18 October is the anniversary of the climactic battle of the Danish Conquest of England: on this day in 1016 the Danish army, led by Cnut, defeated an English army led by Edmund Ironside at a place called Assandun in Essex. After Assandun Edmund Ironside conceded defeat to the Danes and agreed to divide the kingdom with Cnut; when he died just over a month later, Cnut was accepted as king of all England. Assandun was, therefore, a significant date in the history of Anglo-Saxon England, which probably would have been even more significant if it had not been overtaken by the Battle of Hastings, which took place exactly fifty years later, almost to the very day. Last year I wrote about three sources for the battle in English, Latin and Old Norse, partly in an effort to suggest just how large this battle loomed in the memory of Cnut's conquest later in his reign (those three sources were written between 5-25 years after Assandun). Today I want to do something different - where that post was nearly all words, this will be nearly all pictures.
As I've been working on narratives of the Danish Conquest and writing a series of posts about it (which you can find here), I've been getting interested in what you might call the landscape of conquest: what significance certain places might have had for the people involved in the various events of the conquest. (For a possible comparison, think how the single word 'Hastings' has come to stand for everything that happened at the Norman Conquest.) We don't know whether Assandun had that kind of significance to Cnut and his followers, but there are various bits of evidence to suggest it might have done - I touched on another possible example in my post about a church in Sandwich. This train of thought has encouraged me to try and visit some of the places in question, so today, come with me on a visit to Assandun.
Actually, that's not possible. The site of the battle of Assandun has never been conclusively identified: it’s a common placename, and there are various possible candidates. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says it was in Essex, so the two most likely sites are Ashdon and Ashingdon, in the north-west and south-east of Essex respectively. Ashingdon has traditionally been the favoured candidate, but there are strong arguments for both (I personally lean towards Ashdon, for reasons I'll only bore you with if you really want to hear them). I recently paid a flying visit to Suffolk, in the course of which I found myself not far from Ashdon, which is on the border between Suffolk and Essex. This seemed the perfect opportunity for an impromptu pilgrimage. Now, even I wouldn't attempt to plan a pilgrimage to a completely unidentified battlefield, but there's a more tangible relic of Assandun, more worth going in search of. In 1020, a few years after becoming king, Cnut founded a church at the site of the battle. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (D) tells us in the entry for 1020:
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.]
The people named in this entry indicate the importance of this church to the new Danish regime. Wulfstan is the great archbishop of York, whom we last encountered in 1014 railing against the disloyalty of English people who collaborated with the Danes; he had by this time had quite a change of heart, and become one of Cnut's chief advisers and law-makers. (A lot can happen in six years!) Wulfstan presided at the consecration of the church at Assandun, and one of his surviving sermons, 'On the Dedication of a Church', may well have been preached on this occasion. The other person named by the Chronicle is Earl Thorkell, who was remembered as the hero of Assandun, and whom Cnut had recently made Earl of East Anglia. Any event which could bring these two men together must have been pretty extraordinary. We can also populate the Chronicle's crowd with various people likely to have been there, standing beside Cnut, Thorkell and Wulfstan: Cnut's new wife Emma, Earl Godwine (and 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 origin, who though very much a winner after the Danish Conquest was very much a loser after 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 were between them to shape England's fate throughout the eleventh century: the following year Thorkell would be outlawed, three years later Wulfstan would be dead, and fifty years later the young priest Stigand would be Archbishop of Canterbury, crowning the upstart Godwine's son King of England.
So the church at Assandun is very much worth searching for, and that's what I went to find at Ashdon. In this post I'll take you on a tour of what I saw at Ashdon, but do take everything I say on the understanding that this might not be the site of Assandun at all - I’m not sure I can sustain ‘might be’s all the way through the post, so if I slip into unwarranted certainties you’ll have to forgive me! Perhaps another day I’ll go to Ashingdon and give that possibility its proper due. The awkwardness of this is not lost on me - the innate strangeness of going in search of a long-lost battle-site is only exacerbated by the idea that I might have been doing so in completely the wrong corner of Essex, so I do appreciate how absurd this whole venture is. But that's not a bad thing, for two reasons. Firstly, it proves some of the points I made in my first post about the problems of commemorating the Danish Conquest, or indeed any historical event where the sources are more complex than can easily be translated into a modern act of commemoration. And secondly, I'm aware that I went to Assandun to commemorate an event which was itself a commemoration, an act of collective remembering which was public, highly political, and open to multiple interpretations. Was Cnut's foundation of a church at Assandun an act of penance, attempting to make amends for some of the wounds of conquest; a display of mutual reconciliation, with both sides agreeing to put the past behind them; or a victor's monument to a triumphant conquest? Or a combination of all three? (And did Cnut and Thorkell and Wulfstan and the disparate audience all think it was the same thing?) Commemoration is and was problematic in any number of ways - in 1020 or today - and it's not a bad thing to be forced to confront what a strange and difficult thing we're really attempting when we try to commemorate the past.
