Post-classical history



King Cnut greets in friendship his archbishops and his diocesan bishops, and Earl Thorkel and all his earls, and all his people […] ecclesiastic and lay, in England. And I [Cnut] inform you that I will be a gracious lord and faithful observer of God’s rights and secular law.

‘Letter of Cnut to the English’ (c. 1019–20)1

Svein Forkbeard became king of England on Christmas Day 1013. Although his actions seemed to fit the classic Viking mould of seaborne raiding and extortion, Svein was no mere chancer. Unlike self-made men such as Guthrum back in the 870s, Svein Forkbeard was an established figure on the international stage. The son of Harald Bluetooth, king of Denmark (d. c. 985), Svein had taken the Danish throne from his father in the 980s. When he conquered England in 1013 he was already a king.

Svein’s assaults on England had begun early, in the 990s, and he had spent two years pillaging the country between 1003 and 1005. Although he did not lead the assaults that followed throughout the first decade of the eleventh century – the most devastating of which fell under the command of a fearsome character known as Thorkell the Tall – in 1013 he returned with a fleet and, it seems, a clear sense of purpose. He arrived at Sandwich (Kent), and from there led his ships northward, prowling the eastern coastline until they reached the Humber – the gateway to Northumbria. At Gainsborough (Lincolnshire), the Northumbrians submitted swiftly. Shortly afterwards northern Mercia followed suit and then all the regions north of Watling Street, the old boundary set out in the treaty of Alfred and Guthrum.

When Svein moved south the collapse came quickly, Oxford and Winchester surrendering without a fight. London held firm, its townspeople holding out ‘with full battle because King Æthelred was inside’. But it was not enough to avert the disaster hanging over the English king. Briefly thwarted, Svein travelled west, to Bath, where the western nobility submitted to him. This was enough for the remaining English resistance. The Londoners laid down their weapons, pledging themselves to their new lord (because if they did not, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle explains, ‘they dreaded that he [Svein] would do them in’).2 Exhausted by a quarter-century of war, England capitulated with a whimper and ‘the whole nation had him as full king’.

Æthelred, with his wife Emma and his sons Edward and Alfred, fled across the Channel to his wife’s brother, Duke Richard of Normandy (the beginning of an Anglo-Norman dalliance that would have cataclysmic consequences further down the line). For the first time since the Anglo-Saxons had begun to record their own history, no scion of the house of Wessex – indeed, no ruler of any English royal dynasty – wielded power anywhere in Britain.

The invasions of Britain that came from Denmark and Norway in the eleventh century were important – sometimes shattering – events, but they were not the opportunistic raids of stateless warlords. Instead they were campaigns of conquest, led by powerful Christian kings at the head of well-equipped armies, raised and mobilized at the behest of rulers who were vastly more powerful than the Viking warlords of old. As the High Middle Ages began to dawn in Europe, a unified sense of Christian community and an increasingly homogeneous cultural identity – defined by Roman Christianity, Cistercian monasticism, Latin literacy and Frankish mounted warfare – was beginning to spread from its heartlands in France and Germany to every corner of Europe: from the Irish Sea to the Elbe, and from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. Kings, supported by a powerful military aristocracy and an all-pervasive Church, were becoming ever more powerful, their administrations more sophisticated and better funded. In the new world that was slowly crystallizing there was diminishing space in which the freebooting marauder could operate. For true Vikings of the old school, the late tenth and early eleventh centuries would be a final flourish: their way of life was dying out.

The northern world had also been changing rapidly, the circumstances in Scandinavia that had given rise to the Viking Age gradually evolving out of existence. Where once Scandinavian society had been dominated by local chieftains and tribal identities, the tenth century increasingly saw assertive dynasties and individuals establishing themselves as the ultimate source of secular power in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. In every case the transformation of Scandinavian society had been a long, slow and tumultuous process, one with its roots in the ninth century (if not earlier). Indeed, the disgruntlement and political upheaval the ambitions of kings generated is considered one of the catalysts for the multifarious seaborne phenomena that defined the Viking Age, a spur to the independent and the dispossessed to seek new lands and livings elsewhere.3 But, by the late tenth century, a measure of enhanced political stability had been, or was close to being, achieved across Scandinavia – in Denmark under the Jelling dynasty from c. 940, in Norway and Sweden towards the end of the century, and in further-flung outposts of the diaspora as well.4 The development of these kingdoms was not a linear one, and the shape of the future nations was by no means preordained (though geography played a decisive role), but the trajectory was inexorably towards political consolidation. This did not mean that the temptation for individuals to take to the seas in search of plunder and fame was snuffed out – far from it – but a new path had been set.

