Friday, 3 July 2015

The Danish Conquest, Part 7: Murder at Oxford

Two years ago, I began a series of posts marking - in real time, as far as possible - the 1000th anniversary of the Danish Conquest of England. This was a lengthy struggle, which resulted in the Danish king Cnut driving the English royal family into exile and ruling England from 1016-1035. During those decades England was part of a great pan-Scandinavian empire, but this period in English history is relatively little known, especially by comparison with the Norman Conquest which took place half a century later. I considered some reasons why that might be so here. This series of posts is an attempt to trace the long and fascinating story of battles, invasions, shifting allegiances, murders, marriages, and betrayals, as recorded in the history and poetry of the time. Links to all the posts in the series so far can be found here.

If you're new to my blog, you may not have been aware of this series, because it's been more than a year since the last installment - not because I forgot about the project (honest) but because there was a long hiatus in hostilities between the spring of 1014 and the summer of 1015. Let's recap: Svein Forkbeard, king of Denmark, invaded England in the summer of 1013, after a targeted and swift-moving campaign which involved making alliances with some key players among the English nobility. (This will become important in a moment.) By the end of the year Svein had driven the English king, Æthelred, into exile. But Svein's reign in England lasted less than two months: he died suddenly in February 1014, and Æthelred returned from exile, making a bargain with the witan that he would rule England more justly than he had before. Within a few months he had managed to force the Danish army, now led by Svein's young son Cnut, back to Denmark. Last summer, we saw Cnut sailing away with a final gesture of unpleasant defiance: returning the English hostages who had been given to his father with their hands, ears and noses cut off. A number of Danish ships under the command of the formidable Viking leader Thorkell the Tall stayed in England, still taking large payments of money from Æthelred, but apparently not giving their full allegiance to either the English or the Danish king.

Between Michaelmas 1014 and the summer of 1015, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, our most detailed narrative source, doesn't tell us what was going on in England. The gap itself is interesting. One of the advantages of this kind of real-time project, attempting to follow events more or less in the sequence that they happened, is that you are forced to notice gaps and pauses as much as events, the absence as well as the presence of information. Writing a narrative of any historical period, we mostly have little choice but to skip over the times for which we don't have any details; but a year is a long time, and a lot can happen. What was Æthelred doing? Was he consolidating his position, 'ruling more justly than before'? Was he holding fire on his internal enemies, waiting to strike? We can't really know.

But in summer 1015, while Cnut was still in Denmark, things started to get tense in England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) says:

On þissum geare wæs þæt mycele gemot on Oxonaforda. 7 þær Eadric ealdorman beswac Sigeferð 7 Morcær þa yldestan þægenas into Seofonburgum. bepæhte hi into his bure. 7 hi man þær inne ofsloh ungerisenlice. 7 se cyng þa genam eall heora æhta. 7 het nimon Sigeferðes lafe 7 gebringon binnon Mealdelmes byrig. Þa æfter litlum fece ferde Eadmund æðeling to. 7 genam þæt wif ofer þes cynges willan. 7 heafde him to wife. Ða toforan natiuitas sancte Mariæ ferde se æðeling wæston norð into Fifburgum. 7 gerad sona ealle Sigeferðes are 7 Morcares. 7 þæt folc eall him tobeah.

[In this year was the great assembly at Oxford, and there Eadric the ealdorman betrayed Sigeferth and Morcar, the foremost thegns in the Seven Boroughs; he lured them into his chamber, and in there they were dishonorably murdered. And the king then took all their possessions, and ordered Sigeferth's widow to be seized and brought to Malmesbury. Then after a little while Edmund the atheling journeyed there, and took the woman against the king's will, and married her. Then before the Nativity of St Mary the atheling journeyed from the west, north into the Five Boroughs and rode at once into all Sigeferth and Morcar's territory, and the people all submitted to him.]

This is the English aristocracy in chaos. A 'great assembly' held at Oxford was probably an attempt at peace-keeping, reunification of Æthelred's kingdom after it had fallen piecemeal (and not always reluctantly) to the Danes two years before. In the Anglo-Saxon period Oxford was (strange as it is to think of!) border-territory, on the frontier between Wessex and Mercia - formerly independent kingdoms, all part of 'England' by the eleventh century, but ruled by different interests and with some sense of regional identity, nonetheless. Lying at the meeting-place of roads and rivers, Oxford was a key strategic location; two years earlier, it had been the first town in the south to submit to Svein, by force, after the north had declared allegiance to him. Perhaps the assembly of 1015 was held in Oxford as a kind of neutral territory, a symbolic gesture to bring the north and south together in a reunited country under the restored king. But it didn't work out that way.

