Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Danish Conquest, Part 13: The Battle of Assandun

On this day 1000 years ago, Cnut defeated Edmund Ironside at the Battle of Assandun, the final battle in his conquest of England. This blog has been following the course of the Danish Conquest for the past three years, beginning with Svein Forkbeard's invasion of England in the summer of 1013; it's been a lengthy and complicated story of shifting allegiances, invasions, resistance, multiple battles, and extended periods of doubt and uncertainty. It must have felt like a very long three years had passed by the time the two armies met in Essex on 18 October 1016.

(Rather than going back and reading all previous posts in this series, you can get caught up on the whole story with my new ebook, A Short History of the Danish Conquest, just published by Rounded Globe!)

Last Friday saw the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, which attracted a great deal of attention here in the UK - much more than any other anniversary from Anglo-Saxon history would ever receive. That reflects, of course, the important part played by the Norman Conquest (and just as importantly, the myths associated with it) in English and British history, as well as the fact that it's one of the few historical dates 'everybody knows', or used to. This anniversary also comes at a time when the relationship of Britain to the rest of Europe is under particular scrutiny, so the historical analogies have been flying around, from Bayeux Tapestry-inspired political cartoons to official prayers offering thinly-disguised parallels between 1066 and the current political situation (something about an 'island nation poised between Europe and Scandinavia' - don't ask). Future historians will be able to look back on the 2016 commemorations of 1066 and explore what they reveal about our present moment, just as we look back on those of 1966.

It's not surprising that the 1000th anniversary of Cnut's conquest has received so much less attention, given the general lack of information, and widespread misinformation, about Anglo-Saxon England, even among people who are otherwise quite educated about history. The inaccurate but still popular belief that 1066 marks 'the beginning of English history' (and the end of the Dark Ages) consigns everything before that date to misty obscurity, and it's difficult to convince people that an event like Cnut's conquest might actually be an interesting or important part of this country's history. Particularly unfortunate is a persistent refusal to acknowledge that pre-Conquest England was as complex as any other period of history: the myth of rugged, plain-spoken, 'simple Saxons' persists, both among those who romance about the brave-but-doomed heroes of Hastings and among those who prefer to celebrate the Normans for bringing sophistication and European civilisation to a nation of half-savage peasants. It's sadly difficult to persuade people on either side that Anglo-Saxon England might not actually be simple at all, but worthy of considered thought and attention in its own right - not just as a kind of prologue to 'real history' or a quarry for facile Brexit parallels.

(As for 'plain-spoken' - a few minutes with any piece of Old English poetry ought to dispel that myth!)

Few things illustrate that complexity better than the long story of Cnut's conquest. There are no heroes and villains here, no easy tales of winners and losers. This is a period of Anglo-Saxon history for which we have rich and sophisticated written sources; for the Battle of Assandun, those sources include a long chronicle in English, a Latin history whose author parades his classical learning and his familiarity with Roman historians - oh, and one of the most intricate forms of poetry ever devised by the human imagination (skaldic verse). So let's have a look at what these sources have to say about Assandun, the battle fought on 18 October 1016.

Cnut and Edmund Ironside (CUL MS. Ee 3 59, f. 5)

We can pick up the story where we left off in the last installment. Edmund Ironside, having fought with the Danes in Kent and accepted his treacherous former ally Eadric Streona back into his counsel ('never was there a more unwise decision than that was', the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle comments), now pursued the Danish army into Essex. And then:

Se here gewende eft up on Eastseaxan, 7 ferde into Myrcan, 7 fordyde eall þæt he oferferde. Ða se cyning geahsade þæt se here upp wæs, þa gesamnade he fiftan siðe ealle Engla þeode 7 ferde him æthindan, 7 offerde hi innon Eastseaxan æt þære dune þe man hæt Assandun, 7 þær togædere heardlice fengon. Þa dyde Eadric ealdorman swa swa he ær ofter dyde, astealde þæne fleam ærast mid Magesætan, 7 swa aswac his kynehlaforde 7 ealle þeodæ Angelcynnes. Ðær ahte Cnut sige, 7 gefeaht him wið ealle Engla þeode. Þa wearð þær ofslægen Eadnoð biscop, 7 Wulfsie abbod, 7 ælfric ealdorman, 7 Godwine ealdorman, 7 Ulfkytel of Eastenglan, 7 Æþelward Ælfwines sunu ealdormannes, 7 eall seo duguð of Angelcynnes þeode.

[The [Danish] raiding-army turned back up into Essex, and went towards Mercia, and destroyed all that they overtook. Then when the king [Edmund] heard that the army was inland, he gathered all the English nation for the fifth time and travelled behind them, and overtook them in Essex at the hill which is called Assandun, and there they fought a hard battle together. Then Eadric the ealdorman did as he had so often done before, and first began the flight with the Magonsæte, and so betrayed his king and lord and all the English nation. There Cnut had the victory, and won for himself the whole nation of the English. There Bishop Eadnoth was killed, and Abbot Wulfsige, and Ealdorman Ælfric, and Ealdorman Godwine, and Ulfcytel of East Anglia, and Æthelweard, the son of Ealdorman Æ[thel]wine, and all the best of the English nation.]

We don't know exactly where the battle took place: 'Assandun' is the Old English form of the place-name, which today is most likely to be either Ashdon, in north-west Essex, or Ashingdon, in the south-east of the county. (This uncertainty makes the fevered debate about moving the supposed site of the Battle of Hastings a mile this way or that seem quite trivial!). Ashingdon was the favoured candidate for a long time, but I personally incline towards Ashdon, so I'll use the Old English form Assandun for convenience's sake.

The chronicler, whose sympathy is with Edmund Ironside and what he considers to be the 'English' side, here insistently uses variations on the phrase 'all the English nation' (ealle Engla þeode); but we have to remember that not all among the English were fighting for Edmund in 1016. There must also have been Englishmen fighting for the Danes by this point in the war - and not only the treacherous Eadric Streona. There's a strong chance, for instance, that by a remarkable historical irony the father of the king who would lead the English at Hastings, fifty years later, was fighting for the invaders in this battle. Godwine (not the one named in the extract), father of Harold Godwineson, had perhaps already gone over to the Danes; he would soon marry a Danish noblewoman and be richly rewarded for his service to Cnut. Godwine gave his eldest sons the distinctly Danish names Svein and Harold (the names of Cnut's father and grandfather, and of Cnut's own two oldest sons) - and fifty years after Assandun, almost to the day, that Harold was killed at Hastings.

We don't know the names of any on the Danish side killed at the battle of Assandun, but the Chronicle lists some prominent men killed among the English. Ulfcytel was Ealdorman of East Anglia, and for a decade or more he had been more successful in his battles against the Danes than most English leaders. He had made a big impression on his Danish opponents: he appears in Scandinavian sources under the name Ulfkell Snillingr, 'Ulfkell the Bold', and in 1004, after he led his men into battle at Thetford against a Danish army, it was apparently said that 'the Danes admitted they had never met with harder battle in England than Ulfcytel had given them'. He died in battle on his own ground, in Essex; the ealdormen of Hampshire and Lindsey were likewise killed, along with the son of a noble East Anglian family (Ealdorman Æthelwine).

The dead also included two leading churchmen, Wulfsige, Abbot of Ramsey, and Eadnoth, Bishop of Dorchester. They may have been fighting, or they may have been with the group of monks from Ely and elsewhere who took relics to the battle to pray for the army. The Liber Eliensis says that Bishop Eadnoth was killed while he was singing mass at the battlefield; 'first his right hand was cut off for the sake of a ring, then his whole body was cut to pieces'. His body was buried at Ely, where he was considered to be a martyr. Four years earlier, Eadnoth had been responsible for retrieving the body of St Ælfheah, Archbishop of Canterbury, after he was killed by the Danes, which makes Eadnoth's own fate particularly poignant.