The earliest, and most dramatic, evidence of this process can be found in Denmark. Denmark was precocious among its Scandinavian peers – a result of its comparatively close relationship with continental (Frankish) European culture, religion and politics. Its kings were relatively swift to experiment with Christianity and coinage, and keen to adopt the ceremonial trappings of Roman-style kingship. Although we know little of the internal affairs of Denmark during the tenth century, the reigns of King Gorm the Old and particularly his son, Harald, seem to have been pivotal. When Gorm died he was buried in a wooden chamber constructed beneath a vast mound at Jelling (Jutland, Denmark), part of a remarkable ceremonial and religious complex that grew up around the burial in the decades after his death.5 The most celebrated part of this landscape is Gorm’s runestone. Erected, ostensibly, to celebrate Gorm’s life – an act of filial piety on the part of Harald, his son and successor – it is, in fact, rather more eloquent on the subject of Harald’s own hubris.


The crucifixion face of the Jelling runestone; Julius Magnus Petersen, 1869–71 (from Peder Goth Thorsen, De danske runemindesmærker, 1879, National Museum of Denmark)

‘King Haraldr’, the inscription runs, ‘bade that this monument be made in remembrance of Gormr his father and Thyrvé his mother. That’, the rune-carver elaborates, is the ‘Haraldr who won for himself the whole of Denmark and Norway and who made the Danes Christian’.

Harald Bluetooth, as he came to be known, was staking out his claim not only as the great unifier, but also as the bringer of salvation to his people. To underline his triumphs, both spiritual and earthly, the runestone is decorated with an image of the crucified Christ – not the suffering god, christus patiens, broken and lifeless, but a Christ triumphant, christus triumphans, with eyes wide open and body unflinching: resolute, heroic, undefeated. This is Christ as the Anglo-Saxons had imagined him in the decades following their own conversion: ‘eager to mount the gallows, unafraid in the sight of many […] the great King, liege lord of the heavens’.6 A suitable deity for warrior kings to embrace.

Harald’s reign in Denmark, and more generally the journey of Scandinavia towards the mainstream of European culture, is a fascinating subject which would require another book to do it proper justice. His most visible achievements included the construction of massive circular fortifications in Denmark at Fyrkat and Aggersborg (Jutland), Nonnebakken (Funen), Trelleborg (Zealand) and in what is now Sweden at Trelleborg (Skåne). Although the function is uncertain, the symmetrical planning and impressive defences point to a likely military or part-military rationale – at the very least, they speak of the impressive powers of organization and coercion that Harald wielded in the 980s. Similarly, the construction of a monumental timber bridge across the valley of the River Vejle saw the king preside over the expansion of infrastructure at a pitch of ambition and scale worthy of the Roman Empire; 820 yards of oak-timbered road constructed over the impassable marshlands of the river valley, broad enough at 16 feet in width for two horse-drawn vehicles to pass each other, supported on wooden piles up to 20 feet in length.

Neither the ring-forts nor the bridge seem to have much outlasted Harald, but the elevated idea of royal power they represented was much longer lived. Harald’s rule demonstrated and ensured that Danish kings had the power, and now the precedent, to mobilize men and resources on an unprecedented scale. And, while the projects that they pursued were still largely driven by their own private ambitions, it was becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish properly between personal and ‘national’ agenda: the interests of king and nation were becoming ever harder to disentangle.

