Friday 13 December 2013

The Danish Conquest, 1000 Years: Part 3

I think it’s time to catch up with the Danish Conquest of 1013-14, and see what was happening this time exactly one thousand years ago. Previous posts, here and here, brought us to the autumn of the year which would end with the overthrow of the English monarchy by the army led by Svein Forkbeard. The winter of 1013-1014 was the crisis of the conquest, the culmination of disaster (if you were on the English side) or triumph (if you were on the Danish side) and probably very unsettling wherever your sympathies fell on the spectrum in between.

Back in August we left the Danes at the gates of Winchester, with Svein having accepted submission from Northumbria and the Midlands, married his son into a powerful English family, and begun to raid his way through the south of England.  Once Oxford and Winchester had submitted, the Danish army turned back to London, where King Æthelred was holed up.  The conquest of Winchester was a significant triumph for Svein; Winchester was the traditional capital of Wessex, and the loss must have been a psychological blow for Æthelred and his dwindling band of supporters.  From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (D):

Wendon þa þanon eastweard to Lundene, 7 mycel his folces adrangc on Temese, for þæm þe hi nanre brice ne cæpton. Þa þe he to þære byrig com þa nolde se buruhwaru bugan, ac heoldon mid fullon wige ongean, for þan þær wæs inne se cyning æþelred 7 þurcyl mid him. Þa wende Swegen cyng þanon to Weallingaforda 7 swa ofer Temese westweard to Baþan, 7 sæt þær mid his fyrde, 7 com æþelmær ealdorman þyder 7 þa wæstrena ðegenas mid him, 7 bugon ealle to Swegene, 7 gislodon. 7 þa he æl þus gefaren hæfde, wende þa norþweard to his scypum. 7 eall þeodscipe hine hæfde þa for fulne cyning. 7 seo buruhwaru æfter þæm on Lundenne beah 7 gislude, for þon hi ondredon þæt hi fordon wolde. Bead þa Swegen ful gyld 7 metsunge to his hære þone winter, 7 þurcyl bead þæt ylce to þæm here þe læg æt Grenawic, 7 butan þæm hi gehergodon swa oft swa hi woldon, þa ne dohte naþær þisse leode ne suðan ne norðan.

[Then [Svein's army] turned eastward to London, and many of his people were drowned in the Thames, because they did not look out for a bridge.  Then when he came to the town, the citizens would not submit to him, but held out against him with full battle, because King Æthelred was inside the town and Thorkell with him.  Then King Svein turned from there to Wallingford and so across the Thames west to Bath, and camped there with his army, and Ealdorman Æthelmær came there with the western thegns, and all submitted to Svein and gave hostages.  And when he had travelled this far he turned northward to his ships, and all the nation then had him as full king.  And after that the citizens of London submitted and gave hostages, because they were afraid he would destroy them.  Then Svein ordered full payment and provisions for his army for the winter, and Thorkell ordered the same for the army which lay at Greenwich, and despite that they raided as often as they wanted to, and nothing did this people any good, in south or north.]

It's not quite clear what we should make of the bit where many Danes drowned in the Thames because they didn't cæpton a bridge - notice? look out for? wait around to find? Most likely they tried to ford the river, and found it stronger than they expected. However, this tactical error aside, we see here the last rally of English resistance. The Chronicle does not give the impression that the Danes had met much resistance anywhere up to this point - they seem to have swept through the country without even being challenged to battle - but the inhabitants of London were not giving in so easily.  It's quite telling that it's only in the place where King Æthelred actually was that there was any attempt to fight back - can we assume he had absolutely lost influence over the rest of the country?  And even then, his military strength at this point came mostly from the Danish earl Thorkell the Tall and his fleet.  Up until the previous year, Thorkell's had been the most formidable of the Danish fleets raiding in England, but in 1012 he had gone over to Æthelred's side, supposedly motivated by remorse because Ælfheah, Archbishop of Canterbury, had been killed by his men while their hostage.  With him he brought forty-five ships full of warriors (I won't say 'full of scary Jomsvikings', but that's what later saga legends said!).  Thorkell's defection may have been the impetus for Svein's invasion of England, because Thorkell was a powerful and independent-minded rival to the Danish kings - you might imagine Svein, in 1013, being afraid that Thorkell with English allies was becoming a dangerous threat to his own throne.  So during the attack on London it was probably Thorkell, not Æthelred, of whom Svein was really afraid - it's an extraordinary situation, two Danish armies fighting for control of an English city, with the English king rather helplessly dependent on his Danish ally.

There are unanswered questions about this period about which the Chronicle does not enlighten us.  For instance, where were Æthelred's adult sons? Two years later, when Cnut was attempting to repeat his father's conquest, Edmund Ironside fought him all over the country - where on earth was Edmund while all this was going on? It's difficult to imagine him doing nothing; maybe the chronicler just didn't know what he was doing. Perhaps he was in the army fighting to defend London, in which case it's fun to speculate how he got along with Thorkell...

