Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Danish Conquest, 1000 Years: Part 6

This post is the last - for the moment - in my series commemorating the 1000th anniversary of the Danish Conquest of England. It marks a cessation in hostilities, because in the late spring or summer of 1014 Cnut's army left England, successfully driven away by King Æthelred, and did not return until August 1015. In the last post in this series, in February, we saw how the leading counsellors in England made a bargain with the exiled Æthelred, inviting him to return as king if he behaved himself better than he had done previously. After this point, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (D) tells us:

Þa syþþan Swegen dead wæs, sæt Cnut mid his here on Gæignesburuh oð ða Eastron, 7 gewearð him 7 þæt folc on Lindesige anes þæt he hine horsian sceoldon, 7 wið þan ealle ætgædere faran 7 hergian. Ða com se cyning æþelred mid fulre fyrde þyder ær hi gearwe wæron to Lindesige, 7 man þa hergode 7 bærnde 7 sloh eall þæt mancynn þæt man geræcan mihte. 7 se Cnut gewende him ut mid his flotan, 7 wearð þæt earme folc þus beswicen þurh hine, 7 wende þa suðweard oð he com to Sandwic, 7 læt man þær up þa gislas þe his fæder gesealde wæron, 7 cearf of heora handa 7 earan 7 nosa. 7 buton eallum þissum yfelum se cyng het gyldan þam here þe on Grenewic læg .xxi. þusend punda.

[Then after Svein was dead, Cnut stayed with his army at Gainsborough until Easter, and there was an agreement between him and the people of Lindsey that they should provide horses for him, and after that they would all go together and raid. Then King Æthelred came to Lindsey before they were ready, with the whole army, and there was raiding and burning and all the people who could be reached were killed. And Cnut went away out with his fleet, and thus the wretched people were betrayed through him. He went southwards until he came to Sandwich, and there the hostages which had been given to his father were put ashore, and [he?] cut off their hands and ears and noses. And despite all these troubles, the king ordered that the army which lay at Greenwich should be paid 21,000 pounds.]

The English king's actions here are effective, though not exactly heroic: he's raiding his own land and killing his own people in punishment for their support of the Danes. The Chronicle, perhaps troubled by this, carefully gives no opinion, taking refuge in some very politic grammar. One of the notable features of the Chronicle's narrative of these years is that although it tells us clearly enough what happened, it often doesn't say who was responsible for it, and there are some extremely slippery instances of the passive voice in this entry, a distinct reluctance to say who was giving which orders. When we are told man þa hergode 7 bærnde 7 sloh eall þæt mancynn þæt man geræcan mihte we are left to assume that this is Æthelred's army doing at least some of the raiding and burning and killing in Lincolnshire, but the text doesn't explicitly say so.

The Chronicle is ready enough to condemn Cnut, however, for breaking the agreement he had made with the people of Lindsey. As we saw last summer, the Danish army had been based in Lincolnshire since their arrival in England in July 1013, when the leaders of Lindsey had been among the first to welcome Svein. Æthelred's actions here are presumably punishment for that decision as much as an effort to drive Cnut out of England. The Chronicle sympathises with the people of Lindsey and blames Cnut for abandoning them, but one can't help wondering whom they would have thought most at fault. Not that Cnut wasn't behaving badly too, of course - that mutilation of the hostages ranks among the worst things he ever did (against some stiff competition). It feels like the petulance of a young man who has found things don't always go his way, but whatever his motive, it's a horribly cruel thing to do. No one comes out of 1014 looking admirable.

As you might expect, the Encomium Emmae Reginae tells the story of Cnut's retreat rather differently:

After the death of his father, Knutr attempted to retain the sceptre of the kingdom, but he was quite unequal to so doing, for the number of his followers was insufficient. The English, being mindful that his father had unjustly invaded their country, collected all the forces of the kingdom in order to expel him, inasmuch as he was a youth. When this became known, the king, whose faithful friends had found a plan to preserve his honour, ordered a fleet to be got ready for him, not because he was fleeing afraid of the harsh outcome of war, but in order to consult his brother Haraldr, the king of the Danes, about so weighty a matter. Accordingly, having returned to his father's fleet and re-manned it, he spread the royal sails to the wind and sea, but nevertheless he did not lead back with him the whole force which had entered the country with his father and himself. For Thorkell, whom we have already mentioned as a military commander, observed that the land was most excellent, and chose to take up his residence in so fertile a country, and make peace with the natives, rather than to return home like one who had, in the end, been expelled. And according to some, he did not do this because he despised his lord, but in order that when Knutr returned with renewed forces and his brother's help to subdue the kingdom, he might either incline the chief men of the kingdom to surrender by his counsel, or if this plan were not a success, attack the incautious enemy from behind as they fought against his lord. And the truth of this is apparent from the fact that he kept with him a very great part of the soldiers, and that the king did not let more than sixty ships depart in company with himself.
Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. and trans. Alistair Campbell (London: Royal Historical Society, 1949), pp. 15-17.

