Friday, 23 December 2016

'Every word here is a wonder'

Nativity (Royal MS 17 E VII 2, f.134, 14th century)

I've just written a short piece for the classical music website Corymbus on the medieval carol 'As I lay on Yule's night'. It's a beautiful and poignant lullaby carol, and you can read about it here.

This carol survives in several versions, but the one I discussed comes from a manuscript compiled by a Norfolk friar, John of Grimestone, in 1372. (The manuscript is now Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates MS. 18.7.21.) It seems to have been John's preaching handbook, in which he collected texts and materials for use in his sermons. His collection includes several tender poems about or addressed to the infant Christ, as well as the one described in my article: this lullaby (Lullay, lullay, little child/Thou who wast so stern and wild), 'Learn to love as I love thee', and 'Lullay, little child, rest thee a throwe'.

Alongside these longer poems, the manuscript also contains numerous miniature verses in English - mostly translations of Latin proverbs or verse tags - of the kind a medieval preacher might slip into a sermon. They are very short, often just couplets, and there are more than two hundred of them in total (here's a list). I find them strangely fascinating, in their extreme brevity and pithiness, so here are a few of my favourites. First, four lines 'on pleasures worth attending to':

To þe flour springende
To þe foul singende
To þe deu fallende
To þe snow meltende

To the flower springing
To the bird singing
To the dew falling
To the snow melting.

Good advice! On the dangers of wasting time (lorn = lost):

For lore of godes I wepe sore
but more for lore of day
Þou godes ben lorn I may han more
Time lorn aȝen comen ne may.

For loss of goods I weep sore
But more for loss of day;
Though goods be lorn I may get more;
Time lorn I never may.

On wisdom:

He is wis þat can ben war or he is wo
He is wis þat louet is frend & is fo
He is wis þat hat inou & þanne seit Ho
He is wis þat dotȝ ay wel an seit ay so

He is wise who can beware before he comes to woe;
He is wise who loves his friend and his foe;
He is wise who has enough and then says ‘Whoa!’
He is wise who does ever well and says ever so.

On study and sin:

Bisiliche ȝef þe to lore
Als þu suldest liuen eueremore
But fle senne in ich a play
As to morwen sulde ben þi ded day

Busily give yourself to lore [learning]
As if you should live evermore;
But flee sin in every play [pleasure]
As if tomorrow were your dying day.

Why you should beware of praise:

To eueri preysing is knit a knot
Þe preysing wer good ne wer þe but
I ne woth neuere wer it may ben founde
Þat with sum but it is ibounde

Within all praise is knit a knot:
Praise would be good, were it not for the 'but';
I know not where it may be found
Where with a ‘but’ it isn't bound.

And so on...

These miniature texts intersect with John's longer poems in interesting ways. The tender approach to children found in the lullaby lyrics is also noticeable in these verses, as in this couplet:

Children ben litel brith & schene & eþe for to fillen
Suetliche pleyȝende fre of ȝifte & eþe for to stillen

Children are little, bright and fair, and easy to satisfy;
Sweetly playing, free with giving, and easy to pacify.

And the poignancy of the lullaby lyrics is there too:

With a sorwe & a clut
Al þis werd comet in & out


With a sorrow and a clout
All this world comes in and out.

A 'clout' is a cloth, a winding-sheet, such as both infants and corpses are wrapped in. The idea here, vividly expressed, is that the beginning and end of life are in many ways very similar. This couplet succinctly encapsulates a poetic conceit explored at much greater length in the lullaby lyrics (especially 'Lullay, little child, rest thee a throwe'): that the crying of a baby, and perhaps also here the pain of childbirth, is a kind of foreshadowing of life's inevitable sorrows. The idea is that a baby, who cries without understanding why it's crying, has cause indeed to cry, because it has been born helpless into a world full of pain. The lullaby lyrics apply this to Christ by having him speak of his painful future and his death, not because it is unique to him, but because it is the common human fate he has chosen to share. The difference is that the baby Christ, the infant Word, knows it and (in these poems) can articulate it, where an ordinary baby has only a wordless cry.

'With a sorrow and a clout / All this world comes in and out.' John of Grimestone's language here finds an echo in the Christmas sermon of a later preacher, Lancelot Andrewes, describing how 'He that cometh here in clouts, He will come in the clouds one day':
We may well begin with Christ in the cratch; we must end with Christ on the cross. The cratch is a sign of the cross... To be swaddled thus as a child, doth that offend? What then when ye shall see Him pinioned and bound as a malefactor? To lie in a manger, is that so much? How then, when ye see shall Him hang on the cross? But so, — primo... ne discrepet imum, 'that His beginning and His end may suit well and not disagree', sic oportuit Christum nasci, 'thus ought Christ to be born', and this behoved to be His sign...

Signs are taken for wonders. 'Master, we would fain see a sign,' that is a miracle. And in this sense it is a sign to wonder at. Indeed, every word here is a wonder. An infant, Verbum infans, the Word without a word; the eternal Word not able to speak a word... swaddled; and that a wonder too. 'He,' that (as in the thirty-eighth of Job he saith), "taketh the vast body of the main sea, turns it to and fro, as a little child, and rolls it about with the swaddling bands of darkness' — He to come thus into clouts, himself! 3. But yet, all this is well; all children are so. But in præsepi, that is it, there is the wonder. Children lie not there; He doth. There lieth He, the Lord of glory without glory. Instead of a palace, a poor stable; of a cradle of state, a beast's cratch; no pillow but a lock of hay; no hangings but dust and cobwebs; no attendants, but in medio animalium, as the Fathers read the third of Habakkuk. For if the inn were full, the stable was not empty we may be sure. A sign, this, nay three in one, able to amaze any...

For loquitor signis, 'signs have their speech,' and this is no dumb sign. What saith it then to us? Christ, though as yet He cannot speak as a new-born babe, yet by it He speaks, and out of His crib, as a pulpit, this day preaches to us; and His theme is, Discite a Me, 'Learn of Me, for I am humble,' humble in My birth ye all see. This is the præcipe of the præsepe, as I may call it, the lesson of Christ's cratch.

This is from a sermon preached in 1618. Poetry and preaching can be very close together, as John of Grimestone knew; and Andrewes' words are probably best known today not from his sermon but via Eliot's Gerontion:

Signs are taken for wonders. “We would see a sign”:
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger

In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
Among whispers.

Þa hyrdas ða spræcon him betweonan, æfter ðæra engla fram-færelde, "Uton gefaran to Bethleem, and geseon þæt word þe geworden is, and God us geswutelode." Eala hu rihtlice hi andetton þone halgan geleafan mid þisum wordum! "On frymðe wæs word, and þæt word wæs mid Gode, and þæt word wæs God". Word bið wisdomes geswutelung, and þæt Word, þæt is se Wisdom, is acenned of ðam Ælmihtigum Fæder, butan anginne; forðan ðe he wæs æfre God of Gode, Wisdom of ðam wisan Fæder. Nis he na geworht, forðan ðe he is God, and na gesceaft; ac se Ælmihtiga Fæder gesceop þurh ðone Wisdom ealle gesceafta, and hi ealle ðurh þone Halgan Gast geliffæste.

The shepherds then spoke amongst themselves, after the departure of the angels: "Let us go to Bethlehem, and see þæt word þe geworden is [the thing which has come to pass], which God has made known to us." O, how rightly they confessed the holy faith with these words! "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." A word is the revealing of wisdom, and the Word, which is the Wisdom, is brought forth from the Almighty Father, without beginning; for he was ever God of God, Wisdom of the Wise Father. He is not created, because he is God, and no created thing; the Almighty God created all created things through that Wisdom, and gave them life through the Holy Ghost.

And this is Ælfric, preaching on the same text as Lancelot Andrewes, six hundred years earlier. Ælfric was a poet too, and a lover of language; and þæt word þe geworden is, Ælfric's version of 'this thing which has come to pass', is literally a 'word within a word', since word is wrapped inside geworden. (I wrote about this at greater length here). 'Every word here is a wonder'!

