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.

Edmund_Ironside_-_MS_Royal_14_B_VI.jpg

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.

harold harefoot.jpg

 

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.

 

 

Edward the Confessor

Edward the confessor drawn.jpgKing Edward was born sometime between 1003 and 1005 at Islip in Oxfordshire. His father was the unfortunate Ethelred the Unready.  It should be “Unraed” which means ill counselled or sometimes he’s described as “the Redelss” which means more or less the same thing.  If Edward has a reputation for saintliness then his poor old father has a reputation for being the most incompetent king in English history – which is saying something. He had the misfortunate to be king at the time when the Scandinavians were flexing their muscles again and after a long period of peace the English were not in any state to resist.  The Anglo Saxon Chronicles of the period talk a lot about flight and being beaten.

The policy of buying off hairy Viking brutes with large axes is called paying Danegeld.  The Saxons had used the method before but after the Battle of Maldon in 991 it became much more commonplace.  And, of course, in paying off one bunch of raiders it didn’t mean that another independent group would arrive or that the first lot wouldn’t turn up for another bite of the cherry.  It went from bad to worse when a Dane called Sweyn Forkbeard arrived with the intention of invading rather than looting.

Ethelred was understandably feeling somewhat harried but it was perhaps a little bit excessive to order the death of all the Danes living ins kingdom especially as the Wantage Code of 991 had been agreed so that the Danes who lived in England would feel greater loyalty to the Saxon rulers.  On 13 November 1002 there was an attack on all the Danish settlers in the kingdom.  This is known as the St Brice’s Day Massacre and had the obvious effect of making all the surviving Danes rally towards Sweyn as averse to the monarch of their adopted country. Sweyn took the opportunity to destroy Exeter – a stronghold of the Saxons.

More sensibly in 1002 Ethelred had arrived at an agreement with the Normans to prevent the Danes from using the Normandy coast as a harbour and jumping off point for their endeavours.  As you might expect this agreement was cemented by a royal marriage. Emma of Normandy was sent to become Ethelred’s wife.

In 1011 the Danes captured Canterbury and its archbishop.  They carted the unfortunate archbishop to Greenwich where they had their encampment.  Archbishop Aelfheah refused to allow himself to be ransomed so the Danes killed him by throwing discarded ox  and cattle bones at him.  Eventually someone put him out of his misery by hitting him over the head with the butt of an axe.

Emma of Normandy.jpgIn 1013, the area known as Danelaw decided that Swyn and his son Cnut would make excellent rulers. This freed up the way for the Danes to invade Wessex at which point Aethelred fled to the Isle of Wight in the first instance leaving Emma to take her two small sons Edward and his younger brother Alfred home to Normandy (shown pictured left) – a young Edward is seated behind his mother.

Sweyn Forkbeard died in 1014 leaving Cnut to rule. Ethelred returned at this point in proceedings to try and retrieve the situation but he also died in 1016. Emma remained in England despite the fact that her children were in her brother’s kingdom. Emma now married Cnut – ignoring the fact that Cnut had a wife called Aelfgifu who he had married on 1006. So, Emma became queen for a second time. She had a son called Harthacnut and set about forging a more united kingdom for the Saxons and the Danes.

All this time Edward was in Normandy where his cousin Robert was now the duke.  It was Robert who demanded that Edward should be allowed to return home and that with Ethelred dead that Edward was the rightful king – although this did bypass the fact that Edward and Alfred were the product of a second marriage and that other older sons were available.  It was only when Robert died andWilliam became Duke of Normandy that the political situation changed.  The Normans did not now have the leisure to interfere in English affairs and it looked as though Edward and Arthur would be left kicking their heals.

In 1035 Cnut died.  Emma had negotiated as part of her marriage alliance with Cnut that any sons she might have would have a better claim to the kingdom than sons by other women. She took the precaution of commandeering the treasury. Unfortunately Harthacnut was in Denmark when Cnut popped his clogs so whilst Emma waited in Winchester for the arrival of her son, Cnut’s other wife Aelfgifu lobbied for her own son Harold Harefoot to become king. Ultimately there was a meeting in Oxford as both sons had a claim to the throne and both of them had their own group of supporters. Harthacnut still had not returned to England – so inevitably Harold Harefoot had the upper hand simply because he was on the scene.

