Saturday, January 23, 2016
Ulf Thorgilsson was one of Canute's most trusted Jarls and accompanied him to England during his great invasion of 1016. He was also married to Canute's sister Estrid. Incidentally (or maybe not, to Godwine), he was brother to Gytha who became Godwine's wife. Legend has it that Ulf got lost in the forest while pursuing Saxons after the battle at Sherstone. He stumbled across young Godwine and offered him a gold ring in exchange for escorting him back to the ships. Seeing an opportunity, Godwine returned the ring and agreed to act at Ulf's guide. He never looked back.
Once Canute was comfortably settled on the throne, he dismissed the bulk of his mercenary forces (after raising a huge Danegeld—or stern geld—of 82,500 pounds). Ulf went back to Denmark and acted as Canute's regent for many years. In 1026, Canute brought over his eight year-old son Harthacnut to represent the crown as Denmark's future king under the tutelage of Ulf. Unfortunately, this is when the trouble started.
Canute's extended absence rankled his countrymen, and when the Swedish king Anund Jakob and the Norwegian king Olaf II decided to invade Denmark, Ulf persuaded the provinces to elect the child as king—with him as de facto ruler, of course. Some men say he actually joined forces with the invaders, though there is no agreement on this. Canute was not amused. He returned to Denmark with a fleet and promptly went after the raiders, chasing them down and engaging in a naval battle at the estuary of a river called Helgeå in Sweden. Olaf nearly crushed Canute by a clever stratagem of releasing a deluge of water onto his fleet, but Ulf came to the rescue and helped defeat the enemy. Alas, this was not enough to save him.
Although Canute did not hold his son responsible for usurping the throne, he was still furious with Ulf. As the legend goes, after a feast at Roskilde, Canute and Ulf argued over a game of chess. When Ulf got up to leave, Canute jeered after him, "Are you running away, Ulf the coward?" The Jarl turned with his retort, "You would have run, if you could, at Helge River. Then, you didn't call me Ulf the coward, when I saved you from the Swedes who were beating you like dogs."
As you can imagine, this insult could not go unpunished. The following day, on Christmas of 1026, Canute ordered one of his housecarls to kill Ulf while at prayer in the local Trinity Church. Or so goes the legend. I can only imagine that Godwine was horrified, and you can read about this and the aftermath in GODWINE KINGMAKER.
Sunday, January 17, 2016
Although Edmund stoutly aided London in its defense against the Danes, he frequently left the city in order to draw the Danes away from their siege. It is said he raised five armies that year–one for each battle. The last and most important, the Battle of Assandun took place on October 18, ended in disaster for the Saxons because of the treachery of Eadric Streona, who took to flight with his forces and turned the tide against Edmund.
This time Canute was determined to end the conflicts. The Saxons withdrew but the Danes followed them up the Severn river into Gloucestershire, finally stopping at an island called Olney (or Alney). There, in deference to the chieftains of the land who had had enough (led by Eadric Streona, who somehow retained the goodwill of Edmund Ironside), the two Kings decided to solve the issue by single combat. This legend is according to the chroniclers, as unlikely as it sounds.
The Saxon King was said to have been the stronger fighter and soon hammered the Dane, breaking his shield and beating him down when Canute called a stop to the fight. “Bravest of youths,” he cried out, “why should either of us risk his life for the sake of a crown?” Edmund paused, considering. “Let us be brothers by adoption,” the Dane continued, “and divide the kingdom, governing so that I may rule your affairs, and you mine.” (Florence of Worcester).
The single combat story is probably apocryphal, but the ensuing treaty is not. According to their agreement, Canute was to rule Northumbria and Danish Mercia, while Edmund was ruler of Wessex, Essex, East Anglia, and English Mercia. It’s unclear who was supposed to rule London (I found it stated both ways), but in the end, the Londoners were obliged to come up with their own tribute payment to Canute and permit him to anchor his ships in the Thames for winter, so I guess the result speaks for itself.
Most importantly, it was stated that this treaty excluded brothers and children of the two Kings; if either was to die, all the possessions would revert to the other. And so when Edmund Ironside died suddenly in the winter of 1016, Canute took the crown and made sure to bring the witnesses forward to confirm the terms of the treaty. An exhausted England accepted his claim without demurring.
You can read about this and more in my novel, GODWINE KINGMAKER. Of course, I assume Godwine was witness to these great events!
Saturday, January 9, 2016
This year marks the 1000th anniversary of Canute’s coronation as the King of England. I think it’s interesting that the Danes ruled all of England for more than a generation and very few moderns seem to give it any thought at all. Between Canute and his sons, the Danes were kings from 1016 through 1042, yet we still think of England as Anglo-Saxon during that era.
Of course, the Vikings were no strangers to England. During the reign of Alfred the Great, the Danes overran the country and would have conquered but for the dogged resistance of the King of Wessex. In the end, Alfred divided the country in half, and the Northmen settled and ruled the Danelaw for the next 200 years. By the time Canute’s father, Swegn Forkbeard took the crown in 1013, England’s Aethelred the Unready had made such a mess of things that the country was beginning to think that Danish rule might be preferable after all. Not that they had much choice.
Swegn Forkbeard died suddenly, having ruled for only a few months. Aethelred’s son Edmund Ironside had a brief tenure as king, constantly harassed by the Danes under Canute, who was the second son of Swegn (his older brother Harald ruled Denmark until 1018). Ultimately, Edmund and Canute agreed to divide the country so that Edmund would rule Wessex and Canute the rest of England; if one died, the crown would devolve to the survivor. Alas, the end result was all too predictable.
It was conjectured that Edmund Ironside may have been murdered by the villanous Eadric Streona who seemed to change sides like most people change their clothes. But whether by foul means or natural causes, Edmund did not survive his first winter as King. Canute took over in 1016 and at first things didn’t look good for the Anglo-Saxons. Some key english Thanes were assassinated (including Eadric Streona) and Viking Jarls installed in their places. Canute proceeded to raise the largest Danegeld tax yet (£82,500) to pay off the Viking ships, but luckily he sent most of the army home afterwards. From then on, England was not considered fair game (except for the occasional raid) until the unhappy events of 1066.
Historians often voice their surprise that Canute decided to settle down and adopt the ways of his conquered people, in direct contrast to William the Norman. It could fairly be said that the Vikings were absorbed by the Anglo-Saxons through intermarriage and common economic concerns. Although Canute had difficulty juggling his Empire of Denmark, England, Norway and part of Sweden, he made England his home. He presided over 20 years of peace and prosperity, and by the end of his reign, Canute was known as a good and just king. Had he not died young – only about 40 years old – England might have stayed Danish considerably longer.