Knut’s Invasion of England in 1015-16, according to the Knytlinga Saga

A 13th-century portrait of Cnut the Great showing him as a king of Christendom.Anglo-Saxon England suffered many attacks and invasions from Viking and Scandinavian rulers. Knut (also known as Canute) was the son of Svein Forkbeard, who had secured most of England just before his death in 1014. Continuing in his father’s path, Knut launched an invasion a year later. This account of the conflict comes from Knytlinga Saga: The History of the Kings of Denmark, an anonymous chronicle that may have been written in Iceland in the mid-thirteenth century. The author has made use of many earlier sources, such as the section of various poems that he includes in the text. The account begins with the death of Svein Forkbeard.

Campaigns abroad

6. King Svein was a great man of war and the strongest of rulers. He plundered widely both to the east in the Baltic and south in Saxony. Eventually, he led his troops west into England and plundered far and wide there, fighting many battles.

King Æthelred, Edgar’s son, ruled there at the time, and in the many battles he and King Svein fought, victory fell now to one, now to the other, but King Svein conquered the larger part of England. Afterwards he spent many years there, looting and burning all over the country, and gained the reputation of England’s arch-enemy. During these troubles King Æthelred fled overseas from King Svein, but then King Svein died in his bed suddenly one night, and the English say that King Edmund the Holy killed him in the same kind of way that Saint Mercury killed Julian the Apostate.

Danes in England

7. After the death of King Svein, Danish chieftains held onto that part of the country he had conquered: then war broke out again. As soon as King Svein was dead, King Æthelred returned home and won back his kingdom with the help of Olaf the Saint, in whose saga these events are described according to the words of the poet Ottar the Black, who said:

Land-guard, you aided
Æthelred homeward,
the friend of his people
profited from your power.
Keen the encounter,
you saved the kinsman
of Edmund, brought him
back to his birthright.

About that time, the Danes established their house-carles in England, paid soldiers and the bravest of warriors, who did most of the fighting against the Englishmen.

An expedition to England

8. Knut, son of King Svein Forkbeard, was ten years old when his father died. Since his brother Harald was already dead, Knut was made King of Denmark and all the lands that Denmark ruled.

The Danish chieftains in England who held the territories there conquered by King Svein sent word to Denmark, asking King Knut to sail west to England with the Danish army, and so strengthen their position. However, as King Knut was still only a boy and unaccustomed to military command, his friends advised him to send an army to England, but put someone else in charge, and not go there himself until he was older. So that was how things stood: for three years after coming to the throne he remained in Denmark.

After that time had passed, he gathered an army in Denmark for a campaign overseas, also sending word to his brother-in-law Earl Eirik in Norway to levy troops and join him on an expedition to England, since Earl Eirik had a great reputation for courage and leadership in war, having won two of the most famous battles ever to be fought in Scandinavia; one of them the battle King Svein Forkbeard, Olaf King of Sweden, and Earl Eirik fought against Olaf Tryggvason at Svold, the other fought by Earl Hakon and Earl Eirik against the jomsvikmgs at Liavaag.

King Knut sailed west for England with a huge army, as Ottar the Black tells in his poem In Praise of Knut:

But a boy, you ship-batterer,
when you launched your boat,
no king younger than you
yet cast off from his country:
helmed one, you hacked
the hard-cased ships,
risked all, with red shield
raged along the shore.

And he said this:

Loth to, flee, the Jutes
joined you – the generous
sea-rover armed his soldiers,
assembled them in Skaane –
sage one, the sail
stretched above you as
westward your prow
pointed to win prowess.

Many chieftains went with King Knut to England. First there was his brother-in-law, Earl Ulf Strut-Leg’s-son, who was married at the time to Astrid Svein’s-daughter, King Knut’s sister: then there were the two brothers, Hemming and Thorkel the Tall, sons of Earl Hood-Harald, and many other great chieftains too. King Knut sailed to England and made landfall at a place called Humber, as Hallvard Harek’s-Blaze says in his poem In Praise of Knut:

Knut! armour-clad
was the, fleet you caused,
famed guardian of the fight,
to fly fast to Fljot:
in Ælla’s own empire
you anchored your ships,
sea-farer, feasting
the Valkyrie’s feathered-ones.

As soon as King Knut reached England he marched inland, looting and killing, and burning down every settlement, as Ottar the Black says:

Great king! you carried
the war-shield: not quiet
was the life you lived
and delighted in; Lord
of the Jutes, killer
of King Edgar’s kin,
most resolute of men
of blood-royal, you ransacked them.

