EARLY KINGS OF ENGLAND
A hundred and twenty years had passed since the first Vikings had devastated the country and for most of those years the English had struggled to survive. But during the past seventy-two years, four kings had fought hard against the Vikings and it looked like they were finally defeated.
Edmund I came to the throne in 923 AD, when he was only 18-years-old and for a little while, the young man managed to maintain peace where most of his ancestors had failed. It was a period in time when not much happened and very little is known although we do know that there was a revival of monasteries in England.
Six years into his reign and one year after the death of his wife, Edmund was celebrating St Augustine’s Mass Day in Gloucestershire and feasting with his nobles. The air rang with laughter and clapping as delighted guests watched beautiful women dancing and revelled in the splendid waste of expensive wine and food.
No one except Edmund saw Leofa, an exiled thief, in the crowd. He attacked the thief in person but unfortunately for Edmund, he was stabbed in the stomach during the scuffle and died almost instantly.
After six years of peace, England was again without a monarch. His death meant that his two young sons, Edwig aged 5 and Edgar aged 3, were orphans and the only solution seemed to be Edmund’s brother, 23-year-old Edred.
During Edmund’s reign, Edred had seen the Northumbrians and the Scots finally surrender to the south and the coming years looked rosy for him. Times were peaceful and he was young and virile. In the first year of his reign, everything seemed to be going pretty well for him.
Perhaps it was Edmund’s quiet strength that had kept the north subdued because for some unknown reason, within months of Edred’s coronation, the Scots changed their allegiance in favour of a Viking who had the magnificent name of Eric Bloodaxe.
Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great Ivar the Boneless
It was another cold bleak winter’s day as Ivar the Boneless stood with his arm raised high above his head, signalling his men to wait. The early morning fog, that had risen from the valley and drifted through the trees like cold grey smoke had turned to soft rain.
Behind Ivar, his warriors waited impatiently, raising long blood-curdling war cries as they stood high on the hill overlooking the tents erected in the lowlands of Ashdown. In front of them, they held their brightly painted shields and banners, as their finery and golden bracelets glistened in the haze. Even though the rain had lessened to a drizzle, the mist still felt thick around them.
It had been almost thirty years since Ivar had begun his revenge on England for the death of his father, Ragnar Lodbrok, and he knew this next battle before him would be a hard fought one. King Ethelred’s military skills were legendary. His very name loosened bowels and tightened throats. It was spoken in whispers and many crossed their fingers while others knocked suspiciously on wood. Every breath must have been like shivers of ice in Ivar’s lungs as he remembered past raids and battles. But like Ethelred, Ivar knew that there were no rules on a battlefield. Watching the enemy gathering below him, he was counting on it.
He must have been feeling more than a little confident. On top of the hill, he had the better position and more men and he would have believed it was going to be an easy defeat. With overwhelming confidence bursting up from inside, he concentrated all of his force on the battle ahead. He was determined that beautiful Wessex was going to turn into a battleground.
While Ethelred prayed quietly in his tent, the two armies jeered and shouted at each other. It was his younger brother Alfred who was growing more anxious and impatient with his brother, who was refusing to leave his tent until mass was finished. Inexperienced as he was, twenty-one-year-old Alfred knew he had to act quickly before the Danes swept down the hill first, uprooting everything in their path, intent on destroying the Wessex army.
Despite his inexperience and the absence of his elder brother, Alfred did what he knew he had to do. Sitting high on his white horse as rain began to softly fall, Alfred sounded the horn, raised his sword in the air and gave the command to his men to charge. On the hill above him, Ivar lowered his arm at the same time.
With a roar, the line of warriors on the hill broke into a lurching run through the mud. The ones at the rear would have watched as their friends disappeared into the mist like ghosts. They would barely have been able to see twenty yards in front of them. In a great clash of swords and shields, the two sides collided violently and in the hissing rain, blood flowed and men screamed.
When Ethelred finished his prayers and walked out of his tent, he was alarmed to find that Alfred had already led the attack without him. He quickly gathered his few remaining men and charged into the fog to help his brother.
