Everyone’s heard of 1066: Harold of England (allegedly) got an arrow in the eye and William the Conqueror became king of England. England was dragged out of the northern, Germanic world, into the orbit of France and a different culture of arts and architecture and social organisation. It was the last time, so folklore goes, that England was invaded. But what most people haven’t heard about is the other time England was conquered and had a foreign king sit on the throne. It is that conquest, the Danish Conquest of 1016, that brought about the end of Anglo-Saxon England and, more importantly, put into motion the events of 1066.


Setting the scene

Let us go back to the world that brought about the Danish Conquest – the end of the reign of that other well-remembered figure, Æthelred the Unready. Æthelred’s name was the compound of ‘Æthel’ and ‘raed’, which meant ‘noble-counsel’. His nickname was ‘Un-read’, meaning ‘bad council’ and was a polite way of describing how inept he was.

Æthelred was the son of Edgar the Peaceable and his second wife, a Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister of the Anglo-Saxon period: beautiful, ruthless and prepared to risk all for her child. Ælfthryth was the result of a marriage between the ealdorman of Devon and her mother, a member of the Wessex royal family. The Wessex kings had long built up both patronage and familial links throughout their old heartland of Wessex through long friendships and marriages like this.

A story, written by William of Malmesbury, said that when King Edgar was looking for a wife he sent someone from his court, a man named Æthelwald, to see if Ælfthryth was as beautiful as she was rumoured to be. But Æthelwald was so struck by the beauty of this young girl that he lied to the king and ended up marrying her himself. But rumours could not be silenced, and when King Edgar decided to see the girl for himself, Æthelwald, in panic, insisted that his wife try to appear as unattractive as possible. But Ælfthryth did the opposite and turned herself out in all her finery. King Edgar was smitten; Æthelwald was killed hunting, and with his death Ælfthryth’s route to the queen was open. Æthelred was the product of that union.

Silver penny of Æthelred the Unready. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Edgar died in 975 leaving two sons: Edward (born from a previous marriage) and the minor Æthelred. Edward was clearly the best choice and ruled for nearly three years, until a fateful day at Corfe Castle when, while visiting his young brother, he was dragged from his horse and murdered by retainers of the queen. Æthelred would reign for the next 38 years, and so started one of the longest – and most disastrous – reigns of medieval England.
The poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’ talks of the battle in 991, when Ealdorman Bryhtnoth, a leading figure in the Æthelred court, was killed in battle against a Viking army. The poem speaks eloquently of the military ethos that Bryhtnoth’s retainer Brythwold felt, declaring that he would die at his lord’s side rather than run from the battle. But many other men, who would be faced with the same choice, would find their resolution less ironclad.

Money matters

Following the battle of Maldon in AD 991 [in which Earl Byrhtnoth and his thegns led the English against a Viking invasion, ending in an Anglo-Saxon defeat], Æthelred’s court turned to a policy that had worked before, paying the Vikings to leave in the form of Danegeld, which was paid in silver coin and bullion. That first Danegeld was 10,000 pounds of silver. By 1002 the sum was 24,000 pounds, but while Viking sea-kinds swore oaths not to return to England, many of their followers did not feel similarly bound, and instead clustered around the country like wolves around a wounded beast.

The attacks on England came almost yearly, with Viking armies living parasitically in England for most of the next 10 years, and the sums of silver paid to them began to spiral out of control. By 1009, 48,000 pounds of silver was paid to Thorkell the Tall to leave England.

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Normandy had been a haven for the Viking fleets, which would take their slaves and silver across the Channel to sell it off. In an effort to close off the seaports, Æthelred married Emma, daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, as his second wife. It was the son of this union, Edward the Confessor, who would end up as king of England in 1042.

BEFXEA Great Britain England Essex Maldon Byrhtnoth monument statue England Maldon Essex historical place Battle of Maldon AD991. Image shot 2009. Exact date unknown.

Statue to Byrhtnoth, leader at the battle of Maldon in AD 991. (Les polders/Alamy Stock Photo)The thousands of pounds of silver paid to the Vikings were also having a profound effect on the places where the Vikings were coming from; giving young Viking aspirants so much wealth that they could return home and, through gift-giving and patronage, make themselves kings. Both Olaf Tryggvason and Saint Olaf were young sea kings who benefited from the events of this period.

But the wealth and power that such amounts of silver gave chieftains threatened established kings. At the same time the kings of Denmark were building an aggressive, powerful and Christian new state, and the ambitious Swein Forkbeard, who like Philip II of Macedon had fashioned his fledgling country into an aggressive and powerful military power, seems to have decided that if others could shear the fat English sheep, then he could do one better, and take over the whole flock. So, in 1013 Swein Forkbeard sailed into the Humber, the old heart of the Danelaw, and declared himself king. Æthelred was unable to respond, and the country, it seemed, was finished with the House of Wessex.

