The Brief but Brilliant Reign of Edmund Ironside

Though he was king for just 222 days, the life and legacy of Edmund II, who ascended to the English throne 1,000 years ago this year, remain impressive, claims David McDermott.

The accomplishments of some are praised without reason, while those of others are consigned undeservedly to obscurity. One of the occupants of the latter, unenviable position is Edmund II Ironside, who ascended the English throne in April 1016. Although he was held in high regard during the 11th and 12th centuries, Edmund, who was given the nickname ‘Ironside’ by the Anglo- Saxon Chronicle in recognition of his bravery,  has since been eclipsed by those who came immediately before and after him. The brevity of Edmund’s kingship – a mere 222 days – goes a long way to explain why his reign is frequently treated as either an epilogue to that of Æthelred or a prologue to that of Cnut. The millennial anniversary of Edmund’s accession is an opportunity to redress the balance and, in so doing, relate the extraordinary story of a successful, energetic and indomitable warrior-king and understand better the extraordinary period of English history that Edmund inhabited, albeit briefly. 

Edmund Ironside was born around 989 to Æthelred II, better known as ‘the Unready’ and his first wife Ælfgifu, the daughter of the Northumbrian Earl Thored. There was nothing inevitable about the ætheling (prince) becoming king. Edmund had two older brothers and in the following years Æthelred would produce at least three other sons by Ælfgifu and two by his second wife, Emma of Normandy, all of whom had a claim to the throne. For much of his life Edmund may have been seen as insurance for a smooth succession. 

With the death of his brother Athelstan in 1015, the second eldest brother having already died, Edmund became the senior ætheling and soon exhibited the force of will which was to characterise his kingship. Between late August and early September 1015 he rebelled against Æthelred by marrying the widow of the executed thegn (noble) Sigeferth, contrary to the king’s wishes. 

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Edmund’s action was illegal, as was releasing the widow from Malmesbury, where Æthelred had confined her. Edmund compounded his crime by travelling to territories in the East Midlands previously possessed by Sigeferth and his brother Morcar, which Æthelred had confiscated, and took them for himself. In marrying against Æthelred’s will and seizing the dead thegns’ properties Edmund may have been seeking to demonstrate his authority, ally himself with an influential Mercian family and provide himself with a power base from which to exert his claims to the throne. 

Cnut, depicted on the Great West Window of Canterbury Cathedral, 15th century.
Cnut, depicted on the Great West Window of Canterbury Cathedral, 15th century.

Edmund broke off his rebellion to return to London when he discovered that the Danish king Cnut had landed at Sandwich in Kent and was rampaging through Warwickshire. Despite breaking several of Æthelred’s laws, Edmund appears to have gone unpunished, leaving him free to demonstrate his potential as a military leader. Between the end of his rebellion and becoming king, Edmund assembled three armies against Cnut but, while he was successful in raising troops, none took to the field. Edmund removed his first army upon discovering that his brother-in-law, Ealdorman Eadric of Mercia, intended to betray him to the Danes. Edmund’s second army disbanded when Æthelred and the garrison of London did not meet its request to accompany them into battle and the third army dispersed when the king, who this time had joined them, learned of a plot to betray him and so returned to the safety of London. 

The dismissal of one army did not deter Edmund from raising another, nor did it weaken his resolve against Cnut. Intent on continuing English opposition to Danish attempts at conquest, Edmund formed an alliance with another of his brothers-in-law, Earl Uhtred of Northumbria. Together they attacked those towns which, according to the Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury, had gone over to Cnut. When the Danish king attacked Uhtred’s territories, however, the earl abandoned his campaign with Edmund and negotiated a settlement with Cnut.

Deprived of his ally, Edmund returned to London where, on April 23rd, 1016, Æthelred died. Edmund was elected king by those members of the witan (royal council) who were in the city and its chief citizens but he did nor remain within its walls for long. Anticipating the Danish siege of the city, Edmund left London before their arrival in early May and went to Wessex, the traditional seat of his family’s power, where he sought to exert his authority and raise support for his campaign against Cnut. Edmund spent approximately two months in Wessex where he soon showed himself to be an energetic military leader.

