Friday, December 14, 2018

Heroes of the Dark Ages - Who's yours?

by Matthew Harffy

If I were to ask a group of people to name a hero from the Early Medieval period, the era more commonly known as the Dark Ages, who do you think they might mention? Alfred the Great perhaps? After all, he is the only king to be known as “Great” that Britain has ever produced.

King Alfred the Great

Some might go with that famous warrior king from the end of the period, Harold Godwinson. He will forever be known to all British schoolchildren as the man who rather clumsily got an arrow in his eye at the Battle of Hastings on that most famous of dates, 1066.

Harold has something in his eye on the Bayeux Tapestry

Some people, unsure of what is fact and what is fiction, might even give King Arthur a plug. Now, we don’t even know whether Arthur really existed, and we certainly don’t have any facts about his life or who he was even if we believe he is not purely fictional. And yet, his name is synonymous with Britishness and the distant mist-veiled days of the Dark Ages. He is “the once and future king” who will return to rid us of an invading army when the land most needs him.

A watery tart lobs a sword at Arthur

People who are more knowledgeable of the period’s history, and who are more inclined to turn to learning rather than battle-glory as a sign of greatness, might well mention The Venerable Bede, the Northumbrian monk and scholar who wrote much of what is known of the history of Britain up to his death in the 8th century.

Bede - the grandfather of British history

If they are really into their seventh century history, people might say their hero is King Penda of Mercia, or King Oswald (later Saint Oswald) of Northumbria, but I think those people would be few and far between.

What I can guarantee is that nobody would say that their hero of the Early Medieval period is King Sigebehrt of East Anglia. Well, perhaps I can’t guarantee it, but if someone voted for him, you can be sure they would belong to an extremely niche crowd!

However, to his people, Sigebehrt was every bit the hero.

St. Felix and King Sigebehrt

King Sigebehrt of East Anglia (known later also as Saint Sigebehrt, following his ***SPOILER ALERT*** martyrdom ***SPOILER ALERT***), had been the epitome of the warrior kings of the Anglo-Saxons.

You may well be thinking that it’s no wonder you haven’t heard of some ancient king of a small area of modern-day England. But back in the 7th century, East Anglia was a big deal. It was one of the most powerful kingdoms of Britain, perhaps the most powerful for a time. Indeed, it was powerful enough for its king, Rædwald, to be called by Bede ‘Rex Anglorum’ (King of the Angles, which makes him sound like he was great at trigonometry, but remember that the Angles were the Germanic tribe who gave their name to what would eventually become England). Rædwald was not only able to rule over all the Angles, but also to put those he favoured on the thrones of other kingdoms, as he did with King Edwin of Northumbria.

Replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet

Rædwald is probably the noble buried in the ship beneath the famous mound at Sutton Hoo, and it is likely that Sigebehrt was either his stepson or his nephew. Whatever his relationship to the great king, Sigebehrt was part of the dynasty of the Wuffingas, the ruling family of East Anglia for many decades.

Little is known about Sigebehrt’s early life, save that he was exiled from East Anglia to France. Exile was common at the time for nobles with a claim to the throne. It certainly beats death! In France he became a Christian and was in fact the first English monarch to be baptised before his succession to the throne.

Upon the assassination of Rædwald’s son, Eorpwald, Sigebehrt returned to take the throne of East Anglia. Nothing is known about how he did this, but given the violence prevalent at the time and the fact his prowess in battle was later chronicled, it seems likely he had to fight his way to the top. That he was a Christian wouldn’t have hurt his prospects either, what with Edwin of Northumbria and Eadbald of Kent both having converted to Christianity and having ties to the Frankish rulers, who may well have aided Sigeberht to take the crown.

However he managed it, he was the king by 629 and he promptly went about setting things in motion that would cement Christianity’s place in the kingdom. During his stay in France, Sigeberht had been impressed by the learning found in the religious schools on the Continent. So, after setting up a Burgundian missionary, Felix (yet another Saint!), as Bishop of Dommoc (possibly Dunwich), Sigeberht then secured the future of the Church by establishing a school, based on the model that he had witnessed in France, where boys could be taught reading and writing in Latin.

