The Danes returned again in 1009AD with the largest force yet seen, led by Thorkell the Tall and his brother Henninge. They met with an English force led by Ulfcytel in early May at Ringmere Heath near Thetford and after heavy fighting the English were defeated. The Chronicle, referring to Thorkell states that, “he destroyed them, reddening Ringmere”.
By now the Danes were everywhere and apart from locally organised pockets of resistance, came and went, killing and burning as they pleased. Ethelred, still unable to organise a national resistance, continued to offer bribes to the invaders which they cynically accepted while not ceasing in there raids. In August 1013AD, Swein Forkbeard, King of Denmark and Norway, plus his son Cnut were back with a large force, landing at Sandwich and then moving to East Anglia, raiding and plundering at will. They sailed up the Humber and Trent rivers to Gainsborough where Earl Uhtred, Earl of Northumbria bowed to them and gave hostages, an act that was swiftly followed by the surrounding regions until all the lands north of Watling Street were under their control.
It is thought that Uhtred and many other Earls welcomed Swein’s invasion having become disenchanted with Ethelred’s weak leadership. Moving south to Oxford and then to Winchester, all the local leaders submitted. Swein then moved towards London where Ethelred waited behind its walls with the Danish warrior Thorkil the Tall who was now in the king’s employ, a rather strange position as he is also thought to be Cnut’s foster father! Swein demanded London’s surrender, but the king refused and after a short siege, Swein marched westward to Bath where the remaining English Earls came to him and surrendered. He was now the de facto ruler of England and, with the acceptance of the Witan, London finally surrendered to him and Swein was declared king on Christmas Day 1013AD. Swein demanded that his force be provisioned for the winter and Ethelred and his family fled to Normandy.
Swein set about consolidating his rule, but died on February the 3rd 1014 after a fall from his horse, although rumour had it that he had been slain in his sleep by the ghost of St Edmund, the East Anglian king slain by Ivar the Boneless. Swein’s eldest son Harald II was elected King of Denmark while his troops in England, loyal to Swein’s dying command, elected his son Cnut to rule in England. We can glean a picture of Cnut from the 13th century Knytlinga Saga which describes him thus, “Cnut was exceptionally tall and strong and the handsomest of men, all except for his nose, that was thin, high set and rather hooked. He had a fair complexion nonetheless and a fine strong head of hair. His eyes were better than those of other men, both the handsomer and the keener of their sight”.
The Witan, perhaps fearful of the damage that their vacillating had caused, called for the return of Ethelred “their natural lord”. Ever cautious, Ethelred sent his son Edward to “test out the water” and to give promises on the king’s behalf that he would rule justly and firmly and that everything that had been done or said against him was to be forgiven if the people promised to support him and declare every Danish king outlawed forever.
Thus assured, Ethelred returned with a supporting force of Normans and his Danish war leader Thorkil and proceded to re-establish his rule. Cnut, taken by surprise and fearing that he could not stand against a united enemy, abandoning his English allies to the vengeance of Aethelred, took to his ships in preparation for his return to Denmark and paused only at Sandwich to land the hostages that had been given to his father and to cruelly order that their hands and ears be cut off and their noses slit as a gesture of defiance.
Ethelred, finding no Danes to fight, vented his frustration by ravaging the province of Lindsey which had given support to Cnut by supplying him with horses and provisions for his raiding.
It did not take long for the king to settle in his old ways and now, with the help of the Normans, began to replace many nobles of Danish descent with English or Norman. Thorkil the Tall and his men suffered attacks by these anti Dane forces and during one such incident his brother Henninge was killed. Thorkil gathered his small fleet of nine ships, plus his followers and offered his services to Cnut. The Emcomium Memmae Reginae states that Thorkil “asked his lord’s mercy and with great difficulty, became reconciled to him”.