This is certainly true of Svein Forkbeard’s conquest of England in 1013. The question of what motivated the Danish king’s desire for dominion in England remains a live one, and no credible account survives to explain his actions. The Encomium Emmae Reginae (‘in praise of Queen Emma’) – a broadly contemporary history commissioned in the 1040s, blatantly biased in favour of the Danish royal family – provides one possible answer. The Encomium suggests that Svein’s invasion was prompted by Thorkell the Tall’s decision, in 1012, to enter King Æthelred’s service as a mercenary after several years of terrorizing the English kingdom (earlier in the same year, Thorkell had been in charge of a group who had murdered Ælfheah, the archbishop of Canterbury, at Greenwich – beating him to death with an axe handle after pelting him with ‘bones and the heads of cattle’).7 This is possible – Thorkell was cutting an increasingly impressive figure in the early eleventh century, and Svein may well have seen him as a potential rival. But the Encomium is not a trustworthy source, and this part reads like a post hoc rationalization. Instead, Svein’s invasion was probably driven by opportunism. He was well aware of England’s impressive economic potential relative to his own kingdom. He had seen first hand the wealth that English kings were able to rustle up when they needed to – he himself had been a beneficiary. He also knew full well how militarily enfeebled England had become – he had wielded the axe himself on many an occasion. When the time came for Svein’s hostile takeover, the Danish king knew that he was pushing on an open door: behind it lay power and riches that dwarfed any returns that his own people could provide.

However, he did not have long to enjoy his new kingdom. Five weeks after becoming king of England, in early February 1014, Svein Forkbeard dropped dead. The cause of death remains a mystery, but by the twelfth century Anglo-Norman writers had hit upon a picturesque legend to account for what – at the time – must have seemed miraculous. As the chronicle of John of Worcester tells it, King Svein was busy carousing with his retinue of Danish warriors when he caught sight of a menacing armed figure approaching – a figure that no one but the king could see. ‘When he [Svein] had seen him,’ John explains, ‘he was terrified and began to shout very noisily, saying “Help, fellow-warriors, help! St Edmund is coming to kill me!” And while he was saying this he was run through fiercely by the saint with a spear, and fell from the stallion on which he sat, and, tormented with great pain until twilight, he ended his life with a wretched death on 3 February.’8 St Edmund, the East Anglian king martyred by Ivar and Ubbe in 870 (and memorialized in the East Anglian coinage of the early 900s), had appeared like Banquo to wreak his belated revenge.

This, I suppose, was reckoned to be a sort of poetic justice after more than two centuries of Viking harassment. If it is truly what contemporaries believed, however, the comfort it offered was short lived. Æthelred was restored to the throne, it being generally decided by the English magnates that ‘no lord was dearer to them than their natural lord’, but not before they had extracted a promise from him to ‘govern more justly than he did before’.9 And maybe that would have been the end of it – the English lords even promising to forswear Danish kings once and for all – had it not been for the fact that Svein’s son, Cnut, was still in England. And he was showing scant sign of wanting to go home.

Cnut’s campaign in England began in brutally defiant fashion. He sailed to Sandwich with the hostages provided to his father, put them ashore and had their hands and noses cut off. From that point onward, matters proceeded much as they had in the past. Æthelred once again stumped up tribute (£21,000 according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), and once again it failed to deter the attacks. Cnut’s armies menaced the coast of England and raided into Wessex, while at the same time exploiting the political divisions that Æthelred’s calamitous reign had failed to heal. The situation was, once again, spiralling out of control. Only Æthelred’s death would halt the decay and, probably much to the relief of many, he finally died after a short illness on St George’s Day (23 April) 1016. As the CDE chronicler unnecessarily reminded his readers, the king ended his days ‘after great labour and tribulations in his life’.10 It was the end of a protracted (and briefly interrupted) reign of thirty-eight years. It had been an uncomfortable time for all of his English subjects: Britons, Anglo-Saxons and Danes alike.

The man who replaced him, his son Edmund who according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle earned the sobriquet ‘Ironside’ for ‘his bravery’,11 was – from what little is known of him – a rather different proposition. Unlike his father, who hardly ever seems to have taken personal command of English armies, Edmund was a hands-on warlord. He immediately set about raising armies (as he had in fact tried to do, unsuccessfully, during his father’s decline) and led them into battle with tireless, relentless, resolve. The year 1016 proved to be a bruising year for everyone. Edmund beat Cnut at Penselwood (Somerset), and a clash at Sherston (Wiltshire) – though bitterly contested – ended inconclusively. Shortly afterwards, Edmund’s army drove the Danes away from London and defeated them again at Brentford (Middlesex) and Otford (Kent). It must have seemed that England finally had the champion it needed. But Edmund was to make a mistake in the aftermath of this last victory that would ultimately undo much of his good work. At a gathering at Aylesford (Kent) – perhaps in a fit of ofermod – he was reconciled with the Mercian ealdorman Eadric Streona – Eadric the Acquisitor.