Saint Fursey (not sure which one he is!)

Furthering the Church’s influence in his kingdom, he then granted the Irish hermit Fursey (yes, another Saint!), a monastery site called Cnobheresburg, most commonly identified as Burgh Castle, near Great Yarmouth.

If it sounds as though Sigebehrt was obsessed with learning and the Church, you wouldn’t be wrong. He was clearly much more interested in the Church than in governing and being a warlord king of the people of East Anglia. We know this, because a few years after attaining the throne, he abdicates power to Ecgric, another of the Wuffingas dynasty, whereby he promptly retires to his monastery at Beodricesworth (Bury St Edmunds).

Now this is where the story gets really interesting, and what drew me to the character in the first place.

In 636 or thereabouts, that most successful of pagan warlords of the age, Penda of Mercia, attacked East Anglia. For some reason the people didn’t think Ecgric was up to the task of defending them, so they went to Beodricesworth and dragged their erstwhile king, Sigebehrt, out from his monastery, that he might save them from the invading Mercians.

Well, the peaceful, Christian Sigebehrt refused to fight, but his ex-subjects were having none of it and he was forced onto the battlefield unarmed and unarmoured to lead his people. I won’t give you details of what happened, but let’s just say that a robe and a cross are not great protection against spears and swords! And you already know he becomes Saint Sigebehrt, after his ***SPOILER ALERT*** martyrdom ***SPOILER ALERT***, so join the dots!

Battles are never pretty

Sigebehrt, might not be the most famous of kings of the Early Medieval period, but he was certainly influential in securing the Church in East Anglia, and his life was definitely interesting enough to spark inspiration in me to write a novel featuring him and his unfortunate end. And if being brave enough to step into the chaos and havoc of a Medieval battlefield without weapons or armour doesn’t make you heroic, I don’t know what does!

Who is your Dark Ages hero or heroine? Leave a comment below. I’d love to read your thoughts.


Matthew Harffy is the author of the Bernicia Chronicles, a series of novels set in seventh century Britain. KILLER OF KINGS, which features Sigebehrt, Ecgric and the battle with Penda is now available in hardback, e-book and audio.

The other books in the series, The Serpent Sword, The Cross and the Curse, Blood and Blade and Warrior of Woden are available on Amazon, Kobo, Google Play, and all good bookstores.

Twitter: @MatthewHarffy
Facebook: MatthewHarffyAuthor

King Alfred: Odejea [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (]
King Arthur: Newell Convers Wyeth [Public domain]
Death of Harold: Myrabella [Public domain or CC0], from Wikimedia Commons
The Venerable Bede: The original uploader was Timsj at English Wikipedia. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Stained glass, Old Felixstowe Church: Copyright Andrew Hill
Sutton Hoo helmet: British Museum [CC BY-SA 2.5 ( or Public domain]
Saint Fursey: Public Domain
La victoire de Tullus Hostilius sur les forces de Veies et de Fidena ---- Giuseppe Cesari [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Advice from a Lady of Distinction

by Maria Grace

Clothing made a (Wo)man
Ackermann's 1809

During the Regency era, fairly strict rules defined how a lady of quality should dress according to the time of day and her anticipated activities.  Theoretically, one wore Undress in the morning, Half-dress in the afternoon, and Full Dress for (formal) evening events. If it sounds like a gentlewoman had to change clothes several times a day, you’d be right. To be active in society, a Regency era lady had to have the right garment for the right occasion, and that added up to a lot of gowns (and corresponding expense.)

Unfortunately wearing the wrong sort of gown at the wrong time could be a devastating social blunder. Ladies (and gentlemen) were judged by their dress. If you did not dress properly, it was a sure statement about your fortune (or lack thereof) and your place in society. In a very real sense, a man or woman was made by their appearance, for better or worse.

