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Blog Tour: Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England by Annie Whitehead

Hello and welcome one and all to my blog as we forge ahead on the Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. If you have missed the previous stops, you will find them on the banner at the end of this post.

I am very please to be able to present to you a review of Ms Whitehead’s latest book. As an Anglo-Saxonist myself, the topic of the book is very dear to me. I can honestly say that my expectations of reading this book was very much lived up to.

First of all, I must introduce the author to those of you who are not familiar with Annie, or her works. Annie is a competent historian and historical fiction writer who has written three novels based on the lives of certain historical characters and another non-fiction, about Mercia. You can find more about Annie’s books on her website here .

So, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England.

The beauty of this work is it concisely brings together almost everything that was ever believed about the early medieval period – or the Dark Ages, and turns it on its head in the shape of its females. Annie Whitehead certainly does shine a light on the women of this era, not just a light but a huge great spotlight. Although there are many facts that cannot be possibly known about these ladies in detail, such as their character, what they liked, and who they loved, the author picks through the threads and meticulously gives us enough glimpses of their lives for us to feel some empathy and attachment. For example, Queen Edith who preferred to sit at the feet of her husband, Edward the Confessor, or the noble woman searching on a battlefield for the mutilated corpse of her husband, or the girl and her mother found in bed with a young king on his coronation celebration!

We also hear their stories as told through the chroniclers such as Bede:

We have wild tales even about those revered as pious nuns – of escape from hot ovens and down sewers, of women bringing animals and even themselves back to life, all of which seem fantastic, but were told to serve a purpose.

What I enjoy most about these books about the historical female, and with this one in particular, is the finding out that there is a lot more written about these women than previously I believed, especially by the monks in the earlier Anglo-Saxon period who seem to have been fascinated by them. And the weirder the tale, the more interested they were. A lot more seems to have been available than in the mid to later period when the monks seemed to share a dislike of women in power. Take Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and Alfgred the Great’s daughter, for instance, of whom very little was recorded by the West Saxon version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, but whose achievements are lauded by Anglo-Norman Chroniclers after the conquest and only elements of the Annals of Æthelflæd are incorporated into the other chronicles.

Another pleasant surprise was that for many years I have been trying to find evidence of how the Anglo-Saxon women would have been able to see their reflections, and there on page 7, we find that a pope sends one of our ladies an ivory comb and a silver mirror to aid her personal care. Imagine how excited I was to find this little fact, as it is often believed that such items were not available to the people of this period as there is little evidence that there was. I am sure however it was a high status possession and not open to women of all classes, but nonetheless I am overjoyed at this snippet of information.

Another interesting observation I was able to gleam how much more interested the church seemed to have placed on women of religious orders rather than their secular counterparts, and it was almost as if a woman was only worthy if she had spent most of her life in chastity, for example Ælfthryth, who married King Ecgfrith of Northumbria and managed to remain a virgin, happier founding monasteries than giving her husband heirs, and became a saint because of her piety and unwillingness to give away her virginity. One wonders though, how much of this was true!

For me, as I turned the pages of this outstanding book, I found the content of the book was wholly satisfying. It covers a range of women in the period as early as the 6th century, and ending with the last prominent Anglo-Saxon women before the Norman invasion. I was pleased to see that several of the women featured were from my period of interest, the 11th century, including Emma of Normandy, Aldith, Queen to both a Welsh and an English king, Edith Godwinson, wife of Edward the Confessor, and Eadgifu the fair, handfastened wife of Harold Godwinson – or Edith Swanneck as she is commonly, though wrongly known as. (Her name seemed to change when the writer of the Waltham Chronicle, some time in the 11th century mistakenly referred to her as Edith, which is not a derivative of Eadgifu which are two different names.)

For a fellow Anglo-Saxonist, this is one of the few books written about women in the period, and it is, for me, a newly-acquired treasure. It truly brings these women to the fore and as one reviewing author emphatically states, it puts the women firmly back in the history where they should be, highlighting their true nature of what it meant to be a noble woman in these times. It describes to us of their existence, their roles, both religiously and secularly, in not just the lives of their husbands, fathers, brothers and sisters and children, but the lives of those who praised, castigated, and wrote about them.

It does not seek to prove the high status of them in comparison to the women of post conquest England, nor does it seek to prove that they were far more powerful than their status allowed them to be. Instead, we are treated to a rare glimpse of the opportunities women were, if in the right place at the right time, gifted with, and their importance in the eyes of those they held power over or from, or with. Their stories are endowed upon us within a variety of themes: roles as mothers, wives and consorts; nuns and abbesses. We also see what gave them their power, such as their bloodlines and the changes that the shifting sands of time wrought upon them, bringing them to and then from exultation to women condemned. And if you are anything like me, your imagination will run wild.

