History of the Vikings
giving up all hopes of taking the town itself, they made instead an attack through Chilternsaete on Oxford which they burnt. They wintered in the Thames valley, then moved back to Kent to refit their ships and in the year 1010 sailed for Ipswich. East Anglia collapsed before them, and for a space of three months this land that had been a colony of their forefathers, where the folk were half Danish and where Danish law still obtained, was pitilessly ravaged. After burning Thetford and Cambridge, the army struck westwards into Oxfordshire, and then back to burn the town of Bedford, after which the vikings returned to their ships. The wretched English army was grossly mismanaged, and the king and his witan were helpless to stay this insolent plundering; indeed, late in the year when the Danes made another raid and burnt Northampton, the terrified king gave up all hope of defending the land by battle and in 1011 he sent messengers to the Danes to ask for peace, offering this time a tribute of no less than 48,000 pounds, as well as food-supplies, if they would cease from their plunderings. To collect such a sum was, of course, a very difficult task and during the inevitable delay there were further disasters. Canterbury was captured, through the treachery of the Abbot of St. Augustine's, and the Archbishop Ælfeah (Alphege) was taken prisoner with many other notable ecclesiastics. The Danes stayed in Canterbury as long as it pleased them to do so and for a while they held the Archbishop to ransom, but finally he was murdered by them at Greenwich. Says the Chronicle: 'All these calamities fell upon us through evil counsel, because tribute was not offered to them at the right time, nor yet were they resisted: but, when they had done the most evil, then was peace made with them. And notwith-
standing all this peace and tribute, they went everywhere in companies, harried our wretched people, robbed and slew them.'
At last the great tribute was paid and oaths of peace sworn. The Danish force accordingly broke up, but not all of the vikings returned to Denmark, for Thorkel himself with forty-five ships, and the Norwegian Olaf too, remained behind to take service with Æthelred, as the Dane Pallig had done before them. And it came to Svein's ears that Thorkel, rich and powerful, now ruled, so the tale went, over the land subdued with the force that Svein had entrusted to him. It was just such a report as was most likely to enrage the haughty and quick-tempered King of Denmark, and if poor Æthelred believed that Thorkel and Olaf, now bribed to fight for him, would save England from further attack by the Danes, he was to be speedily undeceived. For soon came the great Svein himself, wrathful and jealous, to prove his might by a greater achievement than that of his treacherous lieutenant. In July 1013 he set sail from Denmark with the avowed purpose of seizing the English throne.
His first move was to enlist the support of his countrymen in the Danelaw, and so, instead of attacking Wessex from the Thames or the south coast, he sailed to the Humber. Accompanied by his young son Cnut, who was destined to succeed him as king of England, he landed at Gainsborough, and there, as he had expected, Uhtred, the English jarl of the Yorkshire Danes, offered him allegiance, whereupon Lindsey and the Five Boroughs also submitted to him without any struggle. Svein, therefore, at once found himself accepted as overlord of Northumbria and Danish Mercia, and having thus established himself in the country he crossed Watling Street to attack the territories still loyal to the English king. The result of this march to the south, a savage and terrible punitive expedition, was that first Oxford and then Winchester submitted to him, and after this double triumph he turned eastwards to London with the intention of crowning his achievement by the complete overthrow of Æthelred, Thorkel, and Olaf, who were encamped with their armies in the town. But in fording the Thames he lost many of his men, and when he attacked London itself he was beaten off. Thereupon he altered his plans, being too clever a strategist to waste his strength on further assaults, and, secure in the knowledge that the greater part of the effective English force was concentrated in London, he immediately marched away across Wessex to Bath and there
obtained control of the western country, the aldermen of Devon and all the western thanes at once submitting to him without a struggle. Then he went across England to his ships on the Humber and was everywhere acknowledged as 'full king', so that in the end there was no other course left for London but to submit and give hostages to this great Danish warrior. Svein contented himself with exacting a tribute from the Londoners: Thorkel retreated to Greenwich, and Æthelred, after lurking with his fleet off the Thames mouth, fled to the Isle of Wight and ultimately escaped overseas to take refuge with his brother-in-law, Richard II, Duke of Normandy. And so it came about that a Danish king ruled England, while the English king hid as a refugee in the anglophile court of the province that had been, one hundred years before, the French Danelaw.
But Svein, the conqueror of England, did not long enjoy this complete triumph, for he died suddenly at the beginning of 1014 and his death was at once followed by a struggle for the throne he had won. His own army and fleet at Gainsborough chose his young son Cnut, then only 18 years old, as king, but this choice was not accepted in Denmark where Cnut's elder brother Harald succeeded his father. Nor were the English slow to realize that an opportunity had come to throw off the Danish yoke and they instantly invited Æthelred to return, declaring that no lord was dearer to them than their natural lord, if he would but rule them better than he had done before. It was, in truth, a touching demonstration of the loyalty and affection of the English people that greeted Æthelred when he came back in Lent of this year to take up arms against the Danes, for he was everywhere acclaimed with the joy and thankfulness that was born of their revived hopes.