Archbishop Wulfstan’s 11th-century work ‘Sermon of the Wolf’ lists the social ills that he saw throughout Anglo-Saxon England: theft, slavery, perjury, fornication, murder, worshipping false gods and other misdeeds. The fabric of English society had been stretched to the point of tearing and now the country seemed barely able to resist.

While the fighting had taken a toll on the traditional aristocracy, continual taxes had a much more profound affect. Anglo-Saxon taxes were levied on manorial estates. If you were unable to pay the taxes for your land then your land was forfeit: if someone else paid the tax for you then the land became theirs. The repeated imposition of these taxes and new ones (such as the 1008 taxes used to build a fleet of ships), combined with Viking raiding and pillaging across large swathes of the country, saw the heartlands of Wessex power reduced to penury. The social breakdown of this period cannot be exaggerated. It went on for so long that faith in the House of Wessex began to erode. Nothing, it seemed, would solve the problem.

Changing tides

But chance gave Æthelred a second shot. On the day after Candlemas, 3 February 1014, Swein Forkbeard died and his second son, Cnut, returned to Denmark rather than fight. Æthelred had fled to the Duchy of Normandy, where his wife, Emma, was from, and he was brought back to England “saying that he would be their faithful lord – would better each of those things that they disliked – and that each of the things should be forgiven which had been either done or said against him; provided they all unanimously, without treachery, turned to him”.

But just as Philip II of Macedon had been followed by a keener and more ambitious son, so it was with Swein, whose son, Cnut, returned two years later determined to finish the war his father had started. The Wessex heartlands gave up on Æthelred in 1015. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes, laconically, “The West-Saxons also submitted, and gave hostages, and horsed the army”.

Æthelred died on St George’s Day 1016, too late, it seemed, to do anything but allow Cnut to take all of England. But Æthelred’s eldest living son, Edmund Ironside, had not got the memo, and set about raising forces to throw the Danes out. He fought six battles that summer and seemed set to stage a great revival, until he was betrayed in battle by Eadric, the Ealdorman of Mercia. Edmund and Cnut agreed to split the country into two, but Edmund died shortly after, either from wounds from battle or assassination. It is Edmund Ironside who is really the last Anglo-Saxon king because what followed after was an Anglo-Danish state in which Earl Godwin, father of Harold Godwinson, rose to power.

Stained glass image of King Cnut from Canterbury Cathedral. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Stained glass image of King Cnut from Canterbury Cathedral. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Godwin was probably the son of a minor but successful thane in Sussex named Wulfnoth Cild. Sussex was outside the traditional Wessex heartland, and his rise to power seems to have put out of joint the noses of older and more prestigious houses – scandalous stories arose of his humble background.

Godwin was a skilled politician with a keen nose for the direction of the wind. You can trace this in the names of his children: his first sons were all named after Danish kings – Swein, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth; but after Cnut’s death he switched to Anglo-Saxon names, Leofwine and Wulfnoth. But despite the names the facts remained: Godwin had married a member of the Danish royal circle and his children were half Danish. Like their cousin, Beorn Estridson, they were part of an international aristocracy that looked across the North Sea and saw it as part of their own world.


The fracture of 1016 ran through the next 50 years of English history. When Edward the Confessor was king he seemed an unhappy prisoner of his earls, unable to impose his royal will without their support. When the showdown came between him and Earl Godwin, the only remaining heir of the House of Wessex had to rely not on his family’s heartland, but on the earls of Mercia and Northumbria. The deep connections between king and country that allowed Æthelred to stagger on for so long had gone. The political climate of England had changed. Power was now vested more in the earls than the throne.

So while the struggles with the Danes brought Queen Emma to the court and a Norman bloodline that would be used as a screen of legitimacy by William the Conqueror, it was really 1016 that set the stage for 1066. Wessex, which had been old when Alfred took the throne, had over the centuries shown itself to be the most resilient of fighters. It had an uncanny ability to be knocked down and to stand back up again, and with Edmund Ironside’s brilliant campaign of 1016 it showed a last, final, brilliant display of resilience.

But with Edmund’s death, pugnacious Wessex was gone. What rose from the ashes was an Anglo-Danish state with new men in charge who did not have long lines of lineage and links with the Wessex royal family. Despite the wealth and the power, there was a fragility to the England of 1066, which was apparent in the months after Hastings, when England was riven by conflict.

Harold Godwinson might have been a member of the Danish royal family, but he was not of royal English blood, and even though he left grown sons, it seems that they could not command the same bloody-minded resolve from the men of England that Edmund Ironside had. Rather than dubbing him the last Anglo-Saxon King, Harold Godwinson should be thought of as the last Anglo-Danish king.

Justin Hill is the author of Viking Fire (Little, Brown 2016), which tells the true story of Harald Hardrada, the last Viking. Hill is also the author of Shieldwall (2011) about the Danish Conquest in 1016, a Sunday Times Book of the Year


This article was first published on HistoryExtra in 2016