What Was the Significance of King Cnut’s Victory at Assandun?

What Was the Significance of King Cnut’s Victory at Assandun?

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Combat between Canute the Dane and Edmund Ironside, Matthew Paris, Chronica Maiora, Cambridge, Corpus Chrisit, 26, f. 160

On 18 October 1016, the English King Edmund Ironside was crushingly defeated at the battle of Assandun. The victor, King Cnut of Denmark, then restored Viking rule over England. Though Cnut is now little known beyond folk tales, it has been argued that he was one of the most brilliant warrior Kings in British history.

When most people talk about Cnut they misrepresent the tale of him turning back the waves as evidence of him being a foolish and arrogant monarch. In fact, the tale was meant to represent the opposite: that Cnut was a wise King who was immune to flattery and aware of the limits of his own power.

This reflects his great standing in Europe: a man who created a North Sea Empire in a time of small fractured states.

A gang of stranded Vikings cause havoc as they try to make their way home.

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Viking resurgence

The son of the brilliantly named Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard, Cnut was born into a time of resurgent Viking power. The Saxon kingdoms of England had united under Alfred the Great’s heirs by forcing the Danes out of England, but were now under threat from the raiding Danes once more.

Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that the first time we hear Cnut explicitly mentioned is in a description of a Viking invasion of England.

In 1013 Sweyn invaded England, ruled by a weak King who now bears the epithet Aethelred “the Unready.” The subsequent conquest of the Kingdom was remarkably swift – taking place over just a few months as Aethelred panicked and fled to Normandy, leaving his subjects leaderless and easy prey for the Danes.

As Sweyn consolidated his Kingship of this new possession Cnut was left in charge of his fleet and armies at Gainsborough. The few descriptions we have of him from the time describe him as handsome, virile young man with a talent for warfare and a formidable warrior in himself.

Sterner tests awaited him than the 1013 invasion, however, as his father suddenly died after just a few months as King in February 1014.

King Cnut

An illustration of the famous tale of King Cnut and the waves.

The Vikings elected Cnut King of England while his brother Harald would rule Denmark. The English, however, would have other ideas, and their ruling council, the Witenagemot, called for Aethelred to return. The returning King raised an army quickly and forced the outnumbered Cnut out of his Kingdom.

As soon as he arrived in Denmark Cnut sought to raise an army and reclaim what he saw as his rightful inheritance. He raised troops from the allies of Denmark – Poland Sweden and Norway – and even cheekily demanded some men off his rival Harald, who had treated his return to Denmark with some suspicion. By the summer of 1015 Cnut had gathered 10,000 men and set sail for England.

Staying true to the traditions of his Viking predecessors, he landed his men in what had once been Alfred’s kingdom of Wessex and began to pillage and raid across the land. Wessex surrendered quickly.

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The fight for the English throne

At this point, some English lords began to desert to Cnut’s side, especially the descendants of Vikings who had settled in Northumbria. Cnut marauded north after this and ravaged much of the east of England.

Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the greatest lord of Northumbria, left the English forces to go north and subject himself to this invader who had taken his homeland.

Despite these whirlwind successes, Cnut still had to face the main English army, which was safe behind the famous walls of the city of London. The army was commanded by Edmund “Ironside,” who was renowned as a great and famous warrior.

This man would provide incredibly determined opposition to Cnut over the next year, and was elected King of England whilst in London with the death of his father Aethelred.

King Aethelred the Unready

After Cnut marched to London, Edmund was able to break out and relieve the siege of the city meeting Cnut at the battle of Brentford, where he suffered heavy losses. Three more battles of great ferocity followed in Wessex as Edmund continually raised fresh armies — and with London uncaptured his prospects of victory seemed genuine.

On 18 October 1016 his forces met Cnut’s for the final decisive battle at Assandun, thought by historians to be Ashington in Essex. We know little about the battle other than that it was hard-fought, and that Edmund was possibly betrayed by a lord who defected to Cnut at the start of the battle.

In the end though, Cnut was victorious, and England was his.

The aftermath

A few days afterwards, the wounded Edmund met Cnut to discuss terms. The north of England was to be Cnut’s and the south Edmund’s, with all of it to go to Cnut upon Edmund’s death. As things happened this came just a few weeks later on 30 November. Cnut would rule all England for nineteen years.

In 1018 he also won kingship of Denmark, with his brother dying in fairly suspicious circumstances. This rule extended to Sweden and Norway in the 1020s after successful conquests. This made him one of the greatest men of Europe, and he even made journeys to Rome to consult with the Pope.

Cnut had transformed his people from a race of raiders to a respected and “civilised” Christian power.

Cnut’s North Sea Empire. Cnut also had lands in northern Norway out of view. Credit: Hel-hama.

As for England, ironically, his lordship over it protected it from Viking raids and restored much prosperity. Trade was encouraged between the country and rest of Cnut’s possessions, also building its wealth.

This legacy of good government and trade would be inherited by later rulers, including Cnut’s fellow Viking William the Conqueror, and thus his rule, began at Assandun, is highly important in the history of the British Isles, and the world.

It has been just over a thousand years since the battle, and it should not be forgotten.

Today is the eve of the 993rd anniversary of the Battle of Assandún, the kingdom winning victory of the Danish king Cnút, an event at least as important in English history as the Battle of Hastings, yet far less known.
Even the location of the battle is a matter of uncertainty, though we know from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that Cnút marked the site with the building of a great minster, just like William the Conqueror did on the site of his kingdom-winning victory, which took place almost exactly 50 years later on 14th October 1066.
We shall thus reconsider the dramatic events of the year 1016 and their consequences, with particular attention to the location of Cnút&rsquos victory and the site of his minster, using the near contemporary authority of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as Old Norse skaldic poetry.

Provisional Programme
10.00 Coffee on arrival
10.15 England and Denmark in the late tenth century
11.15 Coffee
11.45 The Danish conquest of England
12.45 Lunch break
14:00 1016: the year of five battles
15:00 Tea break
15:15 Cnút the Great
16:15 Close

The Danish Conquest of England

One eleventh-century date in English history is so well known to the general public that banks warn customers not to choose it as a PIN number. Yet that year, 1066, marked the fiftieth anniversary of another decisive battle that also led to the conquest of England, one that is now largely forgotten. On 18 October 1016, victory by a foreign force on a hilltop in Essex called Assandun brought this country within the sphere of an outside European power.

Just as the later Norman Conquest was to do, the Danish Conquest of 1016 threatened to alter the course of the island&rsquos history. Although ultimately short lived, it was unquestionably the most significant single event in the half-century from 1000 to 1049. Its repercussions continued after the native English royal line was restored in 1042 and it was still a factor in Harold Hardrada&rsquos first invasion and the ensuing battle of Stamford Bridge in that other momentous year, 1066. The victor in 1016 was the Danish king, Cnut (Canute), then a young man who had first come to England in 1013 with his father Swein Forkbeard. His opponent was similarly young and new to kingly power: Edmund, known as Ironside, son of Æthelred II, the infamously &lsquounready&rsquo.

Edmund did not die at Assandun, but the cream of the English army fell. In defeat Edmund was forced to make terms with Cnut and to divide England with him, retaining only Wessex for himself. How permanent such a division would prove was never tested, for Edmund died on 30 November of the same year and Cnut succeeded in persuading the English people to accept him as ruler of the entire kingdom. How did the realm that had so courageously defended itself against Viking attack in the ninth century, under King Alfred the Great, come to fall to that same enemy little more than a century later?

The conquest of 1016 was the culmination of years of intense warfare and latterly a concerted campaign. Swein had joined the force of Scandinavian chieftains, including Olaf Trygvasson, king of Norway, that attacked England in 994 he had led another prolonged campaign in 1003. In 1013 Swein was bent on conquest and his son, Cnut, participated in his father&rsquos military successes and saw him accepted as full king by all the English nation later that year.

