The Danish attacks on London and Southwark in ‘1016’
By Tony Sharp
Produced for the Guildable Manor Court Leet (2007)
Introduction: Æthelred II ‘the Unready’s’ failure as a king both domestically and in defence of the country from Danish incursions, resulted in his rejection by a major part of the Anglo-Danish ruling class, the ‘Witan’, of England. Swein ‘Forkbeard’, king of Denmark, was invited to take the throne and invasion and civil war followed. By 1013 Swein had been recognised as king and Æthelred was in exile. Our understanding of this period has been transformed by Prof Nick Higham’s The Death of Anglo-Saxon England (1997) and Ian Howard’s Swein Forkbeard ’s Invasions of England 991-1017 (2003). Higham details how Æthelred had in all probability divided the country against itself over refusing the succession to the sons of his first marriage (to Ælfgifu of Northumbria, Æthelstan and Edmund ‘Ironside’) to those of his second marriage (to Ælfgifu/ Emma of Normandy, Edward and Alfred). Æthelred’s policy seemed in some way related to a political alliance to Normandy, which was a Norse settlement dating from the incursions of the ninth century.
Shortly after, 2nd February 1014, Swein died and the Witan (the national council of aristocrats and leading churchmen) re-elected Æthelred, exiled in Normandy, who had to retake London as this was held by Swein’s forces, loyal to his son Cnut. Æthelred recruited Viking mercenaries, notably Thorkhill ‘the Tall’ and Olav Haraldsson as ‘allies’, to accomplish this. This is celebrated in the Olav Sagas of the Heimskringla, compiled by Snorri Struluson, relating the pulling down of London Bridge by Olav’s boats. Howard convincingly places this in 1014. A further victory in Lindsey, Lincolnshire a short while later effectively expelled Cnut and his retinue from England.
Later, in 1015 at a Witan in Oxford, Æthelred had murdered two important nobles, Siferth and Morcar by and at the instigation of Eadric ‘Streona’, earl of Mercia. This precipitated a rebellion against the king led by Edmund who rescued and married Siferth’s widow and collected an army from their lands, the five borough-shires of the East Midlands. At the same time, August-September 1015, Cnut returned to England with a large army intending to seize the English throne; Eadric and Wessex submitted to him. When Æthelred died in London, 23 April 1016, some of the Witan present there and the Londoners recognised Edmund II ‘Ironside’, his son, as king; they awaited Cnut’s attack. The next episode is said to be Cnut’s ‘siege’ of London. This incident has been fatally embroidered by many local historians, taking their cue from various sources, so that the popular accounts have distorted what was already a confusing set of events. The subject of this essay is an attempt to clarify these.