In This Chapter
● Introducing King Cnut
● Describing the squabbles of Cnut’s sons
● Restoring Saxon rule under the pious King Edward the Confessor
● Battling to succeed Edward
After years of attacks in which Vikings had raided and invaded parts of England, the most powerful Danish king to date, Cnut, conquered England in 1016. Many Britons, fearful of the Danes’ violent reputation, probably quaked in their shoes when Cnut became king. But once he was king, Cnut wasn’t too bad. He dealt ruthlessly with traitors, but with good reason. He wanted England to be stable and therefore safely under his rule.
Cnut was absent from England a lot of the time because he also had lands in Scandinavia to rule. But he tried to lay down a framework so that England would run smoothly in his absence, dividing up the kingdom under powerful nobles called earls and putting together an influential law code.
Cnut ruled for 19 years, but he did not leave a clear line of succession when he died. For this reason, his reign was followed by several years of dispute and fighting between his sons before the Saxon Edward the Confessor, son of Aethelred the Unready and a man with strong connections with Normandy, came to the throne. Edward’s reign followed a curiously similar pattern to Cnut’s - a period of relative stability followed by a disputed succession. But Edward’s reign was also troubled by internal bickering - especially a conflict between Earl Godwine and Edward’s Norman advisers and associates. By the time the king died, in 1066, the Normans were eyeing England and planning to take over completely.
There Is Nothing Like a Dane
The Danish prince Cnut became king of England when he conquered the country in 1016 (see Chapter 4). His triumph came at the end of a long war that had occupied the last 14 years of the reign of King Aethelred and a few months in 1016 when Aethelred’s son, Edmund, claimed the throne. As a result of the long struggle, the upper classes of England were ready to accept the rule of a foreigner, in spite of the fact that Cnut was a Norseman, and Norsemen had a reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness.
But Cnut was a Christian king. The Danes had been converted to Christianity in the 960s by Cnut’s grandfather, the memorably named King Harald Bluetooth. So although the Danes still had a reputation for cruelty and violence, they were no longer likely to make marauding attacks on churches and monasteries, as their ancestors had done (see Chapter 4). King Cnut did have a cruel streak, but he presided over a period of relative peace in England.
Change your partners
One of the most surprising things about Cnut was his married life. He had two wives. That wasn’t all that unusual for an English king. But Cnut was different because he seems to have had two wives at the same time. His two marriage partners were both highly influential women, but they came from rather different backgrounds:
● Royal wife No. 1 - Aelfgifu: Cnut married his first wife in 1013, three years before he became king of England. Aelfgifu, sometimes known as Aelfgifu of Northampton, was from an upper-class English family. She bore Cnut two sons. The first was Svein, who his father made ruler of Norway, but who died before Cnut in 1034. The second was Harold, known by the curious nickname of Harold Harefoot. Aelfgifu remained powerful after her husband’s second marriage and stood in for Svein in Norway for some time.
● Royal wife No. 2 - Emma: After Cnut became king, he married Emma, who was the widow of King Aethelred. Emma was an astute choice politically, because marrying her stressed continuity with the regime of King Aethelred. But Emma, who originally came from Normandy, at this period an area settled by the Vikings, had Norse ancestors, so she strengthened Cnut’s ties with Scandinavia, too. Emma bore the king one son, Harthacnut.
When kings remarried, the first wife usually got thrown out. A ‘retired’ royal wife was a focus of resentment and could become a rallying point for the king’s enemies who might want to depose him. But things seem to have been different between Cnut and Aelfgifu. Perhaps because of her son’s power in Norway, she was already too powerful to cast aside. Historians don’t know for sure. Contemporaries were confused, too, especially when it came to sorting out who was Cnut’s legitimate heir.