It was a period of uncertainty.  This was the time that the sons by her first marriage to Ethelred, Edward and Alfred, returned to England to see if they could snaffle a kingdom whilst Cnut’s sons were busy.  Edward made landfall in Southampton and then went to Winchester where he met with his mother. Alfred arrived in Kent.

Unfortunately Earl Godwin had his own vested interests to consider and they did not involve the sons of Ethelred the Unready.  He met with Alfred and said that he would escort Alfred to Winchester. Instead he captured Alfred and blinded him. Edward seeing which way the tide had turned fled back to Normandy.

In 1037 Emma was forced to leave England. Harold Harefoot was king. Ultimately Harthacnut did not have to worry about invading England because after three years as ruler Harold Harefoot died rather unexpectedly whilst celebrating a wedding.

Harthacnut would not have won a popularity contest. He died unexpectedly as well.

Earl Godwin now decided that Edward was a better bet than some of the other possible claimants to the Crown.  Edward was crowned on 3rd April 1043 in Winchester.  The price for Godwin’s support was marriage to his daughter Edith – who had originally been named after her mother but changed to the more Saxon sounding Edith upon marriage – something that occurred in 1045 when Earl Godwin was at the height of his powers. Edith was about twenty-two whilst Edward was somewhere close to forty as we aren’t totally sure which year he was born. Rather unusually Edith had her own coronation. Anglo-Saxon kings don’t seem to have crowned their spouses very much.

Godwin had done very nicely from the rule of Cnut.  He also had a Danish wife  called Gytha who just so happened to be Cnut’s sister through marriage and a brood of sons – something which Edward the Confessor lacked. His sons Swein and Harold both became earls in their own right and they were brothers-in-law of the king just as Godwin was the king’s father-in-law. The trouble was that Edward did not look towards Scandinavian countries for alliances.  He turned to Normandy. Matters came to a head in 1051 when Edward insisted on appointing a Frenchman to the archbishopric of Canterbury.  There was then a spot of trouble in Dover which Godwin refused to put down followed by a stand off at Gloucester when Godwin had a rant about foreigners.

Edward who was not always the saintly but weak man that history often portrays him  called out the militia which meant that Godwin and his sons found themselves on the wrong end of an army – including some of their own tenants.  Edward then outlawed Swein who had some very questionable attitudes to women and property.  He demanded that Harold and Godwin explain themselves or face the consequences.  Godwin fled and was declared an outlaw – I’m not sure if any of this enhanced Edward’s relationship with his wife- especially when he confiscated Godwin’s property and sent Edith to a nunnery where she remained until 1052.

There is some evidence that by 1051 Edward had agreed to William becoming the next king of England but it is also true to say that Edward contacted the exiled son of Edmund Ironside, who was Edward the Confessor’s older half-brother by Ethelred’s first wife, and invited him to return from Hungary.  His name was also Edward.  History tends to call him Edward the Atheling or more pointedly Edward the Exile.  Edward the Atheling received his letter from his uncle inviting him home in 1056 having sent someone to find him on 1054.  He arrived with his wife Agatha, his daughter Margaret and his son Edgar.  This exiled family was a way for Edward the Confessor to get one over on Earl Godwin because not only did the king want to support his own family but the Witan (England’s council) liked the idea of England being ruled by the Saxon ruling house rather than a power hungry Godwin who’d done very nicely thank you out of Cnut’s reign. Unfortunately Edward the Atheling died unexpectedly on 19th April 1057 without ever meeting Edward the Confessor. The inevitable suspicion is that some unscrupulous person must have poisoned the Atheling leaving Edgar who was too young to be of political signficance.

