A Short History of the Danish Conquest

Eleanor Parker

Rounded Globe


1. Before Cnut: the Danes in England
2. Æthelred and the Danes, 991-1014
3. Cnut’s Conquest, 1015-1016
4. A Northern Emperor: Cnut as King, 1016-1035


In the eleventh century, England was conquered twice. The two conquests took place exactly fifty years apart – almost to the very day – in 1016 and 1066,1 but one of these dates is perhaps the most famous in English history, the other comparatively little known. The Norman Conquest which began with the Battle of Hastings in 1066 is a watershed familiar to people who know little else about medieval history, but far less celebrated are the events of half a century earlier, when England was conquered first by the Danish king Svein Forkbeard and then, in 1016, by his son Cnut. Cnut went on to rule England as part of a great North Sea empire, and for almost twenty years the country was more closely integrated with the Scandinavian world than ever before or since.

Cnut’s invasion and subsequent reign have never attracted as much scholarly or popular interest as the Norman Conquest. The effects of the Danish Conquest have generally been thought to be less important and less traumatic than those of the later invasion, as well as less fully explored by contemporary sources.2 It is certainly true that the Norman Conquest had a deep and lasting impact on the society, governance, language, and culture of England, and has assumed an emblematic status which Cnut’s conquest will never achieve: the single date ‘1066’ is still frequently used as a dividing-line, marking the end and beginning of distinct historical epochs, in a way ‘1016’ rarely is.3 It is difficult to talk about Cnut’s conquest without drawing comparisons with 1066, but such comparisons usually go in only one direction – no one would think to begin an essay on the Norman Conquest by talking about Cnut. However, the Danish Conquest is worth considering on its own terms, and not solely in the light of what came afterwards. The story of Cnut’s conquest touches on profound and complex questions of regional and national identity in England, as well as on the relationship between the English and their European neighbours – questions as relevant today as they were a millennium ago.

The aim of this essay is to provide a concise but detailed narrative of the Danish Conquest, placing these events within their eleventh-century context. We will consider the background to the invasions of Svein and Cnut, explore in detail the crucial years of the conquest, 1013-16, as they are recorded in the contemporary source-material, and then close with an examination of Cnut’s reign and legacy. There is no space in an essay of this length to treat these topics as fully as might be wished, but it is hoped that this essay will offer an accessible introduction to a fascinating period which is less well-known than it deserves to be.4

It may be helpful to begin with an overview of some of the sources we will be drawing on. The most detailed narrative source for the years leading up to 1016 is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an anonymous year-by-year account of significant events written in English.5 The section for the years immediately before 1016 was probably written not as the conquest was going on, but in one continuous narrative, early in Cnut’s reign. This means it was composed from contemporary observation and with the benefit of hindsight, but before the disasters and defeats of the conquest had ceased to sting for the writer. The chronicler knew the ultimate outcome of the war he records, and he is not afraid to apportion blame for what he sees as failures of English military leadership: reading the Chronicle gives the impression that it was chiefly mistakes on the English side which allowed the Danes to invade successfully. This is a useful interpretation to have, but it is only one view, and in some places it is incomplete. For instance, the chronicler was almost certainly writing in the south, perhaps in London. He was less informed about (and probably less interested in) what was going on in the north of England, and this is an important point to remember when it comes to considering the success of Svein and Cnut’s invasions in different parts of the country.

A different near-contemporary perspective is provided by a Latin prose text known as the Encomium Emmae Reginae. 6 This was commissioned by Cnut’s widow, Queen Emma, in the early 1040s, during the brief two-year period when her son Harthacnut was king of England. Written by an anonymous monk of St Bertin in Flanders, the Encomium tells the story of the Danish Conquest, Cnut’s reign, and the succession crisis which followed his death in 1035. The author probably had little direct experience of England, and the account he gives is most likely based on details communicated to him by Emma and other informants at the Anglo-Danish court.7 It is, therefore, a highly valuable source, and perhaps the closest thing we can get to an official narrative of the conquest from the Danish perspective. At the same time, it is by no means a straightforward account of events: it is extremely selective and partial in the information it provides, particularly when it comes to the details of Emma’s own life. (It omits to mention, for instance, that Emma had been married to the English king Æthelred before marrying Cnut – a fact of which any contemporary reader of the text would surely have been aware.) As a historical source, therefore, it has its limitations, but it is an illuminating insight into how Emma and her supporters chose to remember the events of the Danish Conquest.8

Alongside other documentary and archaeological evidence, another particularly intriguing source should also be briefly mentioned: the poetry composed for Cnut by Scandinavian skalds visiting his court in England.9 Like many Scandinavian kings, Cnut was a generous patron of poetry, and rewarded his skalds for composing verse praising his triumphs and adventures, including his conquest of England. These poems were presumably heard and enjoyed by the king and those of his followers who spoke Old Norse. Skaldic verse is notoriously difficult to interpret: as a form which delights in complexity and riddling language, it is far from being a transparent source for historical events. But the very fact that this kind of poetry was being practised at the Anglo-Danish court is a fascinating hint at the way in which Cnut’s reign introduced (or reinforced) Scandinavian culture in England, and how fully some parts of Anglo-Saxon England came to be integrated into the Danish king’s North Sea empire.

1. Before Cnut: the Danes in England

The period we will chiefly be considering in this essay spans the life of Cnut, who was born in the last decade of the tenth century (the exact date is unknown) and died in 1035. Cnut was the son of Svein Forkbeard, king of Denmark, and a Polish princess whose name is not recorded. It is not clear whether he was their oldest son, but he had one brother, Harold, and at least two sisters. Throughout his childhood his father was carrying out devastating raids on England, which culminated in 1013 when Svein drove the English king Æthelred into exile and claimed the kingdom for himself. Svein ruled for just a few weeks before death suddenly put an end to his triumph, but it was this conquest which Cnut would go on to repeat, more successfully, in 1016.

To set the scene for these events, however, we have to go back more than two centuries before Cnut’s conquest. The history of Viking activity in England stretches back at least to the eighth century, and an awareness of this long and fractious history played a significant part in shaping the country Cnut was to conquer and rule. In its entry for the year 787, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records an event which it interprets as the beginning of what we now call the Viking Age: a reeve in Dorset was killed by some Scandinavian men, who had arrived at Portland in three ships. ‘These were the first ships of Danes which came to the land of the English’, the chronicler observes, writing some time later and interpreting this apparently minor incident, with the benefit of hindsight, as the start of something new and dangerous. In 793 came an attack on the island monastery of Lindisfarne, an event marked, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, by the appearance of ominous fiery dragons in the sky – a grave portent of disaster to come. These may not in fact have been the first Viking raids in England, but in retrospect they seemed to the chronicler to mark the first signs of a new kind of threat. Intermittent waves of Viking attacks followed over the next few decades.10

To begin with, these bands of raiders may have been fairly small, but in time they grew larger and more threatening. The situation began to escalate around the middle of the ninth century: in 851 a Viking force of around 350 ships, probably larger than any which had been seen before, attacked London and Canterbury and was met in battle by Æthelwulf, king of Wessex. In 866 what the Chronicle calls a ‘great heathen army’ descended on the country and swept through the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England one by one. They conquered the regions north of the Humber and killed or drove out their kings, and when they arrived in East Anglia in 869 they put King Edmund to a grisly death which led to him being venerated as a saint and martyr. The leaders of this fearsome army included two men named Ivar and Ubbe, who came to be identified as sons of the semi-legendary warrior Ragnar Lothbrok, one of the most famous Vikings in Scandinavian history. Ragnar and his sons later became the subject of sagas and poems, making it difficult to untangle fact from legend in speaking of their achievements; however, Ivar and Ubbe were the most successful conquerors of England before Svein and Cnut, and they were long remembered.11 They never ruled the whole of England, since Alfred the Great kept the army from adding Wessex to its conquests. But Alfred could only make peace with them; the north and east of England remained under the control of the Danes, and the Viking army ‘began to plough and support themselves’, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts it.12 They settled down in what later became known as the Danelaw, a region stretching at its height from the Thames to the borders of Scotland, and for a time the north formed part of a Viking kingdom with its capital at York. 13 The distinctive place-names of northern England are the most obvious lasting legacy of these Norse settlers, and they left an impact too on the English language throughout the country.14

