Writing of Edward the Confessor, his modern biographer Professor Frank Barlow observed, ‘He was the son of a warrior king.’ That warrior king was Æthelred II. Commonly pigeon-holed as ‘the Unready’, Æthelred saw a good deal of action in the second half of his long reign. The English and their great men generally recognized him as ‘lord’ of their land in the old-fashioned sense of warlord and ring-giver. In the last year of his life, at war with the Danish pretender Cnut, an English army raised by his warlike son Edmund, called ‘Ironside’, refused to take the field when it was learnt that Æthelred would not be there to lead them.

Nine or possibly twelve years old when he came to the throne, Æthelred would reign for some thirty-eight years, the ninth longest in the history of the English monarchy since the time of King Alfred. It was the best part of a year before the remains of Edward, soon to be called ‘the Martyr’, were given a decent burial at the nunnery of Shaftesbury. Thus as a result it was not until May 979 that Æthelred was consecrated at Kingston upon Thames, in the presence of the archbishops of Canterbury and York and ten bishops. The Abingdon version of the Chronicle says that ‘the councillors of the English people’ rejoiced at the event; but it also speaks of the appearance of a red blood cloud in the sky the same year. Later people reckoned the reign was ill-omened from the start. The king’s name, ‘Æthel-ræd’, literally ‘noble-counsel’, was common among English king lists; but given the many disasters of his reign, particularly in his last years, some wit after his death could not resist adding the by-name ‘Unræd’ (‘ill counsel’, rather than ‘unready’, though he would often seem that as well).

While most accepted Queen Ælfthryth was complicit in her stepson’s death, she seems to have had support from the powerful ealdorman of East Anglia, and also Ealdorman Byrthnoth of Essex. The year 980 saw the first Viking raid in nearly a century, though few seem to have heeded the omen – court intrigue was doubtless more absorbing. In any case the big occasion for that year was the rededication, in October, of the building known for many decades as the Old Minster at Winchester. Even as late as 984 the death in August of that year of the dominating figure of Bishop Æthelwold would probably have seemed more significant than the renewal of harassment by the Norsemen.

Æthelred, a young man of handsome face and stylish appearance, took as wife Ælfgifu, a lady of noble birth who was apparently the daughter of Thored, earl of Northumbria. The match may have been thought to offer valuable goodwill for the Wessex dynasty in that distant and prickly province and the king gave land to the community of St Cuthbert at its church in Chester-le-Street. Friends would be needed in the face of what were now annual Danish raids, whether by fleets returning from the Scandinavian homeland each new raiding season or by a force that, once established, remained in an English base.

The raiders expect support from their Norse kinsfolk in Normandy. Æthelred sought the good offices of a papal envoy in diplomatic approaches to Richard of Normandy. In summer 991 a large fleet appeared off the coast of Suffolk and sacked the trading port of Ipswich before working its way down the Essex coast to the Blackwater estuary. There on 10 or 11 August, at Northey island near Maldon, stood England’s senior ealdorman, Byrthnoth of Essex at the head of his household warriors and the local fyrd, crying the defiance of a loyal liegeman: ‘This is Æthelred’s land.’ In his early sixties, he was a man of heroic stature, more than six feet tall. With holdings in ten shires, after his lord the king he was England’s second or third most important layman. The ‘Battle of Maldon’, the epic poetic fragment that tells of the battle against the wicinga, reads like an eyewitness account.

The two forces face one another across a channel, which can be crossed only by a causeway. Byrthnoth rides up and down the lines to supervise the dressing of the shield wall. Then he dismounts to fight among those ‘companions he knew to be most loyal’. The Vikings, who will first have to face opposition as they cross the causeway and then deploy from the narrow bridgehead, offer to be bought off. But Byrthnoth rebuts their bid; in fact he forces a battle. He orders his men to pull back and allow their enemies to cross the causeway. He seems bent on a hero’s death. Is it a culpable miscalculation? Is it pride, as the poet claims? Or is it, as has been suggested, a sacrificial tactic to deplete the raiders as far as possible, rather than let them off unscathed to ravage elsewhere? A truly heroic calculation.

There follows the roar of battle, with ravens circling overhead waiting for the carrion corpses of the fallen warriors. We hear Byrthnoth urging on those companions who would win glory from the Danes (‘Denon’). We see him wield his golden-hilted sword; we hear him pray to the ‘Lord of Hosts for grace to his spirit’ as he is hacked down by a foeman. His companions Ælfnoth and Wulfmaer fall at the side of their lord, but others, spearmen, desert him. Godric, who had received many a fine horse from his ring-giving lord, now leaps on that lord’s horse and rides away on the rearing steed. Others, recognizing the horse, think it is Byrthnoth himself who is in flight and they too flee. The rest, rallied by Dunnere, ‘a simple yeoman’, fight on. Edward the Tall breaks out through the shield wall to avenge in noble death his treasure-giving lord. Heroic, maybe, but surely a gesture of despair: once an Anglo-Saxon shield wall began to break up, as at Hastings, seventy-odd years later, the end was in sight. An old retainer, Byrhtwold, delivers the final threnody: ‘Here lies our lord, the great man in the mire . . .’No one can abandon the battle game now – all are doomed to die. As strength falters so courage must grow. Like Dunkirk an epic reverse, like Dunkirk long remembered, the poem, with its named participants, was surely intended for bardic performance at court or in the great man’s hall. And yet, in the words of Roberta Frank, there must have been among the English ‘ordinary men aching to get back to their ploughs and puddings’. The battle was worthily celebrated on its millennium in 1991. Donald Scragg’s The Battle of Maldon came out in that year and the poem exists in more than 45 editions.

For the poet, the battle embodied noble traditions from a heroic age still felt to be part of the present. But reality locked in with Byrthnoth’s shocking death. Up to this time the establishment had discounted Viking nuisance as sporadic and small scale. Maldon forced a rethink. It was Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury, the Chronicle tells us, who in the reign of Æthelred decided on the first payment to the ‘Danish men’ of a ‘tax’ because of the terror they brought. The next year the raiders defeated a fleet from East Anglia. It was the beginning of a pattern.