Annie Whitehead is an exemplary historian and writer of history who is not afraid to delve into the past head first to bring us such a jewel in this enchanting and immersing panoramic vision of historical women. It is every bit as fascinating, if not more so, as any other historical tome about the female figure of any particular time zone. The language is not laborious and it flows from one subject to the next seamlessly and what I can conclude from this is that the noble Anglo-Saxon woman was fierce and independent when she wanted to be, gentle and pious when society dictated, steadfast and loyal when needed, and as ambitious as any man of any era.

Highly recommended.

About Annie Whitehead

I am an historian and author. As an undergraduate I studied under the eminent Anglo-Saxon historian, Ann Williams, and I’m proud to say that I’ve been accepted as a member of the Royal Historical Society. I’m also a member of the HWA (Historical Writers Association). 

My passion is for all things Anglo-Saxon, and Mercian in particular. I’ve written three novels set in Mercia, featuring the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, King Edgar, and King Penda, as well as contributing a Mercian story to a fiction anthology about 1066. My non-fiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, was published by Amberley Books in September 2018. My latest non-fiction book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, was published by Pen & Sword Books in June 2020.

I’m an editor for and contributor to the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog, and a member of the HNS (Historical Novel Society) 2018 Short Story Competition judging panel. The winner of the New Writer non-fiction prize in 2012, and the recipient of two Mail on Sunday Novel-Writing awards, I was also the winner of the inaugural HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition in 2017.

My first two novels, To Be A Queen and Alvar the Kingmaker, are set in the later (9th & 10th centuries) Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. My third novel, Cometh the Hour goes back to the seventh century. A follow-up novel is in the planning stages and it’s hoped it will be released sometime in 2021.

In 2016, I collaborated with eight other authors to produce a collection of short stories, re-imagining the event of 1066. 1066 Turned Upside Down  is available as an e-book.

And don’t forget you can enjoy all of the other blog stops here below.

Women of Power is published by Pen and Sword Books. Check out their books here

The Last King Blog Tour: MJ Porter

Blog Tour: The Last King: England: The First Viking Age

(Powered by Coffee Pot Blog Tours)

  By M J Porter

July 14th – September 15th 2020

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Please welcome MJ Porter to my blog as part of her blog tour, to talk about an aspect of her research into The Last King.  As a writer of pre-Conquest England myself, her post here resonates with me! Imagining the landscape of England in times gone.

Mapping the 870’s

 

The Last King is set in Mercia in the Ninth Century, one of the ancient kingdoms of England.

mysterious and magical photo of silver sword over gothic snowy black background. Medieval period concept.

One of the particular challenges of writing about Mercia, or any early English period, is trying to reconstruct the physical landscape. Places that could be assumed to be prominent, were simply not, and vice versa. The most obvious of these is that London was not England’s capital at the time. Equally, river courses may have changed, and bridges may have been built in the modern era, although there are a surprising amount of ancient bridges that might surprise you.

While there are many maps of the time period available, they never (in my experience) actually show everything that you want to know. They don’t tell you where the roads went in great detail, or even what the roads looked like. They don’t always make it clear which side of a river was inhabited, and which side wasn’t. The size of the population is unknown, and even more, the size of the Viking forces is impossible to calculate.

In writing the three books to date in the Ninth Century series, I’ve had a bit of an ace up my sleeve. My father is known as the ‘mapman’ and my ‘mapman’ has hundreds, and hundreds of antique maps of England, Scotland and Wales. And so, rather than spending hours pouring over google maps, I’ve spent my time looking at these antique maps, in conjunction with the maps available from historical non-fiction sources.

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For the third book in the series, I wanted to write about both Northampton, and Cambridge. I’ve never visited either place, and more, I don’t know what they might have looked like in the past.

So, to my ‘mapman,’ and his 1610 Speed Maps of both of these places. John Speed (1551/2 – 28 July 1629) was an English cartographer and historian and is one of the best-known English mapmakers of that time period. His maps are highly decorative, and they also show little ‘cut outs’ of the county towns. And so, for Northampton, and Cambridge, I had an idea of what those places looked like in the Seventeenth Century. Still, eight hundred years later, but much closer than visiting those sites today and trying to decipher what might have been there long ago.

Yet, even here, there was a piece of information waiting to trip me up, because unlike the Cambridge of today, it’s believed that Cambridge in the 870’s was actually on the opposite side of the river.

Finding the landscape of the historical past is difficult, but I’ve found that using antique maps, rather than more modern ones, can be incredibly helpful, especially when they include images of the landscape (trees and hills)!

