|Christening of Harald Bluetooth|
Exactly where in Denmark and when Cnut[i] was born is not known. His father was Swein Forkbeard, a son of Harald Bluetooth, King of Denmark. In 987 Swein made himself king of Denmark following the death of his father. In his teens Swein had married a sister of the Polish king and she changed her name to Gunnhilde. She is possibly Cnut’s mother and the year of 995 is a compromise date for Cnut’s birth.
In company with Olaf Tryggvason[ii], Swein attacked London in 994 and the army overwintered in Southampton, returning to the attack in 995. They collected £16,000[iii] in Danegeld.
‘Olaf and Swein came to London on the Nativity of St. Mary, with ninety-four ships, fighting constantly the city, and they meant, moreover, to set it on fire. But they there suffered more harm and evil than they ever believed any town-dwellers could have done them.’[iv]
Olaf and Swein moved on to bring fire and death to the coastal lands of Essex, Kent, Mercia and Hampshire, returning to pillage again in 1003 and 1004. They attacked Norwich in retaliation for a massacre of Danes the previous year.
20th Century impression of Erik praying to Odin
It is possible that Swein went into exile during the period when Erik of Sweden invaded Denmark[v]. He returned to Denmark only on Erik’s death in 995 and married Erik’s widow Sigrid Storrada[vi].
Sigrid Storrada and Olaf Trygvasson
‘Destroyer of the chariot of the sea, you were of no great age when you pushed off your ships. Never, younger than you, did prince set out to take his part in war. Chief, you made ready your arrowed ships and were daring beyond measure. In your rage Knutr, you mustered the red shields at sea.’[viii]This would imply that Cnut was very young when he first learnt the art of war. It is postulated that Cnut was fostered by Thurkil the Tall[ix]; the Viking in command of the troops at Jomsburg, on the Vistula. He and Cnut had a long and tempestuous relationship and the practice of sending children off to be raised in other noble households was just beginning.
In 1013 Cnut accompanied Swein Forkbeard to England, at the head of a huge invasion fleet. The Northumbrians and the men of the Danelaw speedily submitted to Swein. To retain the loyalties of the men of the north, Swein married Cnut to Aelfgyfu of Northampton, the daughter of Aelfhelm, the Aeldorman of southern NorthumbriaWithin weeks Swein was in control of Wessex and Mercia, as well as Northumbria. King Aethelred[x].sent his wife Emma[xi], and their sons to safety in Normandy[xii]. Later in the year Aethelred followed them. Swein was now de facto ruler of England, but five weeks after Aethelred’s flight Swein died on 3rd February 1014. The Encomium Emmae[xiii] states that Swein left England to his son Cnut.
Queen Emma and her sons
Following Swein’s death, Aetheldred returned to England and the relatively inexperienced Cnut withdrew with his father’s home[xiv], where his brother Harald[xv] had succeeded to the throne of Denmark. Cnut took Aelfgyfu and his young son Svein Knuttson[xvi] back with him to Denmark. Aelgyfu became pregnant again during this period and in 1015 or 1016 had a second son Harold Harefoot[xvii].
Returning to EnglandCnut returned to England in the summer of 1015. He landed in a country where the balance of power had been brutally changed. At a great council gathered in Oxford, Eadric Strona of Mercia had organised the murder of two of the leading thanes of the Danelaw.
‘Ealdorman[xviii] Eadric betrayed Sigeferth and Morcaer, the most senior thanes in the Seven Boroughs. He deceived them into coming to his chamber, and they were basely killed.’[xix]
The victims’ estates were seized by King Aethelred The widow of one of the victims was forcibly carried off by Eathelred’s son Edmund[xx], in defiance of his father. He took Ealdgyth to the northern Danelaw where he appropriated the dead men’s estates.
Cnut’s fleet landed briefly at Sandwich and finally landed at Poole.
At the same time, King Cnut came to Sandwich, went quickly around Kent into Wessex, until he came to the mouth of the Frome, and ravaged then in Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset.’[xxi]While the crews of Cnut’s ships ravaged Mercia, Eadric Strona was raising troops. But he soon took service with Cnut and within four months Cnut was in control of Wessex with the Eoldermen of Mercia under his command.
At the end of the year Cnut and Eadric Strona crossed the Thames and raided up into Warwickshire.
‘Cnut came with his force, and Ealdorman Eadric with him, across the Thames into Mercia at Cricklade. They went into Warwickshire during the season of Christmas, and ravaged, burnt and killed all they came across.’[xxii]The Eaoldormen of England combined against the threat posed by Cnut, with a force collected by Edmund in the northern Danelaw. They attacked Mercia and in retaliation Cnut attacked the now unprotected Danelaw lands. His troops harried the countryside up into Northumbria, where Earl Uhtred hurriedly submitted[xxiii].
