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Old 08-12-2021, 12:22 PM   #31 (permalink)
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(Look! Another stained-glass window. Well, a lot of the time it's the only way I can get any sort of a picture of these guys. It's not like they had cameras back then, and even artistry was all but unknown except to monks, who preferred creating, you guessed it, stained-glass windows. I guess they were like the JPEGs of their day, or something).

Sigebert, the Reluctant King

Before we move on, I’ve found this account and think it’s amusing, in a dark kind of way, to take a look at. Sigebert was believed to be either the son or stepson of Raedwald, ruler of East Anglia from 599 - 624, and was sent into exile in Gaul during Raedwald’s reign, where he converted to Christianity, returning around 629 and bringing with him Saint Felix, to help convert his subjects. Under his rule, Latin made a comeback as he established a school for its teaching to young boys as part of Christian education. This being a time coinciding with the great push from Irish monasteries to convert the heathen in the wake of the decline of the Roman Empire, it seemed saints were everywhere in England. You couldn’t turn around without bumping into one, or, as Mrs Doyle once remarked in Father Ted, it was wall-to-wall saints. Columba, Felix, Fursey, Aidan… if saint-spotting was your thing you would have been in hog’s heaven in England during the seventh century. Paganism didn’t stand a chance.

Eventually though, Sigebert decided he’d had enough of this kinging lark and abdicated his throne, going into a monastery he built himself - you might say it was his personal retirement home. But he was not to be left to die in peace, oh no. Famous and popular as he had been, when Mercia attacked East Anglia they tried to make him come out of retirement and lead their people, but he was having none of it. “Fuck off,” he’s rather unlikely to have said, “I just want a quiet life, talking to God and tending my rose bushes, probably.” His subjects were unmoved. “Plenty of time to talk to God later,” they surely did not respond. “One more job, Your Majesty, or Your Grace, or Your Kingness, or Your whatever we called a king back then. One more job and you can retire.”

Left with no choice - I mean, literally: they dragged him out of the monastery! - Sigebert plumped for passive resistance, a thousand years before Gandhi, determined it should not be worth their while to have called him from his solitude. He refused to hold a sword, going into battle armed only with a staff, and the enemy understood, and let him go back to his prayers. Oh no wait, they didn’t: they killed him. And all his army. Well I never. He became a Christian martyr and saint (I’m sure he’d rather have been a live Christian monk than a dead martyr and saint) and his church at least lasted longer than he did, remaining the church of East Anglia up to about 840.

The above incident I think illustrates some sort of point probably: if you're forced into battle it's a good idea to use a weapon that can at least protect you, and a staff ain't it, or perhaps you actually CAN take the king out of the monk, but not the monk out of the king. Or something.
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Old 08-12-2021, 01:16 PM   #32 (permalink)
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Seven Saxon States: The Heptarchy

And so were established the seven Saxon kingdoms, called the Heptarchy, which spread right across what is now known as England, and more or less civilised or pacified the country (take your pick), bringing, perhaps oddly enough given that it had been a pagan invasion, Christianity to the shores of Britain. Scotland, as ever, was left alone, though Northumbria did encroach on its border, running as far as Carlisle, destined to become the “gateway to the north” (or south, depending on which direction you were coming from, of course). While it might be hard to believe or accept now, the Saxon conquest of England was nothing more or less than an ethnic cleansing, in the same way as the original Irish had been destroyed by the Celts in Ireland. I started this journal off by remarking that the kind of annihilation practiced on the original inhabitants in my own country had not occurred in Britain, but it seems I was wrong to a degree.

Although not the original inhabitants of Britain, the descendants of Roman invaders were at this point in time the native population, and the Saxons had no interest in either living with them peacefully or even making slaves of them. They were hungry for land, and as it says in History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688 by David Hume, John Clive and Rodney W. Kilcup:

“The Britons, under the Roman dominion, had made such advances towards arts and civil manners, that they had built twenty-eight considerable cities within their province, besides a great number of villages and country-seats: But the fierce conquerors, by whom they were now subdued, threw every thing back into ancient barbarity; and those few natives, who were not either massacred or expelled their habitations, were reduced to the most abject slavery. None of the other northern conquerors, the Franks, Goths, Vandals, or Burgundians, though they over-ran the southern provinces of the empire like a mighty torrent, made such devastations in the conquered territories, or were inflamed into so violent an animosity against the ancient inhabitants.

As the Saxons came over at intervals in separate bodies, the Britons, however at first unwarlike, were tempted to make resistance; and hostilities, being thereby prolonged, proved more destructive to both parties, especially to the vanquished. The first invaders from Germany, instead of excluding other adventurers, who must share with them the spoils of the ancient inhabitants, were obliged to solicit fresh supplies from their own country; and a total extermination of the Britons became the sole expedient for providing a settlement and subsistence to the new planters. Hence there have been found in history few conquests more ruinous than that of the Saxons; and few revolutions more violent than that which they introduced.”


Until the Britons were defeated, the Heptarchy acted almost like I suppose a modern coalition of forces, banding together (though not always, as we have seen) against the common foe, the native. But once they had been pushed into Cornwall and Wales, no longer a threat, the deal was over, and each kingdom looked to secure its own borders and, if possible, extend them, leading to wars between the kingdoms that might have rivalled anything in the imagination of George R.R. Martin.
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Old 03-17-2022, 08:45 PM   #33 (permalink)
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Chapter III: A Game of One Throne:
The Rise and Fall of the House of Wessex


The last time we left England, the previous inhabitants, the Britons, had been more or less completely wiped out or subdued by the Saxons, now the Anglo-Saxons, who had divided the country up into seven separate kingdoms, most of which survive today in the names of English counties: Sussex, Wessex, Essex and so on. But the first millennium of England’s history was one filled with conflict, invasion and conquest. Whereas the Saxons had come from relatively nearby Germany to settle in England, the next invaders would come from far north, and would certainly leave their indelible mark on the country. In their case, England would not be their only target, as they ranged south in search of lands and plunder, glory and battle. Indeed, by the middle of the tenth century there would not be a country in Europe which had not heard of, feared or been attacked by the mighty northmen from Scandinavia.

The third invasion of England was strange in comparison to the previous two. The Romans had basically come there as a matter of westward expansion of their empire, on tour as it were, conquering all before them, ready to literally take on the world. They installed governors and praetors, left garrisons and laid down Roman law. They administered and oversaw the people they had conquered, and considered them now part of the Roman Empire. In an effort to get rid of them, as has already been noted, the Britons as they were pretty much shot themselves in the foot, inviting the Saxons, who, on seeing how weak they were, emulated a later businessman and decided they liked the country so much they’d buy it. Or, actually, steal it, take it by force of arms.

The third invasion though, was nothing to do with empires, and came out of nowhere. Vikings were not particularly interested in building communities, taking territory or passing laws. They were more of your smash-and-grab merchants, not that interested in the land, but they’d take your gold, your coinage, and if women were going, well they’d take them too, much obliged. Livestock? Nah, not so much. It’s this old Mark II Longship you see. Now, had we the Mark III with all the bells and whistles and all the latest gadgets, a roomy and practical ship for the discerning raider of today, then sure, but only your earls and your kings owned them. Expensive to build, a bitch to maintain, just not worth it. Not even for the fluffy dice.

Had we one of those babies, then yeah, maybe we’d take your horses and oxen and sheep, though to be honest the smell might be a bit much. Forty or fifty unwashed Viking warriors crowded together over the course of a sea voyage of many months might offend the animals. And then of course we might have to sacrifice them. To our gods, you know? Just not worth it, pal. Must say, your wife looks pretty tasty though, What? CLONK! Sorry, my mistake: your widow there looks pretty tasty.

Probably the hardest foe to fight is a man who wants to die, and while probably few if any Vikings wanted to actually die, they weren’t completely against the idea. As is widely known of their culture, to die in battle was the greatest honour any Viking could achieve, and Vikings were all about honour. From a very young age they were taught to fight, and how important reputation was. No young man worth his salt would want to hang back in the village or settlement while his bros went off pillaging and raping. The chance to make your name in battle was something every Viking craved, and certainly affected his standing in society. Men were measured by how many people they had killed, what battles they had won, what scars they had picked up. A Viking wasn’t really expected to have enemies, at least, living ones. Not if he was doing this Viking thing right anyway.

So when a chance came for glory every Viking of qualifying age wanted to pile into the ship and strap on his axe or hammer and head off for adventure and violence. He knew he might get killed, but if he did, well, that was just a bonus wasn’t it? Free entry into Valhalla and the honour left behind for his family of a true, fallen warrior. In many ways I think Vikings could be almost likened to unpaid mercenaries. They would fight for king and country, sure, and for family and friends, but they were always up for a fight and if some local earl or king had trouble and wanted a few likely lads to crack (or maybe hack) some heads, they were your men. They were even known to team up with rival lords as long as they got a share in the booty. There was no standard going rate for a Viking warrior, no flat fee for his services paid by the leader of the expedition, but they could certainly help themselves to whatever they found during the raid and thus enrich themselves that way.

Apart from material wealth though, taking part in daring battles and raids helped Vikings store up stock in the Bank of Odin, where valorous deeds and mighty victories would all be chalked up to their account, checked when they finally popped their clogs and, assuming their quota was met, they would be welcomed into the halls of the heroes. Or so they believed, and belief is a powerful thing. If you think that by fighting and dying you can attain for yourself immortal fame and glory, well, it’s a lot easier to throw yourself into the fray, isn’t it. And harder for your enemies to cow you.

The first time a Viking ship is said to have docked at the English coast was the year 787, less than fifty years after the Saxon Heptarchy had been established, setting the seal on Anglo-Saxon rule of England. When the king’s envoy, however, rode out to treat with these new arrivals, they killed him (and presumably anyone with him) - not, one would have thought, the most diplomatic opening of negotiations with a foreign power! But then, Vikings were never about talking. Well, they were, but on their terms. They generally preferred conquest over conversation, might over mediation and brute force over a nice cup of tea and a scone. That Elvis song could have been written for them, as they definitely preferred a little more action, as they showed when, only six years later (barely time to catch your breath, in terms of history) they launched an all-out attack on the peaceful monastery of Lindisfarne.