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Author Bio:

M J Porter

I’m an author of fantasy (viking age/dragon themed) and historical fiction (Early English, Vikings and the British Isles as a whole before the Norman Conquest), born in the old Mercian kingdom at some point since AD1066. I write A LOT. You’ve been warned!

Connect with M J Porter:

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Historical Writers Summer Blog Hop: The Battle of the Seven Sleepers (Dunsinane)

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MOMENTOUS EVENTS IN TIME

Today on the Historical Writers Summer Blog Hop, I’m taking you to Scotland in the 11th century to the world of Macbeth – but not Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the REAL Macbeth as far as we know him. As far back as 1054, even pre Conquest England was not averse to interfering in the business of its Scottish neighbours in the north. The Battle of the Seven Sleepers was one of these events which was to completely change the politics of the time in both countries and tragically led to the sad demise of the man called Macbeth, long vilified as a villain of Shakespeare. Here I discuss how the battle came about and what affect it had consequently.

macbeth-scotland

The Protagonists

Scotland in the earlier half of the eleventh century was a hothouse of different factions vying for supremacy. The chief king, Malcolm II of the House of Alpin was without male sons in 1034 when he died. He had three grandsons, all of whom may have been in the running for kingship: Duncan, Thorfinn, and Macbeth. All were sons of Malcolm’s three daughters. Malcolm named Duncan as his heir, and this might have led to resentment amongst the remaining grandsons and their supporters.
One can imagine the three boys growing up at their grandfather’s court like brothers, in happy camaraderie and may have been close until 1034. Thorfinn, who was known as the Mighty, was ruler in the Orkneys from an early age after the death of his father Sigurd. Later, the lordship of Caithness was endowed upon him by his Scottish grandfather who obviously wanted him to have some influence in the mainland. MacBeth had to fight for his own success it seems, for his father, Findlaech, had been cruelly, but not unusually for this time, murdered by a cousin, Gillacomgain and took the Mormaership in Moray that had once belonged to Macbeth’s father. Macbeth wasn’t having this, and he in turn murdered the killer of his father in revenge, married, either with or without her consent, Gruoch, wife of the now deceased Gillacomgain. Gruoch was also of royal descent and also had a claim to the throne through her mother so if Macbeth had his eye on the kingship, his marriage to her would strengthen both their claims.

So, the cousins, who might have once been close like brothers, were now divided. Duncan alienated himself from them by unsuccessfully attacking Thorfinn – according to the Orkneyinga Saga, where he is identified as Karl Hundason. This was either before or after he went south with an army to attack Durham in retaliation for a Northumbrian ravaging of Cumbria. Durham was too far south from his own bases to be of any strategic use to Scotland so it was rather a reckless decision and not only that, the attack caused him to lose many of his cavalry. Adding this to his list of unsuccesses, Duncan rode north, hearing about a rising rebellion amongst the people of Moray who were unhappy with Duncan’s rule. Duncan seemed determined to redeem his military reputation at any cost. Evidently Thorfinn was to join forces with MacBeth in this, surprising Duncan, and a battle was fought where Duncan’s death ensued, , allowing Macbeth to seize power. Thorfinn must have been content or too busy with his position in Caithness and the Orkneys to challenge MacBeth’s claim.

Malcolm Canmore was Duncan’s eldest son, perhaps only a boy of eight or nine at the time of his father’s death, and he was spirited away with other members of Duncan’s family to safety, spending the years of MacBeth’s rule until 1054, growing up in England, perhaps at his kinsman’s Siward’s base in Northumbria, and at the court of Edward the Confessor. It is said that he was related to Earl Siward in some way, though how it is not clear. Malcolm’s father, Duncan, had links in Northumbria, having married a cousin or sister of Siward. It is not clear what exactly the link was, but whatever it was, Siward was willing to lead an army of Anglo-Danes into Scotland to supplant the man who usurped his kinsman’s crown. This might also have had something to do with Edward and Siward plotting to put in place a puppet king over Scotland to mitigate Scottish incursions over the border. And of course there was still the question of Cumbria and the dispute over territory.

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The legendary duel between Malcolm and Macbeth

The Battle

The battle of the Seven Sleepers, later known as the Battle of Dunsinane, took place on the 27th July 1054 – the day of the festival it was named for. No doubt, sponsored by his kinsman, Siward, Malcolm petitioned King Edward for support in his quest to take an army into Scotland to oust the usurper, Macbeth, and to reclaim his father’s crown. Edward was agreeable to send men from his own household guard, suggesting that such an investment in the war meant there was something in it for the English other than a willingness to support a hard-done-by young man. Edward never ventured further than Oxford in his lifetime as king and may not have worried too much about the north unless it was to affect his rule in the south; it was Siward who would benefit the most from Edward’s help. However, as king, it was Edward’s duty to support his vassals, and without Siward safe in the north, he could have turned on his English overlord making things very difficult for the south.

