Today (18 October 2016) is the 1,000th anniversary of the oft-forgotten Battle of Assandun and a brief period of Viking dominion in England. We look at the events of 1016 and the battle itself as well as considering how this encounter helped set in motion the twists and turns that would culminate in the rather more famous Battle of Hastings 50 years later.
The last time that England had been seriously threatened by the Vikings was in the ninth century, with the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms all falling to Viking conquest until only Wessex was left. Alfred the Great was infamously reduced to hiding in a swamp and burning cakes until he emerged triumphant to defeat the Vikings at the Battle of Edington in 878 and started the process towards creating a united Anglo-Saxon England.
Alfred’s dream was completed by his successors, with an almost unbroken run of success leading to the Vikings being removed as a serious threat. By the reign of Edgar the Peaceable (959-75), Anglo-Saxon England was enjoying something of a golden age, with Edgar so dominant he never needed to go to war, protected by a giant navy patrolling England’s coast against any potential invader.
However, there was a rather dramatic reversal of fortunes with the reign of Edgar’s younger son, Aethelraed the Unready. The experienced leaders who had ruled the country so well for the past few decades died (most notably the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dunstan) and the country started to be beset by internal divisions and court politics. More seriously, the Vikings were back, but now no longer in the form of disparate raiders but an increasingly united front as Sweyn Forkbeard established himself as King of Denmark.
From 991 and the Battle of Maldon, the Saxons were paying the Vikings the Danegeld (essentially money to make them go away) but eventually Sweyn decided to cut out the middle man and invaded for real. In 1013, Aethelraed was forced into exile and Sweyn became king, only to die a few weeks later (allegedly scared to death by the ghost of a martyred Saxon king) and Aethelraed was able to return. However, the Viking threat was still alive in the form of Sweyn’s son, Cnut. Initially forced to leave England, Cnut (aged somewhere between 18-21) returned with an army of c. 10,000 men in 200 longships and it looked like the Viking conquest was set to be confirmed.
The War of 1016
The odds looked very much in Cnut’s favour. Aethelraed had proved distinctly unable to deal with the Viking threat over the last twenty years, either making grand preparations only to see them fall apart or preferring to appease the Vikings with money. What’s more, his court was deeply divided, particularly between his chief advisor, the slippery Eadric Streona, and his hotheaded son, Edmund Ironside. If the Saxons had been unable to stand up to the Vikings before, it hardly looked like they would do so now in face of such a formidable force:
“There were so many kinds of shields, that you could have believed that troops of all nations were present. Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed on the variously shaped ships. For who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold, who upon the men of metal, menacing with golden face, who upon the bulls on the ships threatening death, their horns shining with gold, without feeling any fear for the king of such a force?”
(Encomium Emmae Reginae)
There was a certain inevitability about the way that the invasion proceeded. Eadric Streona abandoned Aethelraed and joined Cnut, along with about 40 ships, as did a mighty Viking warrior in Aethelraed’s service, Thorkell the Tall. Cnut ravaged the royal heartlands of Wessex (the south of England) before moving up to Mercia (the midlands). Edmund Ironside tried to provide resistance, but Aethelraed went back to London in despair and the army refused to fight without their king present.
However, the Saxons then enjoyed a piece of good fortune when Aethelraed the Unready died in London on 23 April 1016 (St George’s Day, though that was not a “thing” in 1016!). As a result, Edmund Ironside was elected the new king and added some much needed impetus and drive to the defence of England. Cnut came south to besiege London but Edmund had managed to slip out in time and headed to Wessex to raise an army. The fightback was on.
Edmund Ironside (a near-contemporary epithet due to his “valour” in resisting the Vikings) was clearly the determined and inspiring leader that the Saxons had needed and the next few months saw a serious of small-scale (but hard-fought) encounters between Ironside and the Vikings. The first two encounters (Penselwood in Somerset and Sherston in Wiltshire) do not seem to have been decisive for either side, though for the Saxons the defeats had at least been seen off. More significant was his success in relieving the siege of London, driving the Vikings out and then defeating them in battle at Brentford. Heavy losses forced him back to Wessex to raise another army and allowed the Vikings to resume their siege, but Edmund was soon back to drive them out again and defeat them at Otford (Kent).
