Cnut: England’s Viking King by M.K. Lawson (1993)

In all, the scarcity of contemporary material is such that Cnut’s personality and many of his activities will remain forever unknown. (p.79)

This is a challenging book to read. Right from the first page of the introduction Lawson assumes you already know the outline of the historical events leading up to and during the reign of King Cnut of England and Denmark (1016-1035), and instead plunges into a very detailed discussion of the evidence from different sources, not only for the various events covered in the book but for the numerous issues and controversies about the period.

Thus the text overwhelmingly consists of very finely tuned assessments of conflicting sources for the period such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which survives in 5 significantly varying versions), contemporary documents such as Anglo-Saxon poetry (The Battle of Brunanburgh describing Athelstan’s victory of 937, The Battle of Maldon describing a Viking victory in 991), sermons notably by the fierce archbishop of York Wulfstan, writs, charters and legal documents, two letters from Cnut himself, slightly later historians in England (Henry of Huntingdon, John of Worcester, William of Malmesbury) in Germany (Adam of Bremen, Thietmar of Merseberg) in Normandy (William of Jumièges, William of Poitiers) in Denmark (Saxo Grammaticus, Swegen Aggeson), Norse poetry embedded in the much later Icelandic sagas (written down in the mid-1200s) and so on and so on – all garnished with a forest of notes which themselves reference other scholarly writings and discussions about each of these issues and cruxes.

Most histories present you with a fairly straightforward and smooth-flowing narrative, maybe mentioning one or two places where the sources disagree. This book takes you behind the scenes of history, as it were, to show you the jungle of texts, the wreckage of what happened to be written down, what happened to survive the centuries, which the conscientious historian has to wrestle with — almost all of them biased and distorted by their non-historical purposes – hagiographies to praise saints, various versions of the A-S Chronicle slanted to praise the scribe’s monastery or benefactors, the Encomium Emmae written to praise Cnut’s wife Emma and her sons.

We have a reasonable number of charters from the period – documents officially assigning land from the king or rich patrons, generally to a religious foundation – except that, as Lawson points out, many of them are probably forgeries concocted by the said foundation to justify rights to land which were customary or lost in the mists of time. (With characteristic thoroughness, Lawson has an appendix naming every one of the royal charters issued during Cnut’s reign, along with date and location, and a second appendix explaining in detail the format in which writs and charters have survived.)

So the sources not only routinely disagree about the most basic facts – like the year in which a battle took place – they are almost all biased, deliberately omitting major events or exaggerate minor ones, names even major names like Sweyn/Swegen/Sven are routinely garbled, a high percentage of the documents may be faked, and most of the reporting was based on hearsay, often decades sometimes centuries, after the event.

The result of Lawson’s detailed investigations is probably the definitive account of Cnut’s reign, but very unlike a normal history book: instead of a smooth and comprehensible narrative the text is entirely made up of scholarly detective work, of the subtle balancing of sources against each other, weighing their probable veracity or inaccuracy on each point against three or four or five other accounts, which are themselves suspect for reasons Lawson explains exhaustively.

And the conclusion of all this effort is quite dispiriting: Cnut’s reign is one of the worst documented of any king of England:

The inadequacies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the surviving charters, even when supplemented by such other fragments as the skaldic poetry and the Letters of 1019-20 and 1027, make it impossible to construct a decent chronology of his reign. (p.79)

So this is not a popular history – although it sheds some unexpected lights on the period, I kept being surprised at the way he mentions what seem to be major events very casually, only in passing, as a side effect of his far more intense interest in the trustworthiness of this charter or that chronicle or the Icelandic poem on the matter, and so on. This isn’t a book for the general reader: I assume it is aimed at undergraduate level or above.

Queen Emma and King Cnut present a gold cross to the New Minster, Winchester (from the New Minster Liber Vitae)

Queen Emma and King Cnut present a gold cross to the New Minster, Winchester (from the New Minster Liber Vitae). Note the angel crowning Cnut. Note his hand on his sword. Heavenly and earthly power combined.

Events up to and including the reign of King Cnut the Great

The Saxon kings of Wessex – Alfred the Great (871-899), Edward the Elder (899-924) and Athelstan (924-927), Edgar (943-975) – spent their careers trying to hold repeated waves of invading Danes/Vikings at bay. Despite setbacks, Alfred just about held on then pushed the Danes back and secured the territory of Wessex i.e. the west England, during the 880s. His successors through the first third of the 10th century pushed the Danes out of England, until Athelstan could pronounce himself – and be seen by his contemporaries as – the first King of All England by the 920s.

