Cnut fights Edmund Ironside in a 13th-century manuscript CCCC MS. 26, f.80v
October is the season of conquest anniversaries. Four days after the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings falls a less well-known date: on 18 October 1016, a Danish army led by Cnut defeated the English king Edmund Ironside in battle at a place called Assandun in Essex, the last battle in Cnut's conquest of England. I wrote about that battle in detail, and the sources for our information about it, in this post from 2016, and about a visit to the area here. Like Hastings, Assandun was a battle which won a kingdom; but unlike at Hastings, the leader of the losing army was not killed, and so the aftermath was more complicated. It resulted in a treaty which divided England into two parts: Wessex for Edmund, and what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls the norðdæle, 'the northern part', for Cnut.
This division of the kingdom between north and south reflected a regional split in England which by that time already went back more than a hundred years. Parts of northern England had been settled by Scandinavians and under Scandinavian rule at various times since the ninth century, and their culture, language and perhaps political affiliations were still significantly influenced by this settlement. When Cnut's father Svein Forkbead launched a serious invasion in 1013, he seems to have felt able to count on political support from at least some among the leaders of the north for Danish rule, and he and Cnut treated the north differently from Wessex during their invasions. The division of the kingdom proposed in 1016 thus reflected a pre-existing cultural divide, of which the legacy can still be seen with extraordinary clarity today in the place-names and dialect of northern and eastern England.
The exact regions which are meant to be encompassed by the term norðdæle in the 1016 division are not entirely clear, but it probably means Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia - a huge area, stretching from the south Midlands to north Northumberland, and geographically speaking, much more than half of England. (norðdæle is the term used in ASC D; other versions of the Chronicle just mention Wessex for Edmund and Mercia for Cnut, leaving unsaid what happened to the rest of the country, but perhaps implying Cnut's control of those areas further north was already established.) Although over the course of the tenth century the kings of Wessex, Edmund Ironside's ancestors, had extended their power over the rest of the formerly independent kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, some of these areas had also been ruled by Cnut's predecessors among the kings of the Danes. By 1016 both Cnut and Edmund could claim that not only had both their fathers, Svein and Æthelred, ruled the whole kingdom of England (though in Svein's case only very briefly) but that both had ancestors who had ruled regions of the country. It would be wrong to imply that everyone in this vast norðdæle thought of themselves as culturally Scandinavian or 'Danish', or that even if they did it would necessarily have translated into political support for a Danish king; but they may not all have thought of themselves as 'English', either. Regional identities, such as 'Northumbrian', may have mattered as much or more. The point is that we are dealing with a large area and a mixed population, whose perspectives and identities would have varied considerably, and whom it is difficult to label. The chronicler's use of norðdæle seems to imply a division between Wessex vs. 'everything else', but that 'everything' included a great variety.
As it turned out, the division between Wessex and the rest of England lasted only a few weeks. Edmund died on 30 November that same year, and left Cnut as king of the whole country, which he then ruled (with Denmark, and eventually Norway too) until his death in 1035. But let's pause a little in that brief period when England was split between the two kings. It's an opportunity to think about how the movements of history which can, with hindsight, appear irresistible are actually far from being so. If Edmund had lived, and the division of the country had lasted, perhaps there would never again have been a single kingdom of England. It's a reminder that political unions which may seem to us inevitable and eternal can, in fact, fracture very rapidly.
The distribution of Scandinavian-influenced place-names in England, from this site
Since I've already written quite a bit here about Assandun, I want today to share another edited extract from my book which offers an unusual perspective on the roots of Cnut's conquest and its place in English history. What I wanted to explore in the book was how medieval writers and audiences in England, between the end of the Viking Age and the fifteenth century, understood and interpreted the history of Viking activity in this country - activity which includes not just raiding, but also this history of substantial Scandinavian settlement and periods of rule by Scandinavian kings. To understand this question, it's important to realise that our modern academic knowledge of the Viking Age, as well as the idea of 'the Vikings' which is so prevalent in popular culture, both first emerged centuries after the end of the medieval period. Almost everything you think of when you think 'Viking' comes from the 19th- and 20th-century rediscovery of medieval sources of information which were not available in medieval England, whether that's the huge amount of written sources from Scandinavia and Iceland - not accessible to English-speakers in any real quantity before the 19th century - or other sources of information unavailable to medieval historians, such as archaeology, the scientific study of place-names, linguistics, and much more. The very word 'Viking', while frequently found in Old Norse sources, was not a word used in medieval England; it was introduced into English in the 19th century, as a result of English-speakers beginning to have access to - and fall in love with! - Old Norse sagas. (There was an Old English cognate, wicing, but it doesn't have exactly the same meaning, did not survive into Middle English, and is not the origin of the Modern English word.) Instead of 'Vikings', medieval English writers tend to talk of 'the Danes' instead, which is of course a massive oversimplification given what we know about the complex and fluid make-up of the Vikings, and yet reveals something about how English writers saw them. It makes a difference that 'Danes' relates to a specific country, and one geographically close to England.