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Dunsinane Hill where the battle is said to have taken place

“This year went Siward the earl with a great army into Scotland, both with a ship-force and with a landforce, and fought against the Scots, and put to flight the king Macbeth, and slew all who were the chief men in the land, and led thence much booty, such as no man before had obtained. But his son Osbeorn, and his sister’s son Siward, and some of his housecarls, and also of the king’s, were there slain, on the day of the Seven Sleepers”

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle D

According to Symeon of Durham, Siward’s Anglo-Danish forces were made up of horse, and a powerful fleet which might have been used to transport supplies for the invading army. It’s likely that the land force took the old ancient tracks used by the Romans, along the east coast of England, through Lothian and fording the River Forth near Stirling and into the heart of Scotland. Malcolm was said to have led the ships which landed at Dundee, and captured the fortress there and gathering Scottish rebels to his cause before sailing around Fife and into the River Tay and up to Birnam, where it is said he met with more Scots willing to join his cause, as Andrew Wyntoun, writing much later in the 15thc suggests with some plausibility.

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The last surviving old oak of Birnam Wood still stands

The Northumbrian Chronicles account, is more colourful than the Worcester Chronicle and describes a huge invading force by the standards of the day. It is not known where Siward and Malcolm met up, it could have been at Dundee or perhaps Birnam or Stirling even. As they marched through the plains of Gowrie on their way past Scone, they would have most likely used the tactics often used in medieval warfare, probably raping and pillaging to draw Macbeth out of his lair to face them. Macbeth would have needed a much larger army than he would have kept in his household and it could be that in order to muster such forces he would need to ride the country to do so.

The campaign of Siward and Malcolm culminated in one of the most massive battles in 11thc Scotland. Malcolm and Siward’s forces were said to have approached from Birnam wood at night, under the cover of tree branches that they carried to disguise them, which was later immortalised by Shakespeare in his play Macbeth.

“Macbeth shall never vanquished be,
Until great Birnam Wood, to High Dunsinane Hill,
Shall Come against Him.”

MacBeth, Act 3, Scene 1
William Shakespeare

Whether or not Malcolm and Siward’s tactics of attrition had the desired affect of drawing Macbeth out of his fortress, identified as Dunsinane, is not known, however Macbeth’s forces charged down from the hills at the combined Northumbrian and Scottish army and were put to flight by the invaders. It was a hard fought battle and the annals of Ulster record as many as 3000 Scottish dead, 1500 English dead, but Macbeth escaped, so it was a semi-victory for Siward and Malcolm for Macbeth went on after this, his power greatly reduced by the battle, but remained ‘king in the north’ to coin the phrase from Game of Thrones, but not used contemporarily.

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An artist’s impression of a Dark Age battle

The surviving English forces returned overloaded with booty, probably acquisitions gained from their pillaging and perhaps the capture of Dundee. Siward deposited Malcolm, inaugurated as King of the Scots in firm control of the Lowlands with his Scottish supporters. Having been away from Scotland for so long, this young man must have seemed more English than Scottish to his new subjects and it was to take him three more years before he was to finally consolidate his power fully, after hunting down Macbeth, who cannot be said to have skulked in his hideaway but worked hard to maintain his power further north and spent the next three years of his life, in his early fifties, an old man in Dark Age terms, carrying out ambitious raids deep into the lowlands.

In 1057 Malcolm Canmore, successfully lead a force across the Grampian mountains and lay an ambush for the unsuspecting Macbeth, at the village of Lumphanon, deep in Moray, as he returned from a southern foray. Macbeth was slain in the battle. Rebels after that placed Macbeth’s stepson, Lulach, in power following Macbeth’s death, but he too was executed also, ensuring no rivals were left, or brave enough, to oppose Malcolm’s rule.

Eerily, Macbeth’s death came on the exact same date of August the 16th as that of Malcolm’s father, Duncan.

Why was this little known 11th century battle a game changer for both English and Scottish history?

In 1066, after the conquest of England by the Norman duke, William, Anglo-Saxon nobility was mostly decimated on the field of Hastings and the continued conflicts that followed. Wives and orphans of those slaughtered were displaced and in came the new ruling class. The royal family was now Norman, and the last remaining prince of the English royal house of Wessex, Edgar, briefly crowned by the survivors of the witan, was prevented from keeping his crown when he was taken hostage by William who then usurped him.