Meet Me on the Corner - and I’ll Kill You: the Lindisfarne Raid (793)

It must have come as something of a shock to the quiet, pious monks on the island of Lindisfarne, on the northeast coast of England, also known as the Holy Island, and with good reason. No less than four saints were said to have resided there - including the one who set up the monastery, Saint Aidan - and it was one of the most important centres of early Celtic Christianity. Although this was not the very first Viking raid, it shocked the English because of not only its ferocity, but its sacrilegious nature. One just did not attack holy men, to say nothing of defenceless holy men. But the Vikings were a breed apart. They were not Christians, and did not believe in one god, but a whole pantheon of them. Not only that, their gods were warlike and vicious, and viewed such things as mercy and compassion as weakness. Well not really, but they would have kicked the Christian God’s arse in a fight, that’s for sure.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts in words the outage such an attack engendered: “In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God's church at Lindisfarne.”

Alciun of York, a scholar from Northumbria, gives us a more PG-rated account: “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race ... The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.”

So Vikings probably saw no reason to exempt, or exclude monasteries from their raids. In fact, they would have been drawn to them due to the riches to be found there. As related in the History of Ireland journal, monks were poor and took a vow of poverty, but the works they created were some of the most beautiful and used the richest materials that could be obtained. Gold, silver, precious stones, expensive cloth, inks, all of these went into their illuminations and books, and the statues and ornaments that decorated the chapels were richly furnished of gold and other precious metals. The Vikings wanted these, and the fact that the monks put up very little or no resistance (not that they could) surely enraged and disgusted them. They were used to fighting enemies who fought back, who could be killed and who might kill them - a fair fight, well matched. But these men! It must have been like skinning rabbits, or whatever equivalent they had up there in the frozen north.

Not a lot of fun then, and certainly not many opportunities for glory, but plenty for plunder. Rape was probably off the menu (unless, you know, some of them had particular preferences) as to my knowledge there were no convents on the island, but the raiders would have been able to slaughter at will, collect up all they could hold in their brawny arms, fire up the monasteries (Vikings liked a good blaze) and then fuck off back across the sea, hoping their Mark II’s didn’t sink under the weight, and considering perhaps checking out the new issue of What Longship? to see if those Mark III’s were worth looking into.

Yes, Vikings were almost the epitome of guerilla warfare. They struck hard and fast, and then disappeared as quickly. They would have pitched battles, especially as the Anglo-Saxons got their shit together and began defending themselves, but they did not hang around. They might make a base camp for a short while, but once the battle was over they would head off back home. They weren’t about settling in England, and they certainly were not about ruling it. Plunder, rape, burning, pillage, booty, no problem, do that all day. Passing laws though? Keeping order? Balancing budgets? Ah, no thanks. Feeling a little homesick as it goes. Catch you next time. Probably with the blade of my axe.

Mind you, the Vikings didn’t have it all their own way. I’m sure it wasn’t the monks themselves who resisted, but the year after Lindisfarne was done over another band of the raiders headed up north, across the Tyne to take out the monastery at Jarrow. Here they met with stiff opposition, and their leader was even killed. It seems they were ambushed on their way home, carrying their ill-gotten gains, as related here in, again, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: 'And the heathens ravaged in Northumbria, and plundered Ecgfrith's monastery at Donemuthan , and one of their leaders was killed there, and also some of their ships were broken to bits by stormy weather, and many of the men were drowned there. Some reached the shore alive and were immediately killed at the mouth of the river.'

So they not only lost their leader - what effect that had on morale I don’t know but it surely could not have been expected, given the easy time the other group had had on the island the previous year - but also their ships, which would have been of greater concern. After all, without their longboats they couldn’t get back home, and I imagine, as sea raiders, the loss of their ship might have been viewed as more of a dishonourable event than that of losing their leader, who they surely believed was living it up in Valhalla with a maiden on each side.

Due to this, perhaps humiliation, Viking raids on England stopped for a while as they concentrated on the “softer” targets of Ireland and Scotland. It would be decades before a proper Viking raiding party would attack England, and when they did, well, it would be an army, and in the words of the Venerable Bede maybe, they were not fucking around.
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Old 03-17-2022, 09:08 PM   #34 (permalink)
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The Great Heathen Army Goes to War: This Time it’s Personal! Maybe.

In 865 a huge army of Vikings, known to history (and from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) as “the great heathen army” arrived in England. Ostensibly, they were there to avenge the death of the legendary Viking king, Ragnar Lothbrok, portrayed with varying degrees of historic licence in the series Vikings, he having been killed by King Aella when he attempted himself to extract revenge for the slaying of his own countrymen in Ireland, according to some accounts. In the army, the Chronicle faithfully reports, were Ivar the Boneless, Hvitserk, Sigurd Snake-in-the-trousers, sorry eye, Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye and Bjorn Ironside. This account has been disputed however, and as with most events so far in the past, it’s impossible to be sure, as often these sagas and chronicles exaggerated or were biased on one side or the other. It’s possible Ragnar’s sons were not in the army at all.

If that’s the case, and the assault was not retaliation for his death, then the main thrust of the force may have come from Francia (the Kingdom of the Franks, which seems, so far as I can see, to cover most of near Western Europe - France, Germany, Netherlands, Austria and so on, almost as far as, but obviously not including, Italy) where a power struggle between the emperor and his son had resulted in the assistance of the Vikings. During the war, they discovered what easy pickings monasteries on the coast were and started harassing the Franks, but improved fortifications along the Frankish coast made this a non starter, so they turned their eyes further west. It’s probably more than likely then, given the Vikings’ way of life, that rather than a concerted effort to avenge the king Ragnar this was a pure for-profit mission, opportunism which spoke to all the various Viking chieftains, who banded together not out of love for or outrage over the slaying of Ragnar Lothbrok, but for pure, hard cash. And women. And anything else they could carry away.

Wary of landing in Sussex, where King Aethelbert had been successful against a large fleet in 851, the Great Heathen Army turned its attention to East Anglia, and landed there in 865. Once again the Isle of Thanet featured (you may remember when hopeful Christian missionaries arrived in the sixth century the Briton king let them stay there) as the Vikings were given the island in return for
Danegeld (protection money, basically) but decided they had not come all this way without slaughtering - Odin, you gotta slaughter something! - and so went on a binge of murder, burning, looting and, one would comfortably assume, an ample amount of rape. A Heptarchy there may have been, but nobody could show the East Anglians anything in writing that said they were part of any Saxon version of NATO, so they looked after themselves and bought the fierce northmen off with some horses. The Vikings said ta muchly and set up their invasion base.

They spent the winter there (a warmer winter than back home, I’ll wager, Olaf! You’re not wrong there, Thor me old buddy!) and then set their sights on Northumbria, which was basically part of the kingdom of Wessex by now, as we’ve seen. They headed for the capital, York, which was a really good idea, because even if they didn’t know it (and they may not have; there’s no real information on the sort of intelligence Vikings in general or the Great Heathen Army had on its enemies at that time, though Clare Downham in her book Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: The Dynasty of Ivarr to AD 1014 seems to believe there was information, noting that it was “likely the Vikings had been tipped off concerning events in the north”) King Aella was in the middle of a civil war, and his army was basically knackered. The city walls had been built by the Romans but not maintained, and so were crumbling by the time the GHA arrived. Aella probably dropped his head into his hands and groaned “Oh guys! You could not have picked a worse time!” and rode to meet the new invaders.

Aella decided the enemy of my enemy and all that, and he and the rival king he had driven out, Osberht joined forces. It didn’t matter. There are no sources which confirm the size of the GHA, but various scholars talk of it being from about 1,000 to being in the “low thousands”. Either way, it was pretty big and considered the largest invasion army to set foot in England. The Battle of York didn’t last long, and both kings were killed. There’s no real historical evidence to back this next bit up, but it’s fun and gruesome so let’s consider that it may have happened.

Those of you who have seen the series know what the “blood eagle” is, and for those of you who have not, no, it is not a nosebleed you get from listening to Hotel California at full volume. This is the punishment supposedly meted out to Aella, who is said to have been the one to have thrown Ragnar into the pit of snakes (though again, this may not have happened), by his sons (who may also not have been there). Here’s how it goes. For those of you who are squeamish, talk amongst yourselves or skip ahead; I’m not spoilering this. Pussies.

First the victim was laid on his stomach and his shirt torn to expose his naked back. Then a sharp tool was used (watch those edges, kids, and always ask mother if you can borrow the tool) to break the ribcage. The lungs were then pulled out through the gap made, to resemble two (very bloody and slippery) wings, hence the name of the punishment. Traditionally, this was only practiced on members of the royal family, which would back up why Aella would have been singled out for such vengeance, but also makes it unlikely, given that it was a specifically Scandinavian thing. Also, most well-known brainbox spoilsports say this is all made up, but fuck them, it’s fun. Not, of course, for His Majesty.

Anyway, whether that happened or not is kind of immaterial, as the Battle of York won, the Vikings now had Northumbria and turned towards Mercia in 867, taking the town of Nottingham. Unable to withstand the invaders by themselves, Mercia looked to Wessex for help, and the two kingdoms joined forces, but even at that they were unable to best the GHA and had to eventually sue for peace by paying Danegeld. For pretty much the next year the Viking army was quiet, wintering in Nottingham and then returning to Thetford. In the winter of 869 the king of East Anglia, Edmund, launched an attack but was defeated, his lands now coming completely under the control of the Viking army.

A year later, another huge army arrived to bolster up the Great Heathen Army, this one going under the title of the Great Summer Army, presumably not because they all arrived in shorts and shades and carrying surfboards under their arms. The combined armies now marched on Wessex, but, rather surprisingly, given that the forces of Wessex and Mercia could not defeat the GHA, this “double-army” was repulsed by the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Ashdown. This was in fact preceded by the Battle of Englefield, four days prior, which I think I’m correct in saying appears to have been the first victory for the Saxons against the Vikings since the GHA arrived.

It wasn’t, to be fair, the full army that encountered the forces of King Aethelwulf, just a “large scouting party”, but when one of the earls in the party was killed, it is again the first time I see that even part of the Great Heathen Army broke and ran. They redressed this four days later at the Battle of Reading (pronounced red-ding, not reed-ing, in case you were wondering) where they faced Aethelwulf again but this time with the future king Alfred the Great. However, glory and fame in his future didn’t impress the Vikings and they kicked their arses, killing Aethelwulf and forcing Alfred to leg it. That’s more like it, the Vikings may have grinned. Normal service has been restored. But it wasn’t to last.

As I said, the Battle of Ashdown would see the GHA (and presumably the GSA too, though probably not the GCSE or GPS, sorry) roundly defeated for the first time. Not just a scout party this time, King Aethelred and King Alfred faced the might of the two huge Viking armies and the leader of the Great Summer Army, Bagpuss sorry Bagsecg was killed, duly despatched to his reward in Valhalla no doubt. Interesting stuff in this one. And here it is. The Viking army arrived first and took the high ground, which should have given them the advantage. Alfred (not yet a king, much less a legend) decided to copy their formation. Aethelred, on the other side, decided it was time to pop off for a quick prayer. No harm in having God on your side, eh?