In 994 Sigeric apparently paid a tribute to the Danes to save Canterbury Cathedral from being torched. We first hear of him as a monk at Glastonbury under the patronage of St Dunstan. A brilliant career lay ahead. Appointed archbishop in 990 he made the journey to Rome to receive his pallium from Pope John XV. He won recent media attention when, as reported in the Sunday Times of 14 November 2005, Romano Prodi, the former president of the European Commission, planned to activate a tourist pilgrim route, dubbed the ‘Via Francigena’ (‘Way of the Franks’), stretching for 1,200 miles (1,930 km) and supposedly ‘founded by Sigeric’. In fact, starting with Wigheard in 667, no fewer than nine English archbishops and seven English kings travelled to Rome, but Sigeric stands out because a contemporary travelogue of his route survives. It records seventy-nine stages of the journey and twenty-three churches he visited, among them Reims, Lausanne, Pavia and Lucca. Whether modern pilgrims will be entertained to lunch by the pope, as Sigeric was by John XV, may be doubted. Sigeric, however, was a great prince of the church: he bequeathed seven costly wall hangings emblazoned with white lions to Glastonbury, sufficient to cover the wall surface of the old church when they were brought out every year on his anniversary.

The wealth of the realm

Maldon marked the beginning of decline for a generally fortunate aristocracy. The great inaugural celebrations at Ramsey Abbey on 8 November 991, presided over by Archbishop Oswald of York, its spiritual founder, and Æthelwine, ealdorman of East Anglia, its wealthy lay patron, reflected the glory days of ostentatious magnificence. The event is described by Oswald’s biographer Byrthferth. Luxury and opulence everywhere met the eye; while music of great elaboration assailed the ear as the choir and cantors sang antiphonally and, no doubt, in early polyphony. With this style of singing in two or more parts European art music was already signalling its breach with the monophonic traditions of the rest of world music. Part and parcel of the revolution was the mechanistic apparatus of the organ and keyboard. By this time almost every important Benedictine abbey in Europe had such an instrument. Inspired by the liturgical revolution at Cluny, the service of God was to be conducted with the kind of splendour in liturgy, vestments and music to be expected in the service of a great lord. But while the scops and scalds of the mead hall would remain true to the bardic monophonic traditions, Ramsey had a fine organ.

The monks of Ely recovered the body of Ealdorman Byrthnoth after the battle for the solemnities of a great funeral. The church dazzled with ornaments (Byrthnoth himself had donated two gold crosses). At Winchester the reliquary commissioned by the king for the remains of St Swithun was made of 300 pounds of refined gold ornamented with silver and precious stones. England at this time was a treasurehouse to its Danish plunderers. ‘The evidence for the wealth of England in this period is various and extensive . . .’, in cash as well as treasures, for it seems that ‘early eleventh-century English kings could raise larger sums in taxation than could most of their medieval successors.’1 Following the endowments of monastic reforms the ecclesiastical establishment was also immensely rich. The celebrations at Ramsey were followed by a sumptuous drinks party, as was the approved custom, at which the mead and wine were dispensed most freely. Drawn from warrior stock, great churchmen were as much at home in the mead hall as in the sanctuary and, when occasion required, on the battlefield. Twenty-five years later, the abbot of Ramsey and his predecessor in office both fell fighting in the army of Edmund Ironside against the Danes at the Battle of Assandun.2

It was a time when the English were becoming acquainted with the use of the word ‘Englalond’ to describe their homeland. It was a land where the elite kin groups of church and state formed, as we have noted, an extended network or cousinship usually linked with the royal family by blood, marriage or by fosterage at court; where the peasantry, as elsewhere in Europe, was largely oppressed (the penalties for theft were savage, on a par with shariah law), but where, and this was unusual, we may detect the beginnings of a middling sort of people who in a later age would be called ‘the gentry’.

For a hundred years, since the time of King Alfred, the idea of society as divided into three orders, those to fight, those to pray and those to labour on the land, had been common in England, as on the Continent.3 But it was becoming as misleading as it was simplistic. The growth of the ‘ceorl’ grouping of small gentry-style farmers may be connected with the splitting up of great estates and associated with the creation of new parishes and new parish churches. It evidently came to carry weight in the community of the realm. In 1027, when Cnut issued a letter for proclamation in shire courts throughout the kingdom, he addresses it in English to ‘the whole race of the English, whether nobles or ceorls’.

Following Maldon, a tribute or gafol of 10,000 pounds was paid to the raiders. Still larger payments, in money and in gold and silver would be made in subsequent years. The amount of bullion disbursed is a testimony to the great wealth of England; the quantities of silver coinage are a clear demonstration of the power of the English state. Coin hoards in Scandinavia, accumulated as the proceeds of plunder, have provided numismatists with some of their best resources for studying and demonstrating the sophistication and effectiveness of the monetary system of the Anglo-Saxon state. The estimated figures run into millions of items. In the reign of Cnut, in the view of numismatist Michael Metcalf, one issue alone (the Quatrefoil) may have run to as many as 40 million coins.

Two years after Maldon a much larger English army was put to flight (rumour said that the leaders were Danish sympathizers). Then in 994, on the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary (8 September), a large fleet under the command of Olaf Tryggvason of Norway and Swein Forkbeard the Dane, among others, sailed against London. According to the Peterborough Chronicle the citizens repelled the attack, to the astonishment of the enemy, thanks to the protection of the Virgin. For this humiliation the Danish army wreaked a terrible vengeance on the country and coasts from Essex to Hampshire, ‘taking their horses’ and riding inland wherever they would. They made winter camp at Southampton and were provisioned with supplies from the whole kingdom of Wessex. The government agreed a treaty by which yet more money and bullion were handed over. Olaf, however, now accepted baptism (994) as a Christian in a ceremony at Andover, with King Æthelred standing sponsor, and moreover gave his oath never to return to England as an enemy. He kept it too, the chronicler notes in surprise. Perhaps that was because this Viking oath to the Christians was pledged by one who was now a fellow Christian. Olaf went back to Norway to make good his position as king there. Swein, it seems, had already returned to Denmark with the same objective.

Even in these extreme conditions the Anglo-Saxon civil administration of reeve and local collectors was able to meet the demands for supplies to the raiders from central government. More problematic, surely, is the total failure throughout these decades of the Alfredian strategic defence measures of garrisoned burh and standing army units to deliver effective protection. The mid-990s, it must be said, were a time of comparative peace. Perhaps a substantial body of the Danish army settled on the Isle of Wight as a mercenary force in English pay. Then, in the years running up to the millennium, large-scale raids were reported up the Bristol Channel, against the coasts of south Wales and Devon, back to Dorset, up to the Thames and riding through Kent. In the year 1000 they crossed over to Normandy and then they were back harrying southern Wessex. An attempt to buy them off with the largest payment yet, 24,000 pounds, might have had some effect but for the notorious events on St Brice’s Day, 13 November 1002. In a gesture of desperation, certainly ‘ill-advised’ while negotiations were yet going on, Æthelred ordered the killing of all ‘the Danish men who were among the English race’, described in a royal charter as ‘sprouting like weeds amongst the wheat’.