Eadric Streona is the principal villain of eleventh-century England. Crowning a multitude of other reported perfidies (which included murder, pillage, appropriation of church lands and property, treachery, oath-breaking and obstruction, as well as a good proportion of the unræd whispered into King Æthelred’s earhole), Eadric defected to Cnut’s army in 1015 – despite his earlier marriage to Æthelred’s daughter Edith. He apparently embraced Cnutism with a convert’s zeal: according to John of Worcester, during the battle of Sherston, Eadric:

cut off the head of a certain man called Osmear, very like King Edmund in face and hair, and raising it aloft he shouted, saying that the English fought in vain: ‘You men of Dorset, Devon, Wiltshire, flee in haste, for you have lost your leader. Look, I hold here in my hands the head of your lord, King Edmund. Flee as fast you can.’

When the English perceived this they were appalled, more by the horror at the action than by any trust in the announcer.12

If true (and it may well not be), this was pretty appalling stuff. Nevertheless, whatever his crimes, it seems that Edmund decided at Aylesford that it was better to keep Eadric close than leave him outside the tent. It was probably a sound policy – had Eadric been left in the cold he could well have rejoined Cnut or else followed an agenda all of his own; Edmund certainly didn’t need a powerful loose cannon threatening his supply chain and his home front. In hindsight, however, it is easy to agree with the E chronicler’s verdict that there ‘was not a more ill-advised decision [unræd geræd] than this was’,13 and ultimately Edmund probably wished that he had acted otherwise. When the decisive battle came – at a place called ‘Assandun’ (probably Ashingdon in Essex, but possibly Ashdon in the same county), ‘Ealdorman Eadric’, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle wearily relates, ‘did as he had often done before, and was the first to start the flight with the Magonsæte [the people of western Mercia]; thus he betrayed his royal lord and all the English people.’14 The description of the battle provided in the Encomium is more vivid, if rather less reliable. The Encomiast has Eadric announce: ‘Let us flee, oh comrades, and snatch our lives from imminent death, or else we shall fall forthwith, for I know the hardihood of the Danes.’ The Encomiast also repeats the belief – apparently current at the time, and no less believable now – that ‘he did this not out of fear but in guile; and what many assert is that he had promised this secretly to the Danes in return for some favour’.15

Despite its pro-Cnut bias, the Encomium gave a respectful account of King Edmund’s deeds. The words attributed to him are heroic (‘Oh Englishmen, to-day you will fight or surrender yourselves all together. Therefore, fight for your liberty and your country, men of understanding’) and his actions valiant (‘he advanced into the midst of the enemy, cutting down Danes on all sides, and by this example rendering his noble followers more inclined to fight’).16 The fighting, according to the Encomium, lasted from morning until after darkness fell. ‘And if the shining moon had not shown which was the enemy, every man would have cut down his comrade, thinking he was an adversary resisting him, and no man would have survived on either side, unless he had been saved by flight.’17 English history now hinged on the outcome of this one battle. A decisive victory for Edmund – particularly one that led to the death of Cnut – would have changed the course of history. But, in the end, ‘the English, turning their backs, fled without delay on all sides, ever falling before their foes, and added glory to the honour of Knútr [Cnut] and to his victory’.18 The exhausted Danish warriors, ‘rejoicing in their triumph, passed the remainder of the night amongst the bodies of the dead’. When morning came, they stripped the vanquished of their arms and weapons, but left the bodies where they lay – a carrion feast for the ‘beasts and birds’.19

Cnut’s own poets summed up this victory in a few concise words of praise, the conquest of a nation boiled down to a vision of dark wings fluttering over a field stained black with blood:

‘Mighty king, you performed a feat under shield at Assatún(ir); the blood-crane [raven] received dark carrion.’ Cnut had won back his father’s briefly held throne. The human cost – for the English and the Danes alike – had been terrible.

