Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Danish Conquest, 15: The Death of Edmund Ironside

The death of Edmund Ironside (CUL MS Ee.3.59, f. 5)

On this day in 1016 Edmund Ironside died, after just seven months as king of England. After the death of his father Æthelred on St George's Day 1016, he had inherited a kingdom half-overrun by a Danish army, and he spent most of his reign fighting Cnut and the Danes for control of England. The last battle was fought at Assandun on 18 October 1016, after which Edmund and Cnut reached a peace-treaty and agreed to divide the kingdom - so at the time of his death Edmund was king only of Wessex, while Cnut held what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls the norðdæle, the northern part of England. Following Edmund's death, as the peace-treaty may have arranged, Cnut became king of the whole country, and went on to rule it for nearly twenty years.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle only observes that Edmund died on St Andrew's Day and was buried with his grandfather, King Edgar, at Glastonbury. It gives no details as to the location or manner of his death, and later sources provide varying information on both. Some sources say he died in Oxford (which was near the northern border of his much-diminished kingdom), others in London (then occupied by Danish ships). We don't know the cause of his death, and it may well have been from natural causes: he died at the end of a year of almost continuous warfare, just six weeks after a heroic last stand at the Battle of Assandun, so it's very possible he succumbed to an existing wound.

But this simple explanation seems not to have appealed to contemporaries or to later medieval historians. Within a few decades (and perhaps from the first) his death was being blamed on Eadric streona, one of his commanders, a Mercian ealdorman of impressively fluid loyalties. Eadric had betrayed Edmund in the past, and switched allegiance between the Danes and the English and back again more than once in the years before Edmund's death. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle regularly highlights his betrayals, and post-Conquest sources blackened his already pitch-black name by crediting him with a whole range of extra crimes, including but not limited to the St Brice's Day Massacre, the murder of Svein Forkbeard's sister Gunnhild, the death of St Ælfheah, the English defeat in more than one battle against the Danes, and the murder of Edmund. The twelfth-century historians are pretty well agreed that Eadric was largely to blame for the Danish Conquest, and if they could have found some way to blame the Norman Conquest on Eadric, they would probably have done that too.

Perhaps surprisingly, no English sources cast suspicion on Cnut or suggest he was involved in his rival's death - quite the opposite, in fact. Cnut was not above executing political opponents (including one of Edmund's brothers, and his own brother-in-law) so it would hardly have been out of the question, and some late Scandinavian sources have no doubt Cnut was responsible. The English historians, however, tell a very different story. The treaty made between Cnut and Edmund, illustrated by their kiss of peace in the thirteenth-century manuscript above, had made them 'partners and pledged-brothers' (feolagan 7 wedbroðra), and William of Malmesbury says that Cnut continued to refer to Edmund as his brother; he even visited Edmund's grave at Glastonbury on the anniversary of his death and presented a rich cloak decorated with peacocks at his tomb.

Many later sources go even further, and say that Cnut was not only saddened by his opponent's death, but took it upon himself to avenge Edmund. The earliest incarnation of this story occurs in the Encomium Emmae Reginae, whose author derived much of his information (and surely this story) from members of the Anglo-Danish court of Cnut's son, Harthacnut. It is cited as evidence that Cnut was 'as yet in the flower of youth, but was nevertheless master of indescribable wisdom':

It was, accordingly, the case that he loved those whom he had heard to have fought previously for Eadmund faithfully without deceit, and that he so hated those whom he knew to have been deceitful, and to have hesitated between the two sides with fraudulent tergiversation, that on a certain day he ordered the execution of many chiefs for deceit of this kind. One of these was Eadric, who had fled from the war, and to whom, when he asked for a reward for this from the king, pretending to have done it to ensure his victory, the king said sadly: "Shall you, who have deceived your lord with guile, be capable of being true to me? I will return to you a worthy reward, but I will do so to the end that deception may not subsequently be your pleasure." And summoning Eiríkr, his commander, he said: "Pay this man what we owe him; that is to say, kill him, lest he play us false." He, indeed, raised his axe without delay, and cut off his head with a mighty blow, so that soldiers may learn from this example to be faithful, not faithless, to their kings.

Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. and trans. Alistair Campbell (London: Royal Historical Society, 1949),  pp.31-3.

It's tempting to see this bit of grim wordplay as some classic Viking black humour: Eadric gets his 'reward', but not the reward he was expecting. Cnut did indeed have Eadric killed in 1017, probably not quite as flamboyantly as this - but this sounds to me like the kind of story which might have been in circulation at court, and it might well have some origin in fact. From the twelfth century onwards, historians elaborate not only as to the nature of Eadric's punishment but the manner of poor Edmund's death. Here's Henry of Huntingdon's version, with some even better wordplay:

When [Edmund], fearful and most formidable to his enemies, was prospering in his kingdom, he went one night to the lavatory to answer a call of nature. There the son of Ealdorman Eadric, who by his father's plan was concealed in the pit of the privy, struck the king twice with a sharp knife in the private parts, and leaving the weapon in his bowels, fled away. Then Eadric came to King Cnut and saluted him, saying, ‘Hail, sole king!’ When he disclosed what had happened, the king answered, ‘As a reward for your great service, I shall make you higher than all the English nobles.’ Then he ordered him to be beheaded, and his head to be fixed on a stake on London’s highest tower.

Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. by Diana Greenway (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp.360-3.

'Higher', get it? Justice with a pun. This story, puns and privies and all, is actually quite a restrained version: as time went on, other medieval historians added lurid details about some kind of bizarre privy-based stabbing machine which Eadric used to kill Edmund, yet more puns about reward/debt/being made 'highest', and Cnut throwing Eadric into the Thames with a catapult.

Edmund Ironside and his descendants (BL Royal 14 B VI)

Whatever vengeance Cnut may or may not have enacted on Edmund's behalf, history did bring him a measure of justice. At the time of his death, he had two infant sons by his wife Ealdgyth. They were taken out of the country, and grew up in exile. One of them married a Hungarian princess and by her became the father of three children, including Margaret of Scotland; and Margaret's daughter, in 1100, married Henry I, thus grafting the line of the Anglo-Saxon kings back into the royal family tree. It's a nice irony of history that Edmund should have died on St Andrew's Day, when his descendants would go on to become rulers (and patron saint) of Scotland; and it's through them and through Edmund Ironside, though only seven months' king, that the English monarchy can today claim descent from the kings of Wessex.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

The Coming of Christ, the Golden Blossom

Christ in Majesty (Grimbald Gospels, BL Add. 34890, f. 114v)

On the first Sunday of Advent, here's a fragment of an anonymous Anglo-Saxon homily on the subject of Christ's tocyme. It comes from the collection of Old English sermons known as the Blickling Homilies, which probably dates to the tenth century. The text is from here, slightly altered, with my translation.
Men þa leofestan, we gehyrdon oft secggan be þam æþelan tocyme ures Drihtnes, hu he him on þas world þingian ongan, þæt heahfæderas sægdon 7 cyþdon, þæt witigan witigodan 7 heredon, þæt sealmsceopas sungon 7 sægdon, þæt se wolde cuman of þam cynestole 7 of þæm þrymrice hider on þas world, 7 him ealle þas cynericu on his anes æht geagnian. Eall þæt wæs gelæsted seoþþan heofonas tohlidon, 7 seo hea miht on þysne wang astag, 7 se Halga Gast wunode on þam æþelan innoþe, 7 on þam betstan bosme, 7 on þam gecorenan hordfæte; 7 on þam halgan breostum he eardode nigon monaþ. þa ealra fæmnena cwen cende þone soþan Scyppend 7 ealles folces Frefrend, 7 ealles middangeardes Hælend, 7 ealra gasta Nergend, 7 ealra saula Helpend, þa se goldbloma þa on þas world becom 7 menniscne lichoman onfeng æt Sancta Marian þære unwemman fæmnan. Þurh þa burþran we wæron gehælde, 7 þurh þæt gebeorþor we wurdon alysde, 7 þurh þa gesamnunga we wæron gefreoþode feonda gafoles, 7 þurh þone tocyme we wæron geweorþode & gewelgade 7 gearode.

