From now until Christmas I shall be focusing on the eleventh and twelfth centuries – so its the Norman Conquest; William’s sons who ruled for another 48 years after their father’s death; followed by the Conqueror’s grandchildren Stephen and Matilda and the so-called Anarchy.
The key date is, of course, 14th October 1066, the date of the Battle of Hastings. At the beginning of the century Sweyn Forkbeard’s invasion of England had caused Æthelred the Unready to flee to the Isle of White. By April 1016 Æthelred was dead.
His son Edmund Ironside came to an accommodation with Forkbeard’s son Cnut following Edmund’s victory over Cnut at the Battle of Assandun on October 18th 1016 but by November 1016 he was dead as well.
The problem for the Witan was that the Cerdic line of Saxon kings had heirs but they were not seasoned warriors. Edmund’s sons Edmund and Edward, were babies whilst Ironside’s brother was eighteen and with few supporters. Ironside’s half brothers by Æthelred’s second wife Emma of Normandy were twelve and thirteen respectively. Emma sent them for safety to Normandy as depicted in the illustration to the right of this paragraph. The Witan, having few options available, voted that Cnut should be king of England.
Ironside’s brother Ædwig was swiftly dealt with probably because he was stirring up rebellion in the south of England. He had initially fled the country but then returned to England. Cnut could not be seen to have him executed so it’s thought that Ædwig’s murder was on Cnut’s orders.
Ironside’s sons Edmund and Edward were packed off to Sweden and King Olaf who was either a half-brother or foster brother to Cnut. Cnut appears to have sent a note suggesting that if the infants had a very nasty accident he wouldn’t be unduly perturbed. Olaf ignored the hint and sent the two boys to safety in Hungary where they were raised as princes. Emma of Normandy’s sons Edward and Alfred had already been sent off to Normandy on the understanding that when Emma married Cnut any son she might have with Cnut would be the heir to the throne – so for the time being they were also discounted.
Cnut used the Saxon system of administration that had raised the Danegeld that Æthelred paid to ensure that he had sufficient taxes to pay for a fleet and a standing army of professional soldiers. These men were initially Danish but it wasn’t long before Saxons were included in their number. The shires and hundreds that remain on the maps even today remained in situ with Cnut’s earls or thegns administering their land holdings on a semi-independent basis but remembering to remain loyal to Cnut.
During this time Cnut favoured Godwin who he made Earl of Wessex. Earl Godwin was a Saxon demonstrating that Cnut quickly amalgamated his following and that the Saxons were pragmatic about their new situation. Godwin went on to marry Cnut’s sister-in-law Gytha.
Chambers, James. The Norman Kings