In the first half of the tenth century successive kings of Wessex managed to regain this territory from the Danes, in the process forging for the first time something like a united kingdom of England.15 But the Scandinavian invasions of the ninth century were not forgotten, least of all by the Danes themselves. By Cnut’s day Ivar and Ubbe were names to conjure with, and Cnut seems to have drawn on the legends of these famous Danish conquerors to claim a precedent for his own rule in England. His poets, praising him in Old Norse verse, compared Cnut’s victory over the English to that of Ivar, ‘who ruled in York’ – a reminder that Danish kings had reigned in England before. The Encomium Emmae Reginae records that in the final battle of the 1016 conquest, the Danes carried a magical banner embroidered with a raven, as legend said that Ubbe had done.16 If stories about Ubbe and Ivar were current in England in Cnut’s time, as seems to be the case, the story that he too carried such a banner into battle against the English had potent significance. The effect was to assert that Cnut was the heir to the Ragnarssons’ English kingdom; Cnut may have won his throne by conquest, but he and his followers were able to claim that there was a historical precedent for what he had done.

The importance of this claim was underlined by the complex political situation of late Anglo-Saxon England. By 1016 England had only been a unified country, ruled by one king, for a few generations: the kings of Wessex had extended their power over the formerly independent kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia, but these regions still maintained a strong sense of an independent cultural, if not political, identity. For various reasons, Anglo-Saxon written sources tend to privilege the perspective of Wessex and the south, and we can only catch occasional glimpses of how the situation may have been viewed from other parts of England. However, it seems possible that there may have been many people in the north, descended from Danish settlers of the ninth and tenth centuries, who felt the Danes had some right to rule them. Why should a descendant of the kings of Wessex have more right to rule the north than a Danish king? This was the question Svein Forkbeard and Cnut would put to the test.

2. Æthelred and the Danes, 991-1014

The last decades of the tenth century saw an intensification of Viking activity in England after a period of relative calm. From the 980s onwards England was again being raided by a number of Scandinavian armies at once, working separately or together, in search of plunder and, eventually, of conquest. Despite some local attempts at resisting these armies, King Æthelred and his counsellors were never able to mount an effective military resistance. Æthelred has gone down in history as the ‘unready’, an epithet which was not, in origin, a comment on his preparedness, but on an irony of his name: in Old English Æthelræd means ‘noble counsel’, and unræd therefore means ‘bad counsel, lack of wisdom’.17 In many ways, however, Æthelred was more unfortunate than unwise. The resumption of Viking raids, after a time of peace and prosperity in England, led contemporaries to cast around for reasons to explain this sudden decline; and they, like many later historians, focused on the personal failures of the king more than was perhaps entirely just.

The reign of Æthelred’s father, Edgar, had seen a flourishing of economic and cultural activity, together with ecclesiastical reform which restored an English church badly damaged by decades of Viking invasions. A movement led by Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, and Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, to re-establish monasteries and religious communities created centres of learning which fostered a renaissance of artistic and literary production; they also extended the cultural power of Wessex into regions of the former Danelaw, especially East Anglia and the Midlands.

But Edgar’s reign was followed by a period of intense political discord. When Edgar died in 975 he left two young sons, half-brothers, who both had supporters who believed they should inherit the throne. The elder son, Edward, succeeded his father but was murdered in 978, presumably by followers of his younger brother Æthelred, who duly became king. Æthelred himself was still a child at the time, and probably had no responsibility for his brother’s death, but the opening years of his reign were overshadowed by disputes between the supporters of the two brothers. Æthelred’s mother was accused of involvement in the murder of Edward, her stepson. Later in the medieval period, historians seeking to understand Æthelred’s troubled reign often chose to trace its origins to this crime, claiming that the dire consequences of this original sin were prophetically foreseen by St Dunstan at the time of the young king’s coronation: Dunstan is supposed to have told Æthelred, ‘Because you obtained the kingdom through the death of your brother, whom your shameful mother killed, the sword shall not depart from your house, raging against you all the days of your life, slaying your progeny until your kingdom is given to a foreign power whose customs and language the people you rule do not know.’18 This prophecy was judged to include not only the invasion of the Danes but the Norman Conquest, too – Æthelred’s accession, in this interpretation, marked the beginning of the end of Anglo-Saxon England.

This, of course, was the judgement of hindsight. Modern historians have increasingly been kinder to Æthelred, emphasising ‘his achievement in holding his kingdom together in the face of mounting internal and external pressures’ for several decades.19 His rule of 38 years remains one of the longest of any English monarch, an accomplishment which would doubtless have gained him a better reputation if not for the dismal end to his reign.

Perhaps no one could have found an effective way of dealing with the resumption of Viking attacks, but some of the decisions made by Æthelred and his advisers seem to have made matters worse. In 991, after a disastrous defeat for the English army in a battle on the Essex coast – an event commemorated in the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon20 – Æthelred and his counsellors decided to pay tribute to the Danes in the hope of bribing them to stay away. It did not work, and instead attacks continued on and off for the next two decades. England was a rich source of revenue, and the payments intended to keep the Danes away had the opposite result; the amounts paid continued to increase, and provided only temporary cessations in Viking attacks.

One of the Scandinavian armies besieging England was led by Svein Forkbeard, king of Denmark from 986. Svein may have been one of the leaders of the Viking army at Maldon, and in 994 he and Olaf Tryggvason, future king of Norway, attacked London and were paid the huge sum of 16,000 pounds. (The sums were already escalating: the first payment, after the Battle of Maldon, had been 10,000 pounds.) The entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for these years record a catalogue of destruction, listing towns and manors throughout the country which were plundered and burned by the Danes. Under the year 1001, the chronicler comments that the army ‘travelled around just as they chose, and nothing could withstand them... In every way it was a heavy time, because they never ceased from their evil’. But these were not indiscriminate raids: the Danes seem to have been able to identify and exploit areas where internal disputes among the English leadership made them especially vulnerable. In 1003, for instance, the Chronicle notes that cowardice led one of the English commanders to feign illness and disperse the army; Svein ‘saw they were not resolute’ and led his forces to burn down the town of Wilton in Wessex. Such failures of decisive action on the English side repeatedly gave the Danes an advantage, at least in the eyes of the chronicler, who records them year after year with a kind of grim bitterness.