So how did England's early medieval history look if you didn't have the vast majority of the sources of information which have fed our modern understanding of 'the Vikings' - if you had never read a saga, or seen a reconstructed Viking ship or a map of the Danelaw? There are quite a lot of answers to that question, depending on the perspective, time and (especially) place from which medieval writers look back on the Viking past.
A map of Scandinavian-influenced place-names in Lincoln Museum.
One reason local history museums are so important...
In the British Library's superb 'Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms' exhibition last year, which gathered together such a glorious wealth of material from early medieval England, the one thing I came away reflecting on with some regret was the absence of discussion of what happened to the north and east of England under Viking rule. The course of Anglo-Saxon history wended its way from Kent up to Bede's Northumbria down to Mercia and Wessex, but once we reached Alfred the Great and his successors, the centre of attention was firmly in the south, and stayed there. The Vikings were seen doing their 'Viking' thing, burning monasteries and looting the Codex Aureus, but they were certainly marginal to the main story; as soon as they appeared, the focus moved south. There was, as far as I spotted, only one brief reference to the Viking kingdom of York, and only in the context of Athelstan claiming control of it; none of its kings were named, and there was nothing to suggest the importance of this kingdom which extended across the Irish Sea to Dublin. It inherently reflects a particular perspective on 'English' history to treat Athelstan as a major figure and not even give Sitric a name. There was also no mention of the many forms of evidence for the lasting impact of Scandinavian settlement in the north, and no reference to Old Norse as a spoken language in England or its significant influence on the present-day English language. Of course I wanted to see those things in part because they're my special interest, but I'm also conscious that treating that aspect of Anglo-Saxon history as marginal means overlooking an important part of the story of northern England and its particular relationships with neighbouring peoples in Ireland, Scotland, and Scandinavia (and again, we're talking about what is geographically at least half of England - not just Northumbria, but the East Midlands and East Anglia too.) This is more an observation than a criticism of the exhibition; it was so very good, and no exhibition can include everything. You might well object that the Viking rulers of Northumbria or East Anglia weren't technically 'Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms', which I suppose is true. But perhaps it's also part of the problem. Both 'Anglo-Saxon' and 'English' are terms which in this period have political force, and reflect a certain perspective on what 'England' is and what it should be. 'Anglo-Saxon England' is more an idea than a place, an idea formulated in the first instance by elites in particular times and places who wanted to bring it into being, and as historians have long been aware, it's an idea which (like 'the Vikings') doesn't always map onto how these peoples saw their own identity. So does it include the Scandinavian settlers and their descendants and those who lived alongside them? Well, that's the question. It does and it doesn't; depends who you ask. The 'Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms' way of telling the story of early medieval English history is certainly a well-established and familiar one; it already was by the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, because it's the story as seen from the perspective of the people who by that time were doing most of the history-writing. But it was not inevitable that it should be so; it was not inevitable that 'the history of the kings of Wessex' should merge seamlessly into 'the history of England'. If we look closely at the sources we can find alternative histories, different ways of telling the story, where other people and other places are not marginal but central to the imagined narrative of English history.
Here's one alternative history of early medieval England which comes from 12th-century Lincolnshire. It's predicated on the idea that the Danes, far from being late-comers to England - invaders and raiders and enemies of the English - were actually there first, and had a presence in at least parts of the country long before the coming of the Anglo-Saxons. (Though modern historians now question the traditional idea of the adventus Anglorum, 'the coming of the English/Angles', most medieval historians accepted it as established fact, so just go with it...)