Thorkil had been Cnut’s mentor when he was young and gladly accepted him back in service. In September 1015AD, Cnut landed, with his forces in 160 ships, at Sandwich. The Encomium Mae Regina describes the landing and gives a real feel for the power of the invaders, “There were so many kinds of shields that you could have believed that troops of all nations were present. Gold shone on the prows and silver flashed on the ships, for who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold without feeling any fear of the king of such a force. Furthermore, in this great expedition there was present no slave, no man freed from slavery, no low born man, all were noble and strong with the might of mature age, fit for any type of fighting, they scorned the speed of horsemen”.
Cnut sailed on to Poole where he established a base to ravage Wessex and force the magnates to accept him as king.
Ethelred’s eldest son Ethelstan had died in 1011AD and his next eldest, Edmund, later known as “Ironside” due to his courage in battle began to take over his father’s fight with the invaders. He fell out with his father in 1015AD when he married Aldgyth the widow of Siferth, a Danish thane against his father’s wishes. Siferth, together with his fellow thane Morcar, both powerful influences in the Danelaw, had been murdered, probably by Earl Eadric of Mercia on instruction from Ethelred who profited from the murders by immediately confiscating their estates and imprisoning Aldgyth at Malmesbury.
Edmund rescued Aldgyth and following his marriage he invaded the possessions of Siferth and Morcar, and, in the words of Florence of Worcester, “brought the inhabitants thereof under his own dominion”. He was thereafter accepted as ruler of the five boroughs of the Danelaw, being preferred as a stronger leader than his father. He led the fighting against Cnut after his landing in 1015AD, with the support it must be said, of many of the Norsemen living under the Danelaw, who had been left to their fate by Cnut who did nothing when Ethelred destroyed Lindsey, wanted neither of the two back in power.
Unlike his father however, he was a formidable fighter and did achieve some success in his struggle against the invaders. Ethelred fell sick and rested in Cosham while Edmund raised a force in Mercia and Earl Eadric gathered troops in the south. The plan was to link up the two armies and attack Cnut, but the treacherous Eadric attempted to betray Edmund, the Chronicle stating “but could not, whereupon the two forces separated without an engagement and sheered off from their enemies”. Shortly after, Eadric deserted Edmund and with over forty ships, went over to Cnut. The two joined forces, crossing the Thames at Cricklade and “plundered and slew all they met”. Edmund raised a large force in Mercia but his troops refused to fight unless they were joined by Ethelred and forces in London. This did not suit Ethelred and the Mercian force disbanded and went home.
Edmund again raised a force and again requested his father to join him and this time the king did raise a levee of troops and the forces united. Ethelred heard rumours that some of his force was plotting to betray him and, fearing for his safety, dismissed his forces and returned to London. Edmund took his force north and met up with Uhtred of Northumbria. Together they began raiding the territories of Eadric the traitor. Cnut also moved north into Northumbria and when Uhtred learned of this attack he rushed back to his Earldom.
Uhtred had survived thus far by carefully changing sides when necessary and now decided to make his peace with Cnut. He was promised safe conduct and went with forty retainers to Durham to meet Thurbrand, a vassal of Cnut, but once in Thurbrand’s hall, he and his party were ambushed by Thurbrand’s men who had been hiding behind a great tapestry. All were slain and Cnut appointed his brother in law Eric Kakonarson of Hlathir as Earl of Northumbria, Eric was a formidable ally for Cnut and it was largely through his support that Cnut gathered a force large enough to conquer England.
Despite this Edmund was not popular with the English nobles who thought him a rebel against his father and when Ethelred died in April 1016AD he was proclaimed king but only in London, the majority of the English churchmen and nobility preferring Cnut. They gathered at Southampton and swore fealty to Cnut who in turn promised to rule wisely and peacefully. Cnut sailed his forces up the Thames and established siege lines around the city. The Chronicle relates, “they dug a great channel on the south bank and dragged their ships to the west side and built earthworks outside the city so that none could get in or out”. Edmund escaped from London and managed to persuade the Wessex magnates to reverse their decision of Southampton and won them over to his side. His forces reconquered Wessex from the Danes, “being gladly welcomed by all”.