Today is the anniversary of an eleventh-century battle in which the English were routed by an invading army, the flower of the English nobility were slain, and the country was conquered by a foreign power which displaced the native royal dynasty. No, it's not the Battle of Hastings - it's the other one.
The Battle of Assandun, fought in Essex on 18 October 1016, marked the final decisive stage of the Danish Conquest of England, the end of a long series of battles fought between the Danes led by Cnut and the English army led by Edmund Ironside, son of Æthelred the Unready. I've been writing a series of posts (all collected here) to mark the 1000th anniversary of the events of 1013-16, beginning when Cnut's father Svein Forkbeard first conquered England by driving King Æthelred into exile. In the first post in the series I ventured some preliminary thoughts on why we don't remember or commemorate the Danish Conquest as extensively as the Norman Conquest. My first suggestion was the complexity of the primary sources, and so I thought for the anniversary of Assandun I would post three extracts from those sources here, with the aim of showing that although the sources are complex, that's part of what makes them so fascinating. I've chosen three, in English, Latin and Old Norse: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Encomium Emmae Reginae (written in the early 1040s for Cnut's wife Emma) and a poem composed in honour of Cnut during his reign.
But first, the background in four sentences: Svein died in February 1014, as king of England, and the leading counsellors agreed to invite Æthelred back as king (if he promised to do a better job than previously), so Cnut returned to Denmark, not in a position to fight for the kingdom. But Æthelred did not do a better job; he viciously punished two prominent noblemen who had made an alliance with Svein, and as a result his son Edmund Ironside rebelled against him. By the time Cnut came back to England in the summer of 1015 with a huge fleet, the country was divided against itself: large parts of Wessex and Mercia submitted to him, while Edmund struggled to put an army together. Only when Æthelred died in April 1016 did southern England finally unite behind Edmund, and there was a series of battles over the course of the summer all over the south, both armies chasing each other through England.
(Was that four sentences? I think it was.)
And this brings us to October 1016. At this point we can turn to our first source, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MS. D):
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 Ulfkytel of East Anglia, and Æthelweard, the son of Ealdorman Ælfwine, and all the best of the English nation.]
As you can tell from the chronicler's repeated use of 'all the English nation' (ealle Engla þeode), this is the pro-Edmund point of view. When he uses this phrase it doesn't actually mean 'all the English nation' but all those among the English loyal to Edmund; there must have been Englishmen fighting for the Danes by this point in the war (however you choose to define 'Englishmen', which is not an easy question to answer). There's a strong chance, for instance, that by an extraordinary 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, was said by later tradition to have defected to the Danes earlier in the year. He would go on to marry a Danish noblewoman and be richly rewarded for his service to Cnut - which is why he gave his son the Norse name Harold, after Cnut's grandfather (suck-up). This is how wonderfully complicated the eleventh century is...
In considering the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's picture of the 'best of the English nation' fighting the Danes, you also have to factor in the opinion of the chronicler that Eadric Streona, one of Edmund's closest advisers, was working to help the Danes. Eadric had already once defected to the Danes and come back again; the chronicler says that taking him back into his counsel was the most unwise decision Edmund ever made. Eadric later gained a reputation as the most notorious traitor in Anglo-Saxon history and was blamed for a whole variety of terrible things he may or may not have done, but this view of his behaviour at Assandun is shared by our second source, the Encomium Emmae Reginae. In Book II, chapters 9-10, it says of Assandun:
[Edmund] attempted to expel the king and the Danes from the country of the English, and advancing with a great multitude, planned a sudden attack upon them. But a report of this did not fail to become known to the Danes, who left their ships and went ashore, preparing to receive whatever they should encounter. 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'. 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).
Wonderful stuff. Now, the first thing you always have to say about the Encomium is that it can't be taken at face value: the author has a somewhat free-and-easy relationship with documented fact, because he's not writing dispassionate history (if there's any such thing) but a political tract intended to glorify Queen Emma and thus, Cnut. But that's what makes it so interesting. As I said last time I wrote about the Encomium, it's particularly fun when the author says things like 'it may be incredible to the reader, yet since it is true, I will introduce the matter into my true history', because that's usually a sign that it's definitely not true.
The author had access to some very good first-hand sources, and there are things in this account that he could not have made up himself; someone told them to him, and it was obviously someone with a generally pro-Danish view of events (the best clue is the magical raven banner - a Danish legend). So it's interesting to note the people he chooses to mention, all of whom had been dead for twenty years by the time he wrote, and how he presents them. His 'according to some' and 'what many assert' about Eadric's treachery suggests Eadric's guilt was still being talked about as a factor in the defeat (by this time Eadric was conveniently dead - at Cnut's orders - and therefore free to be vilified by English and Danes alike; he probably deserved it). By contrast, Thorkell the Tall, Cnut's chief supporter/rival, gets a big moment in the spotlight, encouraging the troops - a role you might have expected Cnut himself to have, unless this detail is a) true or b) coming from people who still remembered Thorkell with interest (e.g. his son, still living in England until 1042). Considering this is supposed to be Cnut's great victory, he's strangely absent from every detail of the battle. And it's interesting that the author also gives Edmund Ironside a heroic speech, pro libertate et patria: 'O Englishmen, fight for your liberty and your country!' Edmund died six weeks after the battle at Assandun, and in later years Cnut honoured his memory with gifts to his tomb at Glastonbury, reflecting either respect for a worthy adversary or an attempt to claim legitimacy as his successor (or both).
But the Encomium nonetheless says this was a glorious victory for the Danes, as does our final source, an extract from an Old Norse poem in honour of Cnut, composed by an Icelandic poet, Óttarr svarti, probably late in the 1020s. This poem lists Cnut's greatest triumphs, and the first half of verse 10 extols the victory at Assandun:
Skjöldungr, vannt und skildi
skœru verk, inn sterki,
(fekk blóðtrani bráðir
Strong Skjöldungr, you performed a feat of battle under the shield; the blood-crane [raven/eagle] received dark morsels at Ashingdon.
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.
This too is wonderful stuff, packed with just as much of interest in four lines as the Encomium has in all its long phrases. 'Skjöldungr' is a reference to Cnut's Danish ancestors, the legendary Skjöldung dynasty - the Scyldings of Beowulf. The 'blood-crane' is a very common motif in Old English and Old Norse poetry, one of the 'beasts of battle' who gather to feast on the slain, but it's a little bit tempting to be reminded of the raven banner, to which the Encomium gives such prominence in its account of Assandun. And note there's no mention of Thorkell here; Cnut is the sole hero.
Just look how heroic he is. (British Library, Stowe 944, f.6)
After Assandun, Edmund was finally forced to make peace with the Danes: the two kings met and agreed a division of the country, in which Edmund kept control of Wessex but the rest was under Danish rule. Edmund died at the end of November, apparently of natural causes (though some people said Eadric killed him, of course), leaving Cnut as king of the whole country - and England as part of the Danish empire.