This story is recorded by a writer named Geffrei Gaimar in his Estoire des Engleis, written in c.1136-7. The Estoire tells the story of the 'history of the English', in sprightly Anglo-Norman verse, all the way from the coming of the Saxons to the death of William Rufus in 1100. Gaimar wrote for a female patron, a woman named Constance Fitz Gilbert, a member of a well-connected aristocratic family in Lincolnshire. The Estoire is, therefore, intended primarily for a secular, aristocratic, French-speaking audience, which makes its version of Anglo-Danish history all the more interesting. Gaimar presents a narrative of English and British history freely drawn not only from his two main sources, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but also from romance and oral tradition which he probably encountered in Lincolnshire. It's a potent blend of history and legend, with just enough of each to keep things lively.
Gaimar tells stories about a number of semi-legendary Danish kings who supposedly ruled in England as long ago as the days of King Arthur, which here means some time in the fifth century - kings whose historical basis is not clear, though some of them do appear in other sources. The powerbase of these Danish kings is in Lincolnshire and East Anglia, but they also rule lands in Denmark itself. They're at war with Arthur and his descendants, and then when the Saxons come they're at war with them too. First there's King Adelbriht, who starts off as king of Norfolk, but then extends his rule down as far as Colchester in Essex. (Adelbriht would generally be an English name, but he's explicitly said to be Danish). His royal capital seems to be Thetford, since that's where he is when he dies, and he's buried in Colchester. His daughter Argentille marries Haveloc, the son of another Danish king named Gunter; Haveloc has been orphaned as a child and brought up in Grimsby, but there's a long story about how he rediscovers his true identity and becomes a successful king. (It's an alternative version of the Havelok legend which I've written about elsewhere and discuss at length in the book; and see also this post by Caitlin Green on Gaimar's Haveloc and Lincolnshire history) The story of Haveloc and Argentille ends with them ruling a Danish kingdom which stretches from Colchester up to the Humber, and apparently includes at least part of Denmark too.
And by this point in the story it's still only 495! It's only now that the Saxons begin to turn up in (what was to become) England. Later we meet Wasing - whose name might have something to do with Walsingham - a Danish king of Norfolk who goes to war with the Saxons of Wessex. And so when some Danish ships arrive on the coast of Dorset in 789, an incident recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which later historians often took to be the 'beginning of the Viking Age', it's not really the beginning at all:
E en cel tens vindrent Daneis
pur guereier sur les Engleis:
un senesçal al rei oscistrent,
la terre saisirent e pristrent,
mult firent mal par les contrees,
si nen u[re]nt ke treis navees.
Puis realerent en lur païs
si asemblerent lur amis;
en Bretaigne voldrent venir,
as Engleis la voldrent tolir
car entr’els eurent esgardé
e dit ke ço est lur herité,
e mulz homes de lur linage,
urent le regne en heritage
ainceis kë Engleis i entrast
ne home de Sessoigne i habitast:
li reis Danes tint le regnez,
ki de Denemarch[e] fu nez:
si fist Ailbrith e Haveloc,
e plus en nomerent ovoc,
purquai il distrent pur verité,
Bretaigne ert lur dreit herité.
It was during this time that the Danes arrived to wage war on the English. They killed a certain royal steward, seized and secured the land and, despite their only having three ships, caused a great deal of damage throughout the region. They then returned home and enlisted their allies with the intention of coming to Britain to seize the island from the English, for they had reached the decision between them, and claimed that this country was part of their heritage, and that many of their ancestors had established an inheritance claim before any English had even arrived or before anyone from Saxony came to live there. King Dan, who was born in Denmark, had ruled over the kingdom, as had Adelbriht and Haveloc, and they named others in addition who had done so. It was on this basis that they claimed it to be true that Britain was their rightful inheritance.Geffrei Gaimar, Estoire des Engleis: History of the English, ed. Ian Short (Oxford, 2009), pp. 114-15.