7 seoþþan he Drihten Crist her on worlde wunode mid mannum, 7 him feala wundra cyþde & beforan worhte; 7 hie liþelice hælan wolde 7 mildheortnesse tæcan. Hie wæron stænenre heortan 7 blindre þæt hie þæt ongeotan ne cuðan þæt hie þær gehyrdon, ne þæt oncnawan ne mihton þæt hie þær gesawon; ac þa se ælmihtiga God afyrde him þæt unriht wrigels of heora heortan, 7 hie onbyrhton mid leohtum andgite, þæt hie þæt ongytan 7 oncnawan mihton, hwa him to hæle 7 to helpe 7 to feorhnere on þas world astag; seoþþan he him mildheortness earon ontynde, 7 to geleafan onbryrde, 7 his miltse onwreah, 7 his mægsibbe gecyðde. Ær þon we wæron steopcild gewordene, forþon þe we wæron astypte þæs heofonlican rices, 7 we wæron adilegode of þam frymþlican... [text missing in the manuscript] Crist wunaþ & rixaþ mid eallum halgum saulum aa buton ende on ealra worlda world. Amen.

'Dearly beloved, we have often heard tell of the noble advent of our Lord, how he began himself to intervene in this world, as patriarchs said and proclaimed, as prophets prophesied and praised, as psalmists sang and said, that he would come from the kingly throne of his glorious realm here into this world, and would take for himself all kingdoms into his own keeping. All that was fulfilled after the heavens broke open and the supreme power descended into this earth, and the Holy Spirit dwelt in the noble womb, in the best bosom, in the chosen treasure-chamber, and in that holy breast he dwelt for nine months. Then the queen of all virgins bore the true Creator, Comforter of all people, Saviour of all the world, Preserver of all spirits, Helper of all souls. Then the golden blossom came into this world, and received a human body from St Mary, the spotless virgin. Through that birth we were saved, and through that child-bearing we were redeemed; through that union we were freed from the exactions of devils, and through that advent we were honoured and enriched and endowed.

And afterwards the Lord Christ dwelt here in the world with men, and showed them many miracles which he worked in front of them. He intended lovingly to heal them and teach them mercy. They were stony-hearted and blind, so that they could not comprehend what they heard there, nor could they understand what they saw there; but then the Almighty God removed for them that wrongful veil from their hearts and shone upon them with enlightened understanding, so that they could understand and know how he descended into this world to be their helper and healer and refuge. Afterwards he opened for them the ears of compassion, and kindled faith in them, and manifested his mercy and made known his kinship to them. Before that we had been made orphans, because we were deprived of the heavenly kingdom and were put out of the original... [text missing in the manuscript] Christ lives and reigns with all holy souls, eternally without end, for ever and ever. Amen.'

Christ in Majesty (Benedictional of St Æthelwold, BL Add. 49598, f.70)

This brief fragment is full of rhetorical flourishes and ornamental prose which it's difficult to convey in translation; it would be very effective when read aloud, as homilies are of course meant to be. There's a particularly lovely string of parallel phrases describing Christ: ealles folces Frefrend, 7 ealles middangeardes Hælend, 7 ealra gasta Nergend, 7 ealra saula Helpend 'all people's Comfort, all the world's Saviour, all spirits' Preserver, all souls' Helper'.

The best-known feature of this homily is that striking description of Christ as the 'golden blossom' (goldbloma). Its meaning is uncertain: an alternative possible translation is 'golden mass', as in 'nugget of gold', to match the description of Mary's womb as the hordfæt, 'treasure-chamber'. Anglo-Saxon writers did like a treasure metaphor, and this one reminds me of the description of Christ in a similar context, in the poem Christ III, as 'the precious stone' - the 'arkenstone', as I discussed in this Advent post.

...æt ærestan
foreþoncle men from fruman worulde
þurh wis gewit, witgan dryhtnes,
halge higegleawe, hæleþum sægdon,
oft, nales æne, ymb þæt æþele bearn,
ðæt se earcnanstan eallum sceolde
to hleo ond to hroþer hæleþa cynne
weorðan in worulde, wuldres agend,
eades ordfruma, þurh þa æþelan cwenn.