The St Brice’s Day massacre may have decided King Swein to return to the English theatre of operations. We find him campaigning in the West Country the following year. Aimed against those Danes ‘in England’, the wording of the decree presumably excludes the population of the Danelaw. And it certainly excluded any raiders encamped on the Isle of Wight; to massacre them would have required an army. No, the target must have been those Danes in England west of the Danelaw, presumably second-generation, gradually integrating into English communities – or possibly the Danes paid off that summer who had not gone home or ‘ceased their evil doing’. At Oxford, Danes fleeing for sanctuary had broken into the church of St Frideswide: the citizenry burnt it down about their heads. Later it was claimed there had been a Danish plot against the king to ‘ensnare’ his kingdom. Swein of Denmark would do just that. Meanwhile Æthelred found himself facing a demand for compensation from the minster of St Frideswide’s.4 It was a royal edict that had sanctioned the outrage.

Of all the woes to trouble King Æthelred, top of the list must have been Normandy. Treaties with the ducal house could not be made to stick. An attempted naval invasion of the duchy ended in futility. Then the death of his first wife opened the door to diplomacy by dynastic marriage. In the spring of 1002 the princess Emma, daughter of the late duke, Richard I, and sister of the present ruler, Duke Richard II, came to England and, with the newly conferred English name of Ælfgifu, became its queen, her most frequent title in Æthelred’s Latin charters being ‘conlaterana Regis’, ‘[she] who is at the king’s side’.5

The marriage was surely loveless. Admittedly Æthelred had already fathered ten children by various wives or concubines and had three more with Emma: the eldest, Edward, became king in due course as ‘the Confessor’; his brother Alfred was to die in the succession struggle following their father’s death; and a daughter, Gode, married a count of Boulogne. But within months of the wedding the king authorized the massacre, with consequences that, in Norman eyes, were ‘shocking even to pagans’ – it is unlikely that Emma would have differed from that opinion. Towards the end of her long life (she died in 1052) Emma/Ælfgifu would commission an account of her life and times from a Flemish monk, evidently one of her close circle. At the time of the composition of Encomium Emmae Reginae, which roughly translates as In Praise of Queen Emma, Æthelred had been dead close on thirty years and she had in any case also married his successor Cnut, also dead. Even so it seems a notable fact that it makes not a single mention of her English husband.

In 1006 the Danes attacked in still greater force, arriving off Sandwich and delivering raiders to ravage at will through the counties, as was their wont, with their base on the Isle of Wight. The next year they sailed away, the better off by 36,000 pounds paid as tribute, to add to whatever they had looted the previous season. It was a respite. Why now and not earlier we do not know, but at this point the government ordered the building of warships. The bureaucracy went into action; funds were raised with the usual efficiency, with one ship funded from every 310 hides. Just two years later (1009) a fully equipped ‘ship army’, some one hundred vessels in number, was riding at anchor off Sandwich. But the national effort was sabotaged. When a certain Brihtric of Mercia laid charges against ‘Prince Wulfnoth the South Saxon’, apparently one of the fleet commanders (and perhaps father of the future Earl Godwine), Wulfnoth detached a squadron and raided along the south coast. What follows is a remarkable tale in which corruption, betrayal and administrative fecklessness would seem to have played their parts. The upshot was the destruction of eighty ships, wrecked in a storm and then torched on the beach by order of the commander himself. The king and his ministers abandoned their squadron and ‘took themselves home’ while the crews took the ships to safe haven in London. The ship levy was discontinued. Within weeks the first Danish fleet in three years was back outside a defenceless Sandwich. Its commander was Thorkell the Tall, who was to be involved in English affairs for more than a decade.

For the best part of two years the host ranged unrestrained through the hapless shires. Now, if ever, the royal regime and the king himself earned their reputation for bad decisions (‘unraedas’) and for belated payments of gafol, made only when great damage had been done. Even after it was paid ‘for all this truce and peace they travelled . . . in bands and raided and roped up and killed our wretched people.’6 Then in 1011, thanks to treachery, raiders broke into Canterbury, ‘that [now] wretched town from where . . . first came to us Christendom and bliss’, and seized Ælfweard, the king’s reeve, the bishop of Rochester, various other senior churchmen, scores of lesser clerics and Archbishop Ælfheah himself.

For months they hauled him about with them at the end of a rope until a ransom should be paid. But Ælfheah refused to permit any such payment. This angered them greatly and one evening at Greenwich, drunk on ‘wine from the south’, they seem to have staged a mock trial at their ‘hustings’ or ‘house court’. There, despite the reported intervention of Thorkell the Tall himself,7 the archbishop was pelted with cattle bones and finished off with a blow from the butt of an axe. The feast day of Canterbury’s first martyred archbishop (often known as St Alphege), so honoured with the approval of St Anselm, is on 19 April.

The Chronicle gives the impression that treason and faction ruled at court, but the author was writing after Æthelred’s reign, with the bitterness of hindsight. In 1009, so the Peterborough Chronicle tells us, Æthelred at the head of an army managed to intercept the raiders trying to regain their ships. Everybody was ready to attack, but Ealdorman Eadric stopped the action, ‘as it always was’. This Eadric Streona, appointed ealdorman of all Mercia in 1007, seems to have been the moving spirit in a palace revolution the year before. The chief victims were Ælfhelm the Mercian, ealdorman of Northumbria, who was killed while out hunting as a guest of Eadric in an ambush set up by his host, and Ælfhelm’s two sons, blinded on the king’s orders while guests at the royal vill of Cookham, Berkshire.8 Both incidents outraged the primal laws of hospitality, but both are too easily believable of the court of Æthelred.

At about the same time as he was created ealdorman in Mercia, Eadric Streona was given the hand of the king’s daughter Edith in marriage. Described by Simon Keynes as ‘a convincing villain’, he was at the heart of the royal councils for ten years; by 1012 he was recognized as at the head of the rigidly observed hierarchy of the royal ealdormen of King Æthelred, but five years later he was killed on the orders of King Cnut and his body left unburied outside the walls of London. In the intervening years he features in the murky and confused events that ended with the triumph of Cnut over the English champion Edmund Ironside. Eadric, it would appear, was ‘a most notorious traitor’ to both.

