England under the Danes

In the last blog we left the Fenland monasteries re-establishing themselves under the Danes. By the late 10th century a significant degree of stability existed in England under Ethelred II ‘The Unready’ who reigned from 979 to 1016 apart from a short while (1013-4) when Sweyn took the throne. Edmund II, ‘Ironside’, held sway from April to November 1016 until Canute ‘The Great’ took the throne – and held it until 1035.

Ruthless but capable, Canute consolidated his position by marrying Ethelred’s widow Emma. During his reign Canute also became King of Denmark and Norway and his inheritance and formidable personality combined to make him overlord of a huge northern empire. During his absences in Scandinavia, Canute used powerful English and Danish earls to ‘assist’ in England’s government. English law and methods of government remained unchanged during this time. Canute was a second-generation Christian for reasons of politics as well as faith, and went on pilgrimage to Rome in 1027-8. It was during his time there that his ‘command to hold back the tides’ took place. This story was first recorded in Henry of Huntingdon’s 12th century Chronicle of the History of England. In fact, Henry’s account was rather a testimony to Canute’s good sense and Christian humility – not his vanity or madness. He was rejecting his courtiers’ flattery by demonstrating that ‘even he could not stop the waves’. On this death Canute was buried at Winchester.

Without him his empire began to come apart and there was soon no political or governmental unity within his empire. Canute had intended Hardicanute would become king of the English in preference to his elder brother Harold Harefoot. However Hardicanute became preoccupied with affairs in Denmark, of which he was also King. As a result Canute’s eldest son, Harold Harefoot, became king of England. In 1039 Hardicanute eventually set sail for England, arriving to find his brother dead and himself king with no conflict. He remained King until his death in 1042; Edward ‘the Confessor‘ took the throne and became King of England.

As the surviving son of Ethelred and his second wife Emma, Edward was a half-brother of Hardicanute. With few rivals (Canute’s line was extinct and Edward’s only male relatives were two nephews in exile), Edward was undisputed king. The threat of the King of Norway snatching the crown rallied the English and Danes in allegiance to Edward. Brought up in exile in Normandy, Edward lacked military ability or reputation and his Norman sympathies caused tensions with one of Canute’s most powerful earls, Godwin of Wessex, whose daughter, Edith, Edward had married in 1045! That marriage was childless and tensions resulted in a crisis in 1050-52, when Godwin assembled an army to defy Edward. With reinforcements from the earls of Mercia and Northumberland, Edward banished Godwin from the country and sent Queen Edith from court. It was then that Edward used the opportunity to appoint Normans to places at court, and as sheriffs at local level.

William, Duke of Normandy was said to be Edward’s designated heir. However, the hostile reaction to this increased Norman influence brought Godwin back. Edward then formed a closer alliance with Godwin’s son Harold, who led the army as the king’s deputy. Edward may have named Harold as heir on his deathbed but whether he did or not is by-the-by: Harold became King in January 1066.

In October Harold’s life ended at the Battle of Hastings and Edgar the Atheling – a grandson of Edmund II ‘Ironside’ and a great-grandson of Ethelred ‘The Unready’ became King. He mounted a brief rebellion, wresting control for a short period at the end of 1066, but was put down by William I.

Here is not the place to discuss the invasion of 1066 – suffice to say:
‘William won; became King and England/Britain would never be the same again.’


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