And the poet said this too:

You were but a boy
when you set homes ablaze:
the house-bane,
made them fetch out their forces.

The natives gathered together an army and went forward to fight the Danes, as Thord Kolbeinsson tells:

For ages were the English
eaten up with hatred
of the raven-feeders
who foraged with their, fleet:
but the farmers, fretting
to defend their fields
stood firm: fiercely
the King’s men faced them.

King Knut fought his first pitched battle in England at Lindsey, where there were heavy casualties: then he captured Hemmingborough in England, where many fell, as Ottar says:

Great one you grappled
on the green field of Lindsey,
you crushed your victims,
vikings won the victory.
In broad Hemmingborough,
bloodshedder of Swedes, you
laid waste the English
west of Ouse-waters.

Later he fought great battles in Northumberland on the River Tees, killing many there, while others fled to perish in bogs and ditches. Then King Knut led his army south, conquering all before him.

Knut and Emma

9. That very summer or autumn that King Knut took his troops across to England, King Æthelred of England died in his bed after having reigned for thirty-eight years. Immediately after his death Queen Emma, his widow, prepared for a journey overseas, meaning to sail west to France and visit her brothers William and Robert, who were earls there. Their father was Richard, Earl of Rouen, son of Richard, son of William Longspear, who was the son of Gongu-Hrolf, conqueror of Normandy, son of Rognvald of More.

King Knut’s men learned about Queen Emma’s proposed travels and just as her retinue was ready to sail, King Knut’s men arrived, seizing the ship and everything aboard. They brought Queen Emma to King Knut, and it was agreed by the king and his chieftains that he should take Queen Emma as his wife: so that was done.

The Battle of Sherston

10. After King Æthelred’s death, his sons by Queen Emma – Edmund the Strong, his eldest, Edgar, Edwig and lastly Edward the Good – were chosen to succeed him.

King Edmund now gathered a great army and marched against King Knut. They met at a place called Sherston in one of the most famous battles of the time, with heavy loss of life on either side: king Edmund charged straight into the heart of the Danish army, to within striking distance of his step-father, King Knut. Knut thrust forward his shield right over the neck of his horse and the stroke landed on the shield just below the handgrip with such force that it sliced right through the shield, and the horse too, as deep as the shoulder. After that, the Danes attacked Edmund so fiercely he had to retreat to his own ranks, though he had killed a good many of the Danes without suffering much in the way of wounds himself.

When King Edmund’s charge had taken him out of sight of his men, they thought he must have been killed, being unable to see him. Then they broke ranks and ran, though some of them caught a glimpse of the king riding away from the Danes. However, they all fled, even those who had seen him, and though the king shouted to them to turn back no-one showed any sign of hearing him. The whole English army was routed and a terrible slaughter followed, with the Danes pursuing the fleeing troops until nightfall, as Ottar the Black tells:

Young warrior, it was you
made them yield, those Angles,
you toppled them at the Tees,
where the trench with Northumbrian
corpses was cluttered,
then southward the crow’s
sleep was unsettled.
by Svein’s son at Sherston.

Earl Ulf s escape

11. As usual, Earl Ulf was among the foremost of King Knut’s men and pursued the fleeing enemy further than anyone else. Then he found himself in this forest, so dense that though he tried all night, he could discover no way out until daylight came. Then on some open ground before him he saw a full-grown youngster herding a flock of sheep. The Earl approached him and asked his name.

” I’m called Godwin” he answered. “Are you one of King Knut’s men?”

“I am that;’ said Earl Ulf, “I’m one of his army. How far is it from here to our ships?”

“I don’t think you Danes can expect much help from our side;” said the youngster, “I think you can expect something quite different.”

“All the same, lad,” said Earl Ulf, “I’d be glad if you could help me get back to our ships.”

“You’ve been going in quite the opposite direction from the ships;” said the youngster, “deep into the thick forest where Knut’s men are none too popular with the locals: not without good reason, either, from their point of view. The people hereabouts have heard of the slaughter at Sherston yesterday, so if the farmers find you, neither you nor any of King Knut’s men can expect them to offer you terms. Still, it seems to me your life may yet be well worth saving, for I don’t think you’re the same man you make yourself out to be.”

At that, the earl took a gold bracelet from his arm.

“Guide me back to my people;” he said, “and I’ll give you this bracelet.”