Except it turned out not be so quick. As Alfred advanced up the hill and gave bloody battle, his king was still down in his tent mumbling prayers, no doubt something along the lines of “If you could see your way clear, Lord, to smashing our enemies, that would be just great.” Alfred’s frantic cries from on high finally reached his ears - the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle clearly does not relate his words as “Any time you’re ready, Your Majesty! Getting a bit hairy up here!” and it absolutely does not record his later cry “Jesus fucking Christ! Enough with the prayers already, Your Kingship! God helps those who help themselves, so help us!” Aethelbert did finally end his prayers, probably offering profuse apologies for the swearing of his bondsman, and advising his Lord that no doubt in his wisdom he knew what it was like, and hurried off.

In the end, his joining the battle turned the tide and the Vikings were scattered, Bagpipes sorry again Bagsecg killed and with cries of “They’re on the run! God has given us the victory! Get them heathen bastards lads!” Alfred and Aethelred charged after them. It was indeed a mighty victory, but it would be overturned two weeks later at the Battle of Basing and again two months after that, in the decisive Battle of Meretun. Not, it would appear, at the battle, but Aethelred died (possibly due to natural causes, as the Chronicle records his death as “he went the way of all flesh” although - wow! Only 26 at the time of his death! Not old age then) and was succeeded by Alfred as King of Wessex.

Alfred took on the Vikings, now led by Halfdan Ragnarsson (who, as his name suggests, is believed to have been one of the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok) and was again defeated at Wilton and only secured peace by buying the Vikings off. After this he more or less waged a guerilla campaign, with the Vikings almost completely in control of the midlands. He made his stand at Edington, where he completely defeated Guthrum, the then Viking king of East Anglia, and internal divisions with the Viking armies ensured they would not be able to band together for much longer. Guthrum’s defeat was followed by a treaty in which he swore to be baptised, and to remove his arms - huh? Sorry: his armies from Wessex.

In 878 another army arrived, but due to the defeats the two great armies had suffered, and looking east to the instabilities at the Frankish court after the death of their king, Charles the Bald, they are likely to have muttered “Fuck this lads; let’s head over to Francia. I hear there’s rich pickings there.” And so, off they fucked. The final army to land in England also shook their heads, shrugged massive shoulders and either joined their comrades - who were now living in peace in what was known as Danelaw, farmers and merchants and all sorts of respectable trades that hardly ever needed an axe or hammer, except as a tool - or also fucked off to Francia.

For over a hundred years Saxons and Vikings lived in a kind of uneasy truce, the Vikings establishing what was known as Danelaw - basically the Scandinavian laws which governed the areas they held - until the Saxons again attacked and drove them out of Northumbria in 954. Even at that though, they fought back under Cnut (no it’s not a typo, smartarse!) who held Wessex up to his death, his heirs only defeated by William the Conqueror in some unremarkable and forgotten battle around 1066 or thereabouts.

By 890 the main Viking threat to England was all but over, with no more overseas armies arriving and any further conflicts a matter of internal dispute. Alfred, who had done much not only to defeat them but to put in place treaties and reforms that made it difficult for their like to seize towns and cities from then on, was remembered as one of England’s first great kings. Well, they did call him “the Great”, didn’t they? Wonder why? Let’s find out.
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Old 04-12-2022, 07:05 PM   #35 (permalink)
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A Hard Reign’s Gonna Fall: Birth of the English Monarchy


Alfred the Great (847/848 - 899)

While not technically the first king to rule England, Alfred is more or less accepted as the first “true” English monarch, in that he ruled over all of England, defeated the Viking invaders and began the royal line of the House of Wessex. His predecessors, notably Offa and Egbert, are mostly discounted because the former was not interested in English unity, just power for himself, and the latter only ruled Mercia and soon lost control of it, so Alfred is seen as the first great unifying force in what would become England, and therefore accepted as the first English king.

With three breaks in between when other Houses ruled, and including so-called disputed claimants, the House of Wessex saw a total of fourteen monarchs sit the English throne, from Alfred’s reign in 871 to Edward the Confessor in 1066, though the final king to rule before the ascension of William the Conqueror later that year was of the House of Godwin, Harold Godwinson.

The year of Alfred’s birth is disputed, but believed to be generally somewhere between 847 and 848, in Berkshire, then part of Wessex. He had four brothers, one of whom would be sub-king of Kent, the other three all taking the throne of Wessex over a period ranging from 858 to 871. His only sister married the king of Mercia, Buggered, sorry Burgered sorry… Burgred. Yeah. Burgred. Alfred came to the throne, as we have seen, on the death of his older brother Aethelred at the hands of the Great Heathen Army, which he continued to battle and eventually subdued.

Alfred would also marry into Mercian nobility, taking Ealhswith for his wife in 868, and travelled twice to Rome, perhaps (though I can’t confirm) the first of the Saxon kings to do so. His exploits during the war against the Great Heathen Army have already been related above, so there’s no need for me to go into them again. Therefore we begin our history of Alfred the Great proper with his years after the defeat of the Vikings, apart from this one anecdote, which has followed his history and legend down to today, and may or may not be true. It’s the story of the “burning of the cakes”, and it’s really not as interesting, I feel, as it sounds.

While on the run from the Vikings Alfred is said to have taken shelter with an old woman in Somerset, who, unaware of his identity (which he was careful to conceal, being on the run and all) set him to watch some oatcakes she was baking. Distracted, and thinking of his kingdom and how he would save it from the northern invaders, Alfred is said to have not noticed the cakes burning, and when the old woman came back she gave him a piece of her mind. It’s not recorded as to whether he ever revealed himself, or whether she, later, found out who she had castigated. There: like I said, hardly worth waiting for, was it?

Anyway, back to the good stuff. Under the Treaty of Wedmore (sounds like an adjuration to marry as many spouses as possible, doesn’t it?) in 878 Guthrum was granted the part of England which became Danelaw, basically East Anglia and some of Mercia, while Alfred ruled over Wessex. A further treaty in 880 sealed the deal, and though Alfred had to fend off some smaller sea incursions by Vikings throughout the first half of the decade, the threat of land invasion was pretty much gone by then. The only real battle - as such - of note was at Rochester in 885, where the Vikings seem to have shit their pants and legged it for their ships, buggering off altogether.

Whatever about the treaties signed, Alfred was not averse to plundering his old neighbour, and a weird kind of see-saw battle took place soon after the Rochester rout, when he sent his fleet to East Anglia on a raiding mission, succeeded, was on the way home when the Viking fleet (I’m not sure if it was the same one he had defeated or a different one) appeared and took him on, defeating him and, presumably, either making off with the spoils or, if they were the same fleet, bringing them back home. Either way, it was an interesting case of turnabout, kind of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The next year he took London back and began refortifying and redesigning it. This year, 885, begins the period historians typically accept as Alfred being seen as the first proper King of England, but he wasn’t to have it all his own way. The death of Guthrum in 889 created a power vacuum, and though he had been Alfred’s foe he was a known quantity, and they had come to a general understanding, leaving each other’s kingdoms alone apart from the odd raid here or there, men being men and all that, fills in the long boring evenings, you know how it is. But now, with the passing of Guthrum and no heir to speak of, unrest broke out across East Anglia. This was exacerbated by the arrival of over three hundred Viking ships in 892. Having had no luck on the continent, they hied them back to the shores of Merry England, where they engaged the forces of Alfred, now pretty much the only thing standing against a complete colonisation of the country. The Vikings, in preparation, had packed up the wives, children and probably a few chattels (never go anywhere without your chattels, never know when you might need them) and were all ready to hammer in - probably literally, and perhaps with Saxon thigh bones - the “SOLD” signs they had brought with them, for planting in Wessex and East Anglia.

“No you fucking don’t”, thought the new King of England. “I've spent the last few years getting this shiny new kingdom of mine just how I like it, and I’ll be thrice-damned if I let you bastards mess it up with your filthy marauder boots and your pagan ways!” And off he rode to meet them. Actually, he didn’t plunge into screaming battle (getting a bit old for that now, at the ripe old age of forty-five!) but opened negotiations instead. While he was so engaged though, one of the two divisions decided to attack Appledore and were chased by Alfred’s son Edward, who met them in battle and kicked their arses at Farnham in Surrey, taking back the booty they had half-inched and sending them scurrying across the Thames. No doubt this provided his dad with a crucial piece of leverage with their boss, Hastein, when he learned that not only had one of his divisions broken the truce (to his entire surprise, honest, your Majesty! Swear on me wife’s grave, and I should know: I put her there myself. Not in the mood for sex, indeed! But I digress) but also fucking LOST the battle, he was more amenable to Alfred’s terms.

Well, no actually. That’s kind of the opposite of what Vikings do, after all. Fuck this sitting around and talking lark, I’m gonna kill me something, is more their style. Well actually no it isn't - Vikings often held conferences and mediated rather than fight, but who wants to hear that? And so Hastein saddled up and went to war too, placing Exeter under siege. His first division (commander’s name not recorded) rather stupidly took refuge on an island after the Battle of Farnham, where, surprise, surprise! They were surrounded and forced to surrender, booted out of Wessex. They then tried their luck in Essex, but got short shrift there too. Hastein is reported to have said “Hold on lads I’m coming!” and promptly got caught in the middle of a battle at Buttington. No, seriously. And again they were besieged. You would think by now they would have realised how dangerous and counterproductive it is to make your stand somewhere where you can be surrounded, but no, off they went, and our friendly local Chronicler tells us how bad it was for them.

"After many weeks had passed, some of the heathen [Vikings] died of hunger, but some, having by then eaten their horses, broke out of the fortress, and joined battle with those who were on the east bank of the river. But, when many thousands of pagans had been slain, and all the others had been put to flight, the Christians [English and Welsh] were masters of the place of death. In that battle, the most noble Ordheah and many of the king's thegns were killed."

Like anyone in a siege situation, there are four possibilities: surrender, hope the besiegers get tired and go away, starve to death or break out and make a battle of it. The Vikings, you won’t be surprised to hear, decided to break out and make a battle of it. They lost. Meanwhile, the lads who had been turfed out of the Siege of Exeter tried their luck at Chichester, but those people had seen bigger and more scary attacks when their local football team played their rivals in a friendly, and they beat the shit out of them and nicked their ships. It was all going a bit, as they say, Pete Tong for the Vikings. After a few more years of wandering around disconsolately, trying this or that attack, they eventually shrugged and gave up and went home, probably muttering “Too much fucking rain in that country anyway. Who’s for the Riviera, lads?”

