Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Keeper of the Wardrobe

The Keeper of the Wardrobe in England was a very important position, and it actually did start with a wardrobe; that is, the place where the king's clothing and armor were stored. The Wardrobe was part of the King's Household (the Chamber was the other part). Not a simple closet, however, because it also included the king's other possessions and treasure, so the person chosen (like Antony Bek and his brother) to keep track of it had to be responsible and trusted absolutely. That sounds fairly straightforward, and the Keeper position was in charge of inventory. During the reign of Henry II, however, the "Wardrobe" took on greater significance and meaning.

To understand its greater role we have to talk about the Curia regis, the "King's Council." This was the term used to refer to the advisors and administrators of the king. In England, the Anglo-Saxons had their witan or witangemot. After the Norman Conquest, although the English still used the old term, official records use Curia regis. The Curia included barons, bishops and abbots, the chancellor, constable, stewards, chamberlain, marshal, etc.

With Henry, management of the Wardrobe absorbed oversight of the Curia as well, making the Keeper an even more prestigious position. The Wardrobe took over administrative and accounting duties for the entire Household. This required it to receive large sums from the other important office, the Exchequer. It did not, however, always have to turn to the Exchequer: because the Wardrobe included treasure, the king could make his own quick financial deal without going through official channels.

As the Wardrobe took on more responsibility for management of the government, it became too large to keep in one place. During the reign of Henry's son Edward, the Wardrobe divided into one managing the king's personal expenditures versus the Great Wardrobe, which managed cloth and clothing and spices. Separate Privy Wardrobes containing the king's personal effects such as clothing and jewelry (the illustration is of a Privy Wardrobe at Westminster). The Privy Wardrobe in the Tower of London maintained his armor and weapons.

The position—along with the Wardrobes as they were originally envisioned and evolved—no longer exist. In 1782 these divisions were eliminated. The position was so powerful when it existed that the person holding it could wield great authority, even against the king's family. For that story we'll look at one of these men, Walter Langton. See you tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Between King and Archbishop

Antony Bek (c.1245 - 1311) was from a family of knights. He and his brother Thomas attended Oxford University at Merton College in the late 1260s, then entered the clergy. (They were younger sons; an older brother, John, inherited the family lands.)

Prince Edward went on a crusade in 1270 and took Bek with him. After the crusade, Edward in 1274 appointed Bek Keeper of the Wardrobe, an important position in a royal household. One month later, however, Bek was replaced by his brother Thomas and was made Constable of the Tower, responsible for managing the castle when the lord was away.

By 1275 Antony was named archdeacon in Durham as well as holding a few other religious positions. These were gifts that allowed him to collect revenues; he did not have to perform duties in those locations.

A trusted councillor, he was sent to Wales to negotiate a treaty with Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, the Prince of Wales. He was also sent to Aragon to negotiate marriage between Edward's daughter Eleanor to Alfonso III. He also went to Scotland in 1286 after the death of King Alexander III to act on behalf of Alexander's heir, Margaret of Norway, who was engaged to marry Edward's son.

His friendship with Edward allowed him to extend his temporal power when he became Bishop of Durham (see the coat of arms above) in 1283. He tried to control the Benedictine Priory in Durham, a dispute which went to the pope for arbitration and was decided in Ben's favor. Pope Clement V made Bek Patriarch of Jerusalem, which meant he was the most senior member of the clergy in England.

This angered the Archbishop of York, who had jurisdiction over the Priory. When Bek allowed the king's men to arrest two priests in 1293, the Archbishop of York, John le Romeyn, excommunicated him. This was a radical and drastic move against a bishop. Romeyn was hauled before Parliament, who decreed that Bek had been rightly acting in his secular role and not as a bishop, and so Romeyn did not have jurisdiction in this case. Romeyn was imprisoned and fined 4000 marks to King Edward.

Bek survived Edward I, performing the funeral service for him at Westminster Abbey. As the senior clergy in England he was asked to investigate the Templars in 1308 by Edward II. Bek's career had allowed him to gather enough wealth to build Durham Castle's Great Hall, and to expand Auckland Castle (a residence of the Bishops of Durham)and Somerton Castle Inherited from his mother, Eva de Gray).

Bek died 3 March 1311. There was some talk about canonization that went nowhere.

So...about this job he held for one month that was given to his brother, Keeper of the Wardrobe. Did he just manage some noble's clothing? There was more to it than that, which I will go into next time.

Monday, June 17, 2024

Eleanor's Children

Eleanor of Castile, as Queen of England, wanted advantageous marriages for her children. She and Edward I had 16 or more, but although many marriages were proposed and arranged, only a few of the children achieved adulthood. Several of the first offspring died before even reaching double digits in age.

One named Eleanor (1269 - 1298) was the first child who survived to adulthood. She was betrothed to Alfonso III of Aragon (once mentioned here), but he died before the marriage could take place. She married Count Henry III of Bar. They had a son who succeeded his father as Count of Bar, and a daughter who married the 7th Earl of Surrey.

Joan (1272 - 1307) married twice. The first was Gilbert de Clare, who had fought against Edward and his father during the Second Barons' War and had overseen a massacre of Jews at Canterbury. After Gilbert died, she persuaded her father to knight one of Gilbert's squires, Ralph de Monthermer. Ralph was about the same age as Joan. Once he was knighted, Joan and Ralph secretly married. Edward found out a few months later and angrily had Ralph imprisoned. According to the chronicler Thomas Walsingham (writing at a much later date), Joan pleaded with her father:

No one sees anything wrong if a great earl marries a poor and lowly woman. Why should there be anything wrong if a countess marries a young and promising man?

This, and the intervention of the Bishop of Durham, Antony Bek, caused the king to relent. Ralph was released and officially name to Gilbert de Clare's old titles (that were inherited by Joan), making him jure uxoris (by right of wife) Earl of Gloucester and Hertford.

Margaret, their 10th child, was born in 1275 and died sometime after 1333. She married John the Peaceful, Duke of Brabant. John had one child with Margaret who succeeded him, and several illegitimate children who did not.

Elizabeth (1282 - 1316) John I, Count of Holland, when she was 15. John was born in 1284, and the marriage to Elizabeth was arranged in 1285. They tied the know in 1297 in Ipswich, after which they lived in Holland. He died in 1299, and she married Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Hereford. Humphrey was from a powerful family who would be a very loud voice against Elizabeth's brother...

Edward Caernarvon, their last child and the only male to survive past childhood. Plenty has been said about his rule, his lifestyle, his marriage to Isabella of France, and his death.

Instead, I will go back to Antony Bek, the Bishop of Durham who spoke to the king on behalf of Joan's marriage. He had a little trouble being loyal to both King Edward and the Archbishop of Canterbury, a story for tomorrow.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Eleanor's Influence

As Edward I's queen, Eleanor of Castile had a large effect on the country, and not just because of all the property she owned. Her patronage of the arts and her children's and relative's marriages stand out.

She established a scriptorium for producing and reproducing books. It is the only known instance of a royal scriptorium in Northern Europe at that time. Saints' lives and romances were the common reading material of the day, but Eleanor wanted more.

When her mother died in 1279 and Eleanor inherited the title Countess of Ponthieu, she had a romance written about a fictional 9th century count of Ponthieu. She had an Arthurian romance written with a Northumbrian theme. The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a treatise on angels at her request. Pictured here is the Alfonso Psalter, which she had written for her son Alfonso (1273 - 1284); more about it here.