Relief of a sort seemed in sight for the English in 1012. On payment of a tribute of 8,000 pounds the raiding army dispersed and a substantial force under Thorkell the Tall, at his base in Greenwich, agreed to take service as mercenaries under Æthelred, who in his turn agreed to feed and clothe them – and, as it turned out, to make them an annual payment. Regularized as an annual levy on land, the army tax (here geld), later called danegeld, continued to be levied until 1051 when it was temporarily suspended. Given its centralized administration, galvanized by Alfred and streamlined by the reforms of his tenth-century successors, England had always been pirate-friendly when it came to collecting gafol or tribute. Now the system proved able to deliver Europe’s first effective system of nationwide public taxation since the collapse of the Roman empire in the west. The last ‘danegeld’ as such was raised under Henry II in 1161. Insofar as taxation may stimulate economic activity by the need to recreate the wealth lost and by the recirculation of the revenue raised within the economy, then, notionally, danegeld could have brought benefits; but they were surely marginal! ‘If the Chronicle is to be believed then English and Anglo-Danish kings raised at least £272,147 in gelds between 991 and 1018 . . . [and] . . . much of the bullion went to Scandinavia.’9

Thorkell provided little protection. In 1013 King Swein of Denmark invaded. He received submissions from East Anglia to Mercia, from Lindsey and the Five Boroughs, from Earl Uhtred and all Northumbria. He took his ships up the River Trent to Gainsborough, leaving them in the charge of his son Cnut. It was presumably here that the prince met Ælfgifu of Northampton, daughter of Ealdorman Ælfhelm, who bore him Swein, later king in Norway, and Harold ‘Harefoot’, to be Harold I of England. The Danes were said to have a form of marriage by seizure, in which the forcible taking of a woman was then legitimized through a payment, a sort of ransom. According to Pauline Stafford, Danish marriage at this time was monogamous, but concubinage was practised and the result could be close to polygamy.

King Swein continued his victorious progress, crossing over Watling Street from the Danelaw, taking hostages, from Oxford for example, and doing ‘the greatest evil a raiding army could do’. He went south to Winchester and then back towards London, where Æthelred and Thorkell, his mercenary captain, were safe behind the fortifications. The actual mercenaries seem to have been still at Greenwich – where they remained! Swein did not press a siege, instead he and his army swung down into the West Country, making camp in King Edgar’s ‘imperial’ city of Bath. He received the submission of all the western thegns. Leaving the Londoners suspended in their now isolated defiance, he returned to Cnut and the ships. All the country accepted him as ‘full king’, whereupon the Londoners submitted.

After having plundered at will for five months, Swein naturally demanded payment and compensation for his trouble – so as naturally did Thorkell for his mercenaries. After keeping Christmas on the Isle of Wight, King Æthelred was permitted to make his way into exile with his brother-in-law in Normandy. Emma had already gone, escorted by the abbot of Peterborough while the æthelings Edward and Alfred were escorted overseas by the bishop of London. Never actually crowned, Swein Forkbeard was to all intents and purposes king in England when he died on 3 February 1014 with the fleet at Gainsborough. His body was taken for burial to York.10 The fleet, Swein’s chief advisers and Cnut’s war band elected Cnut as king. Presumably the Danelaw concurred.

The reign of Æthelred Unræd still had two more troubled years to run. But this is perhaps the time to review something of the state of England away from the battle fronts. During this time legislation became notably more exhortatory in tone and ecclesiastical in content. Where earlier codes had ‘let every moneyer . . . guilty of. . . striking false coin . . . be slain,’ we find ‘let one . . . shun . . . false weights and measures . . . and let all be eager for the improvement of money everywhere in the land.’ Victorian historians saw in this mildness of tone evidence of a regime in despair under the recurrent incursions of Danish invaders. But the change may well be in part due to the style of Wulfstan ‘the Homilist’, archbishop of York, active in Æthelred’s government and noted for his florid style of sermonizing.

Behind the Chronicle’s long pages of despair and horror, the charters, the laws and the coinage tell a different and more positive story. Before his messy martyrdom at Greenwich, St Ælfheah’s career had been one of creative work. In the tenth century, that miracle age of pioneer church organ-building in Europe, the best-known account is of the organ at Winchester; it was said to require twenty-four men, and more, to operate the foot bellows and was audible a mile away from the cathedral. There are those who question the accuracy of the details and doubt the possible musicality of the apparatus – but it was surely some Wurlitzer and it was apparently largely the achievement of Ælfheah.

He was abbot of Bath at the time of King Edgar’s coronation there (973) and was consecrated bishop of Winchester in October 984. He continued St Æthelwold’s various works to beautify the city’s churches. For the past four years, for example, work had been in progress at the New Minister, at King Æthelred’s expense, on a tower 115 feet (35 m) high, topped by a golden weathercock. Each of its external registers was carved. The first was devoted to the Virgin, who was depicted surrounded by the lords and citizens (principes et cives)of the heavenly Jerusalem, a great queen within the court.

Religion could be the mainspring of political action. In 1009, the response of King Æthelred and his advisers in council at Bath to the advent of Thorkell’s army had been to promulgate a national three-day programme of prayer, fasting and barefoot processionals. It was not the prescription of nursery-minded cowards, nor of a cynical religious elite looking to manipulate a backward peasant populace, but the response of a government, a millennium away from us, believing that national security be found in group penitence and supplication to a concerned god. Regrettably, salvation was not delivered.

When Swein Forkbeard died and Cnut was proclaimed his successor, King Æthelred was in Normandy. Æthelstan, his eldest son by his first wife, seems to have been lying low in England, possibly in company with his younger brother Edmund. The English decided to call back Æthelred on condition he govern them better than before, and he agreed on condition that they behave with greater loyalty. He returned in the summer of 1014 and raised an army to challenge Cnut, who abandoned allies from Lindsey and East Anglia and departed for Denmark, leaving behind brutally mutilated hostages on the beach at Sandwich.

Briefly the English royal family seemed to be back in business: the king with his heir at his side, their Danish enemies leaderless. Suddenly, in the morning of 25 June 1014, Prince Æthelstan received his father’s permission to make a will. Its bequests embody the ideal of a warrior lord in his mead hall – a war trumpet, a drinking horn and a number of swords of ancient and honourable provenance, one of which, the sword of King Offa of Mercia, he willed to his brother Edmund. Æthelstan was already desperately sick and died later that day. He was buried in the Old Minster, Winchester. The following year the kingdom would have to face the return of Cnut. But the moment of harmony had passed.

