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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Writers of Anglo-Saxon literature: Patricia Bracewell on Edmund Ironside

Thank you, Paula, for inviting me to your blog site and giving me an opportunity to offer a brief sketch of the career of one of the heroic figures of late Anglo-Saxon England.
Edmund Ironside, Warrior King.
In preparing to write my novels about Emma of Normandy I immersed myself in everything I could learn about the 11th century Anglo-Saxon royals, including Emma’s stepchildren, the elder sons and daughters of Æthelred the Unready. Not surprisingly, the royal child who received the most documentation was Edmund Ironside who, after his father’s death, ruled England for 222 turbulent days.
A contemporary account of that period appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), written by a clinically depressed monk who lamented the events in the reigns of both Edmund and Æthelred but offered the historian and the novelist few details. We know the WHAT, but we rarely know the WHY or the HOW. As a result, historians have to speculate, and novelists like me turn those speculations into story.
Edmund was born in about 989, the third of six sons from his father’s first marriage. He and his siblings were raised by their somewhat notorious grandmother, dowager queen Ælfthryth, at her estate about 10 miles from Winchester. They grew up in an England that was repeatedly assaulted by the Danish king Swein Forkbeard and his allies. By 1013 three of Edmund’s brothers had died in their teens or early twenties—illness? Misadventure? Battle wounds? We don’t know. They simply disappear from the records. That left Edmund, his eldest brother Athelstan (presumed heir to the throne), and younger brother Edwig.
In July 1013 a massive fleet led by Swein and his son Cnut landed in northern Mercia, intent on conquest. By year’s end Æthelred, Queen Emma and their young children had been forced to flee to Normandy. Did the sons from Æthelred’s first marriage accompany them across the Channel? The ASC doesn’t say, but it’s likely that they remained in England and may have led forays against the Danish garrisons that were now scattered across the kingdom.
Swein, though, was able to call himself king of England for only two months before he died suddenly in February 1014—an unwise move that brought Æthelred roaring back from exile in April. Cnut, who believed (mistakenly) that he’d inherited England when dad breathed his last, was sent pelting back to Denmark with the remnants of Swein’s fleet.
Two months later Edmund’s brother Athelstan was dead at age 28, unwed and without issue. Again, we don’t know how he died. Edmund was at his bedside and was executor of his will, suggesting that they were close, and the will itself provides a glimpse into their lives. Athelstan had servants, retainers, and numerous associates among the English elite. He owned armor, weapons, horses, movable wealth, and 16 estates in 9 different shires. Presumably Edmund had similar possessions. Athelstan left Edmund properties and weapons that included an heirloom sword of the 8th century Mercian King Offa. Historian N.J. Higham interprets this bequest as Athelstan passing “the mantle of succession” to Edmund, urging him to lead the English against the Danes.
Edmund surely got the message, but he wasn’t king yet. He was forced into action, though, when Æthelred made another of the questionable decisions that characterize his reign. In August of 1015 he ordered his son-in-law Eadric Streona, the ealdorman of Mercia, to murder two powerful northern Mercian nobles—associates of Athelstan and Edmund. The king confiscated their possessions and imprisoned one of the widows. Edmund, in a move that could not have pleased papa, seized the widow, married her, and took her north to claim her dead husband’s properties and the fealty of his men. This was not romance, but politics. (The bride’s sentiments are unrecorded, of course, but she gave him 2 sons.) The marriage gave Edmund control of a wide swath of northern Mercia, an area that two years before had harbored Swein and Cnut. It’s possible that what Æthelred probably interpreted as Edmund’s rebellious power grab was actually an aggressive response to rumors of a new Danish threat; because while Edmund was fetching his bride and claiming lands in the northeast, Cnut of Denmark landed in the southwest and began plundering.
Cnut, like Edmund, was now about 27 years old and his father had been, albeit briefly, king of England. Cnut wanted the throne. Æthelred was near 50, ill, and unable to respond to this Danish upstart. But Edmund gathered an army from his new lands and marched south to confront Cnut. He was thwarted by his treacherous brother-in-law Eadric Streona who had also raised an army and “meant to betray Edmund”. (ASC) We don’t know what Eadric intended exactly. Did the two men meet and quarrel? Did Eadric hope to curry favor with Cnut by ridding him of this fierce claimant to the throne? The novelist wonders, too, where Eadric’s wife, Edmund’s sister, was when this was going on. Were her sympathies with her husband or her brother? We know only that Edmund and his army sheered away from Eadric’s force. Eadric submitted to Cnut (which may have been his plan all along), and took with him many of the magnates in the southwestern shires of England (ie. an army). So now, Cnut had English allies riding with him.
Cnut and company ravaged northward throughout the winter of 1015, a tactic that fed and rewarded their men, terrorized the English and discouraged any resistance. Edmund twice gathered an army but his war leaders were reluctant to fight. They might not have known who to trust— Eadric, who was a powerful ealdorman of Mercia and had apparently accepted Cnut’s claim to the throne; or Edmund who was the king’s son but who had rebelled against his father, and where was the king anyway? They wanted Æthelred in their midst to be certain that they were fighting on the right (winning) side. Meantime, Æthelred dithered, and although he finally led a force from London to join Edmund, a rumor of treachery (real or imagined) sent him haring back to the city, and again Edmund’s army dispersed.
Ever resourceful, Edmund turned for aid to another brother-in-law, Uhtred, Ealdorman of Northumbria up in York; but instead of attacking the Danes who were terrorizing Eastern Mercia, they ravaged Eadric’s lands in Western Mercia, a move that puzzled even the monk writing the ASC. Perhaps Edmund hoped to deprive Eadric and Cnut of food and forage; perhaps he hoped to draw Eadric away from Cnut and so reduce Cnut’s numbers. Later chroniclers suggest he was punishing those who refused to take up arms against the Danes. Meanwhile Cnut and Eadric stormed into Uhtred’s Northumbria, and Uhtred was forced to return home to defend his people. Edmund, his army again depleted, headed for London, perhaps drawn there by news of the king.
It was now well into March of 1016. While Edmund rode south, Uhtred attempted to submit to Cnut but was murdered by one of Cnut’s allies. With Uhtred dead and Northumbria now securely under Scandinavian control, Cnut returned to his ships on the Dorset coast. Possibly hoping to trap both Edmund and Æthelred in London by laying siege to the city, Cnut sailed for the Thames estuary. Before Cnut made it to London, though, Æthelred died on 23 April, and Edmund was proclaimed king.
Edmund’s coronation must have been a hurried affair, and his first move as king was to get out of London before Cnut’s fleet arrived. He led his retainers deep into Wessex where he cajoled or coerced the West Saxons to give him their support. Cnut was laying siege to London, and Edmund needed an army to relieve the city.
Throughout 1016 Edmund Ironside’s movements and those of Cnut over hundreds of miles, each man probably leading 2000-3000 men, looked like this:
PHOTO #1 OF MAP

