One 11th-century date in English history is so well-known to the general public that banks warn customers not to choose it as a PIN-number. Yet that year, 1066, marked the 50th anniversary of another decisive battle which led also to the conquest of England, one that is now largely forgotten. On 18 October 1016, victory by a foreign force on a hilltop in Essex called Assandun brought this country within the sphere of an outside European power.

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Just as the later Norman Conquest was to do, this Danish conquest threatened to alter the course of the island’s history. Although ultimately short-lived, it was unquestionably the most significant single event in the half century from 1000 to 1049. Its repercussions continued after the native English royal line was restored in 1042 and it was still a factor in Harold Hardrada’s first invasion and the ensuing battle of Stamford Bridge in that other momentous year, 1066. The victor in 1016 was the Danish king, Cnut (Canute), then a young man who had first come to England in 1013 with his father Swein Forkbeard. His opponent was similarly young and new to kingly power: Edmund, known as Ironside, son of Æthelred II, the infamously “unready”.

Edmund did not die at Assandun, but the cream of the English army fell. In defeat Edmund was forced to make terms with Cnut and divide England with him, retaining only Wessex for himself. How permanent such a division would prove was never tested. For Edmund died on 30 November of the same year and Cnut succeeded in persuading the English people to accept him as ruler of the entire kingdom. How did the realm that had so courageously defended itself against Viking attack in the ninth century, under King Alfred the Great, come to fall to that same enemy little more than a century later?

1016 in context

Cnut’s conquest brought peace and prosperity, and gave England a more prominent role in Europe.
The Danes’ conquest of England in 1016 came not as a sudden event but as the result of years of intense fighting going back to the 980s when regular Viking attacks resumed for the first time since the days of Alfred the Great (871–99). It was the misfortune of Æthelred – whose epithet “Unready” relates to his lack of good counsel, not his unpreparedness – to rule England in such difficult circumstances. Although Æthelred’s reputation has seen some scholarly rehabilitation in recent years, thanks particularly to Simon Keynes’s re-evaluation of his methods of ruling, his popular image remains a negative one. Not least this is because we are dependent for a narrative of the wars on an account in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle written after the Danish conquest, which tends to see future failure in every temporary set-back.

For Æthelred’s heirs, the conquest was a disaster. The æthelings (princes) Edward and Alfred were forced to spend their young adulthood in exile in Normandy. Their mother Emma had better fortune. She married Cnut in 1017, agreeing with her new husband that any sons of that marriage would have prior claim to England’s throne over her older sons. Cnut’s motives are not entirely clear. Did he marry her to make a gesture of continuity with the old regime? Or did he hope to prevent her and her brother Richard II, Duke of Normandy, from reinstating Æthelred’s sons on the throne? Queen Emma was to play an active role in Cnut’s government and participated also in his generosity to the church; her half-Danish son ruled Denmark and England briefly after his father.

For the English, Cnut’s conquest brought an end to years of warfare and initiated a period of peace and stability. More importantly, Cnut’s rule brought England within a Scandinavian empire and gave the country, briefly, a place on wider European stages. Cnut was king of Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden; he also had authority of some sort over other parts of the British Isles. He married his daughter, Gunnhild, to the future German emperor Henry II and was present in Rome at the imperial coronation of Conrad II, Henry’s father. A military leader of some prowess and a forceful but effective ruler, Cnut handled the conflicting demands of his widely spaced territory with firmness and skill. “There had never”, wrote Henry of Huntingdon in the 1120s, “been a king of such greatness in England before”.

Henry of Huntingdon also reported the act for which Cnut is now best remembered. It was he who took his courtiers onto a beach and tried to prevent the advancing waves from wetting his feet. This he did not from foolishness, or arrogance but to reveal the weakness of man in the face of the power of the Almighty. Together with his other acts of religious humility, this was part of Cnut’s strategy to play down his bloody past and admit him, in Sir Frank Stenton’s words, into the “civilised fraternity of Christian kings”.

The Danish campaign of conquest

The conquest of 1016 was the culmination of years of intense warfare and latterly a concerted campaign. Swein had joined the force of Scandinavian chieftains including Olaf Trygvasson, king of Norway, that attacked England in 994; he had led another prolonged campaign in 1003. In 1013, Swein was bent on conquest and his son, Cnut, participated in his father’s military successes and saw him accepted as full king by all the English nation later that year.

With the English king, Æthelred, in exile among his wife’s family in Normandy, this might have been the decisive moment of Danish conquest, bringing an end to years of warfare. Only the “happy event”, in the words of the Abingdon chronicler, of Swein’s death on 3 February 1014 gave Æthelred a second chance. While the Danish fleet elected Cnut as king, “all the councillors who were in England”, churchmen and laymen sent for Æthelred, telling him that “no lord was dearer to them than their natural lord, if he would govern them more justly than he did before”. When Æthelred had made suitable promises, he came home to his people in the spring and was “gladly received by them all”.

