On 18 October 1016, the English King Edmund Ironside was crushingly defeated at the battle of Assandun. The victor, King Cnut of Denmark, then restored Viking rule over England. Though Cnut is now little known beyond folk tales, it has been argued that he was one of the most brilliant warrior Kings in British history.
When most people talk about Cnut they misrepresent the tale of him turning back the waves as evidence of him being a foolish and arrogant monarch. In fact, the tale was meant to represent the opposite: that Cnut was a wise King who was immune to flattery and aware of the limits of his own power.
This reflects his great standing in Europe: a man who created a North Sea Empire in a time of small fractured states.
The son of the brilliantly named Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard, Cnut was born into a time of resurgent Viking power. The Saxon kingdoms of England had united under Alfred the Great’s heirs by forcing the Danes out of England, but were now under threat from the raiding Danes once more.
Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that the first time we hear Cnut explicitly mentioned is in a description of a Viking invasion of England.
In 1013 Sweyn invaded England, ruled by a weak King who now bears the epithet Aethelred “the Unready.” The subsequent conquest of the Kingdom was remarkably swift – taking place over just a few months as Aethelred panicked and fled to Normandy, leaving his subjects leaderless and easy prey for the Danes.
As Sweyn consolidated his Kingship of this new possession Cnut was left in charge of his fleet and armies at Gainsborough. The few descriptions we have of him from the time describe him as handsome, virile young man with a talent for warfare and a formidable warrior in himself.
Sterner tests awaited him than the 1013 invasion, however, as his father suddenly died after just a few months as King in February 1014.
The Vikings elected Cnut King of England while his brother Harald would rule Denmark. The English, however, would have other ideas, and their ruling council, the Witenagemot, called for Aethelred to return. The returning King raised an army quickly and forced the outnumbered Cnut out of his Kingdom.
As soon as he arrived in Denmark Cnut sought to raise an army and reclaim what he saw as his rightful inheritance. He raised troops from the allies of Denmark – Poland Sweden and Norway – and even cheekily demanded some men off his rival Harald, who had treated his return to Denmark with some suspicion. By the summer of 1015 Cnut had gathered 10,000 men and set sail for England.
Staying true to the traditions of his Viking predecessors, he landed his men in what had once been Alfred’s kingdom of Wessex and began to pillage and raid across the land. Wessex surrendered quickly.
The fight for the English throne
At this point, some English lords began to desert to Cnut’s side, especially the descendants of Vikings who had settled in Northumbria. Cnut marauded north after this and ravaged much of the east of England.
Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the greatest lord of Northumbria, left the English forces to go north and subject himself to this invader who had taken his homeland.
Despite these whirlwind successes, Cnut still had to face the main English army, which was safe behind the famous walls of the city of London. The army was commanded by Edmund “Ironside,” who was renowned as a great and famous warrior.
This man would provide incredibly determined opposition to Cnut over the next year, and was elected King of England whilst in London with the death of his father Aethelred.
After Cnut marched to London, Edmund was able to break out and relieve the siege of the city meeting Cnut at the battle of Brentford, where he suffered heavy losses. Three more battles of great ferocity followed in Wessex as Edmund continually raised fresh armies — and with London uncaptured his prospects of victory seemed genuine.
On 18 October 1016 his forces met Cnut’s for the final decisive battle at Assandun, thought by historians to be Ashington in Essex. We know little about the battle other than that it was hard-fought, and that Edmund was possibly betrayed by a lord who defected to Cnut at the start of the battle.
In the end though, Cnut was victorious, and England was his.
A few days afterwards, the wounded Edmund met Cnut to discuss terms. The north of England was to be Cnut’s and the south Edmund’s, with all of it to go to Cnut upon Edmund’s death. As things happened this came just a few weeks later on 30 November. Cnut would rule all England for nineteen years.
In 1018 he also won kingship of Denmark, with his brother dying in fairly suspicious circumstances. This rule extended to Sweden and Norway in the 1020s after successful conquests. This made him one of the greatest men of Europe, and he even made journeys to Rome to consult with the Pope.
Cnut had transformed his people from a race of raiders to a respected and “civilised” Christian power.
As for England, ironically, his lordship over it protected it from Viking raids and restored much prosperity. Trade was encouraged between the country and rest of Cnut’s possessions, also building its wealth.
This legacy of good government and trade would be inherited by later rulers, including Cnut’s fellow Viking William the Conqueror, and thus his rule, began at Assandun, is highly important in the history of the British Isles, and the world.
It has been just over a thousand years since the battle, and it should not be forgotten.