She had tiled bathrooms and piped water to some of the royal residences to match what she was accustomed to in Castile. She increased the use of tapestries and carpeting. These were initially criticized as Spanish extravagances, but became a popular fashion for those who could afford them. She also liked fancy tableware like knives and forks, but the forks may have been only for serving from a platter, not for individual use.

Another Castilian practice she brought to England was water features in gardens, along with fish ponds, aviaries, and gazebos. Household accounts show her ordering olive oil, French cheeses, and fresh fruit from the Mediterranean, as well as food and other items from Acre, because of her time there on Crusade with Edward.

She founded several priories, and gave financial support to Oxford and Cambridge universities.

One of the immediate impacts made by Eleanor and Edward—and partially for their benefit—was arranging advantageous marriages for their children. Eleanor bore at least 16 children to Edward. Only a few survived to adulthood, but they helped tie the throne to powerful relatives. I'll talk more about that tomorrow.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Eleanor Crosses

Queen Eleanor of England died in 1290. She had probably been ill for awhile. After her last child was born in 1284 (who became King Edward II), the royal accounts show medicines being purchased for the queen. What medicines were purchased is not clear, but from her time in Gascony with Edward in 1287 she was described as being ill with symptoms that resemble malaria. The effects of this stay with the body and make it susceptible to infections and organ damage.

Whatever the cause, King Edward I was bereft. They had been together almost 30 years, and unlike other kings there was no indication that he had affairs. He had worked to make sure she had plenty of money to support her needs, even if he were to pre-decease her.

She died while on a tour of England to visit her children, that was moving very slowly due (presumable) to her ill health. She died on 28 November at the house of a member of Parliament in the village of Harby. Her body was embalmed and taken slowly to Westminster so the people could mourn along the way. There were 12 stops along the way.

In 1291 Edward commissioned 12 memorial crosses—now referred to as Eleanor Crosses—to be placed at the towns where the body stopped each night on the funeral procession to Westminster. They were three-tiered and included statues of the queen. The first was in Lincoln and the final one was erected at Charing, now called Charing Cross. Most of the crosses have been reduced to fragments, but three are intact (pictured is the one at St. Albans), and many reproductions have been made. The Queen Eleanor Memorial Cross at Charing Cross Station is a memorial to the queen and the original cross.

Around this same time, a shrine to Little St. Hugh of Lincoln was erected, in a style so similar that it is assumed the same sculpture studio produced it. It also holds the royal crest and a decoration that commemmorates Eleanor. An Eleanor Cross is very near it, linking her more closely to the treatment of Jews and her link to their property mentioned in the above links.

Before we leave Eleanor behind, I want to talk about her legacy and influence on the culture and dynasties of England. That's for next time.

Friday, June 14, 2024

Eleanor's Unpopularity

Eleanor of Castile (1241 - 1290) was not always well-liked by the English. Although she was performing the expected duty of providing children to Edward I, she was a foreigner in an England that was becoming increasingly wary of influence in their politics from the continent.

She also became disproportionately wealthy in the acquisition of land. The lands given to her as dowry provided £4500 annually, and lands she acquired between 1274 and 1290 produced £2600. This was Edward's plan: to make sure she had annual income to support her needs and desires without having to draw from the Exchequer. She had an annual budget of £8000, so the majority came from her rents.

These were rents that would have gone to many other nobles, however, who resented not possessing lands that in the past belonged to their dynasties. After the Battle of Evesham during the Second Barons' War, lands held by the rebels were given to Eleanor.

Some of the lands were confiscated from nobles because they were mortgaged, used as collateral by borrowing money from Jews. Montfort financed the Second Barons' War partially by persecuting Jews and destroying the records of debts his followers owed to them. Canceling Jewish debts or trading bond debts for land required royal permission, however, and so after the War, Henry III (and Edward I later) would take over de Montfort's followers debts and claim them. Much real estate came into the hands of the king cheaply, and was given to Eleanor.

She also benefitted from the execution of hundreds of Jews for the illegal act of coin clipping. Property of the executed was handed over to her.

An argument made against her was that she actually benefitted from usury, the Jewish practice of charging interest on loans which was forbidden to Christians. Of course anyone borrowing from Jews was paying interest, and the king often simply took over the money owed to Jews for his own purposes, but having the queen gain so much wealth through Jewish debts was a step too far. The Archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham, spoke about this:

A rumour is waxing strong throughout the kingdom and has generated much scandal. It is said that the illustrious lady queen, whom you serve, is occupying many manors, lands, and other possessions of nobles, and has made them her own property – lands which the Jews have extorted with usury from Christians under the protection of the royal court.

The fact that she "benefitted" from this financial connection to Jews' money did not mean she had a close association with Jews. A devout Christian whose family was very involved in the Crusades, there is every reason to believe that she shared the common hostility toward Jews. Some think that her influence inspired Edward to declare the Expulsion of all Jews from England in 1290. The Expulsion allowed Jews to leave with personal possessions and cash, but property was left behind and given to the king. This would simply be a continuation of the previous practice of supporting his queen (and himself).

By the end of 1290, however, Eleanor was dead, and Edward was bereft. He wanted to commemmorate Eleanor, and he did, in a manner which can still be seen. I'll tell you about Eleanor Crosses tomorrow.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Eleanor of Castile

Ferdinand III of Castile and his queen, Joan the Countess of Ponthieu, had two children together. One, a son named Ferdinand, went on to become Count of Aumale (inherited through Joan from her father). The other was a daughter named Eleanor (born 1241), after Joan's grandmother Eleanor, the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. (Ferdinand had sons from a previous wife, one of whom, Alfonso, succeeded him.)

Her father's court was focused on education and the arts, and so she probably had a good education growing up. Castile had hoped to unite with the kingdom of Navarre. When Eleanor was 11 her half-brother, King Alfonso X of Castile, hoped she would marry Theobald II of Navarre. Another of Alfonso's desires came into play, however.

Alfonso wanted to claim Gascony, which was at the time possessed by England. Henry III of England objected to this and brought in the military. They settled the issue by a marriage of Henry's son Edward, technically Duke of Gascony, to Alfonso's half-sister Eleanor. Edward and Eleanor were married on 1 November 1254 at the monastery of Las Huelgas.

Eleanor was barely 13, and in their first year of marriage, spent in Gascony, it is believed she gave birth to a daughter who did not survive long. In 1255, Eleanor traveled to England with an entourage including some relatives. Edward followed later. 

Eleanor became part of the political story during the Second Barons' War. She supported her husband, calling for archers from Ponthieu. The leader of the barons, Simon de Montfort, confined her to Westminster Palace. After Edward and Henry defeated the Barons, Eleanor seems to have taken a more prominent role in government. She also started bearing children. Husband and wife were never far apart, even on military campaigns. Their son Edward was born in Caernarfon Castle because Edward was on a military campaign to Wales.

Because household records kept track of expenses, we know of one of the couple's cute traditions. Edward obviously abstained from sexual relations with his wife during Lent. On Easter Sunday, he allowed the queen's ladies-in-waiting to trap him in his bed; he would have to pay them a ransom to get out and visit his wife's bedroom on Easter morning. (On the first Easter after Eleanor's death, Edward paid her ladies the money anyway.)