Edgar eventually managed to escape William and he and his sister, Margaret fled to Scotland and were harboured by Macbeth’s replacement, Malcolm Canmore, who by this time had been king for around ten years or so. Malcolm was taken by the very devout Margaret and eventually they were married and their daughter, Edith, went on to marry William the Conqueror’s successor and son, Henry I, and became Queen Matilda.

This meant that the English line of Wessex had returned to the English royal family and also flowed in the blood of Malcolm Canmore’s children thus uniting the two kingdoms through blood and bringing Anglo-Saxon culture to Scotland with both Malcolm and Margaret. The old Gaelic bloodline of the House of Alpin was now replaced by the House of Dunkeld whose outlook was very much influenced by the Anglo-Saxons. Equally it meant that there was also Scottish influence now in the English royal bloodline.

Tragically, MacBeth’s defeat at Dunsinane, led to his eventual removal from the Scottish throne, ending the Gaelic/Pictish influence and his successor, Malcolm’s, look to England to found his new Anglo-Scottish dynasty, (of course with a smattering of Germano/Hungarian).

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A still from the film Macbeth with Michael Fassbender

 

References

Abingdon version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle

Aitcheson, N 1999 Macbeth, Man and Myth Sutton Publishing LTD, Phoenix Hill, Gloucestershire

Symeon of Durham – Historia Regum.

The Northumbrian Chronicles.

To keep up with the rest of the Blog Hop see whose next here.

Tomorrow we visit the blog of Cathie Dunn at https://cathiedunn.blogspot.com/

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Blog Tour: Sharon Bennett Connolly _Ladies of Magna Carta_

WOMEN OF INFLUENCE IN THIRTEENTH CENTURY ENGLAND

I’m pleased and honoured to be part of the blog tour for Ladies of Magna Carta written by the fabulous Sharon Bennett Connolly who has for the past few years been enlightening us with her insightful looks at the role women of the nobility played in late medieval politics and history. Her most recent book, Ladies of Magna Carta, captures the lives of the women who lived through this time against the backdrop of those men who ruled over them. Their stories, although not directly, would go on to influence the clauses in one of the most famous charters in the world.

Ladies of Magna Carta is a tour de force for Ms Connolly. Her research is impeccable and second to none. The Charter of liberties was always intended to be about men. It was a man’s world, after all. But every now and then, when examining the roles that women played in this time, one can see a glimmer of them in the various clauses that connect so seamlessly with their stories. Intended to be a peace treaty signed by the rebel barons and King John, the rules of the charter were naturally as could be expected of John, broken which led to an unsettled time in the years that followed.

Ms Connolly has been researching the medieval world for some years and her famous blog History the Interesting Bits is where it all started. Her focus began to shift more to looking exclusively at women and that’s when she decided to write her first book with _Heroines of the Medieval World_ She then went on to publish another, _Silk and the Sword_ about the women of the Norman Conquest.

But you cannot write about these women without writing about their families, in particular the men involved which enables us to get a more panoramic view of of their world, the spiritual landscape in which they lived. The thirteenth century, like most medieval epochs were filled with passion and drama which often had traumatic consequences in their time, especially for women who had to continue to look after their husbands affairs, their children and those who served them despite seeing intrigue, death, murder and imprisonment on every corner. How did these women survive? For example, Maud de Braose, or Matilda as connolly refers to her. Maude was imprisoned and treated abominably by King John, and although not much is known of Maud’s own feelings and thoughts around the torture she endured but we can surmise, quite accurately what impact this terror must have had on her mental state and Connolly writes a good account of her story in this book.

Central to the book’s premise is King John. John was probably one of the worst kings in history in terms of how he treated his subjects. Even his loyal subjects had a rocky ride during his reign. Men like William Marshall, staunch supporter of King John and all his brothers, who stood by John right to the very end, despite having to give up sons to John in order to prove his loyalty and also William de Braose, once the king’s favourite, who died in exile, fleeing John’s wrath over debts unpaid. John then turned on his wife Maud who received the worst treatment ever at the hands of John.

Many of those who enjoy history, often see women of the medieval period as pawns. Connolly proves that this is not always so and shows what women like Nicholaa de la Haye, Maud de Braose, Ela of Salisbury can do if they put their minds to it. Unfortunately for some like, Isabelle of Gloucester, don’t always have a lot of choice. However its a fine balance between being a pawn and knowing what you want and being able to achieve it. And if women were pawns, so were a lot of men!

Not only is this a narrative of the women who lived at the time of King’s John’s reign, but also an examination of of John’s suspicious, paranoid nature. Some of the actions John appears to have taken mirror King Richard’s in his last years. And although, as the author points out, there are only eight mentions of women as a gender, it is clear that some of these women’s stories that Connolly highlights have experienced the very things that are mentioned in the clauses.
For example, here is a clause which Connolly states might well have been inspired by one of the women, mentioned as you will see when you read for yourself.