A map of Saxon Oxford, from this site

'Eadric the ealdorman', better known as Eadric streona, was one of Æthelred's closest advisors, and he may well have been acting on the king's orders when he secretly and treacherously murdered Sigeferth and Morcar, the most powerful thegns in the Midlands (they ruled a territory based around the 'Five Boroughs' of Lincoln, Derby, Leicester, Nottingham, and Stamford). In 1013 the Five Boroughs had submitted to Svein very quickly, and Sigeferth and Morcar had not only led the submission to the Danes but probably arranged for their kinswoman Ælfgifu of Northampton to marry Cnut. After this defection it seems that Æthelred did not trust them, and perhaps this summary killing at the Oxford assembly was delayed punishment for their rejection of the English king - who had promised on his return that he would 'forgive all injuries against him', and didn't.

To murder anyone under the guise of hospitality in this way was a particularly shocking act. Æthelred may have rid himself of two potential enemies, but he created another, and a more dangerous: his own son, Edmund Ironside, who now openly rebelled against his father. Edmund married Sigeferth's widow and reclaimed the territory of the murdered thegns from the king, building himself a power-base in the Midlands. Sigeferth and Morcar may have been Edmund's friends and allies - they had apparently been close to his brother Æthelstan, who had recently died and left them bequests in his will. After the early death of his elder brother in 1014, Edmund was Æthelred's oldest surviving son and the person best placed to inherit the throne. This break between the king and the atheling was a serious crisis.

Sigeferth's widow, the woman here seized and imprisoned and taken and married ('against the king's will' - was it against hers?) is named by a later source as Ealdgyth. We know nothing more about her, but she was probably the mother of Edmund Ironside's two sons, who spent almost all their short lives in exile after fleeing England in 1016; but one of them was the father of St Margaret of Scotland, through whose descendents the line of the Anglo-Saxon kings was grafted back into the royal family tree after the Norman Conquest. So this marriage, hasty and controversial as it was, may have left a long legacy.

Edmund Ironside and his descendents (BL Royal 14 B VI)

And what was happening in Denmark, all this while? As summer drew on, Cnut was preparing to launch another invasion. The Encomium Emmae Reginae, a Latin account of Cnut's conquest and reign written for his second wife Emma, c.1041, fills in the gap a little on the Danish side. As we saw in my last post, the Encomium tells us that Cnut returned to Denmark and reached a rather awkward agreement with his brother about how they should divide the rule of their father's kingdom. And then Thorkell turned up:
The summer sun was drawing near, and Knutr, having restored the army, hastened to return and avenge his injuries. But as he was strolling round the beaches, he observed a small number of ships out at sea. For Thorkell, remembering what he had done to Sveinn, and that he had also unadvisedly remained in the country without the leave of Knutr, his lord, sought his lord with nine ships and their crews, in order to make it clear to him that he was not acting against his safety in remaining, when he went away. When he arrived, he did not presume to approach the shore unbidden, but casting anchor, he sent messengers, and asked leave to enter the ports. When this was granted, he landed and asked his lord's mercy, and having become with great difficulty reconciled to him, he gave an oath of fidelity, to the effect that he would serve him continuously and faithfully. He remained with him more than a whole month, and urged him to return to England, saying that he could easily overcome people whose country was known far and wide to both of them. In particular, he said that he had left thirty ships in England with a most faithful army, who would receive them with honour when they came, and would conduct them through the whole extent of the country.
Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. and trans. Alistair Campbell (London: Royal Historical Society, 1949), p. 19.