All that said, let me show you what I saw at Ashdon. If Ashdon is Assandun, Cnut's minster would be this church, St Botolph's, which is actually in the nearby village of Hadstock. Why not Ashdon itself? I'll quote the guidebook: "While it is just possible that evidence for an Anglo-Saxon building is encapsulated in Ashdon church, there is nothing to suggest a structure of minster-proportions; hence historians have turned to Hadstock where a large and imposing Anglo-Saxon church cannot fail to command attention. There is no doubt that it was a minster, and of the period in question; it stands on the same 'Hill of the Ash Trees' as Ashdon."
The core of the present church is late Anglo-Saxon, and thus plausibly of the date of Cnut's minster. It's worth noting that St Botolph, the dedicatee of the church, was one of the saints in whom Cnut took an interest; Cnut was responsible for the translation of Botolph's relics to Bury St Edmunds, where he founded a church on the anniversary of the Battle of Assandun in the 1030s. There's some suggestion there was a shrine to Botolph here, not just a dedication - the archaeologists talk about traces of an empty Saxon grave in the fabric of the south side of the church.
The church stands in an attractive spot, on a more impressive hill than I was able to capture with a photograph. From the gate of the porch the churchyard slopes down towards the village of Hadstock, which consists of a few houses around a little village green.
The church has gone through various phases of rebuilding, but there are several parts of it which appear to be essentially unchanged since the eleventh century. Behind the fifteenth-century porch...
...is a late Saxon doorway.
The decoration around this doorway, I'm reliably informed, is from the early eleventh century. The ornament is fairly worn on the front-facing side, though still clear:
And on the insides of the doorway it looks as if it could have been carved yesterday, rather than 1000 years ago.
The door itself is interesting too: according to the church guide, it's been dated by dendrochronology to c.1034-1042, making it the oldest door in England still in use. And very solid and ancient it feels. It's also one of a number of church doors associated with a gruesome folk-tradition: that it was once covered with the tanned skin of a Dane who had been flayed for stealing from the church, and had his skin nailed to the door in punishment. Needless to say, bits of the 'skin' have been tested and shown to be nothing more than cured cowhide. As I said, this bizarre story is attached to several English churches, but it's intriguing to find any oral tradition linking this particular church to Danes.
(15 pictures and we've only just made it inside the door! Hope you don't have anything better to do with your day...)
It's a plain but pleasing church, white-walled and light with a narrow nave. It's the nave which is the Saxon core of the church, apparently. Just in the corner of the picture above you can see the font, of which the base is 'possibly Saxon'.
Lots of fonts are 'possibly Saxon', but one can't help wondering, is this the font in which poor Stigand performed his first baptisms?
Other traces of the Saxon church are the four high, cobwebby windows in the nave.
In the eleventh-century church there was a stone tower above this crossing, but this had collapsed by the middle of the thirteenth century. The chancel is Victorian, but the two transepts preserve more of the older building.
With a mind full of Assandun, I was a bit startled to see a Danish flag – had some Cnut-loving pilgrims been here before me? It transpired that its presence was nothing to do with Cnut’s Danes at all; it commemorates links between this church and St Botolph's Cathedral in Aalborg. So nothing more than a fortuitous coincidence, apparently. It’s a particularly apt one, though, because it was at Assandun that the Danes bore into battle (according to legend) a famous and unusual flag of their own: a plain white silk standard, upon which would magically appear in time of war a black raven. If the bearers of the standard were to be victorious, the raven would flap its wings and clap its beak; if they were to lose, it would droop. At Assandun, says the Encomium, the raven was exultant; Thorkell read the omen rightly and encouraged his men: “Let us fight manfully, comrades, for no danger threatens us; the restless raven of the prophetic banner bears witness.” Inspired by this, the Danes rushed on to victory. This reference to the raven banner comes straight out of Scandinavian legend, and specifically legends associated with the most famous Danish conquerors of England, the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok. Not the kind of flag you'd want to hang in an English church!
On the south side there's more of that carving around the opening to the transept:
Perhaps a few strokes of carving on stone don't seem all that exciting to you, but there are precious few bits of stone, or of anything, really, which we can imagine being seen by the eyes of Cnut and Wulfstan and Thorkell.
The south transept:
The war memorial, so familiar a sight in English churches, struck me particularly here, since Cnut’s minster was, of course, a war memorial too. This one was installed in 1920, exactly 900 years after Cnut's, because however much has changed in nine centuries, some things don't change.
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.'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.'
We don't know the names of those killed on the Danish side.
A few assorted shots:
The white walls and the hanging lamps made me think, perhaps only by association by ideas, of the church at Jelling, where Cnut’s grandfather commemorated bringing Christianity to Denmark. (There is a superficial resemblance!) If only Cnut had erected a stone monument rather than a minster church, we might not have so much trouble finding the site of Assandun...
