attempted to mediate, Edward demanded war. Harold would not fight the rebels to restore Tostig. Edward submitted, Tostig was outlawed, and Edward seems to have gone into a decline, from which he never recovered. Tostig never forgave Harold.

This, then, was the internal situation in 1066: a build-up of resentment between noble houses, and a brother with a grudge. Harold had worries long before William landed...

While the rest of the events of 1066 are well-established, this internal conflict is a scenario with which I played for my story in 1066 Turned Upside Down

The Mercians and their role in the eleventh century, and that of the inhabitants of the Danelaw, are explored in depth in my book Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, by Amberley.

Further reading:
King Edgar and the Danelaw - Niels Lund, Med. Scand. 9
Anglo-Saxon England - FM Stenton
The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216 - Frank Barlow
The Welsh Kings - Kari Maund
Bloodfeud - Richard Fletcher
The Fall of Saxon England - Richard Humble
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles - Ed. N Garmonsway

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

The Decline of Mercia - Kings No More

It's the time of year for anniversaries - William the Conqueror crowned on Christmas Day, 1066, Edward the Confessor's death on Jan 5 1066. For our collaborative project, 1066 Turned Upside Down, I re-imagined the events leading up to the battle of Fulford, in 1066, I pondered the fate of the northern earls who fought there.  My interest in this episode? Apart from an opportunity to join some wonderful authors on an intriguing project, it was that these earls were led by two brothers from Mercia. My next post will look at their careers in more detail, so first, a little potted history:

A once-powerful realm, Mercia produced such kings as Penda, who was overlord of the English kingdoms until defeated in 655, Offa, who built his famous dyke, as well as providing such memorable characters as Lady Godiva, and Eadric Streona, recently voted the most evil man in English history.

Between around 600 and 900 AD, Mercia enjoyed what historians have called a ‘Golden Age’. This began with the emergence of Penda, a pagan vilified by history, but who, Bede conceded, was tolerant of Christian preachers in Mercia. Penda, in alliance with the Welsh, slew Kings Edwin and Oswald of Northumbria, and held the ascendancy over the main English kingdoms until he was killed by Oswii at the Battle of Winwaed in 655. The Golden Age was perhaps typified by the reign of Æthelbald (716-57) who in a charter of 736 was styled 'King of Mercia and of the Southern English.' His coinage was circulated in Mercia and Kent and was even found in Wessex. Even Bede, who rarely mentioned southern kings as overlords (Bretwaldas) acknowledged his power.

Power, of course, brings enemies, and Æthelbald was killed by his own war band. Civil war followed his murder, but in the ensuing power struggle, Offa (757-96) emerged victorious. Not only did he build his ‘dyke’, but he negotiated trade deals with the Continent,  and corresponded with the emperor Charlemagne. (There was also a teeny tiny bit of murder...)

A dynastic dispute that had begun with the death, childless, of Offa’s son Ecgfrith in 796, ended with the routing of King Burgred by the Vikings in 874/5 and the short-lived reign of his rival Ceolwulf II. History has not remembered Ceolwulf with fondness; he was described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a ‘foolish king’s thegn’. But Burgred was Alfred the Great’s brother-in-law. It is possible that Ceolwulf was the leader of a Mercian movement for independence against a king regarded as a puppet of Wessex. (Mercian independence, and separatist sentiment, was certainly to have significant impact on events in the next century.) Ceolwulf died, possibly at the hands of the Welsh, (he disappears from the records after the Battle of Conwy in 878) and it was left to Burgred’s kinswoman to fight off the Viking invaders.

Yes - a woman was now in charge. In the late 9th century, Wessex was not the ‘last kingdom’, fighting off the Viking hordes. Mercia was fighting back too, under the leadership of one Æthelred, and his redoubtable wife, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great.

But Æthelred wasn’t a member of a royal house; Mercia had run out of kings.

Fast forward forty years, and Mercia had been reduced to an - albeit powerful- ealdordom (earldom.)