However, not all the devastation of these years was caused by the Vikings. In 1002 Æthelred gave an order that ‘all the Danes who were among the English people’ should be killed, apparently because he was afraid they were plotting against his life. If this was intended to be an order for mass executions, it could hardly have been carried out successfully in the north and east of England, which was still at this time a mixed population with many people of Scandinavian descent. In practice it must have been directed at small communities of Danes settled in the south, who were in fact more likely to be traders and merchants than foreign spies plotting against the king. The order was to be carried out on St Brice’s Day, 13 November, and we know from a contemporary source what happened in one southern town: in Oxford, a group of Danes were pursued by the townspeople and took refuge in St Frideswide’s church, on the site of what is now Christ Church Cathedral. Their pursuers set fire to the church, and it was destroyed. The ‘St Brice’s Day massacre’ might have bought Æthelred some security and support in places like Oxford, but it can hardly have endeared him to the Anglo-Scandinavian regions of his kingdom. It may only have enraged the Danes: later sources state that Svein Forkbeard’s sister, Gunnhild, was one of those killed on St Brice’s Day, along with her husband and child, and they claim that Svein’s next attack on England was intended to avenge his sister.21

These were not the only strategies Æthelred employed against the Danes. In 1002, shortly before the events of St Brice’s Day, Æthelred married Emma, the sister of the duke of Normandy. His aim was apparently to establish a strategic relationship with England’s continental neighbour, to whom they could look for help against the Danes. This marriage was to have far-reaching consequences, and in the short-term at least it was fairly successful in preventing the Danes from gaining Norman assistance in their raids on England. Æthelred and Emma went on to have three children; Æthelred already had several children by his first wife – six sons and three daughters – so he at least had no shortage of heirs.

Despite these measures, fresh waves of Viking attacks, followed by large payments to the armies, were repeated throughout the first decade of the eleventh century. These long years of warfare must have taken a psychological as well as a financial toll, and at one point the chronicler describes the king and his counsellors paralysed with shock: there was ‘so great a terror at the raiding-army that no one could think or plan how they should be got out of the country, or how this land could be defended against them’.22 The writings of Wulfstan, archbishop of York, provide one eloquent perspective on the disasters which had befallen the country: ‘Nothing has prospered now for a long time, at home or abroad,’ Wulfstan declares in one sermon, ‘there has been harrying and hunger, burning and bloodshed in every place often and frequently, and theft and death, plague and pestilence, death of cattle and disease, malice and hatred, and the robbery of pillagers have sorely afflicted us.’ Wulfstan blames the sins of the English for the devastation which had come upon them, and urges a programme of penance and moral reform.23

Even at the distance of a millennium some of the events of these years still have the power to shock, and they must have been profoundly disturbing at the time. In 1011, Canterbury, home of the mother-church of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, was besieged by an army led by the Danish warrior Thorkell the Tall. Monks and nuns were killed or captured, the city was burned, and the archbishop of Canterbury was taken prisoner and led away in chains to the Viking fleet. These terrible events drove the chronicler to anguished lament: ‘Then was he a captive, who had been the head of the English race and of Christendom! There wretchedness might be seen where bliss had often been seen before, in that wretched town from where there first came to us Christianity and joy before God and before the world.’24

Archbishop Ælfheah had been involved for years in efforts to make peace with the Danes, which makes his eventual fate seem particularly cruel. The elderly archbishop was kept prisoner with the Danish ships, which were moored at Greenwich, from September 1011 until the following Easter. It is said that he refused to allow a ransom to be paid for his release, though it seems probable that by this time there was little money available to pay a ransom in any case. His refusal angered the army: on 19 April 1012 they led the archbishop to their assembly and pelted him with animal-bones until he fell helpless to the ground. At last one of them took pity on him and put an end to his suffering by striking him on the back of the head with an axe.25

Ælfheah soon began to be treated as a saint and martyr, and even some of the Danes seem to have been appalled by the brutal manner of his death. They allowed his body to be buried at St Paul’s, where miracles were soon reported at his tomb. Not long after this, Thorkell the Tall and his followers agreed to give up their allegiance to Svein and support Æthelred, becoming a valuable asset to the English king. The army were paid 48,000 pounds to encourage them to disperse.

All this time, Svein and his allies do not seem to have been aiming at conquest, though there was hardly a corner of England the raiding-armies had not reached. However, Svein must have been gaining considerable knowledge of England, which was to serve him well. In the summer of 1013, the year after St Ælfheah’s martyrdom and Thorkell’s defection, Svein launched something different from what had come before. He descended on the English coast with a fleet of ships, arriving first at Sandwich in Kent, but proceeding swiftly to set up a base at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire.

There he was met by Uhtred, ealdorman of Northumbria, and the leaders of the East Midlands, who submitted to him without a fight. They may have had prior knowledge of his coming, and had perhaps decided (though we can only speculate about their motives) to throw their lot in with Svein rather than with Æthelred’s increasingly chaotic regime. By 1013 they had good reason to be dissatisfied with Æthelred and his favourite advisors, particularly the notorious Eadric Streona, ealdorman of Mercia. It would not be surprising if Æthelred had forfeited the trust and support of the ealdormen who submitted to Svein: not only had he failed to prevent or respond to Viking attacks in any effective way, but he also seems to have colluded in violence against his own men, apparently allowing Eadric to pursue personal feuds with the backing of the king. The most divisive of these incidents had occurred seven years earlier, in 1006, when the king permitted or ordered a full-out assault on one of the most powerful families in England: Ælfhelm, ealdorman of Northumbria, was killed and his two sons were blinded. It was the surviving members of this family who in 1013 led the northern nobles as they submitted to Svein.

Within a very short period – a few weeks at most – all the country north of Watling Street was under Svein’s control. Watling Street, a cross-country roadway known to the Saxons as a paved Roman road, was the traditional border between the north and south of England; in the time of Alfred the Great it had been the border between English and Danish-controlled land, and the progress of Svein’s invasion makes it clear that this old boundary still held some power. Svein had, in a sense, reconquered the Danelaw, but not yet the south of England.

When Svein arrived in 1013 he brought with him his teenage son, Cnut, who now appears in historical sources for the first time. Cnut was left in charge of the fleet as Svein campaigned in the south, and around this time Svein seems to have arranged for his son to marry an English woman named Ælfgifu of Northampton. Ælfgifu was the daughter of Ælfhelm, the ealdorman of Northumbria put to death by Æthelred, and her family were powerful in the Midlands. This marriage provided Svein and Cnut with some important allies among the English nobility, and also feels like a declaration of purpose: Svein was establishing a claim not just to raid, but to rule.

In the autumn of 1013 Svein’s army swept through the south of England, achieving submission by force as he had apparently not needed to do in the north. Svein’s former ally Thorkell fought for Æthelred, and for a time defended London against his former allies; but by the end of the year the conquest was complete, and Æthelred had been forced to flee to his wife’s family in Normandy. Svein was accepted by the English witan as king of England.

With Æthelred in exile and his son Cnut now connected by marriage to an influential English family, Svein was in a dominant position. But his reign lasted less than two months, from Christmas to Candlemas of 1014; on 3 February, he died suddenly at Gainsborough. The cause of his death is not known, but later in the eleventh century a story grew up that he was killed by the vengeful ghost of St Edmund of East Anglia – the martyred king put to death by a Viking army more than a century before Svein’s invasion – who suddenly appeared to Svein in a vision to avenge his own death and the Danes’ persecution of the English people.26

Svein was buried in York, the old capital of the Danes in England. After his death, Cnut was chosen by the Danish fleet to take control of the army in his father’s place. But Cnut was young and inexperienced, and the English witan, who had been prepared to accept Svein as king a few months earlier, now decided to give Æthelred a second chance. They sent for him, saying that ‘no lord was dearer to them than their natural lord, if he would govern more justly than he had done before’.27 In return, Æthelred agreed that he would forgive everything which had been said or done against him, if his people now pledged loyalty to him again. The agreement was made, and ‘every Danish king was declared an outlaw from England forever’.28

Cnut managed to remain in England until Easter, but Æthelred’s forces came to Lincolnshire, where the Danish army was based, and raided and burned the land. Routed, Cnut was forced to retreat and sail back to Denmark. He departed with a final gesture of cruel defiance, leaving behind the English hostages who had been given to his father with their hands, ears, and noses cut off. A number of Danish ships under the command of Thorkell the Tall stayed in England, taking large payments of money from Æthelred, though apparently not giving their full allegiance to either the English or the Danish king. Cnut’s wife Ælfgifu, who must now have been in a very dangerous position, followed her new husband to Denmark. She seems to have been entrusted with bringing Svein’s body back to his homeland for reburial; perhaps it would not have been allowed to lie peacefully in York now that Æthelred was back in control.

