Anglo-Saxon (500-1000)

Cnut and the Rise of Earl Godwin

One of Cnut’s first tasks following his coronation at Christmas 1016AD, was to strengthen his grip on the new realm. He divided England into four parts with himself in Wessex, Thorkil the Tall in East Anglia, Eadric Streona in Mercia and Eric Hlathir in Northumbria.

Eric Hlathir or Hakonarson had been Regent in Norway, ruling on behalf of Cnut’s father Forkbeard until 1015AD, when the Norwegians threw off Danish rule at the Battle of Nesjar and Olaf Haraldsson regained the throne.

With these lieutenants in charge, Cnut hoped to quell any opposition before it could become established. He later granted a number of lesser Earldoms on the borders of Wales, Scotland and Cornwall to protect these regions from raiders. One such new Earl was Godwin, the son of Wulfnoth, a Suffolk thane who had turned to piracy during Ethelred’s reign, had been exiled and his estates forfeited. Godwin became a supporter of Edmund Ironside in his battles against Cnut, but following Edmund’s death, had sworn fealty to the Danish king. His support for Cnut in crushing a rebellion in Denmark was rewarded by being made Earl of Devon and later, Earl of Wessex.

He was further advanced when he married Cnut’s sister Thyra Sveinsdottir, who died without issue shortly after. He was later to marry Gytha Thorkilsdottir, sister of Ulf Jarl, later Earl of Denmark and great granddaughter of the old Danish King Harald Bluetooth. She was to bear him six sons and four daughters, the most famous being Harold who was to take the English throne on the death of Edward the Confessor.

Cnut’s faith in the scheming Eadric Streona (the name is thought to mean “Grasper”) was soon seen to be misplaced and at Christmas 1017AD, while playing chess together, Cnut became angry at losing and demanded that the rules be changed. Eadric refused, and the king in his rage asked how he could trust Eadric in any matter in view of his previous defections. Eadric replied, also in anger, that he had killed Edmund Ironside on behalf of Cnut and deserved better treatment. Cnut had been supposedly unaware of Eadric’s hand in Edmund’s death and had him executed on the spot with an axe by Eric Hlathir.

There have been a number of different stories concerning the death of Edmund. The consensus is that he died from natural causes or from wounds received at the battle of Ashdon. The chronicler Geoffrey Gaimar however, tells of Edmund being murdered on the privy by the sons of Eadric Streona using a crossbow positioned in the midden pit to fire through the toilet seat. He states that the missile passed so far into his body that it could not be extracted.

This is disputed by some historians who claim that the crossbow was unknown in England until the Battle of Hastings in 1066AD when records first show wages for crossbowmen being paid. This version is again disputed by some who claim that a primitive crossbow known as a Skane Lockbow was used in 985AD in the Battle of Hjorungavgr, a battle at which Thorkil the Tall was present and proves at least that the weapon was known and used during the period.

Eadric’s head was cut off and placed on a spike on London Bridge and his body thrown into the Thames, thus fulfilling Cnut’s earlier promise to “raise Eadric higher than anyone else”. The Chronicle states that Eadric’s execution was “rightly done” and William of Malmesbury writes “Eadric was the refuse of mankind and a reproach unto the English”.

Cnut replaced Eadric with Leofwine, an Anglo Saxon survivor of Ethelred’s reign. When he died in 1030AD, his son Leofric took over and is chiefly remembered in history as the husband of the legendary Lady Godiva.

Normandy at this time was a Dukedom in feudal subordination to the French king and after some years of baronial feuding in Brittany, began to view England as a potential target for expansion. They were, after all, only one remove from the Vikings who had been carving England up for the previous 200 years and had already successfully laid claim to parts of southern Europe, why not England?

With Cnut’s succession, Ethelred’s sons Edward and Alfred by his wife Emma fled to their kin in Normandy and Cnut became aware of the need to keep the Normans “onside” and promptly married Ethelred’s widow, thus linking his line to that of Duke Richard of Normandy. Cnut already had a consort Aelgyfu, married in the Danish custom, but not recognised by the English church. The marriage had produced two sons, Harold Harefoot and Swein. A precondition of the marriage to Emma was that the sons of their union would stand in line for the English throne before Cnut’s older sons or Emma’s sons by Ethelred.

