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.

See below the previous and future Authors and their blog posts !

Christmas 1065: A Brother’s Betrayal, A King Lays Dying and a New King is Chosen.

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– I am proud to add my contribution to this year’s wonderful Christmas Blog Hop Event from the Historical Writers Forum. See more participants future and past below –

King Edward, later coined as The Confessor king,  and although he does achieve a canonization, he is awarded the nomenclature ‘Confessor’ rather than a sainthood, more due to his supposed piety rather than any martyrdom. For Edward, the early ‘winter’ months that we would now refer to as autumn or fall, was a time for hunting, eating well, and pursuing more leisurely sports rather than the serious business of running a kingdom, time off which he deserved as a hardworking monarch. After all, he had spent all year dealing with various administration issues and the petty squabbles of the lesser nobles in his kingdom even sometimes having to endure a conflict or two along the Welsh borders. But in September of the year 1065, the king who’d  hitherto reigned for twenty three years, was beset by a northern rebellion, resulting in the exile of Tostig Godwinson, reputed to be the king’s favourite. It would be important to note that Tostig was also the queen’s favourite brother, she being a Godwin also, with many siblings.

King Edward's funeral

It was Tostig’s brother, Harold Godwinson who had forced Edward’s hand in exiling his beloved champion. Harold had been sent on king’s orders to deal with the northern rebels. These men had never really wanted a southerner as Earl for their realm of Northumbria, and Tostig had met much opposition in his ten years as their lord, often complaining and revolting at his harsh line in taxes and his dealings with them, but now the excrement had really hit the fan and they wanted him out and instead were demanding as their new earl, Morcar, the son of the late Alfgar of Mercia. Morcar, just a young teenager at the time, would be an easier piece of clay to mold to their ways than Tostig had been. Edwin, Morcar’s  older brother, the Earl of Mercia, also young and pliable, was enlisted to support his brother’s cause. They marched south, causing havoc in their wake and here is where Harold played his hand,  in getting rid of his brother, Tostig. Not willing to see the kingdom ripped asunder on behalf of his brother, Harold  chose the Mercian brothers cause instead of Tostig, after a scene where he accuses his brother of betrayal, leaves the kingdom, an outcast.

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Harold and Tostig fighting at Edward’s court when they were boys

Edward was devastated. He was shattered by his counsellors’ refusal to use arms to restore Tostig to his office.  Harold’s refusal to help Tostig must have felt like perfidy, though to Harold, it would have been the sensible thing to do. To encourage a civil war at such a time when Harald Hardraada was looking to expand his Norwegian empire by adding England to it would have been pure folly. The loss of Tostig, seems to have broken Edward and,  as expounded by the Vita Ædwardi Regis, he ‘became so ill, his mind was affected until his death’.  With Tostig’s outlawing, Edward was to suffer the first of a series of strokes that would lead to his death.

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There must have been a strange tinge of unease and trepidation to the Christmas preparations of those following weeks that Edward took to his sick bed. Up until the Tostig episode, Edward, though aged, had been quite robust and still able to go hunting in his favourite hunting ground, the Forest of Dean. Harold had been building a hunting lodge in Archenfield, the land he had conquered from Gruffudd as a result of  his and Tostig’s joint incursion into Wales two years before. It was said that Harold had been intending to gift the hunting lodge to the king, therefore Edward had at that time, been of stout heart and mind. But an unfortunate incident was to foil Harold’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the king: in August, 1065, Welsh raiders burned the lodge to the ground and slaughtered all the workers there.

There are a number of theories that we could speculate upon as to what might have influenced Harold in his decision making when he mediated for the king with the Mercian brothers, one that Harold might have believed that Tostig, jealous of Harold, had paid the Welsh to burn the lodge. Harold, jealous of his brother in return, might have felt that he needed to usurp his brother as king’s favourite and wanted to gift the king this lodge in order to do so. Therefore when a month later the northern rebellion occurred, Harold might have seen an opportunity for revenge and thereby backed the earls instead of Tostig, getting rid of a possible obstacle in Edward’s favour. This is all speculation of course. The Godwin brothers were renown for squabbling. Perhaps Harold felt he deserved better, perhaps the evidence is just circumstantial. Who knows. But it is interesting none the less. I must say that Harold’s refusal to back Tostig, his own brother, is very telling and you may make of it what you will.