3. Cnut’s Conquest, 1015-1016

Cnut remained in Denmark for a year. During his absence, and despite Æthelred’s promises of reform, the English court descended into internal chaos. Æthelred’s eldest son and heir died in June 1014, leaving his next surviving son, Edmund Ironside, as the person best placed to inherit the throne. Tensions quickly grew between Æthelred and his son, caused apparently by Æthelred’s decision to punish those who had aided Svein and Cnut. He seems to have focused on the family of Ælfgifu of Northampton, who had married their kinswoman to the Danish invader: two leading members of Ælfgifu’s family, Sigeferth and Morcar, were murdered during a council at Oxford early in 1015. The act was carried out by Eadric Streona, probably on the king’s orders. He lured the two men into his chamber, and there had them treacherously killed. To murder anyone under the guise of hospitality in this way was a particularly shocking act, and in ridding himself of these two potential enemies Æthelred seems to have alienated his own son, who now openly rebelled against his father. Sigeferth and Morcar appear to have been Edmund’s friends and allies; Edmund now married Sigeferth's widow and claimed the territory of the murdered thegns for himself, building up his own independent powerbase in the Midlands.

This break between the king and his heir was a serious crisis, and it coincided with the return of Cnut with a huge fleet. The Encomium Emmae Reginae describes the splendour of the Danish ships which appeared off the English coast in the summer of 1015: ‘So great was the ornamentation of the ships that the eyes of the beholders were dazzled, and to those looking from afar they seemed of flame rather than of wood... Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed on the variously shaped ships. So great, in fact, was the magnificence of the fleet, that if its lord had desired to conquer any people, the ships alone would have terrified the enemy, before the warriors whom they carried joined battle at all.’29 This is doubtless something of an exaggeration, but Cnut’s forces were obviously impressive, and his ships were augmented by those of Thorkell, who had left Æthelred and made an alliance with Cnut. The fleet reached England at Sandwich, on the eastern tip of Kent, and then sailed round the south coast towards Dorset. This time Cnut did not begin with the north, as Svein had done; perhaps he already knew they would support him, and he focused his attention on Æthelred’s heartlands in Wessex.

By this time Æthelred was ill. He was lying sick at Cosham, on the coast of Hampshire, very close to the route Cnut’s ships took as they sailed from Kent to Wessex. His incapacity left Edmund Ironside and Eadric Streona to lead the defence against the Danes, and both attempted to raise armies to meet Cnut. But they were uneasy allies: the Chronicle accuses Eadric of planning to betray Edmund, causing their first attempt to challenge Cnut to collapse before any battle could begin. That autumn, Eadric took forty ships from the king’s fleet and submitted to the Danes.

The Danish army spent the winter in Wessex, which had submitted to Cnut and agreed to provide horses and provisions (presumably under great duress). Early in 1016 Cnut and Eadric together raided in Mercia, and Edmund Ironside made another attempt to muster an army. He was no more successful than on the previous occasion, as the Chronicle bitterly explains: ‘When the army was assembled, they would not be satisfied unless the king were there and they had the support of the garrison from London. So they gave up the campaign, and everyone went home. Then after the festival the army was commanded again, under full penalty, that every man who was able should come, and the king was sent to in London and asked to come to join the army with all the support he could gather. When they were all come together, it was no use, any more than it had often been before. Then the king was told that those who should have supported him were going to betray him; he left the army, and went back again to London’.30

This kind of disorganisation and internal division is characteristic of these years, at least from the perspective of the writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and it constantly frustrated Edmund’s attempts to rally resistance against the Danes. Uhtred of Northumbria was now aiding Edmund, but in the spring of 1016 Cnut focused his attention on Uhtred’s lands in the north. Uhtred had no choice but to submit to the Danes, and despite his submission he was summarily killed on Cnut’s orders.31 In Uhtred’s place in Northumbria Cnut appointed the Norwegian Erik Hakonarson, one of his most experienced supporters.

After this both armies converged on London, where Æthelred was entering the last days of his life. He died on St George’s Day, April 23, and was buried at St Paul’s; at his death the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle comments, compassionately, that he had had ‘great labour and difficulties in his life’.32 Edmund Ironside succeeded him as king, and continued to lead the English defence against the Danes.

Over the summer of 1016 Cnut and Edmund fought a series of battles across the south of England, from Wiltshire to East Anglia, and the two armies seem to have been evenly matched. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records Edmund’s battles in sufficient detail to make it possible to reconstruct some of the events of the summer. Soon after Æthelred's death, in early May, the Danes besieged London, but did not succeed in capturing the city. Edmund escaped the city before the siege began and rode into Wessex, which swiftly submitted to his control again. After failing to capture London, the Danes came to meet him in Wessex and two battles were fought in quick succession at Penselwood, in Somerset, and at Sherston, a few miles west of Malmesbury in Wiltshire. All this area was deeply linked with the history of the kings of Wessex, Edmund’s ancestors: Penselwood is ten miles from Shaftesbury, where Æthelred’s murdered brother, Edward the Martyr, was venerated as a saint, while Malmesbury Abbey housed the tomb of King Æthelstan, who less than a century earlier had become the first king of Wessex to rule all of England. Now Edmund Ironside was fighting to retain Æthelstan’s kingdom, but he was struggling against enemies from his own side as well as against the Danes. At the Battle of Sherston, fought just after Midsummer (June 24), the Chronicle says ‘there was great slaughter on both sides, and the armies themselves broke off the fight’, and particularly criticises Eadric Streona for fighting for the Danes against Edmund. This charge later grew into a story that during the battle Eadric cut off the head of a man called Osmear, who resembled King Edmund, and shouted out to the army that the king was dead; he urged them to flee, and many were deceived. This is probably just legend, but it is typical of the kind of story told about the deceitful Eadric, who was blamed for many of Edmund’s troubles.33

After the battle at Sherston, Edmund returned to London to defend it a second time from Danish siege. A battle was fought at Brentford, a crossing over the Thames to the west of London, at which a number of Englishmen were drowned ‘through their own carelessness’ (as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts it), apparently while they were trying to plunder on their own account. The chronicler’s decision to include this apparently minor incident is a hint at his view of the English army, even under Edmund’s valiant leadership; the English were capable of harming themselves and each other even when the Danes were nowhere near. However, when London was attacked again the Danes once more failed to capture it. The chronicler, betraying a degree of interest which suggests a personal link to London, says that ‘Almighty God saved it’ despite all the Danes could do to attack the city by land and water.

In the early autumn, the two armies fought a battle in Kent which would prove to be Edmund’s last victory over Cnut. The location of this battle is not recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but is identified by the twelfth-century chronicler John of Worcester as Otford near Sevenoaks, a crossing-place over the River Darent.34 The Danes were returning to Kent from London when Edmund’s army came to meet them near Otford, and forced the Danes to flee back towards their base on the Isle of Sheppey. Edmund pursued and killed as many as he could overtake, but as he travelled further into Kent he met Eadric Streona at Aylesford and accepted him back into his army. The Chronicle says ‘there was no more unwise decision [unræd] than that was’, and John of Worcester may be correct in his suggestion that Edmund could have pressed his advantage at this point and gained a final victory over the Danes if it had not been for Eadric’s treacherous advice.