It now seemed that Edmund Ironside was an Alfred in the making – with two victories to his name, the tide looked like it might be turning. Ever the opportunist, Eadric Streona now came back to the Saxons along with vital troops. If Edmund Ironside could just inflict one great defeat on Cnut, the war could be over.
The Battle of Assandun
Perhaps one of the difficulties with the remembrance of the battle is that historians are still unsure about where it actually took place. It is common for there to be a degree of uncertainty about battle locations (even Hastings has seen its exact location continue to be debated in recent years) but for Assandun, even the town is uncertain. The battle definitely took place in Essex, but it is not clear whether it was at Ashingdon (near Rochford in the south of the county) or Ashdon (near Saffron Walden in the north), though Ashingdon tends to be the favoured site.
Either way, Edmund Ironside pursued Cnut and his army as they were returning to their ships after ravaging Mercia. Unlike the Battle of Hastings, we do not have such a rich series of primary sources describing the battle (certainly nothing as vivid as the Bayeux Tapestry) so it is not clear of what size were the armies or how the battle came to take place. However, there are contemporary accounts (both Saxon and Viking) which agree on the finer details: the Vikings won, the Saxons suffered heavy casualties and Eadric Streona betrayed Edmund Ironside.
Firstly, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
“Then Eadric the Ealdorman did as he had so often done before, and first began the flight with the Maisevethians, and so betrayed his king and lord and all the English nation. There Cnut had the victory, though all England fought against him.”
It goes on to lament the various leading figures who fell in the battle, which it describes as “all the best of the English nation”. It is interesting that the pro-Cnut source the Encomium Emmae Reginae (commissioned by Cnut’s later wife) supports this account, describing Eadric as convincing his troops to flee the battle “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.” Edmund, in contrast, is credited with giving an heroic speech before the battle in which the Saxons would be utterly defeated.
Aftermath of the Battle
Not “all” the best of England had fallen in the battle as Edmund Ironside himself survived, though wounded (perhaps mortally). Perhaps hoping to link up with allies in Wales, Edmund went west and was pursued by Cnut to the Forest of Dean, where they met and came to a settlement. Reminiscent of Alfred and Guthrum in 878, Edmund Ironside would keep the south (effectively Wessex) while Cnut would have Mercia and Northumbria, and when one of them died the other would become king of the whole country.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Edmund Ironside was the first to die – just over a month later on 30 November. Possibly he died from his wounds, possibly he was poisoned – the most remembered account is that he was impaled from below with a spike while sitting on the toilet. Cnut was certainly ruthless and perfectly happy to kill off his rivals but he seems to have been rather in awe of Edmund (a good five or six years his senior). He even visited his tomb on the anniversary of his death and laid a cloak decorated with peacocks on his grave to assist his salvation (peacocks representing resurrection). The man blamed for the murder was Eadric Streona, who would eventually be murdered himself by Cnut (according to some sources because he found out that Eadric had killed Ironside).
Unlike William the Conqueror fifty years later, Cnut would portray himself as the model Anglo-Saxon king, with his conquest representing a more peaceful merger rather than a foreign culture being imposed on the native population. He was the most powerful king of the age, ruling England, Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden. However, just fifty years later there would be another conquest of England, with both Viking and Saxon dynasties ousted by the Normans. So, how did we get from 1016 to 1066?
The Road to Hastings
The events of 1016 (and the previous two decades of Viking raids) were momentous in and of themselves, but they would always set off a series of chain reactions that would help to shape the famous events of 1066.
Perhaps most importantly, Assandun and the preceding years dealt a massive blow to the Saxon royal line. This would have been irrelevant with the Vikings happily sat on the throne, but Cnut and his sons did not win many points for longevity, with Cnut still in his 30’s when he died in 1035 and by 1042 all three of his sons were dead (two of whom, Harold Harefoot and Harthcnut, succeeded him as king of England). This resulted in the return of the royal Saxons but unfortunately there weren’t many of them left. Aethelraed was survived by four sons: Edmund Ironside took a spike up the bottom, and his infant sons were sent into distant exile and forgotten about; Eadwig was murdered by Cnut, and Alfred was murdered during the reign of Harold Harefoot.