There were divisions in the English camp. Most people reckoned that Eadric Streona was all powerful at court. Thus, when Edmund opposed Eadric’s interests over the lands of the rich widow Ældgyth, it could be interpreted as disloyalty to his own father. Her husband Sigeferth had been killed, his lands confiscated and she had been imprisoned on the king’s orders. In 1015 Edmund freed the lady from her house arrest, married her and appropriated the family lands in the east Midlands in the region of the Five Boroughs ‘and the people [i.e. the people who mattered] all submitted to him.’ He had the lady, but he also held the historic sword of Offa – a potent talisman for the Mercian English.

Meanwhile Cnut was receiving submissions including from Wessex and the Mercians under Eadric. An army raised by Edmund refused to fight when Æthelred did not come to lead it – was this perhaps due to the influence of Eadric? But Edmund had the support of Uhtred of Northumbria in a campaign through Cheshire and the northwest Midlands, ‘Eadric’s Mercia’ so to speak. Like Eadric a royal son-in-law, Uhtred has been described as ‘quite simply the most important man in the north of England’.11 He also was the enemy of Eadric Streona, who was siding with Cnut. When the Dane succeeded in occupying York, however, Uhtred agreed to a meeting in one of his manor halls to make his formal submission. He was murdered in his own hall for his pains, almost certainly with Cnut’s connivance. Beside the earl, forty of his followers were slain by a rival northern magnate, Thurbrand ‘the Hold’, in a bloodbath that started a sixty-year feud. Edmund’s cause had lost a powerful friend. He headed for London to join his father.

Æthelred, by now in his mid-fifties, died in London on St George’s Day, 23 April 1016. It had been a long reign and for the most part inglorious. Wulfstan the Homilist recorded harrowing sights of thegns watching listlessly while their womenfolk were serially raped by Danish raiders, and of ordinary citizens so terrorized that they made no attempt to intervene as crowds of their fellow countrymen and women were driven shipboard into slavery by just three or four seamen. Gossip later claimed that Cnut’s sister had run a profitable trade in the export of English girls as slaves to Denmark.

London held off the enemy and the citizens and such notables as were there chose Edmund to succeed; they may even have had him crowned king. An assembly at Southampton elected Cnut king. All that summer, inconclusive battles and manoeuvrings saw the advantage tip first one way then that. Edmund threw back a Danish siege and found reinforcements to defeat another one. A contemporary German source mentions a report of 24,000 coats of mail being held in London.12 It appears that Queen Emma/Ælfgifu remained, sharing in the ‘heroic resistance that was remembered in the North’.13 At Otford Edmund defeated an army led by Cnut himself, which persuaded Eadric Streona to come back on side. In October the English king summoned yet another army ‘of all the English nation’, among them the force led by Eadric Streona. On 18 October 1016, at the battle of ‘Assandun’ in Essex, either at Ashingdon or Ashdun, Streona and his people swapped sides once again. Cnut won the encounter but Edmund recouped his forces. After more campaigning in the West Country, Edmund was able to conclude a treaty at Alney, Gloucestershire, that agreed a division of England by which he became king of Wessex while Cnut held Northumbria, Mercia and presumably East Anglia. It was a notable outcome for the house of Cerdic. In February 1014 the uncrowned Swein Forkbeard the Dane died acknowledged king throughout England. By late 1016 his son had been forced to concede the heartland kingdom to the native claimant. King Edmund Ironside had raised levies time after time in many shires and forced the invader to terms. But on 30 November he died, possibly of a lingering battle wound. Perhaps his half-brother, the boy-prince Edward (later the Confessor) had fought in his last battle. Christmas that year we hear of him in Ghent.

No source at the time of Edmund’s death suggested foul play, but some sixty years later there was a rumour going the rounds in Germany that he had been poisoned. Later still, Gaimar’s Estorie des Engleis (c. 1150) names Eadric Streona. It is not so much the bizarre mode of assassination – shot with an arrow up the anus, presumably up the down vent of a cantilevered first-floor privy – that’s intriging here as the fact that, more than a century on, the fate of the last full-blooded Englishman to rule the country was still of interest. Edmund left two sons who found exile in Hungary: Edward, to whom we shall come later, and Edmund. Cnut was said to have made a pilgrimage to his rival’s tomb at Glastonbury and to refer to him as his ‘brother’: good theatre, perhaps by someone who liquidated Edmund’s brother Eadwig.

About this time, an assembly of English notables in London renounced any allegiance to Edmund’s sons, proclaimed amity between the Danes and the English and swore loyalty to Cnut. In addition foreigners were to be permitted to live in peace and the official celebration of the Feast of Edward ‘the Martyr’ was promulgated. Thus the murder of his half-brother came back to haunt Æthelred Unræd even in death. His entire reign was impugned and his descendants utterly discredited also by association. Cnut’s inauguration, by contrast, tied the Danish conqueror directly into the traditions of English kingship by the honour he did to the Martyr.14

Cnut confiscated English estates with which to reward his followers; it was the normal pattern in the tradition of the gift-giving war leader. He made his most powerful ally, the chief Norwegian magnate Eirik, earl in Northumbria, and Thorkell the Tall earl in East Anglia. Clearly a great power in that province or earldom, he may for a time have considered challenging Cnut himself, but Thorkell’s English career was ended by banishment. There was nothing to match the root and branch dispossession of the Anglo-Saxon establishment that followed 1066. The overthrow and death of Eadric Streona was a necessary security precaution against a threat waiting to materialize. Thanks to that famously efficient English tax-raising bureaucracy Cnut was able to pay off followers with immense silver handshakes that sent them happily back to their home territories set up for life. By 1018 most of the fleet was dispersed and agreement had been reached, ‘according to the laws of Edgar’, between the English and their new master.

By now Cnut had also done as much as he could to scotch the snake of a dynastic comeback. Ironside’s infant children in faraway Hungary were hardly a threat. Æthelred’s sons by his Norman queen Emma/Ælfgifu, the teenage Edward and the boy Alfred, were by now ensconced in Normandy and offered no immediate danger, although they could be useful little stalking horses if a Norman duke should one day want to challenge the Viking king in England. In July 1017 Cnut married their mother. According to the lady’s biography, written under her direction some twenty-five years later, things were not quite so simple. An acid allusion to the children of Ælfgifu of Northampton states, ‘It was said the king had sons by another.’ Emma tells us that she refused even to become betrothed without a promise that if she bore a son he and no other would rule after the king. The marriage was celebrated ‘to the joy of the people’ and was soon to be enriched by the birth of a son, Harthacnut, whom, according to Emma’s apologia, the royal couple ‘kept ever with them as the future heir to the kingdom.’