With the English king, Æthelred, in exile among his wife&rsquos family in Normandy, this might have been the decisive moment of Danish conquest, bringing an end to years of warfare. Only the &lsquohappy event&rsquo &ndash in the words of the Abingdon chronicler &ndash of Swein&rsquos death on 3 February 1014 gave Æthelred a second chance. While the Danish fleet elected Cnut as king, &lsquoall the councillors who were in England&rsquo, churchmen and laymen sent for Æthelred, telling him that &lsquono lord was dearer to them than their natural lord, if he would govern them more justly than he did before&rsquo. When Æthelred had made suitable promises, he came home to his people in the spring and was &lsquogladly received by them all&rsquo.

Whatever the extent of support for an English king in the south, the north was less loyal. The Anglo-Danish population of those regions where there had been substantial Scandinavian settlement during and after the First Viking Age were more ready to join Cnut. He made a base at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, where he stayed until Easter. Before Cnut could attack Æthelred&rsquos forces in the south the king, capitalizing on the mood of enthusiasm that marked his return from exile, attacked first and drove Cnut out. Cnut set sail for Denmark, pausing only to leave at Sandwich the hostages given to his father, having first cut off their hands, ears and noses.

Again, this could have proved a decisive moment and the end of Danish hopes, but Æthelred&rsquos restoration failed to resolve his problems. He was ailing, his eldest son Æthelstan died in June 1014, and (reports are confused) there were tensions both with his surviving son Edmund and with the fickle ealdorman, Eadric Streona. Besides, with his record, Cnut would hardly abandon the fight for England. That his younger brother Harald had refused to share the kingdom of Denmark with him did nothing to weaken Cnut&rsquos resolve.

Cnut&rsquos campaign began at Sandwich in September 1015, from where he turned into Wessex and ravaged in Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset. Meanwhile, divided English factions coalesced in two armies focused on Edmund Ironside and Ealdorman Eadric. Meeting Edmund but failing to fight, Eadric made a decision that was ultimately fatal to the English cause: he sided with Cnut, as did forty-five ships of Danish mercenaries, led by Thorkill the Tall. By Christmas 1015 the people of Wessex recognized the inevitable and accepted Cnut as their king, paying him and handing over hostages.

Now the situation of 1013 was reversed, for Edmund continued to hold the loyalty of at least parts of the north. During the Christmas feast of 1015, Cnut crossed the Thames into Mercia and started in early 1016 to maraud in Warwickshire. Edmund and Uhtred, earl of Northumbria, raised a force together and rampaged for their part in the north-west, especially in the lands of the traitorous Eadric. Cnut made for York, Uhtred&rsquos stronghold Uhtred rushed there to defend his city but was forced to surrender and was later killed. With his own man, Erik, controlling Northumbria, Cnut was free to move southwards, pillaging as he went. He reached his ships by Easter (1 April) and turned on London, where Edmund had gone to join his sick father. When Æthelred died on 23 April 1016, the chief men in London elected Edmund as their king, but another group of magnates (according to one chronicler) elected Cnut and declared him king at Southampton.

More fighting ensued on several fronts as the Danes divided, some besieging London, others attacking Edmund, who had raised a force in Wessex. At this moment &ndash when England&rsquos future lay in the balance &ndash Eadric Streona changed sides again and went back to Edmund. Cnut used his fleet to cross the Thames to Essex and from there attacked Mercia (Eadric&rsquos stronghold). It was as he returned to his ships in October that Edmund overtook him and the two forces met at Assandun (identified either as Ashdon in the north-west of the county, or Ashingdon in south-east Essex). Following this resounding Danish victory, another battle came soon after, near the Forest of Dean (where Edmund&rsquos army was reinforced by Welsh troops). As winter approached, the two sides made peace. In addition to the division of England, Edmund agreed to the payment of a large tribute to Cnut&rsquos army. London, which had so long held out against the Danes, capitulated, paying tribute and offering winter quarters to the Danes. Edmund&rsquos death on St Andrew&rsquos day sealed his country&rsquos fate.

Victory in battle did not alone ensure Cnut&rsquos hold on the English crown. Negotiations may have taken some time and the payment of a huge tribute of £82,500 to the Danes by an agreement reached at Oxford in 1018 probably marked the formal end of all hostilities. Cnut&rsquos coronation in London by the archbishop of Canterbury was an important symbolic act. The first coins Cnut issued as king of the English show him wearing a crown, something that had not been depicted on the coinage since the reign of Edgar in the tenth century.

The kingdom that Cnut had acquired was rich and effectively organized. Although exhausted after years of damaging warfare and recent political divisions, the population was anxious for peace and included prominent men keen to follow a powerful leader. There was not, after this conquest, the same removal of the native aristocracy as followed the Norman invasion, but some important English ealdormen were killed, including the treacherous Eadric. While some of Cnut&rsquos followers received lands and offices in England, many were rewarded with money and returned to Denmark. Cnut divided his new realm into four he kept Wessex and the royal lands but gave East Anglia to Earl Thorkill, Mercia to Ealdorman Eadric (before his execution in 1017) and Northumbria to Earl Erik of Hlathir. Although perhaps instituted as a military device, to keep all the regions under tight control while the large tribute payments were raised, the system of earldoms remained throughout his reign. This enabled Cnut to levy high levels of tax, in part to support his foreign ambitions and in part to pay the mercenary troops who secured his kingdom during his frequent absences.

Two law codes survive in Cnut&rsquos name, both drafted for him by Wulfstan, archbishop of York, who had composed law for King Æthelred. These are deeply religious in tone and reflect a king anxious to act justly and to protect and promote the interests of the Church. The reality experienced by the subjects of this often absentee king was far less benign than the image that Wulfstan portrays. Cnut&rsquos reign saw burdensome taxation and the maintenance of tight central control. For all his undoubted generosity to the Church, and his highly successful exploitation of England&rsquos efficient administrative machine (unparalleled in western Europe), Cnut&rsquos regime was the reverse of benevolent.

Cnut&rsquos conquest brought peace and prosperity, and gave England a more prominent role in Europe. The Danes&rsquo conquest of England in 1016 came not as a sudden event but as the result of years of intense fighting going back to the 980s when regular Viking attacks resumed for the first time since the days of Alfred the Great (871&ndash99). It was the misfortune of Æthelred &ndash whose epithet &lsquounready&rsquo relates to his lack of good counsel, not his unpreparedness &ndash to rule England in such difficult circumstances. Although Æthelred&rsquos reputation has seen some scholarly rehabilitation in recent years, thanks particularly to Simon Keynes&rsquo re-evaluation of his methods of ruling, his popular image remains a negative one. Not least this is because we are dependent for a narrative of the wars on an account in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle written after the Danish Conquest, which tends to see future failure in every temporary set-back.

For Æthelred&rsquos heirs, the conquest was a disaster. The æthelings (princes) Edward and Alfred were forced to spend their young adulthood in exile in Normandy. Their mother Emma had better fortune. She married Cnut in 1017, agreeing with her new husband that any sons of that marriage would have prior claim to England&rsquos throne over her older sons. Cnut&rsquos motives are not entirely clear. Did he marry her to make a gesture of continuity with the old regime? Or did he hope to prevent her and her brother Richard II, Duke of Normandy, from reinstating Æthelred&rsquos sons on the throne? Queen Emma was to play an active role in Cnut&rsquos government and participated also in his generosity to the Church her half-Danish son ruled Denmark and England briefly after his father.