Powerful because, however much Æthelflæd and her family fought against them, inevitably some of those invading Danes stayed, settling in the north and east. In the 10th century, King Edgar came to the throne of all England with the help of the Mercians, and those newly-settled Danes, and he was careful to preserve the rights and traditions of this, with the ‘Danelaw’, incorporating the rights and boundaries of once independent Mercia.

Although Edgar’s reign was notable for being free of invasion (his epithet was ‘The Peaceable’,) it was a time of great change. As well as this identification and recognition of the Danelaw, there began a shift in the power and influence of the nobility. As ealdormen (earls) died, their lands were given to neighbouring nobles until the earldoms were as big as the old kingdoms - Mercia, Northumbria, and East Anglia, while the king still essentially oversaw Wessex.

This situation changed again in the 11th century, for when Cnut (Canute) became king, he did not reserve Wessex for his direct rule, but granted it to the ‘upstart’ Godwin.

During the last years of Edward the Confessor’s reign, of the three leading earls, only Leofric came from an old ruling family; but his place in history tends to be overshadowed by the reputation of his wife, Lady Godiva, and the tales told about her. (Did she ride naked? I think not, but that’s a subject for a whole new article!)

Leofric's fortunes, and that of his son, Ælfgar, fluctuated in direct contrast to those of the Godwin family; they gained territory when the Godwins were out of favour/in exile, and lost that land when the Godwins were restored. Little wonder that they resorted to the ‘old’ alliance, looking westward as Penda had once done, and forging a connection by marriage with the Welsh.

Ælfgar married his daughter to the Welsh king, Gruffudd, but Harold Godwinson was responsible not only for the banishment - twice - of Ælfgar, but also for the death of Gruffudd, their brother-in-law. No wonder Ælfgar’s sons, Edwin and Morcar, were slow to acknowledge Harold’s supremacy upon the death of Edward the Confessor.

Early in 1066, Harold felt the need to ride north to persuade the northern earls to support his kingship, even taking Edwin and Morcar’s widowed sister for his bride. He was already at odds with his brother Tostig, who would betray him by standing against him at Stamford Bridge, but what about the Mercians, who blamed the Godwin family for their misfortune?

This, then, was where I began my retelling of this part of the year 1066

I won’t give away any spoilers regarding my story, but for the purposes of my Mercian ‘round-up’, well, an entry in Wikipedia on the English nobility has this to say about Edwin, Earl of Mercia:
“Succeeded by -
Role abolished.”

The Mercians rebelled against the Conqueror, but the uprising was quashed, brutally, in what came to be known as the Harrying (or Harrowing) of the North. And that was the end of Mercia.

Its name lives on, though, in the West Mercia Police, and the West Mercia Primary Healthcare Trust, and although it is now slowly dying out, the dialect of the ‘Black Country’, which is based on the old Mercian language and is widely regarded to be as close to Old English as it is now possible to get. I sense that Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, would be gently amused by that. She might even think it was bostin’ . *

[all images are in the public domain; photograph of Godiva statue copyright of the author]

*Dialect word for fine, good.


Friday, 21 December 2018

Anglo-Saxon Goings-On in 2018

As another year comes to a close, it seems a good time to look back on the last twelve months which, for me, have been spent researching deeply into the history of the Anglo-Saxons and more particularly the history of the Mercians.

I spend nearly all my time writing, be it novels, books, stories, or blog posts, but this year I emerged blinking and nervous into the outside world to talk - yes, out loud! - about my beloved Anglo-Saxons.

Many of my posts this year concerned trips to Anglo-Saxon locations. My first post of the year here on the blog detailed my visit to Repton, a research trip for the new book. There, I saw the Anglo-Saxon crypt and the remains of the archaeological dig which revealed so much about the Viking occupation of Repton in the 870s. (Read the post HERE)

and then I wrote about another trip, this time exploring the locations involved with the battle of Heavenfield, in Northumbria (Click HERE

Another location post, this time from the royal site of Yeavering (LINK) was followed by one showing one of the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon churches, at Escomb (LINK).

I went to Gloucestershire, where I found out a little more about Odda of Deerhurst (LINK) when I visited his chapel and on that same trip, I finally found Æthelflæd (LINK) and it was an emotional moment when I stood by the remains of the priory where she was buried alongside her husband.