After this the Danes moved from Kent towards Essex, with Edmund pursuing them. They fought a final battle in Essex on 18 October 1016, at a place referred to in the sources as ‘the hill of Assandun’. This may be either Ashingdon in south-east Essex or Ashdon, in the north-west of the county (a plausible case can be made for either location). It was a victory for the Danes, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle again blames Eadric Streona for the English defeat, saying that he betrayed Edmund and the whole nation by being the first to take flight. It laments that ‘the flower of the English nation’ were killed that day, and names several prominent casualties, including Ulfkell Snilling, one of the leading men of East Anglia, and Eadnoth, bishop of Dorchester, who was later honoured as a martyr at Ely, the place of his burial.

The Danes remembered the Battle of Assandun as a great triumph, and years later Cnut’s poets were still praising him for his victory.35 The Encomium Emmae Reginae says that Thorkell the Tall played an important role in rallying the Danish troops at Assandun, and asserts that the Danish army carried their magical banner into the battle, where the raven embroidered on the banner beat its wings to prophesy Cnut’s victory. 36 Cnut clearly considered this battle the final stage in his conquest of England, and some years later he founded a minster church at the site of the battle to commemorate the dead and preserve the memory of his victory.37

After the Danish victory at Assandun, Edmund Ironside agreed to make peace with Cnut. The two kings met near Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, and arranged to divide the kingdom between them: Edmund would remain as king of Wessex, but Cnut would rule the rest of the country north of the Thames. Later tradition said the two kings fought against each other in single combat, but this is (unfortunately) unlikely to be true,38 and in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, they became feolagan and wedbroðra, ‘fellows and sworn brothers’. It is impossible to guess how long such an arrangement would have lasted, or how long either king would have been content with half the kingdom. In the event, however, it lasted less than six weeks. On 30 November Edmund died, perhaps from a wound sustained in the long battle campaign, and Cnut was left as sole king of England.

4. A Northern Emperor: Cnut as King, 1016-1035

In his first few months as king, Cnut ruthlessly dispatched anyone who might have been a threat to him. He had a number of leading Englishmen killed, including his former ally Eadric Streona. Doubtless he could not trust anyone who had been so disloyal to Edmund to be faithful to him, and the Encomium Emmae Reginae records that he had Eadric executed with a grim joke: ‘Pay this man what we owe him,’ he told his loyal commander Erik, who summarily cut off Eadric’s head.39 A few years later, Thorkell the Tall was outlawed from England, perhaps from similar motives.40

Cnut’s actions were well calculated to establish himself as king and to remove any possible rivals. He had the remaining members of Æthelred’s family killed or driven into exile, and Edmund Ironside’s wife and their young children fled to Hungary. But Cnut also made a decision which was to prove very shrewd: he had Æthelred’s widow Emma ‘fetched’ (as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle bluntly expresses it) to be his wife. Emma was some years older than Cnut, with experience of English politics gained during her time as Æthelred’s queen. As the sister of the duke of Normandy, she provided Cnut with an important strategic alliance which would neutralise any danger of Normandy supporting an English challenge to the Danes. Emma’s children by Æthelred remained in Normandy throughout Cnut’s reign, and did not attempt to return to England until the 1030s. She and Cnut went on to have two children, Harthacnut and Gunnhild.

Cnut was, of course, already married to Ælfgifu of Northampton, with whom he by now had two sons, Svein and Harold (named for Cnut’s father and grandfather). It was not uncommon for Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian kings to take a second consort while the first was still living, and it did not always mean a loss of status for the previous wife. Although Emma was treated in England as his queen, Cnut did not repudiate Ælfgifu or their sons; in fact, he would later make her regent of Norway on his behalf. However, he may have made an agreement with Emma that any child he had by her would be his successor, and it seems to have been accepted during his lifetime that their son Harthacnut would be his heir.

The first year of Cnut’s reign saw political executions and heavy taxation imposed on England, but by the end of 1017 Cnut’s power seems to have been secure, and from then on he adopted a conciliatory approach to the country he had conquered. He divided England into four earldoms, appointing his loyal supporters – both English and Danish – as earls of Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex and East Anglia.41 In 1018, in a meeting at Oxford, an agreement was reached which declared that Cnut had ‘established peace and friendship between the Danes and the English, and put an end to all their former enmity’. Both English and Danes agreed to follow the law-code of Edgar, Æthelred’s father, and ‘to love King Cnut with justice and loyalty’.

This peaceful state of affairs seems largely to have endured for the rest of Cnut’s reign. Surprisingly, there is little evidence of rebellion in England against the Danish conquerors – nothing compared to the turmoil which followed the Norman Conquest, when revolts continued for more than a decade after 1066. Perhaps it helped that Cnut was often absent from England in Scandinavia, but there seems to have been some aspect of wise policy too; Cnut did not attempt to impose an entirely new aristocracy on the country, promoting Englishmen as well as Danes to be his advisers and earls. Crucially, Cnut also won the support of the English church, and under the guidance of Archbishop Wulfstan the young Viking began to present himself as a Christian king.42 He made overtures of reconciliation towards the church, becoming a generous patron of monasteries and devotee of English saints. He performed public gestures of atonement for the worst atrocities of his conquest: as well as founding a church at the site of the Battle of Assandun, he paid honour to St Ælfheah, returning the archbishop’s body from St Paul’s in London to Canterbury in a splendid procession attended by the king and queen. His patronage is best symbolised by a famous image of Cnut and Emma, made in their lifetime, which shows them presenting a precious golden cross to the New Minster in Winchester. They are crowned by angels, with Christ, the Virgin Mary, and St Peter above them, while monks look on from below.43 It depicts an ideal royal couple, devout and generous; by presenting himself in this way Cnut made himself very popular with the English church, and won the support of influential figures like Wulfstan and Æthelnoth, archbishop of Canterbury.44

But if England enjoyed relative peace, the situation was more turbulent in Cnut’s other dominions. Cnut held sole control of Denmark after the death of his brother Harold, and in the second half of his reign he expanded his empire north into Norway. Olaf Haraldsson of Norway attempted to resist Cnut’s growing power in the north, and in alliance with the king of Sweden fought a battle against Cnut at the Helge River in Sweden in 1026; but these attempts were ultimately unsuccessful, and by about 1028 Norway was under Cnut’s control. He sent his first wife Ælfgifu and their son Svein to rule Norway on his behalf, where they proved to be very unpopular.

At the height of his power Cnut was king of England, Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden, and may also have had some authority over Scotland and Ireland – a North Sea empire matched by few rulers before or since. In 1027 he went on a journey to Rome, where he was welcomed with honour by the Pope and Conrad II, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. He was treated as a northern emperor, and arranged for his daughter Gunnhild to marry Conrad’s son. From Rome Cnut sent back a letter to the people of England, which declares that he would never cease to devote himself to ‘the needs of all my people’.45

In considering the impact of Cnut’s reign on England, it is important to remember the extent of his remarkable empire. The ‘Englishness’ of his reign has sometimes been overstated: Cnut’s court was multilingual and multicultural to an extent unparalleled in any other period in early medieval England, frequented by people from across his empire and beyond, including Danes, Norwegians, and Icelanders, as well as Emma and her Norman followers. The king’s laws and official pronouncements continued to be issued in English, but Cnut was a patron of Old Norse poetry too. His poets praise him as ‘the greatest prince under the heavens’, and mention his close relationship with the church and his pilgrimage to Rome as deeds which illustrate his imperial greatness; at the same time, they celebrate his victories over the English during the conquest of 1015-16 and praise him for ‘driving out the sons of Æthelred’. These poems were probably performed at the English court, but in a language and idiom most speakers of Old English would have found difficult to understand. They represent a view of Cnut as simultaneously Christian emperor and triumphant Viking warlord, a view reflected too in the Encomium Emmae Reginae, commissioned by Emma as a bold memorial to Cnut’s conquest and reign.