The Encomium is not to be taken entirely at face value, but I rather like this little vignette of Cnut walking along the beach, spotting ships out at sea, and then waiting on the shore to receive Thorkell's hesitant embassy. (Scenes of landing are always interesting; this one makes me think of Beowulf getting a wary welcome when he lands on the coast of Denmark.) Anyway, let's take the author's word for it that Thorkell came and urged Cnut to return to England and said 'we can easily beat the English, because we know the terrain!' So Cnut readied his ships, over which the Encomium waxes lyrical:

Then the king said farewell to his mother and brother, and returned to the area of the winding coast, where he had already assembled the fair spectacle of two hundred ships. For here was so great a quantity of arms, that one of those ships would have very abundantly supplied weapons, if they had been lacking to all the rest. Furthermore, there were there so many kinds of shields, that you would have believed that troops of all nations were present. So great, also, was the ornamentation of the ships, that the eyes of the beholders were dazzled, and to those looking from afar they seemed of flame rather than of wood. For if at any time the sun cast the splendour of its rays among them, the flashing of arms shone in one place, in another the flame of suspended shields. Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed on the variously shaped ships. So great, in fact, was the magnificence of the fleet, that if its lord had desired to conquer any people, the ships alone would have terrified the enemy, before the warriors whom they carried joined battle at all. For who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold, who upon the men of metal, menacing with golden face, who upon the dragons burning with pure gold, who upon the bulls on the ships threatening death, their horns shining with gold, without feeling any fear for the king of such a force? Furthermore, in this great expedition there was present no slave, no man freed from slavery, no low-born man, no man weakened by age; for all were noble, all strong with the might of mature age, all sufficiently fit for any type of fighting, all of such great fleetness, that they scorned the speed of horsemen.

And so the force which has been described, having unfastened the anchors and ropes from the shore, boarded the lofty ships and put to sea, and swept the waves with such impetus, that you would have thought that they were flying over the water in winged ships, which hardly creaked, heavy as the sea was.

Encomium Emmae Reginae, trans. Campbell, pp. 19-21.

There's poetic licence here, but perhaps not too much; anyone who marvelled at the huge reconstructed ship in the British Museum's recent Vikings exhibition can imagine how impressive Cnut's fleet must have been.


Those winged ships flying across the water caught the imagination of Cnut's poets, too; here's how a poem addressed to Cnut (composed probably in the 1020s) describes his voyage to England:

Hratt lítt gamall, lýtir
lǫgreiðar, framm skeiðum;
fórat fylkir œri
folksveimuðr, þér heiman;
Hilmir, bjótt ok hættir
harðbrynjuð skip kynjum;
reiðr hafðir þú rauðar
randir, Knútr, fyr landi...

Vǫð blés of þér, vísi;
vestr settir þú flesta
- kunnt gørðir þú þannig
þitt nafn - í haf stafna.

Óttarr svarti, Knútsdrápa, ed. 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.

That is:
Sea-chariot's destroyer, you launched ships at a young age; no younger ruler than you, O warrior, ever set out from home! Prince, you prepared hard-armoured ships, and were wondrously brave; in your rage, Cnut, you raised red shields before the land... Captain, the sail billowed above you; many prows you sent west across the sea. Thus you made your name known!

In the next post, we'll see what happened when those ships reached land. But as a foretaste, here's an extract from another poem composed for Cnut, this time by Sigvatr Þórðarson - this is what Æthelred and Edmund Ironside had to look forward to.

Ok Ellu bak,
at, lét, hinns sat,
Ívarr ara,
Jórvík, skorit.

Ok senn sonu
sló, hvern ok þó,
Aðalráðs eða
út flæmði Knútr.

Sigvatr Þórðarson, Knútsdrápa, ed. Matthew Townend in Whaley, Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 1, pp. 651-2.

That is:
And Ivar, who dwelt at York, had Ælla's back cut with an eagle; and Cnut soon struck down or drove out the sons of Æthelred, every single one.

This is a reference to one of the most famous Vikings of them all: Ivar 'the Boneless', son of Ragnar Lothbrok. In compliment to Cnut, the poet Sigvatr here brings together two Danish triumphs over English kings which took place almost exactly 150 years apart. In 867 Ivar and his brothers killed Ælla, king of Northumbria, and conquered northern England - a famous victory, and even in the eleventh century the stuff of evocative legend. Ivar's was a name to conjure with, a great Viking predecessor for a young Danish king to follow. Ivar and his brother were most famous in English history as the killers of St Edmund of East Anglia - and in 1015 St Edmund's namesake, Edmund Ironside, was about to encounter the Vikings for the first time.

Ivar's fleet, as imagined by a 15th-century English manuscript (BL Harley 2278, f. 47v)

1 comment:

Marsha Lambert said...

Fantastic post. Enjoyed it very much.