Cnut and the Saxons
When he became king of England, Cnut knew all too well that he hadn’t got there by the ‘natural’ route. He had had to fight for the crown, and he’d won partly because some high-ranking supporters of the Saxon king Aethelstan had changed sides during the war (see Chapter 4). Cnut owed his crown to a bunch of traitors, especially Ealdorman Eadric Streona, who had actually changed sides twice. Cnut knew that anything he could do to strengthen his position with the English nobles would help him hang on to power.
Getting the nobles on-side
After the death of Edmund, Cnut assembled the leading men of the country - both Ealdormen and bishops - and persuaded them to give their support to his kingship. They swore to obey him, that they would pay their taxes to support his army, and that they would not support any of the descendants of Aethelred and Edmund if they made a challenge for the throne.
Cnut also asked them all whether the dying Edmund had earmarked any of his brothers or sons to succeed him. They replied that he had not and furthermore that Edmund would have wished Cnut to be the ‘protector’ of Edmund’s descendants.
In the Anglo-Saxon period, when the crown did not automatically pass from father to son, it was important for kings that their claim to the throne was acceptable and had some sort of formal legitimacy. This support was even more important for a king like Cnut, who had won his throne by military might. By extracting these affirmations out of the English nobles, Cnut gave his kingship legality. He had been officially rubber-stamped by the English, and it would now be more difficult for them to make trouble.
Removing the rivals
Cnut also knew that there were potential rivals to the throne and that at least one of Aethelred’s old supporters, Eadric Streona, had the ability to break his promises. So Cnut started to show his ruthless side. He took these measures to deal with potential rivals and traitors:
He sent Edmund’s two sons to the king of Sweden with a message that they should be put to death. The Swedes were merciful, however, and saved the princes, who went to live at the court of the king of Hungary.
He ensured that two other potential rivals, the sons of Aethelred’s queen, Emma of Normandy, stayed in Normandy, well away from the English throne.
He ordered that Eadric Streona should be put to death.
Cnut made one other move to make his position more secure. In 1017, the same year that Eadric met his death, the king married Aethelred’s widow, Emma. This liaison helped cement his links with the previous rulers, making him seem more like a king from the Saxon tradition. Cnut also retained some of the more trustworthy and intelligent of the advisers from Aethelred’s court, including the powerful churchman Wulstan, the archbishop of York. Once more, King Cnut was showing that there was some continuity between his regime and the previous one.
Cnut the astute: England prospers
Even with traitors like Eadric out of the way, it was a tall order for a foreign king to rule England - especially as Cnut had lots of territory in Denmark, ruled much of Norway, and also conquered part of Sweden. These responsibilities meant that he had to spend a lot of time away from England and he knew he had to leave his new realm in the hands of others. He needed a good team of nobles to run things in his absence, and clear laws that they could enforce.
Like the Saxons before him, Cnut divided up his kingdom, putting leading associates in charge of the four divisions. Under Cnut, high-ranking nobles ran Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia, while Cnut kept Wessex (still the senior division, as it had been since Alfred’s time) for himself.
Cnut gave the leaders of these separate chunks of his realm a Scandinavian title, earl. The new title made the division of the kingdom look like something new, but in fact it had existed under the Saxons. The usual Saxon name for the local deputies had been Ealdormen, but the title of Ealdorman was also used for lesser bigwigs, men who had control of one shire or county, so the picture looked more confusing. Under Cnut, the divisions were clearer, with the king at the top of the hierarchy, the earls immediately below him, and the Ealdormen lower still.
Cnut’s other key achievement in government was to produce a new law code. Like many law codes, Cnut’s did not contain much that was new. It was a collection of laws that mostly already existed. But it was the longest law code of the Saxon period and would be referred to by lawyers in just the same way as the law code of King Alfred had been.
Cnut’s laws tried to accommodate both English and Danish legal opinion. But they gave ultimate precedence to the law of God, because Cnut was a Christian and wanted to stress that he was not like some of his violent, non-Christian forbears who had so terrified the locals when they raided England’s shores.
