OF CNUT, KING OF THE DANES

The richest and bravest of all kings at this time was Cnut. Fed up with Athelraed, the nobles of England sent a mission to Cnut, offering him the throne. Athelraed had antagonised his nobles by making their lives a misery, being truthful in his threats and false in his promises. When news reached him in Westminster of Cnut’s invasion, Athelraed, surrounded by his cowardly advisers, chose to flee rather than face the enemy. He took boat to France but died soon after he arrived, it is assumed from sheer fear, leaving his youngest sons, Alfred and Edward without support in a strange land. Cnut married Emma, Athelraed’s widow. Edmund, Athelraed’s eldest son, was made of stronger stuff and, gathering what force he could, met the Danes at Ashington, but was defeated. Godwin, also gathering a strong army, went to Edmund’s aid and they met the army of Cnut at Deerhurst, in the Vale of Gloucester. The two armies drew up for battle. Cnut’s was by far the largest. Rather than another slaughter, the Danes offered a fight between champions to decide the matter, the winner would obtain the kingdom and the armies could then be sent away in peace. This was agreed and Edmund insisted that he must be his own champion. When the news reached Cnut he saw that he had no option but to take on that role himself. All the arrangements for the duel were made with due solemnity, the truce granted, the keepers of the ground armed to prevent any interference and the two champions rowed to the island in the middle of the Severn where it was agreed the fight would take place. After the formalities the battle began and soon it was seen that Cnut, slender, thin and tall, was hard pressing Edmund, who was big and stout. In a pause such as occurs in these things, Cnut saw that Edmund was breathing heavily. “Edmund, you breathe too short. Do you need to rest?” enquired Cnut. Edmund blushed. “No!” he cried and sprang at Cnut and dealt such heavy blows that Cnut went down on his knees. Edmund stepped back. “Not so short in breath then, if I can bring such a mighty king to his knees.” The Danes, seeing Edmund draw back when victory was in his grasp, shouted out for a delay and that the two should agree to make a treaty and divide the country between the two, on the death of the first the survivor to rule the whole, meanwhile Edmund would rule Wessex and Cnut London. It would be Edmund’s fate to be the first to die, because of his trust in those who are not worthy of such trust. Edric Streona, earl of Mercia, had deserted Edmund at Ashington, ensuring his defeat, but it is typical of such men that they come creeping back when the climate changes. Back in the king’s favour, he kept wheedling to be given the rich manor of Minsterworth, then owned by Godwin. “I’ll think about it.” said Edmund and it was clear to Edric that he would not. He resolved to make Cnut the sole king. By way of making peace between the two of them, Edric invited Edmund to his manor near Gloucester. Secretly he placed a large iron spike into the hole that would be Edmund’s privy. That night, when Edmund sought to make use of the facilities Edric made a great show of showing him the way himself but, as they approached the spot, Edric suddenly dowsed his candle, causing Edmund to stumble into the hole. The wound was mortal. Edmund was carried to Ross but there he died. Edric immediately went to see Cnut. “Hail to you whole king who was yesterday only half a king. May you recompense the man who has made you whole.” “Who is this man who has killed the noble Edmund, that I might set him high above his fellows?” Edric happily explained that it was he, so Cnut hanged him from the tallest oak in the neighbourhood. The Danes set about enjoying their victory and this often led to disagreement with the English. It fell to Godwin to complain to Cnut about the way the English, especially the womenfolk, were being treated. Cnut nodded but did nothing, so Godwin decided to act and rose in rebellion. It was clear to Cnut that Godwin was too powerful to be defeated in battle so he determined to use other means. After agreeing to a treaty between them, Cnut persuaded Godwin to visit Denmark. “While you are there,” said Cnut, “Perhaps you can take a letter to my dear sister, who is ruling in my place?” On the journey Godwin, with the help of his chaplain, Brand, opened the seal and read the letter. It asked Cnut’s sister to put Godwin to death immediately. Under Godwin’s dictation Brand changed the letter to say that Cnut was so happy with him that he wished Godwin to marry his sister and be put in charge of ruling Denmark. The letter was duly delivered and, seeing that Godwin was a well shaped young man, his sister set the events in train. When Cnut discovered the plot he laughed for half an hour without stopping and he and Godwin were reconciled.  

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