I love it when the Encomium says 'according to some'; it's always a sign of something interesting going on. ('The truth of this is apparent' might as well be code for 'what I'm saying is highly implausible'). Here, the author is trying to reconcile alternative interpretations of the conduct of Earl Thorkell. He doesn't really succeed - for, despite recording the claim of 'some' that Thorkell was staying behind in England to help Cnut, he goes on to tells us that Cnut thought Thorkell had deserted him, and that Thorkell had remained without Cnut's consent. Cnut never had much control over Thorkell, an older and much more experienced warrior who had been fighting battles since before Cnut was born; in English eyes, Thorkell was at this point a more familiar figure, and more of a threat, than young Cnut (who wasn't even king of Denmark - as the Encomium notes, his brother Harald was ruling there - but had been chosen as his father's successor by the Danish army at that time in England). The remnant of the fleet which Thorkell kept in England, much depleting Cnut's forces, is presumably that which the Chronicle mentions as being paid 21,000 pounds by the English king.

The Encomium goes on:
And so, after a prosperous voyage, the king (reached) his native land. When all the people, his father's former subjects, were wondering at his return, which was, for a king, unaccompanied, a swiftly-spreading rumour suddenly filled the palace of King Haraldr, saying that his elder brother, Knutr, had reached his shores. The king and also the whole army wondered, and though they did not yet know anything, they felt a presentiment that he had met with adverse fortune. Accordingly, chosen soldiers were sent from attendance on the king, and horses ready for use were dispatched to meet him, for brotherly love prompted the king to regard the dignity of his brother. When at length Knutr, exhibiting the respect due to a king, entered his brother's doors, his brother himself met him at the very entrance, and they, with their bodies mutually locked in an embrace, impressed tender kisses upon each other many times. Tears shed partly for love, and partly for their father's death moistened the neck of each, and when these were scarcely dry, the exchange of words brought on more. When each was describing his own fortune and asking about that of his brother, Knutr, who was the elder, addressed his brother thus: "I have come, oh brother, partly out of my love for you, and partly to avoid the unforeseen audacity of barbarous fury, not however because I feared war, which to my glory I will seek again, but in order that instructed by a pronouncement from you and supported by your protection I may go back certain of victory. But there is one thing which you will first do for me, if you begrudge me not the glory which is mine, that is to divide with me the kingdom of the Danes, my heritage, which you hold alone, and afterwards we will add the kingdom of the English to our heritage, if we can do so by our joint efforts. Keep one of these, whichever you choose, and enjoy your success; I similarly will keep the other. To the end that there may be sufficient time for you to take counsel, I will winter with you, and also in order that the ships and army may be renewed, as is expedient, so that our requirements may not be wanting when the hour of battle is upon us. Thorkell, our compatriot, deserting us as he did our father, has settled in the country, keeping with him a large part of our ships, and I believe that he will be against us, but nevertheless he will not prevail."

King Haraldr, having heard these unwelcome remarks, answered his brother in these words: "I rejoice, brother, at your arrival, and I thank you for visiting me, but what you say about the division of the kingdom is a serious thing to hear. It is my part to rule the heritage which our father gave me with your approval; as for you, if you have lost a greater one, I regret it, but though prepared to help you, I will not endure that my kingdom be divided." When Knutr had heard this, and had silently weighed his brother's reasonable words, he said: "Let us be silent concerning this for the moment, for God alone may perchance arrange the matter more equitably." Communing in such words and in other discussions of various kinds, and feasting at kingly banquets, they remained together for some time, and while mending the ships, they re-established the army. They also, in fact, went to the land of the Slavs, and brought back their mother, who resided there.
Encomium Emmae Reginae, trans. Campbell, pp. 17-19.

We can't be sure how much to believe of this view of the relationship between Cnut and his brother, but as the Encomium is just about the only source which gives any information on the subject - Harald died not long afterwards, and was largely forgotten to history - it's worth noting. (Brotherly co-rule was very topical at the time when the Encomium was written, in the reign of Harthacnut, and this probably influences the presentation of Cnut and Harald here.) The last sentence of this extract is also almost the only reference anywhere to Cnut's mother, whose name we don't even know for sure.