Clause 39 ensures that ‘no man shall be taken or imprisoned or deprived or outlawed or exiled or in anyway ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgement by his peers or by the law of the land.’

I was pleased that the book opens with an introduction that advises the reader of the origins of Magna Carta, originally known as the Charter of Liberties. This is especially useful as it allows the reader an insight into the making of the charter. It is then followed by a concise but also comprehensive summary of John’s life in chronological order which gave me enough background into the man and his deeds.

Ms Connolly is an accomplished writer of enormous strength. Her attention to detail and her particular interest in highlighting her character’s genealogy and where they sat in the intertwined threads of the nobility of the time, allows the reader an insight into their minds thus enabling a personal evaluation of how this influenced their actions, their views, and their feelings. What more can a lover of history ask for than to be entertained, enthralled and educated all in one go?

ALL I CAN SAY MORE IS THAT IF YOU DON’T READ THIS BOOK, YOU ARE MISSING OUT!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sharon Bennett Connolly has been fascinated by history her whole life. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites. For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her a blog as a gift – http://www.historytheinterestingbits.com – and Sharon started researching and writing about the stories that have always fascinated, concentrating on medieval women. Her latest book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, released in May 2020, is her third non-fiction book. She is also the author of Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest. Her next book Warenne: the Earls of Surrey from the Conquest to 1347 will be released in 2021. Sharon regularly gives talks on women’s history; she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?

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Historical Writers Summer Blog Hop: The Last Battle of Edmund Ironside

Today I am hosting the Historical Fiction Writers Summer Blog Hop in which we choose a momentous event or epoch in time. October 18th 1016 was a date that stands out because it was the first time and only time we would have a Danish king on the English throne.

England in the early 11th century was one of turmoil. At the turn of 1000 AD, Æthelred the II was on the throne and had been there since 978, coming to power under undesirable circumstances at the age of 12, following the death of his brother Edward who was assassinated. At this time, England had been experiencing a period of peace and prosperity having restored the north under the rule of what was now England. But in the 980’s, the Danes began raiding again.

In 985, Æthelred first married Ælfgifu, daughter of Thored, Ealdorman of York. He ruled over the southern half of the old kingdom of Northumbria. He and Æthelred had several issue of which Edmund was his third son. Its likely Edmund was born somewhere between 988 and 992. Like his brothers, he would have grown up to be educated and trained to be a warrior leader. His older brother, Ecgberht, died in 1005 which made him Æthelred’s second surviving eldest son. The oldest son, Æthelstan, died in 1014, which left a teenage Edmund as the principle heir to the throne.

Somewhere between approximately 995 and 1001, Ælfgifu, who does not appear to have had an official crowning, may have died, or been put aside, paving the way for Æthelred to enter into an alliance with Normandy by marrying Emma of Normandy in 1002. Throughout much of his reign Æthelred was beset by problems with the Danes and having to pay geld to them to make them leave. Despite the hefty payoffs, the Danes continued their incursions into the English kingdom.

Depiction of Emma of Normandy and sons Edward and Alfred

By 1013, Sweyn of Denmark was confident enough to make a bid for the English throne and he invaded with a huge army. The English militia were forced to capitulate and Æthelred and his new wife, Emma of Normandy and their young children, sought sanctuary at the court of his wife’s brother, Duke Richard of Normandy.

Records suggest that Edmund and his older brother Æthelstan were close and this is confirmed by Æthelstan’s will (he died in 1014) in which he leaves various items as well as land to his younger brother. (It is interesting to note that a certain Godwin is also mentioned in the will intimating that there was also a relationship of friendship there too, with the man who was to become famous as the Earl of Wessex, father to Harold Godwinson and a brood of robust sons.) The brothers must have felt threatened by their father’s marriage to Emma, especially if, as declared in the Life of Edward the Confessor, England had promised that they would accept any male off-spring of theirs as the heir to the throne before any others. Whether or not this is true, this was never put to the test as Edmund was to become king before the male heirs of Emma were old enough to contest.

Æthelred II

Whilst his father was in exile, Edmund and Æthlestan did their best to garner support and managed to gain a friendship with brothers Morcar and Sigferth, two influential thegns in the East Midlands. When Sweyn died, Æthelred was invited back and he returned, promising that he would be a better king to his people as they asked.