Eadnoth's remains still lie at Ely, alongside those of another famous casualty of the Danes: Byrhtnoth, the ealdorman of Essex killed in battle at Maldon in 991, and hero of the Old English poem of that name. Byrhtnoth died in what is sometimes considered the first battle of the Danish Conquest, Eadnoth in the last, and at Ely they are together (alongside Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, but we'll get to him in a moment).

Memorial to Eadnoth, Byrhtnoth, Wulfstan and others (Ely Cathedral)

At Assandun eall seo duguð of Angelcynnes þeode, 'all the best of the English nation' were slain, according to the chronicler. This is rather poetic language: duguð has an interesting range of meaning, and might be best translated with a poetic phrase like the 'flower of English manhood'. The word is powerfully associated with loss and grief in two famous Old English poems, The Wanderer and The Seafarer (lines 80-90):

Dagas sind gewitene,
ealle onmedlan eorþan rices;
næron nu cyningas ne caseras
ne goldgiefan swylce iu wæron,
þonne hi mæst mid him mærþa gefremedon
ond on dryhtlicestum dome lifdon.
Gedroren is þeos duguð eal, dreamas sind gewitene,
wuniað þa wacran ond þas woruld healdaþ,
brucað þurh bisgo. Blæd is gehnæged,
eorþan indryhto ealdað ond searað,
swa nu monna gehwylc geond middangeard.

The days are departed,
all the glories of the kingdom of the earth;
there are now no kings nor caesars
nor gold-givers such as there once were,
when they performed among themselves so many magnificent deeds,
and lived in most lordly majesty.
Fallen is all that duguð, joys are departed,
weaker ones now live and possess the world,
gain use of it by their labour. The blossom is bowed down,
the nobility of earth ages and grows sere,
as now does every man across the world.

The language of these last few lines is autumnal: blæd (which I've translated here as 'blossom') means glory or fame but also blossom, flower and fruit, and all things which grow and flourish. In this world the flowers of spring and of youth inevitably fall, and the earth grows sere (searað), like autumn leaves 'in the sere and yellow' of the year. In the October of 1016, such language might have seemed very apt.

A possible site of Assandun (near Ashdon, Essex)

If the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is tinged with the poetic language of loss, Cnut's Scandinavian poets commemorated the Battle of Assandun in very different terms. His victory is extolled in an Old Norse poem composed by the Icelandic poet Óttarr svarti, probably late in the 1020s. This poem praises Cnut's greatest triumphs, including the victory at Assandun:

Skjöldungr, vannt und skildi
skœru verk, inn sterki,
(fekk blóðtrani bráðir
brúnar) Assatúnum.

Strong Skjöldungr, you performed a feat of battle under the shield; the blood-crane [raven/eagle] received dark morsels at [Assandun].

Óttarr svarti, Knútsdrápa, ed. and trans. Matthew Townend, in Diana Whaley, ed., Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 1, Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages I (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), Part 2, p.779.

Cnut is called 'Skjöldungr' in reference to his supposed ancestors, the legendary Skjöldung dynasty of kings, who appear in Old English literature as the Scyldings of Beowulf. It's an epithet which reaches back into the mists of history and legend, to endow Cnut with the greatness of his royal Danish lineage to make a political point. (Compare, perhaps, the modern fondness for calling the English army at Hastings 'Saxons', despite the fact that - as you can see in the extract from the Chronicle above - by this date they were more likely to call themselves 'English'.)

The power of historical parallels, and especially of recognisable images, was just as evident in 1016 as it is to today's cartoonists. The Encomium Emmae Reginae, a history of Cnut's conquest commissioned by his wife Emma, claims that the Danish army carried an especially meaningful banner into battle at Assandun:

Now they had a banner of wonderfully strange nature, which though I believe that it may be incredible to the reader, yet since it is true, I will introduce the matter into my true history. For while it was woven of the plainest and whitest silk, and the representation of no figure was inserted into it, in time of war a raven was always seen as if embroidered on it, in the hour of its owners' victory opening its beak, flapping its wings, and restive on its feet, but very subdued and drooping with its whole body when they were defeated. Looking out for this, Thorkell, who had fought the first battle, said: "Let us fight manfully, comrades, for no danger threatens us: for to this the restive raven of the prophetic banner bears witness." When the Danes heard this, they were rendered bolder, and clad with suits of mail, encountered the enemy in the place called Aesceneduno, a word which we Latinists can explain as 'mons fraxinorum'.

This magical raven banner, which prophetically displays whether the bearer will be victorious, is very like one said by legend to be have been carried into battle by Ivar and Ubbe, sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, Danish conquerors who had ruled in the north of England in the ninth century. Their raven banner was, one medieval English source claims, 'woven by the three daughters of Lothbrok in the space of one noon-tide'. Ivar and Ubbe were not direct ancestors of Cnut, but they were the most successful Danish invaders of England before his time. In Norse sources, there's a suggestion that after death Ivar's mighty spirit guarded the coast of England from later invaders, who could only win the land by conquering the dead king as well as the living ones.

In the eleventh century, 150 years after their heyday, it was still a powerful thing for Cnut's poets to compare him to 'Ivar, who ruled in York' - a reminder that the Danes had ruled in England before, and were now ready to do so again. We can't know whether Cnut's army really did carry a raven banner at Assandun, or only said they did, but the link this story suggests between Cnut and the sons of Ragnar might indeed have 'rendered the Danes bolder' and daunted the English.

The raven banner in the Encomium (BL Add. MS 33241, f.37v)

The Encomium goes on:

And there, before battle was joined, Eadric, whom we have mentioned as Eadmund's chief supporter, addressed these remarks to his comrades: "Let us flee, oh comrades, and snatch our lives from imminent death, or else we will fall forthwith, for I know the hardihood of the Danes." And concealing the banner which he bore in his right hand, he turned his back on the enemy, and caused the withdrawal of a large part of the soldiers from the battle. And according to some, it was afterwards evident that he did this not out of fear but in guile; and what many assert is that he had promised this secretly to the Danes in return for some favour.

Then Eadmund, observing what had occurred, and hard pressed on every side, said: "Oh Englishmen, today you will fight or surrender yourselves all together. Therefore, fight for your liberty and your country, men of understanding; truly, those who are in flight, inasmuch as they are afraid, if they were not withdrawing, would be a hindrance to the army." And as he said these things, he advanced into the midst of the enemy, cutting down the Danes on all sides, and by this example rendering his noble followers more inclined to fight. Therefore a very severe infantry battle was joined, since the Danes, although the less numerous side, did not contemplate withdrawal, and chose death rather than the danger attending flight. And so they resisted manfully, and protracted the battle, which had been begun in the ninth hour of the day, until the evening, submitting themselves, though ill-content to do so, to the strokes of swords, and pressing upon the foe with a better will with the points of their own swords.

Armed men fell on both sides, but more on the side which had superiority in numbers. But when evening was falling and night-time was at hand, longing for victory overcame the inconveniences of darkness, for since a graver consideration was pressing, they did not shrink from the darkness, and disdained to give way before the night, only burning to overcome the foe. And if the shining moon had not shown which was the enemy, every man would have cut down his comrade, thinking he was an adversary resisting him, and no man would have survived on either side, unless he had been saved by flight. Meanwhile the English began to be weary, and gradually to contemplate flight, as they observed the Danes to be of one mind either to conquer, or to perish all together to a man. For then they seemed to them more numerous, and to be the stronger in so protracted a struggle. For they deemed them stronger by a well-founded suspicion, because, being made mindful of their position by the goading of weapons, and distressed by the fall of their comrades, they seemed to rage rather than fight. Accordingly the English, turning their backs, fled without delay on all sides, ever falling before their foes, and added glory to the honour of Knutr and to his victory, while Eadmund, the fugitive prince, was disgraced.

Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. and trans. Alistair Campbell (London: Royal Historical Society, 1949), pp.25, 27 (paragraph breaks added).

It's interesting that the author, though obviously on the Danish side, gives Edmund Ironside a heroic speech, pro libertate et patria: 'O Englishmen, fight for your liberty and your country!' For the Danes, it's Thorkell the Tall, Cnut's chief supporter/rival, who is the most prominent figure here: to Thorkell falls the key role of encouraging the troops and interpreting the omens of victory. Considering this is supposed to be Cnut's triumph, he's strangely absent from every detail of the battle. But triumph it was, and the Danes won the day.

Initial from the Encomium (BL Add. MS 33241, f. 8r)

Like William the Conqueror at Battle, Cnut later founded a church on the site of his victory. In 1020, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us:

on þisan geare for se cyng 7 Þurkyl eorl to Assandune, 7 Wulfstan arcebiscop, 7 oðre biscopas, 7 eac abbodas 7 manege munecas, 7 gehalgodan þæt mynster æt Assandune.

[In this year the king and Earl Thorkell went to Assandun, with Archbishop Wulfstan and other bishops, and also abbots and many monks, and consecrated the church at Assandun.]

If we believe the Encomium, Thorkell had been the hero at Assandun in 1016; by 1020 Cnut had made him Earl of East Anglia, so the site of the battle, wherever it was, lay in his earldom. In 1016, Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, was the leading churchman in England (since it took some time to appoint a successor to the martyred St Ælfheah as archbishop of Canterbury). Wulfstan had been outspoken in his preaching against the Danes, and in 1016 he must have been wondering whether if Cnut and Thorkell triumphed he would share Ælfheah's terrible fate. But by 1020 he had become the king's chief English adviser, writer of Cnut's laws and public pronouncements, and now preaching reconciliation and peace. It's been suggested that one of his surviving sermons, 'On the Dedication of a Church', may have been preached at the dedication of the church at Assandun. Wulfstan died in 1023 and now lies at Ely, in the same monument as Bishop Eadnoth.

Other people likely to have been present at the dedication of the church, among the crowd mentioned in the Chronicle, include Cnut's queen Emma (patron of the Encomium), Earl Godwine (perhaps with his new Danish wife, Gytha), Æthelnoth (soon to be made Archbishop of Canterbury), the Norwegian earl Eiríkr (newly appointed earl of Northumbria) and more. The church was entrusted to Stigand, a priest probably of Anglo-Danish heritage - the first appointment of the man who would rise to be Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the Norman Conquest. With hindsight, there are many tantalising connections and ironies to be drawn out from this disparate collection of people - English, Danish, Norwegian and Norman - who between them would shape England's fate throughout the eleventh century. No one could have foreseen on that day in 1020 that fifty years later the young priest Stigand would be Archbishop of Canterbury, crowning Godwine's son King of England.

Stigand and Harold Godwineson

The date of Assandun was also commemorated when Cnut endowed a new church at Bury St Edmunds, which was consecrated on 18 October 1032. Cnut's commemoration of Assandun through church patronage is often described as an 'act of penance', but it's rather more complicated than that. A great public ceremony like the one described in the Chronicle, attended by the leading figures of the kingdom, preserves the memory of a victory; even if the king expresses regret for the lives lost, he is asserting the importance of his conquest and ensuring that posterity will remember it, and there's nothing humble or penitent about that. Several people have commented in the last few days on the difficult question of whether we have been 'commemorating' or 'celebrating' the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, and you might ask the same question of Cnut and his followers at Assandun. It's hard to believe that the court which preserved the triumphal stories about Assandun recorded in the Encomium did not think the battle more a matter for celebration than penance - and the church a memorial to a great victory.

One possible candidate for Cnut's minster (Hadstock, Essex)

'There Cnut had the victory, and won for himself the whole nation of the English', says the Chronicle. But Assandun is not quite the end. Edmund Ironside did not die on the battlefield, and in fact there's one really excellent part of the story still to come (it involves a duel - which never actually happened - between Cnut and Edmund). Even the last stages of this fascinating story are not straightforward or simple...

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Danish Conquest, Part 12: Otford

Harold Godwineson takes the English crown (CUL MS Ee.3.59, f.30v)

We are currently right in the midst of commemoration season for the 950th anniversary of the Norman Conquest and the events of 1066: on 25 September it was the anniversary of the battle at Stamford Bridge, and on 14 October, of course, we will be commemorating Hastings itself.

In the run-up to 14 October, an intrepid group of re-enactors are currently retracing the likely route of Harold Godwineson's march from York to Battle, via Lincoln, Peterborough and the Weald of Kent. Today they will be passing through Waltham, where (according to the abbey's twelfth-century chronicle) Harold stopped on his way to Hastings, and prayed before its Black Rood for a victory which would not come:
[Harold] had entered the church of the Holy Cross in the early morning, and placing upon the altar relics which he had with him in his chapel, he made a vow that if the Lord granted him success in the outcome of the war he would endow the church with a large number of estates as well as many clerks to serve God in that place, and he promised to serve God in the future like a purchased slave. Accompanied by the clergy, and with a procession leading the way, he came to the doors of the church where, turning towards the crucifix, the king in devotion to the holy cross stretched himself out on the ground in the form of a cross and prayed. Then occurred an event pitiable to relate and incredible from an earthly point of view. When the king bowed low to the ground the image of the crucified one, which had previously been looking directly ahead above him, now bowed its head as if in sorrow, a sign portending what was to happen. 

Turkill, the sacristan, testified that he had seen this while he was himself collecting together and putting away the gifts which the king had placed on the altar, and that he told many people about it. I heard this from his very lips, and it was confirmed by many bystanders who with their eyes saw the head of the figure upright, though none of them except Turkill knew the moment it had bowed.
The Waltham Chronicle: an account of the discovery of our holy cross at Montacute and its conveyance to Waltham, ed. and trans. Leslie Watkiss and Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1994), p.47.

This powerful miracle-story feels as if it was born of the same impulse of historical imagination as prompts re-enactors to retrace Harold's route today. To me one of the most poignant images of 1066 is the thought of that grieving marble figure, and Harold's unanswered, though miraculously acknowledged, prayer.

An Anglo-Saxon rood Harold Godwineson might have known (Langford, Oxfordshire)

However, we shouldn't forget this month's other conquest anniversary: 1000 years ago, in 1016, Cnut and Edmund Ironside were nearing the end of their long struggle to rule England. On this blog we have been tracking the route to the Danish Conquest since 2013, though sadly this hasn't involved any marching or voyages to and from Denmark ;) The 1000th anniversary of the final battle at Assandun is rapidly approaching (on 18 October), so here we can take a look at what led up to it, including Edmund Ironside's last victory over the Danes.

(If you're interested, I've just written an article about Cnut's conquest for the October issue of the BBC History Magazine, as well as an ebook on the Danish Conquest out later this month.)

The last post in this series looked at the battle fought between the English and Danish armies at Sherston in Wiltshire, just after Midsummer in 1016. If you were trying to trace Edmund Ironside's route between June and October, you'd be zigzagging all over the south of England - this is what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (C) says:

Þa gegaderede he þryddan siðe fyrde, 7 ferde to Lundene eal be norðan Temese 7 swa ut þuruh Clæighangran, 7 þa buruhwaru ahredde 7 þæne here geflymde to hiora scypon. 7 þa ðæs ymbe twa niht gewende se cyning ofer æt Bregentforda 7 þa wið þone here gefeaht 7 hine geflymde, 7 þær adranc mycel wæl Englisces folces for hiora agenre gymeleaste, þa ðe ferdon beforan þære fyrde 7 woldan fon feng. 7 se cyning æfter þam gewende to Westseaxum 7 his fyrde samnode. Þa gewende se here sona to Lundene 7 ða buruh utan embsæt 7 hyre stearclice onfeaht ægðer ge be wætere ge be lande, ac se ælmihtiga God hi ahredde.