Blog Articles
Gearing up to send my new book to the publisher, I posted an article about the 'evil' women of Mercia. Were they really evil though? Find out HERE

Meanwhile I mused about how we can hear and get to know characters from the past, as we reach across the centuries during research. Here's the LINK

This was followed by a post about Anglo-Saxon food - what they ate, and what they called it. Read the post HERE

I then posted an article detailing what we know about Anglo-Saxon childhood, (see the article HERE) and I mused on the recorded deaths of leading Anglo-Saxons and how they rarely seemed to die of their wounds (LINK) After that came a post about captive nuns, and how women weren't always necessarily safe. Read about these women HERE

Out and About
One of the undoubted highlights of my year was the invitation to speak at the Tamworth Literary Festival about how I fictionalised the life of the Lady of the Mercians. Not only did I have a lovely time talking about one of my favourite people and chatting to the folk who attended the talk, I also met the lady herself! Here's the transcript of my TALK

In October, I was invited by the Garstang Historical Society to talk about Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, and you can read the transcript of my talk HERE

I was honoured to be asked by Staffordshire Live about my opinion of the portrayal of Æthelflæd in the Netflix Series The Last Kingdom. You can read the interview HERE

Book News
For the 1100th anniversary of the death of the Lady of the Mercians, and to coincide with the commemorations, the wonderful Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics gave To Be A Queen a brand new cover:

I also now have a website dedicated to my books and stories, and you can find it here: anniewhiteheadauthor.co.uk

And of course, 2018 saw the publication by Amberley Books of my first full-length nonfiction book Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom  which I'm thrilled to say reached #1 in its category on Amazon and has remained in the top 20 and frequently in the top 10 ever since. It has also earned a Discovering Diamonds award and was short-listed for their Book of the Month. (Award review HERE)

The reviews have been very positive:
Tony Riches - The Writing Desk
History: The Interesting Bits 
Adventures in Historyland
Faith, Fiction, Friends
(which also recommended it as nonfiction book of the year! Here)
The book was also reviewed by History of War Magazine:

I'm also delighted to be able to say that I am currently hard at work on my new book for Pen & Sword Publications, focusing on the women of Anglo-Saxon England, which will be published in late 2019/early 2020.

Other Blog Appearances
Research Roadblocks: Historical Writers' Association
Research - Fiction Vs Nonfiction: Deborah Swift
King Cenwulf: History the Interesting Bits
Mercian Locations: Amberley Blog
Bringing Characters to Life: Women Writers

I'd like to thank everyone who reads my blog posts and wish you all a very Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.
Before I leave you, please do read an enjoy this short story. It's not historical, there's not an Anglo-Saxon in sight, but it was good fun to write! Song Behind the Story

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Interview with Staffordshire Live

I was delighted to be asked by Staffordshire Live what I thought of the portrayal of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, in the TV series, The Last Kingdom and, more to the point, what she would have thought!

Here's the link to the piece:


My thanks to Josh Layton who patiently listened while I rabbited on about my favourite subject and then turned my ramblings into such a wonderful article!

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Lordship in the Tenth Century

“No man can make himself king, but the people have the choice to select as king whom they please, but after he is consecrated as king, he then has dominion over the people and they cannot shake his yoke from their neck.”

So said Ælfric of Eynsham, (c.955-c.1010), and he tells us here of the absolute nature of kingship. The king is the lord of all the English, so if we are to discover the function of lordship, we should begin by examining the role of the king.