Another economic facet of Eleanor is how she benefitted from persecution of England's Jews, and we'll look at that tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Debasing Coinage

Let me explain how you can turn a finite number of metal coins into more coins.

You may have seen medieval coins that weren't entirely round; they were lop-sided somehow or had a flat edge to them. That was not necessarily the action of years or wear and tear through handling. That was more likely because of coin-clipping.

Coin-clipping was a popular way to make more money for personal use. Medieval coins were solid metal all the way through, not cheaper metal covered with another layer to make them shiny, as much modern coinage is in the promissory system. The Medieval English penny was solid silver. A known practice was to "clip" the edges of the coin, reducing its size, and using the clipping from several coins to make an additional coin (or a silver lump that had value).

This, of course, debased the value of the original coin(s) because they were expected to have a specific weight of silver (or gold, in some cases). The illustration above is not medieval, but from a hoard of clippings from 16th century coins found in 2015.

One of the ways to guard against coin clipping was to put a design or milled edge on the coin to make it clear of the edge has been altered; United States quarters and dimes show this, nickels and pennies are made of such cheap metal that a milled edge isn't considered worthwhile.

Other methods of debasing coinage were "sweating" and "plugging." In sweating, coins were placed in a bag and shaken vigorously so that bits of metal might flake off and could be collected at the bottom of the bag to be re-used. Plugging was the act of punching a hole in the middle of the coin, knocking out a bit of metal, then hammering the coin to fill in the hole. With the edge of the coin intact, the flattened image in the center could be explained as normal wear and tear.

These practices were bad for the economy, devaluing the actual coin (which was based on weight of silver), and promoting inflation. They were considered extremely serious offenses. Suspicion of coin-clipping in the time of King Edward I (1272-1307) lead to hundreds of deaths in a single outrageous over-reaction.

But that's a story for tomorrow.

Monday, June 10, 2024

The Assize of Bread (and Ale)

Bread was so important to daily life, as food and even as tableware. Not every household had the time and resources to make its own bread, and had to turn to bakers for their loaves, of which there were several in any decent-sized town.

A problem for those who did not bake their own was the fluctuation of prices. This was not always the fault of the baker, however. Harvests were variable, and the price of grain rose and fell with the weather. There were cheaper breads, of course, but their prices fluctuated as well. Bakers might also indulge in what our modern era calls "shrinkflation," the reduction of the amount of goods for the same prior price, or "skimpflation," the use of less-desirable material (oats mixed in with the wheat, for example)  to make a sold good.

These changing prices affected everyone, including royal households who consumed far more than a typical family. King Henry II of England and his son John both established rules for the price of bread to make their own households run smoothly and inexpensively. It wasn't until John's son, Henry III, that a nationwide pricing structure was declared about 1266. It was initiated by bakers in Coventry who wanted standards established to save them from accusations of unfairness or price-gouging. This was the Assize of Bread and Ale.

The immediate object of the Assize was to fix the size of the loaf of bread. Whatever might be the fluctuations of the corn-market*, loaves were sold at a farthing**, or a half-penny or a penny; the size of these loaves would therefore vary according to the price of corn, becoming smaller as the price of corn rose and larger as it fell.[link]

About the Feast of St, Michael (29 September) the results of the year's grain harvest could be judged, and the prices/sizes could be determined for the next 12 months. 

This Assize was the longest-lasting law of its kind, and was not significantly amended until the Bread Acts of 1822!

As for ale, since it relied on grain:

when a quarter of wheat was sold for three shillings, or three shillings and four-pence, and a quarter of barley for twenty pence or twenty-four pence, and a quarter of oats for fifteen pence, brewers in cities could afford to sell two gallons of ale for a penny, and out of cities three gallons for a penny; and when in a town...three gallons are sold for a penny, out of a town they may and ought to sell four. [Long, George, ed. (1833) "Ale", The Penny Cyclopædia]

The Assize did not just establish prices. In order to enforce the Assize, regulatory structures were put in place with fees and penalties. Manorial lords were to hold tri-weekly sessions to enforce the statutes. Also, since the weight of bread was linked to its price in pence, half-pence, and quarter-pence, it was important that the pence itself was a reliable and expected value.

Why would it not be? Well, debasement of coinage was definitely a technique throughout history for getting more "bang from a buck" so to speak, and I'll discuss those dishonest ways next time.

*corn-market =remember that "corn" referred to any grain
**farthing = quarter of a penny

Sunday, June 9, 2024


We've talked about bread before, way back here and more recently here, but now I want to discuss a very specific use for bread: the trencher.

The trencher existed for a very simple reason: plates were expensive. Serving food to individuals was more efficiently done if each person had a flat surface on which their food could be set in front of them. What do you use for a plate? Ceramic or pewter were expensive to make and own, but the ubiquity of using grains for bread led to a solution.

Once bread goes stale, it is firm and (if the menu does not include items with too much liquid) perfectly capable of supporting a meal. Trenchers were "scalable" as well, although they were generally made for an individual.

To make a trencher did not require refined flour. You wanted it to be coarse. Also, it was not necessarily edible. You weren't going to make it with your best wheat flour. You'd use barley, oats, rye, or a combination of them. Also, it didn't need to rise as much as a regular loaf: you want it to be dense. Then the real different part: you didn't want it to be fresh. You wanted it to be stale. What few recipes exist that explain the process make it clear that it was a flattened round loaf, allowed to sit for three days, then was sliced across the middle to make two halves, top and bottom. Each of these was a "trencher," from the Old French tranchier, "to cut."

This could now be placed in front of a dinner guest on which they would pile the meat and other foods (N.B.: no soup course here). In some medieval woodcuts and other pictures, you may now recognize them as the round items, often with crossed lines on top as decoration (which the guest would never see, since the top half would be used upside-down.

It was considered improper to eat the trencher at a feast. What, then, was its final fate? After all, despite the stale nature, it was now soaked with juices from meat and vegetables, so surely it wasn't rock-hard and would have some flavor? Yes, but not for refined company. The trenchers were given to the dogs or distributed to the poor, waiting outside the gates for this largesse.

So that is why the story of the death of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, makes sense (if we are willing to believe Aelred of Rievaulx).

Ah, bread! Staple of life. So important that its price had to be regulated, and that's what Henry III did for his people. I'll say more on that tomorrow.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Godwin's End(s)

Godwin, Earl of Wessex (c.1001 - 15 April 1053) had played his cards carefully, supporting whomever was in power. Although English, he rose to prominence by supporting the Danish King Cnut who took over from Æthelred, even capturing and allowing torture one of Æthelred's sons when that family tried to return to the throne. Later, he worked with another of Æthelred's sons who did become king.

The relationship was rocky, however, since King Edward never forgot Godwin's treatment of his brother, Alfred. Even so, Godwin was so powerful that Edward had to handle him carefully. He waited until there was a clear breach of feudal protocol, when Godwin refused an order from Edward to punish citizens who had acted abominably. The whole Godwin family was exiled in 1051. Even Godwin's daughter, Edith, who was married to Edward, as sent to a nunnery. Edward might have thought he would divorce her.