Se here gewende þa æfter þam fram Lundene mid hyra scypum into Arewan, 7 ðær up foron 7 ferdon on Myrcan 7 slogon 7 bærndon swa hwæt swa hi oforan, swa hira gewuna is, 7 him metes tilodon, 7 hi drifon ægþer ge scipu ge hyra drafa into Medwæge. Þa gesamnode Eadmund cyng feorðan siðe ealle his fyrde 7 ferde ofer Temese æt Brentforda 7 ferde innon Kent, 7 se here him fleah beforan mid hiora horsum into Sceapige, 7 se cyning ofsloh heora swa fela swa he offaran mihte, 7 Eadric ealdorman gewende þa ðone cyning ongean æt Egelesforda, næs nan mara unræd geræd þonne se wæs. Se here gewende eft up on Eastsexan 7 ferde into Myrcum 7 fordyde eall þæt he oforferde.

'Then for the third time [Edmund] gathered an army, and travelled to London along the north side of the Thames, and so out through Clayhanger, and he rescued the garrison and forced the raiding-army to flee to their ships. And then two days later the king crossed at Brentford and fought against the army and put them to flight, and there many of the English were drowned because of their own carelessness, because they travelled ahead of the army with the intention to plunder. And after that the king turned back to Wessex and gathered his army. Then the raiding-army straightaway went to London and besieged the town, and attacked it fiercely both by water and land, but Almighty God saved it.

The raiding-army then turned away from London with their ships into the Orwell, and there went up and travelled into Mercia and slew and burned whatever they came across, as is their habit. They provided themselves with supplies and drove their ships and their herds to the Medway. Then King Edmund gathered all his army for the fourth time and went across the Thames at Brentford and travelled into Kent, and the raiding-army fled before him with their horses into Sheppey, and the king killed as many of them as he could overtake. And Eadric the ealdorman then came to join the king again at Aylesford. Never was there a more unwise decision than that was. The raiding-army turned again up into Essex and went into Mercia and destroyed all that they passed over.'

This probably brings us to September or early October, though specific dates are hard to come by. Via London, Wessex, London (again), Mercia and East Anglia we've ended up in Kent. Battles at Brentford and in London, as mentioned in the Chronicle here, are also referenced in one of the Old Norse poems composed for Cnut, Óttarr svarti's Knútsdrápa:

Fjǫrlausa hykk Frísi,
friðskerðir, þik gerðu,
— brauzt með byggðu setri
Brandfurðu þar — randa.
Játmundar hlaut undir
ættniðr gǫfugr hættar;
danskr herr skaut þá dǫrrum
drótt, es þú rakt flótta.

Framm gekkt enn, þars unnuð
— almr gall hátt — við malma;
knôttut slæ, þars sóttuð,
sverð, kastala, verða.
Unnuð eigi minni
— ulfs gómr veit þat — rómu,
hnekkir hleypiblakka
hlunns, á Tempsar grunni.

'{Peace-breaker of shields} [WARRIOR], I believe you made the Frisians lifeless; you destroyed Brentford there with its inhabited settlement. {The noble descendant of Eadmund} [= Edmund Ironside] received dangerous wounds; the Danish army then pierced the host with spears when you pursued the fleeing.

Still you went forward, where you fought against metal weapons; the bow cried loudly; swords did not become blunt where you attacked the fortification. {Restrainer {of the leaping steeds of the roller}} [SHIPS > SEAFARER], you fought no less a battle in the shallows of the Thames; the wolf’s gums know that.'

The text and translation are from here (and I refer you to that splendid edition to answer such puzzling questions as 'what do Frisians have to do with anything?'). The fortification referred to in the latter stanza is clearly London; Cnut, 'ruler of ships', may have fed wolves with slaughtered Englishmen there but he did not manage to capture the city, now any more than back in May.

It was after this, when the Danes were heading back from London into Kent, that they met Edmund Ironside again. The place where Edmund 'killed as many of them as he could overtake', presumably as they went towards their base on the Isle of Sheppey, is not named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but is identified by John of Worcester as Otford near Sevenoaks, a crossing-place over the River Darent.

(By nice coincidence, Harold's band of re-enactors will be passing very close to Otford on 11 October, three days' march from Hastings.)

As Edmund was travelling from Otford further west into Kent he met Eadric Streona, formerly one of his father's closest allies, who had defected to Cnut around a year earlier. Edmund took Eadric back, a decision which the Chronicle (rarely critical of Edmund) condemns as unræd - 'lacking in wisdom'. That's the same 'unready' which gave Edmund's father his famous epithet; Edmund Ironside got a much better deal in the nickname stakes than poor Æthelred the Unready, but here he was perhaps displaying some of his father's skill for bad decision-making. John of Worcester comments 'had not the treacherous ealdorman Eadric Streona, with his wiles and the evil counsel that he should not pursue his enemies, held him back at Aylesford, he would have gained total victory that day'.

But instead the Danes moved from Kent towards Essex, with Edmund pursuing them to a hill called Assandun...

 Edmund Ironside in a 14th-century manuscript (BL Royal MS 14 B VI)

Monday, 5 September 2016

'I, who will already be dust by your time, have made mention of you in this book'

Henry I and Matilda, in a 14th-century genealogical roll (BL Royal MS. 14 B VI)

My latest column for History Today can be read online here. It was prompted by recent news about archaeological investigations at the site of Reading Abbey, which may result (among other things) in finding the tomb of Henry I.

I was interested to hear about this, partly because I explored Reading properly for the first time last year and was very struck by how the medieval and modern sit side-by-side in the town. The date of Henry I's death, 1135, also gave me a good excuse to quote a justly famous passage from Henry of Huntingdon's Historia Anglorum:

This is the year which holds the writer: the thirty fifth year of the reign of the glorious and invincible Henry, king of the English. The sixty-ninth year from the arrival in England, in our time, of the supreme Norman race. The 703rd year from the coming of the English into England. The 2,265th year from the coming of the Britons to settle in the same island. The 5,317th year from the beginning of the world. The year of grace 1135.

This, then, is the year from which the writer of the History wished his age to be reckoned by posterity... this computation will show what point in Time we have reached. Already one millennium has passed since the Lord's incarnation. We are leading our lives, or - to put it more accurately - we are holding back death, in what is the 135th year of the second millennium.
I often think of that opening: Hic est annus qui comprehendit scriptorem, 'This is the year which holds the writer'. While the present year may enclose the historian's body, it can't limit his imagination; and so Henry casts his thoughts a thousand years backwards and forwards from his own time:

Let us, however, think about what has become of those who lived in the first millennium around this time, around the 135th year. In those days, of course, Antoninus ruled Rome with his brother Lucius Aurelius, and Pius the Roman was pope. Lucius, who was of British birth, ruled this island, and not long after this time, while those emperors were still in power, he was the first of the British to become a Christian, and through him the whole of Britain was converted to faith in Christ. For this he is worthy of eternal record.

But who were the other people who lived throughout the countries of the world at that time? Let our present kings and dukes, tyrants and princes, church leaders and earls, commanders and governors, magistrates and sheriffs, warlike and strong men - let them tell me: who were in command and held office at that time? And you, admirable Bishop Alexander, to whom I have dedicated our history, tell me what you know of the bishops of that time.

I ask myself: tell me, Henry, author of this History, tell me, who were the archdeacons of that time? What does it matter whether they were individually noble or ignoble, renowned or unknown, praiseworthy or disreputable, exalted or cast down, wise or foolish? If any of them undertook some labour for the sake of praise and glory, when now no record of him survives any more than of his horse or his ass, why then did the wretch torment his spirit in vain? What benefit was it to them, who came to this?

