4

GO WEST

Normandy Landings

Robert Capet was not the only Christian ruler to have identified in Cluny the radiance of an awesome and potent mystery. In 1014, messengers arrived at the abbey from Rome, bringing with them a remarkable gift. The man who had sent it was Henry II: “King of the Germans, Emperor of the Romans, Augustus.”1 It had taken Otto III’s successor more than a decade to be daubed with the imperial chrism, and the Pope, to mark the occasion of the delayed coronation, had presented to Henry a dazzling reminder of what still officially remained his global mission: an orb shaped like an apple, divided into four by precious jewels and surmounted by a golden cross. Dispatched to Cluny, along with the emperor’s coronation robes, his sceptre and his crown, the presence within the abbey walls of this spectacular array of imperial regalia suggested just how far the monastery’s horizons were widening. It certainly required no great penetration to fathom the prophecy encoded within the emperor’s gift. Just as the apple was divided into four quarters, so too, according to the learned, was the globe; and just as a cross surmounted the apple, so had it been foretold that the Cross of Christ was to redeem all the world. Peoples everywhere would be brought to follow it. None, no matter how savage or remote, was to be left behind. Odilo, taking possession of the orb, was so delighted by its message that he ordered it put on display whenever a major festival was celebrated: a reassurance, etched in gold and jewels, that the conversion of the heathen was at hand.

Cluny might have been far removed from the wastelands of paganism, yet such were the reservoirs of spiritual power that it had generated, and such the efficacy of all the psalms and anthems sung within its walls, that even those demons skulking beyond the frontiers of Christendom, haunting the foul sump of their own darkness, had been dazzled by the blaze of its holiness. This, at any rate, was what Henry himself was evidently banking on. As a Roman emperor, stationed at the very edge of time, he naturally needed all the supernatural assistance that he could obtain. Like his predecessor, he had no doubt that he had been charged directly by God with the bringing of barbarians to Christ. So it was that he had married his own sister to Stephen, the King of the Hungarians. So it was too that he had lavished endowments upon the Church, with the stated goal of “destroying the paganism of the Slavs.”2 Nevertheless, the trampling down of demons was not Henry’s only responsibility. As a Caesar, it was his duty as well to keep the Roman Empire together. Sometimes, regrettably, this might require him to dirty his hands. One problem, festering beyond the eastern frontiers of the Reich, was a particular irritant. Boleslav, the same Duke of Poland who had been awarded the title of “friend of the Roman people” by Otto III, had recently begun to prove himself a good deal less than amiable. Henry, resolved to slap down the high-aiming Pole, had been obliged to scout around for allies. In due course, and to the horror of Christians everywhere, he had settled upon the most monstrous choice imaginable.

In 1003, on Easter Day, the holiest festival of the year, Christendom’s greatest king had signed a formal treaty of friendship with the Wends: a people who still unashamedly worshipped idols, offered up human sacrifices, and decided policy by putting questions to a horse. Even with the backing of his new allies, however, Henry had been unable to land a killer blow on Boleslav. The hostilities had continued to smoulder. In 1015, one year after Henry’s coronation in Rome, they burst into flames again. As the newly anointed emperor rode to war against the Duke of Christian Poland, the Holy Lance borne ahead of him, and anthems sounding in his ears, so were the Wends, marching beneath the banners of their goddess, still massed in all their unregenerate paganism at his side.

A scandal, certainly. And yet, for all Henry’s undoubted equivocations, the dream of St. Adalbert – that the wilds of the heathen East might be tamed and transformed into a garden of the City of God – still endured. Even in lands far removed from the front line of the Reich, Christians were moved and haunted by its implications. “The gospel must be proclaimed throughout the whole world,” demanded one English bishop in urgent tones, “and it must be done before the world’s end. So books tell us – and afterward the end will be as soon as God wishes.”3 Missionaries, risking death no less boldly than Adalbert himself had done, duly continued to follow in the martyr’s footsteps, tramping over dusty plains, through dripping forests, along the banks of ice-locked rivers. The most brilliant of them all, a Saxon monk by the name of Bruno, even managed to end up murdered precisely as his master had done, beheaded beside a lake by a war band of angry Prussians; but only after he had spent years preaching to other tribes, from the Balkans to the Baltic, no less menacing than his killers. Indeed, following several months of sermons, he had even succeeded in converting thirty Pechenegs: nomads who haunted the steppes above the Black Sea, and who were notoriously the most savage people in the world.

Certainly, to Bruno’s countrymen, secure behind the ramparts of the Reich, the names of the various barbarians whom he had laboured to win for Christ – the Pechenegs and Prussians, the Lithuanians and Swedes – appeared suggestive of a truly abhorrent savagery. Sinister temples “entirely decked out in gold”;4 altars splashed with blood; groves hung with the rotting corpses of humans, horses and dogs: such were the nightmare visions that haunted the Saxons, whenever they sought to imagine what horrors might be lurking on the margins of the world. Yet the exploits of men such as Bruno suggested that the optimism of St. Adalbert remained well founded: that there was nowhere so steeped in darkness that it might not be penetrated by the light of Christ, nor any soul so fierce that it might not ultimately be won for Christendom.

Indeed, there were some Saxons who went so far as to ponder whether the heathen, once safely converted, might not actually have some lessons to pass on to them in turn. The savagery that came naturally to barbarians did certainly appear to lend itself to “the strict enforcement of the law of God.” So reflected Thietmar, a friend of Bruno from childhood, and bishop of that same frontier town of Merseburg which Henry the Fowler, almost a century before, had garrisoned with bandits. Though Thietmar was proudly chauvinist, and had a contempt for the Poles, in particular, that knew few bounds, even he could not help but admire the robust manner in which their leaders “keep the populace in line, much as one would a stubborn ass.” Wistfully, he reflected on how a Polish bishop might encourage his flock to keep a fast by the simple expedient of punching out the teeth of anyone who broke it. Other moral standards were upheld in an even more no-nonsense way. A convicted prostitute, so Thietmar reported approvingly, was liable to have her genitals sliced off and hung from her doorpost; while a rapist, nailed by his scrotum to a bridge, would then, “after a sharp knife has been placed next to him,” be confronted with the unpleasant options of self-castration or suicide. Food for thought indeed. “For though such customs are undoubtedly harsh,” pronounced Thietmar sternly, “yet they are not without their positive side.”5

Times, then, had clearly changed, when the cruelties of an alien people could be regarded, not as a menace, but as a potential buttress of Christendom. Within living memory, after all, there were those who had dreaded that the entire world of Christian order was doomed to collapse, shaken to fragments by the thunderous hoof beats of paganism, and consigned to its sacrilegious flames. Yet Christendom had not succumbed. Its laws, its rituals, its mysteries had endured. Rather, like a phantom dissolved upon the splashing of holy water or the singing of a psalm, it was the heathen assailants of Christendom who had found themselves, in the final reckoning, confounded, disarmed, transfigured. In Hungary, such a paragon of godliness was Caesar’s brother-in-law, King Stephen, that he would end up officially proclaimed a saint; in Gniezno, at the tomb of the blessed Adalbert, stupendous miracles continued to be performed, to the awe and wonder of all; even further east, on the very margin of the world, where Gog and Magog had once been believed to wait, there now sat a Christian prince within a Christian city, the fabulous stronghold of Kiev. Perhaps, then, in the cross-surmounted apple sent by the emperor to Odilo, there was to be found a symbol, not merely of hope, but of celebration. Already, it appeared, such was the golden brilliancy of the heartlands of Christendom that its glow was spilling outwards to the ends of the earth.

Yet in truth, it was not along the limits of the Christian world, among distant barbarians, in lands with grotesque and unpronounceable names, that the most startling evidence of all was to be found of how a savage nation might be redeemed. Instead, it lay directly on the doorstep of the King of France himself. North-westwards out of Paris, that nerve centre of Capetian power, there wound a mighty river, the Seine; and as its currents flowed onwards to the sea, so they passed by “woods teeming with wild animals, fields ideal for growing corn and other crops, and meadows lush with cattle-fattening grass.”6 A province, in short, not to be surrendered idly; and sure enough, for many centuries, ever since the first coming of Clovis into Gaul, it had served as a prized adornment of the empire of the Franks. And yet, under the heirs of Charlemagne, the empire of the Franks had let it slip. So terminally, indeed, that with the dawning of the second millennium a new word was starting to be used to describe the region, a word that branded it the property, not of the Franks at all, but of barbarians who had long seemed, even more than the Hungarians or Saracens, a horror risen up from the most anguished depths of Christian nightmares. “Normandy,” people were coming to call it: the land of the “Nordmanni” – the “Northmen.”

It was a name fit to inspire terror. That the frozen rim of the world might make for danger had been appreciated since ancient times. “A hive of nations”:7 so one historian, writing in the early years of Constantinople, had termed the furthermost North. Centuries on, and a more detailed knowledge of the intimidating expanses of Scandinavia had done nothing to impair this judgement. Given their interminable winters, what else was there for the inhabitants to do, save to copulate and breed? It had certainly come as little surprise to venturesome missionaries to discover that many of the demons worshipped by the Northmen should have been prodigious fornicators: one of them, for instance, a giant-slaughtering hammer-wielder by the name of Thor, was a compulsively enthusiastic rapist; while a second, Frey, boasted a “phallus of truly enormous dimensions.”8Alarming revelations, to be sure: for people capable of worshipping gods such as these, violent in their ambitions, insatiable in their lusts, could hardly help but prove a menace to Christendom, rather as lascivious promptings might beset a virtuous soul. The North men, certainly, were notorious for setting few limits on their ravening. To harvest women, “leading them down to a bright ship, fetters biting greedily into their soft flesh”;9 to deny their bodies to rivals; then to father on them a teeming plenitude of sons: these were held the surest proofs of manliness. “And so it is that these people soon grow too numerous for their native land to support them – and the consequence is that a war band of young men has to be selected by lot, according to an ancient custom, and these are then sent out into the world, to seize new lands for themselves at the point of a sword.”10

Such, at any rate, among Christian moralists, was the favoured explanation for the deadly waves of pirates from Scandinavia who, surging and withdrawing and then surging yet again, upon a seemingly endless tide, had been bloodying the shores of Christendom for more than two centuries, ever since the time of Charlemagne. Whether the theory was true or not, there was certainly a grim satisfaction to be had in believing it. *Although the depredations of the Northmen were demoralising, the notion that it was mere bestial appetite which had propelled them across the sea did at least serve to reassure their victims that, inviolable amid all the rapine, the values of Christendom remained those of virtue and order. Women might be abducted, monasteries plundered, even whole cities burned – and yet the memory of such atrocities, growing ever more lurid with the retelling, only helped to confirm in most Christians an impregnable sense of their own superiority. Just as the monk murdered by a North man could draw his last breath confident in the knowledge that he was bound for a throne in heaven, so could the warrior who unsheathed his sword against the pirates and stood to block their path know with an iron-forged certitude that he was performing the work of God.