Cnut gave lands in England to a handful of high-ranking Danes, who married into English families and forged a kind of mixed Anglo-Scandinavian elite. Their numbers were probably small, but in certain areas of the country they were influential. The most interesting example is Godwine, an Englishman who rose rapidly under Cnut to become Earl of Wessex.46 Godwine married a Danish noblewoman named Gytha, a family connection of the king (her brother was married to Cnut’s sister). Godwine and Gytha signalled their closeness to Cnut by naming their first children after Cnut’s father and grandfather, Svein and Harold, the names Cnut had given to his own two eldest sons. After Cnut’s death, the family of Godwine and Gytha would remain hugely influential in English politics, and their son, of course, briefly became king of England in 1066. It is one of the ironies of English history that Harold Godwineson, often idolised in modern romantic interpretations of this period as the heroic defender of England against the Norman Conquest, owed his position to his father’s support of the Danish conqueror Cnut; still more ironic, this icon of Englishness bore a name which would have seemed to his contemporaries to be markedly Scandinavian, and distinctly non-English.

The Anglo-Scandinavian elite promoted by Cnut left traces of their presence in other ways. One telling marker of Scandinavian identity included the foundation of churches in England dedicated to saints popular in the north, particularly St Olaf Haraldsson, King of Norway, who was regarded as a martyr after his death at the hands of his own people in 1030. Cnut, who had been an enemy of Olaf in life, shrewdly promoted the martyr’s cult in death, and several churches dedicated to St Olaf in England in the decades after his death can be plausibly connected with prominent Scandinavians.47 Exeter, Chichester and Southwark, all areas linked with Gytha and Godwine, have eleventh-century churches dedicated to St Olaf; Siward, earl of Northumbria, another of the Danes promoted by Cnut, founded and dedicated a church to St Olaf in York and was buried there in 1055.48

In addition, some tantalising archaeological evidence from places like Winchester and London demonstrates the presence of a small but high-status Scandinavian population in these towns during Cnut’s reign. A beautifully-decorated stone found in the churchyard at St Paul’s in London (the image on which the cover of this essay is based) is inscribed in runes with the Norse names Ginna and Toki, who were perhaps the wife and son of the person this stone was made to commemorate. London was the site of a Danish garrison during Cnut’s reign, and the man connected to Ginna and Toki could have been a Danish soldier in Cnut’s army.49 Weapons and ornaments in Scandinavian style, found in London and elsewhere, reveal the presence of aristocratic men and women following Norse fashions throughout England in the early eleventh century.

Even in Winchester, the ancient capital of the kings of Wessex, burial-place of Alfred the Great, the presence of Cnut and his Scandinavian followers can be traced.50 Gravestones commemorate those who fought with Cnut, while a fragmentary carving, probably once part of a larger frieze, appears to depict a scene from the Norse legend of Sigmund.51 Sigmund and his son Sigurd, the dragon-slayer, were part of the greatest heroic cycle of Scandinavian legend, which is preserved in its fullest form in the later Norse text Völsunga saga. The carving from Winchester has been interpreted to show the moment at which Sigmund, bound and about to be devoured by a wolf, smears his mouth with honey to distract her from killing him. Sigmund, who is mentioned in Beowulf, was known to the Anglo-Saxons too but at this time he may have been understood as an ancestor of the Danish kings, and therefore one of Cnut’s own forebears. To find this Scandinavian hero celebrated in Winchester, the spiritual heart of the kingdom of Wessex, is a remarkable testament to the extent of Cnut’s cultural and political influence. It is even possible that the carving of Sigmund was made to form part of Cnut’s own tomb; it is certainly striking enough for a king.


Cnut died at Shaftesbury on 12 November 1035, aged probably not much more than forty. He was buried in the Old Minster at Winchester (now Winchester Cathedral), alongside some of the first kings of Wessex. His tomb does not survive, and his remains have suffered a disturbed history: in 1642, when the cathedral was invaded by Parliamentarian soldiers, the bones of Cnut and other early monarchs buried there were removed from their resting-place and scattered across the floor of the cathedral. The bones were collected up again, but for centuries were not identified. Cnut’s mortal remains, together with those of Emma, their son Harthacnut, and a number of others, form part of a confused jumble of bones kept in mortuary chests in the cathedral.

After Cnut’s death, the succession was contested by the sons of his two wives, Emma’s son Harthacnut and Harold Harefoot, one of his children with Ælfgifu. Harold managed to gain enough support to become king, but died less than five years later without an heir. Harthacnut succeeded him, but he too died young and childless in 1042. During Harthacnut’s reign his half-brother, Emma and Æthelred’s son Edward, returned to England from his long exile in Normandy, and on Harthacnut’s death Edward became king. The line of the kings of Wessex had returned to the English throne, and Edward (later known as St Edward the Confessor) went on to reign for more than twenty years. His mother Emma died in 1052; she had been the wife of two kings and mother of two more, and had long outlived both her husbands.

Although Cnut’s dynasty quickly died out in England, the Danish men and women he had promoted continued to influence English politics throughout Edward’s reign. Earl Godwine and his Danish wife Gytha headed a powerful Anglo-Danish family who clashed with Edward and his Norman supporters at court; Edward married their daughter Edith, but the relationship between the king and his wife’s relatives was often strained. The marriage remained childless, leaving Edward without a direct heir. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if Edward and Edith had produced an heir; not only would the Norman Conquest probably never have taken place, but the close relationship between England and Denmark formed in Cnut’s reign might well have been re-established, since through Gytha, Edith was closely linked to the ruling family of Denmark. Edith’s cousin, Cnut’s nephew Svein, was king of Denmark from 1047 until 1074. After Edward’s death in 1066 Edith’s brother Harold Godwineson briefly occupied the English throne; with Harold ruling in England and Svein in Denmark, the family of Cnut’s protégé Godwine had reached great heights.