Cnut in Europe
In some ways, Cnut was the most powerful and influential king of England to date. He had a large empire and wanted recognition as one of the major Christian kings of Europe. In 1027, the opportunity for this recognition came. A new Holy Roman Emperor - the ruler of lands based in Germany - was to be crowned by the pope in Rome, and Cnut was invited to attend.
It’s hard today to understand what a big deal attending the imperial coronation was for Cnut. The Emperor and the Pope were the two most powerful men in Europe, and up to this point, England had been a small kingdom on the edge of Europe, little regarded by more powerful monarchs on the mainland. But now Cnut was being invited to meet the Pope and the Emperor as an equal. No previous English king had had this double privilege, and it was a feather in England’s cap, as well as Cnut’s.
When he got to Rome, Cnut was impressed. He met the crowned heads of Europe and was showered with costly gifts, such as jewels, gold and silver vessels, and robes of precious silk - the kind of things with which monarchs impressed each other in those days. It was a diplomatic triumph.
Cnut made a speech to them all, asking that his subjects, English and Danish alike, should be granted free and unhindered passage when they travelled across Europe to Rome, whether they were making the journey as a religious pilgrimage or whether they were merchants carrying goods.
Both the Emperor and King Rudolf of Burgundy, who ruled much of the territory Cnut’s subjects had to pass through to get from England to Rome, agreed to Cnut’s request. This deal gave the king a lot of pleasure and a lot of prestige. He was now truly a ruler of international consequence who could hold his head high amongst the most powerful men on the continent.
Not only that, but the king’s diplomatic triumph was good for England, too. It meant that English traders would be expected in mainland Europe and would be given a welcome. England felt less on the edge of Europe, more a part of the continent as a whole.
An all-powerful king?
After his famous trip to Rome, Cnut’s image was that of a supercharged monarch with incredible power. After all, he had a northern empire that was one of the biggest in Europe. It’s not really a surprise that his courtiers, awed by his power, took to fawning and trying to flatter him. Cnut, though, was a very level-headed character. And as a Christian, he believed that his power was nothing compared to God’s.
Cnut and the Waves
The most famous story about Cnut came about because of the flattery of his courtiers. Some people at Cnut’s court were supposed to have told him that he was so powerful, he could turn back the waves. Cnut, so it’s said, dragged his whole court down to the beach and ordered the waves to turn back. He knew they wouldn’t, but he wanted to teach the courtiers a lesson - which they duly got when the waves continued up the beach, giving everyone a good soaking.
It’s unlikely that the story of Cnut and the waves really happened. It first appears in a chronicle written in the 12th century, quite a while after the king’s lifetime, and it’s probably a myth. But the tale does have an underlying truth, which is that the king probably did suffer from sycophants and probably did see through them. The fable of the waves was a good way of telling the story, especially as Cnut came from a culture where mastery of the seas - in a longboat - was expected of any ruler.
Cnut backed up his assertion of God’s power by showing that he could be good to the church. He was a generous benefactor to churches and monasteries and gave lands to the Old Minster at Winchester and to the abbeys at Sherborne and Bury St Edmunds. He also encouraged others to make gifts to the church - monasteries at Abingdon, Canterbury, and Evesham benefited as a result. And Cnut is said to have founded the monasteries at St Benet Holme and Bury St Edmunds, although no firm documentary evidence supports this theory.
An iron fist
In a way, Cnut was a bit of a contradiction. He was a diplomat, but was also much feared; he respected the church, but he was also ruthless. His English subjects probably saw enough of the ruthless side. The English at one time or another had to suffer because of Cnut’s rule in several ways:
He taxed the English very heavily, especially at the beginning of his reign.
He bumped off political rivals who posed a threat to his power.
He installed many Danish families on British lands, levering locals out in the process.
Even his marriage to Queen Emma, who was herself of Norse ancestry, looked like another example of Danish influence over a conquered people.