The first of Edmund’s battles in Wessex was fought at Penselwood in Dorset, close to the borders of Somerset and Wiltshire. According to John of Worcester’s 12th-century Chronicle, Cnut abandoned his siege of London to follow Edmund hastily into Wessex, leaving the English king little time to raise an army. The contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not record the outcome of the battle, but Anglo-Norman historians, writing more than a century after the events they claim to record, are unanimous in awarding the victory of Penselwood to the English. In making Edmund victorious, the Anglo-Norman historians, as self-appointed apologists for pre-Norman England, may have been trying to repair the damage done to Anglo-Saxon pride in the wake of Hastings. 

The impression created in the Chronicle is that Edmund was eager for another encounter with Cnut, for the account of the second battle, at Sherston on June 26th, follows immediately that of Penselwood. The position of Sherston in the western marches of Wessex, close to the shared borders of Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire, may indicate that the eastern parts of the region favoured Cnut. Further evidence that the loyalties of the English nobility were divided emerges from the composition of Cnut’s forces. The Chronicle records that the Danes were supported by the otherwise unknown Ælfmær Darling and Ealdorman Eadric, who had defected to Cnut after failing to betray Edmund. To this list of named defectors John of Worcester adds that of Ælfgar son of ‘Meaw’ (seagull). The presence of Ælgar has particular significance, for he held several estates in counties that also contributed troops to Edmund’s army. If Ælfgar recruited from these areas, it illustrates further the divisions which existed among the Wessex nobility and highlights the fact that there were elements of English resistance to Edmund’s rule.

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Two Anglo-Norman accounts of the battle indicate the extent to which Edmund’s reputation had grown by the 12th century. John of Worcester has Edmund arrange his troops according to the terrain and give them a rousing exhortation but his flattering depiction of Edmund’s generalship is taken from the Roman writer Sallust. It is probable that John of Worcester knew nothing more about Sherston than is contained in the sparse account in the Chronicle and that the details from Sallust were plagiarised to enliven the narrative and demonstrate John’s erudition. The most remarkable tale about Edmund’s conduct at Sherston comes from William of Malmesbury. Edmund, seeing his brother-in-law Eadric fighting with the Danes, hurled a spear at the treacherous ealdorman but missed its intended target, striking the man standing next to Eadric and transfixing a second Viking. To accomplish such a feat Edmund would have needed superhuman strength, but it is more likely that William concocted the story to justify the use of the word ‘Ironside’ as referring to Edmund’s ‘great strength of mind and body’.

Neither army at Sherston appears to have emerged the outright winner, with both sides withdrawing from combat at nightfall, after inflicting what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes as ‘great slaughter’ upon each other. Despite the absence of an undisputed victor at Sherston the Anglo-Norman historians, in their attempts to promote Edmund as an English hero, awarded him a moral victory. William of Malmesbury has the renegade West Saxons, perhaps impressed by Edmund’s performance in the battle, acknowledge him as their rightful lord. The account is unique to William – and therefore suspect – but the repeated references in the primary sources to Edmund raising armies in Wessex indicates that, as a result of his conduct at Sherston, Edmund’s position in the region became more secure. Cnut’s alleged behaviour after the battle also reflects well on Edmund. According to John of Worcester, Cnut ordered his men to leave their camp in silence under the cover of darkness to renew the siege of London. The manner of the withdrawal looks suspiciously like an attempt to avoid further engagement with the English. Sherston was a pivotal moment for Edmund Ironside, enhancing his reputation as a military leader, establishing him as an effective counter-force to Cnut’s attempts at conquest and cementing his authority as king. 

The genealogies of the English and Danish royal families

The inconclusive outcome of Sherston does not seem to have diluted Edmund’s desire to confront Cnut. He assembled another army and pursued the Danes to London. The Encomium Emmae Reginae, commissioned by Cnut’s widow to promote the Danish cause, describes the English army as ‘immense’, indicating that far from damaging his popularity, Sherston had enhanced it. With an army recruited in Wessex, Edmund cannily kept to the north of the Thames and remained undiscovered until he descended upon the city from the direction of what is now Tottenham. 