Anyway, the Danes were repulsed from London, and turned back west again to Bath.  There the submission was led by Ealdorman Æthelmær, a relative of the king, and best known to students of Old English for being the pious patron of the homilist Ælfric.  Æthelmær had been living in retirement in a monastery since 1005, so his leading of the west's submission has a kind of symbolic character.  Once the west had submitted to Svein he was in control of the whole country except London, and winter was coming on, so he turned back north to Lincolnshire, where Cnut had been left in charge of the ships.  And he demanded (for he now had the power to demand) supplies for his army, and Thorkell, never lacking in nerve, did the same for his, and "nothing did this people any good, in south or north".

Then London gave in, and Æthelred had lost the last of his kingdom. The Chronicle continues:

Þa wæs se cyning sume hwile mid þam flotan þe on Temese læg, 7 seo hlæfdige wende þa ofer sæ to hire broþor Ricarde, 7 ælfsige abbod of Burh mid hire, 7 se cyning sende ælfun bisceop mid þam æþelingum Eadwearde 7 Ælfrede ofer sæ, þæt he hi bewitan sceolde. 7 se cyning wende þa fram þam flotan to þam middanwintre to Wihtlande, 7 wæs þær ða tid, 7 æfter þære tide wende ofer þa sæ to Ricarde, 7 wæs þær mid him oð ðone byre þe Swegen dead wearð. 

[Then the king was for a while with the fleet which lay in the Thames, and the queen went across the sea to her brother Richard, and with her Ælfsige, abbot of Peterborough; and the king sent Bishop Ælfhun with the æthelings Edward and Alfred across the sea, so that he should look after them.  And then the king went at midwinter from the fleet to the Isle of Wight, and was there for a while, and after that period he went across the sea to Richard, and stayed with him until the fortunate event of Svein's death.]

The royal family fled to Normandy, Queen Emma's homeland, while Æthelred stayed for a time near the coast of England - but with 'the fleet which lay in the Thames', that is, Thorkell's.  As the nineteenth-century historian E. A. Freeman famously described this moment in Æthelred's reign, 'the monarchy of Cerdic was now confined to the decks of forty-five Scandinavian war-ships'.  (Cerdic being the ancestors of the kings of Wessex).  Cerdic's line may have been in trouble, but the dynasty of Scyld was doing pretty well: until 'the fortunate event of Svein's death' took place at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire at Candlemas, 1014, Svein was the first Danish king to rule the whole of England (though not the first to reign in England).  His reign lasted not much more than three months, but nonetheless, this was a significant achievement, and I don't think he gets quite enough credit for it. But we'll come to that in a month or two.

One witness for the state of England during this troubled winter is the famous ‘Sermo Lupi ad Anglos’ (‘Sermon of ‘Wulf’ to the English’) delivered by Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, probably early in 1014. Wulfstan describes a country in collapse:

Leofan men, gecnawað þæt soð is: ðeos worolde is on ofste, and hit nealæcð þam ende, and þy hit is on worolde aa swa leng swa wyrse, and swa hit sceal nyde for folces synnan ær antecristes tocyme yfelian swyþe, and huru hit wyrð þænne egeslic and grimlic wide on worolde. Understandað eac georne þæt deofol þas þeode nu fela geara dwelode to swyþe, and þæt lytle getreowþa wæran mid mannum, þeah hy wel spræcan, and unrihta to fela ricsode on lande, and næs a fela manna þe smeade ymbe þa bote swa georne
swa man scolde, ac dæghwamlice man ihte yfel æfter oðrum, and unriht rærde and unlaga manege ealles to wide gynd ealle þas þeode. And we eac forþam habbað fela byrsta and bysmara gebiden, and gif we ænige bote gebidan scylan, þonne mote we þæs to Gode ernian bet þonne we ær þysan dydan. Forþam mid miclan earnungan we geearnedan þa yrmða þe us on sittað & mid swyþe micelan earnungan we þa bote motan æt Gode geræcan, gif hit sceal heonanforð godiende weorðan...

Forþam hit is on us eallum swutol and gesene þæt we ær þysan oftor bræcan þonne we bettan, and þy is þysse þeode fela onsæge. 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, and us ungylda swyðe gedrohtan, and us unwedera foroft weoldan unwæstma. Forþam on þysan earde wæs, swa hit þincan mæg, nu fela geara unrihta fela and tealte getrywða æghwær mid mannum. Ne bearh nu foroft gesib gesibban þe ma þe fremdan, ne fæder his bearne, ne hwilum bearn his agenum fæder, ne broþor oþrum. Ne ure ænig his lif ne fadode swa swa he scolde, ne gehadode regellice, ne læwede lahlice. Ac worhtan lust us to lage ealles to gelome, & naþor ne heoldan ne lare ne lage Godes ne manna, swa swa we scoldan. Ne ænig wið oþerne getrywlice þohte swa rihte swa he scolde, ac mæst ælc swicode and oþrum derede wordes and dæde, and huru unrihtlice mæst ælc oþerne æftan heaweþ mid sceandlican onscytan and mid wrohtlacan, do mare gif he mæge.