Now I speak to you who will be living in the third millennium, around the 135th year. Consider us, who at this moment seem to be renowned, because, miserable creatures, we think highly of ourselves. Reflect, I say, on what has become of us. Tell me, I pray, what gain has it been to us to have been great or famous? We had no fame at all, except in God. For if we are famed now in Him, we shall still be famed in your time, as lords of heaven and earth, worthy of praise with our Lord God, by the thousands of thousands who are in the heavens. I, who will already be dust by your time, have made mention of you in this book, so long before you are to be born, so that if - as my soul strongly desires - it shall come about that this book comes into your hands, I beg you, in the incomprehensible mercy of God, to pray for me, poor wretch. In the same way, may those who will walk with God in the fourth and fifth millennia pray and petition for you, if indeed mortal man survives so long.

Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154, trans. Diana Greenway (Oxford, 2002), pp.118-9.

Henry I, our historian's namesake and one of his fixed points of temporal reference here, died on 1 December 1135. He was buried at Reading Abbey, which he had founded, and which subsequently became one of the richest and most powerful religious houses in the country. After a later King Henry wrought his usual destruction, the abbey church was largely demolished, the royal founder's tomb was lost, and the remaining buildings of the extensive site fell into ruins. You can read more about the current state of the ruins and future plans for them at this site.

I have to confess that despite living not far from Reading, until last year I'd never really considered it somewhere worth visiting from a historical point of view - I'm afraid if I thought of it at all, it was probably as a place to change trains! But I was wrong: it has some very interesting features, despite its overly present major roads and rather bleak modern town centre. For one thing, it has an excellent museum, which devotes plenty of space to the story of medieval Reading and the relics of the abbey (and the later history of the area too, of course). It has on display some fantastic carved stones from the abbey, including this, which is said to be the earliest surviving depiction of the Coronation of the Virgin Mary:

It dates to the early part of the twelfth century, the time of the abbey's foundation, and in context has fascinating significance in light of Reading's royal connections (on which see this article). The museum's other treasures include a full-size (!) replica of the Bayeux Tapestry, made in 1885 by the ladies of the Leek Embroidery Society. You can read about its story here - it's a quirky but wonderful tribute to Victorian medievalism, and well worth celebrating in the year which holds us, the 950th anniversary of 1066.

Walking around the abbey site itself, it's possible to get a very striking sense of the space occupied by the abbey and its environs. Part of the outer court of the abbey is still (as it would have been in the Middle Ages) a public space, now a park overlooked by office buildings:

(That one's called the Blade. It's Reading's most noticeable feature if you pass through on the train...)

One corner of the park is occupied by the little Victorian church of St James, which was designed by A. W. N. Pugin and built in 1837-40. Its buildings overlap with the site of the abbey church, which would have been more than three times the size of this building.

The dedication reflects a link with the medieval abbey: Reading Abbey possessed the hand of St James, an important relic and a great attraction to pilgrims. St James' claims to be the only Catholic church in England to stand on the site of a pre-Reformation abbey.

Just next door, as it were, are the standing ruins of the abbey. They were closed to the public when I was there (for safety reasons; you can take a tour, though).

There are parts remaining of the chapter house and the cloister, where we might imagine the monks humming 'Summer is icumen in...

There's also the abbey gatehouse, where Jane Austen was briefly at school:

Behind the gatehouse, still within the former precincts of the abbey, the scene quickly gets less picturesque: office buildings, chain restaurants, Reading Crown Court. Hidden among them is the abbey's mill stream, and a few fragments of older buildings.

This is a bit of the old abbey mill, stranded among skyscrapers.

It stands right at the foot of the Blade - as sharp a juxtaposition of old and new as you could ever wish to see.

I was there on a Saturday afternoon, so these buildings were all empty and a little bit ghostly; it was a relief to get away from that glaring glass, back to the ruins and the nearby river. The riverside walk is now a memorial to Oscar Wilde, whose Reading Gaol stood next to the ruins of the abbey.

Away from the abbey itself, Reading is well-provided with churches. I visited the town during the Heritage Open Days weekend, so they were all open and very friendly and welcoming (that's next week this year, should you wish to repeat my experience!).

This is the church of St Giles, whose vicar was killed alongside the last Abbot of Reading, Hugh Faringdon, before the abbey gatehouse in 1539. The present-day church commemorates him as a martyr.

In the centre of town is St Mary's, which they call Reading Minster. The church guide says 'Tradition has it that St Birinus founded a small chapel on the site of St Mary's church in the 7th century', which would make it one of the oldest churches in the area. Tradition also says that a nunnery was founded here by Queen Ælfthryth, wife of King Edgar, in penance for her involvement in the murder of her stepson, young Edward the Martyr. Ælfthryth was a patron of several religious communities for women (whether in penance or not it's not easy to say), and this takes Reading's royal connections back another 150 years or so before Henry I.

St Mary's inherited various furnishings from the abbey after it was closed, including doorways, pillars, and roof timbers. It also has a gorgeous checkerboard tower:

It's right in the middle of town, and the doors were flung wide open, so that passers-by were freely wandering in and out. Both these churches (and St James' too) felt loved and cared-for, in their different ways, and very much alive - one had a wedding going on, another had many little candles flickering before a series of shrines, another a small group praying quietly together. It really is remarkable to think about such things going on in these places, century after century, as royal abbeys and empires rise and fall.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

'On hærfeste ham gelædeð': Anglo-Saxon Harvests

Harvesting sheaves in the Eadwine Psalter (Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1, f.232), illustrating Psalm 125/6

In some early medieval calendars, including those followed by the learned scholars of Anglo-Saxon England, August 7 is the first day of autumn. We are halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox; midsummer was (by their reckoning) exactly six weeks ago, and in my part of England at least there's a distinctly autumnal feel in the air. In Old English autumn is hærfest, and the beginning of autumn coincides with the beginning of the harvest: August 1 was Lammas, the 'feast of bread', the earliest festival of the wheat harvest when loaves made from the first corn were blessed. Six nights later comes autumn itself, as the Old English Menologium describes:

And þæs symle scriþ
ymb seofon niht þæs sumere gebrihted
Weodmonað on tun, welhwær bringeð
Agustus yrmenþeodum
hlafmæssan dæg. Swa þæs hærfest cymð
ymbe oðer swylc butan anre wanan,
wlitig, wæstmum hladen; wela byð geywed
fægere on foldan.

And [after the feast of St James] after seven nights
of summer's brightness Weed-month slips
into the dwellings, everywhere August brings
to all peoples Lammas Day. So the harvest comes,
after that number of nights but one [i.e. on August 7],
bright, laden with fruits. Plenty is revealed,
beautiful upon the earth.

I discussed the Menologium's lush picture of August in this post, but I can't resist pointing out again that the description of autumn as wæstmum hladen, 'laden with fruits', employs the same word as two of the most famous descriptors of autumn in English poetry: Blake's praise of 'Autumn, laden with fruit' and Keats, of course, for whom Autumn conspires to 'load and bless with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run'. Though more concise than the Romantics, Old English poetry is no less rich in pen-portraits of the natural world, so in this post we'll look at one or two more brief descriptions of harvest in Old English literature.

Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1, f.233v, illustrating the fruits and vines of Psalm 127/8

As well as being laden with fruits, autumn is full of plenty, wela, 'wealth, abundance'. In the words of Maxims II, it's hreðeadegost, the season of all the four 'most blessed with glory':

Winter byð cealdost,
lencten hrimigost - he byð lengest ceald -
sumor sunwlitegost, swegel byð hatost,
hærfest hreðeadegost, hæleðum bringeð
geres wæstmas, þa þe him god sendeð. 

Winter is coldest,
spring frostiest - it is the longest cold -
summer sun-brightest, the sun is hottest,
harvest most glory-blessed; it brings to men
the year's fruits, which God sends them.