...from the beginning,
from the origin of the world, foreknowing men
with their wise wits, prophets of the Lord,
holy ones sage in spirit, spoke to men
often, not once only, of that noble child:
how the precious stone should
come into the world as refuge and comfort
to all the race of men, the ruler of glory,
beginner of bliss, through the noble woman.

The idea of Christ as a jewel is a rich and resonant one, even before you add in all the extra connotations Tolkien bestowed on the word arkenstone. But the image of a 'golden blossom' resonates too, in an Advent context: think of all those medieval texts in which Christ is described as the flower growing from the root of Jesse, which blooms in the depth of winter, when earthly leaves are withered and dying. And since this homily also describes the heavens being burst open (heofonas tohlidon) at Christ's coming, we might think particularly of the passage from Isaiah used in Advent: 'Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bud forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together.'

However you choose to understand goldbloma, both translations produce interpretations full of meaning. The ancient understanding of Advent was as a season rich with interpretative possibilities: the season for reading 'the signs of the times', interpreting the natural world as if it were a book in which God had written a revelation of his purpose, and for reading Christian meaning into the prophecies and poetry of the Old Testament. Advent gives us images which are both/and, not either/or: all the many names given to Christ in this season (king, daystar, root of Jesse, key of David) are to be understood as facets of the truth, not its entirety. For a medieval reader, Advent could be knotty and paradoxical, speaking simultaneously of the beginning and the end of time, of an all-powerful but helpless baby, of the verbum infans, the speechless Word.

Today there's a lot of cultural pressure to give up on the more complex aspects of Advent, to focus on the easy bits of the Christmas story, on the principle that it's 'what people want'. I always half feel as if I ought to apologise for posting medieval texts about Advent during Advent, rather than just tweeting pretty Nativity scenes every day. That's what people want, apparently - and then they say they're tired of Christmas before the Black Friday sales have even finished. That's not surprising, if we go along with the idea that there's nothing more to Christmas than the sweet simplicity of 'Away in a Manger'. But after a year in which everyone has been anxiously and insistently reading the signs of the times, trying to decide if 2016 is 'the worst year in history' and anticipating imminent apocalypse, this seems like a particularly good moment to remember that people have asked these questions before. People have thinking and writing about the end times for thousands of years, and over the last two thousand years they have done so particularly in December, while preparing to commemorate the coming of Christ. They have looked at the world around them, and seen so much suffering and injustice that they believed it could only be remedied by the heavens being burst open, pierced by the power of perfect love, justice, and mercy. That story has been told so many times that its details have become over-familiar, but an image like this anonymous homilist's 'golden blossom' has the ability to make it strange and new again.

Or think, perhaps, of Langland's paradoxical, mystical vision in Piers Plowman of the Incarnation as a life-giving force, which both pours down from heaven - heavy like a plant bowed down by dew, too full of love and power to be contained - and yet springs up from the earth, as light as a leaf trembling in the wind:

And also the plante of pees, moost precious of vertues:
For hevene myghte nat holden it, so was it hevy of hymself,
Til it hadde of the erthe eten his fille.
And whan it hadde of this fold flessh and blood taken,
Was nevere leef upon lynde lighter therafter,
And portatif and persaunt as the point of a nedle,
That myghte noon armure it lette ne none heighe walles.


And the plant of peace, most precious of powers:
for heaven could not hold it, it was so heavy with itself,
until it had eaten its fill of the earth,
and when it had taken flesh and blood from this ground,
there was never leaf upon a linden-tree lighter than it was,
weightless and piercing as the point of a needle,
so that no armour could stop it, nor no high walls.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

The Danish Conquest, 14: The Duel at Deerhurst and a Divided Kingdom


Shortly after the battle at Assandun in the autumn of 1016, Cnut and Edmund Ironside met to conclude a treaty dividing the rule of England between them. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (D) says:
Ða æfter þisum gefeohte wende Cnut cyning up mid his here to Gleawcestrescire, þær he ofaxade þæt se cyning wæs Eadmund. Ða gerædde Eadric ealdorman 7 þa witan þe þær gegaderade wæron þæt þa cyningas heom betweonan seht geworhtan, 7 coman begen þa cyningas togædre æt Olanige wið Deorhyrste, 7 wurdon feolagan 7 wedbroðra, 7 þæt gefæstnadan ægðer mid wedde 7 eac mid aðan, 7 þæt gyld gesettan wið þone here, 7 hi seoððan tohwurfon. 7 feng þa Eamund cyng to Westsexan 7 Cnut to þam norðdæle. Se here gewende þa to scipon mid þam þe hi gefangen hæfdon, 7 Lundenwaru gryðede wið þone here 7 heom fryð bohtan, 7 hi gebrohtan heora scypa on Lundene, 7 hæfdon þær wintersetl.