With the kingdom basically at peace now, Alfred set his mind to reorganising the military, changing the very structure of manner in which men were marshalled at a time of need. By 897 he had a full standing army ready to repel any invaders, a bigger and much improved navy, and a network of garrisons across the country. He streamlined the administration and taxation system, and set up a system of burhs (fortified settlements) so that help would always be no more than a day away, no matter where the raiders might strike. Many of these were sited at strategic points such as rivers or protecting bridges, and perhaps taking his cue from the Roman occupation of England, Alfred made sure there were roads connecting each burh to the next, and also used the Romans’ expertise (and that of the Greeks) to construct better ships than the Vikings had. From these burhs comes the word now in use, borough. Just thought you'd like to know.

However, with no seaborne weapons such as cannon or other guns, and with his ships faster and bigger than the longships, but not suited to manoeuverability, battles between the ships of Alfred’s navy and those of the Vikings presaged the pirate attacks of almost a thousand years in the future, where the two ships would be roped together and then men would swarm from them to engage those on the other ship in hand-to-hand combat, basically making the deck of the attacked ship a battlefield. Hey, at least there was no need to bury those who fell in the battle!

He set about repairing, to some degree, relationships with the Welsh and Irish, and eradicating forever the stain of paganism from his kingdom, as he instituted religious learning and endeavoured to improve literacy in a country in which few people outside of monasteries could read or write; he had a chronicle written that appeared to trace his family’s ancestry right back to Adam, which showed that his authority then came directly from God; he built monasteries, many of the originals having been sacked by the Vikings during their time in England, and he invited foreign monks to come minister there. He was however hands-off about religion, believing this best left to those who had trained for it all of their lives, and had dedicated themselves to it.

Aware that Latin was declining, particularly with the twin factors of the fall of the Roman Empire and the depredations of the Vikings, Alfred began ensuring English people were taught to read not in the ancient tongue but in English. This meant many important books had to be translated into what would now be the mother tongue of his kingdom.

From what I read about him, Alfred seems to have been the first king who truly cared about his people, not about power or riches or standing. I’m sure he wasn’t the paragon he’s being painted as, but he does genuinely seemed to have believed that the welfare of his realm was paramount, and the worship of and devotion to God part of his mission. Seeing the attacks by - and eventual repulsion and defeat of - the Vikings as an assault on Christianity, I don’t know whether you could make the case that kings like Alfred and those who came after him lent weight and legitimacy to the ultimate holy wars, the Crusades in Palestine and Jerusalem, but certainly later kings such as Richard I must have taken their cue from him, a man who was determined to bring God back into the hearts, and worship, of his subjects after they had been partially enslaved by the heathen.

Alfred almost made it to the tenth century, dying in October of 899 (gonna party like it’s… yeah yeah all right) of some sort of bowel disorder from which he suffered most of his life, most likely Chron’s disease or, um, piles. Well, now ain’t that a pain in the arse. Sorry. His bones, however, were not to be allowed to restus in paxus. When William the Conqueror defeated Harold in 1066 and a new dynasty began in England, many of the Saxon monasteries were destroyed as the Normans started redecorating, and one of those to go was the one where Alfred had been laid, or rather, not quite. He was laid in Old Minster, the cathedral in Winchester at Wessex, but had left instructions before his death for the building of the abbey of New Minster, which he had intended would become the family mausoleum. His body was moved there when it was ready, and it was here that the Normans decided they fancied putting up their own abbey, and knocked his down. Luckily, there was time to move the remains, although after over 200 years by now there can’t have been much to move but bones.

Reinterred just down the road in Hyde Abbey in 1110, Alfred and his family were again at rest. But four hundred and fifty-odd years later, King Henry VIII, in a snit because the Pope wouldn’t grant him a divorce so he could marry Anne Boleyn, declared all Catholic monasteries “dissolved”, and in the case of Hyde Abbey this was literal: it was reduced to rubble and this time there was no time - or perhaps, inclination - to save the bones of the first great English king. They lay under the ground, the abbey not even built on but left as a quarry, until 1788, when the land was needed for the construction of a jail. Catholic priest Dr. Milner gave this account:

“Thus miscreants couch amidst the ashes of our Alfreds and Edwards; and where once religious silence and contemplation were only interrupted by the bell of regular observance, the chanting of devotion, now alone resound the clank of the captives chains and the oaths of the profligate! In digging for the foundation of that mournful edifice, at almost every stroke of the mattock or spade some ancient sepulchre was violated, the venerable contents of which were treated with marked indignity. On this occasion a great number of stone coffins were dug up, with a variety of other curious articles, such as chalices, patens, rings, buckles, the leather of shoes and boots, velvet and gold lace belonging to chasubles and other vestments; as also the crook, rims, and joints of a beautiful crosier double gilt.”

The bones were not exactly revered either, sadly. The convicts, never the most respectful of people and certainly not giving two shits about some old historical bones of some geezer who had lived almost a thousand years ago, smashed open the coffins they found, ripped out the lead and flogged it for two guineas, then, for added indignity, threw the bones carelessly about. They were said to have been rediscovered a hundred years later, in 1866, and given over to St. Bartholomew’s Church, but later advances in radiocarbon dating in 1999 proved them only to date from about the fourteenth century. Finally, in 2014 one other bone found in the same place as the now-discredited ones did turn out to be dated to the right period, and though it can’t be proven conclusively has been tentatively accepted as being, um, the pelvic bone of maybe Alfred or his son. It’s no way for the first king of England to be remembered, that’s for sure.

Alfred left behind him a country that was, well, a country: no longer several separate kingdoms, no longer divided by Danelaw, and with a real sense throughout the kingdom of everyone working together. That’s totally naive of course: Englishmen would continue to fight Englishmen when they could find no common enemy to fight, and there would always be rivalries, but overall the actual idea of an “English people” as opposed to “people from Wessex” or “Those who come from Northumbria” or whatever began to coalesce as a real possibility thanks to his reign. He also solidified, or perhaps re-solidified the hold of the Catholic Church on England, bringing back the idea of Christianity to a country that had suffered much under both the original Saxons and Romans and later the Vikings. Perhaps an appropriate motto for his House might have been MEGA, huh?
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Old 05-14-2022, 02:27 PM   #36 (permalink)
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Edward the Elder (874 - 924)

On the death of Alfred his son Edward the Elder ascended to the throne, but not unopposed. As is often the case when the king dies, there was another claimant to the kingship, and this was Aethelwold, the son of Alfred’s older brother Aethelred, who claimed he had been too young at the time of his father’s death to take the throne, which had passed to Alfred as next in line in the succession, but that it was his birthright. And he intended to assert that birthright. And how did nobles in tenth-century England assert their birthright when challenged? By sitting down and talking things over calmly, of course, putting all points of view on the… yeah. Right.

Aethelwold raised a small army and seized Wimborne, in Dorset, where his father was buried. He then took the surrounding area and waited for Edward to respond. When he did, Aethelwold refused to engage him but instead rode to York to seek support from the Vikings still in control there. They crowned him king, while Edward was crowned in Kingston-Upon -Thames in 900. It wasn’t the last time England would have two competing kings. Aethelwold began a campaign against Essex and Mercia, trying to weaken his cousin’s powerbase, but he came unstuck at the Battle of the Holme, in which he was killed. End of challenge.

Alfred had been proclaimed as the first “King of the Anglo-Saxons”, and so Edward also took this title when his claim was established beyond doubt and supported. Alliances were further forged between his England and Francia (with the marriage of his daughter to the king, the hilariously-named Charles the Simple) and Germany, where another daughter was wed to Otto, the king and later Holy Roman Emperor. Alfred had proven that he was good at developing networks with his burh line of defences, now his son extended those networks into a socio-political one, linking three great countries and tightening the bonds of interdependency of each on the other. Edward then set about retaking the area of England currently under Danelaw, defeating the Vikings in the Battle of Tettenhall in 910, so comprehensively in fact that all territories south of the Humber were at his mercy and Edward was able to take most of East Anglia and Mercia including Derby, Lincoln, Stamford, Nottingham and Leicester.

The next year, on the death of the ruler of Mercia, Aethelred, Edward moved in on London and Oxford, and, with the help of Aethelred’s widow Aethelflaed, began to fortify Mercia against incursions by the Danes. One of the last major Viking attacks was in 914, when a force from Brittany invaded South Wales, but they were pushed back. By 918 he had defeated all opposition and basically ruled almost all of England. Those Vikings left in the country submitted to his authority.

Soon after he took the throne, Edward obeyed his late father’s wish and began to have built the new abbey at Winchester which would be called New Minster, to which the dead king’s remains were transferred, until the arrival of the Normans. Edward continued his father’s policy of trying to educate his people - in English - and in passing new laws, one of which led to a process which persisted through England well into the medieval era.

Trial by Ordeal

From what I can see, two things characterised the idea of Trial by Ordeal: one, that no man was considered innocent until proven guilty (in fact, possibly the opposite) and two, that God was literally expected to be the star witness. Sounds weird huh? Well, it was, but the thinking seems to have been that God would not allow the guilty to escape, and so would send some sign that they were guilty. The most simple and basic - and slightly understandable - version was Trial by Combat, which surely needs no explanation. However, not only were the two parties in the dispute allowed to fight each other, they could also nominate a champion to fight in their stead. Seems a little unfair. What if you’re innocent, but your opponent chooses well-known pillar of the community (literally; he once held up a post that was bringing down the roof of the community shelter!) Harry the Glass-Eater, built like yon brick privy and with a head like a bullet? He’s going to win, isn’t he, and then the law says you’re guilty. So that’s literally a case of only the strong (or clever) survive.

What were the conditions or criteria for choosing a champion? No idea; I can’t find any. But over time this practice, until it was done away with, seems to have evolved into the later modern idea of a duel. That was only trial by combat though. You also had trial by fire, in which the accused had to walk across burning coals, and if innocent would either receive no burns or God would heal them rapidly (three days was usually the time period allowed; trial by water, both hot and cold. Trial by hot water involved picking some object up out of a cauldron of boiling water, while trial by cold water seems to have been concerned with the accused man throwing himself in a river and if he survived he was innocent. Then there was trial by cross, not nearly as brutal as it sounds. The accuser and the accused would stand on either side of a cross and stretch out their arms. The first to drop his arms was deemed to have lost, so basically an early version of using the stress position.