Ivar would have seen indistinct, shadowy figures moving towards him and he would have been struggling to make sense of the shadows. By then it was too late. The soldiers suddenly burst out of the fog, coming straight for him. By the time he would have realised the size of the group charging at him there would have been little choice of what to do. In his confusion, he panicked and fled.
The legend of Alfred the Great was just beginning.
Edward and Aethelfraed
Edward and Athelflaed crouched silently in the darkness on top of the cliff as they stared intently down at the fires blazing in the ravine below them. While the Danes slept, they were oblivious of the fact that Alfred the Great’s two children were holding back their vast armies until just the right moment to attack.
Alfred the Great was never a strong man. He was slight of build and fragile and as a child, he’d suffered from Crohn’s disease. His death in 899AD at the age of 50 was predictable. What wasn’t expected was that his death would spark an intense family quarrel between Alfred’s son Edward and his brother’s son, Ethelwold. The squabble, of course, was over who should take the throne and both men had very definite ideas as to who should be the king.
The Danes who’d settled in York weren’t stupid. They were well aware of how much power they would have if allied to the successful king so they eagerly pledged their alliance to Ethelwold. What they hadn’t expected was Edward’s feisty sister, Aethelflaed stepping into the action. She had become Lady of the Mercians at her husband’s death, and at her disposal was a huge experienced army that she intended to use to help her brother.
You don’t see many women in history like Aethelflaed. The last warrior queen was a woman by the name of Boudica, the widow of a king from the Iceni tribe during the Roman occupation in 60AD. Boudica was imposingly tall with wild reddish-blonde hair hanging below her waist, a harsh voice and a piercing glare. She had been angry and out for revenge at all cost after Romans had beaten her and raped her daughters. As the Romans pounded through northern Wales, Boudica led her army into Londinium in ferocious revolt.
Boudica attacked and burnt three cities along the way before reaching the terrified city and a total slaughter was estimated at between 70,000 and 80,000 people. No one was spared who had dealings with the Romans. Even Roman noblewomen were impaled lengthwise on spikes and had their breasts cut off and sewn in their mouths to the accompaniment of sacrifices and banquets.
But Boudica had one big disadvantage. Her army fought with long swords designed for slashing rather than stabbing and they needed plenty of room to swing their blades. And the Romans knew it. With that knowledge, the Romans adjusted their tactics and Boudica had died on the battlefield, along with thousands of her tribe.
Here again, at the front of the army, stood another imposing woman … almost a reincarnation of Boudica. Another woman with flaming hair and a piercing gaze. Another woman out to extract revenge for her country and her people. And the Danes living in Wales were her first target.
Aethelflaed went straight to work with anger rippling down the muscles of her back and shoulders and her fiery hair streaming behind her. In these savage times, a women ruler must have had extraordinary qualities and together, she and Edward, knit by blood, marched together at yet another onslaught from the Danes in the north.
In Wales, she captured the king’s wife and thirty-four hostages and the Welsh, justifiably nervous, hastened to offer their perpetual loyalty. With that support, Edward’s army swelled even more. The two strong families, Wessex and Mercia, were now the two ruling kingdoms of Britain.
In the stillness, the two siblings straightened up from their crouch, they raised their swords in the air and the armies hurtled down the slopes towards the sleeping Danes.
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Canute Edmund Ironside
To be a king and to be murdered in one's privy is to suffer a considerable indignity but early Britons seemed to have a rather embarrassing fondness for the method when ridding themselves of someone they didn't like, as King Edmund Ironside would find out.
No one will ever know why Edmund accepted the deal from Canute to simply split the kingdom evenly between the two of them instead of
settling it in single combat as Edmund had suggested. But Canute seemed happy with the arrangement although he added that the agreement would only remain in force until the death of one of the participants of the treaty. At that time, all lands would revert to the survivor.
Warning bells should have been clanging madly in Edmund’s head. For one thing, Canute was a huge intimidating Viking who had never backed down from anything in his life before. And secondly, since Canute had already defeated Edmund at Ashingdon, the kingdom was naturally his already.