Which brings us back to Earl Godwin and his brood.  Godwin had returned from exile in 1052 along with his son Harold who’d spent the time in Ireland.  Together they were able to march on London and force Edward to reinstate them.  Godwin died the following year but Harold was now nicely positioned to make a claim on the crown assuming that athelings dropped like flies whenever they came near his brother-in-law King Edward.

Meanwhile Edith was allowed to return to court when her father and brother regained the upper hand as Edward lacked the men or will to overcome them a second time.  Clearly the time spent contemplating her situation hadn’t improved the relationship between husband and wife.  Historians speculate as to the nature of their marriage.  It has been suggested that Edward refused to consummate the union because the bride was forced upon him by the family who had betrayed his brother, blinded him and left him to die.

From 1055 onwards the Godwinsons – Harold in the south (he had inherited his father’s Sussex estates) and Tostig in the North were more or less responsible for the running of the kingdom.  Edith can be found issuing charters and patronising monastic houses – in particular Wilton where she was educated and spent her time in exile from court.

In 1064 Harold made a mysterious trip to Normandy.  It might have been a bid to ransom members of his family or it might have been a bid to sort out who would wear England’s crown after Edward died.  Either way, Harold ended up taking part in a campaign against Conan II of Brittany and apparently swearing to support Duke William to become Edward the Confessor’s successor.

When Edward the Confessor died on 5 January 1065 he had just finished work on Westminster Abbey which is featured in the Bayeux Tapestry – a workman is in the middle of affixing a weather vane to it to indicate how complete it was.  These days he has a reputation for holiness thanks in part to William of Malmesbury who wrote, in the 1120s, about Edward and miracles associated with him either in his life time or at his tomb.  It was from texts like this that the concept of the king being able to cure scrofula or “the king’s evil” is derived.

Inevitably Edward the Confessor is usually remembered as the king who died and triggered the Norman Conquest.

Morris, Marc. (2013) The Norman Conquest. London:Windmill Books

 

Harold Godwinson’s women

aeflgyvva.jpgIn 1064, so yes slightly before the start date of my self imposed chronological constraint, Earl Harold Godwinson ended up on the wrong side of the Channel.  The Malmesbury Chronicle says that he went on a fishing trip and got blown off course due to bad weather whilst the Bayeux Tapestry depicts Harold arriving to retrieve various relations who had been held hostage for several years.  Whatever the truth of it Harold swiftly found himself being handed over to Duke William in Rouen and during his time in Normandy even taking part in William’s military campaign in Brittany.

Both the Malmesbury Chronicle and the writer of the Jumieges Chronicle report that Harold agreed to support William’s claim to the English throne at this time but that William offered his eldest daughter Adeliza to Harold as a deal sweetener.  Apparently the girl wasn’t yet old enough to marry the handsome English earl but when she did come of age William offered his daughter together with a handsome dowry. Borman notes that Adeliza would have been about seven-years-old in 1064. Borman continues her story by suggesting that it was William’s wife, Matilda, who brokered the deal and that the woman in the Bayeux Tapestry titled “Aelfgyva” is in fact Adeliza.  The woman in the Bayeux Tapestry is an adult, and of course, Adeliza would not have been married until she reached puberty so it could be that the creators of the tapestry are looking to the future.  Borman (page 81) adds that it is possible that the woman is framed in a ducal doorway on the tapestry and that the priest touching her cheek is actually removing her veil – so a depiction of the betrothal ceremony.  The only problem, apart from the obvious age thing, is that why anglicise Adeliza’s name?  The tapestry is, after all, Norman despite its English crafting.  Borman also makes the very good point that there is a subtext in the tapestry.  There are a couple up to marginal naughtiness in the borders of the tapestry at this point in the story – and it hardly seems to apply to Adeliza.  Borman goes on to suggest that Aelfygvva is actually Harold’s sister who was fetched across to Normandy for a corresponding Norman-English marriage to cement the agreement.

Walker notes that one source suggests a plan to marry Harold’s sister to Duke William – which can’t have been the case as his wife Matilda might have objected.  More plausibly there may have been a projected marriage between Harold’s sister and William’s eldest son Robert. Walker also offers the suggestion that Harold was actually on his way into continental Europe to arrange an advantageous match for his sister when he got blown off course and ended up as a ‘guest’ of William.