So it was that even by the time of the Millennium, a century after the worst of the firestorm had passed from France, great princes were still in the habit of flaunting battle honours won by their forefathers against the Northmen. A dynasty which lacked them, indeed, was felt to verge on the illegitimate. Nothing, for instance, had been more fatal to the martial reputation of the Carolingians than their failure, back in 886, to finish off an army of pirates who had presumed to lay siege to Paris; just as the Capetians, one of whose ancestors had performed prodigies of valour during the great assault on the city, never let anyone forget their own family’s heroic record as Northmen-fighters. “Swords and spears slippery with bright blood”;11 “skewered bodies sprawled as though asleep in town gate-ways”;12 “gobbets of carrion stuck to the claws and beaks of crows”:13 such were the scenes of carnage that had first served to fertilise Capetian greatness.

And the greatness of many other Frankish dynasties too. It was no coincidence that many of the most formidable princedoms of the kingdom, from Flanders to Anjou, stood guard over broad-flowing estuaries: those fatal confluences where waters from the heart of France met and mingled with the sea. Just as it was the Seine which had enabled the Northmen, “oars thrashing, weapons crashing, shields striking shields,”14 to penetrate to the bridges of Paris, so too had other fleets thrust their way up the Loire, snaking deep into the very innards of the kingdom, so that even Orléans, back in 856, had been captured and brutally despoiled. On the lower reaches of the river, not surprisingly, the devastation had been more protracted: the county of Anjou, which by the year 1000 would stand so thriving, so puissant, so fair, had been, not much more than a century earlier, so infested with Northmen as to appear almost lost to Christendom. Angers, the proud city that would serve Fulk Nerra as his capital, had been repeatedly occupied by pirates, and transformed into their lair. Other towns, one jittery contemporary had wailed, “are emptied so utterly, alas, that they are become the habitation of wild beasts!”15

But this had been to overdo the pessimism. In truth, even at the height of the Northmen’s assault, outposts of Frankish rule had endured along the entire reach of the Loire; nor had the structures of governance there ever wholly collapsed. Proficient at carting off loot the pirates may have been – but they had signally failed to lay their hands on any effective levers of power. It had not taken long for the new masters of Angers, planted in the city after its final liberation in 886, to demonstrate the full scale of this error. By 929, the Vicomte of Angers had cheerfully promoted himself to the rank of “the Count of Anjou”; a few decades on, and even the greatest in the land had accepted his right to be reckoned their peer. Francia being what it was, an ancient and Christian realm, loot pilfered from its monasteries could never hope to compare as a long-term investment with lands and a glamorous title. Fulk Nerra’s ancestors, because they had instinctively appreciated this, had been able to raise a princedom that, by 1000, could stand comparison with any in France. The Northmen, because they had not, had long since been swept from the Loire back into the sea.

And yet, to a menacing degree, they had always been fast learners. As pirates, living by their wits, they had needed to be. Whether it was raiding a monastery on the occasion of its saint’s day, or sweeping into a market place just as the stalls were going up, or mastering, perhaps, the unfamiliar Frankish arts of horsemanship, the Northmen had long shown themselves adept at profiting from an attentive study of their prey. They were certainly not oblivious to the underlying strengths possessed by a Christian state – nor to the threat that these presented to themselves. Along the lower reaches of the Seine, for instance, where the Northmen had settled to far more formidable effect than they ever had along the Loire, the props of Frankish power truly had been obliterated, and its foundations systematically smashed to pieces. By the early years of the tenth century, not only had the local nobility been destroyed, and all traces of native officialdom wiped out, but even the Church itself, as a functioning organisation, had begun to disintegrate.

It was true that in Rouen, on the very mouth of the Seine, the local archbishop had somehow, against the odds, managed to cling to office; but all around him and his beleaguered flock, as palpable as a gathering twilight, there had been the sense of a deadly wasteland closing in. “Invia,” such a wilderness was properly termed by the learned: a dimension of trackless forests and bogs and scrubland, where no decent Christian would ever think to venture, but which had long been the haunts of the heathen, the theatre of their loathsome rituals and the womb of their ambushes. “Out in the field no man should move one foot beyond his weapons,” the Northmen sang. “For a man never knows, travelling abroad, when he may need his spear.”16 By 900, all the region of the Seine estuary had become invia: a wasted, rubble-strewn no man’s land, where it was indeed the spear alone which ruled, while fugitives from slavery and sacrifice and war watched over their shoulders, and slunk fearfully through weed-grown fields.

And yet by the early years of the tenth century, the sheer scale of the ruin had come to threaten the outlanders no less than the wretched natives. Increasingly, with all the region of the Seine scavenged bare, the Northmen had been obliged to look ever further afield for pickings. In 911, leaving their coastal bases far behind them, they had plunged deep into enemy territory, as far as Chartres, some sixty miles south-west of Paris. Here, confronted by a Frankish army led by Hugh Capet’s grandfather, they had been brought to defeat – but not to destruction. The aftermath had left both sides in a mood for compromise. Even as the defeated war bands were retreating to lick their wounds on the banks of the Seine, messengers from the Frankish king had been following in their wake. Brought into the presence of the most fearsome and formidable of all the Northmen, a celebrated warlord by the name of Rollo, the ambassadors had proposed a bargain. The pirate chieftain was to abandon his heathen ways; he was to become the vassal of the Frankish king; he was to stand sentry against other pirates on the upper reaches of the Seine. In exchange, he was to be acknowledged as the rightful overlord of Rouen and all the lands around it: the peer, in short, of any native-born count. Rollo, no less shrewd than he was brutal, had immediately grasped what was being offered. Rouen was certainly worth a mass. The terms had been accepted. In 912, the new lord of the city, bowing his head, had duly received baptism at the hands of its no doubt highly relieved archbishop.17

Few, on either side, had expected the bargain to stick for long. Enthusiasts for the new regime would later make much play of Rollo’s born-again piety – but more disturbing rumours had never ceased to swirl around his name. Once, at least, he had returned to his old ways, leading raids across his borders with an authentically piratical abandon; while on his deathbed, it was darkly whispered, he had cast all inhibitions aside, “and ordered a hundred Christian captives beheaded before him in honour of his native gods.”18Calumny or not, neighbouring lords had long persisted in regarding the upstart county as a nest of heathenish vipers. In 942, when Rollo’s son, William Longsword, had travelled to a parley with the Count of Flanders, he had done so unarmed, as befitted a Christian lord meeting with a fellow prince; and the Count of Flanders, as befitted a Christian lord meeting with a dangerous pirate, had ordered him hacked to death. Twenty years on, and Richard, the murdered Longsword’s son, had found himself so menaced by a coalition of his Frankish neighbours that he had been reduced, in his desperation, to calling in assistance from across the seas. His appeal had been answered with a ferocious enthusiasm; squadrons of dragon-headed ships had come gliding into the Seine; “foaming streams had blushed with blood, warm gore had smoked above the grass”;19 and the Franks had been repulsed. Yet the Count of Rouen himself, even with his frontiers stabilised, had remained on his guard. The Frankish world beyond him had still appeared hostile and menacing, one vast and yawning mouth, waiting to swallow him and all his princedom; and so Richard, in his concern to preserve the distinctive character of his lands, had continued to encourage immigration from across the realms of the North.

The result, over the succeeding decades, had been such an influx of settlers that by 996, when Richard, after a long and triumphant reign, finally died, the mongrel character of his subjects could be hailed as their defining glory. For Rollo, it would be claimed, long before ever landing on the banks of the Seine, had been granted a dream of a mighty flock of birds, “each one of a different breed and colour,”20 but all of them distinguished by having a left wing the colour of blood: the mark of warriors, of peerless warlords, brought together to share in a common purpose, and a common destiny. “One nation fashioned out of a mixture of different ones”:21 such was the boast of those who had already come to see themselves as a unique and glorious people – the Normans.

Perhaps it was not surprising, then, that their neighbours, almost a century after Rollo’s baptism, should have persisted in regarding the county ruled by his grandson as somehow sinister and alien: a lair of pirates still. Despite the fact that only Flanders among the great princedoms of the kingdom could boast a more venerable pedigree, the Norman state had never entirely lost its aura of the alien. In Rouen, for instance, the harbour remained as thronged with shipping from across the northern seas as it had ever been; flush with “profits from the trade borne on the surging tides,”22 the port was precisely the kind of stronghold that had always been most treasured by the Northmen. Even away from the Seine, the county remained a place where sea-wanderers might feel at home: in the west of Normandy especially, there were many who still spoke their language; while at Richard’s court, a praise-singer from Scandinavia would always be assured of a welcome. Violence, and slaughter, and gloating, and bragging: these were the invariable themes of a poem composed by a Northman.

Elsewhere too, escaped from the limits of song, hints of a primordial heathenism were rumoured to linger. The winter gales which screamed across the woods and fields of Normandy were notorious for being ridden by demonic huntsmen; and leading the hunt, men whispered, was none other than the ancient king of the gods himself. The same demon whose sacred groves in Saxony had long since been torched by Charlemagne was still worshipped by the Northmen under the name of “Odin”: a cloaked and one-eyed figure, the master of magic, a pacer of the realms of the night. Perhaps, in the final years of Richard’s rule, it was a certain resemblance to the fabled “All-father” that helped to explain the awe with which the aged count had come to be regarded: for just like Odin, he was bright-eyed and long-bearded, and it was said that after dark he would wander the streets of Rouen, cloaked and alone, and fight with the shades of the dead. Certainly, when he died at last, the grave in which he was buried appeared almost a spectre itself, conjured up from the mists of his forefathers’ past: an earthen mound, looking out to sea.

Yet if Richard had always kept one eye firmly fixed on the world of the North, then so too, with great skill and patience, had he sought to demonstrate to his fellow princes that he was one of their own number: that he and all his dynasty had forever cleansed themselves of the ordure of barbarism, and become the epitome of Christian lords. No matter the sophistries deployed by the Count of Flanders to justify his brutal assassination of William Longsword – Richard and all the Normans had been righteously appalled. “For he was a defender of peace, and a lover and consoler of the poor, and a defender of orphans, and a protector of widows – shed tears, then, for William, who died innocently.”23 That a monk had felt able to compose this eulogy with a straight face had reflected, almost certainly, something more than simple time-serving. William it was, even as he had dyed the frontiers of his county with Frankish blood, who had first demonstrated that taste for founding – or refounding – monasteries, and then for lavishing spectacular donations on them, that would become, under his successors, a positive obsession. By 1000, the holy places desecrated by the fury of the Northmen had long since been lovingly restored; the relics put into safe keeping brought out of hiding; the men of God restored from exile. When the chaplain to the new count, Richard’s son and namesake, hailed his master as “magnanimous, pious and moderate, an extraordinary, God-fearing man!,”24 his hero worship came naturally: Richard II was indeed a patron of churches fit to stand comparison with any prince in France. Yet nothing, perhaps, better illustrated the full astounding completeness of the Normans’ assimilation into the heart of Christen dom than the fact that they too, by the time of the Millennium, had ended up no less prone than their Frankish neighbours to dismiss any one who lived on the edge of the world as a savage. This, it might be thought, coming from the descendants of pirates who were widely believed to have been forced into exile from their native lands due to their own incontinent taste for rutting, was a truly heroic display of hypocrisy. Of the Irish, for instance, a people who had been Christian for half a millennium, one Norman poet could assert with a cheerful dismissiveness: “They couple like animals, not even wearing trousers, because they are forever having sex.”25 The wheels of snobbery had turned full circle.