[Beloved men, know what is the truth: this world is in haste, and it nears the end, and thus things in the world grow ever worse and worse. And so it shall necessarily grow much worse before the coming of Antichrist, because of the sins of the people, and indeed it will then be terrible and dreadful throughout the world! And understand seriously that the devil has now for many years led this people astray, and there is little truth among men, although they speak well, and too many injustices have reigned in the land; and there were not many men who considered the remedy as earnestly as one ought to, but day by day one evil was added to another, and injustice was increased and many breakings of the law, all too widely throughout all this nation. And we also for that reason have endured many attacks and insults, and if we are to find any remedy, then we must merit it from God better than we have done before this. Therefore we have greatly deserved the miseries which oppress us, and we must greatly deserve that we may obtain the remedy from God, if things are to become better from now on...

Therefore among us it is clear and obvious that before this we have more often sinned than we have atoned for it, and therefore much is attacking this nation. Nothing has prospered now for a long time, at home or abroad; 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, and excessive tax has greatly oppressed us, and bad weather has very often caused the failure of harvests. Therefore in this country, as it appears, there have now been many years of many injustices, and unstable loyalties everywhere among men. Now very often a kinsman will not defend a kinsman any more than he would a stranger, nor a father his son, nor sometimes a son his own father, nor one brother another. None of us has ordered his life as he ought to, neither the religious according to his rule nor the layman according to law. But lust has been a law to us all too often, and we have not kept the teachings or the laws of God or man as we ought to do. No one has acted loyally towards others as justly as he should, but almost everyone has betrayed and harmed others in words and deeds, and indeed almost everyone has attacked others with shameful assaults and with slander, and will do more, if he can.]

That's probably enough to give you a taste; it doesn't get much more cheerful from this point on. You can read the whole sermon in translation here. In the winter of 1013-14 Wulfstan was effectively the leading churchman in England, so this sermon is not a voice crying in the wilderness but something like an address from the Prime Minister (like Winston Churchill’s wartime speeches, but a bit less encouraging). It may have been delivered to the witan, the king's counsel, so think of it as a parliamentary address aimed at the most powerful people in the land. Wulfstan is clear in his belief that the English have brought this disaster on themselves through their many sins, and that the only remedy is to repent and seek God's favour again. One version of this sermon makes reference to Æthelred being driven out of his land as an example of betrayal, which suggests he blamed the English (nobility) for this rather than the Danes. It's interesting to wonder, therefore, where Wulfstan was waiting out this difficult winter, bearing in mind that York had submitted to the Danes as long ago as the previous August. He would have been foolish to think his own life was not at risk if he fell into Danish hands, since Thorkell's fleet had killed his senior colleague, the elderly Archbishop of Canterbury, less than two years previously. (That must have focused the mind of many a churchman who might otherwise have felt himself safe!) Wulfstan is always inclined to the apocalyptic, but since the church is especially attuned to such matters in Advent, I tend to imagine Wulfstan pondering his sermon during that awful Advent of 1013, when it must have seemed as if the end - if not of the world, then of the kingdom of England - really was nigh at hand.

Wulfstan is so eloquent that his voice tends to prevail in our view of this important moment in Anglo-Saxon history. But it's worth remembering, as always, that not everyone in England would have agreed with him. Imagine the Danes in Gainsborough celebrating the Christmas season (or rather jól): Svein, now king of Denmark and England, and his son Cnut, with his new English wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton. Maybe Ælfgifu's family, led by the powerful Midlands noblemen Sigeferth and Morcar, came to pay a visit to their new king and inlaws. Wulfstan must have been thinking of men like Sigeferth and Morcar when he denounced traitors to the king, and Æthelred would later have them killed, probably for aiding the Danes; but they surely did not think of themselves as traitors, and they might have been rather pleased with themselves at Christmas 1013. They had no idea that Svein's reign would end with the Christmas season; it must have seemed like a new order coming into birth.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Yes, that would have been a miserable winter for many of the elite in England. And as you say, what was Wulfstan thinking? Where was he? For that matter, where were Athelstan and Edmund, and what were they planning? You mention that there is more than one version of this sermon. Did the versions change as the political/military situation in England changed? Did Wulfstan write his first draft as he prepared the English for a Danish king? Did he, after Swein's death, revise it to encourage the sons of Aethelred to resist Cnut? Or was it possibly (here's my theory) sent to Aethelred in Normandy along with the request to return to England and govern more wisely?