For the English, Cnut&rsquos conquest brought an end to years of warfare and initiated a period of peace and stability. More importantly, Cnut&rsquos rule brought England within a Scandinavian empire and gave the country, briefly, a place on wider European stages. Cnut was king of Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden he also had authority of some sort over other parts of the British Isles. He married his daughter Gunnhild to the future German emperor Henry II and was present in Rome at the imperial coronation of Conrad II, Henry&rsquos father. A military leader of some prowess and a forceful but effective ruler, Cnut handled the conflicting demands of his widely spaced territory with firmness and skill. &lsquoThere had never&rsquo, wrote Henry of Huntingdon in the 1120s, &lsquobeen a king of such greatness in England before.&rsquo

Henry of Huntingdon also reported the act for which Cnut is now best remembered. It was he who took his courtiers onto a beach and tried to prevent the advancing waves from wetting his feet. He did not do this from foolishness, or from arrogance, but to reveal the weakness of man in the face of the power of the Almighty. Together with his other acts of religious humility, this was part of Cnut&rsquos strategy to play down his bloody past and admit him, in Sir Frank Stenton&rsquos words, into the &lsquocivilised fraternity of Christian kings&rsquo.


1002 Massacre of St Brice&rsquos Day (13 November). King Æthelred ordered the killing of &lsquoall the Danish men who were in England&rsquo. Often depicted as one of Æthelred&rsquos &lsquospasmodic acts of violence&rsquo, this may be an exaggeration. Rather than massacre innocent Danish settlers in the Danelaw, he ordered the murder of mercenary Danes who had turned against their employers. After ten years of warfare, death and extortion, this was the people&rsquos revenge.

1012 Institution of &lsquoheregeld&rsquo (army tax, later known as Danegeld), money paid to mercenary Danes. First paid on the dispersal in 1012 of the Viking force led by Thorkill the Tall that had plagued the country since 1009. Forty-five ships from the Danish army &lsquocame over to the king [Æthelred], and they promised him to defend this country, and he was to feed and clothe them&rsquo.

1014 Death of Swein Forkbeard, election of Cnut, return of Æthelred from exile, after he had undertaken &lsquothat he would be a gracious lord to them, and reform all the things which they all hated&rsquo. Æthelred came home to his people in the spring, &lsquoand he was gladly received by them all&rsquo.

1020 Cnut&rsquos generosity to the Church. On the anniversary of his victory at Assandun, Cnut attended a ceremony for the consecration of a church at the battlesite as thanksgiving for the victory, and to honour the fallen. The monks of Bury St Edmund&rsquos Abbey claimed that it was in the same year that Cnut oversaw the replacement of secular clerics by Benedictine monks in their abbey and made them substantial gifts.

1028 Cnut&rsquos conquest of Norway. Cnut attacked Norway with ships and offered money to King Olaf&rsquos supporters to bribe them to his side. Olaf withdrew and in victory Cnut gave control of Norway to Earl Hakon, and, after his death, to his consort Ælfgifu of Northampton and their son Swein. At the same time he gave authority in Denmark to his son Harthacnut by his wife Emma.

1031 Submission of Scotland to Cnut. Malcolm II, king of Scots 1005&ndash34, had raided Northumbria in 1016, extending his border southwards. But in 1031 he had to submit to Cnut after the latter&rsquos campaign in the north, along with Macbeth, king of Moray, and another Scottish king. Evidence suggests that Cnut also had contact with the Irish and Welsh, perhaps being involved in a raid recorded in Wales in 1030.

1035 Death of Cnut. His two sons by different wives &ndash Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut &ndash each laid claim to his empire and to England. With Harthacnut in Denmark, Harold won the support of the English north of the Thames while Harthacnut&rsquos mother, Queen Emma, held Wessex for her son. Two years later, Harold was &lsquoeverywhere chosen as king&rsquo, and Emma was exiled.

1040 Death of Harold Harefoot. Harthacnut promptly invaded England from Flanders with a fleet and took the throne. Chronicle reports of his rule are negative, accusing him of levying high taxes. He never married but was still young if his health was poor, it might explain why he agreed to share the rulership with Edward before his sudden death while drinking at a marriage feast.

1042 Accession of Edward the Confessor. This brought an end to Danish power in England. Edward (Æthelred&rsquos son by Emma) came from exile in Normandy in 1041 to share rule with his half-brother, Harthacnut (Cnut&rsquos son by Emma). When Harthacnut died in 1042, Edward assumed kingship alone. He was crowned by the archbishops of York and Canterbury in Winchester Cathedral on Easter Day 1043. He ruled for a further twenty-three years and died in his bed. Childless, he failed to ensure a permanent restoration of the West Saxon dynasty, leaving the inheritance open to dispute, and a fresh invasion.

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Welcome to the discussion forum of Ða Engliscan Gesiðas for all matters relating to the history, language and culture of Anglo-Saxon England. I hope it will provide a useful source of information, stimulate research, and be of real help. Ða Engliscan Gesiðas (The English Companions) maintains a strictly neutral line on all modern and current political and religious matters and it does not follow any particular interpretation of history. Transgression of this Rule will not be tolerated. Any posts which are perceived as breaking this Rule will be deleted with immediate effect without explanation.

The Battle of Assandun

On the 18 th day of October in the year 1016 a great battle was fought between the forces of the English king Edmund Ironside and the Danish prince Cnut, younger son of Swein Forkbeard. According to the 12 th century chronicler William of Malmesbury, Cnut had sailed to England in 1015 at the head of a massive fleet with the intention of either capturing the English throne or dying in the attempt.

Cnut’s fleet sails to England

Over the course of the next year the two war leaders met in battle four times, with Cnut unable to secure either the decisive victory he so desired or the death that Edmund Ironside would so willingly have granted him. Not until that fateful day in October would the rivalry for the English throne be decided on a down in Essex called Assandun.

Today, the site of that battle is claimed by both Ashingdon in southeast Essex and Ashdon, about 50 miles farther north. In a paper published in 1993, archaeologist Warwick Rodwell carefully considered both sites, but hesitated to definitively state that one or the other was Assandun. Nevertheless, Rodwell’s careful review of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) account and its tactical implications, along with his boots-on-the-ground research convinced me that the northern site, at Ashdon, is where the battle was fought.

On that October day Edmund Ironside led a force made up of “all the English nation” (ASC) against a Danish army that must have been significantly reduced in numbers after 12 months and 4 major battles. Yet despite the advantage of numbers, the English lost. The 12 th century chronicler William of Malmesbury wrote, “On that field Cnut destroyed a kingdom, there the whole flower of our country withered.”

So, how did that happen? The earliest account, the ASC, puts the blame for Edmund’s defeat squarely on the shoulders of the villainous Eadric Streona, who “first began the flight and so betrayed his natural lord”. Eadric had allied with Cnut in 1015 but had deserted him for Edmund when the Danes appeared to be on the losing side in the weeks before this battle. In using the term betrayed, the ASC seems to imply something more sinister than mere cowardice.

100 years later the chronicler John of Worcester went into more detail. He wrote that the English formed a battle line four men deep atop a hill, and King Edmund exhorted them to defend themselves and their kingdom from men that they had beaten before. The Danes approached slowly on level ground, and the English, at Edmund’s signal, attacked down the hill. The battle was fiercely fought on both sides, but Eadric Streona was still secretly Cnut’s ally. So when at Assandun the Danish line wavered and it looked like the English would win, Eadric, keeping a promise he had made to Cnut, fled with all his men “and gave the Danes the victory.”

The battle rages at Assandun

The most extensive account of the battle, though, appears in the Encomium Emmae Reginae, written in about 1043 and therefore earlier than Worcester’s account. In this version, Eadric urged his men to flee even before the battle began! “Let us flee and snatch our lives from imminent death, or else we will fall forthwith, for I know the hardihood of the Danes.” Eadric did this at Cnut’s behest in return for some favor—although the encomiast did not hazard what that favor might have been. Seeing a good chunk of his army leave the field Edmund was undeterred. He told his warriors that they were better off without the craven men who deserted them, and he “advanced into the midst of the enemy, cutting down the Danes on all sides.”

The encomiast claimed that the battle lasted all day—a very long time for a battle in this period—and that although the English had more men, they lost more men, too, than the Danes. It seemed to the English that the Danes were not so much fighting as raging (berserkers?), and that the Danes were determined to die before they would withdraw. When night fell, the English, weary and disheartened, retreated and Cnut was left master of the slaughter field.