As he neared the city’s walls, Edmund would have encountered the moat, which the Danes had dug earlier in May, that surrounded the three sides of London not protected by the Thames. How Edmund freed London is not known; the Chronicle records that he rescued the inhabitants and drove the Danes to their ships. He may have successfully negotiated the siege works and fought off the Danes but a reference in the Chronicle to any fighting is absent. William of Malmesbury could be nearer to the truth with his claim that when they heard of Edmund’s approach the Danes raced to their ships. Edmund’s ability to instil terror in the hearts of his enemies was likely to be the product of William’s imagination; Cnut was unlikely to be able to conduct a siege and fight Edmund simultaneously and so saw retreat as his best option. If the account of William of Malmesbury is reliable, Edmund may have relieved London without delivering a blow against the Danes. 

Edmund did not remain in London for long. After two days he rode to Brentford in pursuit of the Danes, which suggests that he had intelligence of their whereabouts. Brentford, just nine miles to the west of London and on a Roman road, may have been chosen by Cnut as a base from which to continue his attempt to take the city. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Edmund crossed the Thames at Brentford and fought the Danes, suggesting that the engagement occurred on the southern bank. However, action could have been more widespread. The Anglo-Norman narrative of Henry of Huntingdon has Edmund wage battle ‘at Brentford’, indicating that there was fighting on both sides of the Thames. The possibility that Edmund fought on both banks of the river has some support from a source that dates to within a couple of years of the battle. The Knútsdrápa, written to praise Cnut, credits the Danish king with causing a considerable amount of destruction at Brentford. It is to be expected that a poem created to compliment Cnut would exaggerate his achievements, but it is possible that it records an aspect of the battle that has been omitted by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The apparently conflicting accounts of where fighting occurred at Brentford can be reconciled if they are combined, with the Danes being dislodged by force from their position in Brentford. Fighting spread to the southern bank of the Thames when Edmund’s forces pursued them. 

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With the exception of Cnut’s praise-poem, the contemporary accounts of the Battle of Brentford unanimously award victory to Edmund Ironside but his success was hard won. Many of the sources report that part of Edmund’s army drowned when it overtook the rest of his forces. Their deaths may have been the result of carelessness, but the Chronicle also reports that the men were eager for loot. The alleged greed of these troops suggests that they did not belong among Edmund’s regular recruits but were mercenaries. A passage in the Knútsdrápa referring to Cnut taking the lives of Frisians may even explain where they originated. The possibility that the English army at Brentford contained mercenaries cannot be corroborated, but if Edmund had employed such men he could be said to have adopted the policy of kings Alfred and Æthelred, both of whom had swords-for-hire in their service. The affect of Brentford on Edmund’s forces can be inferred from him returning to Wessex to recruit another army. It is probable that the losses incurred from accidental drowning and actual fighting depleted Edmund’s troops to such a degree that he was compelled to replace them. In his absence, however, the Danes resumed their siege of London, perhaps making the Battle of Brentford only a qualified English success.

While Edmund was in Wessex, the Danes encountered fierce resistance from the Londoners and consequently abandoned their siege in order to pursue a raid in neighbouring Mercia, possibly in early September. Laden with plunder, the Danes divided their forces: their ships sailed along the River Medway, while the Danish horsemen, accompanying their stolen herds, travelled by land. As Cnut’s army made its way into Kent, Edmund returned from Wessex, crossing the Thames at Brentford in pursuit. The absence of any reference to Edmund encountering resistance at the river crossing may indicate that he had installed a contingent of troops to prevent the Danes from re-occupying Brentford. Upon hearing of Edmund’s advance into Kent the Danes, at least according to the Chronicle, fled before him.

The news of Edmund’s imminent arrival seems to have split Cnut’s forces, with the Danish riders going west only to be met by Edmund at Otford in Kent. Unable to withstand the English assault, the Danes fled east towards Sheppey, pursued by Edmund. Yet instead of pressing his advantage, Edmund appears to have been persuaded by Eadric to allow the Danes to cross the Medway at Aylesford and make good their escape. For not destroying the Danes when he had the chance, Edmund was criticised by the Chronicle for having made a ‘no more unwise decision’. With the benefit of hindsight, William of Malmesbury summarised the effect of Edmund permitting the Danes to depart unscathed as a ‘disaster for himself and England’.  

