Danish and Saxon Kings of England before the Norman conquest – an eleventh century game of thrones

Ethelred_the_UnreadyWe think of England before 1066, if we think of it at all,  as being Anglo Saxon with a large Danish contingent in the north.  Simple perhaps,  that’s the story most of us learn as children in primary school.  Unfortunately for the Anglo-Saxons and their Norse descended neighbours things were not that straight forward. England was a wealthy country and its inhabitants might have been forgiven for thinking that they were a tasty bone being pulled first one way and then the other by  opposing forces.

Æthelred the Unready, pictured at the start of this post,  ruled England from 996.  His predecessor was Edward the Martyr.  Edward died in uncertain circumstances in Corfe Castle- Suffice it to say that Edward’s death didn’t enhance the reputation of Æthelred’s mother. Æthelred was the three times great grandson of King Alfred.  He ruled until 1013.  During that time his biggest problem were the Danes.  Thanks to bad advice Æthelred’s response was to pay them to go away and when they kept coming back he ordered the massacre of all Danes in England in 1002.

The event is known as the St Brice’s Day Massacre. It wasn’t an unmitigated success Æthelred could only really expect the order to be carried out in the southern parts of England.  In addition to which Swein, or Sweyn, Forkbeard’s sister was amongst the victims of the massacre along with her husband and child,

sweyn-forkbeard-invade-englandSwein seeking revenge and revenue committed himself to invading England. The Chroniclers do not have much good to say about Swein.  Suffice it to say he became the first Dane who could claim to be king of all England in 1013.  The following year he fell off his horse and died.

There were now two possible contenders for the crown. Æthelred who had made himself scarce on the Isle of Wight during Swein’s period in power and Swein’s son Cnut (yup – the one who allegedly demonstrated that he couldn’t hold back the tide.) Æthelred now promised the nobility all sorts of things so that Cnut found that he didn’t have as many allies as he previously thought meaning that Cnut’s territory dwindled quite rapidly.

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If this seems straight forward Æthelred’s son Edmund known as Ironside because of his warrior like tendencies now decided to revolt against his father.  It was only when Cnut came back to England in 1016 that Edmund returned to his father’s side.  By then Æthelred’s chief ally a Norwegian called Olaf Haroldson had taken himself off for a spot of light raiding in Europe. Æthelred died in April 1016.  The battle for England continued between Edmund and Cnut.  Cnut won a decisive battle in October 1016 and Edmund Ironside died at the end of November.

cnutCnut was now king of England.  He married Æthelred’s widow Emma.  Cnut the Great ruled England for the better part of two decades.  He died on 12th November 1035.  In Denmark he was replaced by his son with Emma – Harthacnut.

England was a less straight forward proposition.  Cnut had two sons by two different women – Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut.  The former found support in the north of the country – by which I mean north of the Thames- whilst the latter had more support in Wessex.  Eventually Harefoot was acknowledged king but not until 1037.  He died in 1040.

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Harthacnut_-_MS_Royal_14_B_VIHarthacnut then returned to England and became king without any difficulty.  Harthacnut celebrated his arrival by having Harefoot dug up, beheaded and dumped in a handy marsh.  He ruled until 8th June 1042 when he died having celebrated the wedding of Cnut’s standard bearer Tovi the Proud at Lambeth.  Harthacnut stood to drink a toast to the bride and promptly died.

 

England had been under Danish rule since 1016.  The House of Wessex now regained the upper hand.  Emma’s sons by Æthelred, Edward and Alfred, had grown up in Normandy.  They had attempted to regain the Crown in 1036 when Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut were at a standoff after their father’s death.  Edward had arrived at Southampton and then taken himself back to Normandy.  His brother Alfred had landed in Dover, been greeted by Earl Godwin, tricked into believing that Godwin sided with Æthelred’s sons, captured, blinded and left to died from his injuries at Ely.

Edward the confessor drawn

Now, in 1042, Godwin the most powerful of the earls supported Edward’s claim to the throne. It wasn’t long before Godwin’s family began to benefit from their father’s decision. Then in 1045 Godwin’s daughter Edith married Edward.  When Edward died on 5th January 1066 he had not children of his own.

Anyone with the blood of the Royal House of Wessex could have been king if they had sufficient support. Edward Ætheling, the son of Edmund Ironside, had returned to England from Hungary in 1057 but died, somewhat suspiciously, almost as soon as he arrived back in England with his three children.  Edward is also known in history as Edward the Exile.

Edward’s son Edgar was an Ætheling – i.e. throne worthy but he was not really old enough when Edward the Confessor died in 1066 to become king. The man who wielded the most political power in the country was Godwin’s son Harold, although Harold’s brother Tostig also fancied his chances.

There was also the small matter of a promise made to Duke William of Normandy by Edward the Confessor possibly in the winter of 1051-52 when he had been able to rid himself, albeit briefly, of the Godwin clan.  In 1064 Harold Godwinson had made a trip to Normandy and had not been allowed to return home until he had sworn to support Duke William’s claim to the throne.

And then there was the claim of  King Magnus I of Norway who said that Harthcnut had left the throne to him not to Edward the Confessor. He had been crowned king of Denmark in 1042 after Harthacnut’s death honouring the agreement made between the two men that which ever one of them who outlived the other would inherit the dead man’s kingdom.  Magnus had not pursued his claim to England but in 1066 his son Harold Hardrada in alliance with Harold Godwinson’s brother, Tostig, would make an attempt to secure the throne.

 

 

One thought on “Danish and Saxon Kings of England before the Norman conquest – an eleventh century game of thrones

  1. What is English as we all go back to Viking in the north. A fine cloth of civility and gentlemany ways over three thousand years of melting pot and battle war make an English gentleman out of us in the wash. But when the flag us up what a war ready nation we are.Then one hopes we never again have to show this side of us to the world.

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