It seems clear that whether Eadric Streona fled before the battle began or retreated in the midst of the fray, he betrayed his king and directly impacted the outcome of the battle. Cnut’s collusion with him is somewhat less certain made even more so by the fact that within a year he executed Eadric ‘most justly’ for his betrayals.

Edmund, apparently not yet willing to concede defeat, fled across England with the remnant of his army to Gloucester, with Cnut on his heels. There, the treacherous Eadric, who had a foot in both camps, brokered a settlement between them that divided England, with Edmund keeping the southern shires of Wessex and Cnut taking Mercia and the north, including the mercantile powerhouse that was London.

Cnut & Edmund Ironside agree to divide England

At this point, according to the Encomium, God stepped in: within a month Edmund was dead, likely from wounds or from an illness he suffered in the aftermath of Assandun. Soon after, Cnut was proclaimed king of England.

The Battle of Assandun, which put a Dane upon the English throne, is not as well known as that other battle that was fought exactly fifty years later at Hastings and resulted in a Norman takeover. There is no Tapestry that depicts the battle of 1016. But in Denmark, in the King’s Corridor of Frederiksborg Castle, both events are commemorated, for both Cnut and William came from Danish stock. On one wall is a hand-painted photographic copy of the Bayeux Tapestry. Facing it is a series of 19 th century paintings documenting the 11 th century Danish conquest of England, with several depictions of Cnut’s great victory at the Battle of Assandun prominent among them.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. Rev. James Ingram, London, 1823

The History of the English Kings, William of Malmesbury, trans. R.A.B. Mynors, R.M.Thomson, M. Winterbottom, Oxford University Press, 1998

The Battle of Assandun and its Memorial Church, Warwick J. Rodwell in The Battle of Maldon: Fiction and Fact, Ed. J. Cooper, London: Hambledon, 1993

The Chronicle of John of Worcester, trans J. Bray, P. McGurk, New York, 1995

Paintings: The Danish Conquest of England, Frederiksborg Palace, artist Lorenz Frølich, 1886

King Cnut (Canute) (1016 – 1035)

Pictured: A 13th century portrait of Cnut the Great. It shows him as a king of Christendom.

Name: King Cnut (Canute)
Born: c.995 at Denmark
Parents: Sweyn I (Forkbeard) and Gunhilda
Relation to Elizabeth II: husband of the 27th great-grandaunt
House of: Denmark
Ascended to the throne: November 30, 1016
Crowned: January, 1017 at Old St Paul’s Cathedral, aged c.22
Married: (1) Emma of Normandy (2) Elfigfu
Children: 3 sons including Harold I and Harthacnut, 1 daughter, several illegitimate children
Died: November 12, 1035 at Shaftesbury
Buried at: Winchester
Reigned for: 18 years, 11 months, and 11 days
Succeeded by: his son Harold

King of England from 1016, Denmark from 1018, and Norway from 1028. Having invaded England in 1013 with his father, Sweyn, king of Denmark, he was acclaimed king on Sweyn’s death in 1014 by his Viking army. Canute defeated Edmund (II) Ironside at Assandun, Essex, in 1016, and became king of all England on Edmund’s death. He succeeded his brother Harold as king of Denmark in 1018, compelled King Malcolm to pay homage by invading Scotland in about 1027, and conquered Norway in 1028. He was succeeded by his illegitimate son Harold I.

Under Canute’s rule English trade improved, and he gained favour with his English subjects by sending soldiers back to Denmark. The legend of Canute disenchanting his flattering courtiers by showing that the sea would not retreat at his command was first told by Henry of Huntingdon in 1130

Canute and Edmund Ironside split up England, and Canute ruled Mercia and Northumbria until he inherited the whole kingdom. The empire collapsed on his death. He was buried at Winchester.

Cnut the Great (Old Norse: Knútr inn ríki c. 985 or 995 – 12 November 1035), more commonly known as Canute, was a king of Denmark, England, Norway and parts of Sweden. After the death of his heirs within a decade of his own and the Norman conquest of England in 1066, his legacy was largely lost to history. Historian Norman F. Cantor has made the paradoxical statement that he was “the most effective king in Anglo-Saxon history”, despite his not being Anglo-Saxon.

Cnut was of Danish and Slavic descent. His father was Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark (which gave Cnut the patronym Sweynsson, Old Norse Sveinsson). Cnut’s mother was the daughter of the first duke of the Polans, Mieszko I her name may have been Świętosława (see: Sigrid Storråda), but the Oxford DNB article on Cnut states that her name is unknown.

As a prince of Denmark, Cnut won the throne of England in 1016 in the wake of centuries of Viking activity in northwestern Europe. His accession to the Danish throne in 1018 brought the crowns of England and Denmark together. Cnut maintained his power by uniting Danes and Englishmen under cultural bonds of wealth and custom, rather than sheer brutality. After a decade of conflict with opponents in Scandinavia, Cnut claimed the crown of Norway in Trondheim in 1028. The Swedish city Sigtuna was held by Cnut. He had coins struck which called him king there, but there is no narrative record of his occupation.

The kingship of England lent the Danes an important link to the maritime zone between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, where Cnut, like his father before him, had a strong interest and wielded much influence among the Gall-Ghaedhil.

Cnut’s possession of England’s dioceses and the continental Diocese of Denmark – with a claim laid upon it by the Holy Roman Empire’s Archdiocese of Hamburg-Bremen – was a source of great leverage within the Church, gaining notable concessions from Pope Benedict VIII, and his successor John XIX, such as one on the price of the pallium of his bishops. Cnut also gained concessions on the tolls his people had to pay on the way to Rome from other magnates of medieval Christendom, at the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor. After his 1026 victory against Norway and Sweden, and on his way to Rome for this coronation, Cnut, in a letter written for the benefit of his subjects, stated himself “king of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and of some of the Swedes”.

Death and succession

A 13th century portrait of Cnut the Great. It shows him as a king of Christendom.
Cnut died in 1035, at the Abbey in Shaftesbury, Dorset. His burial was in Winchester, the English capital of the time, and stronghold of the royal house of Wessex, whom the Danes had overthrown more or less two decades before.

In Denmark he was succeeded by Harthacnut, reigning as Cnut III, although with a war in Scandinavia against Magnus I of Norway, Harthacnut was “forsaken [by the English] because he was too long in Denmark”,[90] and his mother Queen Emma, previously resident at Winchester with some of her son’s housecarls, was made to flee to Bruges, in Flanders under pressure from supporters of Cnut’s other son – after Svein – by Ælfgifu of Northampton. Harold Harefoot – regent in England 1035–37 – succeeded to claim the throne, in 1037, reigning until his death in 1040. Eventual peace in Scandinavia left Harthacnut free to claim the throne himself, in 1040, and regain his mother her place.[citation needed] He brought the crowns of Denmark and England together again, until his death, in 1042. Denmark fell into a period of disorder with the power struggle between the pretender to the throne Sweyn Estridsson, son of Ulf, and the Norwegian king, until Magnus’ death in 1047 and restoration of the Danish sovereignty.[citation needed] And the inheritance of England was briefly to return to its Anglo-Saxon lineage.

The house of Wessex was to reign again in Edward the Confessor, whom Harthacnut his half-brother – had brought out of exile in Normandy and made a treaty with.[citation needed] Like in his treaty with Magnus, it was decreed the throne was to go to Edward if Harthacnut died with no legitimate male heir. In 1042, Harthacnut died, and Edward was king. His reign meant Norman influence at Court was on the rise thereafter,[citation needed] and the ambitions of its dukes finally found fruition in 1066, with William the Conqueror’s invasion of England, and crowning, fifty years after Cnut was crowned in 1016.