But Edmund accepted the deal and sure enough, barely one week later, he was dead at the age of twenty-two.
Stories about the speedy, and undoubtedly convenient, nature of his demise have generated some gruesome accounts of his sticky end … sorry … and two theories have come to light. Both accounts agree that Edmund had received a call of nature during the night but one theory goes further by stating that while sitting in his privy, a person concealed in the pit below had stabbed the king twice from beneath with a sharp dagger, leaving the weapon fixed in his bowels.
For me, there seems to be plenty of holes… sorry for another pun… in this story. For one, in the dark, how could the killer be sure that the posterior he was stabbing was the king’s? For another, could he have gotten close enough to use a dagger? Cesspits, after all, were often deep, and the drops to them long. And how much time did this assailant have to wait in the dark, rather smelly, pit before carrying out this incredibly messy murder?
Option B suggests that instead of a dagger, the assassin employed a spring-bow, a deadly sort of booby trap consisting of a loaded crossbow that could be triggered by pressure and as the king sat on his … eh … throne, an arrow was released and entered his bottom.
In the end … sorry again … both options would have been excruciating and would certainly have done the trick.
Edward the Confessor
Edward the Confessor Emma of Normandy
From the moment Canute saw King Ethelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, he was smitten and to give her credit, she held out for a short while. But with Canute ridding himself of rival claimants to the English throne, the threat to her two children and her nephew in Normandy hung heavily in the air. When Canute offered to spare them all if she married him and if her children hightailed it to their relatives in Normandy, there was really no question of what she was going to do. She agreed and the children left immediately to live with their uncle Robert in France.
England had suffered a great deal in the past forty years. They suffered invasion after invasion from Denmark and they’d watched as Canute’s three quarrelsome sons had argued bitterly amongst themselves, each of them hell-bent on removing their brothers from the queue to the throne. Then at twenty-four, King Harthacanute took a sip of wine at a wedding and suddenly fell down to the ground and died from … ‘unknown causes’.
Call it premonition if you want, but Emma’s son Edward (Edward the Confessor) had conveniently arrived back from Normandy just prior to the tragedy and was attending the same wedding. Now there are accidental deaths and there are accidental deaths, if you know what I mean. And by the looks of it, the male descendants of the House of Normandy had a rather nasty pattern of dying suddenly from unexplained causes. In 1027, Richard III, Duke of Normandy died without cause. In 1035, Richard’s brother Robert died suddenly after returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In 1040, their cousin Alan II Duke of Brittany died of unexplained causes. In all of these cases, no one knew the reason. The one thing that is consistent though in every single case is the fact that it was ‘sudden and unexpected’. Of course, poison was suspected because it was a pretty foolproof, convenient and reliable way to get rid of anyone you didn’t want around, especially if you knew no one could find out.
Keeping that in mind, we should then look to see who would gain the most from Harthacanute’s death and we only have one major suspect. Emma’s son Edward. He had plenty of supporters in England itching to rid themselves of the barbaric Vikings once and for all and he was conveniently never too far away from every single relative who’d died suspiciously in Normandy. And with Harthacanute out of the way, Edward’s way to the throne was clear. After all, he was the younger son of Ethelred, brother of Edmund Ironside, stepson of Canute, stepbrother of Harold Harefoot and Sweyne Forkbeard and half brother to King Harthacanute. With that sort of lineage, who else was more deserving to have the throne?
But Edward wasn’t the only one with his eye on the throne of England. Magnus King of Norway was gathering his fleet together ready to invade, Edward’s brother-in-law Harold Godwinson had a yearning to sit on the throne, and watching very closely to everything that was happening in England was Emma’s feisty nephew William of Normandy, already calling himself a Conqueror.
England was in for a bumpy ride.
Edward’s death set a series of disastrous events into motion because as expected, his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson simply took over. But Harold must have seen the writing on wall because even as he was seeing how well the crown fit on his head, he was giving orders for his troops to assemble on the Isle of Wight in readiness for William Duke of Normandy’s reaction. And he was right to feel nervous because when William heard the news in Normandy, he was apoplectic.