Not that the Normans’ new ruler was done with his own social climbing quite yet. Unlike many other princes, Richard II was assiduous in cultivating the King of France. It helped that relations between his family and the Capetians had always been excellent: Hugh Capet’s grandfather, it was claimed, had been godfather to Rollo, while one of his sisters had certainly been married to Count Richard I. King Robert, hemmed in all about as he was by enemies, was naturally grateful for support wherever he could find it: Norman horsemen had a formidable reputation, and warriors dispatched by Richard II regularly took starring roles in the royal campaigns. And the quid pro quo? Well, for Richard himself, there was always the satisfaction of being regarded as a loyal vassal. That, however, was far from the limit of his ambitions. The Count of Rouen had his gimlet eye fixed on a source of even greater prestige. In 1006, a charter was issued in which he was for the first time termed, not a count at all, but a “dux” – a duke.26 A truly vaunting self-promotion: for to be a duke was to rank as the superior of everyone save a king. In the whole of France, there were only two other lords who could convincingly lay claim to the title: the princes of Burgundy and Aquitaine. Exclusivity was precisely what gave it such cachet. If Richard’s right to the title were widely accepted by his fellow princes, then it would rank, for a descendant of pagan warlords, as a truly remarkable prize.

Yet the uncomfortable truth was that many of his neighbours remained deeply suspicious of him precisely because they could not forget his origins. Years before Richard laid claim to his grandiose title, hostile Frankish chroniclers had already named his father a duke – “the Duke of Pirates.”27 Now, with the Millennium, there was a renewed bitterness in the perennial charge of Norman wolfishness. Out on the seas, the Northmen were back on the move. Dragonships were docking again in the harbours of Normandy. Her markets were filling up once more with the plunder looted from an ancient Christian people. True, it was not the Franks this time who found themselves the objects of the Northmen’s rapacity. But they had only to raise their eyes and look northwards to the realm of another anointed king, a wealthy and famous one, to be reminded of their own agony at the hands of the pirates, and to shudder.

For the kingdom of the English was burning.

The British Isles in the year 1000

Bound in with the Triumphant Sea

“Middle Earth’s doom is at hand.”28 This conviction, which gnawed at many in the lands of what had once been the Frankish Empire, was no less a cause of anxiety on the opposite side of the Channel. That the seas would dry up; that the earth would be consumed by fire; that the heavens themselves would be folded up like a book: here were the staples of many an English sermon. Naturally, those who delivered them tended to hedge their prophecies with anxious qualifications: for they were the heirs to Alcuin and numerous other learned scholars, and knew perfectly well that it was forbidden for even an angel to calculate the timing of the end of the world. Nevertheless, like a child with a scab, they found it hard to let alone. Typical was a sermon which can be dated with great precision to the year 971.29 Scrupulously, despite having taken the Day of Judgement as his theme, its author forbore to make any mention of the looming Millennium. “For so veiled by secrecy is the end of days,” he warned his flock sternly, “that no one in the entire world, no matter how holy, nor even anyone in heaven, except the Lord alone, has ever known when it will come.” So far, so orthodox; but the preacher’s self-restraint was not to last for long. Indeed, with his very next breath, he was off, soaring away into giddy speculation. “The end cannot be long delayed,” he proclaimed all of a sudden. “Only the coming of the accursed stranger, Antichrist, who is yet to appear on the face of the earth, is still awaited. Otherwise, all the signs and forewarnings that our Lord told us would herald Doomsday have come to pass.”30

Except that, to the preacher’s audience, it would not have been at all clear that they had. England, in 971, was in a notably well-ordered state. Symptoms of the end of the world appeared safely confined to overseas. The Channel stretched wide indeed. Even as the empire of the Franks was fragmenting amid all the various convulsions of war and social upheaval, the English had found themselves being melded into a single nation; even as the line of Charlemagne was withering away into spectral impotence, a monarchy of unprecedented wealth and power was being entrenched in England. The dynasty called itself “Cerdicingas,” “the house of Cerdic”: a title gilded with all the prestige that only a really stupefying antiquity could provide. For Cerdic, back in the far-off days when the ancestors of the English had first arrived in Britain, had been at their head, a Saxon adventurer with a mere five ships at his back, but who had nevertheless succeeded in winning himself a kingdom.

To be sure, there were many other warlords who had done the same; but it was Wessex, the land of the West Saxons, a realm ruled without break by Cerdic’s heirs over all the long succeeding centuries, that had ended up paramount.31 As the first millennium drew to a close, it dominated not only southern England, where its own heartlands lay, but all the lands where the English had settled, so that even the Northumbrians, who back in the time of Charlemagne had been a proud and independent people, “were in mourning for their lost liberty.”32 In England, running decisively against the grain of what had been happening elsewhere in Christendom, ancient princedoms had been brought, not to splinter, but to cohere and coalesce. The King of Wessex had ended up the King of the English too. The lands he ruled had become a united kingdom.

This was a bold and brilliant achievement. What had served to render it truly remarkable, however, was that its foundations had been laid in the most unpropitious circumstances imaginable, amid the fire and slaughter and calamity of defeat. Realms such as Northumbria had first lost their independence more than a hundred years previously – and it had not been to the West Saxons. Other foes, far more agile, far more predatory, had been abroad. Set as the English were upon an island, in kingdoms studded with rich and defenceless monasteries, it was hardly to be wondered at that they should have found themselves the targets of the Northmen. They had termed the invaders “Wicingas”: “robbers.” As well they might have done; for the Wicingas, the “Vikings,” had sought to strip their kingdoms bare. Realm after realm had been plundered, dismembered and brought crashing down.

Even Wessex itself, for a few terrible months, had seemed on the verge of collapse: for in the winter of 878, its king, Alfred, had been ambushed, and sent fleeing into a marsh. This, at a moment when the entire future of a Christian people had hung in the balance, suspended between the twin poles of ruin and redemption, had been a test more perilous than anything ever faced by a king of Francia. Alfred had passed it: he had not buckled, and by refusing to buckle, he had saved his people for Christendom. Emerging from the marshes, he had succeeded in scouring his kingdom free of the invaders; he had planted towns, ringed about with fortifications and endowed with marke places for the generation of war taxes, at regular intervals all over Wessex; he had steeled his people for continued struggle. The harvest of these labours, reaped by his heirs over the succeeding decades, had been a truly spectacular one. The Viking overlords who had clung on to power beyond the borders of Wessex had been systematically subdued; so too, in the Celtic fastnesses, where the English had never settled, had the Cornish, the Welsh and the Scots. In 937, in a bloody and titanic battle that would long be celebrated as the greatest victory ever won by an English king, Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred, had confronted an assemblage of foes drawn from across the British Isles, and routed them all.33 On his coins and in his charters, he had laid claim to a title even more resonant than “King of the English”: “King of all Britain.” Across the sea too, in Ireland, admirers had been brought to acknowledge him as “the very roof-tree of the dignity of the western world.”34

But it was not only on the margins of Christendom that men had marvelled. From beyond the Channel, in France, none other than Hugh Capet’s father, the mighty “Duke of the Franks,” had sent messengers seeking the hand of one of Athelstan’s four sisters in marriage. As a dowry, the duke had dispatched to England a rich collection of relics – including, most priceless of all, the very spear that had pierced the side of Christ. Once owned by Charlemagne, and wielded by him in his wars against the Saracens, this had been a weapon of self-evidently miraculous power.35 All the more fitting, then, that it should have passed into the hands of the Cerdicingas: for so triumphant had been their fightback against the Northmen that their achievement had seemed almost a miracle in itself. Other Christian kings, certainly, had been able to draw from it a most potent and inspiring lesson: not merely that the heathen could be repulsed, but that their defeat might provide a stepping stone to empire.

Naturally enough, perhaps, it was in Saxony, the primordial homeland of Cerdic, that the victories of the House of Wessex had been tracked most appreciatively of all. In 929, the Lady Edith, another of Athelstan’s sisters, had duly travelled there to marry a teenage prince, the future Otto the Great: a man with an imperial destiny indeed. Just like the House of Wessex, the Saxon royal family had already come into possession of a supernaturally charged spear, a Holy Lance of their own; but the presence at Otto’s side of a saintly and much-loved English queen had undoubtedly served his people as a yet further re assurance of the glories ordained for them by God. It was at Edith’s urging, for instance, that her husband had embarked on the building of his great monastery at Magdeburg; and years later, with Edith long dead and Otto himself crowned Caesar, it was to the selfsame monastery that he had moved the relics of St. Maurice and – when it was not required out on campaign – the Holy Lance itself.

Meanwhile, back in England, the Cerdicingas had begun to look a trifle provincial in comparison. Athelstan, concerned to secure his subjection of the Cornish, had set about refurbishing the frontier town of Exeter; and it was here, in an abbey church founded by the king himself, that he had enshrined his own holy lance. Priceless relic or not, however, it had soon begun to gather dust: for whereas Magdeburg stood sentinel over vast expanses of heathendom, beyond Cornwall there extended only the sea. No matter that it was the kings of Wessex who had originally blazed the imperial trail; they could never hope to compete in the glamour stakes with an emperor anointed by a pope in Rome. In 973, when Athelstan’s dwarfish but formidable nephew, Edgar, who had already been crowned once, decided that he wished to emulate Otto’s coronation, the best venue that he could come up with for the ceremony was Bath: a place littered with relics of the Roman past, to be sure, but hardly the Eternal City. Even his next stunt – summoning assorted Celtic princelings to row him down a river – was in truth not quite as impressive as it must have appeared to the gawping spectators watching him glide by: for already, since Athelstan’s day, the lordship claimed by the English king over his turbulent neighbours had declined to little more than show. The rule of “all Britain” had shown itself a will-o’-the-wisp, melting through Edgar’s outstretched fingers. The sober truth was that all his attempts to promote himself as imperial served only to emphasise how small scale, in comparison with the Reich, the kingdom of the English actually was.