Given the very negative impact dressing improperly could have on a young lady in society,  one could hardly blame said young ladies and their mothers for seeking advice from those who might know better than themselves. Enter ‘A Lady of Distinction’, the esteemed authoress of The Mirror of Graces  (1811). This unnamed woman (women publishing anonymously was common in the era) says of herself in the preface:
These pages were not intentionally at first written for publication, but originally composed by the desire of some female friends, who live at a remote part of the west of England; and who, aware of her consummate knowledge of the world, and experience in all that is honourable in the art of captivation, had applied to her for certain directions on the subject. She indulgently complied with their request, and in the elegant treatise we now present to our readers, gratified her friends with as fine a lesson on PERSONAL and MENTAL accomplishments as could ever flow from the experienced and delicate pen of a woman of VIRTUE and of TASTE.
What better recommendations to heed her advice could we have? Moving on…

Importance of good taste
While good taste has always been, well good, in just about every era, it took on a moral aspect during the Regency era that has a lot in common with a lot of modern standards about dress. We might raise an eyebrow, or comment unfavorably upon the lady who shows up to the grocery store in her pajamas, and some would go so far as to condemn her character for it. The Regency era was just a judgemental, perhaps even more so
1809 Ackermann's Walking Dress
In the words of A Lady of Distinction:

Fine taste in apparel I have ever seen the companion of pure morals, while a licentious style of dress is as certainly the token of the like laxity in manners and conduct. To correct this dangerous fashion ought to be the study and attempt of every mother, of every daughter, of every woman…p. 19
…I beg leave to observe, that I never yet met with a woman whose general style of dress was chaste, elegant, and appropriate, that I did not find, on further acquaintance, to be in disposition and mind, an object to admire and love. P 63-64
Effectively, the taste with which a woman dressed herself was a reflection of her morals, her character, and to some degree her virtue as well. As if deciding what wear wasn’t tough enough to start with!
Attention to one’s station in life, and not trying to leave that sphere to which she was born (as Lady Catherine was wont to say) reflected good morality as well. Upward mobility as we understand it today was considered inappropriate at best and vulgar at worst.
As there is a proprietary in adapting your dress to the different seasons of your life, and the peculiar character of your figure, there is likewise a necessity that it should correspond with the station you hold in society.
This is a subject not less of a moral concern than it is a matter of taste. … It is not from a proud wish to confine elegance to persons of quality that I contend for less extravagant habits in the middle and lower orders of people:  it is a conviction of the evil which their vanity produces that impels me to condemn  in toto the present levelling and expensive mode. P.85
Apparently A Lady’s fear was that spending too much money on clothing and the like would drive a poorer family into ruin and thus reflected bad character and moral. Because of course, those of the lower orders could not make intelligent and informed decisions on how to spend their income. I have a hunch that, though she does not say it, there is also a concern that a girl from the lower orders might be mistaken for one of higher rank or station and some poor young man might extend his attentions to the undeserving girl he might meet at a public assembly.

Dress According to Your Age

1809 Ackermann's- Dancing Dress
In addition to dressing for one’s station, one must also dress according to one’s age. A Lady of Distinction does not mince words in making a distinction between what is appropriate for young ladies versus older matrons. She says:
In the spring of youth, when all is lovely and gay, then, as the soft green, sparkling in freshness, bedecks the earth; so, light and transparent robes, of tender colours, should adorn the limbs of the young beauty … Her summer evening dress may be of a gossamer texture; but it must still preserve the same simplicity, though its gracefully-diverging folds may fall like the mantle of Juno…In this dress, her arms, and part of her neck and bosom may be unveiled: but only part. The eye of maternal decorum should draw the virgin zone to the limit where modesty would bid it rest.” P71

