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...

2 comments:

sophy0075 said...

Thanks for this history. I believe Cnut received all of one line in the English history textbook I studied in college. And that line, of course, involved the silly story about waves.

Truefast ᛗ said...

Is it not odd that things were in some ways much darker in 877/878 for England at the hands of the Danes than in 1016 for Ironside, but Alfred stil overcometh? Or was it not that the men of Devon had luckily took "se guðfana ... þe hie hræfn heton" before the showdown at "Eðandune" and in Ironside's days there was no such luck. Might not the name Assandun have been given after the fightlock (=battle), looking to the English as "Hengest's sons" being made to look like asses? I could be wrong, but I don't think asses were ever a thing too often to be found in England. And with Hengestesdune in 838 do we not have the againward of this? Great blog by the way, although I myself am a believer in the old gods yet I often find something in it. Thank you.