It was a revolution of dynasty; quite unlike the Norman revolution fifty years later, the new Danish regime wanted an accommodation with the English. By marrying the widowed queen, the conqueror consolidated the bond of amity. The church consecrated at Assandun to celebrate Cnut’s victory also honoured the English dead. In June 1023, in a great ceremony of national reconciliation, the Danish court moved to expiate the murder of Archbishop Ælfeah of Canterbury by drunken Danish soldiery twelve years before. The relics of the martyr were translated from London to Canterbury and the cortège was met at Rochester by Queen Emma and the infant Prince Harthacnut. From there they accompanied the jubilant crowds on the road to the metropolitan cathedral, where the Queen presented gifts at the new shrine. Danish standing in Canterbury received a boost. Londoners were probably seething – it has been suggested that the saintly relics were in fact moved out of the city under armed guard and under cover of darkness. Cnut wanted stable community relations. It was not for nothing that the new regime was to be run ‘according to the laws of King Edgar’. After all, those laws had specifically been prepared to concede a measure of legal autonomy to his Danish subjects.

Cnut and the business of government

Under Cnut the units of authority formerly known as ealdordoms came to be called earldoms. For the last fifty years before the Norman Conquest the big three – Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria – were in the hands of Cnut’s appointees, or their descendants. The names can still awaken echoes. ‘Old’ Siward of Northumbria features in Shakespeare’s Macbeth; Leofric of Mercia was husband to Godiva of Coventry. A pious lady, rich in her own right and a munificent patron of churches, she is above all remembered for the ride she made through the market-place of Coventry, naked save for her long golden hair, at the challenge of her husband to have him free the townspeople of all tolls.

Godwine is remembered as head of Anglo-Saxon England’s most famous family and father of its last king, Harold II. We are told that Cnut favoured him because of his eloquence, a man ‘profound in speech’ according to the biographer of Edward the Confessor, probably somewhat orotund, a little pompous perhaps, but what the eighteenth century would have called ‘a man of bottom’. Godwine was probably the son of thegn Wulfnoth, cild of Sussex, but although of minor English noble birth his rise to power came under the new Danish dynasty. His wife, Gytha, sister-in-law to Cnut, bore him six sons, Swein, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine and Wulfnoth, and three daughters, of whom Edith was to become queen of England. By 1018 he had been appointed an earl in England south of the Thames, but it was as a result of his prowess in Denmark in the suppression of rebellion in 1019 or 1022–3 that Cnut advanced him higher. Some would say too high and blame Cnut’s faulty judgement for making Godwine the over-mighty subject of Edward the Confessor’s reign.

An earl was expected to preside at the shire courts in his jurisdiction, though it appears that royal representatives (legati) were regularly present. These royal legates or observers frequently had judicial functions and were active in Northumbria as well in southern shires. From the time of Edward the Confessor we find that local administrative responsibilities devolve increasingly upon the sheriff, who might be appointed by the earl in whose place he stood but often by the king. An earl could be expected to lead the local armed forces of the shires, though here again the intervention of the centre was important, since the king had overriding powers concerning the fyrd. Traditionally a man’s military equipment (heregeatu, literally ‘war gear’) had been supplied by his lord; it was the physical sign of the link between lord and man in this warrior society. At the man’s death it was to be restored to the lord. The convention persisted down to the Conquest and, though it became in effect a form of death duty, ‘heriot’, as it was known, was still rendered as weapons or other military equipment, varying according to the man’s rank. Cnut’s law code issued in the early 1020s listed an earl’s heriot as eight horses, together with a sizeable arms, including four swords, and sufficient gold to fit out four troopers and their attendants. With high status went great power in their locality. But English earls, unlike continental courts, remained royal appointees. Witness lists of royal charters reveal that even the most powerful, even the earls of Northumberland, were in frequent attendance at the royal court.

The response of the Æthelredian state to its ordeal appears at best ‘inadequate’ and much given to exhortation, with law codes almost pleading with the population to be good. But a similar tone can be detected in Cnut’s legislation. Like Alfred himself, these later legislators believed that a right relation with God was fundamental to good government. The spirit of the age saw the terrible afflictions of the Scandinavian terror raids as just punishment of a sinful people; society should purge itself of its guilt and such penitence could and should be regulated by law. Cnut adopted the public role of good, penitent Christian. On his regular visits to Wilton nunnery he always dismounted in respect of the place. The monk of Saint-Omer, author of Queen Emma’s Encomium, who witnessed the king’s actions ‘with his own eyes’ as he passed through Saint-Omer on pilgrimage to Rome, saw in him a near saintly figure, the friend to churchmen, a ‘co-bishop to the bishops’.

Where Alfred had his cakes, Cnut had the tide. The story of the king seated on the seashore, the wavelets lapping at his feet as he fails to stop the incoming sea, derives from two twelfth-century chroniclers. Apparently Cnut staged this demonstration of his powerlessness against the forces of nature to silence some sycophantic courtiers. It seems entirely plausible for the hard-headed ruler of a sea-borne empire.

That empire was funded, as we learn from M. K. Lawson, Cnut’s recent biographer, by the wealth of the pre-Conquest English state. No reign better illustrates, he observes, not only the wealth of that state but also the capacities of its ‘comprehensive administrative system’. They weighed heavily on taxpayers. The records show cases of landholders dispossessed in favour of others better able to pay and churches cashing in or melting down plate or other valuables to raise the money. We have already noted the huge sums raised simply to pay off the invader’s army, even before the English started to fund his Scandinavian expeditions (an estimated 47 million coins of the quatrefoil type, presumably to pay the £82,500 the Chronicle reports handed over in 1018). But England’s advanced coinage operation, with mints in production at sites throughout the country seems to have had a practical impact on the expansion of Denmark’s money economy under Cnut. During this reign the country witnessed an innovation when pennies began to be produced in Denmark at four or five royal mints. The Scandinavian contact with England through Cnut seems probably to have contributed to the evolution of the royal writ in Norway.15 And Cnut could also draw on the renowned artists of his Anglo-Saxon kingdom to bolster his fame, as when the scriptorium at Peterborough was commissioned to produce an illuminated Psalter to be sent to the church at Cologne.