Where in doubt may be about this or that hue being becoming or genteel (as it is very possible it may neither be the one nor the other), let the puzzled beauty leave both, and securely array herself in simple white. That primeval hue never offends, and frequently is the most graceful robe that youth and loveliness can wear. P. 122
In contrast, by the time a woman sees her thirtieth birthday (which by the standards of the day was approaching what we would consider middle age), she should be reconsidering her mode of dress:
As the lovely of my sex advance towards the vale of years, I counsel them to assume a graver habit and a less vivacious air. Cheerfulness is becoming at all times of life; but sportiveness belongs to youth alone’ and when the meridian or decline of our days affects it is every heavy and out of place … At this period she lays aside the flowers of youth, and arrays herself in the majesty of sobriety, or in the grandeur of simple magnificence… Long is the reign of this commanding epoch of a woman’s age; for from thirty to fifty she may most respectably maintain her station on this throne of matron excellence.” P 81
 Our authoress actually has quite a bit to say about how disgusting and inappropriate it is for an ‘older’ woman to seek to draw attention to her appearance as might be appropriate for a younger woman. To have men pay attention to her appearance was regarded vulgar and repulsive. Modesty was the name of the game for the matron of the Regency era.


Not unlike today, the amount of skin to be shown in the name of fashion invited some very strongly worded commentary.
Custom regulates the veiling or unveiling the figure, according to different periods in the day. In the morning the arms and bosom must be completely covered to the throat and wrists. From the dinner hour to the termination of the day, the arms, to a graceful height above the elbow may be bare; and the neck and shoulders unveiled as far as delicacy will allow.  P. 95
1809 Ackermann's Although the focus is
to be on the hats,
notice the neckline and the gloves.
Just how much unveiling delicacy allowed might be a bit debatable. Apparently it was not an absolute degree of exposure, but also related to the ‘charms’ of the beauty being exposed.
To the exposure of the bosom and back, as some ladies display those parts of their person, what shall we say? This mode (like every other which is carried to excess and indiscriminately followed) is not only repugnant to decency, but most exceedingly disadvantageous to the charms of nine women out of ten.  …  When a woman, grown to the age of discretion for her own choice: unveils her beauties to the sun and moon;” then, from even an Helen’s charms the sated eye turns away loathing. … Were we even, in a frantic and impious passion, to set virtue aside, policy should direct out damsels to be more sparing of their attractions. An unrestrained indulgence of the eye robs imagination of her power, and prevents her consequent influence on the heart. And if this be the case where real beauty is exposed how much more subversive of its aim must be the studied display of an ordinary or deformed figure! pp92-93
 If the prevailing fashion be to reject the long sleeve, and to partially display the arm, let the glove advance considerably above the elbow, and there be fastened with a drawing string or armlet. But this should only be the case when the arm is muscular, coarse or scraggy. When it is fair, smooth and rounds, it will admit of the glove being pushed down to a little above the wrists. p. 130

So immodesty was even worse for a plain woman than an attractive one—who knew?
So there you have it, to be perceived as a woman of virtue and taste was no simple feat. Good taste had to be acquired—probably by studying tomes such as The Mirror of Graces along with fashion magazines like Ackermann’s Repository. One needed to dress according to her age and her station in life, keeping in mind both her own physical assets and appropriate modesty while realizing one’s entire future could rest upon making the right impression on the local society. No pressure right?


Regency Etiquette: The Mirror of Graces (1811). Enl. ed. Mendocino, CA: R.L. Shep;, 1997.

Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.