By the tenth century ideas about the spiritual role of kingship had developed along Carolingian lines. A well-documented example of this is Edgar’s coronation at Bath in 973. One school of thought is that Edgar delayed his coronation until he had reached the canonical age of thirty, but it is unlikely that he could have reigned successfully for so long (he succeeded his brother Eadwig in 959) without having been consecrated earlier in his reign, particularly in view of what Ælfric has to say about consecration. [1]

It is more probable that this coronation was based on the Frankish notion of ‘imperium’, stressing the king’s duty before God. Wulfstan, archbishop of York, expanded this idea in his Institutes of Polity. His view was that a Christian king should be a just shepherd to his Christian flock; he was to help the righteous and to afflict the evil-doers, especially thieves and robbers. His true function was to purify his people before God and the world. [2]

The mutual obligation between the king and his subjects is illustrated by an incident in Æthelred the Unready’s reign. With the death of Swein Forkbeard, Æthelred was asked to return from exile in Normandy by the Witan (council), who declared that “no lord was dearer to them than their rightful lord, if only he would govern his kingdom more justly than he had done in the past."[3] The king was king, but his subjects would not allow him to neglect his duty to them.

Yet neither would they neglect to exalt a praise-worthy monarch. Florence of Worcester* summed up the virtues of King Edgar thus:-
“In the winter and spring, he used to make progress through all the provinces of England and enquire diligently whether the laws of the land and his own ordinances were obeyed, so that the poor might not suffer wrong and be oppressed by the powerful…Thus his enemies on every side were filled with awe, and the love of those who owed him allegiance was secured.”
There were, of course, more personal relationships, not only between the king and his subjects, but between the lord and his man. The argument continues among historians as to whether pre-Conquest England was feudal; suffice to say that there was an English equivalent to the Frankish oath of vassalage, this being the Hold-Oath. The oath was essentially negative, a promise to do nothing to harm the lord. It included a gesture of bowing to the lord. The lord in his turn had certain obligations to his man.
“By the Lord, before whom this hallowed thing is holy, I will be steadfast and true to X, to love all he loves and shun all that he shuns, and never, by will or by thought or by deed do aught of what is loathsome to him, as long as he upholds me as I am willing to earn and fulfil all that our understanding was, when I bowed to him and took his will.” 

Naturally, the king could not rule without counsel. The witenagemot, or witan, was the royal council, and had the right, rather than the privilege, to advise the king. The king’s thegns owed their status and position to the king and were rewarded for their service (the word thegn originally meant servant.) It was usually the king’s thegns who were appointed as reeves, responsible for administration in the localities as a check on the powerful ealdormen.

The king with his Witan

The most usual form of reward was that of a land grant. Many charters confirming these land grants still exist, such as King Edgar’s grant of land at Kineton to his thegn Ælfwold in 969. These grants, known as bookland, were not the same as the fief of feudal Frankia. They were granted by the king in the form of a book (charter) for services rendered. Ælfwold was granted the land at Kineton for all his life and could leave it to whomever he chose. The estate was free from all service except “fixed military service and the restoration of bridges and fortresses.”

Many grants were made to the Church, who in turn leased out land in return for service. A good example of this comes from Oswald of Worcester, who lists the service required of the beneficiaries of the land. They should fulfil the law of riding as riding men should, they should pay dues to the Church, swear to be humbly subject to the bishop and lend horses, build bridges, and send hunting spears.

Initially these endowments were made to the Church from the king, and only he could turn folkland into bookland. It soon became, however, the most common way for a lord to reward his man.

A grant by Æthelred the Unready shows how far he was prepared to support his men. His thegn, Æthelwig, gave Christian burial to men killed fighting in defence of a thief. Rather than censure Æthelwig, as Ealdorman Leofsige advised, Æthelred granted his thegn the forfeited land of the brothers who had been killed. [3]

Not all thegns were king’s thegns; many of them had another lord to whom they owed their allegiance. When these thegns died, the heriot (war gear) was surrendered to their lord and not to the king.

Æthelred the 'Unready'

There was another aspect to lordship, an extension of the personal bond into the field of law. In the reign of Edward the Elder (899-924) a letter was written to the king explaining the history of an estate at Fonthill, Wiltshire. It describes how a thief, Helmstan, was required to give an oath to clear himself of the charges brought against him. He asked his lord Ordlaf to intercede for him, which Ordlaf did, even though his man was guilty. [4] This illustrates how a lord was bound to protect his man, whether innocent or guilty. Though the law codes might have forbidden the lord from doing this, often it was more beneficial for a man to appeal to his lord in this way than to appeal in the hundred courts.