Of course, Harold’s reign was short-lived, and its further consequences are beyond the scope of this essay. We may conclude, however, by looking briefly at Cnut’s posthumous reputation in England. By the twelfth century, Cnut was remembered in a very positive light, particularly by monastic writers; there were many stories about his piety, telling how he presented his own crown to a figure of Christ, or walked five miles barefoot to the shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham.52 At Ely, it was said that Cnut so much loved to visit the monastery that he composed a song in English expressing his delight at the singing of the monks:

Merry sang the monks in Ely
When Cnut the king rowed by.
Row, men, near the land
And let us hear these monks sing.53

The story of how Cnut attempted to control the waves – first recorded in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, about a century after Cnut’s death – is the most famous of these vignettes about Cnut’s piety. For many people, this story is the only thing they know about Cnut, and the tale has become almost proverbial as a reminder of the limits of human power and the foolishness of trying to command what is beyond one’s control. In origin, however, the story was intended to illustrate Cnut’s wisdom and humility. It is worth including the story in full, since it is so often misrepresented:

‘A few words must be devoted to the power of this king. Before him there had never been in England a king of such great authority. He was lord of all Denmark, of all England, of all Norway, and also of Scotland. In addition to the many wars in which he was most particularly illustrious, he performed three fine and magnificent deeds. The first is that he gave his daughter in marriage to the Roman emperor, with indescribable riches. The second, that on his journey to Rome, he had the evil taxes that were levied on the road that goes through France, called tolls or passage tax, reduced by half at his own expense. The third, that when he was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea-shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide, ‘You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.’ But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king’s feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried, ‘Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and sea obey eternal laws’. Thereafter King Cnut never wore the golden crown on his neck, but placed it on the image of the crucified Lord, in eternal praise of God the great king. By whose mercy may the soul of King Cnut enjoy rest.’54

It is clear from Henry’s framing of the story that he views it as a ‘fine and magnificent deed’, equal in stature to Cnut’s ability to make alliances with the Holy Roman Emperor and to negotiate with foreign powers. Although there is a touch of comedy in the picture of the king’s feet getting wet, the story is supposed to enhance, not to mar, the king’s royal dignity. Various places in England, from Bosham to Southampton and Westminster, claim – without much foundation – to be the original location of this event, but the story is almost certainly myth. Nonetheless, it illustrates something important about how Cnut was remembered after his death. For Cnut to claim (or be represented as claiming) power over the sea was no idle boast: as a Viking king, he had won his greatest achievements by his dominance over the North Sea and the superior qualities of his ships, and no other medieval king had such a good claim to be able to command the waves. To renounce that claim out of Christian humility is, therefore, an especially meaningful gesture, and just the kind of ostentatious display of piety which helped Cnut to win the support of the English church. Whether or not Cnut ever did anything like this, the story of the waves astutely combines these two aspects of his success as king.

This story, and others like it, gave Cnut a glowing reputation in later medieval sources. Some medieval historians drew a contrast, favourable to Cnut, between what they saw as the Danish conqueror’s adoption of English ways and the harsher approach of the Norman kings: William of Malmesbury, for instance, comments of Cnut that ‘There was no justice in his succession to the throne, but he arranged his life with great statesmanship and courage’.55 Cnut is remembered as one of the most successful kings in English history, in part because of the extent of his empire, but also because he managed to rule through the strong and effective systems of government and law already established in England. Even so, his conquest is overshadowed by the events of 1066, which his own actions unwittingly helped to bring about: by destabilising the English monarchy and strengthening Edward the Confessor’s ties with Normandy, Cnut’s reign in many ways set the stage for the Norman Conquest. The conquest which made England part of a Scandinavian empire in 1016 led to another, exactly fifty years later, which turned England’s political focus from Scandinavia to continental Europe. England would never again be as closely united to the northern world as it had been in Cnut’s reign.


1. The Battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066, and the Battle of Assandun, the last battle of Cnut’s conquest, on 18 October 1016.

2. Even the term ‘Danish Conquest’ is less well-established than the equivalent term for the Norman invasion; the use of the phrase in the title of this essay is deliberately intended to challenge this.

3. In recent years much valuable work has been done to re-evaluate the traditional view of the Norman Conquest as a unique moment of rupture in English history; for one important example, see Elaine Treharne, Living Through Conquest: The Politics of Early English, 1020-1220 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

4. For more extensive analysis of Cnut’s reign, see M. K. Lawson, Cnut: England’s Viking King, 1016-1035 (Stroud: History, 2011) and Timothy Bolton, The Empire of Cnut the Great: Conquest and the Consolidation of Power in Northern Europe in the Early Eleventh Century (Leiden: Brill, 2009); for an account of Svein’s invasion, see Ian Howard, Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991-1017 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2003).

5. A full translation of the different versions of the texts can be found in Michael Swanton, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (London: Phoenix, 1996; revised edition 2000). All translations from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in this essay are the author’s own, referenced by the year to which the entry is ascribed.

6. Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. and trans. Alistair Campbell, reprinted with an introduction by Simon Keynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

7. Elizabeth M. Tyler, ‘Talking about history in eleventh-century England: the Encomium Emmae Reginae and the court of Harthacnut’, Early Medieval Europe 13 (2005), 359-83, and Eleanor Parker, ‘So very memorable a matter: Anglo-Danish History and the Encomium Emmae Reginae’, in Ian Giles et al., eds., Beyond Borealism: New Perspectives on the North (London: Norvik Press, 2016), 41-53.

8. Pauline Stafford, Queen Emma and Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh-Century England (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001).

9. Matthew Townend, ‘Contextualizing the Knútsdrápur: skaldic praise-poetry at the court of Cnut’, Anglo-Saxon England 30 (2001), 145-79, Roberta Frank, ‘King Cnut in the verse of his skalds’, in Alexander Rumble, ed., The Reign of Cnut: King of England, Denmark and Norway (London: Leicester University Press, 1994), 106-24, and Judith Jesch, ‘Knútr in poetry and history’, in Michael Dallapiazza et al., eds., International Scandinavian and Medieval Studies in Memory of Gerd Wolfgang Weber (Trieste: Parnaso, 2000), 243-56.

10. For an accessible introduction to the history of the Vikings in Britain, see Katherine Holman, The Northern Conquest: Vikings in Britain and Ireland (Oxford: Signal Books, 2007), and Simon Keynes, ‘The Vikings in England, c.790–1016’, in Peter Sawyer, ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 48-82.

11. Rory McTurk, Studies in Ragnars saga Loðbrókar and its Major Scandinavian Analogues (Oxford: The Society for the Study of Mediæval Languages and Literature, 1991), and Alfred Smyth, Scandinavian Kings in the British Isles 850-880 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).

12. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 876.

13. On this period of Scandinavian settlement in England, see D. M. Hadley, The Vikings in England: Settlement, Society and Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), D. M. Hadley and J. D. Richards, eds., Cultures in Contact: Scandinavian Settlement in England in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries (Turnhout, 2000), and Matthew Townend, Viking Age Yorkshire (Pickering: Blackthorn Press, 2014).

14. For Scandinavian influence on place-names in England, see L. Abrams and D. N. Parsons, ‘Place-Names and the History of Scandinavian Settlement in England’, in J. Hines, A. Lane and M. Redknap, eds., Land, Sea and Home (Leeds: Maney, 2004), 379-431, and on the influence of the Old Norse language on English, Matthew Townend, Language and History in Viking Age England: Linguistic Relations between Speakers of Old Norse and Old English (Turnhout: Brepols, 2002).

15. For more on this process in the tenth century, see Sarah Foot, Æthelstan: The First King of England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

16. Encomium Emmae Reginae, 25. An English chronicle known as the Annals of St Neots records the legend in its account of how Ubbe was killed in battle against the English in 878 and the Danes’ banner ‘Raven’ was captured: ‘It is said that the three sisters of Ivar and Ubbe, that is, the daughters of Lothbrok, wove that banner and prepared the whole thing in the space of one noon-tide. And it is said that in every battle in which this banner precedes the warriors, if the victory is to be theirs there appears in the middle of the banner what seems to be a living raven flying; but if they are to be defeated, then it hangs down lifeless’ (translated from David Dumville and Michael Lapidge, eds., The Annals of St Neots (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1985), 78). This magical, prophetic raven banner is also found in Scandinavian tradition; for examples see N. Lukman, ‘The Raven Banner and the Changing Ravens: A Viking Miracle from Carolingian Court Poetry to Saga and Arthurian Romance’, Classica et Medievalia 19 (1958), 133-51. Those banners, too, are often woven by the mothers and sisters of heroes, reflecting the prophetic role of women in Scandinavian tradition; Lothbrok’s three daughters (mentioned only in this English text) are reminiscent of the Norns of Norse mythology, who weave the fates of men.