Sunday, December 9, 2018

Editors Weekly Round-up, December 9, 2018

by the EHFA Editors

Join us every week on English Historical Fiction Authors. We have saints and sinners, politics and war. Read about kings, queens, the common man and woman, and legends from ancient to post-WWII.

by Annie Whitehead

by Hilary Green

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Women who Worked for SOE

By Hilary Green

In my last blog (Click here) I wrote about the work of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry during the First World War. When the conflict was over the FANY did not disband, although there was some difficulty in keeping membership buoyant in the inter-war years. Nevertheless, a loyal core continued to train, although now the emphasis was not so much on nursing as on transport. It was clear that there was no longer any need for mounted nurses, the function for which they had been founded in 1907, but their ability to drive and maintain motor vehicles had been crucial during the 1914-18 period. So now they concentrated on this aspect of the training and shortly before the outbreak of World War II it was suggested that they should come under the aegis of the ATS as the Women's Motor Transport Company. And it was in this capacity that many of them did sterling work driving ambulances and chauffeuring high ranking officers during the war. (It was into this corps that Princess Elizabeth, now our Queen, was recruited in order to 'do her bit'.)

Princess Elizabeth in the ATS - Public domain Image

Some long-standing FANYs, however, refused to be subsumed into the ATS. Their independence from other authorities had always been a matter of pride and they insisted on maintaining it, becoming known as the 'Free FANY.' It was this independence that made them ideally suited to working with SOE.

When the Special Operations Executive was first set up at the behest of Winston Churchill to 'set Europe ablaze' by dropping secret agents behind enemy lines, its existence was so secret that not even the army high command was allowed to know about it. So when a need arose for help on 'the home front' with such activities as radio communications and coding and decoding messages to and from agents in the field it was impossible for them to turn to the ATS or any other recognised women's service. Fortunately Colin Gubbins, who was in charge of operations, knew that a neighbour of his, a Mrs Phyllis Bingham, belonged to the FANY and he turned to her for help. So was born 'Bingham's Unit', a branch of the FANY whose function was known only to a few.

Member of ATS - Public Domain image

In order to fulfil their new tasks it was imperative to recruit extra personnel. What was required were young women with experience of wireless telegraphy, perhaps those who had worked for the Post Office, or who had a mathematical background or an aptitude for crossword puzzles. These last, it was felt, would have the right kind of brains for dealing with codes and cyphers. Girls with the right attributes found themselves being referred to a vicarage in Wilton Place, in London, where they encountered the redoubtable Marion Gamwell. (Marion and her sister Hope were long-standing members of the FANY, having volunteered in the First World War, when they provided, from their own funds, a mobile bathhouse in a converted lorry where troops could bathe and get their clothes washed.) Other young women who applied to the Women's War Work Bureau in Oxford Street were sent to Bingham's office in Baker Street. None of them knew what they were being recruited for, but if they were considered suitable after an induction course at Overthorpe Manor, they were then asked to sign the Official Secrets Act. Not even their parents knew what they were doing. They were told that their daughters were being trained as drivers.

Potential radio operators were sent to Fawley Court, near Henley, for four months’ intensive training. If they passed they then went to SOE's communications centre at Grendon Underwood, one of the many country houses taken over for the duration of the war. Conditions were grim. They lived in Nissen huts in the grounds and were often cold and hungry. They worked six hour 'skeds' or schedules in shifts round the clock and each girl was allotted her own agent (or Joe as they were fondly called). In this way, she would get to know his 'fist' – his unique touch on the Morse key – so that she could detect if someone else was impersonating him. Messages were in code and sent in groups of five letters which did not make words, so if one letter was missed it was impossible to guess what it should have been, and they were often sent in haste and in poor atmospheric conditions. It was intensive and demanding work.

Fawley Court via Wiki commons - click here for attribution

Once the message had been received it was handed over to the coding section to be rendered into plain English. Codes were based on poems. Each agent was asked to memorise two or three lines of verse and each message was based on one or two words from those lines, the letters of which were then transposed by using a cypher on a silk sheet which could be folded very small and concealed. The process is described by Leo Marks, a brilliant young man who was SOE's Head of Coding in his book 'Between Silk and Cyanide'. (Those who have read or seen '84 Charing Cross Road' will be interested to learn that Leo was the son of the man who owned the eponymous bookshop.) Many agents maintained that they were unable to remember even short pieces of poetry, so Leo suggested that the girls at Grendon might make up verses that would be easier for them to learn. Some of the results were scatological in the extreme -but presumably all the more memorable for that!