There was also trial by ingestion, where an accused person was given blessed dry bread and cheese, and if they choked were guilty, and trial by poison. Wait, what? No, that’s right: the person accused would be given a poisoned bean to swallow and if they puked it back up they were cleared, if they died, well, they were guilty and deserved to die. Stupid, yes, but not as pointless as trial by turf. No, I’m not having you on and no it was not an Irish custom, you racist, but in fact an Icelandic one. Not very complicated: the accused walked under a bale of turf and if it fell on him he was guilty. Possibly where the phrase “turfed out” comes from? Could it be that illegal wagering on such an event led to turf accountants? I’ll get me coat.

No, I won’t. I have much more to bore you with. But it should be noted that not every facet above of this trial by ordeal was practiced in England, just that it sort of began there to be seen as a legitimate practice and hung on really into about the sixteenth century, though rarely used by then. Of course, a version of it figured in the witchcraft trials of the tenth century. But it was being more or less phased out by about the thirteenth.


Aethelstan (894 - 939)

Edward died in 924 at his estate, shortly after having put down a revolt at Chester, and was buried alongside his father Alfred in the New Minster. He was succeeded by his son, Aethelstan, who, even more than Alfred and certainly more than Edward, has been recognised by historians as the first true King of England. Like his father though he did not come to the throne unopposed, as many believed his brother Aelfward was next in line. However he died only ten days after Edward, which kind of made the situation moot. Rather oddly perhaps for a king, who were usually obsessed with passing on their power, maintaining or creating a dynasty, which naturally requires progeny, Aethelstan took a vow never to marry or have children. Al Bundy would have respected and envied him! But it didn’t help the line of royal succession, of which more later.

Nonetheless, the coronation of Aethelstan is recognised as the first time an English monarch wore a crown, instead of the usual helmet used, which certainly lends weight to the argument (not really an argument; for once all these usually squabbling historians agree) that he can be said to have been the very first proper King of England. Winchester hated him though, its support behind the late Aethelward and seeing him as a bastard; they even plotted to blind him, this certainly a crime but not as serious a matter as murder (sure I only blinded him, Yer Honour. The bastard had it coming. Yeah, Doubt it would go far as a plea for clemency) and the Bishop of Winchester returned all RSVPs unopened when he was invited to ceremonies. He didn’t even bother going to the coronation. I bet he wasn’t missed.

The death of Athelstan’s remaining step-brother, Edwin, who perished at sea while possibly legging it from a failed coup attempt in 933 helped bring Winchester into line. With nobody left to challenge the king they more or less shrugged and said “Fuck it, he’ll do.” Not like they had any choice. Kings are of course notorious for failing to keep their word, and when Aethelstan promised Sitric, king of the last remaining Viking strongholds, York, that he would not invade his kingdom, sealing the deal with the marriage of his daughter to the Viking king, he seized his chance once old Sitric was knocking on the door of Valhalla requesting entrance and bearing a long scroll, no doubt, of his valourous achievements. York was easily taken, and when Northumbria had to submit too, Aethelsan became the first southern king to rule the northern kingdoms (yes yes, go on, you know you want to say it: King in the North! There; feel better now? Can we continue?) and in effect became the first King of England.

He ventured over the border in 934 to make war upon Scotland, though there are no actual accounts of what he did up there. He was accompanied by four Welsh kings, and while this might not be the first time Wales attacked (or participated in an attack against) Scotland, it’s the first time I’ve read of them venturing that far north. At any rate, the campaign did not last long and was over by September, having begun in May. His next conflict though was a pretty major one, and even if we have only sketchy details of what went on, it has been acknowledged as one of the most significant battles in the history of what was becoming England.

Olaf Guthfrithson, Viking king of Dublin, having secured his position by that ancient Norse expedient of slaughtering all his foes, decided the time had come to reassert his control over what had been Danelaw and sailed to England in 937, intent on taking York. The Scottish king, Constantine, probably smarting from his earlier defeat, joined up with him and they met at the Battle of Brunanburh, which nobody can seem to decide a location for, much less pronounce. It’s probably not that important. What is important is that Aethelstan kicked Viking arse and Olaf retreated, limping back to Ireland for a well-earned Guinness or ten, while Constantine fucked off back across the border, one son less. It was a great victory for Aethelstan and ensured his enemies, both foreign and domestic, would think twice before taking him on again.

Under his rule, the emerging England (land of the Angles, or Angle-Land) began to see the growth of a true government, with officials such as ealdormen at the top (often ex-earls or leaders from the Danelaw) who administered in the name of the king, then reeves, landowners who seem to have their closest contemporary in mayors or burghers, ruling over a town or estate in the king’s name, and the witan, or royal council, which was not set in any one place but could be convened by the king, a sort of travelling committee. He seems to have had a particular thing about theft, prescribing in his laws the death penalty for anyone over the age of twelve years caught stealing more than eightpence. Why twelve years, and why eightpence? I have no idea, but it seems that Aethelstan equated robbery with a breakdown of the laws of society, and he may, following his predecessors’ devout views, have considered that since it was a literal breaking of one of the Ten Commandments, that it deserved harsher punishment.

Aethelstan devised the system of tithing, which is nothing to do with giving away a tenth of what you earned to the Church, as happened almost a millennium later in Ireland, but was in fact a subdivision of a parish or manor. Tithingmen appear to have been the very first rudimentary police force in England, or at least a precursor to the Watch. Ten men would be sworn to ensure to keep the peace in a particular area, and would be responsible for anyone who broke the law, sort of in effect standing guarantor and vouching for them I guess. It’s a little complicated and I don’t quite understand it, so here’s what Wiki tells us: “The term originated in the 10th century, when a tithing meant the households in an area comprising ten hides. The heads of each of those households were referred to as tithingmen; historically they were assumed to all be males, and older than 12 (an adult, in the context of the time). Each tithingman was individually responsible for the actions and behaviour of all the members of the tithing, by a system known as frankpledge. If a person accused of a crime was not forthcoming, his tithing was fined; if he was not part of the frankpledge, the whole town was subject to the fine.”

Yeah, still don’t get it really.

In Aethelstan’s time, and long after, there was no such thing as a separation of Church and State, the two intermeshed and bound together, and who could truly say where the real power lay? A king who lost or had not the backing of the bishops might not last long, while represtantives of the Church were chosen by Rome, where the Pope had very much a veto, and to go against him would not be good for any king. People of course were almost fanatically religious, obedience of the Church and obedience to their king one and the same in the minds of most folk, and heretics would be mercilessly dealt with, as we saw with the Druids and indeed the original Britons themselves, to say nothing of the Picts to the north. At that time, it was probably impossible to even contemplate the existence of one without the other - the Church supported and gave legitimacy to the Crown, and the Crown ensured the Church was revered and obeyed as a matter of law. It wasn’t of course until six hundred years or so later that this all changed when Henry VIII couldn’t get his way.

Aethelstan was free to appoint bishops to whichever diocese he preferred, though it seems likely that he would have to secure the permission, or at least agreement of the Pope for these appointments, and he certainly would not be able to ordain any new ones. That power rested solely with Rome. He also fostered closer relations with other countries, including Germany, the spiritual birthplace of the Saxons who now ruled England, and of whom he was a descendant. In a move which will seem insulting to us today, but was probably common practice in the tenth century, and perhaps for some time beyond, he sent one of his bishops with two of his half-sisters to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto, basically inviting him to take his pick, choose one for his wife. He probably didn’t care which, and I doubt the woman was allowed any say in the matter: this was all about building alliances and securing territories.

Aethelstan was the first real English king to establish the prestige and power of the young country outside of its own borders, his and his forebears’ victories against the Vikings making England quite the power in the west, and if there’s one thing kings and emperors and princes and dukes are drawn to it’s power. Aethelstan married off many of his sisters and half-sisters to foreign nobility, as we have seen above, and created strong bonds both military and political with countries such as France and Germany. He was also popular in Norway, where he helped Hakon Haradlsson reclaim his throne, and he is, probably more than any other English king before or since, responsible for the mixing of the royal bloodlines, and the eventual close relationship between England and Germany, as the latter assumed the English throne in the centuries to come.

When he died in 939, Aethelstan chose not to follow the example of Alfred and Edward, his father and grandfather, by being buried at Winchester, but chose instead to have his remains laid to rest in Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire, the only Saxon king to be buried there.

Unfortunately, all the good work he had done driving out the Vikings came undone after his death. York, rising again perhaps in confidence now that the king was dead, crowned Olaf Guthfrithson, who you may remember had been sent running defeated back to Dublin, and he immediately invaded the east midlands, as the Viking threat, thought subdued but really only brooding and waiting across the sea in Ireland, reared its head again.
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Old 05-21-2022, 07:20 PM   #37 (permalink)
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Edmund I (920/921 - 946)

Aethelstan had died without issue, and so the crown passed to his brother, Edmund. He now had to deal with the resurgent threat of the Vikings, this time as a force from within his own country, but despite battles and truces, he had to surrender the part of Danelaw that had been taken back, the five boroughs of Lincoln, Derby, Stamford, Nottingham and Leicester. He was quick to regain them a year later though, when Olaf died in 941. His successor, Anlaf Sihtricsson, accepted baptism and so, having acknowledged the authority of Edmund, it wasn’t long before he was expelled from York and the king took back the city. Nevertheless, the Northumbrians continued to resist his rule and that of his successor Eadred, until finally submitting in 954.

Edmund passed more laws, some of them dealing with the celibacy of clerics. You wouldn’t want to risk a quick wriggle with a servant girl or lady-in-waiting in Edmund’s time! Just not worth it mate. Your remains would be denied burial in consecrated ground (and really, if you’re going to go into the clergy business that’s the very ground you’ve staked out for your mouldering bones, surely, while your soul ascends to Heaven maybe), and more immediately and importantly, your lands could be snaffled by the king for being a bad boy. Nah, just take cold showers and think about gardening, son, much more profitable, both for your immortal soul and your property portfolio, whichever you value the more.

Murderers were not allowed come into the presence of the king. Now here I’m confused. If you were a murderer, then surely you would be executed or at worst in jail, and given this was the tenth century I don’t think too many killer were cooling their heels in cells! So, is this not a pointless law? Also, how do you identify a murderer? The law said apparently that he had to have done penance for his crime, though it doesn’t state exactly what that penance was. I’m willing bet it wasn’t three Hail Marys and an Our Father, though. It also uses odd language: “not allowed to come into the neighbourhood of the king”. What does that mean? The city he rules over? But as King of England (or at least, all the Anglo-Saxons) he ruled over every city, didn’t he? Or maybe it meant where he was sitting at any one time, where his court - which in those days was quite mobile and moved from town to town something like a travelling mummers’ show - was set up? Vague, to say the least. And what if he lived in that town, village, city, and then the king arrived? Had he to leg it until His Majesty had buggered off somewhere else?

