As we are in the general region of the 950th anniversary of the The Battle of Hastings, there will be much written about the battle, with some very minor introductions concerning the events leading up unto the event. As the years leading up to 1066, are vital to the story it is very important a more detailed account should be given to explain the complexity. This seminar addresses the issue by looking back in a neat fashion to the beginning of the millennium.
Aethelred- Legally he was ‘The II’. Commonly he has been known as ‘The Unready ‘. Historian are quick to tell anyone within conversation distance that he was actually known as ‘The Unread’ which when you squash the ‘e’ & the ‘a’ together in saxon English means ill-advised. In Anglo-Saxon times saying ‘Aethelred unread’ was considered very funny.
It should be pointed out however that even if he was ill-counselled, that would mean he was never really ready, because he was not advised to be ready and so he was unready, to be ready, when he should have been ready just in case he might have been unready, as anyone who is ready knows there’s a chance of being unready and you have to be ready for that. Whereas if you are unready then you’ll never know when you should be ready.
If you see what I mean.
Aethelred was also bothered by Danes, who having learnt that Alfred was quite, quite dead had decided to come back again; which aside from being tough on the Anglo-Saxons was a bit unsettling for those Danes who settled some while back and were farming, fishing etc. Aethelred being ready to listen to bad counsel ordered a massacre of Danes on St Brice’s Day in 1002, hoping that slaughter on a Saint’s Day would make it alright.
It didn’t. The Danes didn’t see it that way at all.
Aethelred was obliged to flee to Normandy, hoping they would understand. For family reasons they did and he came back, and became king again, but not really being ready for the fact that a lot of Anglo-Saxon nobles including his son preferred Danes, then changed their minds, he became confused and died.
Edmund Ironside– Son of Aethelred. Despite this impressive name and trying to be a king, Edmund was unable to defeat the Danes and so agreed to divide the country up with Cnut who although as not as impressive sounding as his father Sweyn The Forkbeard was clever enough to allow his name to also be spelt as Canute as so acceptable to his subjects. As was common at the time Edmund was also so confused by the whole business that he died, but tragically didn’t know how or where.
Canute or Cnut The Great- Being a very astute and orderly ruler the first thing Canute did was massacre all those Anglo-Saxon nobles who couldn’t work out who should be king and of where; by the standards of those times this was considered a kindly act as it put them out of their misery and everyone who survived knew who was who. The next thing Cnut (or Canute) (The Great- Either Way) did was to tell all of the Vikings as he was ruler they couldn’t raid England anymore. Those who didn’t agree were obliged back to go Norway, Denmark or Sweden where they could fight those who would understand. This was a bad plan as Canute (or Cnut) simply followed them there to fight them back. The Anglo-Saxons didn’t have a problem with this. The next thing Canute did on returning was take a few days out sitting on a beach, soaking his feet in refreshing sea water and pondering on whether Cnut or Canute looked more impressive on the coinage; folk read far too much into that holiday. On realising he was now king of The Anglo Saxons, all the Danes and ‘some of the Swedes’ (presumably quite easy-going ones) he felt he should play safe and so went on a pilgrimage to Rome. Having achieved all of that and still ahead of the game he wisely died in 1035
Harald: As his brother Harthacnut was unable to get an exit visa out of Denmark due wars, rebellions, Norwegians and soliloquies and Harald was not doing much he said he was willing to take the job on. He wished this to be quite formal but due to the usual civil administrative delays he was not crowned until 1037. During his reign, he was obliged to rush about the country dealing with rebellions and exiled Anglo-Saxons trying to sneak back in and claim his father was not who he was and so they should be king. So fast was he, folk called him Harefoot. In trying to live up to this title he died of exhaustion in 1040; but safe in the knowledge he would be recorded as Harold the ‘I’.
Harthacnut; Because he knew he should have been king from 1035 and half-brother Harald was supposed to rule in his plaice but not become king, Harthacnut arrived knowing something was fishy. On finding out half-brother Harald had murdered step-brother Alfred who although not Great was Noble, Harthacnut was outraged; not because of blood ties but because one Earl Godwin an Anglo-Saxon earl had been implicated without being given permission. Because Godwin was powerful in his own rite; as was the custom of the times he was tried, found guilty, paid a large bribe and thus pardoned. This did not endear, Harthacnut to the people. His supporters hoping to bring back the glory days of his father Cnut (or Canute) tried rally support with the slogan “ Harthacnut is better than none’ but this did not work and so somewhat depressed Harthacnut drank a great deal and did manage to be favourable to the church. So although he died of the former he was due a good press from the latter.
At this stage there were no ‘nuts’ (pronounced ‘nutes’) left suitable to the role, thus was invited Edward, son of Aethelred The Unready to apply for the job. He appeared to have been ready.
Edward had on occasions led an exciting life having been obliged to flee to Normandy when England was overwhelmed by a wave the Danish Cnutes, some of whom had scared folk by having forkbeards (see Sweyn). In Normandy, he was convinced to try and pretend to be king by signing charters for the Normans, and even take part in an invasion but was blown off course and so couldn’t embark on the ships. For some time it was believed he survived off continental rabbits, but for the discovery of a misprint probably placed there by Danes. It was then realised he had lived on the generosity of several continental abbots and so people thought him very pious. As the last Cnut was but Hartha the man he used to be and dying BUT wanted to be seen to be going out in a religious way he therefore invited pious Edward to be king. Thus did an Anglo-Saxon and man of the House of Wessex return to be king. There was much celebration, by those who had time to celebrate.
Edward found that the House of Wessex was in such a rickety state that it was obliged to rely on the support of the Godwins who were earls who specialised in renovation, self-improvement and treachery. Edward avoided confrontation with them by saying as king he had to go to church every day to pray and make sure there was an Archbishop. If forced into being kingly he got around the thorny issues by simply picking fights with the Scots or The Welsh, which of course the English nobles approved of (unless they had made agreements with The Scots or Welsh). He also ordered assassinations of Scots or Welsh princes, kings, etc and got around this by telling someone in the church he had done it and might be sorry. Thus he was seen as a very, very holy man became known as The Confessor for being such a good sport about admitting things.
In the later stages of his life he gave even more power to the Godwins and they naturally fought amongst themselves, as Edward confessed he didn’t know who was being loyal and who was rebellious and succumbed to confusion. Of which he promptly died on time in 1066 but not before confessing to his wife he’d quite forgotten about the heir business.
Thus was England left in a parlous position and the resulting events of 1066 will be discussed in the next seminar.