Nativity from BL Stowe 12, which is (like John of Grimestone) from 14th-century Norfolk

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Danish Conquest, 15: The Death of Edmund Ironside

The death of Edmund Ironside (CUL MS Ee.3.59, f. 5)

On this day in 1016 Edmund Ironside died, after just seven months as king of England. After the death of his father Æthelred on St George's Day 1016, he had inherited a kingdom half-overrun by a Danish army, and he spent most of his reign fighting Cnut and the Danes for control of England. The last battle was fought at Assandun on 18 October 1016, after which Edmund and Cnut reached a peace-treaty and agreed to divide the kingdom - so at the time of his death Edmund was king only of Wessex, while Cnut held what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls the norðdæle, the northern part of England. Following Edmund's death, as the peace-treaty may have arranged, Cnut became king of the whole country, and went on to rule it for nearly twenty years.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle only observes that Edmund died on St Andrew's Day and was buried with his grandfather, King Edgar, at Glastonbury. It gives no details as to the location or manner of his death, and later sources provide varying information on both. Some sources say he died in Oxford (which was near the northern border of his much-diminished kingdom), others in London (then occupied by Danish ships). We don't know the cause of his death, and it may well have been from natural causes: he died at the end of a year of almost continuous warfare, just six weeks after a heroic last stand at the Battle of Assandun, so it's very possible he succumbed to an existing wound.

But this simple explanation seems not to have appealed to contemporaries or to later medieval historians. Within a few decades (and perhaps from the first) his death was being blamed on Eadric streona, one of his commanders, a Mercian ealdorman of impressively fluid loyalties. Eadric had betrayed Edmund in the past, and switched allegiance between the Danes and the English and back again more than once in the years before Edmund's death. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle regularly highlights his betrayals, and post-Conquest sources blackened his already pitch-black name by crediting him with a whole range of extra crimes, including but not limited to the St Brice's Day Massacre, the murder of Svein Forkbeard's sister Gunnhild, the death of St Ælfheah, the English defeat in more than one battle against the Danes, and the murder of Edmund. The twelfth-century historians are pretty well agreed that Eadric was largely to blame for the Danish Conquest, and if they could have found some way to blame the Norman Conquest on Eadric, they would probably have done that too.

Perhaps surprisingly, no English sources cast suspicion on Cnut or suggest he was involved in his rival's death - quite the opposite, in fact. Cnut was not above executing political opponents (including one of Edmund's brothers, and his own brother-in-law) so it would hardly have been out of the question, and some late Scandinavian sources have no doubt Cnut was responsible. The English historians, however, tell a very different story. The treaty made between Cnut and Edmund, illustrated by their kiss of peace in the thirteenth-century manuscript above, had made them 'partners and pledged-brothers' (feolagan 7 wedbroðra), and William of Malmesbury says that Cnut continued to refer to Edmund as his brother; he even visited Edmund's grave at Glastonbury on the anniversary of his death and presented a rich cloak decorated with peacocks at his tomb.

Many later sources go even further, and say that Cnut was not only saddened by his opponent's death, but took it upon himself to avenge Edmund. The earliest incarnation of this story occurs in the Encomium Emmae Reginae, whose author derived much of his information (and surely this story) from members of the Anglo-Danish court of Cnut's son, Harthacnut. It is cited as evidence that Cnut was 'as yet in the flower of youth, but was nevertheless master of indescribable wisdom':

It was, accordingly, the case that he loved those whom he had heard to have fought previously for Eadmund faithfully without deceit, and that he so hated those whom he knew to have been deceitful, and to have hesitated between the two sides with fraudulent tergiversation, that on a certain day he ordered the execution of many chiefs for deceit of this kind. One of these was Eadric, who had fled from the war, and to whom, when he asked for a reward for this from the king, pretending to have done it to ensure his victory, the king said sadly: "Shall you, who have deceived your lord with guile, be capable of being true to me? I will return to you a worthy reward, but I will do so to the end that deception may not subsequently be your pleasure." And summoning Eiríkr, his commander, he said: "Pay this man what we owe him; that is to say, kill him, lest he play us false." He, indeed, raised his axe without delay, and cut off his head with a mighty blow, so that soldiers may learn from this example to be faithful, not faithless, to their kings.

Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. and trans. Alistair Campbell (London: Royal Historical Society, 1949),  pp.31-3.

It's tempting to see this bit of grim wordplay as some classic Viking black humour: Eadric gets his 'reward', but not the reward he was expecting. Cnut did indeed have Eadric killed in 1017, probably not quite as flamboyantly as this - but this sounds to me like the kind of story which might have been in circulation at court, and it might well have some origin in fact. From the twelfth century onwards, historians elaborate not only as to the nature of Eadric's punishment but the manner of poor Edmund's death. Here's Henry of Huntingdon's version, with some even better wordplay:

When [Edmund], fearful and most formidable to his enemies, was prospering in his kingdom, he went one night to the lavatory to answer a call of nature. There the son of Ealdorman Eadric, who by his father's plan was concealed in the pit of the privy, struck the king twice with a sharp knife in the private parts, and leaving the weapon in his bowels, fled away. Then Eadric came to King Cnut and saluted him, saying, ‘Hail, sole king!’ When he disclosed what had happened, the king answered, ‘As a reward for your great service, I shall make you higher than all the English nobles.’ Then he ordered him to be beheaded, and his head to be fixed on a stake on London’s highest tower.

Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. by Diana Greenway (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp.360-3.

'Higher', get it? Justice with a pun. This story, puns and privies and all, is actually quite a restrained version: as time went on, other medieval historians added lurid details about some kind of bizarre privy-based stabbing machine which Eadric used to kill Edmund, yet more puns about reward/debt/being made 'highest', and Cnut throwing Eadric into the Thames with a catapult.

Edmund Ironside and his descendants (BL Royal 14 B VI)

Whatever vengeance Cnut may or may not have enacted on Edmund's behalf, history did bring him a measure of justice. At the time of his death, he had two infant sons by his wife Ealdgyth. They were taken out of the country, and grew up in exile. One of them married a Hungarian princess and by her became the father of three children, including Margaret of Scotland; and Margaret's daughter, in 1100, married Henry I, thus grafting the line of the Anglo-Saxon kings back into the royal family tree. It's a nice irony of history that Edmund should have died on St Andrew's Day, when his descendants would go on to become rulers (and patron saint) of Scotland; and it's through them and through Edmund Ironside, though only seven months' king, that the English monarchy can today claim descent from the kings of Wessex.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

The Coming of Christ, the Golden Blossom

Christ in Majesty (Grimbald Gospels, BL Add. 34890, f. 114v)

On the first Sunday of Advent, here's a fragment of an anonymous Anglo-Saxon homily on the subject of Christ's tocyme. It comes from the collection of Old English sermons known as the Blickling Homilies, which probably dates to the tenth century. The text is from here, slightly altered, with my translation.
Men þa leofestan, we gehyrdon oft secggan be þam æþelan tocyme ures Drihtnes, hu he him on þas world þingian ongan, þæt heahfæderas sægdon 7 cyþdon, þæt witigan witigodan 7 heredon, þæt sealmsceopas sungon 7 sægdon, þæt se wolde cuman of þam cynestole 7 of þæm þrymrice hider on þas world, 7 him ealle þas cynericu on his anes æht geagnian. Eall þæt wæs gelæsted seoþþan heofonas tohlidon, 7 seo hea miht on þysne wang astag, 7 se Halga Gast wunode on þam æþelan innoþe, 7 on þam betstan bosme, 7 on þam gecorenan hordfæte; 7 on þam halgan breostum he eardode nigon monaþ. þa ealra fæmnena cwen cende þone soþan Scyppend 7 ealles folces Frefrend, 7 ealles middangeardes Hælend, 7 ealra gasta Nergend, 7 ealra saula Helpend, þa se goldbloma þa on þas world becom 7 menniscne lichoman onfeng æt Sancta Marian þære unwemman fæmnan. Þurh þa burþran we wæron gehælde, 7 þurh þæt gebeorþor we wurdon alysde, 7 þurh þa gesamnunga we wæron gefreoþode feonda gafoles, 7 þurh þone tocyme we wæron geweorþode & gewelgade 7 gearode.

