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.
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.
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.
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) *
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.
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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