Then after this battle King Cnut turned inland with his army to Gloucestershire, where he learned that King Edmund was. Then Eadric the ealdorman and the witan who were gathered there advised that the kings should make a settlement between them. Both the kings came together at Olney, near Deerhurst, and became partners and pledged brothers and confirmed it with both pledges and oaths, and set the payment for the raiding-army, and after that they parted. King Edmund succeeded to Wessex and Cnut to the north part. The raiding-army went to their ships with what they had taken, and the inhabitants of London made a truce with the army and bought peace from them; and they brought their ships to London and took up winter-quarters there.

By saying that the two kings 'came together', the Chronicle probably only means that they had a formal meeting, but a story soon grew up that they had fought (or considered fighting) against each other in single combat. This is extremely unlikely, to say the least, but it seems to have become a popular story, and versions of the idea feature in numerous twelfth-century sources. The location of the meeting may have been what is now called Alney Island, near Gloucester, and the fact that some versions of the story claim the duel took place on an island in the Severn has led to suggestions of a connection with the custom of holmgang.

A reference to the idea of a duel is found as early as the Encomium Emmae Reginae (1040-2), which claims that a few months before Assandun Edmund had suggested single combat to Cnut:

It is told, moreover, that the youth himself at that time offered single combat to Knutr, as the latter was retiring; but the king, being a wise man, is said to have answered thus: "I will await a time, when contest will be fitting, and when anticipating no misfortune, I shall be sure of victory; but as for you, who desire combat in the winter, beware lest you fail to appear even when the time is more appropriate."

Encomium Emmae Reginae, trans. Alistair Campbell (London: Royal Historical Society, 1949), p.25.

Cnut's 'wise' and rather sarcastic response to Edmund is typical of the twelfth-century stories too, which frequently make this as much a verbal as a physical battle between the rival kings. Henry of Huntingdon's version of the story has Cnut cleverly getting himself out of danger with some high-flown words:

The armies were gathered in Gloucestershire. But the nobles, fearing on one side the strength of King Edmund and on the other that of King Cnut, said among themselves, 'Why do we so often rush foolishly into mortal danger? Let those who want to reign as individuals fight as individuals.' The idea was acceptable to the kings. For King Cnut was not lacking in prowess. The kings stationed themselves in Alney and began the duel. When both had shattered spears and lances against the most superior of all armour, they carried on with swords. The crowds on both sides heard and saw with groans and shouts the frightful clang and fiery clashes. At length the incomparable valour of Edmund began to thunder. King Cnut, resisting with great vigour, and yet in fear for himself, said to him, 'O most brave of all young men, why should either of us perish by the sword for the sake of holding kingly power? Let us be brothers by adoption, and share the kingdom, and let us rule, I in your affairs and you in mine. Let Denmark also be governed by your imperial rule.' With these words the generous mind of the young man was softened and the kiss of peace was exchanged.

Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. by Diana Greenway (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p.361.


As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says, Cnut and Edmund divided the kingdom between north and south - a division reflecting a regional split in England which went back hundreds of years. Parts of northern England had been settled by the Danes and under Danish rule at various times since the ninth century; the society and language of the north were in places heavily influenced by Scandinavian settlement, and at this point were arguably culturally closer to Denmark than to the south of England. We've seen since the beginning of this series that in 1013-16 Svein Forkbeard and Cnut were able to count on political support from the north for Danish rule, and they treated the north differently from Wessex during their invasions. The division of the kingdom proposed in 1016 thus reflected a pre-existing cultural divide (of which the legacy can still be clearly seen today in the dialect and place-names of northern England).