If you learn nothing else from this post, you'll learn the Old English word wæstm! It means 'growth, increase', and therefore is translated here as 'fruits' of the earth in the broadest sense. Fruits of the 'year', actually, which calls to mind the description of harvest in the Old English Rune Poem, in the little verse attached to the rune Ger. The name of the rune is related to our word 'year' but here apparently means something like 'harvest', perhaps 'the yield of the year':

Ger byþ gumena hiht, ðon god læteþ,
halig heofones cyning, hrusan syllan
beorhte bleda beornum and ðearfum.

Harvest is a joy to men, when God,
holy king of the heavens, causes the earth
to give bright fruits for nobles and the needy.

blæd is another useful bit of Old English harvest-vocabulary: it can refer to blossoms and leaves as well as fruit, all kinds of things which bloom and flourish.

Here's a longer description of harvest from The Phoenix, a poem preserved in the Exeter Book. This poem describes the legend of the regenerating phoenix (based on a Latin source), which is interpreted as an allegory of Christ's resurrection and of the rebirth of the redeemed human soul. It also contains some of the loveliest descriptions of the natural world to be found in Old English poetry: the phoenix lives in a paradise of eternal summer, but this allows the poet to sketch beautiful little vignettes both of that glorious summer and of the winters and autumns and springs of this earth, which never touch that land.

A translation of the whole poem can be found here. The following extract (lines 240-259) comes after the poem has told how the rebirth of the phoenix is kindled by the intense heat of the summer, 'when the sun at its hottest, jewel of the heavens, shines above the shadows'.

Þonne bræd weorþeð
eal edniwe eft acenned,
synnum asundrad, sumes onlice
swa mon to ondleofne eorðan wæstmas
on hærfeste ham gelædeð,
wiste wynsume, ær wintres cyme,
on rypes timan, þy læs hi renes scur
awyrde under wolcnum; þær hi wraðe metað,
fodorþege gefean, þonne forst ond snaw
mid ofermægne eorþan þeccað
wintergewædum. Of þam wæstmum sceal
eorla eadwela eft alædan
þurh cornes gecynd, þe ær clæne bið
sæd onsawen. Þonne sunnan glæm
on lenctenne, lifes tacen,
weceð woruldgestreon, þæt þa wæstmas beoð
þurh agne gecynd eft acende,
foldan frætwe. Swa se fugel weorþeð,
gomel æfter gearum, geong edniwe,
flæsce bifongen.

At that time the flesh becomes
born again, entirely renewed,
sundered from sins; somewhat like
how in harvest people carry home
the fruits of the earth for sustenance,
pleasant nourishment, before winter comes,
in the reaping time, lest the showers of rain
destroy them beneath the clouds. There they find sustenance,
joy in feasting, when frost and snow
with overwhelming force wrap the earth
in winter garments. From those fruits
shall spring again the blessed plenty of men,
according to the nature of the corn which first is sown
as pure seed, when the sun's light,
life's sign, in spring
wakes the world's wealth, so that these fruits,
according to their own nature are born again,
the ornaments of the earth. In this way the bird,
old after years, becomes young again,
clad in flesh anew.

We've already seen harvest described as a time of wela and ead, 'wealth' and 'blessing, richness', and here it's both: eorla eadwela, 'the blessed plenty of men'. This period of abundance is joyous and beautiful but necessary, too, as the harvesters lay in a store of sustenance for the winter months ahead, when frost and snow will 'wrap the earth in winter weeds' (wintergewæde - fantastic word!). There's emphasis on both the necessity and the pleasure of eating: food is sustenance (ondleofa, wraðu) but feasting is also wynsum and a time of gefea, which both suggest joy and pleasure. Hence harvest festivals, and the celebration still often today called 'harvest home' - it's nice to see that familiar alliterative collocation in this extract of harvest and home (on hærfeste ham gelædeð).

Harvest, from an Anglo-Saxon calendar for August (BL Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f.6v)

The first three images in this post are from illustrated psalters, two of which depict verses from Psalm 125/6: 'They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that now goeth on his way weeping, and beareth forth good seed, shall doubtless come again with joy, and bring his sheaves with him'. This is how an Old English poet turned those verses into poetry (from the Paris Psalter):

Þa her on tornlicum tearum sawað,
hi eft fægerum gefean sniðað;
gangende and ferende georne wepað
and heora sylfra sæd sniðað æfter,
cumað þonne mid cumendum cuðe mid blisse
and on heora sceafas berað, swa hi gesamnedon.

Those who sow here with grievous tears
will reap again with beautiful rejoicing,
going forth earnestly weeping
and afterwards they will reap their own seed,
returning they will come with joy
and bear their sheaves, which they have gathered.

It would be remiss to spot the word sceafas, even in this Biblical context, and not mention the connection between sheaves and one of the most important (if obscure) legendary heroes of Anglo-Saxon literature: Scyld Sceafing, the great king of the opening lines of Beowulf. Scyld is an ancestor of the royal houses of Wessex and Denmark, and seems to be the son of a figure named Sceaf, a name which means sheaf, as in corn. According to one version of the story, Sceaf (or Scyld himself) was found as a child drifting in an open boat with a sheaf of corn at his head. Taken ashore, he grew and flourished and became a famous king, in whose time there was great prosperity. On his death his people returned him to the waves, sent out to sea in a boat laden with treasure. He left a son named Beow (which means 'barley) of whom Beowulf says 'blæd wide sprang' - his 'fame spread far and wide', but with a pun on the word I mentioned earlier, blæd, 'growth, harvest'. Somewhere amid this conflicting mass of legend we can probably discern a pre-Christian fertility myth - an Anglo-Saxon hero of the harvest.

To close with prose rather than poetry, the description in The Phoenix of yearly rebirth reminded me of a passage from the Old English version of Augustine's Soliloquies:

Ðu recst þæt gear and redst þurh þæt gewrixle þara feower tyda, þæt ys, lencten and sumer and herfest and winter; þara wrixlað ælc wyð oððer and hwerfiað, swa þat heora ægðer byð eft emne þat þæt hyt ær wæs, and þær þær hyt ær wes; and swa wrixlað eall tunglai and hwerfiað on þam ylcan wisan, and eft se and ea; on ða ylcan wisan hweorfiað ealle gesceafta. Wrixliað sume þa on oððer wyssan swa þat þa ylcan eft ne cumað þær ðær hy er weron, eallunga swa swa hy er weron, ac cumað oðre for hy, swa swa leaf on treowum, and æpla, græs, and wyrtan, and treoweu foraldiað and forseriað and cumað oððer, grenu wexað, and gearwað, and ripað; for þat hy eft onginnað searian. And swa eall nytenu and fugelas swelces ðe nu ys lang eall to arimmane. Ge furþum manna lichaman forealdiað, swa swa oðre gesceaftas ealdiað; ac swa swa hy ær wurðlicor lybbað þonne treowu oðþe oðre nytenu, swa hy eac weorðfulicor arisað on domes dæge, swa þæt nefre syððan þa lichaman ne geendiað ne ne forealdiað.