By the middle of the tenth century it was becoming customary for lords, ecclesiastical or lay, to receive grants of jurisdiction from the king. Usually these grants were laid down in the charters as ‘sake and soke’. The term implied jurisdiction and control of a court. It was not granted lightly, and these delegated rights were intended to emphasise rather than undermine royal authority. While the landowner enjoyed immunity from public courts, the court over which he presided was not held for his men, but was attended by men drawn from the neighbourhood.

There was also a much more specific form of private jurisdiction. All lords, be they bishops, earls, thegns or abbots, were held responsible for the behaviour of their men. “Such a responsibility involved an exercise in judgement, which would easily be formalised into the giving of judgement.” (HR Loyn) Fortunately, the monarchy was strong enough to ensure that the worst abuses were avoided.

Along with sake and soke, other judicial rights were specified. ‘Toll’ gave the lord the right to take toll on goods sold within the estate, and ‘team’ gave the right to supervise the presentation of convincing evidence that goods for sale actually belonged to the person selling them. ‘Infangenetheof’ gave the lord the right to hang a thief if he had been caught on the estate with the stolen goods still in his possession. By the end of the period, large numbers of hundred courts were in private hands.

A charter of King Æthelred's to his 'faithful man'

Lords, of course, had always been involved with the public courts. Earls and bishops presided over the shire courts. It was here that arrangements were made for the collection of taxes. It was in the interests of landowners to be represented, as the king always was by his servant the shire-reeve. It was also important for lords to establish a presence at the hundred court, where much money could be lost and won. They were also commanded to give full support to the hundredsmen, whose job it was to supervise legal trading and to discourage cattle theft. King Edgar specifically ordered ealdormen Oslac, Ælfhere, and Æthelwine to give such support. “And they are to send them in all directions, that this measure may be known to both the poor and the rich.” [5]

Military duties were linked with the social function of lordship. From the time of King Ine (688-725) forfeiture of land and a heavy fine of 120 schillings was the penalty for a lord neglecting military service. After 899, as well as national obligations to fyrd service, and building bridges and fortifications, men were now to group themselves into tithings and hundreds to protect themselves. Ealdormen and thegns not only formed the select body of the king’s household retainers, but were, as landlords, responsible for the organisation, the summons and the assembling of the fighting forces. They were also involved in the financial and personal organisation which was essential to ensure that competent levies turned out to perform military duties on behalf of their estate. Lords, then, led their men and were responsible for them in times of peace and war and were at both times high up on the social scale, just beneath the king.

Although it was not necessarily a feudal society, a constant theme runs throughout tenth-century English society, that of mutual obligation. At the highest level, the king could demand loyalty and service from his subjects, but in return must rule them justly and protect them. The thegns, earls, and other landowners owed service to the king in judicial, military and personal capacities, for which they were rewarded. They in turn could expect loyalty and service from their men, but they were responsible for them and must protect them. Running though society in this way, the organised system which developed from the simple notion of personal loyalty was an integral part of all areas of central and local administration.

[1] DJV Fisher – The Anglo-Saxon Age Ch 12
[2] HR Loyn – The Governance of Anglo-Saxon England Ch4
[3] EHD – i 117
[4] EHD- i 102
[5] IV Edgar ‘Wihtbordesstan’ Code EHD i 41

* The authorship of the work of Florence is considered to owe more to a fellow monk, John of Worcester

Monday, 12 November 2018

How Cnut Established Himself as Full King in England

On November 12 1035, Cnut died. How had he, a foreigner, established himself as king of England, with full authority?

For a contemporary account of the reign of Æthelred II, it is natural to look to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In it, we find the closing years of the reign fraught with difficulties; those of fending off Danish raiders. It would be easy to agree with the Chronicler who, writing with hindsight, concludes that the slide towards Danish rule in England was inevitable. The payment of the Danegeld might at first sight seem like sheer folly, yet the policy appears in the short term to have worked.