Edmund also condemned false witness and the use of magical drugs (I guess standard drugs were okay then), and was greatly distressed by violence (for a man who put down Viking rebellions, this sounds a little hollow, but I guess he meant non-Crown-sanctioned violence, yes?) in particular wishing to put an end to blood feuds and vendettas. He proclaimed that any relatives of someone murdered could not go after the murderer, but that he, the murderer, would have to pay weregild to the relatives of the victims. Weregild we discussed earlier, but basically it was a price levied by the Saxons on people as their worth, also called a man price (I guess women weren’t worth anything), so essentially compensation had to be paid. If the murderer told the relatives where they could stick their compensation, they were allowed to practice their vendetta, but mind they keep away from churches and royal manor houses. All this blood feud business seems to have been imported by those pesky Vikings, and Edmund was eager to stamp out as much of their influence as he could.

He wasn’t too easy on slaves either. I suppose, as usual, we have to remember this is all taking place more than a thousand years ago, when slavery was not only permitted but seen as a natural part of the fabric of society, a holdover from when the Saxons were warriors and raiders in Germany I guess. Even so, it is pretty nasty and seems quite unfair. "we have declared with regard to slaves that, if a number of them commit theft, their leader shall be captured and slain, or hanged, and each of the others shall be scourged three times and have his scalp removed and his little finger mutilated as a token of his guilt".

But that was life in tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England, as the country slowly metamorphosed from a motley collection of villages, to seven separate kingdoms and finally, eventually, into one cohesive nation.

Edmund is the only king I’ve read of so far (at least, the only English king) who died in a brawl. How this could have happened I’m unsure, but maybe back then kings did not have the kind of protection that they did later; you can’t, for instance, imagine Henry VI or Edward III going essentially into a pub to rescue a servant and getting killed. I could maybe seen Henry V or Richard I, but even so, it seems a shocking lapse in royal security to allow such a thing to happen. According to John of Worcester: “While the glorious Edmund, king of the English, was at the royal township called Pucklechurch in English, in seeking to rescue his steward from Leofa, a most wicked thief, lest he be killed, was himself killed by the same man on the feast of St Augustine, teacher of the English, on Tuesday, 26 May, in the fourth indiction, having completed five years and seven months of his reign. He was borne to Glastonbury, and buried by the abbot, St Dunstan.”

There have been other, perhaps more plausible theories that this was an actual assassination, but even if so (and it’s certainly not proven, nor ever will be, and most historians shrug and say no) again I can’t remember any king up to now being actually assassinated. Killed in battle, yes, but taken out? At any rate, he was succeeded on his death by his brother, Eadred, making this the third son of Edward the Elder to sit on the English - or at least, Saxon - throne.

Eadred (923 - 955)

Eadred faced two new Viking threats - well, one old and one new. First the deposed Olaf Sihtircsson, booted out of Dublin, returned to take York and was for a time tolerated by Eadred, but later defeated and supplanted by the brilliantly-named-for-a-Viking Eric Bloodaxe. He in fact set himself up as king of Northumbria, which for Eadred was a bridge too fucking far, sunshine, and so he marched against him. He kicked the shit out of him and was on his way home in triumph when he was jumped by Eric’s allies, but he warned them he’d be back, bigger and a hell of a lot more angry if they didn’t fuck off back to Northumbria, and so they did, realising their king had been knocked for six and that their best bet was to play nice with the English king.


Eadwig (940 - 959)

Eadred died at the ripe old age of thirty-two, having reigned for ten years but sired no children. He was therefore succeeded by Edmund’s son, Earwig, sorry Eadwig. Ah, not though for King Eadred the glory of dying in battle, or even the slightly lesser glory of having your guts ripped out by a thief’s knife down your local, or even like Edwin, way back, drowning as your ship went down. No, his was a death that seemed somewhat common to the men of his age, and no surprise, given how and what they ate. It is recorded as a “disease of the stomach” which forced him to “suck the juices from his food, chewed on what was left and spat it out.” Well, you certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be invited to dine at the royal table, now would you?

Eadwig sat the throne for less than half the period his uncle had reigned, a mere four years, and his rule did not get off to the perfect start. Fresh from his coronation, he felt he wanted some copulation, and went off from his banquet, probably leaning nonchalantly against the wall and saying to likely maids, “I’ve just become king, you know,” or possibly “Fancy some Wes-sex with the new king darlin’?” Or possibly not. He was caught with not one, but two ladies - a mother and daughter - by the terribly religious and utterly spoilsport Saint Dunstan, who, king or no king, apparently grabbed him and dragged him back to the banquet, with possible boxing of the ears and grunts of “Here you, you’re only king a few hours and already you’re trying to father bastards!” The king was, of course, very penitent and understanding, forgiving the abbot entirely, and the loss of Dunstan’s abbey and his own sudden urgent need to flee the country was surely all down to a clerical error. Well, certainly an error for that cleric! In the event, Eadwig married one of the women. Guess which? Well, which would you choose, if it was between a mother and her daughter? Oh, you liar!

There’s a belief that the whole account could be bollocks, made up by the miffed Dunstan, but then we do have the word of our buddy John of Worcester, who so faithfully chronicled the killing of Eadred in that pub brawl, so, you know, maybe. It’s all over a millennium ago, and we all know how historians like to bicker and argue over just about everything. But given Eadwig was only sixteen at the time and had just become the most powerful man in the country, well, I think I can understand where he was coming from. Dunstan had his revenge from exile though, as he made sure the marriage got annulled, citing the ancient ruling of “seven degrees of consanguinity” which basically means I think that you couldn’t marry anyone who had any sort of relationship to you, and there was a connection there. Weak, but enough for Dunstan to run blabbing to the Pope, who no doubt shook his head and tutted at the kids these days.

Not satisfied with breaking up the lovebirds and ensuring any children they had would now be illegitimate, our Dunstan started supporting Eadwig’s brother and rival, Edgar, who himself found allies in the eternally-disgruntled Northumbrians and Mercians, and with civil war looming the two decided to split the kingdom, Edgar becoming (sorry) king in the north while Eadwig ruled Wessex and Kent. Not for long though. Two years later he was brown bread, and Edgar took the lot, becoming the next King of England.
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Old 05-29-2022, 12:19 PM   #38 (permalink)
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Edgar the Peaceful (943 - 975)

Now I’m not certain titles such as “the Good”, “the Peaceful” or “the Okay” are the sort of things you really want to hear in connection with kings. All right, I made that last one up, but Edgar was known as “the Peaceful” or “the Peaceable”. I mean, it’s not quite as impressive as “The Great” or “The Brave” or “The Wise” now is it? Not that there’s anything wrong with being peaceful, even for a king, and there are worse titles - we’ve got Charles the Simple, Ethelred the Unready, John Lackland and of course Ivan the Terrible - but it doesn’t bode well for expanding his kingdom does it? With predecessors such as Eadwig and Alfred the Great, Edgar the Peaceful just sounds like he’s kind of letting the family down a little. Is he? Let’s find out.

Perhaps it might be fair to say that, with Eadwig’s death removing all claim of the former king on the lands he held, Edgar, the new king, had no reason to wage war upon Wessex, as it automatically became his property when the power-sharing agreement was nullified on the death of Eadwig. So maybe he didn’t have to be a warlike king, and historians seem to agree that England pretty much solidified into the country it is today under his rule, whereas previously Eadwig had allowed parts of it to slip back into separate kingdoms (most notably, as already mentioned, Northumbria under the Vikings and then of course the part yielded to Edgar), so Edgar could be seen as the first king of a “united” England.

But while he may not have been a war-mongerer, there’s evidence to suggest Edgar was far from peaceful. When one of his ealdorman, Aethelwald, sent to suss out the beauty of Aelfthryth, whom Edgar was considering marrying, did the dirty on the king and married the girl himself, reporting her as not worthy of his affections, Edgar was not best pleased. At least, he was not best pleased when the deception came to his notice, and decided to head out and see the lassie for himself. Fearing the jig would be up, Aethelwald instructed his new wife to go against centuries of feminine instinct and make herself un-pretty, but Aelfthryth, knowing a better deal was on the table, unwilling to hoodwink the king and possibly fed up already with the ealdorman, ignored him and put on her best. King Edgar, on seeing her, said “that’ll do for me” and proceeded to battle his disobedient representative, killing him to teach him a lesson.

Having been an ally of Saint Dunstan during Eadwig’s time, it comes as no great surprise that on taking the throne Edgar invited the disgraced bishop back, awarding him with the Archbishopric of Canterbury. This union of Church and State as it were, compared to the fractious relationship that had existed between Dunstan and the previous king, gave Edgar the power to force through reforms and strengthen the hold of the Church over England, while also bolstering up his own power, now supported by that of the Church in the shape of Archbishop Dunstan. There were no sides to be chosen anymore, as both clergy and King were in concert, so there was little if any opposition to Edgar’s rule.

This was cemented by his Council at Chester in 973, when the King of Scotland, the King of Strathclyde (who had long fought against Eadwig’s incursions into his land) and several kings of Wales all came to pledge their homage to Edgar, perhaps giving him reason to claim being the first true king of Britain, not just England. To symbolise their submission to him, the six (or possibly eight) kings rowed Edgar personally in his royal barge down the river Dee. Edgar was also equated with Christ, this further binding him to and identifying and allying him with the Church (and, oddly, not pissing off the Pope, who was and is supposed to be after all God’s rep on Earth), making England once and for all, and forever a Christian nation.

Also oddly, Edgar’s coronation did not take place on his ascension to the throne but fourteen years later, seen not as the beginning but the culmination of his reign. Ironically, two years later he would be dead, having ruled for almost sixteen years. Unlike his predecessors however, Edgar had not been shy about putting himself about, and so there was a ready-made heir available when he popped his royal clogs.

Another Edward.

Edward the Martyr (962 - 978)

Okay, well if “The Peaceful” is the sort of title that as a king you would prefer to avoid, “The Martyr” is a whole lot worse. Poor Edward only lived to rule for three years, and as often happens when a strong (if “Peaceful”) king dies, disputes arose over who should succeed Edgar. It was widely believed (though not possible to prove beyond doubt) that Edward was a bastard, said to have been born to a nun whom his father abducted from Wilton Abbey, while his other son, Aethelred, raised the suspicions of Dunstan, as his mother had been already wed to Aethelwald before Edgar did him in. With no divorce proceedings - other than divorcing her husband from his life - the future saint ruminated on whether the marriage was therefore legal and legitimate.