By 1042, Edward the Confessor was the only one of Aethelraed’s sons left and he proved unable to have children. In 1056, however, Edward learned that one of Edmund Ironside’s sons, Edward the Exile, was still alive at the royal court in Hungary. He was recalled to England to become the Confessor’s heir but almost as soon as he arrived in 1057 he died and his son, Edgar the Aetheling, was too young and isolated to be acclaimed as king in 1066. Had they been at the English court throughout the 1040s-50s, it is hard to imagine there being any question of who would succeed but instead, cast adrift after Assandun, they returned too late to be in the reckoning.
But still, even though Edgar was young and isolated, he was of royal blood whereas the three competitors for the crown in 1066 (Harold Godwinson – Saxon; Harald Hardrada – Viking; William the Conqueror – Norman) were not. So why were these men able to stake a claim when Edgar was made to sit it out on the sidelines?
Again, the answers lie in the fall-out from 1016 and the years of the Viking raids. Harold Godwinson was the son of, not surprisingly, a man called Godwin, who is thought to have fought alongside Cnut at the Battle of Assandun, rising quickly through the ranks and becoming the most powerful noble in the land. It was Godwin who killed Aethelraed’s son Alfred in 1036 and during the reign of Edward the Confessor he put his sons into prominent roles and even married his daughter to Edward (a marriage which, crucially, resulted in no children) Harold Godwinson was effectively running the country in the later years of Edward the Confessor and it is possible that he may have had Edward the Exile murdered in 1057 in order to maintain his own hopes at taking the throne in the absence of a true heir.
Harald Hardrada had an even more tenuous claim to the throne, but it was just as dependent on Cnut’s victory in 1016 for it to exist. Before becoming King of England, Cnut’s son Harthacnut was struggling to keep control of Norway and made a deal with Magnus I of Norway that (similar to Edmund Ironside and Cnut) when one of them died, the other would inherit the other’s territory. At the time, this should have just referred to Norway and Denmark but Magnus chose to use this to claim the English throne as well. When he died in 1047, Hardrada took his throne and had the audacity to continue his incredibly indirect claim to the English throne in 1066! His intervention would be crucial, as Harold Godwinson was forced to race north to defeat Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, leaving the south of England open to invasion.
Lastly, of course, is the man who would be the victor of Hastings in 1066 – William the Conqueror. The Normans were actually Viking in origin, having settled in France in 911, and had continued to provide tacit support to the Viking raiders at the end of the century. In a bid to put a stop to this and get them on side, Aethelraed took as his second wife Emma of Normandy, the sister of Duke Richard II of Normandy. As such, Normandy was brought into English affairs, not least when Aethelraed and Emma took refuge there in 1013-14 with Sweyn Forkbeard’s brief conquest. More significantly, after 1016, Emma’s sons by Aethelraed (Alfred and Edward the Confessor) were exiled to Normandy. Edward the Confessor therefore spent his formative years in Normandy and had a good relationship with his mother’s grand-nephew, William. Indeed, Edward is said to have recognised him as his heir in 1051 (perhaps in a bid to see off the Godwinsons).
So, in 1066 three incredibly unlikely candidates for the throne would fight four battles in the most famous year of English history, resulting in the Norman Conquest after William’s victory at the Battle of Hastings. And none of them, realistically, would ever have come close to being king without the events leading up to 1016 and the Battle of Assandun. It was the Viking raids which led to Aethelraed marrying Emma of Normandy and bringing Normandy into English affairs for the first time (ironically his failed attempt to prevent a Viking conquest also lay the foundations for the Norman conquest!). It was Cnut’s victory that would see the Saxon royal line largely wiped out or scattered across Europe, with one Saxon prince brought up as a Norman and the other too distant to be accepted on his return. Even a seemingly innocuous peace treaty in Norway would result in the last great Viking, Hardrada, finding a way to muscle in.
And yet in 1016, having relieved London and inflicted two defeats on Cnut, Edmund Ironside came so close to matching the heroics of Alfred the Great and defeating the Vikings. Had he triumphed at Assandun, had Eadric Streona not betrayed him, there would be no Hastings to remember and Assandun would have marked the rebirth of Anglo-Saxon England.