October 18, 2016 2 Comments
Another battle that we should take notice of, this one before the Battle of Hastings that made the phrase “1066 and all that” so famous. This one was exactly 1000 years ago today. Amazing thing is that for the participants it was likely just as important as Hastings.
This is the battle where Cnut, King of Denmark, about whom an old Norse poem says this:
Skjöldungr, vannt und skildi
skœru verk, inn sterki,
(fekk blóðtrani bráðir
Strong Skjöldungr, you performed a feat of battle under the shield; the blood-crane [raven/eagle] received dark morsels at Ashingdon.
There are some wonderful takeaways here, Skjöldungr refers to Cnut’s heritage, his ancestors were the legendary Skjöldung dynasty – the Scyldings of Beowulf. And the blood-crane here might refer to the legendary Raven banner of Denmark, which is mentioned in the Encomium Emmae Reginae, which says this.
Now they had a banner of wonderfully strange nature, which though I believe that it may be incredible to the reader, yet since it is true, I will introduce the matter into my true history. For while it was woven of the plainest and whitest silk, and the representation of no figure was inserted into it, in time of war a raven was always seen as if embroidered on it, in the hour of its owners’ victory opening its beak, flapping its wings, and restive on its feet, but very subdued and drooping with its whole body when they were defeated.
Now that’s a banner fit for a warrior race! It must be said though that the Encomium is quite unreliable. And besides, I think the author might protest a bit too much.
On the other side was Edmund Ironside, son of Æthelred the Unready (actually, I think Unraed, which means “without counsel”) but both seem to be true, he had died in April 1016, and Edmund his son succeeded him, finally uniting (most) of the English.
And so these were the sides that met at Assandun, the Danes (and likely some of the English as well) against the English under the leadership of another legendary captain Edmund Ironside.
And so, as The Clerk of Oxford tells us, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
[The [Danish] raiding-army turned back up into Essex, and went towards Mercia, and destroyed all that they overtook. Then when the king [Edmund] heard that the army was inland, he gathered all the English nation for the fifth time and travelled behind them, and overtook them in Essex at the hill which is called Assandun, and there they fought a hard battle together. Then Eadric the ealdorman did as he had so often done before, and first began the flight with the Magonsæte, and so betrayed his king and lord and all the English nation. There Cnut had the victory, and won for himself the whole nation of the English. There Bishop Eadnoth was killed, and Abbot Wulfsige, and Ealdorman Ælfric, and Ealdorman Godwine, and Ulfkytel of East Anglia, and Æthelweard, the son of Ealdorman Ælfwine, and all the best of the English nation.]
England had a new king, a Dane, in whose train was a young Dane by the name of Godwine, who would go far, and whose son Harold Godwineson would become the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, killed at Hastings.
But before that would come to pass, Edmund, who had retained Wessex in the settlement after Assundun, died a few months later, and Cnut became King of all England. In a few years, he would dedicate a minster at Assundun in Essex, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us:
[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.]
And the Clerk explains:
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 the hero 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.
There are (at least) two choices for this church, this is one of them:
Again quoting from The Clerk of Oxford
All that said, let me show you what I saw at Ashdon. If Ashdon is Assandun, Cnut’s minster would be this church, St Botolph’s, which is actually in the nearby village of Hadstock. Why not Ashdon itself? I’ll quote the guidebook: “While it is just possible that evidence for an Anglo-Saxon building is encapsulated in Ashdon church, there is nothing to suggest a structure of minster-proportions; hence historians have turned to Hadstock where a large and imposing Anglo-Saxon church cannot fail to command attention. There is no doubt that it was a minster, and of the period in question; it stands on the same ‘Hill of the Ash Trees’ as Ashdon.”
The core of the present church is late Anglo-Saxon, and thus plausibly of the date of Cnut’s minster. It’s worth noting that St Botolph, the dedicatee of the church, was one of the saints in whom Cnut took an interest; Cnut was responsible for the translation of Botolph’s relics to Bury St Edmunds, where he founded a church on the anniversary of the Battle of Assandun in the 1030s. There’s some suggestion there was a shrine to Botolph here, not just a dedication – the archaeologists talk about traces of an empty Saxon grave in the fabric of the south side of the church.
All in all, quite an important anniversary, which would likely be more important still if St. Edward the Confessor hadn’t died childless only 50 years later. Such are the ways of history.
[More, and more pictures, today from The Clerk of Oxford. Yay!