In the end, both men would rule England, one as I say for a mere three years before meeting his end at the point of an assassin’s knife, the other for almost forty. Details of, and reasons for Edward’s murder vary, but there seems to be some basic agreement that it was perpetrated by men loyal to Aethelred, supported either tacitly or openly by his own wife the queen Aelfthryth, or possibly just because nobody really liked him. Under his rule, a lot of the land granted to Benedictine monasteries under his father’s reign were given back to nobles, while Dunstan appears to have shoved his hands into the pockets of his vestments (do vestments have pockets? Well if not, then into each other, very monklike) and done precisely nothing to stop this reversal of Edgar’s edicts.

It’s interesting to see how disliked Edward was, given that he later became known as “The Martyr”, as his body is said to have been buried “without honours”. Doesn’t exactly say they kicked him into an open grave and spat on him, but they certainly didn’t give him anything like a state funeral. Later though when they dug him up it seemed his body had not decomposed - and this was a year afterwards - so he was pronounced a saint and his remains reinterred in Shaftesbury Abbey. Soon afterwards a cult grew up around him, however I personally have problems with calling him a martyr. Isn’t that supposed to be someone who dies for their faith? Edward died because his rivals wanted rid, and that’s happened before without the unfortunate obstacle being canonised. I bet if you asked him if he wanted to die for God’s glory, Edward would have said “No thanks, I like living just fine.”

With the threat of his brother removed, the way was clear for Aethelred to take the throne. He is one of the few English kings from this period of history whom we can still remember today.

Aethelred (the Unready) (966 - 1016)

Let’s get one thing out of the way here from the start . Aethelred, known as “the Unready”, was not a man who was unprepared for battle or whatever. The word doesn’t refer to our one, though it has been changed into that meaning in recent times. His actual epithet was unraed, which means badly-advised. He was, however, one of the worst kings England had ever had, as well as, perhaps paradoxically, one of the longest-reigning up to that point. As we’ve noted above, Aethelred was one of the two sons of Edgar, and on the death of his father doubt and confusion had arisen over the parentage of both boys, and therefore their legitimacy to rule the kingdom. Aethelred’s brother, Edward, was chosen but again as we’ve seen this didn’t last long, as he slipped in the shower and ran right into a handy knife, or something. Anyway, on his death Aethelred took the throne.

The youngest to ascend at that time, the boy was at best twelve, possibly as young as nine years old when his brother was murdered, and so for several years the kingdom was administered by his mother Aelfthryth and Dunstan, as well as Aethelwold, Bishop of Worcester. During this time, and after it, the English court would be plagued by scandals and coups, and the ordinary man would suffer as never before, with taxes raised to all but unsustainable levels. The bad blood between those who had supported his brother and wished to avenge Edward’s murder would help to stymie the response of the English to, not a new, but a fresh and renewed threat, believed disposed of.
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Old 06-06-2022, 07:33 PM   #39 (permalink)
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Return of the Vikings: Can’t Keep a Good Dane Down

Despite the absolute rout of the King of Dublin in Aethelstan’s time and the breaking of the power of the Danes soon afterwards by Eadred, the Vikings were not yet finished with England and they attacked again in 980, streaming over from Denmark, and though originally carrying out lightning raids on the coast only, and these spread out over almost a decade, with some years of respite in between, the lacklustre and uncoordinated response from England emboldened them. Aethelred tried to placate them by buying them off (“paying tribute”) but their blood was up and conquest was on their minds, and in 991 they sent a huge fleet to sack Ipswich, and in August came face to face with the English at Maldon in Essex. This was to be not only the first major defeat for the English but the nascent beginnings of the later Norman invasion of England, something that was to shape the country’s future forever.

With the soundest of defeats against the English under their belts, the Vikings - though demanding, and getting tribute - rampaged across the country, and you can’t help but call to mind the rather self-defeating invitation of the Saxons by the Britons two hundred years ago, sealing their own fate. The Vikings had not been invited, no, but the resistance of the English under Aethelred - who really could be accused of being actually unready, as it seemed he certainly had not been expecting this massive fleet to attack - was so weak that the Vikings were able to make it as far as London with impunity. England’s defence, such as it was, became more a desperate rearguard action, and there was really no chance the Danes, now supported by the French in Normandy, were ever going to be defeated.

The best the English could hope for was a truce, and this they got in 994, when King Olaf Tryggvason, suitably paid off, took much of his force to Norway and promised never to darken England’s doorstep again. He kept his word, but some of his men stayed on, as mercenaries loyal now to Aethelred, who thought he could control them. Big mistake! Three years after their prince had returned to the comforting icy wastes of Scandinavia, these soldiers of fortune seem to have fashioned their own fortune, and turned on Aethelred, deciding it was, say it with me, pillaging time!

And so in 997 the coastal attacks began again, until as the new millennium dawned, the Vikings decided to check out their new pals in Normandy, and Aethelred, as any king faced with such a sudden and unexpected respite in hostilities would do, gathered his forces, shored up his defences and… attacked Strathclyde. Um. The reason for this rather unreasonable attack is, according to historians, “lost in the history of the north”, but I would be willing to bet he was paying back some old scores, as Strathclyde had been one of the kingdoms to support Danelaw. He was caught rapid, as we say here, the next year though, as the Vikings returned, bored with eating frog’s legs and snails and hankering for some Yorkshire pud, or maybe Yorkshire puss(!) and back they came. I hope Aethelred and his court partied like it was 999, cos from 1001 onwards there wouldn’t be much cause for joy.

The Danegeld, already mentioned several times, would have been one of the main reasons taxes skyrocketed, as the Vikings demanded more and more tribute for not knocking in English heads (that much) or setting English cities on fire (well, maybe a small one here or there, but nothing serious), and Aethelred, with no real army to oppose them, had no choice but to cough up. Which meant making the people cough up. Which presumably left a less than glowing impression on the minds - and wallets - of his subjects. Eventually, he decided he’d had enough.

St. Brice’s Day Massacre

Herod would have been proud. Well, maybe not, but Al Capone would. When word came to Aethelred that the Danes were rising and would kill him and all his people, and take their land, he decided to get his retaliation in first, and ordered the massacre of all Danish men in England. This was on, appropriately enough, November 13 1002 (I don’t know if it was a Friday, but how cool if it was, eh? My phone’s calendar doesn’t go back to the eleventh century, cheap piece of crap) and is the first time I’ve read of an English king ordering what amounts to all but genocide. I mean, these people weren’t even prisoners of war. For all Aethelred knew, the accusations could have been what we would call today “fake news”, an attempt to stir up local hatred of those who belonged to the peoples who had attacked them, but who might not themselves have had anything to do with those attacks.

I find the king’s matter-of-fact recounting of what is on the face of it surely a savage and un-Christian act chilling, the more so because it was only related in reference to explaining why the funds were needed to rebuild the church.

"For it is fully agreed that to all dwelling in this country it will be well known that, since a decree was sent out by me with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and thus this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death, those Danes who dwelt in the afore-mentioned town, striving to escape death, entered this sanctuary of Christ, having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and the suburbs; but when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church with its ornaments and its books. Afterwards, with God's aid, it was renewed by me."

Here the king is saying, without any sense of outrage or regret, the cheek of these guys! Instead of letting us exterminate (note the use of the word) them, they took refuge in a church! And because of that my people had to burn the church! The nerve! So now, like, we have to rebuild it so dig deep people!

It’s an act of pretty much wanton savagery on a par with the worst excesses of Cromwell in Ireland, or Lake later on in Ulster. Sure, Henry V would later execute French prisoners of war, and that was a reprehensible deed which has been more or less glossed over by English historians, but at least it has the very small saving grace of those men having been fighting the English, and being military prisoners. Yes, in fairness, the skeletons of 36 men excavated at the site in 2008 and analysed in 2012 does seem to support the fact that the Danish corpses were all warriors (and all men) so probably those mercenaries all right, but even so, once again English historians shrug and treat the whole incident with a kind of they-had-it-coming attitude. One even describes the incident as a “so-called massacre”. How there can be any doubt, when the king lays the entire case out in a fucking royal charter, you got me there son!

In the end, as nobody will be surprised to hear, this massacre of their people led not to pacification of England but further reprisal attacks, and the coming end of the House of Wessex.

I don’t quite understand how (unless the order was open to misinterpretation, or it happened accidentally as she was trying to shield her husband or lover) but the rumour was that Gunhilde, sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, the King of Denmark, was among the slain, and her brother did not take this well. I can just see Aethelred now: "Was I not fucking crystal clear here? Did I not say men? Is this woman a man?" And one of his disgruntled warriors muttering "She looked like a man", whereupon the king might have turned sharply and demanded "What?" But the warrior who spoke had suddenly developed a deep interest in the tapestries on the wall, or something.

And so a proper Viking invasion of England kicked off in 1004, ploughing through East Anglia while Aethelred remained in the south, unable to engage the enemy while his court began to self-destruct under coups possibly instigated or at least supported by his second wife, Emma. There were some victories against the Vikings, but mostly they had everything their own way, and for the next five or so years England was under constant attack, the latest, an invasion launched in 1008 was only bought off in 1012. A year later Forkbeard attacked again.

Sweyn Forkbeard was the son of Harold Bluetooth (yes that one, from whom we get the word) and was to be reckoned one of the greatest ever Viking generals. His fleet hit English shores in 1013, this time with the intention not just of raiding and plundering, but to take the English throne. Sweyn was unstoppable, and by the end of the year England was his, and he was crowned its king, Aethelred fleeing into exile. His reign did not last long though, as he died a mere year later, leaving his son, Cnut the Great, to take his place. We'll be hearing much more about him later. The English weren’t having this though, and invited Aethelred back, provided he fulfilled a lot of their wish list, including forgiving any bad stuff any of them may have said about or to, or done to him. Basically blackmailing a king, it would seem, but Aethelred shrugged and said sure, let ye bygones be ye bygones, swore to implement all the reforms they requested (demanded) and when he returned to battle Cnut few Vikings and hardly any Englishmen supported the son of Sweyn, who was quickly defeated and Aethelred reinstalled on the English throne. I’m not sure, but I think this might be the first (only?) time in English history when a king ruled, was deposed, went into exile and was then restored to the throne.