Had the sons of Cnut not died within a decade of him, and his (only known) daughter Cunigund – set to marry Conrad II’s son Henry III eight months after his death – not died in Italy before she became empress,[91] Cnut’s reign might well have been the foundation for a complete political union between England and Scandinavia.

Bones at Winchester

The new regime of Normandy was keen to signal its arrival with an ambitious programme of grandiose cathedrals and castles throughout the High Middle Ages. Winchester Cathedral was built on the old Anglo-Saxon site (Old Minster) and the previous burials were set in mortuary chests there. Then, during the English Civil War, in the 17th century, plundering Roundhead soldiers scattered the bones on the floor, and the bones of Cnut were spread amongst the various other chests of rulers: notably William Rufus. After the restoration of the monarchy, the bones were collected and replaced randomly in their chests.

A Clerk of Oxford

18 October is the anniversary of the climactic battle of the Danish Conquest of England: on this day in 1016 the Danish army, led by Cnut, defeated an English army led by Edmund Ironside at a place called Assandun in Essex. After Assandun Edmund Ironside conceded defeat to the Danes and agreed to divide the kingdom with Cnut when he died just over a month later, Cnut was accepted as king of all England. Assandun was, therefore, a significant date in the history of Anglo-Saxon England, which probably would have been even more significant if it had not been overtaken by the Battle of Hastings, which took place exactly fifty years later, almost to the very day. Last year I wrote about three sources for the battle in English, Latin and Old Norse, partly in an effort to suggest just how large this battle loomed in the memory of Cnut's conquest later in his reign (those three sources were written between 5-25 years after Assandun). Today I want to do something different - where that post was nearly all words, this will be nearly all pictures.

As I've been working on narratives of the Danish Conquest and writing a series of posts about it (which you can find here), I've been getting interested in what you might call the landscape of conquest: what significance certain places might have had for the people involved in the various events of the conquest. (For a possible comparison, think how the single word 'Hastings' has come to stand for everything that happened at the Norman Conquest.) We don't know whether Assandun had that kind of significance to Cnut and his followers, but there are various bits of evidence to suggest it might have done - I touched on another possible example in my post about a church in Sandwich. This train of thought has encouraged me to try and visit some of the places in question, so today, come with me on a visit to Assandun.

Actually, that's not possible. The site of the battle of Assandun has never been conclusively identified: it’s a common placename, and there are various possible candidates. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says it was in Essex, so the two most likely sites are Ashdon and Ashingdon, in the north-west and south-east of Essex respectively. Ashingdon has traditionally been the favoured candidate, but there are strong arguments for both (I personally lean towards Ashdon, for reasons I'll only bore you with if you really want to hear them). I recently paid a flying visit to Suffolk, in the course of which I found myself not far from Ashdon, which is on the border between Suffolk and Essex. This seemed the perfect opportunity for an impromptu pilgrimage. Now, even I wouldn't attempt to plan a pilgrimage to a completely unidentified battlefield, but there's a more tangible relic of Assandun, more worth going in search of. In 1020, a few years after becoming king, Cnut founded a church at the site of the battle. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (D) tells us in the entry for 1020:

[In this year the king and Earl Thorkell went to Assandun, with Archbishop Wulfstan and other bishops, and also abbots and many monks, and consecrated the church at Assandun.]

The people named in this entry indicate the importance of this church to the new Danish regime. Wulfstan is the great archbishop of York, whom we last encountered in 1014 railing against the disloyalty of English people who collaborated with the Danes he had by this time had quite a change of heart, and become one of Cnut's chief advisers and law-makers. (A lot can happen in six years!) Wulfstan presided at the consecration of the church at Assandun, and one of his surviving sermons, 'On the Dedication of a Church', may well have been preached on this occasion. The other person named by the Chronicle is Earl Thorkell, who was remembered as the hero of Assandun, and whom Cnut had recently made Earl of East Anglia. Any event which could bring these two men together must have been pretty extraordinary. We can also populate the Chronicle's crowd with various people likely to have been there, standing beside Cnut, Thorkell and Wulfstan: Cnut's new wife Emma, Earl Godwine (and his new Danish wife, Gytha?), Æthelnoth (soon to be made Archbishop of Canterbury), the Norwegian earl Eiríkr, newly appointed earl of Northumbria, and more. The church was entrusted to Stigand, a priest probably of Anglo-Danish origin, who though very much a winner after the Danish Conquest was very much a loser after the Norman Conquest. With hindsight, there are many tantalising connections and ironies to be drawn out from this disparate collection of people - English, Danish, Norwegian and Norman - who were between them to shape England's fate throughout the eleventh century: the following year Thorkell would be outlawed, three years later Wulfstan would be dead, and fifty years later the young priest Stigand would be Archbishop of Canterbury, crowning the upstart Godwine's son King of England.

So the church at Assandun is very much worth searching for, and that's what I went to find at Ashdon. In this post I'll take you on a tour of what I saw at Ashdon, but do take everything I say on the understanding that this might not be the site of Assandun at all - I’m not sure I can sustain ‘might be’s all the way through the post, so if I slip into unwarranted certainties you’ll have to forgive me! Perhaps another day I’ll go to Ashingdon and give that possibility its proper due. The awkwardness of this is not lost on me - the innate strangeness of going in search of a long-lost battle-site is only exacerbated by the idea that I might have been doing so in completely the wrong corner of Essex, so I do appreciate how absurd this whole venture is. But that's not a bad thing, for two reasons. Firstly, it proves some of the points I made in my first post about the problems of commemorating the Danish Conquest, or indeed any historical event where the sources are more complex than can easily be translated into a modern act of commemoration. And secondly, I'm aware that I went to Assandun to commemorate an event which was itself a commemoration, an act of collective remembering which was public, highly political, and open to multiple interpretations. Was Cnut's foundation of a church at Assandun an act of penance, attempting to make amends for some of the wounds of conquest a display of mutual reconciliation, with both sides agreeing to put the past behind them or a victor's monument to a triumphant conquest? Or a combination of all three? (And did Cnut and Thorkell and Wulfstan and the disparate audience all think it was the same thing?) Commemoration is and was problematic in any number of ways - in 1020 or today - and it's not a bad thing to be forced to confront what a strange and difficult thing we're really attempting when we try to commemorate the past.

All that said, let me show you what I saw at Ashdon. If Ashdon is Assandun, Cnut's minster would be this church, St Botolph's, which is actually in the nearby village of Hadstock. Why not Ashdon itself? I'll quote the guidebook: "While it is just possible that evidence for an Anglo-Saxon building is encapsulated in Ashdon church, there is nothing to suggest a structure of minster-proportions hence historians have turned to Hadstock where a large and imposing Anglo-Saxon church cannot fail to command attention. There is no doubt that it was a minster, and of the period in question it stands on the same 'Hill of the Ash Trees' as Ashdon."

The core of the present church is late Anglo-Saxon, and thus plausibly of the date of Cnut's minster. It's worth noting that St Botolph, the dedicatee of the church, was one of the saints in whom Cnut took an interest Cnut was responsible for the translation of Botolph's relics to Bury St Edmunds, where he founded a church on the anniversary of the Battle of Assandun in the 1030s. There's some suggestion there was a shrine to Botolph here, not just a dedication - the archaeologists talk about traces of an empty Saxon grave in the fabric of the south side of the church.

The church stands in an attractive spot, on a more impressive hill than I was able to capture with a photograph. From the gate of the porch the churchyard slopes down towards the village of Hadstock, which consists of a few houses around a little village green.

The church has gone through various phases of rebuilding, but there are several parts of it which appear to be essentially unchanged since the eleventh century. Behind the fifteenth-century porch.

The decoration around this doorway, I'm reliably informed, is from the early eleventh century. The ornament is fairly worn on the front-facing side, though still clear:

And on the insides of the doorway it looks as if it could have been carved yesterday, rather than 1000 years ago.