Whatever the extent of support for an English king in the south, the north was less loyal. The Anglo-Danish population of those regions where there had been substantial Scandinavian settlement during and after the First Viking Age proved more ready to join Cnut. He made a base at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire where he stayed until Easter. Before Cnut could attack Æthelred’s forces in the south the king, capitalising on the mood of enthusiasm that marked his return from exile, attacked first and drove Cnut out. Cnut set sail for Denmark, pausing only to leave at Sandwich the hostages given to his father, having first cut off their hands, ears and noses.

Vikings: a brief history

Invaders, predators, barbarians – the Vikings are often portrayed merely as one-dimensional warriors whose achievements include little more than plundering and raiding. But from where did the Vikings originate and were they really violent, godless pagans?

Coins depicting Viking longships

Again, this could have proved a decisive moment and the end of Danish hopes. But Æthelred’s restoration failed to resolve his problems. He was ailing; his eldest son Æthelstan died in June 1014; and (reports are confused) there were tensions both with his surviving son Edmund and with the fickle Ealdorman, Eadric Streona. Besides, with his record, Cnut would hardly abandon the fight for England. That his younger brother, Harald, had refused to share the kingdom of Denmark with him did nothing to weaken Cnut’s resolve.

Cnut’s campaign began at Sandwich in September 1015, from where he turned into Wessex and ravaged in Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset. Meanwhile, divided English factions coalesced in two armies focused on Edmund Ironside and Ealdorman Eadric. Meeting Edmund but failing to fight, Eadric made a decision that was ultimately fatal to the English cause: he sided with Cnut, as did 40 ships of Danish mercenaries, led by Thorkill the Tall. By Christmas 1015 the people of Wessex recognised the inevitable and accepted Cnut as their king, paying him and handing over hostages.

A year of warfare

Now the situation of 1013 was reversed, for Edmund continued to hold the loyalty of at least parts of the north. During the Christmas feast of 1015, Cnut crossed the Thames into Mercia and started in early 1016 to maraud in Warwickshire. Edmund and Uhtred, earl of Northumbria, raised a force together and rampaged for their part in the north west, especially in lands of the traitorous Eadric. Cnut made for York, Uhtred’s stronghold; Uhtred rushed there to defend his city but was forced to surrender and later killed. With his own man, Erik, controlling Northumbria, Cnut was free to move southward, pillaging as he went. He reached his ships by Easter (1 April) and turned on London, where Edmund had gone to join his sick father. When Æthelred died on 23 April 1016, the chief men in London elected Edmund as their king, but another group of magnates (according to one chronicler) elected Cnut and declared him king at Southampton.

More fighting ensued on several fronts as the Danes divided, some besieging London, others attacking Edmund, who had raised a force in Wessex. At this moment when England’s future lay in the balance, Eadric Streona changed sides again and went back to Edmund. Cnut used his fleet to cross the Thames to Essex and from there attacked Mercia (Eadric’s stronghold). It was as he returned to his ships in October that Edmund overtook him and the two forces met at Assandun (identified either as Ashdon in the north-west of the county, or Ashingdon in south-east Essex). Following this resounding Danish victory another battle came soon after, near the Forest of Dean (where Edmund’s army was reinforced by Welsh troops). As winter approached the two sides made peace. In addition to the division of England, Edmund agreed to the payment of a large tribute to Cnut’s army. London, which had so long held out against the Danes, capitulated, paying tribute and offering winter quarters to the Danes. Edmund’s death on St Andrew’s day sealed his country’s fate.

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Aftermath of the conquest

Victory in battle did not alone ensure Cnut’s hold on the English crown. Negotiations may have taken some time and the payment of a huge tribute of £82,500 to the Danes by an agreement reached at Oxford in 1018 probably marked the formal end of all hostilities. Cnut’s coronation in London by the Archbishop of Canterbury was an important symbolic act. The first coins Cnut issued as king of the English show him wearing a crown, something not depicted on the coinage since the reign of Edgar in the tenth century.

The kingdom that Cnut had acquired was rich and effectively organised. Although exhausted after years of damaging warfare and recent political divisions, the population was anxious for peace and included prominent men keen to follow a powerful leader. There was not, after this conquest, the same removal of the native aristocracy as followed the Norman invasion, but some important English ealdormen were killed, including the treacherous Eadric. While some of Cnut’s followers received lands and offices in England, many were rewarded with money and returned to Denmark. Cnut divided his new realm into four; he kept Wessex and the royal lands but gave East Anglia to Earl Thorkill, Mercia to Ealdorman Eadric (before his execution in 1017), and Northumbria to Earl Erik of Hlathir. Although perhaps instituted as a military device, to keep all the regions under tight control while the large tribute payments were raised, the system of earldoms remained throughout his reign. This enabled Cnut to levy high levels of tax, in part to support his foreign ambitions in part to pay the mercenary troops who secured his kingdom during his frequent absences.

