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1016-42 - Canute's Kingdom

The English chronicles fixed the date of the first raid of the Northmen. In 787, three strange ships were seen off the Dorsetshire coast. From them landed a small band of marauders, who sacked the port of Wareham, and then hastily put to sea and vanished from sight. This insignificant descent was only the first of a series of dreadful ravages. A few years later, in 793, a greater band descended on Lindisfarne, the holy island of St. Cuthbert off the Bernician coast, the greatest and richest monastery of northern England. Thenceforth raids came thick and fast, till at last the sword of the invaders had turned half England into a desert.

For many years therafter the Danes and Northmen avoided England, because they knew that only hard blows awaited them there. But they swarmed all over the rest of Europe, won Normandy from the kings of the West Franks, and pushed their raids as far as the distant shores of Andalusia and Italy. The people of Scandinavia were in much the same state of development in which the English had been three centuries before, ere yet they left the shores of Saxony and Schleswig. The Danes and Norwegians were a hardy seafaring race, divided into many small kingdoms, always at war with each other. They were still wild heathens, and practised piracy as the noblest occupation for warriors and freemen.

To begin with, they simply pillaged the area and disappeared again, but in time they stayed through the winter and took part in local conflicts as political parties, not least in Ireland. In England, a Viking army managed to conquer three of the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms 865-80, and the Danes settled for good. Place names point to a strong Danish influence in North and East England, even though the Danes in large parts of the area came under English kings before 920. Renewed Viking raids on England towards the end of the 10th century finally allowed the Danish kings to conquer the country. The news that a weak young king, with disobedient nobles to rule under him, sat on Eadgar's seat, soon brought them back to England. First there came mere plundering bands, as in the old days of the eighth century ; but Aethelred did not deal with them sharply and strongly. He bade the ealdorraen drive them off; but they were too much occupied with their own quarrels to stir. Then the invaders came in greater numbers, and Aethelred thought to bribe them to go away by giving them money, and raised the tax called the Danegdt to satisfy their rapacity. But it seemed that the more that gold was given the more did Danes appear, for the news of Aethelred's wealth and weakness flew round the North, and brought swarm after swarm of marauders upon him. Then followed twenty miserable years of desultory fighting and incessant paying of tribute.

Aethelred's worst and most unwise action was the celebrated massacre of St. Brice's Day, in 1002, when he caused all the Danes on whom he could lay hands to be killed. In this case it was not open enemies whom he slew, for it was a time of truce, but Danish merchants and adventurers who had settled down in England and done him homage. By this cruel deed Aethelred won the deadly hatred of Swegen, King of Denmark, whose sister and her husband had been among the slain. Swegen became Aethelred's bitterest foe, and repeatedly warred against him, not with mere Viking bands, but with the whole force of Denmark at his back.

At last, in 1013, there came a Danish invasion of exceptional severity. Swegen [Svend Forkbeard (Svend I)] began to demand tributes shortly after he became king of Denmark. He was quickly joined by other Viking chieftains from both Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The marauders dashed through the country from end to end, they took Canterbury and slew the Archbishop Elfheah (St. Alphege), because he refused to pay them an exorbitant ransom. Then Eadric gathered together the Witan, without the king's presence, and, with infamous treachery to his benefactor, proposed to them to submit entirely to the Danes. So when Swegen came over again in the next year, the whole realm bowed before him, and the great men, headed by the traitor Eadric, offered him the crown. Only London held out for King Aethelred, and stood a long siege, till its citizens learnt that their master had deserted them and fled over sea to the Duke of Normandy, whose sister Emma he had married. Then they too yielded, and the Witan of all England took Swegen as their king. He died in 1014 shortly after having conquered England, and then the majority of the English refused to choose his son Cnut as his successor. They sent to Normandy for their old king, and did homage once more to Aethelred ; but the traitor Eadric resolved to adhere to Cnut.

Eadric's Mercian subjects and some of the men of Wessex joined the Danes, and there was civil war once more in England, till Aethelred the Ill-counselled died in 1016. Then his followers chose in his stead his brave son Edmund II, who was called Ironside because of his prowess in war. The new king was a worthy descendant of Alfred, and would have made no small mark in better times, but he spent his short reign in one unceasing series of combats with Cnut, a man as able and as warlike as himself. The two young kings fought five pitched battles with each other, and fortune swayed to Edmund's side ; but in the sixth, at Assandun (Ashington, in Essex), he was defeated, owing to the treachery of the wretched Eadric the Grasper, who first joined him with a large body of Mercian troops, and then turned against him in the heat of the battle (1016).