What the chronicle calls the norðdæle, 'the northern part', is a huge area, stretching from the Midlands to Northumbria - geographically speaking, much more than half of England. Although over the course of the tenth century the kings of Wessex, Edmund Ironside's ancestors, had extended their power over the rest of the formerly independent kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, they actually had no older history of continuous rule in the north than Cnut's ancestors did. By 1016 both Cnut and Edmund could claim that not only had both their fathers (Svein Forkbeard and Æthelred) ruled the whole kingdom of England, but that both had ancestors who had ruled regions of the country. In the version of the Deerhurst duel told in Gaimar's Estoire des Engleis, the kings exchange long speeches in the middle of the combat, in which they discuss these rival claims to rule England. Both claims are rooted in (real or legendary) history: while Edmund claims descent from Cerdic, first king of Wessex, Cnut tells Edmund that 'Our Danish ancestors have been ruling here for a very long time: almost a thousand years before King Cerdic came to the throne, Dan was king. Cerdic was your ancestor, and king Dan was mine.' In some medieval traditions Dan was the legendary progenitor and namesake of the Danes (as Angle was of the English), so this gives Cnut an ancient and venerable pedigree. Cnut goes on to propose dividing the kingdom to which both have a right; Edmund decides he admires Cnut's 'sagacity' and the justice of his claim, and agrees to this suggestion.

Not every historian was so enamoured of the Danish claim. William of Malmesbury, by contrast, thinks Cnut avoided the duel because he was scared of Edmund's greater physical strength:

Edmund, almost the only one to get away [from the battle at Assandun] came to Gloucester, in hopes of there pulling his forces together and attacking the enemy, who would, he supposed, be off their guard after their recent victory. Nor did Cnut lack the courage to pursue him in his retreat, and the two sides took their stand in line of battle. Edmund then asked for single combat, rather than have two mortal men moved by ambition to be king carry the blood of so many of their subjects, when it was possible to put fortune to the test without the loss of any of their faithful dependents; great credit would be due to whichever of them should acquire so great a kingdom at his own private risk and no one else's. When this was reported to Cnut, he rejected it out of hand, declaring that in spirit he was a match for anyone, but did not trust his tiny frame against a man of such enormous might. Surely, since both not without reason were demanding a kingdom which had been held by the parents of both, it would be sensible to lay aside their enmity and divide England between them. This remark was taken up by both armies and ratified with massive agreement, as both consonant with justice and a benign step towards peace among mortals who were already exhausted by so much misery.

Gesta Regum Anglorum, trans. R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thompson and M. Winterbottom (Oxford, 1998), vol.i, pp.317-9.

Again it's Cnut, by his 'sensible' suggestion (in this case motivated by fear!), who brings an end to the combat through words rather than battle.

And Walter Map, always one to embellish a good story, has the kings trading barbs mid-duel:

[The Danes] insisted with Cnut that the death of the whole army should not be put in the scale, but that of a single man, and that a duel should take the place of a battle, and the victorious champion obtain the kingdom for his master, and the rest be sent away in peace. Both sides were pleased with this, and it seemed good to Edmund to confront the danger himself, nor would he allow of any champion in his stead. Hearing this, Cnut decided that he must fight in propria persona, so as to avoid an unseemly disparity: for a conflict of kings would be even and fitting. All the needful arrangements were therefore made with due solemnity: a truce was granted, keepers of the ground were armed, and the two, borne in two boats from opposite banks, met on an island in the Severn, equipped with excellent and precious arms and horses to the extent necessary for honour and safeguard...

[The fight gave rise] to one memorable phrase: when their horses were slain and they became foot-soldiers, Cnut, who was slender, thin and tall, pressed Edmund, who was big and smooth - in other words, fairly stout - with such prowess and persistency of attack, that in a pause allowed for rest, Edmund stood panting heavily and drawing deep breaths; and in the hearing of the ring, Cnut said: 'Edmund, you breathe too short.' He blushed; but kept a modest silence, and at the next attack came down upon Cnut's helmet with such a stroke that he touched the ground with knee and hand; but Edmund stepped back and neither crushed the fallen foe nor harassed the down-struck; only avenging a word by a word, he retorted: 'Not too short, if I can bring so great a king off his feet.' The Danes accordingly, when they saw that Edmund had deferred to their lord in a conflict of such mighty issue, and that when victory was ready to his hand he had delayed his triumph, compelled the two by many prayers and tears to make a treaty.