According to this story, Viking attacks on England aren't opportunistic raids of plunder but a coordinated attempt at national expansion. The Danes are would-be conquerors who target England - and actually the whole of Britain - specifically because their ancestors had once ruled there, not only Adelbriht and Havelok, as described above, but also this mysterious 'King Dan'. King Dan does not appear in any other sources from England, but there are several references in Scandinavian historical writing to a king named Dan, progenitor of the Danes. The Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus begins the first book of the Gesta Danorum by naming the brothers Dan and Angul as the originators of the Danish and English nations, respectively. According to Saxo, this Dan was the grandfather of Sciold/Scyld, from whom the Scyldings were descended (the Scyldings are the Danes in Beowulf, Hrothgar et al, and Cnut seems to have considered himself a Scylding too). Dan is also found in some other Scandinavian sources: a King Dan is mentioned in the twelfth-century Chronicon Lethrense as a king who ruled Denmark in the time of the Emperor Augustus and gave his name to the Danes, and Snorri Sturluson, in the prologue to Heimskringla and in Ynglinga saga, says that Dan was the first person to be called king by the Danes.
King Dan is probably a purely legendary figure, a back-formation from the name of the Danes, as Angul is from the English. It's possible that Gaimar and these Scandinavian sources arrived at the same name independently (it would be a natural etymological deduction!) but it's also possible that the ultimate source of Gaimar’s information was connected to these beliefs about Danish history - an Anglo-Danish tradition in Lincolnshire, perhaps. This East Midlands perspective, with its specific focus on ties to Denmark (rather than, for instance, Norway) is itself likely to be very different from ideas which might have been current elsewhere in northern England.
Cnut and Edmund in CUL MS. Ee 3 59, f. 5
And that brings us to Cnut. When Gaimar tells the story of Cnut and Edmund Ironside meeting to divide England between them in 1016, he has Cnut inform Edmund that they are both the sons of kings who have ruled the country, but that his ancestors held England many years before the coming of the Saxons:
e bien sachez, loi[n]gtenement
l’urent Daneis nostre parent:
prés de mil anz l’out Dane aince[i]s
ke unc i entrast Certiz li reis.
Certiz, ço fu vostre ancïen;
e li reis Danes fu le mien.
Daneis le tint en chef de Deu,
Modret donat Certiz son feu:
il ne tint unkes chevalment,
de lui vindrent vostre parent.
Pur ço vus di, si nel savez,
si vus od mai [vus] combataz,
l[i] un de nus ad greignur tort,
ne savom liequels en ert mort.
Pur ço vus vol un offre fere
e ne m’en voil de rien retrere:
partum la terre dreit en dous,
l’une partie en aiez vus,
l’altre partie me remaigne!
Our Danish ancestors, I’ll have you know, have been ruling here for a very long time. Almost a thousand years before king Cerdic came to the throne, Dan was king. Cerdic was your ancestor, and king Dan was mine. A Dane held the land in chief from God. It was Mordred who granted Cerdic his fief; he never held it in chief, and your family is descended from him. In case you don’t already know, I’ll tell you that if you fight me, one of us is going to be in the wrong more than the other, though we don’t know which one of us will die as a result. This is why I’m willing to make you an offer – one that I will not seek to back down from: let us divide the kingdom exactly in two, with one part going to you and the other remaining with me.Gaimar, Estoire des Engleis: History of the English, ed. Ian Short, pp. 234-7.
Cnut is claiming that the Danes have a prior claim to England dating back to centuries before the foundation of the kingdom of Wessex, long before Cerdic and Edmund Ironside's other ancestors had ever come to the country. Numerous other medieval chroniclers have versions of a story about this meeting between Cnut and Edmund (I wrote about some of them in a previous version of this post), but no one else includes this bold claim to ancient Danish sovereignty. From a historical point of view this clearly can't be accurate, but what's interesting is that Gaimar treats it as basically a sound and legitimate argument: it's only repeating what has already been shown several times in the Estoire, and Edmund Ironside is said to admire ‘how humbly and how justly the good king spoke to him’. Edmund agrees to the division of the country along the lines proposed by the Danish king, and his response to Cnut’s argument implicitly accepts it as a valid interpretation of the history. Cnut’s offer to divide the kingdom, in this light, is a magnanimous one: he has a prior claim to rule the country, and is generously conceding part of it to Edmund to put an end to the fighting. (Most medieval and indeed many modern retellings of this story would put it the other way around - that Edmund is the one conceding something rightfully 'his'). Morally and historically, Cnut is on the strongest side.