Freeman notes that the lady in question could be a courtesan provided for Harold at Rouen or even, and I’m still not quite sure why she’d be in the Bayeux Tapestry a mistress of either Cnut or Harold’s brother Swegn (who happened to also be an abbess- the mistress that is). Freeman presents the argument that the lady in question is none of the above but actually Queen Emma who changed her name to one that tripped off Saxon tongues upon her marriage to Aethelred (the Unready). Emma ultimately married Aethelred’s enemy Cnut having left the children of her first marriage in Normandy (Alfred and Edward – who became the Confessor and despite being Saxon was actually very Norman).  At a later date she was accused of impropriety with the Bishop of Winchester – not to mention the blinding and eventual death of her own son Alfred at Ely.  Freeman argues that not only did Emma have a Norman link but demonstrated the chaos of pre-conquest England in the minds of the Normans as well as the perfidy of the Godwinson clan – Emma having been linked in her policies to Harold’s father (the treacherous Earl Godwin.) Double click on the image to open a new page and a post on the Medievalists.net published in 2012 with more detail about who the mysterious Aelfgyvva might be and why.

 

Now that’s what you call an aside!

The Malmesbury Chronicle, to go back to the original point of the post, says that William’s daughter died before she could be married to Harold and this added to Harold’s justification for breaking his oath to support William.

There’s also the small matter that Harold was some forty years older than his intended bride and possibly already had a wife in the form of  Edith Swanneck.  History always seems a bit vague about what to call this particular Edith.  Some texts refer to her as Harold’s mistress, others as his common law wife.  It appears that the couple were hand fasted in the Norse  not-entirely-Christian-somewhat frowned upon by the Church-tradition.  Harold had several children with Edith Swanneck and they were not regarded as illegitimate at the time but then when Harold made his claim to the throne it was deemed sensible that he should make a more acceptable marriage to the widow of his enemy Llewelyn – Edith of Mercia to strengthen his position.  It was Edith Swan neck who, according to legend,  went in search of Harold’s body in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings.

History is a bit vague about when Harold married Edith of Mercia but they were certainly married by the time he became king in 1066.  In the aftermath of Hastings, history’s last sight of Edith is heading in the direction of Chester in the company of her brothers.

Borman, Tracy (2011 ) Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror.  London: Jonathan Cape

Freeman, Eric ( 1991)  Annales de Normandie. The Identity of Aelfgyva in the Bayeux Tapestry  Volume 41  number 2 pp. 117-134 http://www.persee.fr/doc/annor_0003-4134_1991_num_41_2_1886#annor_0003-4134_1991_num_41_2_T1_0119_0000 (accessed 13th June 2016 23:35)

Walker Ian W. (2010) Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King Stroud: Sutton Publishing

 

Edward the Exile

220px-Edward_the_Exile4/5th January 1066

King Edward the Confessor dies at the Palace of Westminster, according to the Bayeaux Tapestry with his wife Edith the sister of Harold Godwinson at his side. Although he had promised to support William, Duke of Normandy’s claim to the English throne, Harold allowed himself to be elected King as soon as Edward is dead. However these two weren’t the only claimants to the English throne.  There were also:

  • Edgar the Atheling
  • Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s brother
  • Harold Hardrada, King of Norway.

Edgar the Atheling’s claim to the throne came from his bloodline.  King Ethelred the Unready or ‘the Redeless’ who died 23rd April 1016 was his great grandfather.  He was the chap who paid the Vikings huge sums of Danegeld to go away but they never did.

Edgar’s grandfather was Edmund Ironside who briefly succeeded his father but who died in November that year, probably assassinated, and than replaced by the Scandanavian King Cnut or Canute.  Canute went on to marry Ethelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy (who just to confuse matters nicely was also the mother of Edward the Confessor – so Edmund Ironside was  Edward the Confessor’s half-brother.  There’s nothing like keeping it all in the family- makes me glad I’m descended from a long line of peasants.)