Two law-codes survive in Cnut’s name, both drafted for him by Wulfstan, archbishop of York, who had composed law for King Æthelred. These are deeply religious in tone and reflect a king anxious to act justly and to protect and promote the interests of the church. The reality experienced by the subjects of this, often absentee, king was far less benign than the image Wulfstan portrays. Cnut’s reign saw burdensome taxation and the maintenance of tight central control. For all his undoubted generosity to the church, and his highly successful exploitation of England’s efficient administrative machine (unparalleled in western Europe), Cnut’s regime was the reverse of benevolent.

History facts: 1016

By 1016 Cnut’s empire stretched from northern Norway to the English Channel

Well-organised Cnut inherited strong systems of administration; the Anglo-Saxon shires persisted until 1974

England’s culture was sophisticated, producing beautiful religious artworks

Key years: other important events in the first half of the 11th century

1002 – The St Brice’s Day Massacre (13 November). King Æthelred ordered the killing of “all the Danish men who were in England”. Often depicted as one of Æthelred’s “spasmodic acts of violence”, this may be an exaggeration. Rather than massacre innocent Danish settlers in the Danelaw, he ordered the murder of mercenary Danes who had turned against their employers. After ten years of warfare, death and extortion, this was the people’s revenge.

1012 – The 'heregeld' is introduced. The ‘heregeld’ (army tax, later known as Danegeld) was money paid to mercenary Danes. First paid on the dispersal in 1012 of the Viking force led by Thorkill the Tall that had plagued the country since 1009. Forty-five ships from the Danish army “came over to the king [Æthelred], and they promised him to defend this country, and he was to feed and clothe them”.

1014 – Death of Swein Forkbeard. Also the election of Cnut and return of Æthelred from exile, after he had undertaken “that he would be a gracious lord to them, and reform all the things which they all hated”. Æthelred came home to his people in the spring, “and he was gladly received by them all”.

1020 – Cnut makes a gift to the church. On the anniversary of his victory at Assandun, Cnut attended a ceremony for the consecration of a church at the battle site as thanksgiving for the victory, and to honour the fallen. The monks of Bury St Edmunds Abbey claimed that it was in the same year that Cnut oversaw the replacement of secular clerics by Benedictine monks in their abbey and made them substantial gifts.

1028 – Cnut conquers of Norway. Cnut attacked Norway with ships and offered money to King Olaf’s supporters to bribe them to his side. Olaf withdrew and in victory Cnut gave control of Norway to Earl Hákon, and after his death to his consort Ælfgifu of Northampton and their son Swein. At the same time he gave authority in Denmark to his son Harthacnut by his wife Emma.

1031 – Scotland submits to Cnut. Malcolm II, king of Scots from 1005–34, had raided Northumbria in 1016, extending his border southwards. But in 1031 he had to submit to Cnut after the latter’s campaign in the north, along with Macbeth, king of Moray, and another Scottish king. Evidence suggests Cnut also had contact with the Irish and Welsh, perhaps being involved in a raid recorded in Wales in 1030.

1035 – Cnut dies. His two sons by different wives – Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut – each laid claim to his empire and to England. With Harthacnut in Denmark, Harold won the support of the English north of the Thames while Harthacnut’s mother, Queen Emma, held Wessex for her son. Two years later, Harold was “everywhere chosen as king”, and Emma exiled.

1040 – Harold Harefoot dies. Harthacnut promptly invaded England from Flanders with a fleet and took the throne. Chronicle reports of his rule are negative, accusing him of levying high taxes. He never married but was still young; if he was in poor health, it might explain why he agreed to share the rulership with Edward before his sudden death drinking at a marriage feast.

1042 – The accession of Edward the Confessor brings an end to Danish power in England. Edward (Æthelred’s son by Emma) came from exile in Normandy in 1041 to share rule with his half-brother, Harthacnut (Cnut’s son by Emma). When Harthacnut died in 1042, Edward assumed kingship alone. Edward the Confessor was crowned by the archbishops of York and Canterbury in Winchester cathedral on Easter Day 1043. He ruled for a further 23 years and died in his bed. Childless, he failed to ensure a permanent restoration of the West Saxon dynasty, leaving the inheritance open to dispute, and a fresh invasion.

More turning points in British history

Read next: 1066: The year of the four kings
Part two in our 20-part series looking at decisive moments of the last 1,000 years in British history explores 1050–1099

Sarah Foot is professor of early medieval history at the University of Sheffield. Her books include Monastic Life in England c600–950 (2006)

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This article was first published in the April 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine

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