7 seoþþan he Drihten Crist her on worlde wunode mid mannum, 7 him feala wundra cyþde & beforan worhte; 7 hie liþelice hælan wolde 7 mildheortnesse tæcan. Hie wæron stænenre heortan 7 blindre þæt hie þæt ongeotan ne cuðan þæt hie þær gehyrdon, ne þæt oncnawan ne mihton þæt hie þær gesawon; ac þa se ælmihtiga God afyrde him þæt unriht wrigels of heora heortan, 7 hie onbyrhton mid leohtum andgite, þæt hie þæt ongytan 7 oncnawan mihton, hwa him to hæle 7 to helpe 7 to feorhnere on þas world astag; seoþþan he him mildheortness earon ontynde, 7 to geleafan onbryrde, 7 his miltse onwreah, 7 his mægsibbe gecyðde. Ær þon we wæron steopcild gewordene, forþon þe we wæron astypte þæs heofonlican rices, 7 we wæron adilegode of þam frymþlican... [text missing in the manuscript] Crist wunaþ & rixaþ mid eallum halgum saulum aa buton ende on ealra worlda world. Amen.

'Dearly beloved, we have often heard tell of the noble advent of our Lord, how he began himself to intervene in this world, as patriarchs said and proclaimed, as prophets prophesied and praised, as psalmists sang and said, that he would come from the kingly throne of his glorious realm here into this world, and would take for himself all kingdoms into his own keeping. All that was fulfilled after the heavens broke open and the supreme power descended into this earth, and the Holy Spirit dwelt in the noble womb, in the best bosom, in the chosen treasure-chamber, and in that holy breast he dwelt for nine months. Then the queen of all virgins bore the true Creator, Comforter of all people, Saviour of all the world, Preserver of all spirits, Helper of all souls. Then the golden blossom came into this world, and received a human body from St Mary, the spotless virgin. Through that birth we were saved, and through that child-bearing we were redeemed; through that union we were freed from the exactions of devils, and through that advent we were honoured and enriched and endowed.

And afterwards the Lord Christ dwelt here in the world with men, and showed them many miracles which he worked in front of them. He intended lovingly to heal them and teach them mercy. They were stony-hearted and blind, so that they could not comprehend what they heard there, nor could they understand what they saw there; but then the Almighty God removed for them that wrongful veil from their hearts and shone upon them with enlightened understanding, so that they could understand and know how he descended into this world to be their helper and healer and refuge. Afterwards he opened for them the ears of compassion, and kindled faith in them, and manifested his mercy and made known his kinship to them. Before that we had been made orphans, because we were deprived of the heavenly kingdom and were put out of the original... [text missing in the manuscript] Christ lives and reigns with all holy souls, eternally without end, for ever and ever. Amen.'

Christ in Majesty (Benedictional of St Æthelwold, BL Add. 49598, f.70)

This brief fragment is full of rhetorical flourishes and ornamental prose which it's difficult to convey in translation; it would be very effective when read aloud, as homilies are of course meant to be. There's a particularly lovely string of parallel phrases describing Christ: ealles folces Frefrend, 7 ealles middangeardes Hælend, 7 ealra gasta Nergend, 7 ealra saula Helpend 'all people's Comfort, all the world's Saviour, all spirits' Preserver, all souls' Helper'.

The best-known feature of this homily is that striking description of Christ as the 'golden blossom' (goldbloma). Its meaning is uncertain: an alternative possible translation is 'golden mass', as in 'nugget of gold', to match the description of Mary's womb as the hordfæt, 'treasure-chamber'. Anglo-Saxon writers did like a treasure metaphor, and this one reminds me of the description of Christ in a similar context, in the poem Christ III, as 'the precious stone' - the 'arkenstone', as I discussed in this Advent post.

...æt ærestan
foreþoncle men from fruman worulde
þurh wis gewit, witgan dryhtnes,
halge higegleawe, hæleþum sægdon,
oft, nales æne, ymb þæt æþele bearn,
ðæt se earcnanstan eallum sceolde
to hleo ond to hroþer hæleþa cynne
weorðan in worulde, wuldres agend,
eades ordfruma, þurh þa æþelan cwenn.

...from the beginning,
from the origin of the world, foreknowing men
with their wise wits, prophets of the Lord,
holy ones sage in spirit, spoke to men
often, not once only, of that noble child:
how the precious stone should
come into the world as refuge and comfort
to all the race of men, the ruler of glory,
beginner of bliss, through the noble woman.

The idea of Christ as a jewel is a rich and resonant one, even before you add in all the extra connotations Tolkien bestowed on the word arkenstone. But the image of a 'golden blossom' resonates too, in an Advent context: think of all those medieval texts in which Christ is described as the flower growing from the root of Jesse, which blooms in the depth of winter, when earthly leaves are withered and dying. And since this homily also describes the heavens being burst open (heofonas tohlidon) at Christ's coming, we might think particularly of the passage from Isaiah used in Advent: 'Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bud forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together.'

However you choose to understand goldbloma, both translations produce interpretations full of meaning. The ancient understanding of Advent was as a season rich with interpretative possibilities: the season for reading 'the signs of the times', interpreting the natural world as if it were a book in which God had written a revelation of his purpose, and for reading Christian meaning into the prophecies and poetry of the Old Testament. Advent gives us images which are both/and, not either/or: all the many names given to Christ in this season (king, daystar, root of Jesse, key of David) are to be understood as facets of the truth, not its entirety. For a medieval reader, Advent could be knotty and paradoxical, speaking simultaneously of the beginning and the end of time, of an all-powerful but helpless baby, of the verbum infans, the speechless Word.

Today there's a lot of cultural pressure to give up on the more complex aspects of Advent, to focus on the easy bits of the Christmas story, on the principle that it's 'what people want'. I always half feel as if I ought to apologise for posting medieval texts about Advent during Advent, rather than just tweeting pretty Nativity scenes every day. That's what people want, apparently - and then they say they're tired of Christmas before the Black Friday sales have even finished. That's not surprising, if we go along with the idea that there's nothing more to Christmas than the sweet simplicity of 'Away in a Manger'. But after a year in which everyone has been anxiously and insistently reading the signs of the times, trying to decide if 2016 is 'the worst year in history' and anticipating imminent apocalypse, this seems like a particularly good moment to remember that people have asked these questions before. People have been thinking and writing about the end times for thousands of years, and over the last two thousand years they have done so particularly in December, while preparing to commemorate the coming of Christ. They have looked at the world around them, and seen so much suffering and injustice that they believed it could only be remedied by the heavens being burst open, pierced by the power of perfect love, justice, and mercy. That story has been told so many times that its details have become over-familiar, but an image like this anonymous homilist's 'golden blossom' has the ability to make it strange and new again.

Or think, perhaps, of Langland's paradoxical, mystical vision in Piers Plowman of the Incarnation as a life-giving force, which both pours down from heaven - heavy like a plant bowed down by sap, too full of love and power to be contained - and yet springs up from the earth, as light as a leaf trembling in the wind:

And also the plante of pees, moost precious of vertues:
For hevene myghte nat holden it, so was it hevy of hymself,
Til it hadde of the erthe eten his fille.
And whan it hadde of this fold flessh and blood taken,
Was nevere leef upon lynde lighter therafter,
And portatif and persaunt as the point of a nedle,
That myghte noon armure it lette ne none heighe walles.