The reign of Athelstan’s nephew, King Edgar the Peaceful (959-975) is seen as the ‘high noon’ of Anglo-Saxon monarchy. But Edgar died aged only 31, leaving the nation to his son, Aethelred, who was only 11 or 12. Aethelred became known to history as Aethelred the Unready because he was totally unsuited to being a king, combining arbitrary cruelty against the helpless with craven cowardice before the powerful.

During his long chaotic reign (978-1013) the nobles of England were hopelessly divided and a new generation of Vikings made their appearance and ravaged the coastlines of England without pity. Unable to muster a strong army, Aethelred fell back time and again to paying the Vikings off with ever-increasing ransoms – the so-called Danegeld – bleeding the country dry to extract all the goods, silver and coin he could muster in order to fill the Danish ships which sailed home every autumn full of English goods, slaves and treasure.

Among the leaders of the new wave of attackers, which escalated through the 990s, may or may not have been Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark (this is the kind of academic question Lawson goes into in great detail – Lawson refers to Sweyn as Swegen thoughout), but Sweyn/Swegen certainly led an plundering raid in 1003, along with his teenage son, Cnut, and almost ever year for a decade. These temporary raids for plunder escalated until, in 1013, Sweyn embarked on a planned invasion, ravaging across the East of England before seizing London. Aethelred was forced to flee England, taking refuge with his brother-in-law, Duke Richard I of Normandy (Aethelred was married to Duke Richard’s sister, Emma) and Sweyn declared himself King. A surprisingly large number of English nobles were happy to acquiesce in his enthronement.

But then Sweyn died unexpectedly after just a year in power, in 1014. The Danish magnates acclaimed his son, Cnut, their king and ruler, but the English nobles asked Aethelred to return from exile in Normandy, although under strict conditions (which for some historians marks the first recorded pact between an English king and his subjects). Aethelred landed and marched an unusually unified English force against the Danes, catching Cnut unprepared, who decided it was wisest to sail back to Denmark – not least to assert his authority there as Sweyn’s successor to the Danish throne. Aethelred was restored.

But in 1015 Cnut returned with a well-organised force to find Aethelred, as usual, in disarray, with his own eldest son, Edmund Ironside, having rebelled against him.

When Cnut began ravaging across the country in late 1015, Edmund rejoined his father to oppose the Danes, but Aethelred died in April 1016. Cnut then decisively defeated Edmund at the gory Battle of Assundun on 18 October 1016, in which large numbers of English nobles were slaughtered.

Cnut and Edmund made a peace treaty, the latter retaining kingship of Wessex, while Cnut took the rest of England (a carbon copy of the situation under King Alfred 130 years previously) but when Edmund himself died soon afterwards, either of wounds or illness later that year, Cnut declared himself King of All England. Since he was also King of Denmark and part of Norway, historians refer to this as the Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire.

Cnut ruled England from 1016 until his death in 1035. He married Aethelred’s widow, Emma, a shrewd move to consolidate an alliance with Emma’s brother, Duke Richard II of Normandy, and also to deprive her sons by Aethelred of support for an invasion attempt from Normandy.

When he died, Cnut was succeeded by his son by an English woman, his first wife or mistress Aelfgifu – Harold I or Harold Harefoot – who ruled for five years until his death in 1040. At which point Cnut’s young son by Emma of Normandy, Harthacnut, having needed several years to establish himself as Cnut’s successor in Denmark, arrived in England and peacefully claimed his throne.

However, Harthacnut turned out to be a cruel and tyrannical king, even by the standards of the times, imposing ruinous punishments – for example ordering entire towns to be burned to the ground if they refused to pay taxes – and it was a relief to everyone when he died after only two years’ reign, and was succeeded by Edward, soon to be known as ‘the Confessor’.

It was during Edward’s reign that the earl of Essex, Godwin, and his son Harold Godwinson, asserted their power, along with his brothers becoming the most powerful family in England. Edward failed to have any children, and appears, while in exile in the Norman court, to have given some kind of promise to William Duke of Normandy that he would inherit the English throne. This was the tangled web which led – at his death in 1066 – to the open conflict between Harold Godwinson and Duke William for the throne of England, which climaxed in the Battle of Hastings – and the long, complex history of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England came to an abrupt end.

