A Visit to Assandun, maybe

Hadstock Church via A Clerk of Oxford

Hadstock Church
via A Clerk of Oxford

If you remember we talked the other day about the Battle of Hastings and its aftermath, right down to this day. But fifty years before 1066, there was another battle in England, this one between Cnut and Edmund Ironside. In this one the Danish King won, and the first time the House of Wessex lost the throne, actually Edmund conceded half the kingdom and when he died a month later Cnut took over it all.

I don’t know if they teach about this in the UK but, I had barely heard of it, and essentially remember less. But that got remedied yesterday, thanks to The Clerk of Oxford. Here’s a fascinating story about piecing together history, and some beautiful pictures of England and an English church, as well.

All in all a perfect Sunday article for a blog that loves history. Enjoy

18 October is the anniversary of the climactic battle of the Danish Conquest of England: on this day in 1016 the Danish army, led by Cnut, defeated an English army led by Edmund Ironside at a place called Assandun in Essex. After Assandun Edmund Ironside conceded defeat to the Danes and agreed to divide the kingdom with Cnut; when he died just over a month later, Cnut was accepted as king of all England. Assandun was, therefore, a significant date in the history of Anglo-Saxon England, which probably would have been even more significant if it had not been overtaken by the Battle of Hastings, which took place exactly fifty years later, almost to the very day. Last year I wrote about three sources for the battle in English, Latin and Old Norse, partly in an effort to suggest just how large this battle loomed in the memory of Cnut’s conquest later in his reign (those three sources were written between 5-25 years after Assandun). Today I want to do something different – where that post was nearly all words, this will be nearly all pictures.

As I’ve been working on narratives of the Danish Conquest and writing a series of posts about it (which you can find here), I’ve been getting interested in what you might call the landscape of conquest: what significance certain places might have had for the people involved in the various events of the conquest. (For a possible comparison, think how the single word ‘Hastings’ has come to stand for everything that happened at the Norman Conquest.) We don’t know whether Assandun had that kind of significance to Cnut and his followers, but there are various bits of evidence to suggest it might have done – I touched on another possible example in my post about a church in Sandwich. This train of thought has encouraged me to try and visit some of the places in question, so today, come with me on a visit to Assandun.

Actually, that’s not possible. The site of the battle of Assandun has never been conclusively identified: it’s a common placename, and there are various possible candidates. TheAnglo-Saxon Chronicle says it was in Essex, so the two most likely sites are Ashdon and Ashingdon, in the north-west and south-east of Essex respectively. Ashingdon has traditionally been the favoured candidate, but there are strong arguments for both (I personally lean towards Ashdon, for reasons I’ll only bore you with if you really want to hear them). I recently paid a flying visit to Suffolk, in the course of which I found myself not far from Ashdon, which is on the border between Suffolk and Essex. This seemed the perfect opportunity for an impromptu pilgrimage. Now, even I wouldn’t attempt to plan a pilgrimage to a completely unidentified battlefield, but there’s a more tangible relic of Assandun, more worth going in search of. In 1020, a few years after becoming king, Cnut founded a church at the site of the battle. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (D) tells us in the entry for 1020:

on þisan geare for se cyng 7 Þurkyl eorl to Assandune, 7 Wulfstan arcebiscop, 7 oðre biscopas, 7 eac abbodas 7 manege munecas, 7 gehalgodan þæt mynster æt Assandune.

[In this year the king and Earl Thorkell went to Assandun, with Archbishop Wulfstan and other bishops, and also abbots and many monks, and consecrated the church at Assandun.]

The people named in this entry indicate the importance of this church to the new Danish regime. Wulfstan is the great archbishop of York, whom we last encountered in 1014 railing against the disloyalty of English people who collaborated with the Danes; he had by this time had quite a change of heart, and become one of Cnut’s chief advisers and law-makers. (A lot can happen in six years!) Wulfstan presided at the consecration of the church at Assandun, and one of his surviving sermons, ‘On the Dedication of a Church’, may well have been preached on this occasion. The other person named by the Chronicle is Earl Thorkell, who was remembered as thehero of Assandun, and whom Cnut had recently made Earl of East Anglia. Any event which could bring these two men together must have been pretty extraordinary. We can also populate the Chronicle‘s crowd with various people likely to have been there, standing beside Cnut, Thorkell and Wulfstan: Cnut’s new wife Emma, Earl Godwine (and his new Danish wife, Gytha?), Æthelnoth (soon to be made Archbishop of Canterbury), the Norwegian earl Eiríkr, newly appointed earl of Northumbria, and more. The church was entrusted to Stigand, a priest probably of Anglo-Danish origin, who though very much a winner after the Danish Conquest was very much a loser after the Norman Conquest. With hindsight, there are many tantalising connections and ironies to be drawn out from this disparate collection of people – English, Danish, Norwegian and Norman – who were between them to shape England’s fate throughout the eleventh century: the following year Thorkell would be outlawed, three years later Wulfstan would be dead, and fifty years later the young priest Stigand would be Archbishop of Canterbury, crowning the upstart Godwine’s son King of England.

Continued at A Clerk of Oxford: A Visit to Assandun maybe.

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About NEO
Lineman, Electrician, Industrial Control technician, Staking Engineer, Inspector, Quality Assurance Manager, Chief Operations Officer

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