And the plant of peace, most precious of powers:
for heaven could not hold it, it was so heavy with itself,
until it had eaten its fill of the earth,
and when it had taken flesh and blood from this ground,
there was never leaf upon a linden-tree lighter than it was,
weightless and piercing as the point of a needle,
so that no armour could stop it, nor no high walls.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

The Danish Conquest, 14: The Duel at Deerhurst and a Divided Kingdom


Shortly after the battle at Assandun in the autumn of 1016, Cnut and Edmund Ironside met to conclude a treaty dividing the rule of England between them. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (D) says:
Ða æfter þisum gefeohte wende Cnut cyning up mid his here to Gleawcestrescire, þær he ofaxade þæt se cyning wæs Eadmund. Ða gerædde Eadric ealdorman 7 þa witan þe þær gegaderade wæron þæt þa cyningas heom betweonan seht geworhtan, 7 coman begen þa cyningas togædre æt Olanige wið Deorhyrste, 7 wurdon feolagan 7 wedbroðra, 7 þæt gefæstnadan ægðer mid wedde 7 eac mid aðan, 7 þæt gyld gesettan wið þone here, 7 hi seoððan tohwurfon. 7 feng þa Eamund cyng to Westsexan 7 Cnut to þam norðdæle. Se here gewende þa to scipon mid þam þe hi gefangen hæfdon, 7 Lundenwaru gryðede wið þone here 7 heom fryð bohtan, 7 hi gebrohtan heora scypa on Lundene, 7 hæfdon þær wintersetl.

Then after this battle King Cnut turned inland with his army to Gloucestershire, where he learned that King Edmund was. Then Eadric the ealdorman and the witan who were gathered there advised that the kings should make a settlement between them. Both the kings came together at Olney, near Deerhurst, and became partners and pledged brothers and confirmed it with both pledges and oaths, and set the payment for the raiding-army, and after that they parted. King Edmund succeeded to Wessex and Cnut to the north part. The raiding-army went to their ships with what they had taken, and the inhabitants of London made a truce with the army and bought peace from them; and they brought their ships to London and took up winter-quarters there.

By saying that the two kings 'came together', the Chronicle probably only means that they had a formal meeting, but a story soon grew up that they had fought (or considered fighting) against each other in single combat. This is extremely unlikely, to say the least, but it seems to have become a popular story, and versions of the idea feature in numerous twelfth-century sources. The location of the meeting may have been what is now called Alney Island, near Gloucester, and the fact that some versions of the story claim the duel took place on an island in the Severn has led to suggestions of a connection with the custom of holmgang.

A reference to the idea of a duel is found as early as the Encomium Emmae Reginae (1040-2), which claims that a few months before Assandun Edmund had suggested single combat to Cnut:

It is told, moreover, that the youth himself at that time offered single combat to Knutr, as the latter was retiring; but the king, being a wise man, is said to have answered thus: "I will await a time, when contest will be fitting, and when anticipating no misfortune, I shall be sure of victory; but as for you, who desire combat in the winter, beware lest you fail to appear even when the time is more appropriate."

Encomium Emmae Reginae, trans. Alistair Campbell (London: Royal Historical Society, 1949), p.25.

Cnut's 'wise' and rather sarcastic response to Edmund is typical of the twelfth-century stories too, which frequently make this as much a verbal as a physical battle between the rival kings. Henry of Huntingdon's version of the story has Cnut cleverly getting himself out of danger with some high-flown words:

The armies were gathered in Gloucestershire. But the nobles, fearing on one side the strength of King Edmund and on the other that of King Cnut, said among themselves, 'Why do we so often rush foolishly into mortal danger? Let those who want to reign as individuals fight as individuals.' The idea was acceptable to the kings. For King Cnut was not lacking in prowess. The kings stationed themselves in Alney and began the duel. When both had shattered spears and lances against the most superior of all armour, they carried on with swords. The crowds on both sides heard and saw with groans and shouts the frightful clang and fiery clashes. At length the incomparable valour of Edmund began to thunder. King Cnut, resisting with great vigour, and yet in fear for himself, said to him, 'O most brave of all young men, why should either of us perish by the sword for the sake of holding kingly power? Let us be brothers by adoption, and share the kingdom, and let us rule, I in your affairs and you in mine. Let Denmark also be governed by your imperial rule.' With these words the generous mind of the young man was softened and the kiss of peace was exchanged.

Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. by Diana Greenway (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p.361.


As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says, Cnut and Edmund divided the kingdom between north and south - a division reflecting a regional split in England which went back hundreds of years. Parts of northern England had been settled by the Danes and under Danish rule at various times since the ninth century; the society and language of the north were in places heavily influenced by Scandinavian settlement, and at this point were arguably culturally closer to Denmark than to the south of England. We've seen since the beginning of this series that in 1013-16 Svein Forkbeard and Cnut were able to count on political support from the north for Danish rule, and they treated the north differently from Wessex during their invasions. The division of the kingdom proposed in 1016 thus reflected a pre-existing cultural divide (of which the legacy can still be clearly seen today in the dialect and place-names of northern England).

What the chronicle calls the norðdæle, 'the northern part', is a huge area, stretching from the Midlands to Northumbria - geographically speaking, much more than half of England. Although over the course of the tenth century the kings of Wessex, Edmund Ironside's ancestors, had extended their power over the rest of the formerly independent kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, they actually had no older history of continuous rule in the north than Cnut's ancestors did. By 1016 both Cnut and Edmund could claim that not only had both their fathers (Svein Forkbeard and Æthelred) ruled the whole kingdom of England, but that both had ancestors who had ruled regions of the country. In the version of the Deerhurst duel told in Gaimar's Estoire des Engleis, the kings exchange long speeches in the middle of the combat, in which they discuss these rival claims to rule England. Both claims are rooted in (real or legendary) history: while Edmund claims descent from Cerdic, first king of Wessex, Cnut tells Edmund that 'Our Danish ancestors have been ruling here for a very long time: almost a thousand years before King Cerdic came to the throne, Dan was king. Cerdic was your ancestor, and king Dan was mine.' In some medieval traditions Dan was the legendary progenitor and namesake of the Danes (as Angle was of the English), so this gives Cnut an ancient and venerable pedigree. Cnut goes on to propose dividing the kingdom to which both have a right; Edmund decides he admires Cnut's 'sagacity' and the justice of his claim, and agrees to this suggestion.

Not every historian was so enamoured of the Danish claim. William of Malmesbury, by contrast, thinks Cnut avoided the duel because he was scared of Edmund's greater physical strength:

Edmund, almost the only one to get away [from the battle at Assandun] came to Gloucester, in hopes of there pulling his forces together and attacking the enemy, who would, he supposed, be off their guard after their recent victory. Nor did Cnut lack the courage to pursue him in his retreat, and the two sides took their stand in line of battle. Edmund then asked for single combat, rather than have two mortal men moved by ambition to be king carry the blood of so many of their subjects, when it was possible to put fortune to the test without the loss of any of their faithful dependents; great credit would be due to whichever of them should acquire so great a kingdom at his own private risk and no one else's. When this was reported to Cnut, he rejected it out of hand, declaring that in spirit he was a match for anyone, but did not trust his tiny frame against a man of such enormous might. Surely, since both not without reason were demanding a kingdom which had been held by the parents of both, it would be sensible to lay aside their enmity and divide England between them. This remark was taken up by both armies and ratified with massive agreement, as both consonant with justice and a benign step towards peace among mortals who were already exhausted by so much misery.

Gesta Regum Anglorum, trans. R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thompson and M. Winterbottom (Oxford, 1998), vol.i, pp.317-9.

Again it's Cnut, by his 'sensible' suggestion (in this case motivated by fear!), who brings an end to the combat through words rather than battle.

And Walter Map, always one to embellish a good story, has the kings trading barbs mid-duel:

[The Danes] insisted with Cnut that the death of the whole army should not be put in the scale, but that of a single man, and that a duel should take the place of a battle, and the victorious champion obtain the kingdom for his master, and the rest be sent away in peace. Both sides were pleased with this, and it seemed good to Edmund to confront the danger himself, nor would he allow of any champion in his stead. Hearing this, Cnut decided that he must fight in propria persona, so as to avoid an unseemly disparity: for a conflict of kings would be even and fitting. All the needful arrangements were therefore made with due solemnity: a truce was granted, keepers of the ground were armed, and the two, borne in two boats from opposite banks, met on an island in the Severn, equipped with excellent and precious arms and horses to the extent necessary for honour and safeguard...