17. On Æthelred’s reign see Ryan Lavelle, Æthelred II: King of the English, 978-1016 (Stroud: Tempus, 2002) and Ann Williams, Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counselled King (London: Hambledon and London, 2003).

18. This prophecy is found in Osbern of Canterbury’s Vita S. Dunstani, from the late eleventh century; Simon Keynes, ‘The Burial of King Æthelred the Unready at St Paul’s’, in David Roffe, ed., The English and their Legacy 900-1200: Essays in Honour of Ann Williams (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2012), 129-48.

19. Angelo Forte, Richard Oram and Frederik Pedersen, Viking Empires (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 185; see also Simon Keynes, ‘The declining reputation of King Æthelred the Unready’, in D. A. E. Pelteret, ed., Anglo-Saxon History: Basic Readings (New York: Garland, 2000), 157-90.

20. On the context of the battle and the poem commemorating it, see Janet Cooper, ed., The Battle of Maldon: Fiction and Fact (London: Hambledon Press, 1993) and D. G. Scragg, The Return of the Vikings: The Battle of Maldon 991 (Stroud: Tempus, 2006).

21. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, ed. and trans. R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), vol. i, 300-1; Simon Keynes, The Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’ 978-1016 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 214, and Williams, Æthelred the Unready, 53-4.

22. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1006.

23. See Jonathan Wilcox, 'Wulfstan's Sermo Lupi ad Anglos as Political Performance: 16 February 1014 and beyond', in Matthew Townend, ed., Wulfstan, Archbishop of York (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), 375-96.

24. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1011.

25. The details of his death are recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 1012, and see also Osbern’s Life of Alfege, trans. Frances Shaw (London: St Pauls, 1999).

26. The context for the first appearance of this legend is discussed in Rebecca Pinner, The Cult of St Edmund in Medieval East Anglia (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2015), 55-8.

27. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1014.

28. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1014.

29. Encomium Emmae Reginae, 19-21.

30. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1016.

31. Sources disagree on the circumstances of his death: the C version of the Chronicle says he was murdered at Cnut’s command on the advice of Eadric Streona, but a later and perhaps better-informed northern source says that Uhtred was killed by a man with whom he had a long-standing feud, and that his death began a series of revenge killings which lasted into the 1070s; Christopher J. Morris, Marriage and Murder in eleventh-century Northumbria: a study of ‘De Obsessione Dunelmi’ (York: Borthwick Institute, 1992).

32. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1016.

33. The Chronicle of John of Worcester, ed. R. R. Darlington, P. McGurk, and J. Bray (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), vol. ii, 487-9.

34. Chronicle of John of Worcester, ed. Darlington, McGurk, and Bray, vol. ii, 488-91.

35. Matthew Townend, ‘Cnut’s Poets: An Old Norse Literary Community in Eleventh-Century England’, in E. M. Tyler, ed., Conceptualising Multilingualism in Medieval England, 800-1250 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), 197-215.

36. Encomium Emmae Reginae, 25.

37. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1020.

38. Margaret Ashdown, ‘The Single Combat in Certain Cycles of English and Scandinavian Tradition and Romance’, The Modern Language Review 17 (1922), 113-30.

39. Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. Campbell, 30-3.

40. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1021.

41. Simon Keynes, ‘Cnut’s earls’, in Rumble, The Reign of Cnut, 43-88.

42. On the career of Wulfstan and his relationship with Æthelred and Cnut, see Townend, Wulfstan, Archbishop of York. At this date Christianity was relatively new to Denmark, having been established during the reign of Cnut’s grandfather; although Cnut himself was almost certainly baptised as a child, many of his followers were probably recent converts or still pagans (Lawson, Cnut, 121-3).

43. Elizabeth C. Parker, ‘The Gift of the Cross in the New Minster Liber Vitae’, in Elizabeth Sears and Thelma K. Thomas, eds., Reading Medieval Images: The Art Historian and the Object (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 176-86, and Barbara C. Raw, Anglo-Saxon Crucifixion Iconography and the Art of the Monastic Revival (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 25-6, 63.

44. Jan Gerchow, ‘Prayers for King Cnut: the Liturgical Commemoration of a Conqueror’, in Carola Hicks, ed., England in the Eleventh Century (Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1992), 219-38, T. A. Heslop, ‘The production of de luxe manuscripts and the patronage of King Cnut and Queen Emma’, Anglo-Saxon England 19 (1990), 151-95; Lawson, Cnut, 111-47; Bolton, The Empire of Cnut, 77-106; and Susan J. Ridyard, The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: A study of West Saxon and East Anglian cults (Cambridge, 1988), 150-4, 194-6, and 224-6.

45. Treharne, Living Through Conquest, 28-43.

46. Frank Barlow, The Godwins: The Rise and Fall of a Noble Dynasty (London: Pearson Longman, 2003) and Emma Mason, The House of Godwine: The History of a Dynasty (London: Hambledon and London, 2004).

47. Matthew Townend, ‘Knútr and the Cult of St Óláfr: Poetry and Patronage in Eleventh-Century Norway and England’, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 1 (2005), 251-79.

48. On Siward’s career and later legends about his life, see Eleanor Parker, ‘Siward the Dragon-Slayer: Mythmaking in Anglo-Scandinavian England’, Neophilologus, 98 (2014), 481-93.

49. E. Roesdahl, J. Graham-Campbell, P. Connor and K. Pearson, eds., The Vikings in England and in their Danish Homeland (London: Anglo-Danish Viking Project, 1981), 136 and 163 (no. I 19) and Judith Jesch, ‘Scandinavians and ‘Cultural Paganism’ in Late Anglo-Saxon England’, in Paul Cavill, ed., The Christian Tradition in Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2004), 55-67.

50. Barbara Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages (London: Leicester University Press, 1995), 143-5; Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle and R. I. Page, ‘A Scandinavian Rune-Stone from Winchester’, The Antiquaries Journal 55:2 (1975), 389-94, and Martin Biddle, ‘Excavations at Winchester 1965: Fourth Interim Report’, The Antiquaries Journal 46:2 (1966), 308-32.

51. Dominic Tweddle et al., Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture Volume IV: South-East England (Oxford, 1995), 314-22.

52. Symeon of Durham. Libellus de Exordio atque Procursu istius hoc est Dunhelmensis Ecclesie, ed. and trans. David Rollason (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), 167-9.

53. Janet Fairweather, Liber Eliensis: A History of the Isle of Ely from the Seventh Century to the Twelfth (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2005), 181-3.

54. Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. by Diana Greenway (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 366-9. The story also appears, with some slight differences, in the Anglo-Norman Estoire des Engleis by Geoffrey Gaimar (Estoire des Engleis: History of the English), ed. and trans. Ian Short (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 254-6; see Eleanor Parker, ‘Pilgrim and Patron: Cnut and the Waves in Post-Conquest Historical Writing’, The Medieval Chronicle 9 (2014), 271-95.

55. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, ed. Mynors, Thomson and Winterbottom, vol. i, 320-1.

About the Author

Eleanor Parker is a writer and academic based in Oxford, England. She has a doctorate in medieval literature from the University of Oxford and researches and teaches Old and Middle English literature. Her academic research focuses on the literature and history of the Vikings in England and the relationship between historical writing, fiction, and romance in the post-Conquest period. She has published several articles on Anglo-Danish literary culture and the reign of Cnut, and is the author of the blog A Clerk of Oxford and a columnist for History Today.


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