But Cnut’s ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’ approach to kingship worked, in that England was relatively stable and relatively powerful on the European stage. Cnut’s main problem was that he did not secure the succession. When Cnut died in 1035, he had two sons. One, Harold, known as Harold Harefoot, was the son of Cnut’s English wife, Aelfgifu. The other, Harthacnut, was the son of the king’s second wife, Emma of Normandy. Given Cnut’s unorthodox married life, a dispute occurred as to who was the legitimate heir, and the Danish king’s empire began to break apart.
A cruel legacy: Cnut's sons
The death of King Cnut in 1035 led to a dispute between his two surviving sons, Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut, over who should rule. Confusion abounded because Harold was Cnut’s son with his first wife Aelfgifu, but he hadn’t renounced Aelfgifu when he married his second wife, Emma of Normandy, the mother of Harthacnut. So for a start, there were arguments about who was legitimate.
In these circumstances, it mattered a lot who got backing from the country’s senior earls and highest-ranking churchmen. But the earls were split, too. Godwine, Earl of Wessex, came out in favour of Harthacnut. Leofric, Earl of Mercia, said Harold (whose grandfather, after all, had been a Mercian) should be king. Stalemate again.
Another factor was who was available to grab hold of the crown - often when a dispute like this one arose, the successful claimant was the person who was ready to persuade the church to crown him. By this measure, Harold should have become king, because Harthacnut was away in the North, fighting a war with Magnus of Norway. But for some reason, the Archbishop of Canterbury seemed unwilling to crown Harold. Still no decision.
At last, the backers of this pair of princes came up with a compromise: split the kingdom between the two. But even this solution couldn’t work without Harthacnut coming back from Scandinavia to claim his side of the bargain. The problem began to drag on for months. Emma of Normandy, who was anxious to hang on to some power for her family, decided to intervene.
Harthacnut was still fighting his Norwegian war in 1036. But he wasn’t Emma’s only son. She still had two sons, Edward and Alfred, by her first husband, the Saxon king Aethelred. These two power-hungry princes were holed up in Normandy and didn’t take a lot of persuading to cross the Channel and muscle in on behalf of their mother’s side of the family.
So in 1036, the pair launched a two-pronged attack. Alfred met up with his mother and Earl Godwine of Wessex, who had backed Harthacnut’s claim and so should have been on the side of Emma and her sons. Meanwhile, Edward started rampaging violently around the south of England, showing everyone that Emma’s boys meant business.
It should have led to a takeover, but there was a spanner in the works: Earl Godwine. Godwine, with an eye for the main chance, decided that he wasn’t on Emma’s side after all and promptly took Alfred into custody and handed him over to Harold Harefoot. Before the poor prince knew what was happening, he was carted off to prison in Ely and blinded. It was not long before the hapless Alfred died. Harold took control in southern England and forced Emma to leave the country. She settled in Bruges and waited for her next opportunity to make a play for power in England.
Emma intervenes - again
It wasn’t very long before Emma seized the chance to win power for her family once more. This time, she teamed up with her long-absent son, Harthacnut, who by 1039 had left his Scandinavian war, assembled a large fleet of longships, and sailed southwards to Flanders where he met up with his mother.
While Emma and son were preparing to invade England, things turned dramatically in their favour. Harold died without an heir, leaving a power vacuum, and Emma and Harthacnut arrived in England in 1040 eager to fill it. Soon Emma’s other son, Edward, also turned up, and in 1041, both men were crowned as joint kings. After all the fighting and plotting, the joint kingship lasted less than a year. Harthacnut died in 1042. He had no sons, so Edward was left as sole ruler of England.
Pious Potentate: Edward the Confessor
In 1042, England’s King Harthacnut died, and his half-brother Edward became king of England. After years of Danish domination of the country under Cnut and the subsequent squabble for the throne between his sons Harold and Harthacnut, Edward was something different. For a start, he was the son of King Aethelred and his wife Emma of Normandy, so he wasn’t a Dane. For another thing, he had been brought up in Normandy and had spent most of his first 35 years with his mother there.