Although out of favor with the king, Godwin still had supporters. The year following their exile, the Godwin family returned in force (Godwin from Flanders, his sons from Ireland, where they had gained the help of the king of Leinster, Diarmait mac Máel na mBó. They had so much support from the locals in England that Edward had no choice but to reinstate them in their positions, including reinstating Edith as queen.

In the following year, however, Godwin died suddenly on 15 April while feasting with the king. There are two stories of his death. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle record for 1053 states:

On Easter Monday, as he was sitting with the king at a meal he suddenly sank towards the footstool bereft of speech, and deprived of all his strength. Then he was carried to the king's private room and they thought it was about to pass off. But it was not so. On the contrary, he continued like this without speech or strength right on to the Thursday, and then departed this life.

A man in his 50s who had experienced a lot of stress might easily have been felled by a stroke. A later historian, the 12th-century writer Aelred of Rievaulx (read about him here and here), decided to make the incident more interesting. According to his biography of Edward, the subject of Alfred's death came up. Godwin took a piece of brad and said:

"May this crust which I hold in my hand pass through my throat and leave me unharmed to show that I was guiltless of treason towards you, and that I was innocent of your brother's death!"

He swallowed the crust and died.

Really? That was considered a test by Godwin, to swallow a piece of bread? Well, yes, because this was not the bread you are thinking of. Tomorrow I'll explain what was so different about this bread.

Friday, June 7, 2024

The Goldsmith Monk

During the time of Edward the Confessor, a Benedictine monk was so talented an artist that it brought him to the attention of the rich and powerful. His name was Spearhafoc, which is Old English for "sparrowhawk."

He was a monk at Bury St. Edmunds (one of the richest abbeys in England until destroyed by Henry VIII), and was an outstanding artist in painting not only illuminated manuscripts but also in goldsmithing. He caught the attention of both Godwin, Earl of Wessex, and the newly crowned King Edward the Confessor.

Edward made him Abbot of Abingdon in 1047 or 1048, and then promoted him to Bishop of London when the former bishop, Robert of Jumièges, was made Archbishop of Canterbury and sent to Rome to receive the pallium from Pope Leo IX. Spearhafoc was given gold and jewels in order to make a new crown for Edward.

Before we continue in his main story, I'll mention that there is a miracle attributed to him which I shared here.

When Robert returned from Rome, however, he refused to consecrate Spearhafoc as bishop, claiming the pope forbade it. There is some reason to support this claim, since Leo was starting a campaign against corrupt clergy and was opposed to simony, the purchasing of ecclesiastical positions for personal gain. The order to make a crown "in exchange for" the position of bishop certainly looked unethical.

The king insisted, Robert denied, Godwin (who had reasons for not liking Robert and seemed to be a supporter of Spearhafoc) also objected to Robert's stance. There was a stalemate that lasted for months. When Godwin was exiled in fall of 1051, Spearhafoc lost a valuable supporter against Robert, and decided to take matters into his own hands.

He disappeared. Completely. Taking with him the gold and jewels that were intended for the crown. He was never seen again.

But of course Godwin returned, and tomorrow we'll wrap up the rest of the story between Godwin and Edward.

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Robert of Jumièges

Robert of Jumièges was Norman French, abbot of Jumièges Abbey. In the 1030s, Edward the Confessor was living in exile in Normandy, which is when and where the two men got to know each other. When the heirless Harthacnut offered the throne to Edward, the future king returned to England and brought Robert with him in 1042.

One of Edward's first opportunities to appoint a new clergyman came when Ælfweard, Bishop of London, died from leprosy in July 1044. Edward appointed Robert to the position in August. The English were wary of the Norman French influence in England, so Robert was already disliked by people like Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Godwin was expanding his family's power with appointments of his sons to earldoms and his daughter marrying Edward, but a biography of Edward claims that Robert remained the most influential advisor to Edward.

In October 1050, the English Archbishop of Canterbury, Eadsige, died. During his time as archbishop he had leased some of Canterbury's lands to Godwin. When Edward appointed Robert to the position, not only did the first Norman archbishop anger people—not least the monks of Canterbury, who had the right to elect their own choice—but also Robert immediately instigated strife with Godwin by demanding the return of the lands Eadsige had given away.

Robert had to travel to Rome in 1051 to receive the pallium, the symbol of his office. Rumor has it that he went through Normandy and told Duke William that Edward had named William his heir. Upon his return from Rome, he annoyed Edward by refusing to consecrate Edward's choice as his replacement for bishop of London. He claimed that Pope Leo IX had forbidden it, and there is some hint that it may have been so based on Leo's fight against simony, the purchase of ecclesiastical privileges.

It is also just after the Rome trip that Robert claimed knowledge of Godwin's plot to kill the king, contributing to Godwin's flight to Flanders. The biography of Edward also claims that Robert tried to (unsuccessfully) convince Edward to divorce Edith of Wessex, Godwin's daughter. When Godwin returned to England with an army, he was forgiven by Edward. Robert realized his attempts to vanquish Godwin had failed, and now he was in a precarious position in the kingdom.

He self-exiled, and was declared outlaw, and a royal council on 14 September 1052 removed him from his title. He was replaced with Stigand, who had negotiated the peace between Edward and Godwin, despite opposition from Pope Leo IX. Robert's property was divided between Godwin, Harold Godwinson, and Edith of Wessex.

Robert died at Jumièges some time in the 1050s. Duke William of Normandy used his treatment as one of the reasons to invade England in 1066, but that event has been told again and again.

I want to get back to Godwin's fate and Edward, but there's another character that was part of this story, and that is the man that Edward wanted to make bishop of London when Robert was elevated to the archbishopric. That man was named Spearhafoc—a monk and a goldsmith—and tomorrow we'll go into his story.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Dealing with the Godwins

Godwin, the Earl of Wessex, was a powerful landowner during the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042 - 1066), and Edward was wary of him. Edward as married to Godwin's daughter Eadgifu, but Godwin did not support his king and son-in-law in everything.

Edward had spent time growing up in Normandy, and he showed a preference for elevating Norman French subjects over local English or Danish subjects. One such example was Robert of Jumièges. Robert had known Edward in Normandy, and followed him to England where he was made bishop of London in 1043.

In 1051, a new Archbishop of Canterbury was needed. The clergy and monks of Canterbury elected a cousin of Godwin's to the position, but Edwards rejected this and appointed Robert of Jumièges. Robert claimed that Godwin was in illegal possession of some estates that belonged to the See of Canterbury. Moreover, in September of that year Edward's brother-in-law, Eustace II of Boulogne, visited. Edward appointed him castellan (governor) of a castle in Dover. The locals rebelled against this, resulting in fighting and 40 deaths. Dover was within Godwin's earldom, and Edward told Godwin to punish the citizens of Dover who had attacked Eustace. Godwin refused.

This refusal gave Edward the opportunity to deal with Godwin definitively. Robert of Jumièges claimed that Godwin wanted to kill the king, just like he had killed Edward's brother Alfred Ætheling. The other two most powerful earls in England, Leofric and Siward, supported the king against Godwin. Godwin's sons held earldoms, and called up their own men, but none were willing to fight against the king.

An Anglo-Saxon royal chaplain and advisor, Stigand, handled negotiations between the king and Godwin. When he carried the king's message to Godwin, that there could be peace if Godwin could restore Alfred Ætheling, Godwin took the hint: he fled to Flanders while his sons went to Ireland.