So what's going on here? Gaimar's narrative is a fascinating mash-up, combining Anglo-Saxon historical sources with the newly popular world of Arthurian romance beloved by the Norman aristocracy; but the firm belief in Danish right to rule and the general sympathy with Danes over Saxons suggests that at least some of this material has its roots in the Anglo-Scandinavian society of 12th-century Lincolnshire, where Gaimar was writing. It's worth pointing out that in the 1130s Danish claims to rule England were not only the stuff of distant history, but also of the fairly recent past: there were serious threats (or promises, I suppose, depending on your view) that the Danes would invade England on and off well in the 1080s. Yet, as the title of the Estoire suggests, the Danes and Saxons all form part of the 'History of the English' - and so, implicitly, do the French-speaking audience of the Estoire. Gaimar retells the story of pre-Conquest England for a Norman aristocratic audience who may have seen themselves as the latest in a long line of conquerors, relatively new to England but nonetheless heirs to its land and its history. Danes, Saxons, Normans - 'English' is a capacious term which expands to include these new arrivals.
Of course, the Estoire is not actually wrong to suggest that the Danes had a long-established history in England, or that they had ruled in the East Midlands: Adelbriht and Haveloc and King Dan are (probably) fictional, though there may be a grain of truth in their stories, but certainly there had been Danish kings of East Anglia of whose existence we can be confident. The Estoire just locates this history about five centuries too early, perhaps as a way of claiming primacy over an alternative version of pre-Conquest history: that centred on Wessex. It's the Wessex version we get almost everywhere else in late Anglo-Saxon sources, and in most of the Anglo-Norman chroniclers who follow them - the version which sees the creation of a kingdom of England, ruled from the south, as the teleological end-point of Anglo-Saxon history. So in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's account of Assandun, for instance, the chronicler can insist by fervent repetition that Edmund is fighting on behalf of 'all the English people', while Cnut is an outsider whom only traitors support:
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 people 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 people. There Cnut had the victory, and won for himself the whole people 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 people.]
The chronicler here uses 'Engla þeode' and 'Angelcynnes þeode' interchangeably, and both should probably be translated as 'English people' (þeod might equally be translated, with caveats, as 'nation'). But it's important to be alert to the extent to which this use of 'English' is propagandistic, deliberately exclusionary, defining 'the English people' to mean 'Edmund Ironside and his supporters'. It is a much more restricted definition than that put forward by the French-speaking Gaimar 120 years later, for whom Engleis potentially includes anyone living in England. Here, 'English' is made to exclude not only people of Danish birth, like Cnut, but even those among the English who were supporting him; by going over to the Danes, they have somehow forfeited their 'Englishness'.
But would people have recognised this restricted definition in Lincolnshire, or other parts of the former Danish-ruled areas of England? Might some of them have thought there was another version of history in which a concept and term like 'all the English nation' could readily encompass Danes and Danish kings, since it had done so in the past? That was certainly the approach Cnut himself took as king: ready to rule like the kings of Wessex from Winchester, but happy to be compared to long-ago Viking kings who had ruled from York. One of his poets lauded him by reminding the king and his followers that:
Ok Ellu bak,
at, lét, hinns sat,
Ok senn sonu
sló, hvern ok þó,
út flæmði Knútr.
Ívarr, who ruled at York, had Ælla’s back cut with an eagle. And Cnut soon defeated or drove out the sons of Æthelred, every one.
Ivar is the famous Ivar the Boneless, Ælla a Northumbrian king who was one of his victims, and it was 150 years or so from their time to Cnut's. Whether Cnut or his supporters really did trace the precedent of a Danish England all the way back to King Dan, this poem too finds a precedent for Danish rule in an alternative reading of English history which places its Danish kings front and centre. Here it's the West Saxons who are a footnote, the sons of Æthelred (like Edmund Ironside) who are the ones driven away, marginalised, swept out of the mainstream by history's apparently inevitable onward tide. It could easily have been that way. It very nearly was.
A pendant of Thor's hammer found in Lincolnshire,
one of many found across the areas of Scandinavian settlement in England