The marriage produced two children, Harthacanute (sometimes called Hardicanute) and Gunhilda, Cnut was later to pledge that Harthacanute would inherit both his English and Scandinavian kingdoms, another move designed to keep the aggressive Normans content. Gunhilda was later to marry Prince Henry of Germany.  Emma’s marriage was not popular with sections of the clergy who refused to recognize her as queen and did not want any offspring of Emma and Cnut to succeed to the throne, preferring  Ethelred’s sons, be they Aelgifu’s or Emma’s. She was frequently referred to as Emma Aelgyfu, taken to mean lesser or second.

In 1018AD, Cnut received his last payment of Danegeld which, according to the Chronicle, amounted to seventy two thousand pounds, plus eleven thousand pounds being paid by London. He sent a large part of his army, mainly mercenaries, home to Scandinavia, leaving just forty ships in England which would indicate that he now felt secure in his new realm. He retained a force of 3000 soldiers as an elite bodyguard to keep the peace in his new realm and stationed them at strategic points around the country.

His brother Harald, King of Denmark died that year and Cnut returned home to claim the kingdom, proclaiming that as king of both countries, Danish raids against England would now cease. This did not please many of the Danes who looked upon such raids as their right. It was in the ensuing rebellion that Godwin aided Cnut and was later rewarded.

While in Denmark Cnut wrote a letter to England explaining that he had to deal with dissenters to ensure that Denmark was free to assist England and promised to uphold English law. He goes on, “if anyone, ecclesiastic or lay, Dane or Englishman is so presumptuous as to defy God’s law and my royal authority or secular laws, I then pray and also command Earl Thorkil, if he can, to cause the evil doer to do right and if he cannot, then it is my will that with the power of us both, we shall destroy him in the land or drive him out of the land”.

With Denmark now safe, he appointed Thorkil the Tall as Regent of Denmark and returned to England and began a programme of reconciliation. In 1020AD, he held a great council at Cirencester with Danes, Englishmen and clergy, confirming that English law would be upheld. He re-instated a number of laws that had lapsed during the years of turmoil, notably those concerning Inheritance, Intestacy and Relief.

He strengthened the currency and introduced new coinage of equal weight to that in use in Denmark and other areas of Scandinavia. This resulted in the growth of English trade markets and benefit to the economy. He began a programme of rebuilding and repairing churches and monasteries that had been destroyed or looted by his forces and made many fine gifts to them. Among the problems he faced in England was the conflict between his Christian and pagan followers. He wished to rule as a noble Christian king and ordered his followers to submit to the Christian religion.

This did not suit the solidly pagan Thorkil who refused and in 1021AD, was exiled by the king. Cnut appointed his brother-in-law, Ulf Jarl as Earl of Denmark and placed his son Harthacanute in Ulf’s care to learn Danish customs in preparation for his role as the future king of Denmark. He also appointed Sweyn, his son by Aelgyfu, regent although the real power lay with Ulf. With Cnut in England the Swedish king Anund Jakob together with the Norwegian king Olaf Haraldsson, began to make raids on Denmark. This suited Ulf Jarl who used the attacks to incite Danish freeman to support Olaf and later to declare Harthacanute as king, a ruse designed to place royal power in his hands as caretaker and protector.

Cnut was determined to regain control of Norway and began making plans for war stating that, if Olaf wished to remain a king, he would do so as a vassal of Cnut’s. He then forged an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad the Salic. This alliance gained Cnut some disputed territory to the south of Denmark and also ensured that Conrad would not intervene should Cnut invade Norway. In 1021AD, Cnut raided the Baltic fortress of Jornsborg, signalling his intention of taking back the lost parts of his father’s old empire. It was at this time that he was reconciled to Thorkil although the old warrior was never to return to England.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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