Small-scale – but compact as well. This, as developments were to show, was no disadvantage: for it had enabled an experiment in state-building that was to prove as enduring as it was innovative. While the lands ruled by the House of Wessex may have lacked diversity, they made up for it in cohesiveness. The seas that bounded in Edgar’s ambitions had helped to foster in the lands that he did rule a precocious sense of unity. Even in the most northerly and bloodstained reaches of the kingdom, through which a West Saxon king would only ever travel with a bristling military escort, and where a dynasty of Viking warlords, in the wake of Athelstan’s death, had blazed a spectacular if fleeting comeback, the people of Northumbria could still recognise themselves as English. Though they might be distant from the royal heartlands of the south, they nevertheless spoke the same language as the West Saxons, venerated the same saints and gloried in belonging to the same national Church. Above all – and here, perhaps, was the most startling of all the feats of statecraft achieved by the House of Wessex – they acknowledged the right of the same central authority to administer them, and to poke its nose into their affairs. In England, there were no equivalents of the Count of Flanders or Anjou. A figure of menacing and even ferocious power a Northumbrian earl might be – and yet he swayed the north, not by virtue of heredity, but as an appointed agent of the king. Further south, and royal control was even more inescapable. The Cerdicingas owned lands everywhere. There was no question of Edgar permitting his nobles to run amok, whether by building castles, or recruiting private armies, or usurping control of the public courts. Whereas in Francia the sight of a mutilated corpse abandoned by the side of a road for birds to peck at was a cause for alarm among travellers, a mark of lawlessness, in England it was likelier to speak of the opposite: of the long reach of the state. Blindings, scalpings, hangings: all were sponsored with a grim efficiency. Violence was met with violence; savagery with savagery. Even whole counties, if they presumed to oppose the royal will, might be systematically ravaged. Justice and order were what Edgar, in his coronation oath, had sworn to give the English; and justice and order, by his own stern lights, were precisely what he delivered. That such an iron-fisted man could end up being known as “the Peaceable” suggested that his subjects did not disagree.

Were preachers merely deluded, then, when they warned the English that the signs of Doomsday were all around? There were many who feared not. When Edgar died in 975, only two years after his jamboree in Bath, the united kingdom of England that he left behind him was still very much a work in progress: none could be certain that it would hold together. As the Witan, the assembly of the greatest men of the realm, met to elect a new king, so a comet began to scorch across the heavens, leading many to dread what it portended. As well they might have done – for the throne was claimed by rival half-brothers. The first, Edward, was vicious, unstable, possibly illegitimate – and in his teens. The second, Ethelred, was the son of the Lady Aelfrida, the most powerful and ambitious woman in the kingdom, and Edgar’s anointed queen – but he was only seven. The vote duly went to Edward. Aelfrida withdrew into an embittered retirement.

Civil war was avoided; but beneath the surface the rival factions continued to manoeuvre. In 978, three years after ascending the throne, Edward dropped his guard sufficiently to go hunting near Corfe, a stronghold on the Wessex coast where his stepmother just happened to be staying. As he rode through the forest, a group of armed men suddenly confronted and surrounded him; his right arm was seized and broken, and a dagger plunged into his side; the dying king, his foot caught in his stirrup, was then dragged away through brambles and over trackways by his bolting horse. *The corpse, when it was finally recovered, was flung into a bog.36 “No worse deed for the English race was done than this,” it would subsequently be judged, “since they first sought out the land of Britain.”37 The murder of an anointed king, and the failure of his kinsmen to avenge him, could hardly help but appear an ominous sign of the times. A column of fire, it was reported, flickering over the wasteland to which Edward had been consigned, marked the awful spot where his dishonoured body lay; still more frighteningly, even as the ten-year-old Ethelred was being consecrated king, “a bloody cloud was seen, many times in the likeness of flames; and it appeared most of all at midnight; and it was formed of various beams; and then, when it became day, it glided away.”38 Well might his subjects have shuddered; for there were some among them, no doubt, who would have recalled that the appearance of “a great bloody cloud arising in the North, and covering all the heavens,”39 was to be reckoned a certain proof that the Last Day had come at last.

Yet still it did not arrive. No matter that Ethelred was only a child; no matter that his mother – whether justly or not – stood under suspicion of murder; no matter that he was only the second king, after his half-brother, to inherit the rule of a united England, rather than to have to fight for it: the kingdom did not fall to pieces. Indeed, that Edward’s murder was seen as peculiarly shocking was evidence of just how habituated his contemporaries had become to the rule of law; for the young king, it has credibly been suggested, was “the first man of high blood to have perished as a result of civil strife among the English for more than fifty years.”40 Ethelred’s advisers did all they could to ensure that he would also be the last. Rivalries were consciously dampened. The Lady Aelfrida, who had returned to court purring with triumph, was sufficiently gracious in her victory to ensure that prominent partisans of the murdered king were granted their fair share of the available public offices. Nor even, a year into Ethelred’s reign, did she object to the dredging up of her stepson’s corpse, and its reinterment with full royal honours. In no time at all, visitors to the tomb were reporting spectacular miracles and hailing Edward a martyr: potent testimony to the hold that a king from the House of Cerdic, even one who in life had certainly been no saint, could exert on the English. Hardly surprising, then, that Ethelred should have survived the years of his childhood unchallenged, for he had been left the very last of his famous line.

Yet ultimately, as was evident from the wretched end of the Carolingians, the pretensions of even the most glorious dynasty were nothing if not raised on solid foundations. Prestige had to be earned as well as inherited, a maxim that the West Saxon kings had always adhered to with a hard-headed literalness. The most precious legacy that Edgar had bequeathed to his successors was not the aura of sanctity with which he had sought to endow himself at Bath, but rather a measure enacted in the same year of 973, one so ambitious that it had provided him with a licence, literally, to coin in his kingdom’s cash. A single currency for a single people: such had been the philosophy of Edgar. Foreign coins, obsolete coins, coins lacking the requisite purity of silver: all had been pronounced illegal tender. Here, at a time when anything up to twenty different currencies might be in circulation within a single county of France, was a truly imperious reform. A lucrative one as well: for not only was the kingdom transformed into a single market, but it was made easier to soak. No wonder that Ethelred should have persisted with the reform. Regularly, from the year of his coronation onwards, he would order all the silver pennies in the kingdom to be recalled, restamped and then – after he had taken a cut – reissued. The penalty for forgery was ratcheted up from mutilation to death. Estates were obsessively quantified, audited and assessed for tax. Here was intrusiveness of a degree fit to be admired in Constantinople or Córdoba. Certainly, nothing remotely comparable to it existed anywhere else in the Christian West. England might not have been a far-spreading empire, nor the seat of an anointed Caesar; but its rulers certainly had cash to burn.

Yet just as the merchant who travelled from market to market with silver in his saddlebags was taking a risk, so too was Ethelred. Even as the towns founded by Alfred grew and prospered, even as the aristocracy lavished gold and incense and silks on great churches and on themselves, and even as the treasure chests of the king continued to fill to overflowing, still there lurked a nagging question in the back of many people’s minds: what if the Wicingas, the “sea-robbers,” were to return? Of Northmen in England, certainly, there was no lack. The terrible assaults of the previous century, which had seen entire kingdoms appropriated by Viking warlords and parcelled out among their followers, had left the eastern counties densely planted with settlers. Several generations on, and the descendants of these immigrants might still affect a distinctive look: the men, for instance, had a taste for eye-liner, and for shaving the backs of their heads. Most scandalous, to pious English eyes, was their habit of taking a bath every Saturday: a mark of effeminacy held all the more surprising in a people so notorious for their bestial savagery. Nevertheless, there were many natives, jealous of the success with women for which the Northmen had become famed, who were not above adopting some of their more dandyish habits themselves; and integration, with Englishmen and Scandinavians pooling make-up and hair-styling tips, had long been gathering pace. It helped that the immigrants, as a consequence of the treaties forced on their forefathers by Alfred and his successors, were Christian; it helped as well that their language, their laws and their customs were similar to those of the English. Not, to be sure, that Ethelred could afford entirely to lower his guard: for in Northumbria especially, where much of the aristocracy was Scandinavian, treachery was a constant rumour. Yet in general, the West Saxon authorities could rest content in the presumption that the king’s peace benefited immigrants no less than natives. So long as it held firm, the Scandinavians in England appeared unlikely to prove an enemy within.

It was true, of course, that the sway of the House of Wessex did not extend to all the Northmen who had emigrated to the British Isles. In Ireland, following their favoured policy of putting down roots beside an estuary, Viking pirates had founded a particularly flourishing stronghold by the “Dubh Linn,” or “Black Pool,” near the mouth of the River Liffey: so flourishing, indeed, that the settlement had ended up boasting the largest slave market of anywhere in western Europe. Unsurprisingly, it was the Irish themselves who provided the Dubliners with their richest source of exports; even so, all those who took to the ocean or lived by its shores had to reckon themselves potential targets. On one notorious occasion, the wife of a Frankish viscount, no less, had been kidnapped and held captive for three years; only the intervention of the Count of Rouen himself had served finally to set her free.

By the 980s, the English too, particularly in the west of the country, were suffering a steep rise in the number of raids being launched against their coastline. The experience of being bundled on to a slaver’s longboat was a predictably unpleasant one: indeed, an ordeal to be wished only on one’s very worst enemy. “He was subjected to insults and urinated upon, and then, stripped naked, forced by the Vikings to perform the sexual service of a wife”:41 so gloated one Norman poet, contemplating the fate of a rival, an Irishman, who had been abducted by pirates. Gang-rape – “the practice of foul sin upon a single woman, one after another, like dogs that care not about filth”42 – was common. No wonder that churchmen in England should regularly have compared the Devil himself to a slaver, one “who leads his prisoners as captives to the hellish city, in devilish thralldom.”43 Yet even as they raised their voices in pious protest, and even as Ethelred dispatched ships on patrol into the Irish Sea, the truth was that the slave trade could provide profit as well as loss. The supply chain that linked the Vikings to the fabulous wealth of al-Andalus had opened up opportunity for English merchants too. Just like the Dubliners, they even had a ready supply of Celts on their doorstep – the “Weallas,” or Welsh, whose very name had long been synonymous with “slaves” – and a booming port, ideally located for the export of human cattle. “You could see and sigh over rows of wretches bound together with ropes,” it was said of Bristol, “young people of both sexes whose beautiful appearance and youthful innocence might move barbarians to pity, daily exposed to prostitution, daily offered for sale.”44 An exaggeration, of course: for barbarians tended not to be moved to pity by the spectacle, nor the merchants of Bristol either. Indeed, by the Millennium, the port was coming to rival Dublin itself as the entrepôt of the western seas, with a record of trading slaves to the Caliphate and beyond, to Africa, that betokened a brilliant commercial future.