The door itself is interesting too: according to the church guide, it's been dated by dendrochronology to c.1034-1042, making it the oldest door in England still in use. And very solid and ancient it feels. It's also one of a number of church doors associated with a gruesome folk-tradition: that it was once covered with the tanned skin of a Dane who had been flayed for stealing from the church, and had his skin nailed to the door in punishment. Needless to say, bits of the 'skin' have been tested and shown to be nothing more than cured cowhide. As I said, this bizarre story is attached to several English churches, but it's intriguing to find any oral tradition linking this particular church to Danes.

(15 pictures and we've only just made it inside the door! Hope you don't have anything better to do with your day. )

It's a plain but pleasing church, white-walled and light with a narrow nave. It's the nave which is the Saxon core of the church, apparently. Just in the corner of the picture above you can see the font, of which the base is 'possibly Saxon'.

Lots of fonts are 'possibly Saxon', but one can't help wondering, is this the font in which poor Stigand performed his first baptisms?

Other traces of the Saxon church are the four high, cobwebby windows in the nave.

In the eleventh-century church there was a stone tower above this crossing, but this had collapsed by the middle of the thirteenth century. The chancel is Victorian, but the two transepts preserve more of the older building.

With a mind full of Assandun, I was a bit startled to see a Danish flag – had some Cnut-loving pilgrims been here before me? It transpired that its presence was nothing to do with Cnut’s Danes at all it commemorates links between this church and St Botolph's Cathedral in Aalborg. So nothing more than a fortuitous coincidence, apparently. It’s a particularly apt one, though, because it was at Assandun that the Danes bore into battle (according to legend) a famous and unusual flag of their own: a plain white silk standard, upon which would magically appear in time of war a black raven. If the bearers of the standard were to be victorious, the raven would flap its wings and clap its beak if they were to lose, it would droop. At Assandun, says the Encomium, the raven was exultant Thorkell read the omen rightly and encouraged his men: “Let us fight manfully, comrades, for no danger threatens us the restless raven of the prophetic banner bears witness.” Inspired by this, the Danes rushed on to victory. This reference to the raven banner comes straight out of Scandinavian legend, and specifically legends associated with the most famous Danish conquerors of England, the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok. Not the kind of flag you'd want to hang in an English church!

On the south side there's more of that carving around the opening to the transept:

Perhaps a few strokes of carving on stone don't seem all that exciting to you, but there are precious few bits of stone, or of anything, really, which we can imagine being seen by the eyes of Cnut and Wulfstan and Thorkell.

The war memorial, so familiar a sight in English churches, struck me particularly here, since Cnut’s minster was, of course, a war memorial too. This one was installed in 1920, exactly 900 years after Cnut's, because however much has changed in nine centuries, some things don't change.

'There Bishop Eadnoth was killed, and Abbot Wulfsige, and Ealdorman Ælfric, and Ealdorman Godwine, and Ulfkytel of East Anglia, and Æthelweard, the son of Ealdorman Ælfwine, and all the best of the English nation.'

We don't know the names of those killed on the Danish side.

The white walls and the hanging lamps made me think, perhaps only by association by ideas, of the church at Jelling, where Cnut’s grandfather commemorated bringing Christianity to Denmark. (There is a superficial resemblance!) If only Cnut had erected a stone monument rather than a minster church, we might not have so much trouble finding the site of Assandun.

There are a few bits of masonry just lying around the north transept is like a museum of old books and unidentified lumps of stone:

The foundations of the Saxon chancel lie under the Victorian one, so that remains a mystery:

Looking back from the chancel:

(Where did Wulfstan stand to preach his sermon?)

And so, via that wonderful door, we go back out into the sunshine.

This seemed marginally better than nothing, so that's where I went. But since I was lacking a properly detailed map (it was an impromptu visit, remember), I'm not even really sure if the field I went to, among the many fields around, was actually the one this website was describing. (By this point the whole expedition had become a lesson in how not to do a field-trip, to the point of almost being an unfortunate metaphor for the wild goose chase of academic study. I promise I usually do my research more meticulously than this!)

Anyway, I followed the map I had, and found a lane:

On the slope of a hill which is (I think) called Haw's Hill:

There's nothing around but farmland and fields, as far as the eye can see. I think this is the above-mentioned Traitors' Field:

The lane leads to a point of high ground above the River Granta, where there's a ford leading into the Red Field. 'Red indicates a battle site' said the church guide, optimistically.

Unlike Hastings, there's no visitor centre here, no audio tour, no English Heritage signage - maybe not even a battlefield. But even if there were, it would still just be a field. Everything else is all in the mind and the memory.

If you'd read this far in the post, I admire and congratulate and slightly pity you. Your reward will be a bit of actual, incontrovertible Assandun history. Because on the same trip, pre-planned and therefore properly pre-researched, I went to Ely - and in Ely Cathedral is buried the most high-profile casualty of Assandun, Eadnoth, Bishop of Dorchester.

This chapel at the far end of Ely Cathedral, now strangely empty and denuded of its medieval statues, is the final resting-places of seven prominent men of late Anglo-Saxon England, whose bones lie in chests behind this monument. They were Ely's chief patrons and benefactors, highly valued in the twelfth century, when the Liber Eliensis was written. Their remains were removed from the Saxon church into the choir of the Norman one, and eventually into the chantry chapel of a sixteenth-century Bishop of Ely. There they lie, barely mentioned in the guidebook and barely glanced at by the stream of tourists who entered the chapel while I was there. Perhaps it was the flamboyant eighteenth-century Latin inscriptions which put the tourists off in which case it's a shame, because behind these memorials are people associated with some of the most powerful words in English literature.

The Liber Eliensis says Bishop Eadnoth went to Assandun with a group of monks 'to pray for the army', and was killed while he was singing mass (it's possible he was in fact just fighting on the English side) 'first his right hand was cut off for the sake of a ring, then his whole body was cut to pieces'. His body was retrieved from the battlefield and buried at Ely, where he was considered a martyr. Four years before his death, Eadnoth himself had been responsible for retrieving the body of St Alphege after he was killed by Thorkell's army - which makes his own fate particularly poignant.

Buried beside Eadnoth is the victim of Vikings best-known to students of Old English poetry: Byrhtnoth, Ealdorman of Essex, killed in battle at Maldon in 991, and hero of the poem of that name. Byrhtnoth died in what is often considered the first battle of the Danish Conquest, Eadnoth in the last, and here they are together. I wonder if anyone at Assandun on the day the church was consecrated had the words of The Battle of Maldon ringing in their ears, whether Byrhtnoth's bold defiance of the Danes or the desperate last stand of his men: Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað.

And buried beside Eadnoth and Byrhtnoth at Ely, as if things couldn't get any more poignant, is Archbishop Wulfstan himself. He must surely have been thinking of Eadnoth - and who knows, maybe of Byrhtnoth too - on the day he consecrated the church at Assandun.

No 'cæsus a Danis' for Wulfstan he died peacefully in 1023, and was buried by his own desire at Ely. It's Wulfstan who in his Sermo Lupi gives us the most memorable picture of England under Danish attack, where he describes in a thundering series of alliterating doublets the disasters which have befallen the country:

Ne dohte hit nu lange inne ne ute: ac wæs here and hungor, nu bryne and blodgyte on gewelhwylcan ende oft and gelome, and us stalu and cwalu, stric and steorfa, orfcwealm and uncoþu, hol and hete, and rypera reaflac derede swyþe þearle.

Nothing has prospered now for a long time, at home or abroad but there was harrying and hunger, now burning and bloodshed in every place often and frequently, and theft and death, plague and pestilence, death of cattle and disease, malice and hatred, and the robbery of pillagers have sorely afflicted us.

Project Results: In Search of the Battle of Assandun

Today’s post presents the results of a recently completed HLF supported project on behalf of the Hadstock Society. The village of Hadstock in Essex, near the Cambridgeshire border, is situated in an area rich in archaeological and cultural heritage. Of particular interest for the Hadstock society is the nearby Red Field, a potential site for the Battle of Assandun 1016.