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Tostig’s removal from the kingdom, coincided with the start of Edward’s illness which seems to have been the trigger. The king began to worsen as the following weeks went by. As Christmas approached, it must have been clear that Edward was not going to recover from such a serious illness. He was on his way out and not coming back. And something had to be done.

One would hardly imagine that a kingdom’s administration would have been totally unprepared for such an event such as the king’s demise. With possible war on the horizon, it would barely seem rational that plans for the aftermath of Edward’s passing had not been made. The speed with which Harold was crowned Edward’s successor was obviously a fait accompli. So, whilst Edward lay sick in his bed in those weeks after Tostig’s departure, the wise men of the kingdom, the witan, must have come up with a plan. Most likely this would also have included the queen, who, according to Poitiers in his Gesta Guillelmi, was said to have loved Tostig and hated Harold. Because of the nature of Tostig’s downfall and Harold’s perceived refusal to help him, she probably did hold a grudge against him and may not have been happy with the decision to enthrone him,  but he was her best chance of surviving as an influential player in this Anglo-Saxon Game of Thrones. She would have been able to remember what had happened to her predecessor, Emma of Normandy, whose power greatly diminished when her second husband died.

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During this time, Harold would have been garnering support amongst the most significant members of the nobility. With Earls Leofric, and  Ælfgar now passed, it was now up to Harold to curry favour with Ælfgar’s teenage sons, Edwin and Morcar. To some extent he’d already done so by support in Morcar’s appointment to Northumbria. It seems likely that they must have been in some sort of negotiation with Harold regarding a marriage alliance with their sister, Aldith, the widow of the deposed Welsh King, Gruffudd. This meant Harold would have had to put aside his long time wife Edith Swanneck. One must wonder how this felt for both of them. It does appear though, that perhaps they did continue their relationship, as the story goes that Edith was his go to when he stopped in Waltham on his way back to London from Stamford Bridge.

How the young earls  felt about Harold, whose clan was often at odds with their own, we cannot know, but they might recall that Harold’s negotiations during the Welsh problems had always led to their father being reinstated and back in power. I suspect that if Edward had had his way, Ælfgar wouldn’t have been. Harold’s main gripe seems to have been against Gruffudd, and once Ælfgar was dead, he and Tostig piled into Wales and devastated it from south to north and probably encouraged the ousting and execution of Gruffudd by his own men! Of course that was in the good old days when they were friends – Harold and Tostig that is.

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Its quite likely that Morcar and Edwin would have supported Harold in his quest for the kingship that Christmas, and perhaps thrown in their sister, Aldith, as part of the deal. Of course, all the other earls were Godwins too – Leofwine and Gyrth – who were Harold’s younger brothers after Tostig. There can be no doubt who they would have supported. But as an aside, we must not forget young Waltheof, a fledgling earl, whose father had been Siward the Strong, Earl of Northumbria before Tostig was appointed.  He had been too young to take up his father’s mantle in Northumbria when the old man left this world. Now he was around fifteen, sixteen, and had been given some responsibility as Earl of Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire, perhaps in preparation for higher status. Amongst the other members of the witan would have been archbishops Stigand and Ealdred, both Godwin supporters, not to mention the leading bishops and abbots, and abbesses also, and other leading wealthy and powerful noblemen from the shires up and down the kingdom. With the witan’s seal on the table, all Harold really needed now as a stamp of approval was for Edward to express his consent, something that would be needed when the time came to argue the case against William.