There are a few bits of masonry just lying around; the north transept is like a museum of old books and unidentified lumps of stone:
The foundations of the Saxon chancel lie under the Victorian one, so that remains a mystery:
(Where did Wulfstan stand to preach his sermon?)
And so, via that wonderful door, we go back out into the sunshine.
Such an English view!
So, that's the church. Where to find the battlefield? I'm afraid this is where things get hopelessly speculative, and really, kind of absurd. Because not only does no one really know where the battle site might be (if it's near Ashdon), on the day I visited Hadstock I had nothing to go on but this description from the local history website:
A local county history of Cambs reports that weapons were found in Red Field in the 1850s when the railway cutting was dug, 'presumably the relic of some skirmish between Saxon and Dane', but there is no official record and one would expect the odd weapon to be found almost anywhere in East Anglia after all the Viking raids... There used to be a small pasture on the corner of the Bartlow Road at the junction with Chalky Lane. According to the late Ernie and Joe Freeman, this was called Traitors' Field and it was unlucky to plough it because it was where Eadric Streona and his men held back from the battle and betrayed Edmund and the English.
This seemed marginally better than nothing, so that's where I went. But since I was lacking a properly detailed map (it was an impromptu visit, remember), I'm not even really sure if the field I went to, among the many fields around, was actually the one this website was describing. (By this point the whole expedition had become a lesson in how not to do a field-trip, to the point of almost being an unfortunate metaphor for the wild goose chase of academic study. I promise I usually do my research more meticulously than this!)
Anyway, I followed the map I had, and found a lane:
On the slope of a hill which is (I think) called Haw's Hill:
There's nothing around but farmland and fields, as far as the eye can see. I think this is the above-mentioned Traitors' Field:
The lane leads to a point of high ground above the River Granta, where there's a ford leading into the Red Field. 'Red indicates a battle site' said the church guide, optimistically.
If you'd read this far in the post, I admire and congratulate and slightly pity you. Your reward will be a bit of actual, incontrovertible Assandun history. Because on the same trip, pre-planned and therefore properly pre-researched, I went to Ely - and in Ely Cathedral is buried the most high-profile casualty of Assandun, Eadnoth, Bishop of Dorchester.
This chapel at the far end of Ely Cathedral, now strangely empty and denuded of its medieval statues, is the final resting-places of seven prominent men of late Anglo-Saxon England, whose bones lie in chests behind this monument. They were Ely's chief patrons and benefactors, highly valued in the twelfth century, when the Liber Eliensis was written. Their remains were removed from the Saxon church into the choir of the Norman one, and eventually into the chantry chapel of a sixteenth-century Bishop of Ely. There they lie, barely mentioned in the guidebook and barely glanced at by the stream of tourists who entered the chapel while I was there. Perhaps it was the flamboyant eighteenth-century Latin inscriptions which put the tourists off; in which case it's a shame, because behind these memorials are people associated with some of the most powerful words in English literature.
The Liber Eliensis says Bishop Eadnoth went to Assandun with a group of monks 'to pray for the army', and was killed while he was singing mass (it's possible he was in fact just fighting on the English side); 'first his right hand was cut off for the sake of a ring, then his whole body was cut to pieces'. His body was retrieved from the battlefield and buried at Ely, where he was considered a martyr. Four years before his death, Eadnoth himself had been responsible for retrieving the body of St Alphege after he was killed by Thorkell's army - which makes his own fate particularly poignant.
Buried beside Eadnoth is the victim of Vikings best-known to students of Old English poetry: Byrhtnoth, Ealdorman of Essex, killed in battle at Maldon in 991, and hero of the poem of that name. Byrhtnoth died in what is often considered the first battle of the Danish Conquest, Eadnoth in the last, and here they are together. I wonder if anyone at Assandun on the day the church was consecrated had the words of The Battle of Maldon ringing in their ears, whether Byrhtnoth's bold defiance of the Danes or the desperate last stand of his men: Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað...
And buried beside Eadnoth and Byrhtnoth at Ely, as if things couldn't get any more poignant, is Archbishop Wulfstan himself. He must surely have been thinking of Eadnoth - and who knows, maybe of Byrhtnoth too - on the day he consecrated the church at Assandun.
Ne dohte hit nu lange inne ne ute: ac wæs here and hungor, nu bryne and blodgyte on gewelhwylcan ende oft and gelome, and us stalu and cwalu, stric and steorfa, orfcwealm and uncoþu, hol and hete, and rypera reaflac derede swyþe þearle.
Nothing has prospered now for a long time, at home or abroad; but there was harrying and hunger, now burning and bloodshed in every place often and frequently, and theft and death, plague and pestilence, death of cattle and disease, malice and hatred, and the robbery of pillagers have sorely afflicted us.
In his sermon for the consecration of a church he talks about a king and his witan going to dedicate a church together, putting aside envy and hatred, and finding in the process another of those alliterative doublets: unity mid sibbe and mid some, 'with peace and with reconciliation'. Perhaps that's what Wulfstan sought at Assandun.