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A Century of Conquest

In the 11th century, England experienced two invasions which changed the shape of the nation forever. The October issue of History Today marks the millennial anniversary of Cnut’s conquest in 1016 and the better known events of 1066 from the sides of both the winners – and the losers, writes Kate Wiles.

England is more typically the invader, rather than the invaded, but in the 11th century it suffered two successful conquests in the space of just 50 years. The Norman Conquest of 1066 had – and continues to have – an enormous impact on culture, law, politics and language. But it could not have happened without the events of the much less well known Danish conquest of 1016.

Following 30 years of repeated Scandinavian raids on England, a brief Danish rule under Svein and then Cnut and an English kingdom divided between Æthelred and his son Edmund, England was unable to sustain its defence during six months of war against Cnut’s armies. It ended in a final victory for Cnut at Assandun in Essex on October 18th, 1016. Edmund died six weeks later and Cnut married Æthelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, to form a Danish- Norman dynasty. After his death in 1035, Cnut’s empire quickly fell apart and Æthelred’s son, Edward the Confessor, reclaimed the throne.

Cnut’s Danish rule may have been short-lived but it destabilised the English kingdom and put new, ambitious Scandinavian players at the top of England’s ruling classes, eager to contest the throne.

By 1065 both Harold Godwinson, Anglo-Saxon earl and relative of Cnut, and William, Duke of Normandy, were laying claim to the English throne, although neither was a direct heir. Harold made a series of political moves and allegiances to strengthen his claim and, on his deathbed in January 1066, Edward named Harold his successor. By this point, following the deaths of both the king of France and the Count of Anjou, William, Harold’s rival, had come to dominate north-west France.

Simultaneously, Harald Hardrada of Norway made a claim to the English throne, compensating for his lack of legitimacy with a fearsome reputation in battle. He joined forces with Harold’s brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, and led his army to confront Harold at Stamford Bridge on Monday September 25th, 1066. Harald and Tostig were killed and their forces decimated.

While victory conferred divine approval upon Harold and his reign, it also meant he was far from the south coast of England when the Norman fleet arrived at Pevensey in Sussex. As William ravaged the south, Harold marched his army southwards and the two met on Senlac Hill, north of Hastings, on October 14th. In a close fight, Harold was slain.

The English survivors rallied behind the claims of Edgar ætheling and further skirmishes against William continued through the winter at Southwark and Wallingford. Despite their superior numbers, the English forces surrendered to William and he was crowned as the first Norman king of England at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066.

The events of 1016 seem overshadowed, thanks, in part, to the comparative paucity of surviving sources. The aftermaths of the conquests were also very different: Cnut was not the first Danish king in England and he sought consciously to emulate the rule of his predecessors, the English kings, and to provide continuity. While there were changes – and the executions of his potential opponents – the transition between Æthelred, Edmund and Cnut made much less impact than the seismic shift to Norman rule. Within a generation, this relatively smooth handover was overshadowed by the epochal events of 1066 in both the collective memory and the historical narrative of England.