Runestones stud the Scandinavian countryside, the vast majority in Sweden. Irregular grey monoliths, jutting from the grass like crooked teeth, many still stand in the open air, defying time and weather as the world changes round them. Cut with knotted serpents and angular runes, they frequently carry the sign of the cross, the unmistakable branding of the increasingly ubiquitous faith of the northern world. These are not the exotic remnants of a pagan age, but monuments of the new world that was forming in the early eleventh century, memorials to those who died in the age of Cnut. Of all the stones that are known today, a group of thirty are referred to as the ‘England runestones’, monuments whose inscriptions make explicit reference to the exploits of these late-period Vikings in England, giving names to the people who helped to shape eleventh-century Britain.20Some refer to the payments received by individuals – a record of the wealth that was wrung from the English in those brutal years. Áli, for example, was evidently a forward planner: he ‘had his stone raised in memory of himself. He took Knútr’s payment in England. May God help his spirit.’21Perhaps he invested some of his new-found silver in this shameless act of self-promotion.

Other inscriptions are even more specific, setting in stone particular events that are chronicled in English sources. A stone at Yttergärde in Uppland (Sweden), erected by two men called Karse and Kalbjörn in memory of their father, Ulf, records that ‘Ulf has taken three payments in England. That was the first that Tosti paid. Then Thorkell paid. Then Cnut paid.’22 ‘Tosti’ was probably a man identified by Snorri as Sköglar-Tosti, father-in-law to both Svein Forkbeard and the Swedish king, Eric the Victorious.23 ‘Thorkell’ was Thorkell the Tall, whose exploits deprived the English of £48,000 in 1012. Cnut, of course, needs no explanation. It was men like Ulf who were the beneficiaries of England’s years of pain.

More rarely, runic inscriptions provide a glimpse of the Scandinavians who died in Cnut’s England: ‘Sveinn and Þorgautr made this monument in memory of Manni and Sveini,’ an inscription on a stone in Scania (Sweden) runs. ‘May God help their souls well. And they lie in London.’24Stunning archaeological evidence for the presence of an eleventh-century migrant community in London was discovered in 1852 in the graveyard of St Paul’s Cathedral. A stone, decorated in the Scandinavian Ringerike style with an elaborate backwards-turning beast, once painted in colours of red, white and black, carries a runic inscription down one edge: ‘Ginna and Toki had this stone set up.’ For whom, we will never know. The gravestone can be seen now in the Museum of London, beside a display of the Viking axes that have been dragged from the stinking mud of the River Thames at low tide – the debris scattered where wave after wave of violence had broken, crashing on the walls of the city that held out until the bitter end.

Most of the Scandinavians who died in England, however, remain nameless, though the manner of their deaths is sometimes laid horribly bare. In 2009, during the initial stages of the construction of the Weymouth Relief Road in Dorset, a grave was discovered on the downs. The skulls were found first, a pile of yellowing husks, forty-seven heads tossed haphazardly into a pit. The bodies were found later, fifty-two headless corpses heaped naked one upon the other – a charnel tangle of ribs and femurs jutting from the earth. Analysis of the remains revealed that the heads had been hacked off with swords. The killing had been hard work – many hands and blades had laboured over it, often it had taken multiple blows to sever the vertebrae, and sometimes the aim of the killers had been poor or hasty, shearing through skulls and faces, blood staining the white chalk in crimson torrents. It would have taken hours. The five heads that were missing from the grave might well have been the only memorial for these men – taken and rammed on to wooden stakes (heofod stoccan) and set up to watch sightlessly from the hills.

Analysis of the skeletal remains revealed that all of the people who died here were men, aged mostly between their teens and early adulthood, and that they had died in the years around 1000. Only five of them might have grown up in Britain, the rest came from Scandinavia and the Baltic, from Iceland, Russia and Belarus, from the Arctic and the sub-Arctic, from every corner of the Viking North. They had come to Britain and they had died in England, though what had brought them here, and who did this to them, remains a mystery. The men who died were not professional fighters – their bones show no evidence of wounds gained and healed, of the stresses and strains of a life of battle. Some in fact seem to have suffered from debilitating illness and disability. Perhaps these were people who came to England to seek their fortune, tempted by the silver they had seen flowing north, by stories of adventure and the weakness of the English, lured by the runestones that boasted of payments in the service of famous and mighty lords. All they found was death.25

The identities of these people will never be known, but someone, somewhere, must have grieved for them. A sad stone in Norway records that ‘Arnsteinn raised this stone in memory of Bjórr his son who died in the retinue when Knútr attacked England.’26 Perhaps Bjórr was a hardened warrior who came to grief in the thick of battle; or perhaps he was a mere boy, hacked to death before his adventure even began.