You rule the year, and govern it through the turning of the four seasons, that is, spring and summer and autumn and winter. These change places, each with another, and turn so that each of them is again exactly what it was before, and where it was before; and likewise all stars turn and change in the same way, and the sea and rivers too. In this way all created things undergo change. But some change in another way, such that the same thing does not come again where it was before, or exactly as it was before, but another comes in its place; as leaves on the trees, and fruits, grass, and plants and trees grow old and dry, and others come, grow green, and reach maturity, and ripen, and with that begin again to wither. And just so do all beasts and birds, in such a way that it would take too long to reckon them all now. And indeed the bodies of men grow old, just as other created things grow old; but just as their lives are more valuable than those of trees or other animals, so they will more worthily arise on Judgement Day, so that never again will the body come to an end or grow old.

grenu wexað, and gearwað, and ripað, for þat hy eft onginnað searian - 'grow green, and reach maturity, and ripen, and with that begin again to wither'. That's a later stage of autumn, explored in this post on the fall of the leaves. Elsewhere on this blog you can also find posts for the beginning of winter on 7 November, spring on 7 February, and summer on 9 May, looking at how those seasons are described in some Anglo-Saxon poems.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Danish Conquest, Part 11: The Battle of Sherston

The Battle of Sherston in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (BL Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f.67)

This week marks the 1000th anniversary of one of the most important battles of the Danish Conquest, fought at Sherston in Wiltshire on or around 25-26 June 1016. The Battle of Sherston might be largely forgotten today - though its anniversary is being commemorated in the village this weekend - but it features prominently in medieval narratives of Cnut's conquest of England. In this post we'll look at some of the many accounts of this battle, both the history and (perhaps more interesting!) the legend.

As we saw in the last post in this series, after the death of King Æthelred on 23 April, his son Edmund Ironside was left to lead the English defence against the Danes. Cnut's forces besieged London, unsuccessfully, and then fought a succession of battles with Edmund's army across the south of England during the summer and autumn of 1016. The first major engagements were in the south-west, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E):

Þa wæs Eadmund cyng ær þam gewend ut. 7 gerad þa West Seaxan. 7 him beah eall folc to. 7 raðe æfter þam he gefeaht wið þone here æt Peonnan wið Gillinga. 7 oðer gefeoht he gefeaht æfter middan sumera æt Sceortstane. 7 þær mycel wæll feoll on ægðre healfe. 7 þa heres him sylfe toeodon on ðam gefeohte. 7 Eadric ealdorman 7 Ælmær Deorlingc wæron þam here on fultume ongean Eadmund cyng.

Then King Edmund had gone out before that [the siege of London] and rode into Wessex, and all that people submitted to him. And quickly after that he fought against the army at Penselwood near Gillingham, and he fought another battle after midsummer [June 24] at Sherston. There was great slaughter on both sides, and the armies themselves broke off the fight. Ealdorman Eadric and Ælfmær Darling were aiding the army against King Edmund.

Sherston is near the Fosse Way, a few miles west of Malmesbury. This was the first major battle between the armies led by Cnut and Edmund, but the outcome was apparently unclear; 'the armies themselves broke off the fight', and sources disagree on who gained the advantage. The Encomium Emmae Reginae, whose version of events we can now rejoin for the first time since September's installment, as usual provides a story sympathetic to Cnut and the Danes. (This text was written for Cnut's queen in the 1040s, and probably drew its information in part from the memories of people who took part in the conquest.) For the Encomium, the battle at Sherston was a great victory for the Danish army, and it was won by one of Cnut's most experienced warriors, Thorkell the Tall, on behalf of his young king:

Then Thorkell, observing the time to have come when he could demonstrate his fidelity to his lord, said: "I will undertake to win this fight for my lord with my troops, and will not permit my king to be involved in this battle, very eager to fight as he is, inasmuch as he is a youth. For if I be victorious, I will win on the king's own behalf; but if I fall or turn my back, it will not be to the glory of the English, for the reason that the king will be left, and he will give battle again, and perhaps as a victor will avenge my injuries." Since this seemed to all to be good reasoning, he disembarked with the king's approval, and directed his force against the army of the English, which was then assembled at the place called Sherston.

The Danish army had disembarked from forty ships and more, but still this number was by no means equal to half the enemy. But the leader, relying on courage rather than numbers, sounded the trumpets without delay, and advancing in the forefront and ever praying in his heart for the help of God, laid low all that came in his way with the sword's point. The English, indeed, were the more bold at first, and cut down the Danes with terrible slaughter, to such an extent, that they nearly won the victory and would have compelled their enemies to flee, if the latter, held back by their leader's words and being mindful of their own bravery, had not regarded flight with shame. For he mentioned that there was no place to which they might flee, that they were, of course, foes in the land, and that their ships were far from the shore, and that accordingly, if they should not conquer, they would necessarily fall together.

After they had been rendered of better courage by this, they forthwith showed in battle how dangerous a thing is desperation. For despairing of a refuge to which to flee, they raged on against the enemy with such madness, that you would have seen not only the bodies of the dead failing, but also of the living, as they avoided the blows. Accordingly they ultimately gained the victory which they desired, and buried such of the remains of their comrades as they could find. After they had also seized the spoils from their foes, they returned and made themselves ready for an invasion of the adjacent country.

This was the first honour which Thorkell brought to the arms of Knutr, and for this he afterwards received a large part of the country.
Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. and trans. Alistair Campbell (London: Royal Historical Society, 1949), pp. 21-3.

Sherston (source)

While the Encomium talks up Thorkell's loyalty in this battle, other versions of events at Sherston are more interested in disloyalty - specifically, the treachery of the ealdorman Eadric streona, who is roundly blamed for things going badly for the English (as we've seen before in this series). Twelfth-century English historians have various tales to tell about Sherston, most of which centre on Eadric's dirty tricks. Although dating from more than a century after the battle, these sources may preserve some older traditions; if nothing else, they develop some of the narrative possibilities implicit in the earliest sources quoted above. In the following stories, we get different versions of two points in particular: Eadric's betrayal of his king, and the fact mentioned in the Encomium that the Danes were deep in Wessex and potentially in great danger unless they could keep together ('they were foes in the land, and their ships were far from the shore...').

Let's start with John of Worcester's account of Sherston:

[Edmund] went boldly to meet them in Dorset, and in a place called Penselwood, near Gillingham, he gave them battle, won, and put them to flight. After this, when midsummer had passed, and he had mustered an army, one greater than before, he determined to fight vigorously against Cnut, whom he encountered in Hwiccia at a place called Sherston.

When he drew up his army according to the terrain and the forces he had, he moved the best soldiers into the front line, placed the rest of the army in reserve, and addressing each man by name, exhorted and entreated them to remember that they strove for their country, children, wives and homes, and with these most inspiring words he fired the soldiers' spirits. Then he ordered the trumpets to sound, and the troops to advance gradually. The enemy army did the same.

When they arrived at the place where they could join battle they rushed together with their hostile standards and with a great shout. They fought with spear and lance, striving with all their might.  Meanwhile, King Edmund Ironside made his presence felt in fierce hand-to-hand fighting in the front line. He took thought for everything; he himself fought hard, often smote the enemy; he performed at once the duties of a hardy soldier and of an able general. But, because Eadric Streona, the most treacherous ealdorman, and Ælfmær Darling, and Ælfgar, son of Meaw, who ought to have been supporting him with the men of Hampshire and Wiltshire and with an innumerable mass of people, were on the Danish side his army was quite exhausted and quite overstretched.

However, on the first day of battle, that is on Monday, so harsh and cruel was the conflict that both armies were unable for weariness to fight any longer, and they left the place at sunset of their own accord.  But on the following day, the king would have crushed all the Danes if it had not been for the wiles of Eadric Streona, the treacherous ealdorman; for, when the battle was at its height and he observed that the English were stronger, he cut off the head of a certain man called Osmear, very like King Edmund in face and hair, and raising it aloft he shouted, saying that the English fought in vain: 'You men of Dorset, Devon, Wiltshire, flee in haste, for you have lost your leader. Look, I hold here in my hands the head of your lord, King Edmund. Flee as fast you can.'

When the English perceived this they were appalled, more by the horror at the action than by any trust in the announcer, whence it happened that the waverers were on the verge of flight; but as soon as they realized that the king was alive their spirits rose, and they attacked the Danes the more fiercely, and they slew many of them, striving with all their might until dusk.  When that arrived, as on the previous day, they separated voluntarily.  But when the night was far advanced Cnut ordered his men to leave the camp silently and, going back to London, returned to his ships again, and not much later he besieged London again. However, when day came, and King Edmund Ironside perceived that the Danes had fled, he returned at once to Wessex to raise a larger army.