So was Edward a Frenchman? Not really. His connection with Normandy meant that he had close ties with the Vikings who had settled there in the previous century. In a way, Edward was England’s first Norman king, 20 years before the famous Norman Conquest that was to bring William I to the throne in 1066.
Like most people in western Europe by this date, Edward was a Christian. But Edward was a particularly pious one. He acquired the nickname Edward the Confessor because he was said to go to church to confess his sins every day. Very virtuous. But did he have the right stuff to be a king? Some people had their doubts.
Normandy and the Vikings
In the year 911, a Viking leader called Rollo had settled in northern France, and as a result of this move, Normandy (the name comes from the same root as Norse) became a Viking outpost. Both Svein Forkbeard, the Viking leader who had raided England, and his son Cnut, who had conquered the country, had used harbours in Normandy for their ships. By the time Edward
the Confessor was born around 1003, Normandy had its own identity, influenced both by its people's Viking heritage and by its neighbour France. Since his birth, Edward had been surrounded by Norman nobles and Norman churchmen. He spoke the same language as the Normans and was much more familiar with Normandy than with England.
Earls and nobles
When Harthacnut died, Edward himself wondered whether he should become king. So he asked Godwine, Earl of Wessex, England’s most powerful noble and the man who had backed Harthacnut in his bid for the throne. Godwine saw this request for advice and backing as a chance to carve himself a position of power as Edward’s right-hand man. Before long, Godwine was the most influential person at Edward’s court, and the problems that resulted from Godwine’s power dogged the first part of Edward’s reign.
Earl Godwine said he would back Edward as king provided that Edward did him some favours in exchange. Godwine wanted several things out of Edward:
● Edward should appoint Godwine to an important office of state.
● Edward should marry Godwine’s daughter Edith.
● Edward’s mother Emma, who might be too influential on the king, should have her wealth taken away and be put under house arrest in Winchester.
● Princess Gunnhild of Poland, a potential bride for Edward and rival to Edith, should be expelled from the country.
These demands are big, especially the one about Queen Emma. It seems amazing that Edward should agree to his mother being placed under house arrest. But Edward was so convinced that he needed Godwine’s backing, he agreed to the earl’s demands and was crowned king. The coronation took place at Winchester, which as capital of Wessex had a special place in the history of Anglo-Saxon England. Holding the ceremony there reminded people that Edward was the descendant of the Anglo-Saxon kings Aethelred and Alfred.
With Edward safely crowned and married, things looked good for the monarchy. But the king’s concessions to Godwine caused a problem. It wasn’t just Godwine who made trouble for Edward, but also Godwine’s son, Swein, who had been made Earl of Southwest Mercia. Swein turned out to be the kind of character who must have made the pious Edward see red. Here’s the low-down on his catalogue of sins:
● He kidnapped the abbess of Leominster and kept her as a concubine.
● He ditched the hapless abbess.
● He had Earl Beorn Estridsson, who had advised Edward not to make peace with Swein, killed.
Edward outlawed Swein and removed his earldom, but Godwine stuck up for his obnoxious son. By 1050, Godwine found himself and the rest of his family outlawed, too. Even poor Edith was condemned to go and live in a nunnery.
By now, fighting had broken out, and Godwine and his other son Harold mounted a naval attack on England, causing mayhem along the south coast and sailing up the Thames toward London. Edward was compelled to give in to Godwine. Within months, Godwine’s earldom was restored, and when he died a short while later, his title passed to Harold.
There’s a good story about the death of Godwine. It’s probably a fabrication by medieval chroniclers who wanted to see him get his just desserts, but it’s interesting anyway. The story goes that the king and Godwine had a banquet together shortly after the earl returned from exile. Edward asked whether Godwine really had his brother Alfred blinded, killing him shortly afterwards. ‘May God strike me dead if I did,’ replied Godwine. Instantly, the earl choked on a piece of meat and died.
After Godwine’s death, Queen Edith was allowed to leave the nunnery and return to Edward’s side. As for the dreadful Swein, he went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a penance for his misdemeanours, but he soon died, too.
