Medieval England and Vikings: The Culmination of the Viking Influence on England, Part 2

Diorama with Vikings

In the Danelaw and Northumbria, a sense of independence from the rest of England evolved that would later cause the Normans to be harsher with the English than with the south and west. Athelstan died in 939 and was succeeded by Edmund.

King Edmund took Northumbria back from the Norwegians and ravaged Strathclyde, ceding it to Scotland on the grounds that they work as allies. The next 31 years saw a succession of five kings of England. During the mid-10th century, the Danish Vikings attacked little from sea, but continued land operations. In the 980s, under King Swein’s son Cnut, the Danes renewed their sea-borne attacks. In 991, King Aethelred of England, in another effort to thwart the Danes, treated with his Norman Viking neighbors, to disallow enemies of either land the use of English or Norman ports from which to attack the other.

The Anglo-Norman bond was further tightened when duke Richard II, in 1001, gave his daughter, Emma’s hand in marriage to Aethelred. Through Emma, the Normans gained a bloodline claim to England. By 1002, Aethelred realized he could not defend against the Danes, so he taxed his people to pay the Danes to leave England. Aethelred based this taxation, or Danegeld, “on an ancient method of assessing land in hides… [This assessment method was the] basis of the later Domesday Book,” on which the Normans relied heavily.

When the Danish warriors left, Aethelred decreed that all the Danes still in England were to be slain. The Danes returned through East Anglia in 1004 to avenge the massacre, and in 1006 were bought off again. The Danes continued to raid, and out of frustration over Aethelred’s inability to maintain order, Cnut was accepted as king in the Danelaw. Aethelred died in 1016, and was succeeded by Edmund Ironside.

King Edmund made a valiant effort to rid England of the Danes, but he too, died in 1016 before much could be accomplished. Cnut became king of all England in 1016. During the Danish rule Aethelred’s sons, Alfred and Edward, were raised in the Norman court. In 1019 Cnut’s brother Harold died leaving the Danish king of England to inherit the entire Norse-Danish empire. Cnut kept Anglo-Saxon law, and made few changes to English ways. He kept a retinue of household men-at-arms, or huscarls. English earls also adopted this practice. These professional soldiers helped prepare England for future Norman knights. Cnut divided England into four earldoms: Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, and Wessex. Northumbria and East Anglia were headed by Danish earls, Mercia by Leofric, and Wessex by Godwin. The earls were given great power and by the 1030s Wessex had become the most powerful earldom of England. Cnut died in 1035 and the Scandinavian empire was divided between his two sons, Harold and Hardicanute. Harold was appointed king of England, and upon his death in 1040, Hardicanute was summoned to assume the crown. Hardicanute died in 1042 and Edward came from Normandy to claim the throne. Resentment toward foreign influences was quite strong, and the English earls looked forward to an Anglo-Saxon king. They did not realize the extent of Edward’s Norman ties.

Edward fully recognized where the real power was in England, so he called on Godwin, earl of Wessex, to get advice as to what he should do with Hardicanute dead. Edward also knew he would need approval of the Witan for the kingship. Earl Godwin was in the best position to convince the Witan through its respect for his power, and for his eloquence. Earl Godwin said that he would support Edward as king. To secure his support, Edward married Godwin’s daughter, Edgitha. Godwin, at an assembly at Gillingham, “caused him [Edward] to be received as king, and homage was paid to him by all.”

Edward brought many Norman friends to his court, placing them in important positions. He appointed a Norman as bishop of London, who later became of archbishop of Canterbury. The Saxon nobility frowned upon the Norman-French influence. The Norman familiarity with the English court brought England to the verge of civil war.

Edward allegedly gave an oath to duke William that he would receive the crown, should Edward die without an heir. Announcement of this came in mid-1051, according to French chroniclers. English nobles gave oaths to the truth of the bequest and Godwin offered his son and grandson as hostages. Godwin’s son, Harold, is said by the Normans and French, to have gone to Normandy to swear to the truth of the offer. Harold’s oath and trip are well substantiated by William of Malmesbury, Master Wace, the Bayeux tapestry, and Heimskringla.

The easy access for the Normans into England supports the oath claim, and is explained in some of the terms of the oath: “a garrison of William’s knights was to be placed in the castle at Dover…[and] other garrisons of the duke’s soldiers…at other locations in the kingdom.” Harold’s oath may have been given under duress, in order to save himself from imprisonment in Normandy. The way things happened in 1066 was also contrary to the supposed oaths of the early 1050s.