The incident with Eustace was obviously a turning point in the relationship between Edward and Godwin, but Robert of Jumièges definitely fanned the flames with his appointment to Canterbury, his claim of illegal possessions, and his claim that Godwin was planning assassination. Before we go further about Edward vs. Godwin (and that relationship is far from over), we should look more closely at Robert, what he did, and what happened to him.

(Note: as significant as Godwin was in his lifetime, there are no depictions of him that I can find. The illustration is of the coat of arms that is attributed to his son, Harold, after he became king. This design is displayed at Winchester Castle.)

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Sweyn Godwinson, Rogue

Godwin, Earl of Wessex, was very powerful in the England of the 11th century, and he was able to procure good positions for his family. His son, Sweyn, was made an earl in the southwest Midlands by King Edward in 1043. This earldom included Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, and Somerset.

Sweyn was Godwin's eldest son, although he claimed at times to be the son of the former King Cnut. His mother Gytha, a sister-in-law of Cnut, denied this.

Sweyn managed some international diplomacy on his own, making peace with Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, the King of Gwynedd in northern Wales, which helped Llywelyn against his chief Welsh rival, the king of south Wales. The two men invaded south Wales together, after which Sweyn made a less-intelligent decision.

Sweyn abducted the Abbess of Leominster, Eadgifu ("Edith"), in order to force her to marry him and gain control of the estates attached to Leominster. King Edward refused to approve this marriage and sent Eadgifu back to the abbey. Sweyn left England to escape any threat of punishment, traveling to Flanders and then to Denmark, looking for support.

He came back to England in 1049 to ask to be forgiven and be reinstated in his earldom. (Records suggest that he was forced to leave Denmark due to some unknown action on his part.) His brother Harold Godwinson and cousin Beorn, who had both received earldoms as well, opposed his return. (His former lands had been divided between them, and they did not want to relinquish them.)

Sweyn convinced Beorn to support him in his audience with the king, but along the way Sweyn thought one way to get his lands back was to have Beorn murdered. Sweyn was condemned and sent to exile. In 1050, however, he was apparently pardoned, because he returned to England.

This was not the end of Sweyn's story, but the conclusion is not just about him, but includes his father and the rest of the family. Tomorrow we'll see what Edward did about the entire Godwin family. (The illustration is of two of Godwin's sons fighting at the court of King Edward.)

Monday, June 3, 2024

Edward and Godwin

When Edward the Confessor came to the throne in 1042, he was not in a good position. The country had swayed back and forth between English and Danish rule, and plenty of Danes were in powerful positions that an English king might have had difficulty dealing with. Much of the real estate of England was in the hands of others, even though he confiscated that of his mother, Emma, whose loyalty he justly mistrusted.

There were three powerful earls with whom he needed to stay on good terms: Godwin of Wessex, Leofric of Mercia, and Siward of Northumbria. Godwin, although English, had been loyal to the Danish Cnut (he married Cnut's sister-in-law, Gytha). "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer." Edward had to keep close to Godwin for both those reasons.

In 1043, Edward made Godwin's eldest son (who had the Danish name Sweyn) an earl in the south-west Midlands. Godwin's son Harold Godwinson (later King Harold) was also given an earldom in southern England, and a cousin of theirs, Beorn (a nephew of Cnut!), also became an earl in the south. Godwin's family now owned all of southern England.

In January 1045 Edward married Godwin's daughter, Edith of Wessex, ensuring that a grandson of Godwin's could come king after Edward.

Despite all this favoritism shown to Godwin, we cannot forget what happened here: Godwin blinded Edward's brother at an earlier attempt by Edward to return to England. Edward had no love for Godwin, but needed to work with him when necessary for the sake of his own kingdom.

Edward did not do whatever Godwin asked, however. In 1045-46, Magnus the Good was threatening to attack England and re-create his father's empire. The Beorn mentioned above was the younger brother of Sweyn II of Denmark, who subordinated himself to King Edward to gain England's help in making Sweyn king of Denmark. Godwin demanded that Edward send aid to Sweyn, but Edward refused. This could have been disastrous for England, but for the fortunate event of Magnus' unexpected death ending his England aspirations.

Nor did Edward support Godwin's eldest son, Sweyn, when he screwed up, but that's a good story for tomorrow.

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Edward and Emma

In 1037, Harold Harefoot was declared king in England. The next year he expelled Emma of Normandy, mother of his half-brother Harthacnut who was more loyal to Harthacnut (off consolidating power in Denmark) than to Harold. Emma went to Bruges in Flanders and summoned her step-son Edward, who had his own claim to the throne as the son of Æthelred the Unready, Emma's first husband who was defeated by Harthacnut's father and Emma's second husband, Cnut. Edward wanted no part of helping the person who stood in the way of Edward assuming his father's throne.

In 1040, Harthacnut was planning an invasion to take back the throne from his half brother, but Harold conveniently died, allowing Harthacnut (and Emma) to sail into England without opposition. One year later, however, Harthacnut invited Edward to England. Harthacnut was only in his twenties, but had not been well for a long time—tuberculosis has been suggested as the cause—and he may have felt he did not have long to live.

With no wife or children, Harthacnut wanted to name a successor, and he chose Edward (se above observing Christ in the Eucharist). According to the Encomium Emmae Reginae ("Encomium [Praise] of Queen Emma"), she was something of a co-ruler with Edward and the ailing Harthacnut.

On 8 June 1042, Harthacnut attended a wedding. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports:

Harthacnut died as he stood at his drink, and he suddenly fell to the earth with an awful convulsion; and those who were close by took hold of him, and he spoke no word afterwards.

Edward was supported by Godwin, Earl of Wessex (who had earlier been hostile to Edward's cause, capturing and blinding Edward's brother and causing his death). Edward was crowned on Easter Sunday, 3 April 1043. One of his first acts was to deprive his mother of all her property (which was extensive).

Confiscating her property was good for Edward, but he was still less powerful in real terms than his three leading earls: Godwin of Wessex, Leofric of Mercia, Siward of Northumbria. Also, Edward was a return of the throne to an English ruler, whereas the past several years had seen power growing in the hands of Danes. Leofric's family had served Æthelred, but Godwin had been loyal to Cnut (and was married to Cnut's sister-in-law), and Siward was probably Danish.

Dealing with his earls and increasing his own authority was crucial to his reign. We'll talk next time about some of the steps he took, some of them ruthless.

Saturday, June 1, 2024

Edward's Path to the Throne

Æthelred the Unready had several children by two wives. His seventh son (and first by his second wife, Emma of Normandy), was named Edward, born c.1003. He must have been alive by 1005 (although not very old) because he is listed as a "witness" to a royal charter, but his name came after those of his older brothers by his father's first wife, Ælgifu of York.

When Sweyn Forkbeard attacked England in 1013, his mother fled to Normandy along with Edward. Sweyn's death a year later led to the English nobles inviting Æthelred back on the condition he rule "more justly." there'd and family returned, but Æthelred died in April 1016, leaving Edmund Ironside (Edward's older half-brother) to succeed him.

Sweyn's son, Cnut, picked up the Danish fight against England and Edmund, but Edmund died in November 1016 and Cnut married Emma. Cnut would not allow any claimants to the throne, so he killed some of them, like Edward's eldest half-brother Eadwig Ætheling. Others (like Edward) wisely fled to the continent. At this point, Edward dropped out of the historical record for about 20-25 years. His sister married Count of the Vexin Drogu of Mantes, so perhaps he had a home at her court.