On Æthelred’s return, he set about showing he would be true to his word to be a better king and recaptured London from Olaf, one of Cnut’s supporters. Edmund joined his father in the retaking of London, initially showing support for him. Æthelred then launched an expedition to attack the Danes, now led by Sweyn’s son, Cnut, but instead of winning the support of those people whose lands he savaged, Aethelred lost them to Edmund, almost undoing a lot of the good that Edmund and Aethelstan had done. But in any case, Cnut and his supporters were driven out. But he was not gone forever and returned in 1015 and began pillaging England once more.

Edmund Ironside

During this addendum to Æthelred’s reign, Edmund and Æthelred’s relations became further strained when he fell out with his father, who, with encouragement of Eadric Streona, known as the ‘Grasper’ the ealdorman of Mercia, executed Edmund’s friends, Morcar and Sigferth, two influential thegns from the Seven Boroughs in the East Midlands who had previously given their allegiance to the Danes. Here I feel I should mention the hypocrisy of Streona, who had supported Cnut recently himself and only just returned to the fold.

Naturally, Edmund was incensed at these deaths. He had after all, managed to win their support back for his father. Setting himself up as Ealdorman of the East Midlands, he revolted against his father and defied him by rescuing the widow of Sigferth, Ealdgyth. Æthelred had locked her up, hoping to get his hands on her land and property. Edmund married her totally against his father’s will, which did not please him. This rift in the family now completely divided father and son and the marriage strengthened Edmund’s position, for Ealdgyth’s family was one of the strongest in the Midlands.

When Æthelred became sick, it was left to Edmund to fight the Danes and win back England for the English Royal House. Streona went over to Cnut once more, and Edmund went north to meet with Uhtred of Northumbria hoping he would join him in an alliance but Uhtred was intercepted by Cnut and Uhtred gave Cnut his allegiance. Edmund went to join his father in London, failing to gather the support he needed and Cnut had Uhtred killed. Æthelred died in April 1016 and the Witan declared Cnut king but London declared for Edmund and he was crowned in St Paul’s Cathedral. This was when the real fighting started.

Eadric Streona, Edmund’s brother-in-law, gathered a substantial army that he led himself. The ASC stated that he had ‘intended to betray Edmund.’ Streona should have been loyal to Edmund, after all he was married to Edmund’s sister Eadgyth. But Eadric was not a man to keep faith and switched allegiances throughout his career. Eadric ended up in Cnut’s camp once more which meant that Cnut’s already substantial army was now augmented with English militia.

After a hasty coronation, Edmund left London which was being besieged by the Danes in the care of the citizens and went West where the fyrd rallied to him. Battles and skirmishes were fought, two of which were in Penselton in Somerset and Sherston in Wiltshire, the outcomes of which were neither victorious or lost, but ended with the Danes retreating. With this army he returned to London raising the siege that had been resisted by the people of London and then defeated the Danes at Brentwood. This exercise was repeated, with Edmund riding off into Wessex to gather more men, returning to London once more to find it again besieged and raising it once more. Then defeated the retreating army at Otford this time. Edmund pursued Cnut and the Danes into Kent; he had them on the run. It was then that Eadric decided to hedge his bets one more time and met with Edmund at Aylesford, fifteen miles from where Cnut’s army had taken refuge at the Isle of Sheppey. Streona had been Æthelred’s good friend and adviser but he could not even commit himself unconditionally to his beloved king’s son, which showed how much of a cunning swine he was.

Cnut eventually left Sheppey and Edmund went to attack him in Assundun in Essex, on the 18th of October, 1016. The battle was long, drawn out and ferocious on both sides. It is not sure how the battle was conducted, but we can assume that both sides fought on foot in their respective shieldwalls, though there is nothing to say that at least one side might have ridden into battle and cut the other side down in surprise. No one thought to record the battle details back in the day, and all we have from the English ASC was that the cunning swine, “Eadric fled the field, betraying his natural lord and all the people of England.” Thanks, Mr Streona.

The ASC refers to Edmund as acquiring the nomenclature of Ironside through his valour on the battlefield. It is tempting to imagine a powerfully built man, dressed in all the trappings of a warrior-king of the 11th century, swinging his Sword of Offa, riding into battle like a god on a horse. Sadly due to Eadric’s actions, Edmund could not fight on. Having lost much of his army in battle, he left with his life intact and the remnants of his force, wondering what might have happened if Streona had not so wickedly double-crossed him. Although Cnut’s army held the field, there was no total victory for Edmund still held Wessex.