[The fight gave rise] to one memorable phrase: when their horses were slain and they became foot-soldiers, Cnut, who was slender, thin and tall, pressed Edmund, who was big and smooth - in other words, fairly stout - with such prowess and persistency of attack, that in a pause allowed for rest, Edmund stood panting heavily and drawing deep breaths; and in the hearing of the ring, Cnut said: 'Edmund, you breathe too short.' He blushed; but kept a modest silence, and at the next attack came down upon Cnut's helmet with such a stroke that he touched the ground with knee and hand; but Edmund stepped back and neither crushed the fallen foe nor harassed the down-struck; only avenging a word by a word, he retorted: 'Not too short, if I can bring so great a king off his feet.' The Danes accordingly, when they saw that Edmund had deferred to their lord in a conflict of such mighty issue, and that when victory was ready to his hand he had delayed his triumph, compelled the two by many prayers and tears to make a treaty.

Walter Map, De nugis curialium, ed. and trans. by M.R. James, revised by C.N.L. Brooke and R.A.B. Mynors (Oxford, 1983), pp.424-7.

So Cnut learned it's not a good idea to call your opponent fat...

Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, CCCC MS. 26, f.80v

These images of Cnut and Edmund fighting each other (which I've been using to illustrate various battles in this series of posts) actually depict this single combat - another indication of the popularity of the story. In the one above, you can see the Danes and English watching from the sidelines. The one below also shows Cnut and Edmund making peace:


Their kiss seals the kings' pledge to be feolagan 7 wedbroðra ('partners and pledged brothers'), but it is swiftly followed by Edmund's death, depicted on the right here. If Edmund had lived, and the division of the country had lasted, perhaps there would never again have been a single kingdom of England - a reminder that political unions which may seem to us inevitable and eternal can, in fact, fracture, and yet time goes on. Perhaps that reflection was part of the appeal of this story to twelfth-century historians, looking back at 1016 from an England which had once again been conquered by a foreign power. It was these same historians (specifically, Henry of Huntingdon and Gaimar) who gave us an even more memorable story of Cnut accepting the limits of kingly power - ceding rule to God at the sea-shore, rather than sharing half a kingdom with another earthly king. And it was Henry of Huntingdon who, in another context, encourages us to learn perspective from the sheer length of history:
Let us, however, think about what has become of those who lived in the first millennium around this time, around the 135th year... What does it matter whether they were individually noble or ignoble, renowned or unknown, praiseworthy or disreputable, exalted or cast down, wise or foolish? If any of them undertook some labour for the sake of praise and glory, when now no record of him survives any more than of his horse or his ass, why then did the wretch torment his spirit in vain? What benefit was it to them, who came to this?

Now I speak to you who will be living in the third millennium, around the 135th year. Consider us, who at this moment seem to be renowned, because, miserable creatures, we think highly of ourselves. Reflect, I say, on what has become of us. Tell me, I pray, what gain has it been to us to have been great or famous? We had no fame at all, except in God. For if we are famed now in Him, we shall still be famed in your time, as lords of heaven and earth, worthy of praise with our Lord God, by the thousands of thousands who are in the heavens.

But history always holds surprises. The divided kingdom which might have changed England forever lasted, as it turned out, only a few weeks: Edmund Ironside died on 30 November 1016, and Cnut became king of the whole of England. Edmund's death was also the subject of various lurid post-Conquest legends - but that's for another post.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Winter's Day

11th-century calendar from Christ Church, Canterbury (BL Arundel 155, f. 7) 
with the beginning of winter marked on 7 November

In some Anglo-Saxon calendars, such as the one above, 7 November is considered to be the first day of winter. The Old English Menologium calls today 'Winter's Day', imagining winter as a warrior who comes to enslave the earth with frost's fetters:

And þy ylcan dæge ealra we healdað
sancta symbel þara þe sið oððe ær
worhtan in worulde willan drihtnes.
Syþþan wintres dæg wide gangeð
on syx nihtum, sigelbeortne genimð
hærfest mid herige hrimes and snawes,
forste gefeterad, be frean hæse,
þæt us wunian ne moton wangas grene,
foldan frætuwe.

And on the same day [November 1] we keep
the feast of All Saints, of those who recently or long ago
worked in the world the will of the Lord.
After that comes Winter’s Day, far and wide,
after six nights, and seizes sun-bright autumn
with its army of ice and snow,
fettered with frost by the Lord's command,
so that the green fields may no longer stay with us,
the ornaments of the earth.

I wrote about this, and much more Anglo-Saxon poetry on the subject of winter, in this post.

And what better day to get hold of a copy of this beautiful book, which contains my translation of the 14th-century poem 'Winter wakeneth all my care', among many other wintry things? Something to cheer you up if you get too wintercearig over the next few months...

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Danish Conquest, Part 13: The Battle of Assandun


On this day 1000 years ago, Cnut defeated Edmund Ironside at the Battle of Assandun, the final battle in his conquest of England. This blog has been following the course of the Danish Conquest for the past three years, beginning with Svein Forkbeard's invasion of England in the summer of 1013; it's been a lengthy and complicated story of shifting allegiances, invasions, resistance, multiple battles, and extended periods of doubt and uncertainty. It must have felt like a very long three years had passed by the time the two armies met in Essex on 18 October 1016.

(Rather than going back and reading all previous posts in this series, you can get caught up on the whole story with my new ebook, A Short History of the Danish Conquest, just published by Rounded Globe!)

Last Friday saw the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, which attracted a great deal of attention here in the UK - much more than any other anniversary from Anglo-Saxon history would ever receive. That reflects, of course, the important part played by the Norman Conquest (and just as importantly, the myths associated with it) in English and British history, as well as the fact that it's one of the few historical dates 'everybody knows', or used to. This anniversary also comes at a time when the relationship of Britain to the rest of Europe is under particular scrutiny, so the historical analogies have been flying around, from Bayeux Tapestry-inspired political cartoons to official prayers offering thinly-disguised parallels between 1066 and the current political situation (something about an 'island nation poised between Europe and Scandinavia' - don't ask). Future historians will be able to look back on the 2016 commemorations of 1066 and explore what they reveal about our present moment, just as we look back on those of 1966.

It's not surprising that the 1000th anniversary of Cnut's conquest has received so much less attention, given the general lack of information, and widespread misinformation, about Anglo-Saxon England, even among people who are otherwise quite educated about history. The inaccurate but still popular belief that 1066 marks 'the beginning of English history' (and the end of the Dark Ages) consigns everything before that date to misty obscurity, and it's difficult to convince people that an event like Cnut's conquest might actually be an interesting or important part of this country's history. Particularly unfortunate is a persistent refusal to acknowledge that pre-Conquest England was as complex as any other period of history: the myth of rugged, plain-spoken, 'simple Saxons' persists, both among those who romance about the brave-but-doomed heroes of Hastings and among those who prefer to celebrate the Normans for bringing sophistication and European civilisation to a nation of half-savage peasants. It's sadly difficult to persuade people on either side that Anglo-Saxon England might not actually be simple at all, but worthy of considered thought and attention in its own right - not just as a kind of prologue to 'real history' or a quarry for facile Brexit parallels.

(As for 'plain-spoken' - a few minutes with any piece of Old English poetry ought to dispel that myth!)

Few things illustrate that complexity better than the long story of Cnut's conquest. There are no heroes and villains here, no easy tales of winners and losers. This is a period of Anglo-Saxon history for which we have rich and sophisticated written sources; for the Battle of Assandun, those sources include a long chronicle in English, a Latin history whose author parades his classical learning and his familiarity with Roman historians - oh, and one of the most intricate forms of poetry ever devised by the human imagination (skaldic verse). So let's have a look at what these sources have to say about Assandun, the battle fought on 18 October 1016.

Cnut and Edmund Ironside (CUL MS. Ee 3 59, f. 5)

We can pick up the story where we left off in the last installment. Edmund Ironside, having fought with the Danes in Kent and accepted his treacherous former ally Eadric Streona back into his counsel ('never was there a more unwise decision than that was', the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle comments), now pursued the Danish army into Essex. And then:

Se here gewende eft up on Eastseaxan, 7 ferde into Myrcan, 7 fordyde eall þæt he oferferde. Ða se cyning geahsade þæt se here upp wæs, þa gesamnade he fiftan siðe ealle Engla þeode 7 ferde him æthindan, 7 offerde hi innon Eastseaxan æt þære dune þe man hæt Assandun, 7 þær togædere heardlice fengon. Þa dyde Eadric ealdorman swa swa he ær ofter dyde, astealde þæne fleam ærast mid Magesætan, 7 swa aswac his kynehlaforde 7 ealle þeodæ Angelcynnes. Ðær ahte Cnut sige, 7 gefeaht him wið ealle Engla þeode. Þa wearð þær ofslægen Eadnoð biscop, 7 Wulfsie abbod, 7 ælfric ealdorman, 7 Godwine ealdorman, 7 Ulfkytel of Eastenglan, 7 Æþelward Ælfwines sunu ealdormannes, 7 eall seo duguð of Angelcynnes þeode.