Despite his complete lack of royal standing, however, he had royal aspirations. There are four charters in Normandy in the 1030s witnessed by Edward in which he signs himself "King of England" despite his political and geographical distance from the throne. As Cnut's queen, Emma seemed more interested in supporting the prospects of her and Cnut's son, Harthacnut.

When Cnut died in 1035, Harthacnut became embroiled in maintaining power in Denmark. Harthacnut went to Denmark, leaving his half-brother Harold Harefoot as regent.  His absence from England created an opportunity for Edward to cross the Channel with his brother Alfred. Unfortunately, not all nobles were interested in regime change, Godwin, Earl of Wessex, captured Alfred and handed him over to Harold, who made him unsuitable as a king by blinding him with red-hot pokers thrust into his eyes. The tortured and blind Alfred died soon after.

Edward did some fighting near Southampton, but retreated to Normandy until he could gather a larger army and assure other loyalties among the English.

Harold became king in 1037 and expelled Emma, who went to the continent and asked Edward for his help in supporting Harthacnut. I am sure you can guess his answer to his mother, but in case you're wondering how it went, I'll explain next time.

Friday, May 31, 2024

Magnus and Empire

Magnus Olafsson became king of Norway at the age of 11. He originally talked about getting revenge on those who were his father's enemies, but the court poet who named him and was his godfather, Sigvatr Þórðarson, convinced him that this was not a wise goal. This is why he was nicknamed "the Good."

He did, however, want to re-create the North Sea Empire of Cnut (England, Denmark, Norway). He managed to become king of Denmark at the death of Harthacnut because of a treaty they made not long before. Harthacnut had been king of both Denmark and England because of his father, Cnut. Harthacnut's death, however, did not automatically make Magnus his successor in England. The English nobles chose as Harthacnut's successor the son of Æthelred the Unready, whom Cnut had defeated. That son was Edward, later nicknamed "the Confessor" (first mentioned here in my pre-graphics days).

Curiously, Emma of Normandy (Æthelred's widow and Cnut's second wife) seemed to prefer Magnus over her own son. Edward confiscated her property on the rumor that she was promising to assist Magnus in his bid for the English throne. Still, the English nobles did not want Magnus, and his message to Edward that he was going to attack with an army of Danish and Norwegian men did not persuade anyone in England that this was a desirable plan.

Magnus had other issues than England. His uncle, Harald Hardrada, was contesting Magnus' rule in Norway. Sweyn Estridsen, who had challenged Magnus for Denmark and had been assuaged with a lieutenant's role in that country, continued to be hostile to Magnus. Harald and Sweyn made an alliance. Magnus, uncertain of his ability to definitively deal with Harald (without causing larger problems) made Harald co-king in Norway as of 1046. For his further interference, Sweyn was driven from Denmark by late 1046.

Things might have settled down. Magnus was now in his early 20s and ready to go for an English victory. On 25 October, 1047, however, he died—and we're not certain how. Reports vary: he was preparing a navy to attack England and fell off one of the boats and drowned, or he became ill while he was on a ship, or he fell off a horse. In a supposed declaration on his deathbed (which would preclude the drowning scenario) he proclaimed Sweyn his successor in Denmark and Harald in Norway. Whether he wanted that outcome, that is what happened.

He was buried near his father in Nidaros Cathedral.

So it looked like Edward would have no trouble about securing the throne? Ah, if only. See you tomorrow.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Magnus the Good

When Olaf II Haraldsson was driven out of Norway in 1028, his family fled with him. This included a concubine, Alfhild, and their young son Magnus (born c.1024). Of Alfhild we know nothing except that she was originally a slave of Astrid Olofsdotter, Olaf's queen. Magnus was premature and so sickly it was deemed prudent to name and baptize him immediately, even though his father was not present to choose the name. The name Magnus was given to him by Olaf's court poet (the highest-ranking person present) after Karolus Magnus, Charlemagne. As Olaf's only son, he became more important to his father over time. When Olaf tried to return to Norway after the death of Cnut's lieutenant there, he left Magnus to be fostered by Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of Kiev (and the good brother in this post).

After the Battle of Stiklestad and Olaf's death, Olaf's brother Harald Hardrada went to Kiev to report the news. Magnus stayed in Kiev, learning Russian, Greek, and martial arts (although his age was still in single digits). Unhappiness in Norway with Cnut's first wife as his regent meant the Norwegians were eager for alternatives. Two men traveled to Yaroslav's court and brought Magnus back.

Astrid gave her approval of the plan to put Magnus on the throne, and became one of his strongest supporters. Her brother was the current king of Sweden, and he also supported Magnus. Magnus was proclaimed king in 1035. He was 11.

King Harthacnut of England and Denmark (Cnut's son and successor) was interested in repairing relations between Norway and Denmark. Magnus, on the other hand, had his father's desire to conquer and rule Denmark. The nobles of the countries did not want another war, and brought the two kings together for negotiations. It was agreed that each would be the other's successor: the survivor would be king of three countries.

In 1042, Harthacnut died. Sweyn Estridsen, Cnut's nephew, had been left by Harthacnut in charge of Denmark and thought he should be king. He fled and returned in 1043 with an invasion of Wends (Slavs from northern Germany). A battle ensued in which Magnus wielded Hel, his father's battle-axe. It is recorded that over 15,000 were killed and the Wends defeated. The Heimskringla recorded that Sweyn was made Earl of Denmark under Magnus to keep him happy (and close enough to keep an eye on).

Magnus would have liked to re-create Cnut's North Sea Empire, but Sweyn was not the only opposition to be dealt with. I'll tell you how that for Magnus went the next time.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Fall of Olaf II

Olaf Haraldsson (c.995 - 29 July 1030) started out the son of a petty king in a Norway district but rose to become King of Norway by uniting the other petty kings. He could not retain their loyalty, however. His nicknames at the time were "the Fat" or "the Stout" and even "the Lawbreaker."

His attempt to conquer Denmark brought the wrath of Cnut, who drove him away easily. The Battle of Helgeå in 1026 was lost decisively against the combined Danish and English force of Cnut, and Olaf fled to the Kievan Rus. When Cnut's lieutenant in Denmark died in a shipwreck a short time after, Olaf returned to Norway to re-take it from Cnut. His former subjects had had enough, however, and opposed him. This led to the Battle of Stiklestad, a farm in a valley north of Trondheim, in 1030.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's solo entry for 1030:

A.D. 1030. This year returned King Olave into Norway; but the people gathered together against him, and fought against him; and he was there slain, in Norway, by his own people, and was afterwards canonized. [my emphasis]

Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla offers more detail. He says Olaf received three major wounds, first in the knee and the neck, and then, while leaning against a large stone, he was killed with a spear thrust into his stomach by Thorir Hund, one of the Norwegian leaders opposing him. Olaf's body was buried near a river.

Some sources credit Olaf with the Christianization of Norway, despite the fact that most of what we can confirm involves fighting with other countries (and his own). A year after Stiklestad, however, he was disinterred and the coffin opened up, only to find that his body was uncorrupted—a sign of great holiness. The coffin was taken to St. Clement's Church in Trondheim.