Edmund survived the battle of Assandun long enough to negotiate a peace with the victorious Danish king. They may have fought again in the Forest of Dean (depending on how a skaldic reference to a battle at Danaskógar is interpreted),27 but all sources agree that the parties then met for talks at a place called Olanige (‘Ola’s Island’) near Deerhurst in Gloucestershire. According to a later tradition, the two kings were transported to this island in the River Severn where they engaged in single combat – a royal hólmgang to determine the fate of the kingdom. However improbable it may seem, there is no way of knowing whether anything like this really happened. I like to imagine that it did – the two great warriors slugging it out alone, as though two and a quarter centuries of conflict and compromise had been distilled down to this single scene: the young kings of Wessex and of Denmark, the Anglo-Saxon and the Dane, wrestling for the soul of England as the olive-green waters passed slowly by. Whatever the reality, a settlement was ultimately reached. Tribute payment was agreed (the astronomical figure of £72,000 was collected in 1018), oaths were made and hostages were given by both sides. And Edmund was to keep his throne, retaining his familial lands and rule over Wessex; Cnut was to receive Mercia (as well as, presumably, East Anglia and Northumbria). England, so recently assembled, was to be partitioned once more.

That was the idea. As things turned out, however, the details proved academic. Edmund died on 30 November 1016, the third English king (including Svein) to have died in two years. In 1017 ‘King Cnut succeeded to the whole kingdom of England.’28 Edmund’s sudden and unexplained death has always smelled suspicious. If it wasn’t murder, it was certainly convenient for Cnut. A later tradition, first recorded by the Norman historian Henry of Huntingdon in the early twelfth century, had Edmund suffering an unseemly end, shot up the arse with a crossbow while enthroned upon the privy.29 It is, happily for Edmund’s posthumous dignity, unlikely to be true.

Cnut’s first actions as king were probably the most radical of his reign. He divided England into four great earldoms that corresponded to the four ancient realms of Wessex (which he governed directly himself, at least to begin with), Mercia (which was given, briefly, to Eadric Streona), East Anglia (given to Thorkell the Tall, who had reconciled with Cnut in 1015) and Northumbria (which was put under the authority of the Norwegian, Eric Hákonarson). The title ‘earl’ (OE eorl) was an Anglicization of the Old Norse title jarl, and it was introduced into English at this time, a new rung of power between the existing English nobility and the king. Cnut also took the opportunity to raise the enormous tax agreed at Olanige, crush a number of dissenting English noblemen, and – in what may have been a more popular move – have Eadric Streona killed at London and thrown over the city wall. This was done, according to the Encomium, in order that ‘retainers should learn from this example to be faithful, not faithless, to their kings’.30

Cnut would rule England until his death in 1035, and his sons Harald and Harthacnut until 1042. For the twenty-five years that the Knýtlinga (the house of Cnut) ruled England, the latent Scandinavian influences – already so prominent in the north and east of the country – became a part of mainstream English culture. During those years, England would lie at the heart of a North Sea empire that swelled to include Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden, and exert claims of lordship over the Norse-speaking communities of the Northern and Western Isles of Britain. Old Norse was spoken at the royal court at Winchester, Scandinavian warlords ruled as earls in what had once been Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and Scandinavians could have runestones raised to them in the graveyard of St Paul’s Cathedral. Objects like the gilded bronze brooch found in Pitney in Somerset – hardly an epicentre of Viking settlement – demonstrate the convergence of late Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon art-styles in places that may have experienced little direct contact with speakers of Old Norse before the reign of Cnut. Likewise, a remarkable monument stone from Bibury in Gloucestershire was carved in the Ringerike style, leonine faces on weird twisting necks sprouting from its base like flowers seeking the sun.

Even after the West Saxon dynasty had been restored in the person of Edward the Confessor, many of these influences remained deeply entrenched. England’s last ‘Anglo-Saxon’ king, Harold Godwineson, had a Norse name (Haraldr) and a Danish mother, as did his brothers Tostig, Svein and Gyrth. Even the great double-handed axes, wielded to devastating effect by so many English warriors in the Bayeux Tapestry’s telling of the battle of Hastings, were a Scandinavian import – horse-killing weapons developed in Denmark to stop the Frankish cavalry that was increasingly dominating the continent.