Edmund’s story is tragic. Eadric’s deceit was inevitable, for he had already showed he was in it for himself, and later he was to pay for this ultimate betrayal later in the early days of his leadership Cnut, loathing oathbreakers, turned on him and executed him, having him beheaded. And Streona, who may well have been jealous of Edmund, was to go down in history as a grasping ‘little shit’ (as Jamie Jeffers of The British History Podcast refers to him) *

Eadric gets his comeuppance

Edmund, despite the possibility of him being wounded in battle, did not give up. He was not called Ironside for nothing. Unlike his father, who only ever led his men into battle three times, Edmund then rode into the West again to raise another army. Cnut could not understand why Edmund was so determined to fight on and not submit. Surely there was only so many times a man could come back again! Edmund had been relentless in his energy in fighting back, had Cnut on the run for some time. Cnut was battle-weary and wanted to put an end to the fighting and get on with the business of being king (Susan Abernethy).

Edmund and Cnut were eventually to meet up in Athelney where many years ago Edmund’s great ancestor had planned his own latter day D-Day invasion against the Danes. Needless to say, Streona was there to play his part and mediate! That must have stuck in Edmund’s gullet. If I had been Edmund I would have wanted his guts on a platter! (Only in the context of the time of course!)

A peace pact was made and England was once again divided. Cnut would have the Danelaw, Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia. Wessex was Edmund’s. It is said that whomever should die first would inherit the other’s kingdom so the two men became ‘brothers’ symbolically.

At this point, both men were in their prime but young by today’s standards at around 26 or 27 years old, having achieved much in their short lifetime. Edmund had a brother, Eadwig, who did not seem to have been a man of note as he does not emerge in any of this as such. Edmund’s wife Ealdgyth had given him a son in 2015 and another child was on its way. He had lost many of his thegns and ealdormen in battle though perhaps he had one loyal subject that we know of, Godwin Wulfnothson, who we know had been in his circle of friends from Æthelstan’s will. I like to think that Godwin had stayed by his side and was still supporting him. As a historical fiction author, we are allowed to make assumptions. However, it was thought that Godwin’s prior loyalty to Edmund was what Cnut admired in him.

Cnut had the bigger territory and was known to be a cunning, though honourable man, who did not like oathbreakers. It is thought that he admired, maybe even loved his adversary, Edmund. It’s sad to think the two men might have been great rulers together. By this time, Cnut’s own three sons by Ælfgifu may have been born. He had Streona and many other influential strong men in his counsel. And the pact that whoever died first would inherit the other’s kingdom was open to abuse. If Cnut, or anyone in his employ wanted to have Edmund murdered, they could make it happen for the right price. And with Streona in Cnut’s camp it’s quite credible.

Sadly, Edmund did die about 5 weeks after Assundun and not long after the meeting between the two men. We don’t know for sure why Edmund died. There are thoughts that Streona had a hand in it and as we can imagine from his treacherous behaviours this is plausible that someone in his pay could have crept in to Edmund’s camp, bribed a guard or two to do the deed. Even Cnut, though seems to have been honourable throughout his reign, was not above murder if the story about Edmund’s sons being sent away to have an accident was to be believed. Most historians however seem to have accepted that Edmund died of festering wounds after Assundun. Even a minor wound could become easily infected and cause fatal blood poisoning in those days. It could have happened suddenly if the infection was systemic. There are of course stories that Edmund was murdered and in not very savoury circumstances, which might or might not be doubtful.

Whatever the cause of Edmund’s untimely death, Streona did, in my view, have a role to play in it. His betrayal seems to have played a huge part in Edmund’s difficulties in beating back Cnut. Edmund’s tireless efforts to wrest England back from the Danes is to be admired and is largely forgotten because heroes like Edmund don’t get lauded in history because ultimately he lost his last battle too early.

Cnut seems to have gone on to be a ‘great’ king, bringing peace to this land for almost twenty years. Unfortunately his sons failed him and the crown was eventually to come back to the House of Wessex through Edmund’s younger brother, Edward, known as the Confessor.

I wonder if Edmund would have been proud of his son Edward the Exile who became a soldier in Europe and perhaps even prouder of his grandson Edgar, who seems to have inherited something of his grandfather’s determination?

Although we don’t know much about Edmund as a person, he was afforded the name Ironside in his time, I believe, and this gives us a glimmer of his character, that he was brave, committed and true to himself and what he believed in. In this current climate where we are looking back at our past and scrutinising every symbol that was ever put up to commemorate our so called heroes, I for one would be willing to put up a statue to this brave, fearless man who did his best to keep the wolves from the door and never gave up till his last days.

References

Abernethy, Susan (2014) King Edmund Ironside

Barlow, Frank (1997) Edward the Confessor. London: Yale University Press.

Jamie Jeffers The British History Podcast as quoted by Patricia Bracewell on Edmund Ironside

Whitlock, Ralph (1991) Warrior Kings of Saxon England Barnes and Noble.

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