In October 1016 at the battle of Ashingdon Canute narrowly defeated King Edmund ‘Ironside’ (eldest son of Ethelred II) in a day-long bloodbath and slayed “the flower of the English” (similar to Hastings almost 50yrs later to the day!), aided by earl Edric ‘Stroena’ of Mercia’s betraying of the newly elected king.
According to Sarah Foot– Professor of early medieval history at the University of Sheffield in April 2006’s issue of the BBC history magazine –
“…another battle came soon after, near the forest of Dean(where Edward’s army was reinforced by Welsh troops). As winter approached the two sides made peace…”
Is there any recorded contemporary source that confirms this last battle, or is Prof. Foot mistaken? If it actually happened, are we to believe that this ‘lost’ battle was a Danish or and English victory? Why has it been neglected so far?
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles offer an interesting, but inevitably brief, account of post-Ashingdon events. The Worcester ‘D’ Chronicle for 1016 tells essentially the same story as found in the Peterborough ‘E’ and Canterbury ‘F’ manuscripts, the Battle of Ashingdon is described thus:
“Then , when the king [Edmund] learned that the raiding-army [the Danes] was inland, he…travelled behind them and overtook them in Essex at the hill which is called Ashingdon, and…joined battle. The Ealdorman Eadric as he did so often before, first started the flight – with the Magonsaete – and thus betrayed his royal lord and the whole nation.
There Cnut had the victory and won himself all England. There was killed Eadnoth (bishop of Dorchester), Abbot Wulfsige (Abbot of Ramsey), Ealdorman Ælfric (Ealdorman of Hampshire), Ealdorman Godwine (Lindsey), Ulfcytel from East Anglia, and Æthelweard, son of Ealdorman Æthelsige (Æthelwine of East Anglia), and all the chief men of the nation of the English race.”
So good so far. The Chronicle continues:
“Then after this fight King Cnut turned inland with his raiding-army to Gloucestershire, where he learned that Edmund the king was. Then Ealdorman Eadric and the councillors who were gathered there advised that the kings form a pact between them, and the kings came together at Ola’s Island (possibly in the Severn) near Deershurst, and became partners and pledged-brothers, and affirmed with pledge and oaths, and set the payment for the raiding army; and afterwards they parted, and then King Edmund succeeded to Wessex and Cnut to the north part.”
John of Worcester relates a not dissimilar tale, but credits Edmund with more resolve, stating
“a few days after this [Ashingdon], king Eadmund Ironside still wished to renew the battle with Cnut, but the traitorous Ealdorman Eadric and some others prevented him from so doing…”
Clearly the losses at Ashingdon amongst the nobility were as severe as those suffered at Hastings; the major difference being that Edmund survived whereas Harold did not. The references to Eadric as a traitor are quite interesting. The men of the Magonsaete were from Herefordshire (the episcopal see being in Hereford), which suggests that they were the same ‘Welshmen’ who reinforced the army at the Forest of Dean.
The events following Ashingdon do centre on the area around southern end of the Welsh border: Edmund in Gloucestershire; the treaty arranged on an island near Deerhurst. The Forest of Dean is reasonably close, so given the presence of the Edmund and Cnut in the area, we may assume that the two armies were also present. There may have been skirmishes, raids, etc., but a full-scale battle does not appear in the Chronicles for this crucial period.
Had a major battle occured, given the subsequent division of England, one would speculate that it would have been an English victory – why would a victorious Cnut have allowed Edmund of the hook, so to speak? One imagines that an English victory would have been an event worthy of recording; a Danish victory would have probably removed the need to treat with the English, and would probably have found its way into the ‘Encomium Emmae Reginae’.
So what evidence did Sarah Foot offer for claiming a second battle?
The deaths of the ealdormen of East Anglia and Lindsey at Ashingdon certainly cleared the way for Cnut’s conquest of the eastern part of England. The descripton of the Battle of Ashingdon is interesting: Eadric apparently began the flight, leading away the men of the Magonsaete. The fact that Edmund and his followers retreated to Gloucester, and Eadric’s presence as one of the king’s councillors after Ashingdon, must throw some doubt on the ‘traitorous’ nature of Eadric’s actions at Ashingdon.
It appears that the English made a general retreat to Gloucester, and subsequently across the Severn, followed by Cnut. Did Eadric really betray “his royal lord and the whole nation” by starting “the flight” from Ashingdon? If so, it seems unlikely that he would have been welcome in Edmund’s presence.
The author of the ‘Encomium Emmae’ suggests, that –
“Eadric, who had previously withdrawn in flight from the fighting, now returned to his lord [Edmund] and his companions, and was received for he was an able counsellor”.
Many parties had a vested interest in heaping the blame at Eadric’s feet; Emma’s encomiast, the English chroniclers et al. Interestingly the author of the Vita Edwardi conveniently lay the blame for the disasters of 1066 on Stigand, who the Norman chroniclers of the post-Conquest era also vilified, despite the fact that William kept him in place for some time, until the time was right to remove the pluralist archbishop of Canterbury. Cnut’s removal of Eadric is not dissimilar.
In his “Cnut: England’s Viking King”, M.K.Lawson states something to the effect(I paraphrase) that;
“…Most probably there was another battle [after Ashingdon] at Deerhurst near the Forest of Dean…”
If a battle or heavy skirmish actually happened in the immediate wake of Ashingdon, could it have been connected to the revolt against Canute involving Edmund’s younger brotherEadwig (killed by Canute in 1017)?
Eadwig was called‘King of the Ceorls’- this epithet suggests that he may have led a peasant uprising against Canute?
The effects of famine and Viking ravaging upon them- as well as the crippling taxes levied upon them 1011-14, created the conditions conducive to such a climate. He was exiled by Canute from England in 1017 and returned the same year, only to be slain (by Canute?).
Eadwig must have been the focus of many disgruntled Saxons (against the new Dane) that rallied round him?
The fact that Cnut is not recorded as having been acknowledged as king by the W.Saxons until 1017 might suggest that Aetheling Eadwig, the wounded Edmund’s younger brother, may have tried between 18th Oct -30th Nov to rally support for his own bid for the crown?
The Worcester & Peterborough chronicle says, at latest mid-summer 1017, that
“King Cnut put to flight the Aetheling Eadwig, the “ceorl’s king”.
Or was it simply a rearguard action fought by remnants of the wounded Edmund’s loyal retainers?