This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine
Few Anglo-Saxon leaders who went to war with the Vikings in the early years of the 11th century emerged with their reputations enhanced. King Edmund II, who ruled the English for seven tempestuous months in 1016, was one of those who did.
Such was Edmund’s reputed martial prowess that chroniclers were still celebrating his exploits more than a century after his death. Writing in the 12th century, the Anglo-Norman poet Geoffrey Gaimar described Edmund as “bold as a leopard”. Another 12th-century chronicler lauded Edmund’s leadership skills. And so impressed were Edmund’s immediate successors by his valour on the battlefield that they gave him the epithet by which he has been best remembered ever since – ‘Ironside’.
Yet, when Edmund was born in the late 10th century he was an unlikely candidate to earn himself an enduring reputation as a mighty warrior-king. In fact, he was an unlikely candidate to become a king
That’s because Edmund was born the third son of English king Æthelred (‘the Unready’) and his first wife, Ælfgifu. And so, while his two older siblings were being groomed for power, Edmund was free to lead what it seems was a rather colourful life – one that saw him clash with his father
on a number of occasions.
We’re told that King Æthelred intervened to prevent Edmund from appropriating an estate from the church at Sherborne in Dorset, even going as far as making the prince pay £20 for the privilege of having the use of the land for his lifetime. Worse still, when Edmund married the widow of one of his friends, he did so “against the king’s will”, as a near-contemporary chronicler put it.
Threat to security
These family disagreements were played out against a backdrop of the most violent and protracted warfare seen in early medieval England, as Danish armies, led first by King Swein and then his son Cnut, sought to conquer the realm.
Not since the days of Alfred the Great
had England’s peace and security been so threatened. But unlike Alfred, King Æthelred was woefully unable to mount an effective resistance to the Viking attacks. In fact, the English were so comprehensively out-fought and outmaneuvered by the Danes that, in 1013, they bowed to the seemingly inevitable and submitted to Swein as king. Æthelred was forced to take shelter with the family of his second wife, Emma of Normandy.
We don’t know what part, if any, the young Edmund played in these military reversals. But we do know that his life was utterly transformed by the death of his eldest brother, Æthelstan in 1014. Æthelred’s second son, Ecgberht, was already dead (he witnessed no royal documents after 1005, presumably perishing in that year) and so, when Æthelstan succumbed to illness in June 1014, Edmund suddenly found himself the eldest of the king’s surviving sons.
But that didn’t mean Edmund was universally accepted as Æthelred’s successor. The Life of Edward the Confessor (written 50 years later) claims that when Æthelred’s second wife, Emma, was pregnant with her first child, all Englishmen swore that if it were a boy, they would accept him as king. This had been a serious blow to Edmund and his eldest brother. Their response was to look to Northumbria and the five main Danish towns of the Midlands for support in securing the succession, allying themselves with two prominent thegns, Sigeferth and Morcar.
Following Æthelstan’s death, Edmund was left to fight on alone – and soon found himself at loggerheads with his father’s chief adviser, Eadric Streona. When, in early 1015, Eadric had Sigeferth and Morcar “basely” killed – having enticed them into his chamber – Edmund defied his father and Eadric by marrying Sigeferth’s widow and acquiring all the former thegns’ estates in the Midlands. Now, with the people of the north submitting to him, Edmund had clearly set himself up as a rival to Æthelred’s regime.
As Edmund and Æthelred continued to fall out, the Danish king Cnut invaded England with a large army. Eadric Streona led the forces of the ailing king while Edmund gathered his own army. The two English forces briefly came together but when Edmund realised that Eadric wanted to betray him, he withdrew. Eadric then decided to switch his allegiances. Taking 40 ships from the king’s fleet with him, he joined the Danish side.
From then onwards, the Anglo-Saxon chronicler presented Edmund in a completely different light. Gone was the rebellious younger son unchecked by a weak father. Edmund suddenly became a military leader of great energy and effectiveness. He fought several engagements in 1016 –
the first in the north Midlands, supported by Earl Uhtred of Northumbria – although without achieving victory.
When Cnut occupied Yorkshire and had Uhtred executed, Edmund went south to London, where his father died on 23 April. He was soon forced to flee the city as the advancing Danes prepared to besiege it, but not before all the city’s inhabitants and such national counsellors as were present had chosen him as king.
Gaimar reports that Edmund married the sister of a Welsh king (presumably his first wife had died) and that the Welsh fought with him. A German chronicler also included the Welsh among those fighting in England in 1016, and an Old Norse poem called Liðsmannaflokkr (‘Song of the Men of the Host’) mentioned Danish blows falling upon Welsh armour.
During a series of clashes between English and Danes across southern England and the Midlands, Edmund appeared to seize the advantage. He drove his enemies into Kent and on into Essex, where he joined battle with Cnut at a hill called Ashingdon on 18 October.
With Ealdorman Eadric once more changing sides and backing him again, Edmund may have sensed victory. But his luck was about to run out. Eadric’s men fled from the battlefield, all but condemning Edmund’s army to defeat. Gaimar reports that the Welsh dragged Edmund from the battlefield before he could be cut down. “All the nobility of England was there destroyed,” the Anglo-Saxon chronicler lamented.
According to another Scandinavian poem, the Danes and English met in one further battle at ‘Danaskógar’ (perhaps the Forest of Dean), after which Edmund and Cnut made peace at Alney in Gloucestershire. They divided the country in two, with Cnut
taking control of Mercia and the north
(and receiving a significant monetary payment for his army) and Edmund ruling the land south of the Thames, the historic kingdom of Wessex.
This arrangement was to be short-lived
for, by the end of November, Edmund was dead. Contemporary English sources shed little light on how he died – though, in the 1070s, the chronicler Adam of Bremen claimed that he had been poisoned. Gaimar’s version of events is the most extraordinary. He claimed that someone had fired an arrow up into Edmund while he was sat on the privy, piercing his body as far as his lungs.
Edmund was buried beside his grandfather, King Edgar, at Glastonbury Abbey in what is now Somerset. Cnut, who became undisputed king of England, later visited and left gifts at his tomb.
Edmund Ironside’s brief reign left few records, but his family’s role in British history persisted long beyond his death. Edmund’s stepmother, Emma, married Cnut and may have influenced his decision to exile Edmund’s sons to Hungary, where the younger one died. Edward, the eldest son, was however invited back by the English in 1057 in the hope that he might succeed the childless Edward the Confessor.
Edward the Exile died that same year, before having met the king, but his own son Edgar retained some political significance. As the only candidate for the throne in 1066 directly descended from an English king, Edgar participated in various rebellions against William the Conqueror after the Norman invasion, including the northern uprising of 1069–70. Although Edgar never gained power, his sister, Edmund’s granddaughter, Margaret, became queen of Scotland by marrying King Malcolm III.
Defence of the realm
Had Edmund lived, the course of English history might have been different. Refreshed and re-armed after the battle of Ashingdon, Edmund could have led an army successfully against the Danes in the north, driven Cnut back to his Scandinavian homeland and reunited England under West Saxon rule.
His son and grandson could have followed him on the throne, displacing Edmund’s half-brother Edward from the succession and thus preventing the political crisis of 1066 that led to the Norman Conquest. But 1,000 years after his death, Edmund Ironside’s enduring legacy now rests only on the military prowess he demonstrated in his valiant defence of his realm.
Sarah Foot is the regius professor of ecclesiastical history at Christ Church, University of Oxford. Her books include Æthelstan: The First King of England (Yale English Monarchs Series, Yale, 2011).