Leo Marks at the opening of the Violette Szabo Museum
Image via Wiki Commons - click here for attribution

Because the messages were sent under very dangerous and difficult conditions they often arrived garbled, making the decoding almost impossible. Marks describes how, on his first visit to Grendon, he told the girls the story of a young Belgian radio operator who was caught while transmitting by the Nazis and suffered terrible tortures in an effort to make him reveal his associates. He pointed out that the longer an operator was at his set, the greater the chances that the enemy detector vans would be able to pinpoint his location. It was vital, therefore, that no operator should be asked to send a message twice. After that, it became a point of honour among the decoders that, no matter how garbled, every message was decoded – even if they had to sit up all night to solve it.

Radio communications was not the only area where the FANYs gave invaluable help. Agents in training or those waiting to be sent into the field, were housed in more great mansions taken over by SOE. In fact, there was a standing joke among them that the letters stood not for Special Operations Executive but for Stately 'Omes of England. While there, they had to be looked after, fed and above all entertained to keep their minds off the dangers ahead of them. Here the more traditional FANY personnel were ideally suited. Many of them had come from backgrounds where social life was at the hub of their existence, but this did not mean they were not prepared to roll up their sleeves and get down to hard work. But at the end of a long day cooking and cleaning they would change into evening dress and after dinner the carpet would be rolled back and they and the agents would dance till midnight to the music of a gramophone.

It was not long, of course, before some of them developed the urge to become agents themselves. Once SOE became convinced that women could play a useful role they began to train with the men, and many of them who were not already members of the FANY were enrolled into their ranks to give a cover to their real purpose. One such was Violette Zsabo, whose exploits form the basis for the film Carve Her Name With Pride.


One aspect of this change in the role of the FANY that particularly interested Hilary was the social implications. When they were founded the FANY was unashamedly elitist. It was a Yeomanry, an organisation for the daughters of the land-owning classes. To a great extent it had preserved that ethos up to the beginning of World War II. Many of the young women had been 'debs', had been presented at court and 'done the season'; some even had titles. But the expansion of the work had required the influx of a large number of girls from very different backgrounds. The heroine of  'We'll Meet Again' is a working class girl recruited into Bingham's Unit who becomes a coder for SOE, ultimately finding herself parachuting into enemy-occupied Italy.
The heroine of Never Say Goodbye is  Frankie's best friend, a girl from the opposite social background, who volunteers to be dropped into France as an agent.

Connect with Hilary:

Monday, December 3, 2018

How Cnut Established Himself as Full King in England

By Annie Whitehead

Nearly one thousand years ago*, in November 1016, Cnut became king of England. How did he establish himself, a foreigner, with full authority?

For a contemporary account of the reign of Aethelred II, it is natural to look to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In it, we find the closing years of the reign fraught with difficulties; those of fending off Danish raiders. It would be easy to agree with the Chronicler who, writing with hindsight, concludes that the slide towards Danish rule in England was inevitable. The payment of the Danegeld might at first sight seem like sheer folly, yet the policy appears in the short term to have worked.

Aethelred’s problem was that paying off one Viking force would not necessarily keep another one away from his shores. The Chronicler blames the military failure of the English on the cowardice of the military leaders. But while the squabble between Brihtric and Wulfnoth caused the loss of a hundred ships in 1009, we also know that Brihtnoth’s actions at the Battle of Maldon in 991 were those of courage and loyalty, that the army of 1009 left in 1010 without tribute, and that Aethelred was assured of the loyalty of Ulfcytel in East Anglia.