With the north under his command Cnut was now ready to attack the more heavily defended southern shires of England. He travelled south, avoiding Edmund and his army and reached his base in Wessex, where he ordered his fleet to transfer to the Thames. At this clear signal that an attack on London was imminent Edmund dropped his dispute with his father Aethelred; joining him to defend London.King of England
On 23rd April 1016 King Aethelred died and those gathered to defend London elected Edmund as his successor. A few days later an assembly of Ealdormen and soldiers from across England met at Southampton and elected Cnut as king.Edmund’s first priority as king was to bring Wessex back under his control and this he duly did. But this laid London open to Cnut, whose attempts to besiege the city were initially thwarted by the bridge across the river. Ever resourceful Cnut set his men to digging a channel.
‘They dug a great ditch on the south side and dragged their ships on the west side to the bridge, then diked the borough repeatedly so that no one could go in or out. They attacked the borough repeatedly, but they withstood them hardily.’[xxiv]Cnut left his men to continue the siege and turned his attention back to Wessex where he fought two inconclusive battles with Edmund. He then returned to London. He was followed by Edmund who attacked the besiegers near Tottenham.
The Danes were driven back and were defeated in a pitched battle, the victory came at enormous cost to the English, who lost large numbers of men. Edmund was compelled to retreat back into his Wessex stronghold and the Danes returned to their siege.Cnut decided to throw everything into an attack on London;
‘The force [the Danes] then went to London, and besieged the town; they attacked them powerfully by water and by land, but almighty God saved them.’[xxv]Cnut’s forces withdrew to the mouth of the Orwell and then on to the Medway. Provisioned by attacks in East Anglia and Mercia; Cnut’s men landed in Kent, where Edmund was ready for them. He won another battle at Otford, driving the invaders into Sheppey. Eadric of Mercia now reversed his loyalties.
In the autumn of 1016 the Danes crossed the Thames estuary and raided into Essex and Mercia.
‘When the king found out that the force was up there, he gathered for a fifth time all the English nation, came up behind them, overtook them in Essex at the hill men call Ashingdon, and there they came together hardily.’[xxvi]
Edmund Ironside and Cnut at the battle of Ashendon
Early in the battle Eadric of Mercia took flight and his men were followed by contingents from other shires. The battle ended with a victory for Cnut; many of the Saxon earls perished but Edmund escaped. Rather than continue the fighting Cnut decided to come to terms with Edmund and they met near Deerhurst on the Severn,The kingdom was divided between Cnut and Edmund, who received Wessex. He also agreed to pay for Cnut’s army. All the lands beyond the Thames were to be ruled by Cnut.
‘It was agreed that the kings should take the oath of brotherhood and should maintain peace as long as both were on earth; and if that one of them died sonless, the survivor should inherit his realm and all subjects.’[xxvii]
‘King Edmund received Wessex and Cnut Mercia. The force went to their ships with the plunder they had taken; London treated with them and bought peace from them. The force brought their ships to London, and they took winter quarters there.’[xxviii]This flawed agreement[xxix] was superseded by the death of Edmund on 30th November 1016; the west Saxons then accepted Cnut as their king.
BibliographyThe Vikings – Magnus Magnusson – Tempus Publishing Ltd 2000
Queen Emma and the Vikings – Harriet O’Brien – Bloomsbury Publishing 2005The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles – Anne Savage (translator), Colour Library Books 1995
Anglo-Saxon England – Frank Stenton, Oxford University Press 1997Cnut – MJ Trow, Sutton Publishing Ltd 2005
[i] Or Knut or Canute
[ii] King of Norway from 995.
[iv] The Anglo Saxon Chronicles - Savage
[v] There is no precise date for the invasion
[vi] Also known as Sigrid the Haughty; she too is a contender as Cnut’s mother
[vii] At the behest of Queen Emma
[viii] Cnut - Trow
[ix] As stated in the 13th century Flateyarbok
[x] Known as the Unready
[xi] The couple had married in 1002 after an abortive attempt to attack Niormandy when it harboured a Viking army.
[xiii] Cnut’s second wife Emma ordered the writing of the Encomium in 1041 or 2
[xiv] He had been chosen as successor to his father by the warriors of the fleet
[xv] Emma’s Encomium states that Cnut was the eldest son, although there does seem some dispute about that
[xvi] Future king of Norway, his date of birth is also not known and he may have been born as late as the following year
[xvii] Later King of England
[xviii] High ranking royal official and magistrate of a shire; by this time the term was usually shortened to earl
[xix] The Anglo Saxon Chronicles - Savage
[xx] Known as Edmund Ironside
[xxi] The Anglo Saxon Chronicles - Savage
[xxiii] Uhtred was murdered not long after and his earldom was given by Cnut to Erik of Norway.
[xxiv] The Anglo Saxon Chronicles - Savage
[xxvii] Cnut - Trow
[xxviii] The Anglo Saxon Chronicles - Savage
[xxix] There were a number of Ealdormen who had lands straddling the divide and the question would have arisen of divided loyalties