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From The Cambridge Illustrated Atlas of Warfare: The Middle Ages.

This map, though, only hints at the logistical difficulties that Edmund overcame in raising, arming, supplying, and transporting, on horse and on foot, at least five different armies in his effort to defeat Cnut, who had the advantage of a fleet and probably had horses as well. Edmund must have been a skilled commander and strategist, and a man forceful enough to bend men to his will. Twice Cnut laid siege to London, and twice Edmund’s armies drove him off. Battles fought at Penselwood, Sherston, and Brentford in the southwest led to casualties on both sides, but no definitive victory for either.
In September, 1016, Edmund chased the Danes across Kent to Sheppey, an easily defended island that had often been a haven for viking armies. Edmund halted his troops fifteen miles west of the island, at Aylesford, where good old Eadric Streona sought him out and offered his allegiance. Remember, Eadric had murdered (among others) the first husband of Edmund’s wife; had conspired in some way against Edmund himself; had been Æthelred’s favorite, but had betrayed the king by submitting to Cnut; and had convinced the lords of Wessex to betray the king as well. Now he was offering to switch sides a third time by throwing his support behind Edmund. Historian Simon Keynes uses the word “unscrupulous” to describe Eadric Streona; the ASC calls him “treacherous”; Jamie Jeffers of The British History Podcast calls him “a traitorous little shit”.
Edmund, though, accepted his allegiance.
“No measure could be more ill-advised.” (ASC)
Edmund!! Why??? We can only guess. Eadric was powerful, wealthy, and had a large English army with him. Edmund couldn’t kill him without huge repercussions. There were likely complex familial, political and moral complications in their relationship that we can only imagine. And if Eadric, scoundrel that he was, was fighting at Edmund’s side, at least he wasn’t fighting on Cnut’s side. Numbers in this conflict were crucial.
Cnut’s fleet left Sheppey, and Edmund may have believed that they were making for Danish-controlled York before the winter gales set in. Perhaps Eadric convinced him of that. But Cnut did not sail to York. He sailed to Essex where he beached his ships and plundered toward Cambridge. Historian Timothy Bolton suggests that Cnut wanted to draw Edmund into a final battle. He describes Cnut as cunning, and Edmund as a straightforward warrior; and Cnut’s cunning worked.
Edmund gathered another army and on 18 October 1016 he attacked Cnut at Assandun (Ashdon) in Essex. It was a long, fierce battle. The Encomium Emmae Reginae, written 3 decades later, claimed that the Danes raged rather than fought, and that they were determined to conquer or perish to a man. But at the height of the battle, that treacherous little shit Eadric Streona, fighting on the English side, turned tail and fled with all his men, “and so betrayed his natural lord and all the people of England.” (ASC)