[The [Danish] raiding-army turned back up into Essex, and went towards Mercia, and destroyed all that they overtook. Then when the king [Edmund] heard that the army was inland, he gathered all the English nation for the fifth time and travelled behind them, and overtook them in Essex at the hill which is called Assandun, and there they fought a hard battle together. Then Eadric the ealdorman did as he had so often done before, and first began the flight with the Magonsæte, and so betrayed his king and lord and all the English nation. There Cnut had the victory, and won for himself the whole nation of the English. There Bishop Eadnoth was killed, and Abbot Wulfsige, and Ealdorman Ælfric, and Ealdorman Godwine, and Ulfcytel of East Anglia, and Æthelweard, the son of Ealdorman Æ[thel]wine, and all the best of the English nation.]

We don't know exactly where the battle took place: 'Assandun' is the Old English form of the place-name, which today is most likely to be either Ashdon, in north-west Essex, or Ashingdon, in the south-east of the county. (This uncertainty makes the fevered debate about moving the supposed site of the Battle of Hastings a mile this way or that seem quite trivial!). Ashingdon was the favoured candidate for a long time, but I personally incline towards Ashdon, so I'll use the Old English form Assandun for convenience's sake.

The chronicler, whose sympathy is with Edmund Ironside and what he considers to be the 'English' side, here insistently uses variations on the phrase 'all the English nation' (ealle Engla þeode); but we have to remember that not all among the English were fighting for Edmund in 1016. There must also have been Englishmen fighting for the Danes by this point in the war - and not only the treacherous Eadric Streona. There's a strong chance, for instance, that by a remarkable historical irony the father of the king who would lead the English at Hastings, fifty years later, was fighting for the invaders in this battle. Godwine (not the one named in the extract), father of Harold Godwineson, had perhaps already gone over to the Danes; he would soon marry a Danish noblewoman and be richly rewarded for his service to Cnut. Godwine gave his eldest sons the distinctly Danish names Svein and Harold (the names of Cnut's father and grandfather, and of Cnut's own two oldest sons) - and fifty years after Assandun, almost to the day, that Harold was killed at Hastings.

We don't know the names of any on the Danish side killed at the battle of Assandun, but the Chronicle lists some prominent men killed among the English. Ulfcytel was Ealdorman of East Anglia, and for a decade or more he had been more successful in his battles against the Danes than most English leaders. He had made a big impression on his Danish opponents: he appears in Scandinavian sources under the name Ulfkell Snillingr, 'Ulfkell the Bold', and in 1004, after he led his men into battle at Thetford against a Danish army, it was apparently said that 'the Danes admitted they had never met with harder battle in England than Ulfcytel had given them'. He died in battle on his own ground, in Essex; the ealdormen of Hampshire and Lindsey were likewise killed, along with the son of a noble East Anglian family (Ealdorman Æthelwine).

The dead also included two leading churchmen, Wulfsige, Abbot of Ramsey, and Eadnoth, Bishop of Dorchester. They may have been fighting, or they may have been with the group of monks from Ely and elsewhere who took relics to the battle to pray for the army. The Liber Eliensis says that Bishop Eadnoth was killed while he was singing mass at the battlefield; 'first his right hand was cut off for the sake of a ring, then his whole body was cut to pieces'. His body was buried at Ely, where he was considered to be a martyr. Four years earlier, Eadnoth had been responsible for retrieving the body of St Ælfheah, Archbishop of Canterbury, after he was killed by the Danes, which makes Eadnoth's own fate particularly poignant.

Eadnoth's remains still lie at Ely, alongside those of another famous casualty of the Danes: Byrhtnoth, the ealdorman of Essex killed in battle at Maldon in 991, and hero of the Old English poem of that name. Byrhtnoth died in what is sometimes considered the first battle of the Danish Conquest, Eadnoth in the last, and at Ely they are together (alongside Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, but we'll get to him in a moment).

Memorial to Eadnoth, Byrhtnoth, Wulfstan and others (Ely Cathedral)

At Assandun eall seo duguð of Angelcynnes þeode, 'all the best of the English nation' were slain, according to the chronicler. This is rather poetic language: duguð has an interesting range of meaning, and might be best translated with a poetic phrase like the 'flower of English manhood'. The word is powerfully associated with loss and grief in two famous Old English poems, The Wanderer and The Seafarer (lines 80-90):

Dagas sind gewitene,
ealle onmedlan eorþan rices;
næron nu cyningas ne caseras
ne goldgiefan swylce iu wæron,
þonne hi mæst mid him mærþa gefremedon
ond on dryhtlicestum dome lifdon.
Gedroren is þeos duguð eal, dreamas sind gewitene,
wuniað þa wacran ond þas woruld healdaþ,
brucað þurh bisgo. Blæd is gehnæged,
eorþan indryhto ealdað ond searað,
swa nu monna gehwylc geond middangeard.


The days are departed,
all the glories of the kingdom of the earth;
there are now no kings nor caesars
nor gold-givers such as there once were,
when they performed among themselves so many magnificent deeds,
and lived in most lordly majesty.
Fallen is all that duguð, joys are departed,
weaker ones now live and possess the world,
gain use of it by their labour. The blossom is bowed down,
the nobility of earth ages and grows sere,
as now does every man across the world.

The language of these last few lines is autumnal: blæd (which I've translated here as 'blossom') means glory or fame but also blossom, flower and fruit, and all things which grow and flourish. In this world the flowers of spring and of youth inevitably fall, and the earth grows sere (searað), like autumn leaves 'in the sere and yellow' of the year. In the October of 1016, such language might have seemed very apt.

A possible site of Assandun (near Ashdon, Essex)

If the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is tinged with the poetic language of loss, Cnut's Scandinavian poets commemorated the Battle of Assandun in very different terms. His victory is extolled in an Old Norse poem composed by the Icelandic poet Óttarr svarti, probably late in the 1020s. This poem praises Cnut's greatest triumphs, including the victory at Assandun:

Skjöldungr, vannt und skildi
skœru verk, inn sterki,
(fekk blóðtrani bráðir
brúnar) Assatúnum.

Strong Skjöldungr, you performed a feat of battle under the shield; the blood-crane [raven/eagle] received dark morsels at [Assandun].

Óttarr svarti, Knútsdrápa, ed. and trans. Matthew Townend, in Diana Whaley, ed., Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 1, Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages I (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), Part 2, p.779.

Cnut is called 'Skjöldungr' in reference to his supposed ancestors, the legendary Skjöldung dynasty of kings, who appear in Old English literature as the Scyldings of Beowulf. It's an epithet which reaches back into the mists of history and legend, to endow Cnut with the greatness of his royal Danish lineage to make a political point. (Compare, perhaps, the modern fondness for calling the English army at Hastings 'Saxons', despite the fact that - as you can see in the extract from the Chronicle above - by this date they were more likely to call themselves 'English'.)


The power of historical parallels, and especially of recognisable images, was just as evident in 1016 as it is to today's cartoonists. The Encomium Emmae Reginae, a history of Cnut's conquest commissioned by his wife Emma, claims that the Danish army carried an especially meaningful banner into battle at Assandun:

Now they had a banner of wonderfully strange nature, which though I believe that it may be incredible to the reader, yet since it is true, I will introduce the matter into my true history. For while it was woven of the plainest and whitest silk, and the representation of no figure was inserted into it, in time of war a raven was always seen as if embroidered on it, in the hour of its owners' victory opening its beak, flapping its wings, and restive on its feet, but very subdued and drooping with its whole body when they were defeated. Looking out for this, Thorkell, who had fought the first battle, said: "Let us fight manfully, comrades, for no danger threatens us: for to this the restive raven of the prophetic banner bears witness." When the Danes heard this, they were rendered bolder, and clad with suits of mail, encountered the enemy in the place called Aesceneduno, a word which we Latinists can explain as 'mons fraxinorum'.