And yet it was at this moment, at the very zenith of Scandinavian influence and power in England, that the Vikings as they had been would begin to fade away.

In some ways, Cnut was the most awesome Viking of them all – a Danish king whose longships bound together a maritime empire through fear and force, and whose skalds composed bloodthirsty eulogies about his victories – just as his ancestors had done. But, in other, perhaps more important ways, Cnut was not a Viking at all. A Danish aristocrat like his father, Cnut was king of England before he was ever a king in Scandinavia (he became king of Denmark in 1018 and of Norway in 1028), and he spent considerable time in Britain. He was emphatically Christian, and in his laws, his coinage, his self-depiction and his generosity to the Church, he presented himself as the quintessential Anglo-Saxon king. He made a point of reconfirming the laws of Edgar and even married the late King Æthelred’s queen, Emma – it was at the behest of their son Harthacnut (king of England, 1040–2) that her Encomium was later written.31

The Liber Vitae of New Minster and Hyde Abbey is a book, produced at the beginning of the 1030s, which records donations to the New Minster at Winchester, the church built by Edward the Elder, and which housed the bones of his father, King Alfred. Among its pages is an extraordinary illustration – produced while the king and queen were still alive – of Cnut and Emma presenting an enormous altar cross to the New Minster. Christ and St Peter hover overhead, and an angel places a crown upon Cnut’s brow. He stands on the altar steps, at the threshold of the Middle Ages, looking every inch the ideal monarch of a new era. The heathen warlords of the ninth and tenth centuries had gone, and although Scandinavians would continue to bother the British Isles for a century or more, there would be no going back. The world had moved on.

When he died, Cnut was buried at the Old Minster, the venerable church that the New Minster had been constructed to replace. He had earlier, in an expression of a curious affection that Cnut seems to have held for his one-time rival, had the remains of King Edmund Ironside translated there in 1032. Harthacnut, his son by Emma, was buried in the New Minster there in 1042, and his long-lived wife Emma in 1052. In the church next door, separated by a few feet, lay King Alfred and his wife, Ealhswith, their sons Edward (the Elder) and Æthelweard, and Edward’s son Ælfweard. For years the house of Wessex and the house of Cnut slumbered on in their separate mausolea – similar but distinct, separated by walls and clear green grass. But as the centuries passed and the old churches tumbled, to be replaced by the great gothic cathedral that still stands in Winchester, the royal tombs were moved – Alfred’s family to the monastery at Hyde, and Cnut’s family along with a number of others (including Edmund and, perhaps, the tenth-century King Eadred) to the cathedral where they would lie alongside the remains of Anglo-Saxon bishops and Norman princes for hundreds of years.

There they remained until 1642, when soldiers fighting for the Parliamentary army in the English Civil War broke into the cathedral. These men, ‘for whom nothing is holy, nothing is Sacred, did not stick to profane, and violate these Cabinets of the dead, and to scatter their bones all over the pavements of the Church’. The stained-glass windows ‘they brake to pieces, by throwing at them, the bones of Kings, Queens, Bishops, Confessors and Saints’.32 In 1661, in an attempt to remedy the chaos, ‘the bones of princes and prelates scattered by sacrilegious barbarism’ were ‘brought together again mixed up’ and deposited in the chests that still sit atop the walls of the choir.33 Subsequent investigations in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries revealed total disorder: a hopeless jumble of mortal remains.

New DNA research offers the slender possibility of bringing some sense to it all. But for the time being the puzzle remains unsolved, a physical expression of what England by the end of the eleventh century had become. Anglo-Saxons and Danes, hopelessly muddled together in death, impossible now to tell apart.



The death of the second of Cnut’s sons, Harthacnut, in 1041 and the re-establishment of the house of Wessex (in the person of Edward the Confessor) by no means spelled the end of Scandinavian Britain or, indeed, of the Viking Age.