For England the reign seems to have been the first great era of tax and spend – abroad: it brought little of benefit at home. Even the king’s renowned visit to Rome could bring little extra prestige to the country, given that many of its kings had made the trip before and that for some 150 years it had tendered a unique annual alms payment to the Holy See. Known as the Romescot or Romfeoh (more popularly as Peter’s pence or hearth penny), it seems to have originated in ad hoc donations by eighth-century kings of Wessex and Mercia, and had been formalized in the ninth. By the reign of Cnut, the collection of the penny-per-household levy had been regularized at traditional provincial collection points to be paid by midsummer’s day.

In so far as the Danes, having conquered the country, were no longer invading it, one could presumably say that Cnut’s conquest brought peace – though not, it seems without heavy policing by garrisons of huscarls (royal household troops). The church, it is true, generally sang his praises and with good reason. Almost certainly a baptized Christian when he arrived in England, he may have grown into a man of genuine piety. He was a lavish donor of lands and precious artefacts. Besides endowments to the ‘Danelaw’ abbeys of Ely and Ramsey, he also endowed the shrine of St Ælfheah (Alphege) at Canterbury. It was said that later in life, he walked five miles barefoot to the church of St Cuthbert at Durham. Of course, such gifts were calculated. In what may have been his last charter of endowment, to Sherborne Abbey, he prays that his benefactions may ease his way to the heavenly kingdom. He died at Shaftesbury, in the homelands of Wessex, on 12 November 1035. He was buried in the Old Minster at Winchester, to be joined seventeen years later by Emma/Ælfgifu, his wife.

Some lucky beneficiaries certainly had reason to bless the memory of King Cnut. Further than that, to the nation at large, the legacy was scant and dubious. As with the Norman Conquest, just thirty years later, ‘the immediate effect was a vast dispersal of English wealth abroad.’ Whereas there was none of the wholesale destruction for which the Normans were to be responsible, ‘architectural reminiscences of the Danish conquest and rule are non-existent.’16 The rivalries between the three great earldoms that, thanks to Cnut, became dominant in the nation’s affairs were to cause much trouble in the next reign and his ramshackle Nordic ‘empire’, bar a few trading concessions, brought little benefit to England.

Just one of the kingdoms of King Cnut the Great (in Danish, Knud den Store; in Norwegian, Knut den Mektige), the country seems to have bankrolled his Nordic empire. It was a measure of Cnut’s statecraft that he manipulated ‘Englalond’s’ fine governmental machine without the permanent dispossession of its governmental and aristocratic elite. He did replace Æthelred’s ealdormen and from 1018 to 1023, apart from Godwine and a small number of new English king’s thegns, he relied principally on Nordic earls and thegns in the upper reaches of his administration. But after 1023 he promoted more loyal English followers. On at least three occasions English troops followed his banner in wars in Scandinavia. In 1028 they helped him assert his overlordship in Norway with King St Olaf the Good or ‘the Stout’. There his English consort Ælfgifu and her son Swein ruled for a time but they were driven out by the Norwegians in favour of the dead Olaf’s son, Magnus I, and were forced to flee to Denmark.

At home, the English saw war on only one occasion, when in 1027 Cnut made a foray into Scotland to enforce the submission of Malcolm, king of Scots. This same year he made his famous pilgrimage to Rome, reviving a tradition of earlier kings of Wessex, and was received by Pope John XIX. He also attended the coronation of Emperor Conrad II. Negotiations between the two monarchs would benefit English merchants with toll reductions and some years later Cnut’s daughter Gunnhild would marry Conrad’s son Henry (the Emperor Henry III), though Cnut never matched King Æthelstan’s continental dynastic networking. At his death he was followed in Denmark by Harthacnut, barely sixteen years old. The boy was promoted by his mother Emma to succeed Cnut in England but opposed by the Londoners who supported Harold, his son by Ælfgifu of Northampton. In 1037 Harold won general recognition.

Cnut’s marital status certainly left a few puzzles at his death. For Pauline Stafford, in her book Queens, Concubines and Dowagers (1983), it was a clear example of polygamy. Ælfgifu, his English wife, had borne him both Harold and Swein before his politically useful marriage to Emma/Ælfgifu of Normandy, his predecessor’s widow; recognized as full wife from the start. For Stafford the two women are to be considered ‘simultaneous wives’ though with different ‘spheres of influence’. The church seems to have made little protest over the arrangements during Cnut’s lifetime (given the benefactions it received that is, perhaps, not to be wondered at), though after his death the perspective may have shifted.

Disputed successions

Though half English by birth and ‘acknowledged as full king over all England’, Harold was apparently not popular. And his birth was an issue. Scandal, no doubt assisted by Emma, also claimed that he was illegitimate, not just because he was not Cnut’s son by the Englishwoman, but because he was not her son at all: since Ælfgifu of Northampton was unable to have children, she had had the child of a serving maid smuggled into her bed. Such was the story detailed in the Encomium. The question of bastardy may have been a factor at the back of the mind of Archbishop Æthelnoth of Canterbury when, with a dramatic gesture, he refused to hand over the coronation regalia (crown, sceptre, anointing ampula, etc.) and forbade Harold or any bishop to remove them. Harold took the throne nonetheless – even though Harthacnut had been accepted as king by Godwine and Wessex. Æthelred’s sons by Emma, Edward and Alfred, were in Normandy.

In the last years of the Danish ascendancy in England, according to the Norman chronicler William of Jumièges, the Norman Duke Robert, nephew of Cnut’s queen Emma, came to look upon her sons by the long-dead Æthelred of England as his brothers. They had after all spent most of their lives among his people. It seems he even assembled an invasion fleet on their behalf, though it was scattered by gales in the Channel. As early as 1033, we find Norman charters that accord Edward the title of ‘king’ in England.

Meanwhile, Harold marched on Winchester where Emma had claimed control of the royal treasure hoping to hold the fort for her son, Harthacnut of Denmark. In fact, Harold, called ‘Harefoot’ was able to seize the greater part and assumed the rule. His cause was supported by Leofric, earl of Mercia and his wife Godiva, the Londoners, a group of Northern lords and his mother Ælfgifu of Northampton, who held great feasts to win friends and influence important people. But the party of her great opponent, Hathacnut, king of Denmark and Queen Emma’s favourite, was the man who would soon prove the most important in England, and whose faction the Godwine of Wessex led.

Neither Edward nor Alfred seems to have been considered. Some time in 1036 both arrived back in England, perhaps summoned by a letter purporting to be from their mother at Winchester, perhaps attempting invasion. Norman sources tell us that Edward made a landing on Southampton Water but was forced to retire by the local levies while Alfred, crossing over from the region of Boulogne on the Channel coast, probably somewhat later, was intercepted by men of Godwine’s household who took him to King Harold; it was said he was blinded and died of his wounds. Some of his followers were blinded, others sold into slavery.