Grimketel, an English bishop and missionary in Norway, began the process of beatification almost immediately. He likely wanted Norway to have its own saint ASAP. A century later, a cathedral was built on the site where Olaf's body was originally buried, and Olaf's body was transferred there and placed in a silver reliquary. (It's not there now: in the 16th century he was re-buried somewhere in the cathedral and the silver was melted down for coins.)

After Stiklestad, Cnut remained king for five years, leaving his first wife Ælfgifu in charge with their son, Svein. In 1035, Olaf's illegitimate son, Magnus "the Good" laid claim to the throne, and Ælfgifu and Svein fled to England. Tomorrow we'll see how things fared under Magnus.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Olaf II of Norway

Olaf Haraldsson was the son of a petty king of Vestfold (a district in eastern Norway), Harald Grenske, and Åsta Gudbrandsdatter, who we learn about mostly from the writing of Snorri Sturluson. Harald died before Olaf was born (c.995), so Åsta was a major influence on him growing up.

Olaf had a small army and was determined to accomplish great deeds. As a young man in 1008 he attacked an Estonian island, defeating the Osilians. He then sailed to the coast of Finland where he was ambushed, but he survived. He also went (according to Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla) to the Baltics, to Denmark, and to England where he is given credit for destroying London Bridge (see the post London Bridge is Falling Down).

Snorri says that Olaf helped Æthelred to drive the Danes out of England, but he could not defeat Cnut. Failing in England, he decided to return to Norway and conquer the whole country. Norway had by this time been divided into a Swedish side governed by Sveinn Hákonarson and a Danish part governed by Eiríkr Hákonarson. Eiríkr was off in England with his brother-in-law Cnut, so Olaf saw an opportunity. He went to Norway and contacted the smaller kings of the Upland districts, gaining their support in uniting Norway under one ruler.

Norway already had a man who considered himself the de facto ruler, Earl Sweyn, technically co-ruler with Eiríkr Hákonarson, who was his half-brother. Sweyn's forces were defeated at the Battle of Nesjar in 1016. Olaf then went on to defeat the petty kings of the southern districts and made peace with King Olof Skötkonung of Sweden, marrying Olof's (illegitimate) daughter, Astrid (the only woman to have a praise poem written to her, but we will explain that much later).

Things were looking good for Olaf, but his fortunes were to rise and fall, especially since Cnut was not pleased with him. We'll save that chapter for next time.

Monday, May 27, 2024

King Cnut of Norway

King Cnut of England and Denmark saw a chance to expand his rule to more of Scandinavia. King Olaf II Haraldsson of Norway had hassled Denmark in the past, thinking it weak while Cnut was busy ruling England. Olaf had also conquered the Orkney Islands off Great Britain's northern coast, so he was a little too close for comfort. Not only did Cnut return to Denmark and drive Olaf back, he decided it was time to teach Olaf a larger lesson.

In 1028, Cnut sailed with 50 ships to Norway. Olaf was unprepared and "outgunned" because Cnut had prepared his way by bribing many of the Norwegian nobles for their support. 12th-century historian John of Worcester (previously mentioned here) says Cnut learned that Norwegian nobles were not content with Olaf's reign, so he sent them gold and silver to gain their loyalty.

Part of Cnut's plan relied on Haakon Ericsson, one-time governor of Norway until he was pushed out by Olaf, in the same Battle of Nesjar that made Olaf King of Norway. Hakon fled to England and was befriended by Cnut; Haakon's mother was said to be a sister of Svein Forkbeard, making the two men cousins. Cnut made him Earl of Worcester.

Cnut's army with the support of the Norwegian nobles very handily took over Norway. Olaf was driven to exile in the Kievan Rus. Cnut was declared King of Norway, and Haakon Ericsson was made his lieutenant there, managing Norway in Cnut's absence (which was frequent). (Unfortunately, Haakon died in a shipwreck in late 1029 or early 1030, between the Orkneys and the Scottish mainland.)

Olaf saw Haakon's absence as a reason to return to Norway with an army, including some Swedes. It did not go well for him: at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, his own people killed him.

Cnut now left Norway in the hands of his first wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton and Cnut's son by her, Svein Knutsson. This era experienced heavy taxation and a rebellion that led to the return of Olaf's dynasty.

You know, it's been almost an entire week about Cnut, and yet Olaf keeps weaving in and out of the story. I think it's time to look at Olaf, his bad decisions, how he became a saint, and how his illegitimate son eventually became king of Norway. We'll start that journey next time.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

King Cnut of Denmark

The death of Svein Forkbeard in 1014 made his youngest son into King Harald II of Denmark. He had been left as regent when his Svein and Harald's older brother, Cnut, went to conquer England. Harald died in 1018, and Cnut, who had established himself as King of England, became King of Denmark as well.

Cnut sailed to Denmark for his coronation. A letter he wrote at the time states that he also intended to end Danish incursions into England for plunder. This did not sit well with some Danes, who found England ripe for plucking in the past, but now their king forbade them. After seeing to affairs in Denmark, Cnut left his sister Estrid's husband, Ulf Thorgilsson, as regent. Cnut had a son by Queen Emma, Harthacnut, whom he left with Estrid and Ulf to raise. Cnut was back in England in 1020.

Because of his time in England, the King of Norway, Olaf II Haraldsson, decided Denmark was open to attacks. Olaf in 1016 had become king of Norway after capturing it from Denmark in the Battle of Nesjar. (Norway was half-ruled by Denmark and Sweden, but the person managing the Danish part joined Cnut on his attack on England, leaving an opening for Olaf.) Cnut decided he needed a show of Danish strength in the North Sea, so he mounted a successful expedition against Jomsborg (location unknown to modern scholars), the stronghold of the Jomsvikings.

In Denmark, his regent Ulf declared that the child Harthacnut was king (being resident in Denmark and not far away in England like Cnut pleased the locals), and that Ulf was now Harthacnut's regent, not Cnut's. Learning this, Cnut sailed to Denmark to set things straight. A battle in 1026 against the Norwegians and Swedes to firmly establish who was in charge was successful. Ulf fought alongside Cnut, but this was not sufficient for Cnut to be assured of his loyalty. One day the two were playing chess and started arguing. The next day, Christmas Day 1026, Ulf was killed by one of Cnut's nobles, apparently with Cnut's blessing.

King of England and Denmark, but he had one more to go to establish what is refereed to as the North Sea Empire. He set his sights on Norway (and maybe a little Sweden?). I'll explain tomorrow.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

The Reign of Cnut

Once Cnut was firmly established as king, he set about ensuring his power. He first executed or drove away (if they were wise) potential rivals, and put Danes in positions of authority until Anglo-Saxons proved their loyalty to him sufficiently.

Remember that England at this time was home to several separate kingdoms (like Northumbria, Wessex, Mercia, etc.) that looked to a more-powerful king as their "first among equals" or "high king." Cnut kept Wessex in his own hands.

He also created a new coinage equal in value to what was being used in Denmark, aiding trade between the two countries (eventually, he would be King of two other countries as well).

Despite his unorthodox double marriage to Ælfgifu of Northampton and Emma of Normandy, he was respectful of the Church and converted to Christianity. Christ Church in Sandwich (his first landing point in England when he came to conquer it) received a tax exemption.