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For the nobles of England, gathered in the Great Hall that Christmas, at King Edward’s palace on Thorney Island, it must have come as a surprise that Edward was dying, for he had always been quite a robust creature in his lifetime, being a man who loved the outdoors and the thrill of the hunt. He had not been a warrior king, this is true, he left that side of his administration to his very capable deputy, Harold Godwinson,  but he had never shown signs of serious weakness of health issues unto then, and to know that their king’s life was coming to an end, must have been a great astonishment to all for although he’d been in ill health since that fateful day in October when Tostig was exiled, it would have taken some time for the news to reach the length and breadth of England before Christmas.

At first, Edward had seemed to recover from the initial onset of illness but was beset on Christmas Eve by another episode. Somehow he managed to attend the Christmas Day service, attending the celebrations though quite unwell. The day after he was confined to his bed, and by the 28th of December, he was too ill to attend the consecration of his life’s ambition, the Abbey of Westminster, a monument he built in dedication to St Peter, his favourite saint. And so on the eve of the king’s dying, there had been no proclaimed heir apparent who would take the throne by default once the king had drawn his last breath.

One might have thought that the Aetheling Edgar would have been a contender, but he seems to have been out of sight and mind, not listed as being at court that Christmas. He may have been finishing his education elsewhere, perhaps in Winchester in the household of the queen in her dower lands. It is not known, but he might have been put forward at the witanemegot, but it was hardly likely that he would have won their vote, for he was only young, somewhere between twelve and fourteen years old. Harold could have acted as regent , much in the way he’d acted as Edward’s first minister. If it was considered, it was obviously not the outcome anyone wanted. England’s powers that were, wanted a strong, experienced man and not an untried boy in charge, regardless of who was pulling the strings. Harold may have felt he deserved the crown, after his loyalty and hard work to attain precedence over all others during his career. To save England from what was coming, the crown may have been the deal.

It seems sad now to think that poor Edward was approaching his death right when he needed to stay alive to see his precious church of St Peter – Westminster Abbey – at last consecrated. The church had been his life’s work. His darling. His precious. And now there he was – dying. They say that when people are at the end of their lives, they somehow find the strength to stay for that special arrival, or occasion. My own father had been more-or-less unconscious all week until my brother flew in from Australia to see him and then he perked up for a day before sadly taking his leave from us the next day. This could be said of Edward, who managed to find the strength to see Christmas through in his new Romanesque-style church but not the final consecrated on the 28th December. He certainly must have struggled those last days, for evidently he was unable to partake much of his food, and after Christmas day, he took to his bed and never arose again. By the time the twelve days of Christmas was over, he was gone from this world and the Kingdom of England had a new king, one not chosen because he had the blood of Wessex, but because he was the most competent man at the time.

 

6th Dec Jen Black a Viking Christmas

8th Dec Derek Birks: The Christmas Lord of Misrule

9th Dec Jennifer C. Wilxon: A Very Kindred Christmas

11th Dec Janet Wertman: Christmas at the Tudor Court

12 Dec  Margaret Skea: Britain’s Little Ice Age

13th Dec Sue Barnard: A Light in the Darkness

14th Dec Cathie Dunn: Charlemagne – A Political Christmas

15th Dec Lynn Bryant: Colby Fair: A Manx Christmas

16th Dec Samantha Wilcoxson: The Giving of Gifts

17th Dec Nicky Moxey: Christmas Giving in 1181

18th Dec Nancy Jardine: AD 210 25TH December Worship

19th Dec Wendy Dunn: Christmas at the Tudor Court – Excerpt from A Light in the Labyrinth

20th Dec Judith Arnopp: A Tudor Christmas

21st Dec Tim Hodkinson: A Viking Christmas

22nd   Vanessa Couchman: The Unofficial Truce of Christmas 2014 

23rd Christine Hancock: A Meeting in the Snow

24th Paula Lofting https://paulaloftinghistoricalnovel.worpress.com

25th Alex Marchant https://alexmarchantblog.wordpress.com