Though he beat Cnut, Aethelred walked into more trouble on his return, as his son, Edmund Ironside, established himself in the Danelaw and revolted against his father. Later, when Cnut (it’s so hard not to misspell that name!) returned both father and son allied against him, but in 1016 both were defeated and soon after Aethelred died, perhaps ironically, given his fractious rule of the country, on the day most revered by Englishmen, St. George’s Day, April 23. This left Cnut as king, initially sharing power with Edmund (though Aethelred’s son was only permitted to rule over Wessex until his death a little over a month later, whereupon Cnut became king of all England) the first not of the Wessex line, in fact the first non-Saxon king since Alfred the Great, discounting the very brief forty-odd-day reign of Sweyn Forkbeard. Cnut’s ascension meant power passed for the first time in almost a hundred and fifty years from the unbroken line of the House of Wessex, and though it would be temporarily restored with the rule of Edward the Confessor, he would be the last Wessex king to sit the English throne.

Although Sweyn Forkbeard had subjugated England and become its king, he ruled for a mere couple of months before his death, after which the throne reverted to an Englishman. But Cnut, as the first true Viking king of England, was to remain in power for nearly twenty years, a reign only bettered by Aethelred and the two original Wessex kings, Alfred the Great and Edward the Elder.
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Old 06-11-2022, 08:36 PM   #40 (permalink)
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Edmund Ironside (990 - 1016)

An interesting fact about Edmund II’s rise to the throne would be reflected later in the ascension of one of the most notorious and divisive kings of England, Henry VIII. Like the Tudor monarch, Edmund was not the eldest son and so not actually in line for the throne, but his two brothers died. We might suspect foul play, but this does not seem to have been the case; indeed, Aethelstan, the eldest, left a sword in his will to Edmund, one that had belonged to the legendary King Offa of Mercia. The brothers did not follow their father into exile when Sweyn Forkbeard took the English throne, but with Aethelstan dying before Aethelred’s return, his other brothers also dead, there was only really Edmund whose aid his father could call upon. However Edmund, as we have seen above, decided instead to rebel, stealing the wife of one of the disgraced (and executed) brothers who had run the Danelaw, marrying her and setting himself up as king there.

He did however join his father in the later fight against Cnut, when his own borders were threatened, and Cnut was so impressed with him that a compromise was reached. On the death of Aethelred, the people of London elected Edmund king and he continued to fight against Cnut, hopelessly outnumbered. He won many battles though, and when he was defeated Cnut, probably fearing an English civil war, allowed him to rule in Wessex while he took the rest of England for his domain. As we’ve said though, this was not to last long, as he died in November 1016 and Cnut then became the first non-Wessex King of England.

The manner of Edmund’s death is disputed, but some accounts claim he died on the toilet, in a scene which surely must have inspired George R.R. Martin when he was writing the death scene for Tyrion Lannister. One account says Edmund was stabbed multiple times while taking a dump, another uses - wait for it - a crossbow as the weapon, but others shrug and think yes, he may have been murdered, probably was, but he might just as easily have fallen in battle. You’ve got to hope, don’t you, that the latter case is closer to the truth, as otherwise it’s a shitty way to die. Sorry.

Cnut the Great (d. 1035)

Also known as Canute, he was the first Viking king of England, and the first to rule Denmark and Norway as well. The son of Sweyn Forkbeard, his date of birth is unknown but may be around 980 - 990, even 1000. However the latter seems unlikely at best, as he conquered and was crowned king of England in 1016, which would make him, what, sixteen years old? I can’t really see the English accepting a “callow youth”, no matter his fighting prowess or their position, as their king, can you? At any rate, the real year will never be known as there are only hints for historians to guess at. He was said to be “exceptionally tall and strong, the handsomest of men”, and on the death of his father returned to Denmark to request of the king, Harald (who may have been Harald Bluetooth, though this would then have been his grandfather) a power-sharing deal, which the king refused. No wait: I see it was Harald II, Cnut’s brother. Right, well that makes more sense. A brother is more likely to tell a brother where he can shove it than a revered grandfather. Cnut instead set sail in 1016 for England, with a fleet that was to result in his defeating Aethelred and Edmund Ironside, and winning for himself the English throne.

As an aside, you have to love these epithets. We’ve had Alfred the Great, Edward the Martyr, Edgar the Peaceful and of course Aethelred the Unready - though most of these were affixed to the names of the various kings after their deaths, often long after - now we have the future King of Poland, Boleslaw the Brave (no not Coleslaw!). We also have Eric the Victorious and Gorm the Old, Harold Bluetooth of course and even Sigrid the, um, Haughty. No, not Naughty. Now that would have been interesting. Anyway, back to the story of Cnut.

Responsible for the palace coup at Aethelred’s court, Eadric Streona, ealdorman of Mercia, must have seen which side his bread was buttered and deserted the English cause, throwing in his lot (and forty of the latest ships) with that of Cnut. Thorkell the Tall, another previous ally of Aethelred, also came over to the new king’s side. This of course weakened the forces then being led by Edmund, as he and his father - who was soon to die - never seemed to be able to meet up together, sending force after force back without its expected reinforcements. Cnut set about subduing Northumbria, and then turned his attention towards London, wherein Edmund had been proclaimed king on the death of his father.

Unable to stand against the invader alone, and with his ex-allies deserting him in droves, Edmund made a run for Wessex, hoping his ancestral homeland would provide him the troops he needed to muster an army and take on Cnut. It did, and he returned to London, relieving it, but only temporarily, and for the next while each faction struggled to hold, or take, what would eventually become England’s capital. Eventually Cnut gave it up, hopping over to harry Essex instead, and with typical turncoat skills, and perhaps feeling that the wind of change was again blowing in Edmund’s direction, Eadric changed sides and offered his help to the English king. Cnut would deal with this treachery soon enough.

The decisive battle that would settle the matter of who ruled England took place at Assandun, in Essex, in October 1016, where Edmund’s forces met those of Cnut. Instrumental in his defeat (as perhaps had been his intention all along) was the withdrawal of the forces of Eadric Streona, who went back over to Cnut’s side. With all that turning of coat, the man must have been positively dizzy! After the battle, Cnut and Edmund divided England, the former taking all land south of the river Thames (including his stronghold, London) and everything north would be ruled by Cnut. As already related though, this was academic really, as Edmund died only a month later and Cnut then became king of all England.

If, six hundred years later, Oliver Cromwell would declare himself Lord Protector of England (or Britain) then Cnut did it first. Not the actual declaration - he had nothing against being a king, insisted on it in fact - but he became England’s defender against outside attack. Being monarch of most of Scandinavia he was easily able to forbid further raids by the Vikings on England, and so under his almost twenty-year rule England enjoyed an unparalleled period of peace and prosperity. As bad a king as Aethelred has been said to have been, and as ineffective, Cnut was one of the greatest kings England had had since Alfred. Not that that meant he didn’t take revenge on his enemies, of course. He was, after all, first and foremost, a Viking.

Heads literally rolled, with Aethelred’s remaining son, Eadwig Atheling, at first only exiled, later murdered on Cnut’s orders. Edmund’s two sons were exiled, while Cnut ensured the troublesome and unreliable Eadric Steona had no further opportunities for betrayal, having him executed, and I doubt anyone cried. The new king paid off his Viking army and sent them home, keeping a small standing force in England, just in case. In a somewhat Viking tradition, he married Aethelred’s widow, Emma, and had a son by her, Harthacnut, whom he declared to be his heir.

You have to hand it to Cnut. In addition to being the - now uncontested - King of England, he also secured his position as King of Scandinavia, taking on Sweden and Norway and beating both in 1026. You would think that, distracted by such a war, his return to England might have seen some rival taking advantage of his absence and making a play for the throne, but no. So untroubled and unrivalled was his reign that he was able to take a leisurely trip to Rome (the first Viking to do so with peaceful intentions?) to witness the installation of the new Holy Roman emperor. He took the opportunity to discuss certain things with the new emperor, as below:

... I spoke with the Emperor himself and the Lord Pope and the princes there about the needs of all people of my entire realm, both English and Danes, that a juster law and securer peace might be granted to them on the road to Rome and that they should not be straitened by so many barriers along the road, and harassed by unjust tolls; and the Emperor agreed and likewise King Robert who governs most of these same toll gates. And all the magnates confirmed by edict that my people, both merchants, and the others who travel to make their devotions, might go to Rome and return without being afflicted by barriers and toll collectors, in firm peace and secure in a just law.

And

... I, as I wish to be made known to you, returning by the same route that I took out, am going to Denmark to arrange peace and a firm treaty, in the counsel of all the Danes, with those races and people who would have deprived us of life and rule if they could, but they could not, God destroying their strength. May he preserve us by his bounteous compassion in rule and honour and henceforth scatter and bring to nothing the power and might of all our enemies! And finally, when peace has been arranged with our surrounding peoples and all our kingdom here in the east has been properly ordered and pacified, so that we have no war to fear on any side or the hostility of individuals, I intend to come to England as early this summer as I can to attend to the equipping of a fleet.

There’s a lot of stuff in Cnut’s reign about his attempts to secure Sweden, only ever styling himself as “king of some of the Swedes”, which sounds a little unimpressive until you add “all of Denmark, Norway and England” - that’s a sizeable chunk of real estate! But I don’t want to go too deeply into his Scandinavian adventures as this is the history of England, and while I had to detour through histories of England and Scotland in my Irish history journal, that was necessary in order to frame certain subjects. Here, in reference to England, these diversions don’t matter, so let’s just say Cnut was away from England a good deal and leave it at that.

Cnut’s relationship with the all-powerful Church was delicate at best. They knew him to be all but unseatable (if they wanted to unseat him) and he had been baptised, renouncing his Viking ways (though only in religion, and perhaps only in public) and he built churches and monasteries, but there was the small matter of his having two wives. I believe somewhere in the Bible it says that a man marrying his brother’s wife is a sin, and while Aethelred and Cnut were certainly not related, I wonder if the Church still frowned on the idea of marrying the wife, now widow, of the man you defeated, surely more a Viking tradition than a Christian one? That might be bad enough, but Cnut didn’t do the decent thing and divorce or even send his first wife to a convent, but kept both around, so that he had two wives. The Church would not have liked that at all.

But what could they do? Cnut was powerful, more powerful really than any king of England since Alfred the Great, and more importantly, well liked. He didn’t have any real enemies, at least, none left living, and there were no discernible divisions in his power base that could be exploited. Besides, though I can’t confirm this but will try later, it seems to me that Cnut was the first king of England to award land to the Church, something which would really get up the nose of Henry VIII a half-millennium later, when he testily snatched it back with a Trumpish “Mine!” on his snarling lips. Everyone loves land, especially that granted by royal charter, so maybe the bishops just shrugged and said “hell, he’s king. If he wants to have two wives, who are we to say no? Now, what about this new church?”
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