Æthelred began his operations with an unwonted show of force, and at the sudden approach of the English army to Lindsey Cnut at once went off to Denmark to seek reinforcements. The English king then paid Thorkel and Olaf at Greenwich 21,000 pounds, presumably to ensure the continued fidelity of these uncertain allies, but this payment unluckily turned out to be so much wasted money for Thorkel shortly afterwards sailed away to Denmark to place himself under Cnut's leadership. Nor was the English king able to count for long upon the aid of Olaf and his Norwegians, for although this future saint, after Æthelred's flight, had gone off on a viking raid to France and had now returned in the retinue of the king, he did
not fancy the fortunes of the English and soon took himself off on another viking expedition to the Continent. (1)
In the meantime the young Danish prince Cnut had collected a large and carefully chosen army, including a force of Norwegians under Eric, a son of Jarl Haakon (p. 122 ), and in September of 1015, at the head of a fleet of 200 ships, he came back to England.
Æthelred was ill, and his country was distracted by a bitter feud between the sick king and his son Edmund who was now holding the Five Boroughs as a declared rebel. Cnut, after putting in at Sandwich, sailed down the coast to Wareham and landed there unopposed. When from this base he began to ravage in Dorset, Wiltshire, and Somerset, at length Edmund and the man he most of all hated, Eadric the Grasper, Duke of West Mercia, an evil and treacherous councillor of his father, both gathered forces to resist the Danes, and the two English leaders, though bitter enemies, marched south together to fight Cnut. But when the Danes and English came face to face, Eadric, preferring to harm Edmund rather than save his country, proved such an uncertain ally that the English were in the end compelled to retreat from the presence of the enemy without fighting a battle; to complete their discomfort the traitor thereupon took forty ships of Æthelred's fleet and went over to Cnut. This was the end of all opposition in Wessex which thus passed without a struggle into Cnut's hands.
In 1016 Cnut, now with Eadric in his train, marched into Mercia and ravaged Warwickshire with the utmost ferocity. Edmund bravely came forth to do his duty; but the absence of Æthelred, who was now in London, and the known quarrel between king and his son, made it impossible for him to get together a loyal force of sufficient size and finally he was compelled to abandon Mercia and appeal for help to Uhtred of Northumbria. Uhtred and Edmund then came south together to attack the territory of the much-detested Eadric in Staffordshire and Shropshire, but while they were so engaged Cnut, in his turn, pushed northwards and reached York. There was nothing left for Uhtred but to go back and offer his submission to the Dane; this was accepted, but on Eadric's counsel, Cnut connived at the murder of the English earl and put Eric Haakonsson to be jarl of Yorkshire in his place.
1. But Olaf's moves are somewhat uncertain. He seems to have returned to England again in 1015 and to have fought in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire before he finally departed for Norway.
After the fall of Northumbria Edmund fled to his father in London, and Cnut, who was now almost master of England, followed him there; but before the Danish fleet had reached the Thames Æthelred died. The Londoners chose Edmund as king, and at once he hurried off to the west country to collect a new army. In the meantime the Danes had advanced upon London, and by digging a great ditch so as to form a loop behind the south bank they were able to drag their ships past the bridge that barred the river; after this they trenched round the whole town and shut the Londoners in. But though they attacked often, yet each time the townsmen beat them off.
By this time Edward had collected a sufficiently numerous host to justify an advance eastwards, first to Pen near Gillingham and then to Sherston near Malmesbury where he fought two indecisive engagements with Eadric and a Danish force sent by Cnut to intercept him. But the Danes retreated on London and Edmund was left free to collect a larger army. When this was done he boldly assumed the offensive, relieved London, and two nights later crossed the Thames at Brentford and defeated the Danish army. After this splendid and courageous stroke Edmund then returned to Wessex, and the Danes, when they had made yet one more abortive attack on London, sailed off to the Orwell in Suffolk. From that base they raided both Mercia and Kent, but by this time Edmund had come eastward again and one of the enemy raiding parties in the Medway valley was beaten off after getting the worst of a battle at Otford.
The hopes of saving England were now reviving and even the treacherous Eadric began to feel that after all he had thrown in his lot with the losing side. At this juncture, therefore, he made his submission to Edmund at Aylesford, and the king accepted it. 'Never', says the Chronicle with bitterness, 'was greater folly than that.' For when King Edmund, reinforced by Eadric and his men from the Welsh border, advanced to battle with the Danes at Ashingdon (1) in Essex, Eadric lost the day for England by his cowardly flight from the field. 'He betrayed his king and lord and the whole English nation,' the Chronicle continues, 'and Cnut won the victory, and with it all England.' The English losses were, indeed, terrible, and among the fallen chivalry of the land was the gallant Ufkytel of East Anglia. The king of England fled into Gloucestershire; thereat the last
1. On the site of the battle of Assandun see Miller Christy in Journ. Brit. Arch. Assoc. NS. XXXI (1925), p. 168.