The Battle of Assandun was a decisive victory for the Danish King Cnut over the English King Edmund Ironside. While the location of the battle is disputed, the construction of the Saffron Walden to Bartlow branch line through the Red Field in the 1860s discovered a large number of skeletal remains in the cutting (Officers of Uttlesford District Council, 2014). Unfortunately, the location of these remains is currently unknown. Further evidence supporting the Red Field as the battlefield is the Parish Church of St. Botolph’s in Hadstock village. The present church was constructed in the 11 th century around the time Cnut dedicated a minster in commemoration of the battle. The church is dedicated to St. Botolph a saint Cnut is believed to have taken a special interest in (Croxton-Smith, 2002).

The entire Red Field and its greater area have an extensive archaeological history. Of particular note are the Roman villa located north of the survey area, originally excavated in the 19 th century, and a group of substantial Roman barrows know as the Bartlow Hills, located 2km south-east. The nature of this archaeological landscape required excavations of the Red Field in the 1990s in response to the construction of a water pipeline following the field’s eastern boundary. Cumulative archaeological work of this area discovered a range of archaeology including Roman buildings with associated ditches and yard surfaces, Romano-British pottery, Iron Age pits and gullies, and Belgic field ditches (Etté and Hinds, 1993). However, annual metal detecting over the field for the past 25 years has not recovered any finds of significance.

Geophysical Survey

The primary aim of the geophysical survey was to detect any potential mass burial pits that may have been dug to bury fatalities from the Battle of Assandun. Burials can be tricky features to detect through geophysical survey the success of which can depend on the state of decomposition, the association of any magnetically enhanced grave goods, surrounding soils and geology, and the grave’s size.

Due to the sizable survey area (> 8Ha) and ground’s crop cover, a magnetic survey was utilised as the primary survey strategy. The magnetic survey was complemented with a simultaneous EM survey, which measured electrical conductivity and magnetic susceptibility properties of three soil volumes. Employing multiple techniques that measure different soil properties increases the confidence in the survey results because some features may not be detectable with one technique, but detectable with another. This was particularly important for the targeted features of this survey.

Magnitude Survey’s bespoke cart system supports the simultaneous collection of magnetic and electromagnetic data, positioned with an RTK GPS and custom-built datalogger. The following results are presented:

Magnetic results with Bartington Instruments 1oooL fluxgate gradiometers:

Two large potential pits are identified in the magnetic results (numbers 1 & 2 in the interpretation). While they cannot be confidently classified as mass burial pits without further investigation, these anomalies do exhibit characteristics of large pits due to their discrete size and nature of response (visualised in the XY traces). However, this type of anomaly could be produced by a number of different anthropogenic or even natural processes. As such, further archaeological investigation is required to confirm these anomalies’ origins.

The magnetic survey has also identified many anomalies of probable archaeological origin. These responses are distinct and potentially reflect ditches, pits, enclosures and roads. When considered alongside the features and finds excavated during the water pipeline’s construction (Etté and Hinds, 1993), it is likely these anomalies are of Iron-Age / Romano-British origin. However, it cannot be determined if these features are an outer complex to the Roman villa or a separate site which may have co-existed. Furthermore, annual metal detecting over the field for the past 25 years has not recovered any finds of significance. Additionally, some of the anomalies could potentially be associated with the nearby Barham Friary and medieval villages. These anomalies are not resolved in electromagnetic datasets.

Electromagnetic conductivity results (C2) with GF Instruments CMD Mini Explorer:

The magnetic and electromagnetic methods resolve anomalies that relate to the agricultural usage of the field. The electromagnetic datasets are particularly sensitive to the near-surface impact this usage has made, resolving many features of agricultural origin, which are not as prominent in the magnetic results.

Overall, this work has provided a set of really interesting results! A big thank you to the Hadstock Society whose contagious enthusiasm and passion made this a truly enjoyable project to be a part of. Also, thank you to the Hadstock Parish Council for letting us use their village hall to host an open night presenting the project’s results. And of course, a final big thanks to John Barker, for being so accommodating throughout project and welcoming us onto his land. Coming soon: Part 2 to this work, with a magnetic and earth resistance survey over St. Botolph’s Churchyard in Hadstock.

Croxton-Smith, P., 2002. The Site of the Battle of Assandun, 1016. Saffron Walden Historical Journal 3.

Etté, J. and Hinds, S., 1993. Excavations at Linton Roman Villa. Cambridgeshire Archaeology Report no. 88.

Officers of Uttlesford District Council, 2014. Hadstock Conservation Area Appraisal and Management Proposals.

The Battle of Maldon

Another savage confrontation unfolded in 991, during the time of King Aethelred the Unready, but this time the Anglo-Saxons didn’t come out of it quite as well. After a long period in which the Vikings had seemingly become less of a threat to England, the raids flared up again in the late 10th Century. Some believed the best way to deal with them was to pay them off, but others had a more indignant view, believing Viking violence should be met with violence.

Read more about: Vikings

The history of the Viking Age

One such fighter was Byrhtnoth, a royal official in Essex, who rallied his forces against Viking warriors when the latter sailed up the Blackwater River. Geography was against the Vikings, who were rather awkwardly forced to congregate on a small patch of land in the river – probably Northey Island. Yet, a streak of gallantry meant Byrhtnoth didn’t exploit his position. He actually agreed to the Vikings’ request to be allowed to cross from the island onto the mainland without being picked off, in the interests of a fair fight.

Battle then commenced, with the overly-chivalrous Byrhtnoth being slain and his forces defeated. Afterwards, the English agreed to pay the Viking “tax”, or Danegeld, to prevent further violence, while Byrhtnoth’s doomed skirmish inspired a great piece of Old English poetry, called the Battle of Maldon.

From the 9th century onwards England was frequently attacked by Viking invaders

Read more about: Vikings

What is the legacy of the Vikings?

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King Edmund Ironside

It was the early eleventh century and England was being overrun by Vikings. Parts of the country were in the hands of the Danes and they were trying to acquire more. King Aethelred, known as the “Unready”, was weak and ineffectual in fighting off the threat. His son Edmund had watched what was happening and when the time was right, he decided to take action. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says King Edmund II was called Ironside because of his valor.

Edmund was born c. 988. He was the son of King Aethelred II of England. His mother was Aelfgifu, Aethelred’s first wife. We know little of Edmund’s childhood. Edmund may have lost his mother at a young age and was probably brought up with his siblings by foster mothers and his grandmother Aelfthryth, mother of King Aethelred. Aethelred took a second wife, Emma of Normandy in 1002. Emma had two sons, Alfred and Edward (later King Edward the Confessor).

On St. Brice’s Day, November 13, 1002, Aethelred ordered a huge massacre of Danes in the area of northern England called the Danelaw. During the massacre, the sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark and Norway was killed, leading to a personal vendetta. From 1002 to 1009, Sweyn and his Danish armies marched up and down England with little interference, torturing the local people, plundering and killing. From 1009, Sweyn brought his largest army yet and stayed in England. There was some resistance from the English but eventually, Sweyn took his army north to the Danelaw which he overran into submission.

Aethelred only led his army in person three times during his reign. Not only that, he didn’t appoint loyal and competent leaders to fight for him. He was all too ready to pay monstrous sums of Danegeld to get the Vikings to leave England. There was a powerful nobleman in England at the time named Eadric Streona, ealdorman of Mercia. He was a ruthless turncoat whose double dealing allowed him to remain a leader for ten years under successive kings Aethelred, Edmund, Sweyn and Sweyn’s successor, Cnut. Aethelred stayed loyal to Eadric and other untrustworthy noblemen. Its possible Edmund may have fought in the wars against Sweyn and his armies from 1010-1013.