But back to Edgar and his family tree.  Edmund Ironside, assassinated and quietly buried in Glastonbury Abbey, left  two sons -Edward and Edmund (Obviously history was going through the letter E at the time). Florence of Worcester writes that the brothers were twins.  They went first to Sweden on the orders of King Canute who sent with them a nice letter suggesting that it would be perfectly acceptable for the royal orphans to have a nasty accident – according to Florence of Worcester again.  Apparently Canute’s half-brother who was king of Sweden drew the line at murdering small children and sent them on their way to Kiev.  They eventually ended up in Hungary where the  queen was an aunt of some description on their mother’s side and where they lived in relative obscurity but as handy pawns in a hugely complicated game of early medieval politics.  Edmund died but Edward married Agatha, a niece of Henry III, Emperor of Germany, by whom he had three children. There was one son – Edgar born in 1050 who made a claim to the English throne on the death of Edward the Confessor and then again after the Battle of Hastings.  There were also two daughters, Margaret and Christina.

From here the plot thickens somewhat- if it hasn’t been convoluted enough already.  England went through a series of kings with lively Norse attitudes to life – from Canute via Harold Harefoot to Harthacnut.  Both the later were Canute’s sons and seemed to have retained an essential Viking approach to life. For instance Harthacnut had Harold Harefoot excavated from his grave and his corpse thrown into a nearby fen.  Harthacnut who had a wider reputation for being a rather nasty piece of work aside from his approach to family was Edward the Confessor’s half-brother.  Eventually the Scandinavian types expired without issue – Harthacnut choked at a wedding feast.

Edward the Confessor was then invited back to be king.  He’d spent most of his life in Normandy by this time.  His dress was Norman and his chosen advisors were Norman but Earl Godwin of Wessex soon put paid to that sort of behaviour until he was briefly exiled in 1051.  Edward (the Confessor) took the opportunity to invite his half-nephew Edward (that’s Edmund’s son – the one married to Agatha) to come back to England with his family, delighted not only that Edward was alive but also that he was a solution to problem forming around the pro-Norman and pro-Saxon factions at court.

 

Edward the Atheling also known as Edward the Exile for pretty obvious reasons returned to England in 1057.  He was the solution to Edward the Confessor’s lack of children and the fact that the Normans under Duke William and the Godwinssons (Earl Godwin’s disgrace  didn’t last long) were all set to fight over the kingdom.  Edward the Exile was of noble blood and was the son of Edmund Ironside so had he lived might have been able to hold the English crown.  The Witan (Edward’s council) seconded the invitation as they also recognised the need for an heir that would avoid bloodshed.  In addition to which coming from Hungary, Edward the Exile had no links to Normandy.

When Edward finally did arrive in England, Florence of Worcester says “We do not know for whatever reason that was done that the atheling was not allowed to see his relation, Edward King.”  It’s a shame that chroniclers can sometimes be so tight lipped.  Why was Edward not allowed to meet Edward?  It’s all a matter of supposition.

And sadly it didn’t get any better, two days after his boat docked Edward the Exile was dead.  His death is shrouded in mystery but generally speaking most historians seem to agree that it was murder. None of the chroniclers mention that Edward the Exile was in ill health.  A man with such a good claim to the throne was inevitably going to make enemies and it is highly likely that someone somewhere decided to remove Edward before he became a problem.  In all good murder mysteries the advice is to look in the direction of the person who benefits – so that’ll be William of Normandy or Harold Godwinson assuming that Edward got on well with his wife and hadn’t left anyone feeling particularly aggrieved in Hungary.

The Bury Psalter, an eleventh century text, contains a family tree showing some of the descendants of Edward the Exile.  One daughter, Christina became a nun but the other one – Margaret- became St Margaret of Scotland having fled to Scotland in 1067 where she eventually married King Malcolm. As for Edward’s son, Edgar the Atheling his was a life of rebellion, captivity and ultimately death on crusade.