This magical raven banner, which prophetically displays whether the bearer will be victorious, is very like one said by legend to be have been carried into battle by Ivar and Ubbe, sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, Danish conquerors who had ruled in the north of England in the ninth century. Their raven banner was, one medieval English source claims, 'woven by the three daughters of Lothbrok in the space of one noon-tide'. Ivar and Ubbe were not direct ancestors of Cnut, but they were the most successful Danish invaders of England before his time. In Norse sources, there's a suggestion that after death Ivar's mighty spirit guarded the coast of England from later invaders, who could only win the land by conquering the dead king as well as the living ones.

In the eleventh century, 150 years after their heyday, it was still a powerful thing for Cnut's poets to compare him to 'Ivar, who ruled in York' - a reminder that the Danes had ruled in England before, and were now ready to do so again. We can't know whether Cnut's army really did carry a raven banner at Assandun, or only said they did, but the link this story suggests between Cnut and the sons of Ragnar might indeed have 'rendered the Danes bolder' and daunted the English.

The raven banner in the Encomium (BL Add. MS 33241, f.37v)

The Encomium goes on:

And there, before battle was joined, Eadric, whom we have mentioned as Eadmund's chief supporter, addressed these remarks to his comrades: "Let us flee, oh comrades, and snatch our lives from imminent death, or else we will fall forthwith, for I know the hardihood of the Danes." And concealing the banner which he bore in his right hand, he turned his back on the enemy, and caused the withdrawal of a large part of the soldiers from the battle. And according to some, it was afterwards evident that he did this not out of fear but in guile; and what many assert is that he had promised this secretly to the Danes in return for some favour.

Then Eadmund, observing what had occurred, and hard pressed on every side, said: "Oh Englishmen, today you will fight or surrender yourselves all together. Therefore, fight for your liberty and your country, men of understanding; truly, those who are in flight, inasmuch as they are afraid, if they were not withdrawing, would be a hindrance to the army." And as he said these things, he advanced into the midst of the enemy, cutting down the Danes on all sides, and by this example rendering his noble followers more inclined to fight. Therefore a very severe infantry battle was joined, since the Danes, although the less numerous side, did not contemplate withdrawal, and chose death rather than the danger attending flight. And so they resisted manfully, and protracted the battle, which had been begun in the ninth hour of the day, until the evening, submitting themselves, though ill-content to do so, to the strokes of swords, and pressing upon the foe with a better will with the points of their own swords.

Armed men fell on both sides, but more on the side which had superiority in numbers. But when evening was falling and night-time was at hand, longing for victory overcame the inconveniences of darkness, for since a graver consideration was pressing, they did not shrink from the darkness, and disdained to give way before the night, only burning to overcome the foe. And if the shining moon had not shown which was the enemy, every man would have cut down his comrade, thinking he was an adversary resisting him, and no man would have survived on either side, unless he had been saved by flight. Meanwhile the English began to be weary, and gradually to contemplate flight, as they observed the Danes to be of one mind either to conquer, or to perish all together to a man. For then they seemed to them more numerous, and to be the stronger in so protracted a struggle. For they deemed them stronger by a well-founded suspicion, because, being made mindful of their position by the goading of weapons, and distressed by the fall of their comrades, they seemed to rage rather than fight. Accordingly the English, turning their backs, fled without delay on all sides, ever falling before their foes, and added glory to the honour of Knutr and to his victory, while Eadmund, the fugitive prince, was disgraced.


Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. and trans. Alistair Campbell (London: Royal Historical Society, 1949), pp.25, 27 (paragraph breaks added).

It's interesting that the author, though obviously on the Danish side, gives Edmund Ironside a heroic speech, pro libertate et patria: 'O Englishmen, fight for your liberty and your country!' For the Danes, it's Thorkell the Tall, Cnut's chief supporter/rival, who is the most prominent figure here: to Thorkell falls the key role of encouraging the troops and interpreting the omens of victory. Considering this is supposed to be Cnut's triumph, he's strangely absent from every detail of the battle. But triumph it was, and the Danes won the day.

Initial from the Encomium (BL Add. MS 33241, f. 8r)

Like William the Conqueror at Battle, Cnut later founded a church on the site of his victory. In 1020, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us:

on þisan geare for se cyng 7 Þurkyl eorl to Assandune, 7 Wulfstan arcebiscop, 7 oðre biscopas, 7 eac abbodas 7 manege munecas, 7 gehalgodan þæt mynster æt Assandune.

[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.]

If we believe the Encomium, Thorkell had been the hero at Assandun in 1016; by 1020 Cnut had made him Earl of East Anglia, so the site of the battle, wherever it was, lay in his earldom. In 1016, Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, was the leading churchman in England (since it took some time to appoint a successor to the martyred St Ælfheah as archbishop of Canterbury). Wulfstan had been outspoken in his preaching against the Danes, and in 1016 he must have been wondering whether if Cnut and Thorkell triumphed he would share Ælfheah's terrible fate. But by 1020 he had become the king's chief English adviser, writer of Cnut's laws and public pronouncements, and now preaching reconciliation and peace. It's been suggested that one of his surviving sermons, 'On the Dedication of a Church', may have been preached at the dedication of the church at Assandun. Wulfstan died in 1023 and now lies at Ely, in the same monument as Bishop Eadnoth.

Other people likely to have been present at the dedication of the church, among the crowd mentioned in the Chronicle, include Cnut's queen Emma (patron of the Encomium), Earl Godwine (perhaps with 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 heritage - the first appointment of the man who would rise to be Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of 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 between them would shape England's fate throughout the eleventh century. No one could have foreseen on that day in 1020 that fifty years later the young priest Stigand would be Archbishop of Canterbury, crowning Godwine's son King of England.

Stigand and Harold Godwineson

The date of Assandun was also commemorated when Cnut endowed a new church at Bury St Edmunds, which was consecrated on 18 October 1032. Cnut's commemoration of Assandun through church patronage is often described as an 'act of penance', but it's rather more complicated than that. A great public ceremony like the one described in the Chronicle, attended by the leading figures of the kingdom, preserves the memory of a victory; even if the king expresses regret for the lives lost, he is asserting the importance of his conquest and ensuring that posterity will remember it, and there's nothing humble or penitent about that. Several people have commented in the last few days on the difficult question of whether we have been 'commemorating' or 'celebrating' the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, and you might ask the same question of Cnut and his followers at Assandun. It's hard to believe that the court which preserved the triumphal stories about Assandun recorded in the Encomium did not think the battle more a matter for celebration than penance - and the church a memorial to a great victory.

One possible candidate for Cnut's minster (Hadstock, Essex)

'There Cnut had the victory, and won for himself the whole nation of the English', says the Chronicle. But Assandun is not quite the end. Edmund Ironside did not die on the battlefield, and in fact there's one really excellent part of the story still to come (it involves a duel - which never actually happened - between Cnut and Edmund). Even the last stages of this fascinating story are not straightforward or simple...

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Danish Conquest, Part 12: Otford

Harold Godwineson takes the English crown (CUL MS Ee.3.59, f.30v)

We are currently right in the midst of commemoration season for the 950th anniversary of the Norman Conquest and the events of 1066: on 25 September it was the anniversary of the battle at Stamford Bridge, and on 14 October, of course, we will be commemorating Hastings itself.