He traveled to Rome in Easter 1027 for the coronation of Conrad II as Holy Roman Emperor to strengthen the relations between the Empire and his own North Sea Empire. He also claimed the trip was to repent for his sins before Pope John XIX, and to negotiate with the pope that English archbishops' fees to receive the pallium should be lower. In a letter he wrote in 1027, he talked about the need for better travel conditions for pilgrims:

... I spoke with the Emperor himself and the Lord Pope and the princes there about the needs of all people of my entire realm, both English and Danes, that a juster law and securer peace might be granted to them on the road to Rome and that they should not be straitened by so many barriers along the road, and harassed by unjust tolls; .... And all the magnates confirmed by edict that my people, both merchants, and the others who travel to make their devotions, might go to Rome and return without being afflicted by barriers and toll collectors...

The best-known anecdote about Cnut was recorded by Henry of Huntingdon a century later in which we see what Cnut could not accomplish:

When he was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea-shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide, "You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master." But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king's feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried, "Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and the sea obey eternal laws."

So he couldn't rule the sea. He did rule more than England, however, when his brother, King Harald II of Denmark, died in 1018. Let's talk about that next, and how he managed two kingdoms so far apart.

Friday, May 24, 2024

King Cnut of England

After over a year of fighting for control of England, Cnut of Denmark and Edmund Ironside made an agreement: Edmund would have London and everything south of the Thames; Cnut would take everything north of the Thames. If Edmund pre-deceased Cnut (the two were of similar age), Cnut would inherit all.

Unfortunately, Edmund had been wounded in the most recent Battle of Assandun. The historian Henry of Huntingdon, writing a century later, says Edmund died in Oxford from multiple stab wounds while using the privy. It is more likely that he died in London, on 30 November 1016. More contemporary records like the Encomium Emmae Reginae ("Encomium of Queen Emma") do not mention murder. Death from battle wounds is a more likely outcome. His burial place at Glastonbury Abbey was destroyed during Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries, so an examination of his remains is impossible.

Cnut was now King of England. Archbishop of Canterbury Lyfing crowned him in 1017. As King of England with ties to Denmark, he made sure that both Danes and Anglo-Saxons flourished, with exceptions: he had to make sure that there would be no challenges to his throne. The children of Edmund Ironside, and his father Æthelred's other children, fled to Normandy. Edmund's brother Eadwig Ætheling fled, but was followed and killed by Cnut's men.

Cnut then wed Emma of Normandy, Æthelred's widow. He was, of course, already married to Ælfgifu of Northampton, but this caused no problem. Setting aside one wife for another was common, especially if the first marriage was not by a Christian ceremony. Ælfgifu remained part of the family and the royal court, and her sons by Cnut still had standing.

There was another piece of business he had to conclude: paying off the thousands of mercenaries he had hired to help him conquer England. They had joined for the promise of payment once the country was secure. Cnut collected a Danegeld of £72,000, and a further £10,500 from London alone. He paid his army and sent most of them away, keeping some ships and men. He then used an annual tax called heregeld ("army gold") to maintain a standing army.

Cnut ruled  England for about two decades, and we'll go into some of his accomplishments (and his orchestrated failure) next time.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Cnut's Battles

Svein Forkbeard was King of Denmark and King of England, but when he died in 1014, his son Cnut (c.990 - 1035) was denied succeeding him in Denmark by his brother, Harald II, and in England by the witenagemot, which elected for the return of Æthelred the Unready, who had been driven out by Svein the previous year. If Cnut wanted a kingdom, he was going to have to fight for one, which is exactly what he did.

He landed in southeast England in September 1015 with 10,000 men from all over Scandinavia. The Encomium Emmae Reginae ("Encomium of Queen Emma"), an 11th century encomium of Emma of Normandy (written about 30 years later) described this grand appearance: many kinds of shields, that you could have believed that troops of all nations were present. ... Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed on the variously shaped ships. ... For who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold, who upon the men of metal, menacing with golden face, ... who upon the bulls on the ships threatening death, their horns shining with gold, without feeling any fear for the king of such a force? Furthermore, in this great expedition there was present no slave, no man freed from slavery, no low-born man, no man weakened by age; for all were noble, all strong with the might of mature age, all sufficiently fit for any type of fighting, all of such great fleetness, that they scorned the speed of horsemen.

Wessex quickly capitulated in the face of this army. Some nobles resident in England joined Cnut. Æthelred's son, Edmund Ironside, was Cnut's chief opposition, but was unable to halt Cnut's advances northward and westward. When Æthelred died on 23 April 1016, Edmund was safe behind the walls of London, whose citizens chose him to succeed his father. The witenagemot, however, seeing the way the wind was blowing, gathered in Southampton and voted to offer the kingship to Cnut. Edmund left London for Wessex to rally that part of the country, getting out before Cnut's forces could complete a siege of the city. Edmund managed to return to London and drive the siege away, but when he went back to Wessex for fresh troops, the Danes once again besieged London.

On 18 October 1016, a series of battles took place with each side alternately having the upper hand. Finally, however, Edmund's brother-in-law, who had joined Cnut upon the Dane's first arrival in England and had since gone back to supporting Edmund, deserted Edmund and removed himself and his forces from the Battle of Assandun, leading to an English defeat.

The two leaders met to negotiate terms. Cnut would take all of England north of the Thames, excepting London. London and everything south of the Thames was for Edmund to keep. Upon Edmund's death, the south of England would also become Cnut's domain. As it turned out, that would happen sooner than expected. Although the two probably never met face-to-face as the above illustration shows, Edmund had been wounded in battle. He died mere weeks after the truce was drawn up. Was it the result of his wounds, or was it murder? Let's talk about that tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Cnut of Denmark

The Danish Prince Cnut (also spelled Canute) put together what was called the North Sea Empire: England, Denmark, and Norway. This was a remarkable accomplishment for the early 11th century.

He was born about 990, the son of King Svein Forkbeard of Denmark, and his mother is alternately given as Świętosława, a daughter of the founder of the Polish state, or Gunhild, a daughter of Burislav from Scandinavian sagas. A third chronicle claims Cnut's mother was an unnamed former queen of Sweden.

The 13th-century Icelandic Knýtlinga saga describes him:

Knut was exceptionally tall and strong, and the handsomest of men, all except for his nose, that was thin, high-set, and rather hooked. He had a fair complexion and a fine, thick head of hair. His eyes were better than those of other men, being both more handsome and keener-sighted.

Nothing definitive about his youth is known until 1013, when his father invaded England and ousted Æthelred the Unready. Svein married Cnut to Ælfgifu of Northampton. Svein died a few months after the conquest, on 3 February 1014. Back in Denmark, Svein was succeeded by Harald II (Cnut's brother). The Danes in England chose Cnut as the new king, but the native English nobility gathered the witenagemot and elected to have Æthelred return, which he did.

Æthelred's army drove Cnut out of England handily, but Cnut left a lot of bodies in his wake as he departed from Sandwich. Cnut's brother offered him an army to try to take back England, so long as Cnut had no designs on the kingdom of Denmark itself.

By the summer of 1015 Cnut had assembled mercenaries from all over Scandinavia, numbering perhaps 10,000 in 200 ships. They landed first at Sandwich, and then began a series of bloody battles in a conflict that lasted more than a year.

I'll tell you more next time.