The combat of Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Dane (right) as depicted by the medieval author Matthew Paris

The combat of Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Dane (right) as depicted by the medieval author Matthew Paris

Issues

So much for the bare outline of events. In fact the reader of this book has to piece together a lot of this themselves because Lawson’s main interest, as I’ve explained, is much more a textual analysis of surviving sources, than in writing a spuriously smooth narrative. The entire 200-page book is divided into just five chapters and one of them is devoted solely to ‘The Sources’, but in fact the other four are just as scholarly, tentative, hedged around with reservations and qualifications.

But from the welter of notes and debates over the precise sequence of transcription of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, C version, and so on, emerge some rather more comprehensible ideas.

  • Aethelred has a bad reputation for dithering, for not facing up to Danish attacks and for shamefully bleeding the country dry to pay off the invaders: but Lawson points out that the cost of raising levies and arming them might well have been more i.e. Danegeld was the cheapest option. Also, that it’s only in retrospect that we know that they kept coming back for more – at the time, it may have been hoped that a few payments and promises would make them go away for good.
  • I knew that Cnut’s kingship of England created an Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire. Lawson brings out the implication of this, though which is that, in an age of perpetual warfare of all against all, that meant he had not so much to rule a far-flung empire as continually worry about all the threats on the borders of that empire: i.e. he had to be aware of potential threats from the Scots, the Irish Vikings, the Welsh, the Normans, the Franks, the (German) Holy Roman Emperor, from Norway, Sweden, and from the Slavic peoples east of the Elbe including the Poles. Explains why both his grandfather Gorm the Old and father Sweyn took Slavic consorts, to protect their eastern flank.
  • In 1017 Cnut, settling into his domain, divided England into four parts, keeping Wessex for himself, giving East Anglis to the independent warlord Thirkell the Tall, Mercia to Eadric, and Northumbria to the Norwegian earl Eric of Lade, to reward these strong allies in his invading army and to impose a military government. The comparison with William the Bastard parcelling out England to his followers 50 years later is striking. Unlike William, though, Cnut seems to have embarked on the elimination of powerful native nobles, having Eadred (who had, incidentally, overthrown the father of Aelfgifu, Cnut’s English wife) beheaded, along – in some accounts – with a number of other leading nobles. Combined with the loss of life at Assundun this amounts to a little holocaust of leading figures. Poor England!
  • The Viking Age in England started with the attack on the remote monastery of Lindisfarne in 793 and only ended with the crushing defeat of the invasion force of Harald Hardrada, defeated by the mighty Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford bridge outside York in 1066. 273 long years of seemingly endless raids, ravaging, plundering and enslavement, which climaxed in the 20 year rule of a Danish king. Odd that this is so often overlooked in the long sweep of English history.

Ravaging and destruction

The scale of the ravaging can’t be imagined. The abbey of Tavistock was burned down in 997, Cerne destroyed, St Mary’s church Exeter was burnt down on 1003, the nunnery at Minster-in-Thanet was burnt down. Christ Church Canterbry was burnt down and the archbishop clubbed to death in 1012. Apart from the massacre of Saxon nobles at the Battle of Assundun, Cnut then executed a number of leading nobles along with their followers. The Danes spent 3 months in 1010 burning East Anglia, killing all the men and cattle they could get their hands on. the young Cnut, forced out of England at Aethelstan’s return in 1014, cut off the hands, noses and ears of the hostages the Saxon nobles had given to him. Cnut’s son, Harthacnut, incensed by the murder of two of his tax inspectors in Worcester, ordered his army to destroy as much of the buildings and kill every man they could find in Worcestershire in 1042. When you consider that Aethelstan repeatedly taxed the nation to within an inch of its life, to extract the repeated payments of Danegeld, combined with the ceaseless harrying, raids, plundering and murdering along any part of the coast, this was a prolonged period when the country was on its knees.

No wonder contemporary writers were so bitter, angry and think the world is coming to an end. Brihtferth of Ramsey in his Life of St Oswald, describes the Danes as accursed, and accomplices of Beelzebub. Archbishop Wulfstan’s famous Sermo Lupi (Sermon of the Wolf) paints a searing portrait of a society in complete moral and physical collapse, and the imminent conquest of the country with the reign of the Anti-Christ.