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Streona with his countrymen leaves the battle

The Danes held the slaughter field at Assandun, but Edmund still lived. He rode west with the remnants of his army, and seems to have wanted to fight on. But too many of his warlords had been killed, including two ealdormen and another brother-in-law. His councilors urged him to meet with Cnut and make peace. Eadric Streona, with a foot in both camps, (still!!!) played intermediary, and at a meeting on the isle of Alney in Gloucestershire on a date that went unrecorded, England was divided between them. Cnut could call himself king of Northumbria and Mercia, including the trading powerhouses of York and London; Edmund remained king of the West Saxon heartland, Wessex.

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The 2 young princes meet at Alney and decide on the division of England

The two men made pledges of friendship and, according to the ASC, of brotherhood. That pledge of brotherhood, I think, is important because as Edmund’s brother, Cnut could lay claim to Wessex if Edmund should die. And 43 days later, on 30 November, 1016, Edmund died.
We don’t know what caused his death. Later chroniclers blamed Eadric Streona and there were lurid tales of an iron hook in the king’s hinder parts. A far more likely cause: a wound taken at Assandun. Of course, it could be argued that if Edmund had any inkling that his death was imminent he would never have made an agreement with Cnut at Alney that disinherited his remaining brother and his sons; but in the 11th century even a slight wound, easily dismissed, might fester and lead to death. Or, Edmund’s loss at Assandun may have made his position too weak militarily to oppose anything that Cnut demanded.
Edmund was buried at Glastonbury Abbey. As is usually the case, we have no idea what happened to his wife, Aldyth. She may have accompanied her infant sons to Hungary where one of them grew up, married and had children. Edmund’s grand-daughter would wed the king of Scotland, and her daughter would wed William the Conqueror’s son, Henry I. Edmund’s Anglo-Saxon blood line continues today in the English royal family.
None of this tells us what Edmund was like as a person, although it’s safe to say that he was bold and courageous. He hounded Cnut all over England, and faced him in hand to hand combat. But we don’t know what he felt toward his father, his wife, his sons, or even his stepmother, Emma. That emotional territory is the province of the novelist. In my first two novels I imagined Edmund as a quiet youth, but watchful; suspicious of his father’s Norman bride—something I believe was quite likely. In my third novel, not yet published, I have given him a viewpoint and a voice, and I have pitted him against an enemy far more dangerous than his stepmother. He is a vigorous man of forceful character who steadfastly defends England against Danish conquest. He is a heroic figure in the image of his forbears Alfred the Great and King Athelstan. I based that on how the ASC portrays him: a warrior king who raised and led five armies, but who lost half a kingdom through treachery, and before he could win it back, lost his life.

Sources:
Bolton, Timothy, Cnut the Great. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2017

Campbell, Alistair, Ed., Encomium Emmae Reginae, Cambridge University Press, 1998

Higham, N. J., The Death of Anglo-Saxon England, Sutton Publishing, Gloucestershire, 1997

Rodwell, Warwick J., “The Battle of Assandun and its Memorial Church: A Reappraisal”, The Battle of Maldon: Fiction and Fact, Cooper, Janet, ed., London, 1993

Savage, Anne, Trans., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, CLB, Wayne, New Jersey,1997

Whitelock, D., English Historical Documents, London, 1979

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Patricia Bracewell’s first two books, Shadow on the Crown (2013) and The Price of Blood (2015) are available in paperback, e-book and audio book formats. Her novels have been published in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, Italy, Germany, Russia and Brazil. In the fall of 2014 she was honored to serve as Writer-in-Residence at Gladstone’s Library, Wales, and she continues to travel extensively for research. She holds a Masters Degree in English Literature, lives in Oakland, California, and has been in love with England and its history since childhood. She is currently completing the third novel in her series about the 11th century queen of England, Emma of Normandy.

Paula Says

Thank you so much, Pat, for coming on my blog to talk about one of my greatest heroes of the 11th century. Like many others who have had their lives cut short before they could reach their full potential, Edmund never had the chance to fight to regain England back from Danish rule, and I definitely think he would have given Cnut a run for his money. He was, unfortunately, the only leader at the time who seemed to have the wherewithal to stand up and take the English forces to the fight. He was indeed a great hero. Your extensive research really shows here and I am grateful that you have shared so much of it here!

One question I have is that I notice you don’t mention Godwin, later Earl Godwin under Cnut. I have always thought that Godwin was a member of Edmund and Aethelstan’s retainers, due to being returned his father’s land in Aethelstan’s will, I just wondered what your thoughts are regarding him?