Nevertheless, as the new millennium drew ever nearer, it would have taken a perversely cheery sense of optimism to see in the gathering upsurge of Viking raids a boost to the prospects of anywhere in England. An alarming realisation was dawning over Ethelred: that there were simply too many pirates infesting English waters for them all to have originated in Ireland. So immense was the treasure piled up in his kingdom, it appeared, that its glint was showing even beyond the grey expanse of the mist-filled northern seas, in Scandinavia. How telling it was, for instance, that the most feared of all the Viking captains should have been a man “skilled in divination,”45 whose talent for throwing the bones of birds and reading in them the pattern of what might otherwise have remained hidden had won for him the sinister nickname of “Craccaben” – “Crowbone.” Olaf Trygvasson was a Norwegian, a man of the “North Way,” a realm so far distant from all that made for Christian order that even its women, it was said, grew beards, “and sorcerers and enchanters and other satellites of Antichrist” swarmed everywhere.46 Whether as a consequence of necromantic skills or not, Trygvasson certainly had a nose for loot; and sure enough, like a raven tracking the perfume of carrion, he had ended up haunting the English sea lanes.

By 991, such was the glamour and prestige of Trygvasson’s name that there were no fewer than ninety-two other ships sailing alongside his own, ravaging the coasts of Kent and Essex, plundering and burning almost unopposed. Then, in August, while camped near Maldon, north of the Thames estuary, Trygvasson and his fellow freebooters were finally pinned down by the English; challenged to cross from the island where their ships were moored, the Vikings did so, only to find themselves in danger of being wiped out.47 Savagely, they fought their corner until at last, with a bloody and desperate effort, they succeeded in putting the Essex men to flight. Left behind as a corpse on the field of battle was the English commander, Britnoth, a white-haired and valiant earl, who had stood with all his bodyguards together unyielding amid the slaughter, arrow-feathered, axe-hewn, refusing to bow.

His was a heroic end, to be sure; but although Britnoth himself had scorned to “buy off the onslaught of spears with tribute-money,”48 his defeat had left Ethelred with little alternative, if Kent and Essex were to be spared further ruin. Ten thousand pounds’ worth of taxes were duly levied, “Dane-geld,” as it came to be known; and yet even as this prodigious sum was handed over, everyone knew that it would serve only as a palliative. Trygvasson’s appetites had been fed, not satiated; and sure enough, in 994, he was back for more. First he led an assault on London; then, after that had been beaten back, he stole horses for his men, and cut a deep swath across the Wessex heartlands. An open challenge to Ethelred, in short, and a calculated insult too. All drew their breath, and waited to see what the King of England would do.

The counter-move, when it did come, proved a good deal less than glorious. No attempt was made to confront Trygvasson. Instead, Ethelred opted to put the screws on his hapless subjects once again. The sum raised this time was £16,000. The English, already the most heavily taxed people in Christendom, were predictably driven to much cursing by this initiative; and while the king himself, as the Lord’s anointed, remained immune to direct criticism, the same was not true of his advisers. Whispered under people’s breath, a punning title began to be applied to Ethelred: “unræd,” “the ill-advised.”49Yet this was uncharitable. A measure of bafflement in the royal counsels was only to be expected. Ethelred was adrift in uncharted waters. There was not another ruler anywhere in the Christian West, after all, who could boast of administering a more efficient government, or of governing a more prosperous people, or of raking in more cash for himself; and yet, bizarrely, rather than strengthening the kingdom, these same achievements appeared to be setting it only to totter. The more Ethelred found England’s wealth a source of vulnerability, the more, in his perplexity and desperation, he sought to turn it back to his advantage. So it was, groping his way to a possible solution, that he settled upon a two-pronged response: he would keep as firm a grip upon the royal mints as he possibly could, fortifying them, even transferring them, wherever feasible, to remote and primordially ancient hill-forts; simultaneously, he would try to spend his way out of trouble.

Derided it might have been; but as a policy, this was in fact very much in the grand tradition of measures adopted by harassed kings. The payment made to Trygvasson had come with a number of familiar strings attached. Like Rollo, he had been obliged to become a Christian; to cease his plundering; to ally himself with the very lord whom he had previously been assailing. Not, however, that it was any part of Ethelred’s intentions to see a new Normandy established on English soil. Far from it. The presence of Viking ships in Norman ports, and of English slaves and loot in Norman markets, had not gone un remarked across the Channel. Indeed, such was the bad blood between the lords of England and Normandy that the Pope himself had been obliged to intervene, and remind the Count of Rouen of his Christian duty not to fraternise with pirates. Richard had duly apologised, signed a treaty – and continued precisely as before. Menacing evidence, it must have struck Ethelred, that even a baptised Northman could never wholly be de-fanged. Plunder, it appeared, would always be his truest god. No matter that Olaf Trygvasson, at his baptism, had become Ethelred’s godson; clearly, it was out of the question for him to be permitted to put down roots in England.

Fortunately, Trygvasson himself agreed. His ambitions were set higher than Rollo’s. Already the toast of excitable poets across the entire Viking world, and rolling in English silver, he had become fired with the zeal of a true convert as well: convinced that Providence had personally chosen him to become King of the North Way, and bring his countrymen to the faith of Christ. It was an intoxicating notion – and one that had first come to him, it would later be claimed, as the result of a fortuitous encounter with a prophetic hermit. Far likelier, however, it was Ethelred, enthroned amid the wealth and magnificence proper to his exalted rank, who had first whispered in Trygvasson’s ear that he too might aspire to wear the crown of a Christian king. Certainly, as the Norwegian captain headed off for his homeland, stopping occasionally along the way to loot and murder in the name of the Prince of Peace, he did so with his godfather’s fervent blessing. Well might Ethelred have breathed a sigh of relief. His triumph had been a considerable one. Compared with Trygvasson and his war bands, the Vikings left behind in English waters were a nuisance, little more. Fields might still be burned, manors plundered and captives stolen; but Ethelred, in the approach to the Millennium, was starting to throw his own weight around on a far more swaggering scale. In the year 1000, he led one expedition in person, northwards into Scotland, ravaging with the best of them, while a second was dispatched to Normandy, there to launch a raid on the Vikings and give the pirates a taste of their own medicine. Two years later, and Ethelred appeared a sufficiently intimidating figure to persuade the Count of Rouen himself to come to heel, and patch up a second treaty. “And then in the spring the Lady, Richard’s daughter, came to this land.”50 So an Englishman reported the arrival in Wessex of Emma, Richard II’s sister, a woman of formidable intelligence, talent and ambition, and fully worthy of a king. Sent by her brother to set the seal on his new alliance, she was married to Ethelred that very spring. Seated beside her royal husband, Emma appeared to the English a living reassurance that the worst was over: that the wheat field of Ethelred’s kingdom had been secured at last against the trampling of foreign feet, and bloody flames, and blight, and storms, and ruin.

Yet for Ethelred himself there remained one final step to be taken. Charged as he was by God with the defence of the English people, and aware, as he surely must have been, of the awful significance of the dawning of the new millennium, how could he not have dreaded what else, aside from wheat, might be flourishing in the rich soil of his kingdom? “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man.” So Christ had explained to His disciples. “The field is the world, and the good seed means the sons of the kingdom; the weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age.”51 And now, it seemed, the close of the age was at hand; so it was time to gather the weeds and consign them all to the flames. Though Trygvasson and his men were gone, there were other Northmen, Danes, living openly in the towns of England, merchants drawn there in huge numbers by the peerless wealth of the kingdom, and living peaceably enough, it was true – but Northmen nevertheless. Who, then, could tell what atrocities they might be plotting? Who tell what succour they might provide a Viking invader? And so it was, as Ethelred’s self-justification put it, “that a decree was sent out by me with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in the island, sprouting like weeds among the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination – and this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death.”52

The massacre took place on 13 November: St. Brice’s Day. It was, if the bald descriptions of contemporaries are to be trusted, awesomely comprehensive. Ethelred was evidently as efficient at organising a pogrom as he was at stinging his subjects for taxes. Considerations of Christian charity appear not to have moderated the ruthlessness with which the operation was carried out. In one particularly chilling episode, in Oxford, the Danes were incinerated as they huddled together for protection inside a church. Far from serving as a reassurance to the English that their kingdom was being secured against the coming of Antichrist, such an act of desecration led many to dread the opposite. “But of that day and hour no one knows.”53 These were the familiar words deployed by Wulfstan, London’s bishop, and Ethelred’s most brilliant counsellor, as he sought to reassure his flock that the end time was still to arrive; yet even he could not conceal from his listeners what the surest portent of Antichrist was to be. The casting down of God’s temple, of God’s house: such was to be the sign.

And now the stones of a church lay smoking in the heart of England, greasy with human ashes, a veritable charnel-house. If truly a sign, then it was a threatening one indeed.

Ragnarok

Strange tales were told of Olav Trygvasson’s return to Norway. One day, it was claimed, after he had successfully toppled the local strongman and driven him to a squalid end in a pigsty, decapitated by his own thrall, the new king was in a fit mood to be entertained. At his side there suddenly appeared an old man, cloaked and white-haired, with only a single eye. Entering into conversation with the stranger, Trygvasson found that there was nothing the old man did not seem to know, nor any question to which he could not give an answer. All evening the two of them talked; and even though the king was eventually persuaded to retire to bed by a twitchy English bishop who had grown suspicious of the one-eyed stranger, Trygvasson could still not bear to end the conversation, continuing it even as he lay on his furs, late into the night. At last, the old man left him, and the king fell asleep; but his dreams were strange and feverish. Waking up abruptly, he cried out for the stranger again. Even though his servants searched high and low, however, the old man could not be found; and Trygvasson, brought to his senses by daylight, shuddered at his close escape. When it was reported to him that two sides of beef, a gift from the stranger, had been used in a stew, he ordered the entire cooking pot flung out. A godly and responsible act: for clearly, it was out of the question for him, as a follower of Christ, to feast on meat supplied by Odin.

Quite what his own followers thought of their king’s scruples as they watched their supper turn fly-blown out on the dungheap, we are not told. Some, no doubt, would have felt roundly puzzled. A lord with any instinct for self-preservation denied nothing to his retinue. The supply of good things to the men who fought for him, whether beef, or golden armlets, or red cloaks, or coats of mail, was the only sure duty that a leader of Northmen had. Fail in that, and his doom would be swift. Trygvasson, who had never travelled anywhere but wolves and ravens attended on him, who had become the hero of myriad gore-bespattered songs, who had made all the West bleed so that he could bestow its treasures upon his warriors, was certainly not the man to have forgotten this basic truth. The beef he had been obliged to throw out would surely have been replaced with meat stolen or extorted from some other source. His tables would never have been permitted to stand empty. That same evening, no doubt, as his followers feasted in his hall, Trygvasson, the peerless ring-giver, would have scattered gold among them, or else ornamented helmets, or perhaps sword-belts clad in silver, wondrous treasures set to glitter by the blazing fire.