Walter Map, De nugis curialium, ed. and trans. by M.R. James, revised by C.N.L. Brooke and R.A.B. Mynors (Oxford, 1983), pp.424-7.

So Cnut learned it's not a good idea to call your opponent fat...

Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, CCCC MS. 26, f.80v

These images of Cnut and Edmund fighting each other (which I've been using to illustrate various battles in this series of posts) actually depict this single combat - another indication of the popularity of the story. In the one above, you can see the Danes and English watching from the sidelines. The one below also shows Cnut and Edmund making peace:


Their kiss seals the kings' pledge to be feolagan 7 wedbroðra ('partners and pledged brothers'), but it is swiftly followed by Edmund's death, depicted on the right here. If Edmund had lived, and the division of the country had lasted, perhaps there would never again have been a single kingdom of England - a reminder that political unions which may seem to us inevitable and eternal can, in fact, fracture, and yet time goes on. Perhaps that reflection was part of the appeal of this story to twelfth-century historians, looking back at 1016 from an England which had once again been conquered by a foreign power. It was these same historians (specifically, Henry of Huntingdon and Gaimar) who gave us an even more memorable story of Cnut accepting the limits of kingly power - ceding rule to God at the sea-shore, rather than sharing half a kingdom with another earthly king. And it was Henry of Huntingdon who, in another context, encourages us to learn perspective from the sheer length of history:
Let us, however, think about what has become of those who lived in the first millennium around this time, around the 135th year... What does it matter whether they were individually noble or ignoble, renowned or unknown, praiseworthy or disreputable, exalted or cast down, wise or foolish? If any of them undertook some labour for the sake of praise and glory, when now no record of him survives any more than of his horse or his ass, why then did the wretch torment his spirit in vain? What benefit was it to them, who came to this?

Now I speak to you who will be living in the third millennium, around the 135th year. Consider us, who at this moment seem to be renowned, because, miserable creatures, we think highly of ourselves. Reflect, I say, on what has become of us. Tell me, I pray, what gain has it been to us to have been great or famous? We had no fame at all, except in God. For if we are famed now in Him, we shall still be famed in your time, as lords of heaven and earth, worthy of praise with our Lord God, by the thousands of thousands who are in the heavens.

But history always holds surprises. The divided kingdom which might have changed England forever lasted, as it turned out, only a few weeks: Edmund Ironside died on 30 November 1016, and Cnut became king of the whole of England. Edmund's death was also the subject of various lurid post-Conquest legends - but that's for another post.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Winter's Day

11th-century calendar from Christ Church, Canterbury (BL Arundel 155, f. 7) 
with the beginning of winter marked on 7 November

In some Anglo-Saxon calendars, such as the one above, 7 November is considered to be the first day of winter. The Old English Menologium calls today 'Winter's Day', imagining winter as a warrior who comes to enslave the earth with frost's fetters:

And þy ylcan dæge ealra we healdað
sancta symbel þara þe sið oððe ær
worhtan in worulde willan drihtnes.
Syþþan wintres dæg wide gangeð
on syx nihtum, sigelbeortne genimð
hærfest mid herige hrimes and snawes,
forste gefeterad, be frean hæse,
þæt us wunian ne moton wangas grene,
foldan frætuwe.

And on the same day [November 1] we keep
the feast of All Saints, of those who recently or long ago
worked in the world the will of the Lord.
After that comes Winter’s Day, far and wide,
after six nights, and seizes sun-bright autumn
with its army of ice and snow,
fettered with frost by the Lord's command,
so that the green fields may no longer stay with us,
the ornaments of the earth.

I wrote about this, and much more Anglo-Saxon poetry on the subject of winter, in this post.

And what better day to get hold of a copy of this beautiful book, which contains my translation of the 14th-century poem 'Winter wakeneth all my care', among many other wintry things? Something to cheer you up if you get too wintercearig over the next few months...