Monday, June 9, 2014

The Death(s) of King Harthacnut

Harthacanute's death at the wedding feast
[Cambridge University Library, Ee.3.59, fo. 7r]
He was the son of King Cnut, and his royal name was Cnut II (of England) or Cnut III (of Denmark), but he is more usually known to us as Harthacnut. His parentage ascent to the throne has been mentioned before, but today we are going to talk about the cause of his death...or the causes of his death.

Harthacnut died on 8 June 1042, when he was only 24 years old. He was attending a wedding for one of his former stallers, Tovi the Proud. (A staller was a Norse official, a constable or standard-bearer.) Tovi was getting married for the second time, to Gytha, daughter of the powerful Osgod Clapa.

Anyway, he was drinking a toast to the bride when, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle put it:
A.D. 1042.  This year died King Hardacnute at Lambeth, as he stood drinking: he fell suddenly to the earth with a tremendous struggle; but those who were nigh at hand took him up; and he spoke not a word afterwards, but expired on the sixth day before the ides of June.  He was king over all England two years wanting ten nights; and he is buried in the old minster at Winchester with King Knute his father.  And his mother for his soul gave to the new minster the head of St. Valentine the Martyr: and ere he was buried all people chose Edward for king in London.  And they received him as their king, as was natural; and he reigned as long as God granted him. [Translator: James Henry Ingram]
The typical interpretation given to this by historians is that he died from a stroke due to an excess of alcohol.

Others think it was more likely a heart attack.

There is another theory, one which draws on a circumstance from long before the wedding feast.

Harthacnut, though young, was the center of a lot of political machinations. A history written at the order of his mother, Emma, says that in 1041 he sent to Normandy for his brother Edward so that they could rule together. One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says Edward was actually sworn in. Edward had no heir—not even a wife—and his naming as a king seems strange, considering Harthacnut was so young.

Did Harthacnut have a known illness? One that was making him clearly unsuitable to be king? Is that why Edward was summoned and sworn in? One historian* hypothesizes something like tuberculosis that was causing him to deteriorate in a way clear to those around him, suggesting that they secure an heir to the throne without relying on him to survive long enough to produce one himself.

*Howard, Ian, Harold II: a Throne-Worthy King. Essay included in King Harold II and the Bayeux Tapestry (2005). Boydell Press, ISBN 1843831244.

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