Æthelred’s problem was that paying off one Viking force would not necessarily keep another one away from his shores. The Chronicler blames the military failure of the English on the cowardice of the military leaders. But while the squabble between Brihtric and Wulfnoth caused the loss of a hundred ships in 1009, we also know that Brihtnoth’s actions at the Battle of Maldon in 991 were those of courage and loyalty, that the army of 1009 left in 1010 without tribute, and that Æthelred was assured of the loyalty of Ulfcytel in East Anglia.

Æthelred II

If things were not as bad before 1009 as the Chronicler would have us believe, there is little doubt that the armies of Swein Forkbeard (Cnut's father) widened any existing cracks in the morale of the English. Within a year, Swein had established himself as full king. But with his death in 1014, the Witan (king's council) sent to Normandy for Æthelred, and accepted him back as their king “if he would govern them more justly than before.” In the same year, Æthelred’s ravaging of Lindsey drove Cnut’s forces away. With further hindsight than the Chronicler had to offer, and perhaps with less bias, it is probably fair to say that it was far from inevitable that Cnut would succeed Æthelred as king of the English. We must therefore look elsewhere to find the reasons for his ultimate success.

It is hard to find a source which places emphasis on the military prowess of Cnut; most in fact, praise his piety and generosity to the Church. He was driven back to Denmark in 1014, and his reputation as a warrior must have suffered as a result. So his success in England must be attributed to something other than military superiority. While it might be rash to say  that luck was on Cnut’s side, there is no doubt that circumstances helped him a great deal.


Before he left Denmark, Cnut was allowed by his brother King Harald to raise an army. He was fortunate to have the support of Eric of Hlathir, who had played a great part in the overthrow of Olaf Tryggvason, and who was to prove invaluable to Cnut in England. Before Cnut set sail, he was joined by Thorkell the Tall*. It is possible that Thorkell was seeking revenge for the death of his brother at the hands of the English, although it is possible, but not universally accepted among historians, that this revenge was sought earlier, and was in fact the reason for Thorkell’s invasion of England in 1009. Whatever his reason, Thorkell’s presence was a bonus for Cnut; he now had with him an accomplished warrior who knew England and the English.

The champion of English resistance was Æthelred’s son, Edmund Ironside. He had procured the support of the Danelaw by marrying the widow of Sigeferth, murdered by Eadric Streona (ealdorman of Mercia) probably at the behest of Æthelred. Cnut could not therefore be certain that the Danes in England would submit to him, and he landed in the south and began ravaging Wessex. Edmund and Eadric were raising forces, but they separated before they met the enemy. Eadric joined Cnut, and within four months Cnut was in firm control of Wessex, and had the resources of the Mercian ealdormanry at his command.

Edmund Ironside

Cnut was aided elsewhere in England by Edmund’s troubles. His army in the Danelaw dispersed after demanding that the London militia should join them. Having lost his opportunity here, Edmund joined forces with Uhtred of Bamburgh. Cnut was quick to seize the chance he had been given, and invaded the Danelaw, whence he proceeded towards Northumbria. Uhtred hurried back from the midlands and submitted to Cnut. Soon afterwards he was murdered, and Northumbria was left in the capable hands of Eric of Hlathir. Cnut was free now to turn his attention to the south east.

Edmund had joined his father in London, and when Æthelred died in 1016 the men of London chose Edmund as his successor. Within a few days of Æthelred’s death, however, a more representative assembly at Southampton swore fealty to Cnut in return for a promise of good government. Cnut was again helped by Eadric Streona’s amazing capacity to vacillate. He went over to Edmund’s side, and then took flight during the definitive Battle of Ashingdon. Cnut, as victor, came to terms with Edmund, and the result was a division of the kingdom. Edmund was given Wessex, and the rest of the country beyond the Thames Cnut took for himself. This was obviously a dangerous situation, in which conflict could easily flare up again. As Stenton pointed out, it imposed a divided allegiance on all those noblemen who held land in both Mercia and Wessex. [1] But circumstances once again favoured Cnut when, less than two months after the Battle of Ashingdon, Edmund Ironside died,** and the West Saxons accepted Cnut as their king.