No wonder that the king of the ancient gods had paid him a call. The scene of a great lord sharing plunder with his followers was one well known to delight Odin; and perhaps, as the story of Trygvasson’s late-night conversation implies, it did indeed require an effort of will for any Northman, even a baptised one, to send the “All-father” on his way. Yet Trygvasson himself, whose entire career had been an exercise in worshipping force, had ultimately not hesitated in his loyalty to Christ – and for much the same reason that his own retinue continued to follow him. Far from cramping his style as a warlord, the Christian God appeared to offer him and all his predatory appetites, all his lust for power and gold, all his relish for combat, devastation and scenes of bloodshed, gratification on a truly awesome scale. As befitted a man so ambidextrous that he could hurl a spear simultaneously from both hands, Trygvasson certainly felt no call to choose between his new religion and his career as a marauder – for the one served to fuel the other. With the same buccaneering enthusiasm that he had previously brought to pillaging the English, he now swaggered up and down the North Way, smashing idols, menacing local pagan leaders and forcing conversions at the point of his sword. No matter the resentful mutterings he left behind him in his wake, Trygvasson was not the man for qualms: everything that he did was calculated to redound to his own glory. He had seen enough of Christendom, and of the dignity, the splendour and the wealth of her kings, to know that heathendom offered nothing to compare. Just as Christ reigned supreme over other gods, so would he, as the image of Christ, reign supreme over his countrymen.

His countrymen, not surprisingly, responded with varying degrees of resentment and alarm to this. The arrogance of braggart warlords was nothing new in Scandinavia. Loot pilfered from Christendom had long served to strengthen the mighty, great chiefs as well as kings, at the expense of lesser men. Here, perhaps, rather than in the consequences of excessive rutting, as Christian moralists liked to claim, lay the true reason for the waves of emigration that had sent so many Northmen over the years sailing for Normandy, Britain and Ireland. Some, indeed, had sailed even further west. Beyond the setting of the sun, dotted across “the northern region of the earth from where all waters pass down,”54 adventurers from Scandinavia had discovered a succession of darksome islands, sundered realms formed of glaciers, and mountains, and the occasional expanse of grass. “Iceland,” the first-found of these had been named – fittingly enough, it appeared, if the claims of travellers were to be believed, for it was reported that any Icelander who ventured out into the open during wintertime, and then so far forgot himself as to wipe his nose, would find it snapping off, “frozen mucus and all,”55 and be obliged to discard it in the snow. Other inconveniences persisted all the year round, even into the nightless summers: from the troublemaking spirits who had lived in Iceland since the beginning of time, and would lure the distracted to their ruin amid lava fields or into pools of hissing mud, to the island’s notoriously indigestible food, its seaweed, suet and buttered porridge, which played such hell with the settlers’ stomachs that the glaciers were said to echo to the thundering of their farts.

The world of the Northmen

Such drawbacks notwithstanding, however, Iceland had filled up rapidly in the decades that followed the arrival of the first colonisers, back in the 870s – so much so that by the 930s all the prime farmland had been taken. Men had duly begun to scan around for fresh horizons. In 986, during a time of terrible famine in Iceland, an expedition of some twenty-five ships had set sail for a vast and empty land that lay even further west: “Greenland” as it had been named by an early prospector, somewhat disingenuously, for all its eastern flank stood barricaded by colossal walls of gleaming ice. On the western coast, however, along the margins of jagged fjords, there were indeed patches of grass, and even meadows, to be found; and it was on these, at an unimaginable distance from the fjords of their ancestral homeland, that the settlers from Iceland, some 450 of them in all, had sought to put down their roots.

“A house of your own, however mean, is good.”56 Nothing better illustrated the passionate intensity with which the Northmen clung to this conviction than their scattered presence, by the side of the bleak immensity of the western ocean, on the windswept shores of Greenland. Their new home may have been teeming with wildlife, but it was in almost all other ways barren of resources; and so it was not surprising that some of the colonists, in their quest for timber, above all, should have continued to strike out west. Over the succeeding years, such expeditions would bring back reports of yet further islands, including one, named “Vinland” by those who claimed to have discovered it, on which grapes were said to grow wild, “producing excellent wine”:57 a fabulous story. Perhaps, as the tall tales told by the Greenlanders suggested, there did indeed lie strange lands along the westernmost limits of the world; but if so, then they might just as well not have existed at all, for it was clearly out of the question to settle such fearsomely distant isles. Some few of the more lunatic among the explorers, it would subsequently be claimed, had made the attempt – but their enterprises had failed. Vinland – if it truly existed – was a stepping stone too far, that much was evident. The settlers’ lines of communication, drawn out as they had been over many thousands of miles, across savage and storm-swept seas, a whole world away from Scandinavia, had been stretched to breaking point.

For even the Icelanders, clinging to the habitable margins of their harsh and smouldering isle, were dependent for their ultimate survival on links with the lands they had left behind. Like the Greenlanders, they had to look abroad for timber, let alone the gold and silver that were the essential marks of status for any self-respecting chieftain. As a result, captains from Iceland were regular visitors to the harbours of the North Way – where their presence did not go unnoted by Olaf Trygvasson. Neither – a standing provocation to the self-appointed warrior of Christ – did the fact that many of them remained ruggedly, even defiantly pagan. Trygvasson, who was hardly the man to find his fingers around a windpipe and not apply a little squeeze, duly announced his kingdom closed to all heathen traders. Those already present in the North Way were arrested and taken as hostages. The news, brought back to Iceland, caused its inhabitants predictable dismay and consternation. Even at a distance of 750 miles, it appeared, the shadow of a warlord such as Trygvasson could reach out across the ocean to menace them. Perhaps there really was no escaping kings.

Yet rather than admit this, and submit to all they had sought to escape, the Icelanders were prepared to countenance any expedient; even to embrace the faith of Christ, if that was what it would take. Not on Trygvasson’s terms, however. Rather, they would do it as free men, gathered together from all across the island, meeting in the Thingvellir, the rough-grassed plain that was the site of their assembly, and the cockpit of their self-governance. Ever since 985, the task of presiding there as the Icelanders’ “law-speaker,” the arbitrator of all their disputes, had belonged to a chieftain famed for his powers of foresight by the name of Thorgeir Thorkelsson: a pagan, to be sure, but respected even by those who had already begun to worship Christ. All the Icelanders assembled on theThingvellir, Christian as well as pagan, duly agreed to accept his judgement on what the faith of Iceland should be; and Thorgeir accepted the fateful charge. “He lay down and spread his cloak over himself, and lay all that day and the next night, nor did he speak a word.”58 Then abruptly, on the following morning, he sat up and ordered the Icelanders to accompany him to the great Law Rock – and from there he delivered them his verdict. Some customs, Thorgeir pronounced, were to continue unchanged. Men were still to be permitted to eat horseflesh; to expose unwanted children; to offer sacrifices, provided that it was done in private. In every other respect, however, they were to submit themselves to the laws of the new religion. Whether in cold water or warm, all were to be baptised. The inhabitants of Iceland were to become a Christian people.

Such a judgement, for Thorgeir himself, must have been a painful one to deliver. What had he glimpsed, lying curled up beneath his cloak, not eating or drinking or stirring, that had led him to arrive at it? We can never know for certain; but it is evident enough, Iceland being what it was, a haunted and uncanny land, where mortals tended to regard themselves as mere interlopers, that Thorgeir’s aim had been to pass into the dimensions of the otherworldly and to look for guidance there. Not all the spirits that populated the island were malign. If Thorgeir’s own visions remain unknown to us, then there are hints, nevertheless, in an eerie story told of a black-hearted king and of his fiendish attempt to subdue the free men of Iceland, of what the law-speaker might conceivably have seen during his dreams. This tyrant, it was reported, had commissioned a necromancer to swim ahead of his fleet in the form of a whale; but the spirits of Iceland, adopting various forms, whether of dragons, or of bulls, or of venomous toads, had stood sentry over the fjords, until at last a huge cliff-giant armed with an iron flail had chased away the whale. “And the king, brought the news, had turned his fleet around, and sailed back for home.”59 Evidently, the dread of overambitious warlords might serve to chill even the realm of the supernatural.

And who might have been the tyrant capable of inspiring such fantastical tales? Not Olaf Trygvasson, but rather an earlier Christian king, one who had become, among the Northmen, an even blacker and more flame-lit legend, a rumour of wrath and terror. Beyond the southern reaches of the North Way, across the icy and reef-strewn waters known as the Jotlandshaf, lay the heath-clad flatlands of Jutland, seat of the kings of Denmark. The realm was an ancient one: indeed, back in the time of Charlemagne, the Danes had treated with the Franks as their equals, and although, over the following century, the ruling dynasty had torn itself quite spectacularly to shreds, their erstwhile subjects had never wholly lost a sense of shared identity. By the middle of the tenth century, a new line of kings had risen to power in Denmark: one with sufficient ruthlessness and resolve not to let slip its hold upon the kingdom. Show-place of the dynasty’s power was Jelling, a stronghold in the heart of Jutland, a place of ancient graves, and rows of monoliths, and gold-ringed warriors set on guard outside mighty-gabled halls. Two huge mounds of earth dominated the scene: the work of Gorm, the dynasty’s first great ruler, and of Thyri, his queen, pagans both. Yet between the two barrows, the traveller to Jelling would have found, not a temple, not a shrine to Odin or Thor, but a church; and beside the church, a great block of granite carved with a crucified, serpent-entangled Christ. “King Harald had this memorial made,” it was inscribed on the stone, “for Gorm his father and Thyri his mother: that same Harald who won for himself all Denmark and Norway, and made the Danes to be Christian.”

This was a boast that veiled as much as it revealed. The truth was that “Bluetooth,” *as Harald was known, had only ever exercised the most threadbare hegemony over the North Way; that his conversion to Christianity had been prompted, in part at least, by a panicky desire to forestall invasion by Otto the Great; and that for many years he had cringed before the Saxon emperor, paying him both homage and tribute. Nevertheless, within the limits of his own kingdom, his sway had been fierce and iron-fisted, a potent demonstration to later warlords, Olaf Trygvasson notable among them, that the Christian faith might comfortably be squared with the traditional enthusiasms of a Viking: indeed, that it might help to make the practice of robbery and intimidation even more effective. Whether it was by building massive fortresses all over Denmark, or by extorting tribute from his weaker neighbours, just as Otto had extorted tribute from him, Bluetooth had aimed to throw his weight around in the authentic manner of a Christian king. If the sponsorship of talking whales was not in truth a noted feature of his preparations, then the ability to outfit menacing amphibious expeditions, and to unleash them upon his enemies, most certainly was. The assaults launched to such devastating effect against England in the final decade of the millennium were a demonstration of just how potent a role model Bluetooth had been.

