Anglo-Saxon England, Part IV

Taking a step back for a moment, we return to the Viking pirates, the fearless thieves of the icy north who surprised much of Western Europe when their long-boats suddenly appeared out of the fog of the Dark Ages, sacking coastal towns, raiding churches, slaughtering and conquering thousands. At the time, the early Christian kingdoms of Western Europe were under two chief assaults: one from Arabic conquerors who invaded Spain and nearly claimed France (if not for Charles Martel “The Hammer” who was the grandfather of Charlemagne). And the other assault was from the Vikings. In England Alfred the Great had beaten back the invading Viking raiders from their near total conquest of the British isles. But who were these seafaring pirates from the north? Why did they leave their northern kingdoms in search of new lands?

The Vikings came westward of their own accord, under no pressure from the steppes of Asia unlike other westward migrating tribes. They quickly made their mark upon the world, rowing across great seas to Iceland, North America, European Russia, and even Constantinople, as well as Normandy. They laid siege upon the civilized world, including Paris, and they pillaged commercial hubs, even settling new cities such as the founding of Dublin.

The Viking soul was encapsulated in their long-ship, fiercely clad in dragon-headed shallow boats, capable of carrying ferocious and greedy pirates up the low lying rivers and streams of England. Their prize of choice was the gold of the church that lay strewn about Christendom largely in undefended coastal churches, abbeys, and monasteries. Their raids on coastal England were made infamous in the eighth century when they sacked Lindisfarne and plundered the church’s riches, killing many of the monks and selling the rest as slaves in the European markets. Eginhard, Charlemagne’s historian and biographer, writes that Viking raids on France were near constant. The 9th and 10th centuries was a terrifying epoch: the age of the Vikings.

By the time Cnut (“Canute”), Prince of Denmark, rose to power following the death of his father Sweyn Forkbeard in AD 1014, the Vikings already owned vast lands across the world. Cnut’s father, Sweyn, was the son of Harold Bluetooth who founded Denmark as a Christian kingdom. At the time, the Vikings possessed a vast seafaring empire that extended from northern Europe to North America, but Sweyn’s crowning achievement was the British isle. Following the second major Viking invasion of England, Cnut made his primary home and capital in England. He preferred the Anglo-Saxon way of life and he hoped to model his kingship upon Edgar and his enviable years of peace. For more than a century, the Vikings had now transformed themselves from pirates into settlers of England.

A medieval re-imaging of Cnut fighting Edmund Ironsides

With the decline and fall of the house of Wessex, coupled with the death of his father, Cnut initially returned home to Denmark, apparently lacking the will to claim England as his own. Before he departed English shores, however, Cnut returned the bodies of his captives, each one horribly mutilated -a dark event that foreshadowed things to come. Cnut returned the following year to England and he battled with Edmund “Ironsides” until a peace was achieved, dividing the two kingdoms north and south, but Edmund’s death shortly thereafter left open the question of the English crown.

Within this power vacuum, Cnut took the throne of England in AD 1016 and thus he became the most powerful monarch in Western Europe, second only to the Holy Roman Emperor. His empire extended from England, Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden through the important trade routes of the North Sea, the English Channel, and also the Baltic Sea. He quickly put to death Edmund’s brother Eadwig. Edmund’s children were hidden away in eastern Europe (Hungary) while Aethelred’s remaining children sought refuge at the court of Normandy. Cnut’s power was complete, but it was not a cultural revolution. Cnut allowed many existing nobles to live undisturbed and he supported the monasteries to continue as centers of learning. Like all great rulers, Cnut instituted a new code of laws for his kingdom, but the new code was largely based on existing English customs and Christian traditions. It was crafted with the help and support of Wulfstan, Archbishop of York.

A 14th century illustration of Cnut “The Great”

However, England was not to be left untouched for long. Across the Channel the vigorous and rigidly organized Normans were expanding their influence. The kingdom of Normandy was founded as a Viking settlement in the early 10th century and it rapidly grew into a feudal kingdom. The order of Normandy was predicated upon a class of aristocratic nobles who each held land in exchange for military service, and, in turn, these nobles extended sublets on their lands to inferior ranks. The Norman Dukes claimed ultimate control over their courts and property, as well as over the affairs of the churches and monasteries in their region. Between 1028-1035, Robert the Duke of Normandy turned his attention to a serious invasion of England, but his death temporarily suspended the project.

Meanwhile, Cnut had married the sister of Robert, Duke of Normandy, in a unique moment that united two rival kingdoms (Robert’s sister was also previously the wife of Aethelred “The Unready”). Her name was Emma -the bride of two kings of England- who also gave birth to two sons who became future kings of England. Cnut died in 1035 and with him went his imperial ambitions of a Viking England. Cnut was conferred the honorable burial rites of an Anglo-Saxon King -he was buried at Winchester Cathedral in the capital of West Saxony (“Wessex”). He had three sons, all of whom were both “boorish” and “ignorant” according to Winston Churchill. His two sons Harold “Harefoot” (born from his “temporary wife” Aelgifu) and Harthacnut (born from his legitimate wife Emma of Normandy) fought over the crown from the northern and the southern kingdoms. Both respective mothers also played an active role in the dispute between the two brothers. Per the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Harathcnut “never did anything worthy of a king while he reigned.”