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Edmund returned to Wessex, where he remained until hearing the Danes had pillaged Mercia. He appears to have raised another army quickly and seems to have known the location of the Danes, for the Chronicle records that he followed them returning to their ships, overtook them and confronted their army in Essex on October 18th at Assandun, possibly Ashingdon or Ashdon. Edmund’s army may have been the largest he assembled, evidence that he had support from outside Wessex. Among those killed at Assandun were Ulfcytel of East Anglia and Ealdorman Godwine of Lindsey. At some point in the battle, Eadric deserted Edmund, accompanied by his followers and that section of the army under his command. Eadric’s departure sparked a series of English desertions, which were probably significant in contributing to Edmund’s sole defeat. The fighting only came to an end, according to the Encomium, when it became too dark for the Danes to pursue the fleeing English. The Chronicle’s description of the English dead as ‘all the nobility of the English race’ is an exaggeration but it does suggest that Edmund’s losses were perceived to be profound and, despite his determination to continue the war, Edmund’s ability to campaign against Cnut may have been compromised. 

Defeated but not deterred, Edmund withdrew to Gloucestershire intent on raising yet another army but his plans were forestalled by Eadric, who advised him to begin peace negotiations with Cnut, who had followed Edmund into Gloucestershire. Initially unwilling, Edmund was eventually persuaded by his counsellors’ unanimous support for talks to begin. Cnut, according to the Encomium, also desired peace. Unable to win a war of attrition, Cnut agreed to meet Edmund on Alney, then an island in the Severn next to the village of Deerhurst. There, Edmund and Cnut agreed to become partners and pledge-brothers. It was also determined that Edmund should rule in Wessex, while Cnut was to have the rest of England, though it is likely that such a division was intended to be temporary, with the death of Edmund or Cnut releasing the other from their promises. In retaining Wessex, the richest region of the country, Edmund had the better part of the arrangement.

Edmund had little time to enjoy the peace, dying soon afterwards on St Andrew’s Day, November 30th, though it is unsure where. John of Worcester places Edmund’s death in London, but this is improbable as the Danes had established their winter quarters in the city. Henry of Huntingdon has Edmund die in Oxford, though it is unlikely that Edmund would be in a part of the country recently ceded to Cnut, especially one in which Eadric wielded power. It is more probable that Edmund died in Wessex, perhaps at a royal manor close to Glastonbury, where he was buried.  

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The Chronicle does not explain how Edmund died, but the Anglo-Norman narratives have increasingly fantastical accounts, all of which implicate Eadric. William of Malmesbury alleges that Eadric persuaded Edmund’s chamberlains to drive an iron hook into the king’s ‘hinder parts’ when answering the call of nature, while Henry of Huntingdon has Eadric make his son hide in a privy and strike a knife into Edmund’s ‘private parts’. The most gruesome story comes from Geoffrei Gaimar, who has Edmund skewered on the toilet by ‘the-bow-that-never-misses’. Wherever and however he died, Edmund was laid to rest beside his grandfather, King Edgar, before the high altar. Their tombs, along with others, were destroyed in the Reformation but it is just possible that Cnut had Edmund translated to Winchester, where his remains may rest in one of several ossuaries. 

The brevity of Edmund’s reign has led to him being overlooked, but he should be accorded the recognition that is rightfully his. In the space of six months he proved himself to be a talented military leader, possessed of an indomitable will. He summoned five armies, relieved the siege of London and won all but one of his engagements against the Danes. His single defeat was the result not of incompetence but betrayal. Edmund did not live long enough to enact any laws, reform the Church or transform the country’s military structures, but his brief reign saw the reappearance of something that had been absent in Anglo-Saxon England for several generations: a dynamic, resolute and successful warrior-king. Edmund also left a lasting legacy. Through his grand-daughter Margaret, Queen of Scots, his great-great grandson was Henry II, the first Plantagenet king of England. Elizabeth II, descended from the Plantagenet Edward II, is therefore also a descendant of Edmund. Several rulers are known to history as ‘the Great’ or ‘the Magnificent’ but, of all English kings, only Edmund II has had his bravery and strength of will immortalised with the unique soubriquet ‘Ironside’.

David McDermott is a PhD candidate and a part-time lecturer at the Department of History at the University of Winchester.

The Brief but Brilliant Reign of Edmund Ironside

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