And not only to Trygvasson. Cruising alongside him in the raids of 991 and 994, and standing next to him amid the dust of Maldon, had been a Viking lord no less feared and widely sung: Sweyn, known as “Forkbeard,” Harald Bluetooth’s son.60 Chill and calculating where Trygvasson was headstrong, Forkbeard had learned much from his father – so much so that in the previous decade he had paid the example set by Bluetooth its ultimate compliment by knifing the old wolf in the back. In 982, the year of Otto II’s defeat by the Saracens at Cotrone, and the Wendish invasion of Saxony, the Danish king too, dispatching his own war bands across the frontier, had sought to scavenge pickings for himself; but it was Forkbeard who had secured all the glory of the venture, and then exploited it to topple his father. Various tales were told of Bluetooth’s end: the grisliest had him wandering off after a parley with his son, and then, “as he squatted down behind a bush for the purpose of emptying his bowels,”61 being hit square between thebuttocks by an arrow. A spectacular death, if true – and one that had certainly left Forkbeard secure in his inheritance.

“Not a ruler, but a destroyer”:62 such was the judgement of his near neighbour, Thietmar, the ever-sniffy Bishop of Merseburg. This, however, was to mistake Forkbeard’s talent for wreaking destruction – which was indeed prodigious – as having no goals other than itself. In truth, it was precisely by destroying that he ruled: a coldly calculating approach to the demands of lordship that would ultimately enable him to put even Trygvasson in the shade. The two kings might once have been brothers-in-arms, but a man responsible for having his father shot in the rectum was hardly likely to feel inhibited by any sense of fraternal loyalty. Sure enough, in the years that followed the parting of their ways, and Trygvasson’s arrival right on Forkbeard’s doorstep, beyond theJotlandshaf, the rivalry between the two had grown increasingly deadly. Coolly, patiently, and in the end to lethal effect, the Danish king had prepared his trap. In the year 1000, a great host of ships manned by allies recruited from across Scandinavia, the North Way included, joined with Forkbeard’s fleet, looking to deprive Trygvasson of what every Viking warlord needed in order to survive: command of the sea lanes. Trygvasson himself, flamboyant as ever, responded by sailing into Danish waters in the longest and most glamorous dragon-ship ever built, at the head of sixty ships only marginally less dazzling, hoping that the brilliance of the armada, and of his own fearsome reputation, would serve to put his foes to flight. But they did not: Forkbeard’s ambush was sprung, and after a day of desperate fighting even the Long Serpent, Trygvasson’s flagship, ended up riven, boarded and cleared of her men. Trygvasson himself, adorned in golden armour and a bright-red cloak, leapt from the clawing fingers of his enemies into the sea; and when they made an attempt to rescue him, “he threw his shield over his head, and vanished beneath the waves.”63 His triumph was to have died as he had lived, the very model of a Viking hero; but Forkbeard’s was to have secured for himself power beyond the dreams of all his forebears.

And this was the man whom Ethelred, by giving orders for the massacre of St. Brice’s Day, had thought to intimidate. Perhaps, against a foe of a different order, his murderous calculation might have paid off; but the Danish king was not just any foe. Among the victims of the pogrom, it was said, had been one of Forkbeard’s own sisters, the Lady Gunnhild, but the murder of even the least of his subjects would have been sufficient to sanction a blood feud. The onslaught unleashed against Ethelred the following year duly aimed to pile humiliation upon humiliation. Symbols of the authority of the House of Wessex were ruthlessly targeted. At Exeter, where King Athelstan had enshrined his dynasty’s spear of power, only the courage of a quick-thinking monk enabled the priceless relic to be rescued from the Danish firestorm. At Wilton, site of the richest and most splendid nunnery in Wessex, where numerous members of the royal family lay buried – pre-eminent among them Ethelred’s own half-sister, Edith, recently proclaimed a saint – all the lands around the holy enclosure were systematically torched.

For the Danish captains, no doubt, it must have been a gloriously satisfying experience to burn and loot, and menace an enemy’s women, just as their ancestors had always done: a reassurance that the old ways still endured. Forkbeard, however, even as he dispatched his war bands to plunder England, had his eyes fixed on a more novel order of things. No less than his father and Trygvasson had been, he was keenly alert to the many advantages that might be reaped by a Christian king. Concerned to show that he took the role seriously, he had duly founded the odd town, installed the odd bishop, even struck the odd coin. When it came to more gruelling responsibilities, however, such as forging a state capable of fleecing his subjects efficiently and of providing him with regular taxes, his enthusiasm had tended to flag. As well it might have done. It was easier by far to menace England, and outsource the whole tedious business to Ethelred. Which is precisely what Forkbeard did.

And with such merciless and brutal efficiency that the English king found his own strategy, that of using his wealth to sow discord among his foes, turned back fatally against him. As year followed year, and still the Danes returned, each time with forces bigger, better equipped and more devastating than before, so the bonds of loyalty to Ethelred within England began at last to fray. All the formidable powers of the West Saxon monarchy, built up by generations of the Cerdicingas before him, appeared increasingly to the English to be serving, not their own interests, but those of their oppressors. It was as though Ethelred himself – the heir of Alfred, of Athelstan, of Edgar – had become merely a thrall-like servant of the interests of the Danish king. As royal agents continued with remorseless efficiency their business of levying taxes to fund their master’s strategy, and the mints continued to churn, so it struck many among the English that what they were being obliged to pay for was nothing less than their own ruin.

Then at last, in 1012, there was a seeming success. Just as Olaf Trygvasson, almost twenty years before, had been won over to Ethelred’s side, so now was another celebrated Viking captain, Thorkell, together with forty-five of his ships, persuaded to enter the service of the English king: a hint, perhaps, of dawn. Yet this brief moment of hope was in truth to prove a portent of the very opposite, an onset of the blackest night – for the news, when it was brought to Forkbeard in Denmark, stirred him into preparing something more than merely another raid. As with Trygvasson, so with Ethelred: the Danish king had been playing a lengthy game. England, drained as she was of her lifeblood, now appeared ripe for decapitation. In 1013, Forkbeard landed south of York, where Danish settlement had always been at its densest, and received the immediate submission of the region’s immigrant communities. Nor did it take long for the exhausted and battle-scarred English aristocracy to bow to the inevitable as well. Across England, terms duly began to be arranged; hostages handed over; homage offered up to Forkbeard. By the end of the year, even Ethelred was buckling. Boxed up in London, his last stronghold, he ordered the Lady Emma and their children to board a ship and embark across the wintry seas for exile, while he himself set sail to spend a miserable Christmas skulking off the Wessex coast. Then, disdaining to play the part of a Viking any longer, he too crossed the Channel. His destination: the court of his brother-in-law, the Duke of Normandy. This final humiliation set the seal on all the others.

Peace – if of a brutal kind – had been brought to England at last. But it was not to endure. In February 1014, at the very height of his triumph, Forkbeard died. The English earls and bishops, already repenting of their submission to a barbarian, at once invited Ethelred to return; “for they said that no sovereign was dearer to them than their natural lord – if only he would govern them better than he had previously done.”64 Evidently, the line of Cerdic still retained something of its mystique; but it was too late now for Ethelred to burnish it. Prostrated by illness, his only consistent policy upon his return was to haunt his sickbed; in 1016, at last, he slipped into the grave. His subjects barely noticed. Already, the battle for the rule of England had moved on to a younger generation. Even before Ethelred’s death, his eldest surviving son, Edmund, a warrior of such charismatic fortitude that he would come to be hailed as “Ironside,” had laid claim to the throne. But he was not alone in his ambition: for Forkbeard too had left a son.

“Only a boy, you ship-batterer, when you launched your boat, no king was younger than you,”65 wrote one praise-singer of the precociously terrifying Canute. Already, even before landing in England to press his right to the kingdom, the young prince had shown himself practised in the grimmer arts of Viking lordship, mutilating the hostages left in his care by Forkbeard and then sending them back to their relatives, the great lords in their high-beamed halls, to serve as a gruesome warning of the folly of resistance. Sure enough, in the stumps where once the hostages’ hands had been, and in their noseless faces, and in the cropped remains of their ears, the English had indeed been granted fair warning of the horrors soon to come. Ironsided Edmund may have been – but Canute was forged of ice. All the summer of 1016, the two men fought each other; until ultimately, with the pair of them brought to a bloody standstill, there seemed no possible resolution to the conflict, save to divide the kingdom in two. A month after the treaty had been signed, however, Edmund died: the last king of purely English stock ever to sit on the country’s throne. Naturally, men suspected murder – as well they might have done.

Canute had gambled much on his attempt to win his prize – and now it was payback time. Many warriors had followed him across the northern seas, “men of metal, menacing with golden face”66 – and their captain, just like any other, needed to be a scatterer of treasure, or nothing at all. In Canute, the larcenous instincts that had long propelled generations of Northmen across the seas were set to attain their apotheosis – for he had his sword at the throat of an entire kingdom. Already, over the course of the unfortunate Ethelred’s reign, ton upon ton of silver had been delivered into the hands of the Danes. Now, with all the honed apparatus of English governance directly in his own hands, there was nothing to stop Canute from imposing a truly swingeing tax. Which was what he duly did: at a rate, in effect, of 100 per cent. It took his agents months to screw out; but by the end of 1018, the kingdom’s entire income for that year had vanished into his treasure chests.

Perhaps, then, many among the English must have wondered, this was how the world was to end: with a tax demand. Even the man who was now Archbishop of York, the brilliant and devoutly orthodox Wulfstan, openly warned that the Danes might prove the shock troops of Antichrist. Already, summoning the English to prepare themselves for the Day of Judgement, he had advocated barefoot displays of penance, the singing of psalms and public prayer; and in 1014, during the dark days that followed Forkbeard’s conquest of the kingdom, he had flatly declared the end time imminent. “For nothing has prospered now for a long while either at home or abroad, but there has been military devastation and hunger, burning and bloodshed.”67 Even pagans, however, as they observed the state of the world, might on occasion fall to pondering what its fracturing portended. One did not have to be a Christian to be conscious of Christian dates. Was it merely coincidence, for instance, that Thorgeir, summoning the Icelanders to decide whether they should abandon their ancient gods, had chosen to do so in the year 1000? What prospect, if the end were indeed approaching, that any of the heathen gods, even Odin himself, could hope to keep it at bay? Despite the triumph of the Danes in the killing fields of England, many Northmen, suspended between their new faith and their ancient beliefs, were not immune to the anxieties of Wulfstan. “Kin,” wrote one of them, in dread of the end days, “will break the bonds of kin”:

A harsh world it will be, whoredom rampant,
An axe-age, a sword-age, shields shattered,
A wind-age, a wolf-age before man’s age tumbles down.68

The very sentiments of the archbishop – and composed, it may well be, by a man who had heard him utter them.69 Yet the end of the world sung by the poet was one illumined not by the light of Christ, but by the fiery extinction of the ancient gods, “fire flaring up against fire.”70 No immortality, according to such a vision, awaited those who followed Odin: for he, like the sun itself, was fated to be devoured by a monstrous wolf, while all around him “the brilliant stars are dashed down from the skies.” His death, like the death of all those whom the pagans had foolishly worshipped as deathless, was a certainty. Such was “Ragnarok” – the Doom of the Gods.