In the run-up to 14 October, an intrepid group of re-enactors are currently retracing the likely route of Harold Godwineson's march from York to Battle, via Lincoln, Peterborough and the Weald of Kent. Today they will be passing through Waltham, where (according to the abbey's twelfth-century chronicle) Harold stopped on his way to Hastings, and prayed before its Black Rood for a victory which would not come:
[Harold] had entered the church of the Holy Cross in the early morning, and placing upon the altar relics which he had with him in his chapel, he made a vow that if the Lord granted him success in the outcome of the war he would endow the church with a large number of estates as well as many clerks to serve God in that place, and he promised to serve God in the future like a purchased slave. Accompanied by the clergy, and with a procession leading the way, he came to the doors of the church where, turning towards the crucifix, the king in devotion to the holy cross stretched himself out on the ground in the form of a cross and prayed. Then occurred an event pitiable to relate and incredible from an earthly point of view. When the king bowed low to the ground the image of the crucified one, which had previously been looking directly ahead above him, now bowed its head as if in sorrow, a sign portending what was to happen. 

Turkill, the sacristan, testified that he had seen this while he was himself collecting together and putting away the gifts which the king had placed on the altar, and that he told many people about it. I heard this from his very lips, and it was confirmed by many bystanders who with their eyes saw the head of the figure upright, though none of them except Turkill knew the moment it had bowed.
The Waltham Chronicle: an account of the discovery of our holy cross at Montacute and its conveyance to Waltham, ed. and trans. Leslie Watkiss and Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1994), p.47.

This powerful miracle-story feels as if it was born of the same impulse of historical imagination as prompts re-enactors to retrace Harold's route today. To me one of the most poignant images of 1066 is the thought of that grieving marble figure, and Harold's unanswered, though miraculously acknowledged, prayer.

An Anglo-Saxon rood Harold Godwineson might have known (Langford, Oxfordshire)

However, we shouldn't forget this month's other conquest anniversary: 1000 years ago, in 1016, Cnut and Edmund Ironside were nearing the end of their long struggle to rule England. On this blog we have been tracking the route to the Danish Conquest since 2013, though sadly this hasn't involved any marching or voyages to and from Denmark ;) The 1000th anniversary of the final battle at Assandun is rapidly approaching (on 18 October), so here we can take a look at what led up to it, including Edmund Ironside's last victory over the Danes.

(If you're interested, I've just written an article about Cnut's conquest for the October issue of the BBC History Magazine, as well as an ebook on the Danish Conquest out later this month.)

The last post in this series looked at the battle fought between the English and Danish armies at Sherston in Wiltshire, just after Midsummer in 1016. If you were trying to trace Edmund Ironside's route between June and October, you'd be zigzagging all over the south of England - this is what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (C) says:

Þa gegaderede he þryddan siðe fyrde, 7 ferde to Lundene eal be norðan Temese 7 swa ut þuruh Clæighangran, 7 þa buruhwaru ahredde 7 þæne here geflymde to hiora scypon. 7 þa ðæs ymbe twa niht gewende se cyning ofer æt Bregentforda 7 þa wið þone here gefeaht 7 hine geflymde, 7 þær adranc mycel wæl Englisces folces for hiora agenre gymeleaste, þa ðe ferdon beforan þære fyrde 7 woldan fon feng. 7 se cyning æfter þam gewende to Westseaxum 7 his fyrde samnode. Þa gewende se here sona to Lundene 7 ða buruh utan embsæt 7 hyre stearclice onfeaht ægðer ge be wætere ge be lande, ac se ælmihtiga God hi ahredde.

Se here gewende þa æfter þam fram Lundene mid hyra scypum into Arewan, 7 ðær up foron 7 ferdon on Myrcan 7 slogon 7 bærndon swa hwæt swa hi oforan, swa hira gewuna is, 7 him metes tilodon, 7 hi drifon ægþer ge scipu ge hyra drafa into Medwæge. Þa gesamnode Eadmund cyng feorðan siðe ealle his fyrde 7 ferde ofer Temese æt Brentforda 7 ferde innon Kent, 7 se here him fleah beforan mid hiora horsum into Sceapige, 7 se cyning ofsloh heora swa fela swa he offaran mihte, 7 Eadric ealdorman gewende þa ðone cyning ongean æt Egelesforda, næs nan mara unræd geræd þonne se wæs. Se here gewende eft up on Eastsexan 7 ferde into Myrcum 7 fordyde eall þæt he oforferde.

'Then for the third time [Edmund] gathered an army, and travelled to London along the north side of the Thames, and so out through Clayhanger, and he rescued the garrison and forced the raiding-army to flee to their ships. And then two days later the king crossed at Brentford and fought against the army and put them to flight, and there many of the English were drowned because of their own carelessness, because they travelled ahead of the army with the intention to plunder. And after that the king turned back to Wessex and gathered his army. Then the raiding-army straightaway went to London and besieged the town, and attacked it fiercely both by water and land, but Almighty God saved it.

The raiding-army then turned away from London with their ships into the Orwell, and there went up and travelled into Mercia and slew and burned whatever they came across, as is their habit. They provided themselves with supplies and drove their ships and their herds to the Medway. Then King Edmund gathered all his army for the fourth time and went across the Thames at Brentford and travelled into Kent, and the raiding-army fled before him with their horses into Sheppey, and the king killed as many of them as he could overtake. And Eadric the ealdorman then came to join the king again at Aylesford. Never was there a more unwise decision than that was. The raiding-army turned again up into Essex and went into Mercia and destroyed all that they passed over.'

This probably brings us to September or early October, though specific dates are hard to come by. Via London, Wessex, London (again), Mercia and East Anglia we've ended up in Kent. Battles at Brentford and in London, as mentioned in the Chronicle here, are also referenced in one of the Old Norse poems composed for Cnut, Óttarr svarti's Knútsdrápa:

Fjǫrlausa hykk Frísi,
friðskerðir, þik gerðu,
— brauzt með byggðu setri
Brandfurðu þar — randa.
Játmundar hlaut undir
ættniðr gǫfugr hættar;
danskr herr skaut þá dǫrrum
drótt, es þú rakt flótta.

Framm gekkt enn, þars unnuð
— almr gall hátt — við malma;
knôttut slæ, þars sóttuð,
sverð, kastala, verða.
Unnuð eigi minni
— ulfs gómr veit þat — rómu,
hnekkir hleypiblakka
hlunns, á Tempsar grunni.

'{Peace-breaker of shields} [WARRIOR], I believe you made the Frisians lifeless; you destroyed Brentford there with its inhabited settlement. {The noble descendant of Eadmund} [= Edmund Ironside] received dangerous wounds; the Danish army then pierced the host with spears when you pursued the fleeing.

Still you went forward, where you fought against metal weapons; the bow cried loudly; swords did not become blunt where you attacked the fortification. {Restrainer {of the leaping steeds of the roller}} [SHIPS > SEAFARER], you fought no less a battle in the shallows of the Thames; the wolf’s gums know that.'

The text and translation are from here (and I refer you to that splendid edition to answer such puzzling questions as 'what do Frisians have to do with anything?'). The fortification referred to in the latter stanza is clearly London; Cnut, 'ruler of ships', may have fed wolves with slaughtered Englishmen there but he did not manage to capture the city, now any more than back in May.

It was after this, when the Danes were heading back from London into Kent, that they met Edmund Ironside again. The place where Edmund 'killed as many of them as he could overtake', presumably as they went towards their base on the Isle of Sheppey, is not named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but is identified by John of Worcester as Otford near Sevenoaks, a crossing-place over the River Darent.

(By nice coincidence, Harold's band of re-enactors will be passing very close to Otford on 11 October, three days' march from Hastings.)

As Edmund was travelling from Otford further west into Kent he met Eadric Streona, formerly one of his father's closest allies, who had defected to Cnut around a year earlier. Edmund took Eadric back, a decision which the Chronicle (rarely critical of Edmund) condemns as unræd - 'lacking in wisdom'. That's the same 'unready' which gave Edmund's father his famous epithet; Edmund Ironside got a much better deal in the nickname stakes than poor Æthelred the Unready, but here he was perhaps displaying some of his father's skill for bad decision-making. John of Worcester comments 'had not the treacherous ealdorman Eadric Streona, with his wiles and the evil counsel that he should not pursue his enemies, held him back at Aylesford, he would have gained total victory that day'.

But instead the Danes moved from Kent towards Essex, with Edmund pursuing them to a hill called Assandun...

 Edmund Ironside in a 14th-century manuscript (BL Royal MS 14 B VI)