King Aethelred II

If things were not as bad before 1009 as the Chronicler would have us believe, there is little doubt that the armies of Swein Forkbeard (Cnut's father) widened any existing cracks in the morale of the English. Within a year, Swein had established himself as full king. But with his death in 1014, the Witan (king's council) sent to Normandy for Aethelred, and accepted him back as their king “if he would govern them more justly than before.” In the same year, Aethelred’s ravaging of Lindsey drove Cnut’s forces away. With further hindsight than the Chronicler had to offer, and perhaps with less bias, it is probably fair to say that it was far from inevitable that Cnut would succeed Aethelred as king of the English. We must, therefore, look elsewhere to find the reasons for his ultimate success.

It is hard to find a source which places emphasis on the military prowess of Cnut; most in fact, praise his piety and generosity to the Church. He was driven back to Denmark in 1014, and his reputation as a warrior must have suffered as a result. So his success in England must be attributed to something other than military superiority. While it might be rash to say that luck was on Cnut’s side, there is no doubt that circumstances helped him a great deal.

King Cnut

Before he left Denmark, Cnut was allowed by his brother King Harald to raise an army. He was fortunate to have the support of Eric of Hlathir, who had played a great part in the overthrow of Olaf Tryggvason, and who was to prove invaluable to Cnut in England. Before Cnut set sail, he was joined by Thorkell the Tall**. It is possible that Thorkell was seeking revenge for the death of his brother at the hands of the English, although it is possible, but not universally accepted among historians, that this revenge was sought earlier, and was, in fact, the reason for Thorkell’s invasion of England in 1009. Whatever his reason, Thorkell’s presence was a bonus for Cnut; he now had with him an accomplished warrior who knew England and the English.

The champion of English resistance was Aethelred’s son, Edmund Ironside. He had procured the support of the Danelaw by marrying the widow of Sigeferth, murdered by Eadric Streona (ealdorman of Mercia) probably at the behest of Aethelred. Cnut could not, therefore, be certain that the Danes in England would submit to him, and he landed in the south and began ravaging Wessex. Edmund and Eadric were raising forces, but they separated before they met the enemy. Eadric joined Cnut, and within four months Cnut was in firm control of Wessex and had the resources of the Mercian ealdormanry at his command.

Edmund Ironside

Cnut was aided elsewhere in England by Edmund’s troubles. His army in the Danelaw dispersed after demanding that the London militia should join them. Having lost his opportunity here, Edmund joined forces with Uhtred of Bamburgh. Cnut was quick to seize the chance he had been given and invaded the Danelaw, whence he proceeded towards Northumbria. Uhtred hurried back from the midlands and submitted to Cnut. Soon afterwards he was murdered, and Northumbria was left in the capable hands of Eric of Hlathir. Cnut was free now to turn his attention to the south east.

Edmund had joined his father in London, and when Aethelred died in 1016 the men of London chose Edmund as his successor. Within a few days of Aethelred’s death, however, a more representative assembly at Southampton swore fealty to Cnut in return for a promise of good government. Cnut was again helped by Eadric Streona’s amazing capacity to vacillate. He went over to Edmund’s side, and then took flight during the definitive Battle of Ashingdon. Cnut, as victor, came to terms with Edmund, and the result was a division of the kingdom. Edmund was given Wessex, and the rest of the country beyond the Thames Cnut took for himself. This was obviously a dangerous situation, in which conflict could easily flare up again. As Stenton pointed out, it imposed a divided allegiance on all those noblemen who held land in both Mercia and Wessex. [1] But circumstances once again favoured Cnut when, less than two months after the Battle of Ashingdon, Edmund Ironside died, and the West Saxons accepted Cnut as their king.

King of all England now, Cnut was by no means secure in his position. Good fortune and opportunity had helped him thus far; now he had to rely on his judgement and ability. He eliminated any chance that Richard of Normandy might support the claims of Aethelred’s children by Emma, by marrying the lady himself. For military rather than administrative reasons he divided the kingdom into four: Wessex he controlled himself, Eadric Streona was appointed to Mercia, East Anglia went to Thorkell, and Eric of Hlathir remained in Northumbria. In the same year, 1017, the atheling Eadwig was exiled and subsequently murdered. The Anglo-Saxon aristocracy also lost at least four of its prominent members, among them Eadric Streona. ('Streona' means 'The Grasper' or the 'Acquisitive' and the name first appeared in Hemming's Cartulary, an 11th-century manuscript, pictured below.)