And Canute, certainly, wanted no part of it: for it was hardly his ambition to play the part of either Odin or Antichrist. Though he might be avaricious and brutal, he was not unthinkingly so. For all the ruthlessness with which he had extorted treasure from the English to pay off his followers, he had no wish for his reign to continue as a wolf-age. So it was that in 1018, even as his tax collectors were bleeding England white, he allowed himself to be persuaded by Wulfstan into swearing that he would uphold all the laws of Edgar and Ethelred: that he would rule, in short, as the heir of the Cerdicingas. Living evidence of this, crowned and no less imperious than she had ever been, could already be found at his side: none other than the still-nubile Emma, Ethelred’s widow, and now once again England’s queen. The taking to bed of a rival’s woman was very much in the finest tradition of Viking manhood; and yet Emma was far too significant a prize to rank as merely a sexual trophy. Canute’s marriage to her had been no show of scorn – indeed, just the opposite. Norman Emma may have been, with a Dane for a mother, and most likely fluent in Danish herself – but it was as a living embodiment of the West Saxon monarchy, of all its traditions and pedigree, that she had her truest value. Better than anyone, she offered an imprimatur of class.

And it was class, in the final equation, not rings of gold, nor dragon-prowed ships, nor the florid praises of poets, that Canute most hankered after. If it was as a Viking warlord that he had conquered England, and transformed all the northern seas into his private lake, then it was as the model of a Christian king that he aimed to rule. So it was, even as he persisted in his empire-building, that he began to pose, in a familiar process of metamorphosis, as a prince of peace. A terrorist who had waded through blood, he permitted Archbishop Wulfstan to write laws in his name that proclaimed the virtues of humility and self-restraint: “For the mightier or of higher rank a man is, so the deeper must he atone for wrong-doing, both to God and to men.”71 A disinheritor of the oldest royal line in Christendom, he became a regular visitor to the nunnery at Wilton, riding there with Emma, dismounting respectfully outside the precincts, praying among the tombs of the women of the House of Wessex. A Northman from the margins of the civilised world, he took time from all his labours and his wars to go on pilgrimage to the capital of the Christian faith, and there, amid the ancient and fabulous splendours of Rome, to kneel before the tomb of St. Peter, and “diligently to seek his special favour before God.”

For to be sure, as Canute himself publicly acknowledged, there was much that needed forgiving – “whether through the intemperance of my youth or through negligence.”72 But he was not in Rome merely to pray. The streets, when Canute arrived there in March 1027, were teeming with the elite of imperial society. Three years earlier, the Emperor Henry II had died, the last of the line of Saxon kings; and now, desperate for the legitimacy that only a pope could grant, his elected heir, Conrad II, a Frankish lord from the Rhineland, was camped out in the city. Here was an unbeatable opportunity for Canute to play the international statesman – and he seized it with relish. Whether hob-nobbing with Conrad himself, or taking Mass with Abbot Odilo of Cluny, or negotiating with the Holy Father, he revelled with an unabashed glee in his presence on such a stage.

The starriest role of all was granted him on Easter Day, when the new emperor, to the acclamation of princes and bishops drawn from across Christendom, was crowned in St. Peter’s – and Canute was by his side. The occasion was, so it appears, a thoroughly overwrought one. Two archbishops, disputing which of them should lead Conrad into the cathedral, almost fell to blows, while Conrad himself, it is reported, overcome by the significance of the moment, burst suddenly into tears. Yet if there was anyone present in St. Peter’s that day justified in feeling emotional, then surely it was Canute. The glory, after all, was not merely his own, but God’s as well. It was barely a decade previously that Henry II had dispatched his imperial regalia to Cluny, as an expression of his hope that the faith of Christ would expand to the limits of the earth; and now, stood by the side of his successor, in the city of the Caesars, was the great-grandson of a pagan warlord.

Meanwhile, far away across the northern ocean, in lands unknown to Constantine or Charlemagne, below the lava fields of Iceland and beside the fjords of Greenland, the children of pagans were raising churches and calling themselves Christian. Much had changed in the world, and doubtless much would continue to change – for the one-thousandth anniversary of Christ’s Resurrection was only a few years off. And yet, despite the widespread mood of trepidation, and despite all the convulsions, and the bloodshed, and the suffering of the previous decades, perhaps it was becoming legitimate, even in the shadow of the Millennium, to look to the future, not with foreboding, but with hope. To believe that the clouds were lifting. To believe that anything might be possible.

Amid the darkness of the times, the abbey of Cluny radiated a special brilliance. What Christ had said to his apostles, popes would say to Cluny: “You are the light of the world.” (Author photo)

“To thee, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” This phrase from the Psalms, inscribed on the open book held by the priest in this ninth-century ivory, might well have served as the manifesto of the monks of Cluny. The singing of praises to God filled their days to an unprecedented degree: for their ambition was nothing less than to emulate the angelic choirs of heaven. (Fitzwilliam Museum/Bridgeman Art Library)

It was the practice in southern France for churches and monasteries to house the relics of their patron saints within statues made of precious metals and adorned with jewels. Most were seized and melted down during the French Revolution; but this one, from a safely remote pilgrimage centre in the Auvergne, survived. The bones of Saint Faith, a young girl martyred by the Romans, were stored inside the statue’s glittering cranium. (Church of St. Foy, Conques, Lauros/Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library)

A bristling phalanx of Northmen, seaborne and ready for battle. By the time of the Millennium, the piratical spirit of earlier Scandinavian warriors had mutated into something altogether more disciplined, ambitious and menacing. (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris/Bridgeman Art Library)

A longship takes to the seas, while in the scene above it a horseman is mounted on an eight-legged stallion. The rider is almost certainly Odin, the Scandinavian king of the gods. Not all the labours of Christian missionaries could serve to banish the “All-father” entirely from the imaginings of the Northmen. In Normandy, for instance, tales of a ghostly hunt, led by a huntsman very like Odin, would endure well into modern times. (Werner Forman Archive)

Across the Channel from France, the tenth century had been characterised, not by a collapse in royal authority, but by its spectacular consolidation. Edgar, shown here piously offering up the foundation charter of a new cathedral to Christ, was the unchallenged ruler of a newly united kingdom: England. (British Library)

A gold coin issued by Edgar’s son, Ethelred. England was easily the richest kingdom in western Europe, and the ability of its rulers to manage a single currency reflected a precocious degree of centralisation. Wealth, however, as Ethelred himself would find out, was not always a guarantee of security. (British Museum)

The Jelling stones in Denmark. The larger, on the left, was deliberately placed between the twin tumuli of his pagan parents by Harald Bluetooth, a king notorious for his opportunism and taste for bragging. Carved on to the runestone, Harald described himself as the man “who won all Denmark and Norway, and made the Danes to be Christian.” The boast, while not entirely accurate, has come to be commemorated as “the baptism of Denmark.” (Author photo)

Canute, despite having waded through blood to seize the rich prize of England from its native dynasty, was eager to change his public image from that of terrorist to Christian king. Here he is shown posing as the heir of Edgar, while Christ looks on approvingly from above. Facing Canute is Aelfigu, the English wife he refused to divorce even when he married Emma, widow of the deposed Ethelred. (British Library)

Christ is shown returning in glory at the end of time. To men and women living through the three decades that constituted the millennial anniversary of their Saviour’s life, marks of the imminent end of the world appeared everywhere. That it was sternly forbidden to speculate as to the precise hour of Christ’s return did little to dampen the mingled anxiety and hope felt by many of the Christian people at the prospect of witnessing the hour of judgement. (British Library)

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem marked the precise spot where Christ was believed to have been crucified and buried. Its destruction in 1009 by the Caliph al-Hakim provoked horror across Christendom. Only the speed with which it was rebuilt under the sponsorship of Constantinople served to ease the mood of shock. (Corbis)

A crypt looking like a public lavatory, set amid the concrete bleakness of a 1960s municipal square, is all that remains of the one-time jewel of Limoges: the abbey of St. Martial. It was here, in 1010, that the young Adémar saw a vision of the crucified Christ weeping tears of blood over the city; and here too, nineteen years later, that he was publicly branded a fraudster, and forced to flee in disgrace. (Author photo)

Christ as a pilgrim, carved in a cloister in a monastery in Spain. The first decades of the new millennium witnessed a startling upturn in the number of pilgrims taking to the roads. In 1033, in particular, the flood of people who descended upon Jerusalem appeared to one chronicler “an innumerable multitude, gathered from across the whole world, greater than any man before could have hoped to see.” (AISA)

The notion of “fastening to Christ’s Cross the picture of a dying man” had traditionally struck Christians as a repulsive one. Nevertheless, the decades either side of the Millennium witnessed a startling and enduring innovation: the portrayal of Christ in all his human suffering. The so-called “Gero Crucifix,” which hangs in Cologne Cathedral, dates from the late tenth century, and shows Jesus not merely dying, but actually dead. (Author photo)

Bruno of Toul, who in 1048 was crowned in Rome as Pope Leo IX. The illustration shows him (on the left) consecrating a single monastery church; but it was Leo’s ultimate ambition to see the whole Church reconsecrated. The energy, ability, and hard-headedness that he brought to this task ensured that his reign would subsequently be commemorated as the starting point of the papal revolution. (Burgerbibliothek, Bern)

At the end of time, it was the Archangel Michael who was destined to slay Antichrist, and to trample down the Devil. This illustration of the saint was drawn in Normandy, at Mont-Saint-Michel: a shrine that encouraged many Normans to regard the Archangel as their particular patron. Tellingly, it was at a second shrine sacred to Saint Michael, on Mount Gargano in Apulia, that Norman pilgrims were first recruited to serve as mercenaries in southern Italy: a fateful development for all concerned. (Bridgeman Art Library)

* The current consensus among historians is that the theory was not true. Studies of rural settlements in Scandinavia do not, in fact, appear to indicate excessive population growth.

* The evidence for this depends on an autopsy conducted on Edward’s bones in 1963. It is possible, of course, that the pathologist’s conclusions were mistaken – or indeed that the bones were not those of Edward at all.

* An equally plausible translation is “Blacktooth” – “Bluetooth,” however, has been immortalised as a sobriquet by its use as a name for wireless technology, uniting different technologies just as Harald was supposed to have united Denmark and Norway. The contemporary enthusiasm for recasting tenth-century warlords as peaceable multiculturalists is a peculiar one – and one from which the Caliphs of Córdoba have regularly benefited as well.

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