After Sweyn took control of the Danelaw other parts of England began to fall to the Vikings. The whole country, including the last stronghold of London submitted to Sweyn and recognized him as king. Aethelred, Emma and their two sons fled to Normandy. Where were Edmund and his brothers? The record doesn’t state they went to Normandy with their father. The boys may have remained in reliable parts of Mercia, Northumbria or Wessex, out of reach of Sweyn and his army. The truth is we don’t know where they were but we do know they survived.

Sweyn was king for only a few weeks when died on February 3, 1014. The Danish fleet in the Thames elected Sweyn’s son Cnut king but the Witanagemot (commonly known as the Witan, noble councilors to the King) had decided to ask King Aethelred back. He made his way to England in the spring and decided to lead his army against the enemy.

Aethelred acted with uncharacteristic speed and resolve, attacking the Danelaw. Cnut took his troops out to sea. Finding no Danes to fight, Aethelred took revenge on the Danelaw province of Lindsey which had harbored Cnut, burning and pillaging. Cnut went south with some hostages he had taken earlier. He returned the hostages without their ears, hands and noses and then went back to Denmark.

Edmund emerges as a leader in 1015. Eadric Streona, who had been backing Cnut, now turned traitor again and supported Aethelred. Sigeferth and Morcar were two advisors to Aethelred and chief thegns of the Danelaw and Five Boroughs area of England. They were most likely supporting Cnut. On the orders of Eadric, they were murdered at Oxford. Edmund, in a challenge to his father’s authority, immediately seized all the property of the two men and ordered Sigeferth’s widow Ealdgyth who was in captivity in Malmesbury to be brought to him, presumably as a hostage. But instead, Edmund carried her off and married her against his father’s will.

Map of the Midlands of England c. 912 showing the Five Boroughs and Danish areas (Image by Robin Boulby from Wikimedia Commons)

Ealdgyth may have been a substantial landowner in her own right. Edmund was able to raise an army among her supporters and those of the dead thegns. He was demonstrating the ability to attract loyalty from men with his vigor and military talent, all things his father lacked. He took control of the Five Boroughs area and offered himself as the people’s champion. The people accepted Edmund as their leader.

In the summer of 1015, Cnut returned with his army. Aethelred was very ill and Edmund’s eldest brother Aethelstan had died a few months earlier. The people looked to Edmund to fight the Danes. Both Edmund and Cnut wanted to secure the help and loyalty of Eadric Streona. Eadric decided to back Edmund but Edmund was wary of his loyalty and didn’t bring his forces to meet him. Eadric managed to gain the loyalty of the crews of forty ships and joined Cnut. Wessex was now isolated from Edmund and his sparse forces located in the northeast. Wessex accepted Cnut as their leader and paid tribute.

Cnut and Eadric went on a campaign raiding the heart of Mercia. Edmund tried to raise a national army during these months. But he was frustrated by the soldiers clamoring for Aethelred to lead the army and join with loyal forces in London. Aethelred was too ill and worried about treachery so he stayed in London on his sickbed. The soldiers melted away before there was any battle.

Next Edmund rallied the forces of Earl Uhtred of Northumbria and they went on a pillaging campaign in Shropshire and Staffordshire instead of fighting Cnut. Cnut marched into Northumbria and Uhtred went to meet him but he ended up submitting to him instead of engaging him in battle. Cnut then had Uhtred killed and took control of Northumbria. By now Cnut’s fleet at Southampton dominated the coast and he was ruler in the Danelaw and Northumbria.

Map of England including the area known as the Danelaw

Edmund’s next move was to retain the loyalty of London knowing his father was dying, which he did on April 23, 1016. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says all the councilors who were in London, as well as the citizens proclaimed Edmund king. However, there was a larger and more representative Witan which met in Southampton and proclaimed Cnut king. Edmund knew a battle with Cnut was inevitable but he needed the troops of Wessex. As he headed west to assemble an army, Cnut attacked London. The Danes sailed up the Thames. The Londoners thought London Bridge was secure and would block the ships but Cnut dug a ditch on the Southwark side and hauled his ships around the bridge.

During the summer, the fate of the nation lay in the defense of London which held out valiantly. All of Cnut’s attacks were repelled. Edmund came to London with troops from Wessex and the south and tried to counter-attack, first from the north bank of the Thames and then from the south bank. There were several inconclusive battles between Edmund’s soldiers and the Danes and their English allies at Penselwood, Somerset, and Sherston, Wiltshire.

Edmund raised more troops and forced the Danes to abandon their siege of London. They retreated to Greenwich. A few days later there was another battle at Brentwood which was a victory for Edmund but many English drowned in the Thames due to carelessness. Edmund returned to Wessex to raise more troops. The Danes attacked London once again but were beaten back. Another engagement in Kent drove the Danes back to their ships. It appeared that Edmund had the upper hand and it was at this moment Eadric of Mercia switched loyalties and surrendered to Edmund. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle laments this was one of the worst decisions ever made for the English nation. But Edmund needed the men.

The Danes withdrew and Edmund followed them with the armies of Wessex, Mercia and the south, meeting in Essex at Assandun. Edmund’s intention was to fight Cnut in a decisive battle once and for all. Alas, Eadric left Edmund’s troops and joined Cnut’s. Edmund fought valiantly but it was a crushing defeat. Many bishops, earls and ealdorman and their sons were killed in the battle. It is hard to determine if the desertion of Eadric caused Edmund’s loss or if it was the superior manpower of Cnut.

Edmund Ironside fights King Canute at the Battle of Assandun on October 18, 1016 (Image in the public domain)

Edmund himself may have been wounded in the battle. It was his courageous fight and his reaction afterwards that earned him the nickname “Ironside”. Like his ancestor Alfred the Great, he fled to the west to raise another army. His behavior was just the opposite of his fathers. The fact that Edmund wasn’t giving up seems to have unnerved Cnut and his councilors. They weren’t looking for a protracted fight and would never have peace of mind as long as Edmund was at large to raise an army.

Messengers were sent to Edmund, hostages exchanged and with a vow of truce, Edmund and Cnut met at Alney in Gloucestershire. The kingdom that had been united under Edward the Elder and King Aethelstan in the tenth century was once again divided. Cnut received the larger territory including Northumbria, Mercia, the Danelaw, East Anglia and Essex. Edmund was recognized as King of Wessex and it became an area of unity for those Englishmen who didn’t want to live under Danish rule.

Edmund probably needed the break from the fighting. The succession at this point was perilously tenuous. Aethelred’s sons Alfred and Edward were young and overseas. Edmund’s brother Eadwig did not show promise. Edmund’s marriage with Ealdgyth had produced one son in 1015 and she was pregnant with a son who would be born in 1017. Edmund’s fight had given hope to the English but all this was dashed when he died unexpectedly on November 30, 1016. He was buried in Glastonbury Abbey beside his grandfather King Edgar the Peaceable. Edmund’s councilors recognized Cnut as king and all of England was now under Danish rule.

Now we have to address the various theories about how and why Edmund died. He may have died on Cnut’s orders by poison or stabbing. There were also rumors which persisted for one hundred years after his death that he had been killed on Eadric Streona’s orders. Twelfth century writers tell the wild tale that Edmund was in the privy and was stabbed from below in the intestines. It is most likely Edmund was wounded at Assandun and died later from exhaustion and his injuries. He was no more than twenty-eight or twenty-nine at the time of his death. Cnut may have had Edmund’s younger brother Eadwig murdered. Edmund’s widow fled with their sons Edmund and Edward to Russia and later to Hungary. Edmund was the last warrior king of the house of Wessex.

Further reading: “The Saxon Kings” by Richard Humble, “The Warrior Kings of Saxon England” by Ralph Whitlock, “The Kings and Queens of Anglo-Saxon England” by Timothy Venning, “The Fall of Saxon England” by Richard Humble, entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on Edmund Ironside by MK Lawson

Watch the video: Battle of Assandun, 1016 AD Cnut the Great conquers England (August 2022).

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