Trouble in bed
After the trouble with Earl Godwine, Edward and Edith settled down again. Things should have gone well. They were an intelligent couple, and Edward, a pious Christian, seems to have been faithful to his wife. But they did not manage to produce a family, which must have been upsetting personally. It was certainly a problem politically, because it meant that the succession would be in dispute when Edward died.
Medieval writers, who were mostly monks and who revered Edward for his piety, came up with a special reason for the lack of young princes or princesses around the royal court. They said that Edward was so holy that he was immune from physical passion - Edward and Edith simply didn’t have sex. The idea is interesting, but on the whole, it’s unlikely. Medieval kings and queens saw it as their duty to go to bed together and produce children, even if they didn’t want to. The lack of a son and heir made things uncertain, and the royal family has always preferred certainty.
In the Anglo-Saxon and Norman periods, it was customary for a king to nominate an heir before he died. In theory, the king could choose anyone, including a brother or cousin, to do the job. This custom of naming an heir was especially strong among the Normans, who influenced Edward greatly. But even so, having a son you could train to step into your shoes was the safest way to go. So Edward and Edith would have wanted children. The probability is that they just couldn’t conceive.
In search of an heir
In 1054, with the king now well into his 50s, the issue of an heir was becoming urgent. Edward’s favourite choice seems to have been another man called Edward, known as Edward the Exile because he was living in Kiev, Russia. Edward the Exile was a grandson of King Aethelred and so a nephew of Edward the Confessor.
The king sent one of his trusted advisers, Bishop Ealdred of Worcester, off to Kiev to track down his exiled nephew in 1054. By 1057, Edward the Exile was back - but also dead. No one knows quite how he died, but his end seems to have been sudden and suspicious. This event left King Edward with several choices when it came to an heir:
● Potential heir No. 1 - Edgar the Aetheling: Edward the Ex-exile had a son called Edgar. Edgar was known as Edgar the Aetheling. Aetheling was a word that originally meant ‘young nobleman’ (aethele meant noble in Old English), but had come to mean a prince. The young Prince Edgar would probably have been Edward’s favoured choice as heir, but for one thing - he was young. In fact, when the king died in 1066, Edgar the Aetheling was probably about 14 years old, which was just too young to be king in his own right.
● Potential heir No. 2 - William, Duke of Normandy: Back in the early 1050s, before Edgar the Aetheling appeared on the scene, the king apparently offered England to his cousin William of Normandy. William, as a Norman, would obviously have appealed to Edward as an heir. But the circumstances of the offer were rather murky, and the deal was struck a long time ago. So William became an outsider in the race to be the next king.
● Potential heir No. 3 - Harold Godwinsson: On his deathbed, Edward ignored his earlier preferences and declared that Harold, son of Earl Godwine of Wessex, should have the crown. Why did Edward choose a relative of Godwine, who had caused him so much trouble? Harold had done a lot to win favour with the king. He had fought with distinction on the royal side against the Welsh. He had shown that he was a just man when, in a dispute between some Northumbrian nobles and his brother, Tostig, Harold came out against Tostig. And he was the brother of Edith, Edward’s queen.
When making an important decision, an Anglo-Saxon king was expected to listen to the advice of the nobles around him, a body called the witan or wite-nagemot. This group didn’t have a standard membership in the way that a modern parliament or cabinet does; it was just made up of the earls or Ealdormen who were currently with the monarch. Most kings respected the advice of the witan and took what was said seriously.
Edward consulted his nobles, and together they came down in favour of Harold. Harold wasn’t a member of the royal family, but most royal advisers agreed that he was a practical choice. As the country’s most powerful earl, he and his family controlled much of England anyway, and they were well placed to defend it against aggressors from outside. The only member of the witan who may have opposed Harold was the earl who controlled Mercia, the main area of the country not in the control of the Godwine family. Fortunately for Harold, the current earl had recently died, so the Witan unanimously approved Edward’s choice of heir (see Chapter 6).