King of all England now, Cnut was by no means secure in his position. Good fortune and opportunity had helped him thus far; now he had to rely on his judgement and ability. He eliminated any chance that Richard of Normandy might support the claims of Æthelred’s children by Emma, by marrying the lady himself. For military rather than administrative reasons he divided the kingdom into four: Wessex he controlled himself, Eadric Streona was appointed to Mercia, East Anglia went to Thorkell, and Eric of Hlathir remained in Northumbria. In the same year, 1017, the atheling Eadwig was exiled and subsequently murdered. The Anglo-Saxon aristocracy also lost at least four of its prominent members, among them Eadric Streona. ('Streona' means 'The Grasper' or the 'Acquisitive' and the name first appeared in Hemming's Cartulary, an 11th-century manuscript, pictured below.)

Cnut set out to win the respect of the English church, and in this he was successful, being fully prepared to accept the traditional responsibility of being an agent of God with the duty to protect his people. He claimed to be occupying a throne to which he had been chosen at Gainsborough in 1014, and at Southampton in 1016. Though in reality much was changed during his reign, Cnut sought to establish himself by emphasising the importance of continuity. There was not such a large scale change in land ownership as was to occur in 1066, nor was there a great change in the personnel within the leadership of the Church. Archbishop Wulfstan drew up Cnut’s lawcodes drawing on those he’d written for Aethelred. The lawcodes themselves stressed continuity; very little in them was new.

Cnut (Top Centre)
Before the end of 1017, with Eadric Streona dead, and the alliance with Normandy secured, Cnut dismissed his fleet, retaining only forty ships. Its dismissal showed that henceforth he intended to rule as the chosen king of the English. At a council at Oxford it was agreed that the laws of Edgar (Aethelred's father, whose reign of 959 to 975 was already beginning to be looked upon as a golden age) should be observed.

In 1018 the military rule was relaxed. Two earldoms were re-established in Wessex, and in Mercia the earldoms of Herefordshire and Worcestershire were re-established. Stenton says that it was then that Cnut's reign began in earnest. [2] But throughout his reign the presence of the huscarls (housecarls) and the distribution of the heregeld (military tax) to them made it difficult for the English to forget that they were being ruled by a conquering alien king. There is no doubt though that by this point Cnut had established himself, for afterwards he felt sufficiently secure to leave the country in four separate expeditions to the north.

Cnut had invaded a vulnerable country in 1015, a country which was war-torn and weary. There were no clear dividing lines of loyalty; Edmund's army included Danes, Cnut’s included Englishmen. There can be no doubt that Cnut benefited considerably from the untrustworthiness of Eadric Streona, and from the dispersal of Edmund’s army in the Danelaw. For Cnut, the death of Edmund Ironside was nothing short of a blessing. Thereafter, his success rested on the fact that he did not conspicuously behave as a conqueror, stressing the importance of continuity, and keeping to the path that the pious King Edgar had trodden.

King Edgar

This emphasis must have taken attention away from the changes his reign brought about. Keeping his military forces for less than a year Cnut reduced feeling among the English that they were a conquered people. Cnut made good use of his opportunities. By 1018 he had successfully established himself as full king of the English.

[1] Anglo-Saxon England - FM Stenton p387
[2] Op cit p 393

*Some historians, Campbell among them, argue that Thorkell did not join Cnut until 1016/17
** For more on the death of Edmund Ironside, click 

The career of Eadric Streona is explored in my latest release, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, published by Amberley

Further reading/Bibliography:
The Anglo-Saxon Age - DJV Fisher
The Laws of Cnut & The History of Anglo-Saxon Royal Promises - P Stafford in Anglo-Saxon England 10
Encomium Emmae Reginae - Ed Campbell
The Chronicle of Thietmar of Merseberg EHD Vol I
The Sermon of the wolf to the English EHD Vol I
King Edgar and the Danelaw - Niels Lund, Med Scand 9
The Diplomas of Aethelred the Unready - Simon Keynes
Wulfstan and the Laws of Cnut - D Whitelock EHR 63

(all the above images are in the public domain)