Cnut set out to win the respect of the English church, and in this he was successful, being fully prepared to accept the traditional responsibility of being an agent of God with the duty to protect his people. He claimed to be occupying a throne to which he had been chosen at Gainsborough in 1014, and at Southampton in 1016. Though in reality much was changed during his reign, Cnut sought to establish himself by emphasising the importance of continuity. There was not such a large scale change in land ownership as was to occur in 1066, nor was there a great change in the personnel within the leadership of the Church. Archbishop Wulfstan drew up Cnut’s lawcodes drawing on those he’d written for Aethelred. The lawcodes themselves stressed continuity; very little in them was new.

Cnut (top centre)

Before the end of 1017, with Eadric Streona dead, and the alliance with Normandy secured, Cnut dismissed his fleet, retaining only forty ships. Its dismissal showed that henceforth he intended to rule as the chosen king of the English. At a council at Oxford it was agreed that the laws of Edgar (Aethelred's father, whose reign of 959 to 975 was already beginning to be looked upon as a golden age) should be observed.

In 1018 the military rule was relaxed. Two earldoms were re-established in Wessex, and in Mercia the earldoms of Herefordshire and Worcestershire were re-established. Stenton says that it was then that Cnut's reign began in earnest. [2] But throughout his reign the presence of the huscarls (housecarls) and the distribution of the heregeld (military tax) to them made it difficult for the English to forget that they were being ruled by a conquering alien king. There is no doubt though that by this point Cnut had established himself, for afterwards he felt sufficiently secure to leave the country in four separate expeditions to the north.

Cnut had invaded a vulnerable country in 1015, a country which was war-torn and weary. There were no clear dividing lines of loyalty; Edmund's army included Danes, Cnut’s included Englishmen. There can be no doubt that Cnut benefited considerably from the untrustworthiness of Eadric Streona, and from the dispersal of Edmund’s army in the Danelaw. For Cnut, the death of Edmund Ironside was nothing short of a blessing. Thereafter, his success rested on the fact that he did not conspicuously behave as a conqueror, stressing the importance of continuity, and keeping to the path that the pious King Edgar had trodden.

King Edgar

This emphasis must have taken attention away from the changes  his reign brought about. Keeping his military forces for less than a year Cnut reduced feeling among the English that they were a conquered people. Cnut made good use of his opportunities. By 1018 he had successfully established himself as full king of the English.

[1] Anglo-Saxon England - FM Stenton p387
[2] Op cit p 393

**Some historians, Campbell among them, argue that Thorkell did not join Cnut until 1016/17

Further reading/Bibliography:
The Anglo-Saxon Age - DJV Fisher
The Laws of Cnut & The History of Anglo-Saxon Royal Promises - P Stafford in Anglo-Saxon England 10
Encomium Emmae Reginae - Ed Campbell
The Chronicle of Thietmar of Merseberg EHD
The Sermon of the wolf to the English “ “
King Edgar and the Danelaw - Niels Lund, Med Scand 9
The Diplomas of Aethelred the Unready - Simon Keynes
Wulfstan and the Laws of Cnut - D Whitelock EHR 63

(all the above images are in the public domain)

*This article is an Editor's Choice and was originally published September 19, 2016


Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon Mercia. Her history of Mercia, from Penda the pagan king to the last brave stand of the earl of Mercia against the Conqueror, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is published by Amberley.

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Sunday, December 2, 2018

Editors Weekly Round-up, December 2, 2018

by the EHFA Editors

Never miss a post on English Historical Fiction Authors. Enjoy this week's round-up.

by Hilary Green (writing as Holly Green)

by Kim Rendfeld

by Lauren Gilbert