An assembly of great men at Oxford decided that England should be divided between Harold as king of Mercia and Northumbria, and Harthacnut as king of Wessex. A new coinage was struck in both names, but from the second year of the issue Harold’s name came to dominate, even appearing on coins struck at Winchester where Emma was still ensconced with Harthacnut’s supporters. In 1037 Harold drove them from the city and finally became king of all England. Edward had made good his return to Normandy while, two years into her second widowhood, his estranged mother was into her second exile, this time at Bruges with Count Baldwin of Flanders and his ‘royally born’ wife Adela. But Emma would soon return. Harthacnut lingered in Denmark until he came to terms with Magnus of Norway in 1039 and, with ten ships, sailed for Bruges. Following Harold’s death on 17 March 1040, Emma sailed from Flanders with Harthacnut. Their fleet was solemnly welcomed by Earl Godwine, who made him the present of a splendid warship manned by eighty elite warriors fitted out with valuable weapons and wearing gold armlets.

In his brief reign Harthacnut won a reputation for brutality. When men of Worcestershire killed two of his tax collectors, the king dispatched a force to ravage the county, kill the male inhabitants and burn down the city. Kings were permitted to take such punitive action: in the twelfth century, for example, Louis VII of France authorized action in Champagne in which hundreds of people died, murdered in the streets or burnt alive in the churches where they had sought refuge. Harthacnut did not go to these lengths, but maybe his officers were excessive. The city was duly burnt and pillaged, large tracts of the shire plundered by the troopers, and if few men were slaughtered it was because most had fled in good time.

In the following year Harthacnut invited Edward back from Normandy. He himself was perhaps already ailing. At any rate, Edward took ‘some kind of oath as king’ and, according to the Encomium, belittled his own claims in favour of his half-brother. Harthacnut died of convulsions at a wedding feast on 8 June 1042. Edward, ‘the Confessor’ to be, now made a secure entry on the English scene. It was his turn to receive a warship from Godwine, the great courtier. Still more magnificent than Harthacnut’s, it carried 120 men, had a gold-embroidered purple sail and a ‘golden dragon at the prow . . . that belches fire with triple tongue’. (Was it what the Byzantines called a siphonophore, that is fitted with a Greek fire flame-thrower?) According to Godwine’s supporters, Edward owed his throne to the earl’s intervention with the English magnates. Edward, though, had long regarded himself as true king and had been named as such in charters issued in Normandy during his exile.

Briefly, after a lifetime in the corridors of power under Harthacnut and for a time under Edward, Queen Emma may have exercised real power. Named as mater Regis (‘king’s mother’) and invariably placed next after the king,17 she features in many charter witness lists. In 1043 her son Edward moved against her. She was attacked without warning at Winchester by the earls Godwine, Leofric and Siward, and deprived of untold treasure in gold and silver. All her lands were taken into the king’s hands and he returned to her only enough for her needs. The reasons are unknown, though rumours were rife: she had refused reasonable request to yield the land; she had been hard on her son; she had been having an affair with Bishop Stigand, her spiritual adviser, who was deprived of his see at Elmham at this time. Years after her death, a story was going the rounds in Canterbury that she had been offering to fund an invasion of England by Magnus of Norway.

Emma died on 6 March 1052 in Winchester, about seventy years old. King Edward arranged for his mother to be interred next to her Danish warrior husband Cnut in the church of St Swithun, the Old Minster. She was the first queen to be buried there. She was also the first queen since Alfred the Great’s Æthelswih to be buried with her husband. Nunneries were the normal place of retirement for widowed queens, and the normal place of their burial. Emma/Ælfgifu’s death was still commemorated in the later eleventh century and the house where she had lived was still identified as hers in the twelfth.

Hard woman, hard world

Emma of Normandy’s life reads like a feminist metaphor for a woman’s frustration in politics. The Encomium Emmae reginae (‘In Praise of Queen Emma’), written about 1041 and which she almost certainly commissioned and may well in part have dictated, reads as the anonymous CV of a great talent woefully underused. A frontispiece, not a common feature of books at this time, depicts the queen in royal regalia seated upon a throne, an early example of a secular figure seated in majesty, with the kneeling author at her feet presenting the volume into her hands. Behind him stand her two royal sons, the half-brothers Edward, son of Æthelred, and Harthacnut, son of Cnut. The kneeling author is presumably of no interest to anyone, except perhaps himself, but the trio of royals represent the tense up-to-the minute story of English politics in the pages that follow, told very much from Emma’s viewpoint. The information on the English scene is no doubt provided by her and so we may assume that the narrative reveals how the people it deals with were viewed by her and her party.

Her antecedents, she boasts, lie with a victorious people that wrested the province of Normandy in Gaul (echoes of imperial Rome) from the Franks and their prince. Rich in wealth and lineage, beautiful and wise, the most outstanding woman of her day, she is now a famous queen. As if to validate her vaunted wisdom, the Encomium opens with a general survey of Denmark before her birth to explain the decision by Swein, father of Cnut, to invade England in 1013. More than a praise text, though it was that, the book urges the claims of Harthacnut, her son by Cnut, as the next king of England. Emma was no mere wife or bedfellow but a fit companion for a warrior monarch in the true Viking mode:18 a woman familiar with war at sea as well as on land; a lady as at home with the warrior band as in the mead hall; above all, a worthy ‘consort in his imperium’.

For fourteen years she was the wife of Æthelred, king of England. The fact is suppressed by the Encomium and the sons of that marriage, Edward (later ‘the Confessor’) and Alfred, barely mentioned. The Encomium was meant to influence the future, through a version of the past that met the questions of the present. It was aimed at her sons, and more widely at the great men of the English. It was a political work, from a political woman in the thick of politics19 – but politics in a man’s world. When the son she had backed for the crown died and the son she had dispraised (some said wished dead) succeeded, retirement from the scene was all that was left.

For England the legacy was more serious. In 1038 that favourite son had struck a deal with Magnus of Norway that if either died childless the other would succeed to his kingdom. In 1042 Harthacnut died – and was succeeded by Edward. Preoccupied by threats to his crown, Magnus was never able to follow up his claim. In 1066 his son and heir Harald Hardrada invaded England and helped ensure that King Harold II was in battle at Stamford Bridge, 250 miles away from the beaches of Pevensey Bay, when William of Normandy was preparing to disembark his invasion force there. No doubt Emma of Normandy would have approved.

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