Hic domus incenditur (Here a house is burned, from the Bayeux Tapestry describing the Norman Conquest 1066

Hic domus incenditur (Here a house is burned) from the Bayeux Tapestry describing the Norman Conquest 1066, showing men under orders burning a wooden house from which are fleeing a woman and her son. Could be Vietnam. Could be Syria.

England endures

The astonishing thing, though all this mayhem, is the point Lawson makes and so do Marc Morris and David Carpenter, which is that England didn’t fall into chaos, real chaos. Trade continued; taxes were collected; men were drafted into armies; church rents continued to be administered, charters issued and so on.

In fact all the charters, writs and tax returns which Lawson so scrupulously sifts through indicate the continuation of a large amount of central administration and legal writ. Deeper than the destruction is the underlying fact that England was a very wealthy country with an efficient and thorough administrative system before the Danes invaded – a system created by the Wessex kings Alfred, Athelstan, Edgar. This proved solid and resilient enough to survive thirty years of ravaging by the Danes (986-1016), the complete conquest by Cnut, the brief but intensely destructive activity of his son Harthacnut (1040-42), and then the systematic ravaging of the south-east by William the Bastard after his victory at Hastings (1066), followed by the horrific Harrying of the North to put down rebels in 1070, which left Yorkshire in ruins for a generation. But still it endured.

Conclusions

From Lawson’s conclusion, and from the book as a whole, three things emerged for me:

  1. Cnut was, by the standards of his day, the most successful of all pre-Conquest rulers in Britain‘ (p.196). Not only did he rule all of England with some kind of overlordship over the king of Scotland but he was lord of Denmark and Norway, too; and he married his daughter to the Holy Roman Emperor, creating a blood alliance only Aethelstan among his predecessors had managed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mention the outlawing and beheading of a small number of really important nobles, but otherwise his rule doesn’t seem to have been marked by the kind of civil wars which blighted his predecessor and would mar the reign of so many of the Plantagenet kings a century later. Above all, he succeeded in what contemporaries considered the number one obligation of a king – he protected the realm from foreign invasion and raids. All this without the imposition of castles everywhere and the wholescale replacement of the English nobility with his own followers, which is of course what William the Bastard did. So whose conquest was more effective in its day, William’s or Cnut’s? Discuss.
  2. Contingency In fact, what Cnut and none of his contemporaries could have anticipated was that he himself would die relatively young (we don’t actually know his birth year, and Lawson – in his usual thorough way explicates several conflicting theories – but 990 is a popular calculation, so he was, perhaps, 45 when he died in 1035) and that all three of his sons – Sweyn (d.1035) and Harold Harefoot (d.1040) by Aelfgifu – and Harthacnut (d.1042) by Emma of Normandy – would be dead within seven years. Had Cnut lived to 60 like the Conqueror, and had his children reigned similar lengths as the Conqueror’s children (William Rufus 13 years, Henry 1 35 years!) i.e. a total of 48 years i.e. until 1083, then in all probability neither Edward the Confessor, nor Harold Godwinson, nor William the Conqueror would ever have ruled – the Norman Conquest would never have happened! But all three of his male children died in quick succession and the kingship of England reverted to the line of Wessex, to the Confessor, whose failure to have any children, let alone a male heir, turned out to be fatal.
  3. The Viking Age Lawson, like other historians says that the Viking Age came to a definitive end with the crushing defeat of Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, by the army of Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. But a section of his conclusion slightly contradicts this. For in 1069 a Danish fleet sailed up the Humber to assist Saxon rebels against the Conqueror; in 1070 this force was joined by Swegen Estrithsson of Denmark, Cnut’s nephew, who was met by people apparently hoping he would conquer the entire country, as his uncle had. In fact William bought Swegen off (just like Aethelred) but another fleet, under Swegen’s son, another Cnut, arrived to support a further rebellion in 1075. They decided against an armed confrontation with William, withdrew and sailed home. But even as late as 1085 William was, apparently, making careful preparations to deal with another invasion Cnut was threatening but in the event never mounted. In other words, it sounds to me as if the Battle of Stamford Bridge didn’t really end the Viking threat, which continued, by Lawson’s own account, to be serious and taken seriously for another 20 years. So surely more as if it slowly petered out rather than abruptly and definitively ended.

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