At the same time, Alfred “the innocent prince” and Edward, both sons of Aethelred and Emma, were still exiled in Normandy. In 1036 Alfred hastened home under the auspices of visiting his again-widowed mother. Meanwhile, a powerful Wessex earl named Godwin, was gaining support among the Danish faction to claim the crown. He shrewdly took Alfred under his wing, promising him protection, and then sprang a trap on the young prince -Godwin’s men suddenly slaughtered Alfred’s attendants (some were sold for money, while others were beheaded, mutilated, and scalped). Godwin’s men then tied Alfred naked to a horse and blinded him. The poor young prince was henceforth relegated to a lowly life. He lived out the remainder of his short life in the monastery at Ely.

Godwin had thus solidified his power and left vacant the throne of England, but in times of great anarchy, as the situation in 11th century England clearly indicated, the people demanded a sense of stability, and no image was more stable than the sixth generation from the bloodline of Alfred the Great. Knowing this truism, Godwin strongly encouraged (some might say threatened) Aethelred and Emma’s other son, Edward, to return to England and become king. His only obligation was to meet Godwin’s demands, the first of which was preventing any Norman influence at his court. And so it was, in 1042 that Edward “The Confessor,” as he was later dubbed for his supposed piety, the great-great-great-grandson of Alfred the Great took the throne and ruled under the firm control of Godwin and his family.

According to tradition, Edward The Confessor was a “kindly, weak, chubby, albino” per Winston Churchill. He was raised at the court of the Normans, and was forced to wed the daughter of Godwin, though it was merely a political marriage. During his reign, Edward gradually allowed certain Norman customs to filter into the courts and the churches of England, at least as much as the Earl Godwin would allow. Meanwhile, Godwin had been supplanting the landed gentry with his own family ties in an effort to secure his power. This drew the ire of the Norman presence and in 1051 a crisis struck. The Norman faction successfully banished Godwin from England. Godwin fled with his son Harold (“Godwinson”) to Flanders where they raised an army and returned to England, demanding the succession of the throne. Edward was obliged to give it to them at the sword’s edge. Godwin died only seven months later, and for the next thirteen years Harold essentially served as the ruler of England, though Edward The Confessor still retained the title of king. Harold ruled freely despite opposition from his brother Tostig, the Anglo-Danish earls and the many Normans still living on the island who supported the court of Edward the Confessor.

Harold meeting Edward The Confessor as featured in the Bayeux Tapestry, a vast embroidery depicting events leading up to the Norman conquest of England

As time passed, Edward The Confessor’s many frailties were forgiven by the people because of his devout virtues (hence the moniker “The Confessor”). He lived out his last days much like a monk (Winston Churchill draws comparisons between Edward the Confessor and the latter Henry VI). However, all the vitality from the reign of Alfred The Great was now vanished from his royal house. All that remained of the fierce King Alfred was a sickly boy and his sister, alongside an aging sovereign. England was growing weak. The earls ruled their lands with complete impunity, the royal bureaucracy was a mess, coastal defenses were gradually neglected, but the church continued to grow in eminence.

In the middle of the 11th century Edward The Confessor began constructing a Romanesque abbey. It was built on the site near where a Benedictine monks once had a monastic church. The impressive abbey became known as Westminster Abbey. It was completed shortly before Edward’s death and he was buried in the Abbey one week after he died. His successor Harold was likely crowned in the Abbey, however the first known monarch to be crowned at Westminster Abbey was William The Conqueror.

Contemporary historians have instructed us that Edward The Confessor was effeminate and weak, but the legend of his piety, carefully crafted by the church, paints the picture of a quietly virtuous Christian king; and somewhere in the middle of these two portraits we receive the story of an aging monarch on his deathbed, whispering the prophecy of a coming apocalypse for England. Thus, in January of 1066, the Anglo-Saxon kingship ended, the flame of Alfred The Great was extinguished upon the death of Edward The Confessor. In the years to come, Edward would be enshrined at Westminster as a center for pilgrimage (the shrine was constructed many years after his death) and even a cult arose in his name. The name “Edward The Confessor” would recall fond memories for both the Saxons, as well as the Normans, during times of duress, and as time went by, Edward became “Saint” Edward The Confessor, the patron saint of England until the English appropriated St. George during the Hundred Years War -a figure that Winston Churchill finds far more suitable to the island’s “needs, mood, and character” than Edward the Confessor.

“The figure of Edward the Confessor comes down to us faint, misty, frail. The medieval legend, carefully fostered by the Church, whose devoted servant he was, surpassed the man. The lights of Saxon England were going out, and in the gathering darkness a gentle, grey-beard prophet foretold the end. When on his death-bed Edward spoke of a time of evil that was coming upon the land his inspired muttering struck terror into the hearers… Thus on January 5, 1066, ended the line of the Saxon kings” (Winton Churchill 62-63).

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

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