And what about Cnut's English wife, Ælfgifu? The Chronicle and the Encomium don't name her, but the Encomium tells us about 'a certain English matron' entrusted with the task of returning King Svein's body to Denmark:

In the meantime, a certain English matron had a ship prepared for her, and taking the body of Svein, who had been buried in her country, and having embalmed it and covered it with palls, she went to the sea, and making a successful voyage, arrived at the ports of the Danes. Sending a messenger to the two brothers [Cnut and Harald], she indicated that the body of their father was there, in order that they might hasten to receive it, and place it in the tomb which he had prepared for himself. They came gladly, and received the body with honour, and with yet more honour placed it in the monastery which the same king had built in honour of the Holy Trinity, in the sepulchre which he had prepared for himself.
Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. Campbell, p. 19.

The Encomium is written for Cnut's second wife, and so largely ignores the existence of his first one, but this 'English matron' can hardly be anyone else but Ælfgifu of Northampton.

As it turned out, going back to Denmark for a year was about the best thing Cnut could have done for himself, because in the meantime Æthelred's court imploded. Æthelred's oldest son and heir, Æthelstan, was taken ill in the summer of 1014 and died on 25 June. The provisions of his will (a fascinating document you can read here) suggest there was already some tension in the royal family at this stage; Æthelred's adult sons by his first wife may have had little love for their father's second wife and her sons, and the will suggests that the prince was particularly close to his brother Edmund Ironside and to two powerful thegns, Sigeferth and Morcar, who the year before had supported Svein's invasion. The year after Æthelstan's death these two men were treacherously murdered by Eadric Streona, apparently with the support of King Æthelred. This caused Edmund Ironside, heir to the kingdom after his brother's death, to break with his father and build up a powerbase of his own in the Midlands. So while Cnut and his brother, mother and wife were the picture of family harmony in Denmark (that is, if you believe the Encomium), the English royal family was tearing itself apart.


Anyway, those poor mutilated hostages bring us back to the place where we started a year ago, at Sandwich in Kent, where Svein Forkbeard first arrived with his fleet in July 1013. No longer the busy port it was in the eleventh century, Sandwich is now a quiet little place, rejoicing in all kinds of quirky civic traditions, where every other building is an architectural delight. It's a beautifully unspoiled medieval town, in which it's not difficult to think yourselves back into the fifteenth century; but to take another step back to Cnut's day is more difficult. There's not much sign that the Vikings ever came there - except for one, and it's not what you might expect.

This is the church of St Clement, a large church with an impressive Norman tower. It's first recorded in the mid-eleventh century, and its dedication to the patron saint of seafarers - a saint especially popular with Vikings - suggests it was founded in the reign of Cnut. Cnut, in his later incarnation as Christian king of England, patron of churches and friend of monasteries, presented the port of Sandwich to the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, and it's likely that this church was founded around the same time. Cnut's church patronage was guided in part by the commemoration of key events in the Danish Conquest - the most prominent example is the church he founded at the site of the Battle of Assandun - and I wonder whether the role of Sandwich as first point of arrival (for Svein in 1013 and again for Cnut himself when he returned in 1015) gave it a similar kind of symbolic importance later in his reign.

The reference to St Clement's in the middle of the century concerns an occasion when Edward the Confessor, staying with his fleet in the harbour, attended mass in the church; it's not difficult to imagine Cnut doing the same thing on the way to or from one of his many voyages abroad. So although this is only speculation, perhaps he came to visit the church which stood on the site of this building, and followed this path from St Clement's down to the harbour:


If he did, I wonder whether he gave any thought to those hostages.

1 comment:

Patricia Bracewell said...

Responding, not as a historian, but from the perspective of a novelist who has to get inside Cnut's head: Re those hostages. I'm going to sound callous and cruel here (as callous and cruel as Cnut, and he surely was). But in 1002 the Anglo-Saxons, per Aethelred's order, beheaded Danes, including hostages, and even burned some of them alive (St. Frideswide's Church). Over in Normandy Richard II punished peasants for revolting by cutting off their hands and feet. Brutality was the order of the day, was it not? In 1013 those hostages had been given as pledges of loyalty to the new Danish overlord, and when the English magnates invited Aethelred to return, in Cnut's eyes that oath would have been broken and the hostages abandoned to their fate, per the original understanding. Of course the English would have been outraged because from their point of view, the agreement had been with Swein, not Cnut, so when Swein died, all oaths were null. Cnut obviously didn't see it that way. Moreover, he was planning to return with another army, and the fate of those hostages would likely make the English nobles think twice about breaking any future oaths.