The Chronicle of John of Worcester, ed. and trans. Jennifer Bray and P. McGurk (Oxford, 1995) vol. ii, pp.487-9 (paragraph breaks added).

This is taking the idea that Eadric 'aided the Danes against King Edmund' to quite an extreme! Henry of Huntingdon gives in English the words Eadric was supposed to have spoken to send the army into chaos: Flet Engle, flet Engle! Ded is Edmund! 'Flee, Englishmen! Edmund is dead!' (However, he attaches this story to the later battle of Assandun, rather than Sherston.) William of Malmesbury also blames the flight at Sherston on Eadric's wiles, although in a slightly different form:

After St John's Day [Edmund] joined battle with them again at Sherston, but it was broken off with the two sides equal, his English troops taking the first steps towards retreat under the influence of Eadric, who stood on the enemy's side brandishing a sword which he had bloodied in the battle by the bold slaughter of some country fellow, and shouting: 'Flee, flee, poor wretches! Look, this is the sword which has killed your king!' And the English would have fled immediately, had not the king heard of this and made for a prominent hill, where he took off his helmet and displayed his bare head to his fellow-soldiers. He then brandished an iron spear with all the force he could muster and hurled it at Eadric; but he saw it coming and dodged it, and it went astray and pierced the soldier who was standing next to him with such violence that it transfixed a second man as well.

Gesta Regum Anglorum, trans. R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thompson and M. Winterbottom (Oxford, 1998), vol.i, p.315.

This ruse of tricking an army into believing their leader is dead is a common tale, and similar stories are told in medieval sources about the Battle of Hastings - though in that case it's William the invader, and not the English king, who has to display his face to prove he's still alive. There are all kinds of historical irony about that, as we'll see in a moment...

Edmund Ironside in a 14th-century manuscript (BL Royal MS 14 B VI)

Scandinavian sources also have some interesting things to say about the Battle of Sherston. It's mentioned in a poem written in praise of Cnut by the skald Óttarr svarti, which you can read in full here:

Svefn braut svǫrtum hrafni
sunnarr hvǫtuðr gunnar;
olli sókn inn snjalli
Sveins mǫgr at Skorsteini.

The urger of battle broke the sleep of the dark raven further south; the bold son of Sveinn made an attack at Sherston.

Óttarr svarti, Knútsdrápa, ed. and trans. Matthew Townend, in Diana Whaley, ed., Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 1, Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages I (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), Part 2, p.774.

Here it's Cnut himself, 'the bold son of Svein', and not Thorkell, who gets all the credit. (I like the alliteration and near-rhyme of Svein and Skorstein - with this campaign Cnut was, he hoped, repeating his father's conquest of England.)

Quoting this verse, the thirteenth-century Knýtlinga saga goes on to give its own version of Sherston, which it calls 'one of the most famous battles of the time'. It has the same story that the English soldiers fled when they believed Edmund to be dead, 'and though the king shouted to them to turn back no one showed any sign of hearing him'. But more importantly, there's also has a fascinating story about the aftermath of the battle. The saga tells how one of Cnut's commanders, his brother-in-law Ulf Thorgilsson, is separated from the rest of the Danish army in the confusion, and loses himself in a forest. He comes upon a boy tending a flock of sheep, and asks him his name. The boy, whose name is Godwine, recognises Ulf as one of Cnut's men, and warns him that if any of the people living nearby find him in the forest, he'll be killed.

Ulf asks Godwine to guide him back to the Danes, and offers him a gold bracelet as a reward. Godwine refuses to take the reward - canny boy! - saying that he would rather have the earl in his debt if he manages to save his life. Godwine takes Ulf home and introduces him to his father, a prosperous farmer named Wulfnoth. (Can you see where this story is going?) The family look after him, feed him, and give him horses to get him back to the army. In return, Wulfnoth asks the earl to take Godwine with him and find him a position in service among the Danes - 'he can't stay here if the locals discover he's helped you escape', he says.

Ulf and Godwine ride off and join Cnut and the rest of the Danish army, at which point Godwine realises that the man he's helped is an important and popular earl. Ulf takes him in, and it ends with Godwine marrying Ulf's sister Gytha and eventually being made an earl when Cnut becomes king of England. He becomes, in fact, Godwine, Earl of Wessex, one of the most powerful men in eleventh-century England.

It's unlikely that much, if any, of this story is true; Godwine's father Wulfnoth was almost certainly not a farmer, but a Sussex thegn. However, it is true that Godwine married Ulf's sister, and from their marriage sprang a family which helped to reshape the ruling dynasties in both England and Scandinavia, long after the conquest we're commemorating here. The children of this Anglo-Danish union outlasted Cnut's rule in England, surviving and holding high positions throughout the reign of Edward the Confessor, with at times greater influence than the king himself. And half a century after 1016, of course, the sons and daughters of Godwine and Gytha were to be important players in another conquest of England: their daughter Edith married Edward the Confessor, and Gytha lived to see (though Godwine did not) her son Harold on the English throne.

Edith and Edward the Confessor (CUL MS Ee.3.59, f.11v)

Today this family is usually called the 'Godwinesons', a testament to their father's dominance of English politics; but Gytha seems to have been a formidable woman in her own right, and her family connections in Scandinavia were an important influence on what happened in 1066 and afterwards. Through their mother, Harold and Edith and their siblings were closely related to the royal family of Denmark, Ulf's children with Cnut's sister Estrith. Exactly fifty years after the Battle of Sherston, in the summer of 1066, Gytha was at once mother of the king of England and aunt of the king of Denmark - although it didn't last, of course. Gytha lost three of her sons in one day at the Battle of Hastings (and one at Stamford Bridge, a few weeks earlier). In 1067 she left England with some of her surviving children and grandchildren, and eventually took refuge with her nephew in Denmark. Her granddaughter, Harold's daughter (also named Gytha), married into a ruling family in Kievan Rus, while in 1069 and 1075 her nephews intervened to aid English rebellions against the Normans. As Knýtlinga saga says, 'many great men from England, Denmark, Sweden and east from Russia are descended from them [Godwine and Gytha]'.

It's not very likely that this all began with a chance encounter between Ulf and a young shepherd-boy, but it's a fascinating origin myth for this hugely important dynasty. And the really interesting thing is that one English source tells a very similar story about Godwine's humble origins: Walter Map in his De Nugis Curialium also has Godwine rising from obscurity through his unwitting attendance on a surprise guest, although in that case it's King Æthelred, who has got lost while hunting and ends up taking the attentive boy into his service. So the story in Knýtlinga saga takes on a shade more credibility; and it's not impossible that at least it was around the time of the Battle of Sherston that Godwine went over to the Danes.

Rattlebone Inn, Sherston (source)

In any case, there were clearly plenty of stories circulating about the Battle of Sherston in the twelfth and thirteenth century, if not before. And later, too: local tradition in Sherston still tells of a man called John Rattlebone, who supposedly fought for Edmund's side against the Danes. This story is first recorded in the seventeenth century by John Aubrey, who says that a small carved figure in Sherston church was believed to represent Rattlebone, and that 'the old women and children have these verses by tradition':

Fight well, Rattlebone,
Thou shalt have Sherston.
What shall I with Sherston do
Without I have all belongs thereto?
Thou shalt have Wych and Wellesley
Easton Town and Pinkeney.

This verse is said to represent what Edmund promised Rattlebone to persuade him to fight. In the battle Rattlebone was mortally wounded, but staunched the flow of blood by pressing a stone tile to his wound, and fought to the bitter end (the pub sign above illustrates him doing so). What a splendid legend - I do like the thought of doughty John Rattlebone going up against Thorkell and Ulf!