In the north and west, particularly in the island strongholds of Orkney, Shetland, Man and the Hebrides, Viking lordships endured and prospered long into the Middle Ages, exerting a decisive influence on Scottish history for centuries. The Lords of the Isles (Man and the Western Isles) remained independent from Scotland until 1266 (there was a brief period of direct rule from Norway in the late eleventh century that followed the intervention of King Magnus Barefoot). The earldom of Orkney – the polity established in Caithness and the Northern Isles through Scandinavian settlement from the ninth century onwards – was even longer lived; Orkney and Shetland remained a part of the kingdom of Norway until 1467 and 1468 respectively. But, no matter how vitally entangled this northern fringe of Britain was with Scandinavian politics, or how deeply penetrated by Scandinavian culture, language and people, these lordships only emerge into historical view in the late eleventh century, their origins and their development obscure.1

The earldom of Orkney, in particular, presents something of a conundrum. The eradication of almost all traces of pre-Scandinavian (Pictish) place-names, language and material culture on the islands has given rise to a suggestion that the settlement of these North Sea outposts was carried on a wave of genocidal migration. Others have stressed the absence of secure chronology, the uncertainties of earlier population size and density, the many centuries of continuing migration and influence from Scandinavia. The evidence is equivocal, though the pride the islanders take in their Viking heritage remains palpable. For these parts of Britain, as for much of England, the Viking Age never really ended. Nobody packed up their battle-axes and Thor’s-hammer amulets and went ‘home’. These Viking Age immigrants may have imported new ideas and new identities, making accommodations of various kinds with their neighbours, but they were – certainly by the eleventh century – as British as anyone else in these islands.

Scandinavian raids also continued, though they remained the province of kings rather than freebooters. The failed invasion of England in 1066 by the Norwegian king Harald Harðráði (‘Hard-ruler’) was only one of many. In 1069, in the aftermath of the Norman conquest of England, the Danish king Svein Estridsson (r. 1047–76) captured York in alliance with the last viable member of the West Saxon dynasty (Edgar the Ætheling). William the Conqueror paid him to go away. (In 1075 he came back again for a quick pillage.) Svein’s grandson, Cnut IV (r. 1080–6), was keen to keep up this national pastime, and readied a fleet to invade England in 1085. His people were less enthusiastic, however, and refused to serve; when he tried to round them up a second time they chased him into a church and stabbed him to death. Even in the mid-twelfth century, Scandinavian kings sometimes felt the temptation to harass the shores of Britain. The Norwegian king Eystein Haraldsson (r. 1142–57) led a fleet that menaced Orkney, Scotland and northern England in the 1150s during the reign of King Stephen.

Should these be considered Viking raids? Perhaps they should, although – in the end – all attempts to define the limits of the Viking Age dissolve into fruitless semantic arguments. What is perhaps better to acknowledge is that, by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the literary idea of the Viking – the image that would shape and colour perception of the Age until the present – was being born, both in Iceland’s saga literature and in fanciful Anglo-Norman tales like that of Havelok the Dane. The creation of literary tropes and fantastical tales depended, to some degree, on a critical distance from the world these works sought to describe. It was a past that had become safe to romanticize precisely because it was over.

The Vikings had changed Britain, that is without doubt. But Britain had also changed the Vikings – transforming them until it seemed that they were gone for ever. One of my goals in writing this book has been to try to show them as less monolithic than they are popularly presented as – more susceptible to the influence of their environments and of the people and ideas they encountered. But they were also a vital force: agents of change who transformed the world they moved through, even if they sometimes lost themselves in the process, emerging only as a shadow, a figure of legend to be put back together in new shapes. It has also been my goal to share the stunning legacy of their world, to illuminate to those who may never have encountered it the breadth and depth of the footprint that they have left in Britain, and to allow their story to serve as a reminder that culture, identity and ethnicity are often more complex and contestable than we might imagine.

I have also tried to steer a course that, though it recognizes the debt we owe to Viking culture and the impact of these events and processes on British history, does not diminish the strangeness of the people who fashioned the Viking Age. They were not ‘just like us’: there is more to being human than using coins or wearing shoes, and mundane things do not readily reveal how people felt, thought and dreamt. But we can still stand where they stood, and feel the grass under our feet and know that they felt it, and taste the sea-breeze on our tongues and know that they tasted it. And when we wait by the shoreline, with the sun dipping like blood into the west and the breakers crashing on the strand, we can still hear their voices singing with the tide, the grinding of keels on the shingle.

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