On hearing the news, William instantly went into overdrive and began making plans for an invasion. During normal times in the past, he had shown a certain degree of patience but this was not normal times and he was running out of patience. There was a war council to organise and an army to put together, so with promise of English lands and titles for anyone who supported him, his fleet of mercenaries swiftly grew to well over 700 warships. Brittany and Flanders from his wife’s family also joined the fight together with smaller numbers from other parts of France and colonies in southern Italy and before too long, it had become a truly sizeable force to be reckoned with. It was just a matter of time before he left his wife Matilda of Flanders at home with six children under the age of twelve, and took off with his army to conquer England.
William the Conqueror’s claim to the English throne was tenuous at the best. He was the only son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy, illegitimate by the way, and also the grandnephew of the English Queen, Emma of Normandy, wife of King Ethelred and then of King Canute. He could even trace his ancestry back to Rollo the Viking and Rollo was no shrinking violet when it came to fighting. But as impressive as his CV was, there wasn’t much in the way of bloodline and he certainly didn’t have it in the bag.
What delayed William’s crossing to England by eight months was not just bad winds and weather, it was the time it had taken to build his ships. That delay gave Harold the much-needed time to assemble his own troops.
But it was a Catch 22 situation for Harold. While giving him more time to be ready for the invasion on the south coast, his large army was slowly diminishing from dwindling supplies and falling morale. And then, with the harvest season upon them, Harold made a big mistake. He disbanded his army on 8th September and left the English Channel unguarded.
What followed for Harold was an unfortunate set of circumstances. While William was sharpening up his battleaxe in Normandy, the Viking King Harald Harada III of Norway was heading out of Norway with a fleet of his own, ready to invade Yorkshire in the north. And with him was Harold’s younger brother Tosig.
The Battle of Hastings
14th October 1066...
There would have been a lot of ‘what if’s’ in Harold’s life. What if William Duke of Normandy hadn’t been held up by bad weather in France for 8 months and what if his brother Tosig and Harald Harada of Norway had not decided to invade England at the very same time that William of Normandy had planned to invade? If neither had happened, Harold’s army would have fully prepared when William landed in Sussex and he wouldn’t have been forced to leave London unguarded and make his army march north for four gruelling days to Samford Bridge in Yorkshire to battle it out with his brother.
Then, what if Harold hadn’t been forced to trek 388kms back again to confront ‘William the Bastard’ who was waiting for him unhindered in Hastings? If that hadn’t happened, Harold’s exhausted army wouldn’t have been sitting in hastily dug ditches on top of a hill watching William’s fresh army march confidently towards them, eight miles outside of Hastings.
Harold knew that William had cavalry, infantry and archers in his army while he only had foot soldiers. But his men seemed to have caught their second wind as they stood determinately along the ridges facing the enemy in the valley below them. Then as Harold watched, an amazing thing happened. William’s army seemed to be scattering and to Harold, it looked like William’s infantry were retreating.
In hindsight, Harold should have waited. He had fresh reinforcements on the way from London and with the added manpower, he knew he could easily defeat William. But he didn’t want to lose the advantage that was opening up before him, so he raised his sword high in the air and sent his soldiers surging down the hill at breakneck speed.
It didn’t take Harold long to see it had been a ruse. Even as he realised his mistake, William was raising his helmet and his archers were firing their arrows high into the air.
Battles of the time rarely lasted more than two hours before the weaker side submitted but the fact that Hastings lasted an horrific nine hours indicates the determination of both William’s and Harold’s armies. After losing thousands of men, Harold’s weary army made their final stand for the day just on dusk, prepared to recommence fighting in the morning when fresh backup arrived.
Then, with less than thirty minutes from sunset, an arrow caught Harold in the eye and killed him. His two brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine Godwinson, lay dead on the battlefield with him and as the triumphant roar faded away, the shouts of victory would have mingled with the cries of the dying. Horses and riders would have lain as the sinking sun shimmered on helmets, chainmail, broken swords and trampled bodies.
William the Conqueror had won the battle and life in England would never be the same again.