Then Edmund and Cnut, having learnt to respect each other's courage, met in the Isle of Alney, outside the walls of Gloucester, and agreed to divide the realm between them. Cnut took, as was natural, the Anglo-Danish districts of Northumbria and the Five Boroughs, together with Eadric's Mercian ealdormanry. Edmund kept Wessex, Kent, London, and East Anglia. But this partition was not destined to endure. Ere the year was out the foul traitor Eadric procured the murder of King Edmund, and then the Witan of Wessex chose Cnut as king over the south as well as the north. The late king's young brothers and his two little sons fled to the Continent.

So Cnut the Dane became King of all England, and ruled it wisely and well for nineteen years (1016-35). He proved a much better king than people expected, for, being a very young man and easily impressed, he grew to be of more of an Englishman than a Dane in all his manners and habits of thought. He ruled in Denmark and Norway as well as England, but he made England his favorite abode, and regarded it as the center and heart of his empire. The moment that he was firmly established on the throne, he took measures for restoring the prosperity of the land, which had been reduced to an evil plight by forty years of ill-governance and war. He swept away the great ealdormen who had been such a curse to the land, slaying the traitor Eadric the Grasper, and Uhtred the turbulent governor of Northumbria.

Then he divided England into four great earldoms, as these provinces began to be called, for the Danish name jorl (earl) was beginning to supersede the Saxon name ealdorman. Of these he entrusted the two Anglo-Danish earldoms, Northumbria and East Anglia, to men of Danish blood, while he gave Wessex and Mercia to two Englishmen who had served him faithfully, the earls Godwine and Leofric. The confidence in the loyalty of his English subjects which Cnut displayed was very marked : he sent home to Denmark the whole of his army, save a body-guard of two thousand or three thousand house-carles, or personal retainers, and did not divide up the lands of England among them. He kept many Englishmen about his person, and even sent them as bishops or royal officers to Denmark, a token of favour of which the Danes did not altogether approve. He endeavoured to connect himself with the old English royal house, by marrying Emma of Normandy, the widow of King Aethelred, though she was somewhat older than himself, so Cnut's younger children were the half-brothers of Aethelred's.

Cnut gave England the peace which she had not known since the death of Eadgar, for no one dared to stir up war against a king who was not only Lord of Britain, but ruled the lands of the Northmen, as far as Iceland, Scotland and the Faroes and the outlying Danish towns in Ireland. The Welsh and Scots served Cnut as they had served Aethelstan and Eadgar, and were his obedient vassels. In reward of the services of Malcolm of Scotland Cnut gave him the district of Lothian, the northern half of Bernicia, to hold as his vassal. This was the first piece of English-speaking land that any Scottish king ruled, and it was from thence that the English tongue and manners afterwards spread over the whole of the Lowlands beyond the Tweed.

The rapid recovery of prosperity which followed on Cnut's strong and able government is the best testimony to his wisdom. The wording of the code of laws which he promulgated is a witness to his good heart and excellent purposes. His subjects loved him well, and many tales survive to show their belief in his sagacity, such as the well-known story of his rebuke to the flattering courtiers who ascribed to him omnipotence by the incoming waves of Southampton Water.

Cnut died in 1035, before he had much passed the boundary of middle age. He left two sons, Harold and Harthacnut, the former the child of a concubine, the latter the offspring of Queen Emma. With his death 1048 his empire broke up, for Norway revolted, and the Danes of Denmark chose Harthacnut as their king, while those of England preferred the bastard Harold. Only Godwine, the great Earl of Wessex, declared for Harthacnut, and made England south of the Thames swear allegiance to him. So Harold reigned for a space in Northumbria and Mercia, while Denmark and Wessex obeyed his younger brother. The two sons of Cnut were rough, godless, unscrupulous young men, and hated each other bitterly, for each thought that the other had robbed him of part of his rightful heritage. Moreover, Harold enraged Harthaenut by catching and slaying his elder halfbrother Alfred, the son of Aethelred and Emma, whom he enticed over to England by fair words, and then murdered by blinding him with hot irons.

After a space Harold overran Wessex, which Earl Godwine surrendered to him because Harttyacnut sent no aid from Denmark, where he tarried over-long. But just after he had been saluted as ruler of all England, Harold died, and his realm fell to his absent brother. Harthacnut then came over with a large army, and took possession of the land. He ruled ill for the short space of his life ; it was with horror that men saw him exhume his half-brother's corpse and cast it into a ditch. He raised great taxes to support his Danish army, and dealt harshly with those who did not pay him promptly. But just as all England was growing panic-stricken at his tyranny, he died suddenly. He was celebrating the marriage of one of his followers, Osgood Clapa, at the thegn's manor of Clapham, in Surrey, when, as he raised the wine-cup to drink the bridegroom's health, he fell back in an apoplectic fit, and never spoke again (1042).

The English Witan had now before them the task of choosing a new king. Cnut's house was extinct, and with it died all chance of the perpetuation of a northern empire in which England and Denmark should be unite.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:55:49 ZULU