Godwin looked at him for a moment, then replied slowly.

“I won’t take the ring;” he said, “but I’ll try to get you back to your men. If I manage to help you out, I’d rather you were in my debt: but if I can’t be of use to you, there’ll be no need for any reward. Now, first of all you must come home with me and see my father.”

And that was what they did.

When they reached the farmstead, they went into the smaller living-room, where Godwin had a table set up and good drink served. As Earl Ulf could see, it was a fine, well-furnished farmhouse. Then the farmer and his wife came in, handsome, well-dressed people. They welcomed their guest warmly and he spent the rest of the day enjoying the best of hospitality. When it was growing dark, two good horses were fitted out with the finest riding-gear. Then they had a word with Ulf.

“We’ll say goodbye to you;” said the farmer. “I’m putting my one and only son in your hands. If you get back to your king, and if your words have any weight, I want you to find him a place in service: no matter how I get out of this myself, he can’t stay here any longer if our local people discover that he’s helped you to escape.”

Godwin being a handsome, well-spoken fellow, Earl Ulf promised to let him join his company. The farmer’s name was Wulfnot.

Earl Ulf and his companion rode throughout the night, reaching King Knut’s ships just after dawn. The men were ashore, and when they saw and recognized the earl they crowded round and welcomed him as if he had risen from the dead, for he was so popular everybody loved him. Only then did Godwin realise in whose company he had been.

The earl set Godwin on the high seat beside him, and treated him as equal with himself or his own son. To cut a long story short, the earl gave Godwin his own sister Gyda in marriage, and as a result of his brother-in-law Ulf’s friendship and backing, Godwin was awarded an earldom by King Knut.

These were the children of Godwin and Gyda: King Harald of England, Earl Tosti nicknamed Treespear, Earl Morkar, Earl Waltheof, and Earl Svem. Many great men from England, Denmark, Sweden and east from Russia are descended from them, including the royal house of Denmark.

Earl Godwin’s son, King Harald, had a daughter, Gyda, who married King Valdimar of Novgorod, and their son, King Harald, had two daughters of whom more will be said later.

Three battles in England

12. Yet another battle was fought by King Knut at a town called Brentford, where he won the victory after a fierce action in which the sons of Æthelred were routed, and the Danes destroyed the stronghold, as Ottar the Black says:

Shield smasher, the Frisians
you flattened , no friendship
when you crushed the castle
and their cottages at Brenford.
Cruel the cuts suffered
by the kinsman of Edmund,
as Danish spears
showered down on the shambles.

King Knut fought the third battle, a major one, against the sons of Æthelred at a place called Ashington, north of the Danes’ Woods. In the words of Ottar:

At Ashington, you worked well
in the shield-war, warrior-king;
brown was the, flesh of bodies
served to the blood-bird:
in the slaughter, you won,
sire, with your sword
enough of a name there,
north of the Danes’ Woods.

A fourth was fought by King Knut against King Edmund and his brothers at Norwich, another great battle in which many were killed, but King Knut won the day and the sons of Æthelred were routed, as Ottar the Black says:

You bloodied the breastplates,
0 bountiful, at Norwich:
better killed than accused
of lacking courage.

To London town

13. After that, King Knut marched his army to the Thames, having heard that King Edmund and his brothers had fled to London. When King Knut reached the Thames Estuary, his brother-in-law Earl Eirik Hakonarson sailed in from the open sea. There they fouled forces and sailed up-river, as Thord Kolbeinsson tells in his Lay of Eirik:

The noble marriage-knot,
was nourished, I know,
when king and earl entered
upon warlike action: up-river
ships great and small sailed:
so near shore the noble swordsman
steered the blue sea-beasts,
you could see England’s fields.

And he also composed this:

Yet again Knut
the King crashed forward
onto the shingle, smiting
the sea with his longships:
eager was the helmed-earl
to cross over the ocean
with the king that morning
merry the meeting.

Out in the Thames, a large heavily-manned fort had been built to defend the land and stop sea‑going forces from sailing up-river. King Knut set sail directly towards the fort and attacked it, but the English fleet sailed down‑river from London and engaged the Danes. These are the words of Ottar the Black:

You went forward, you defeated
the fighter, elm-bows twanged,
sharp were your swords
when you assaulted the fortress:
better still, your success
in the shallows of the Thames:
you worker of warships,
the wolf’s jaw knows it well.

Attack on London

14. King Knut led his whole force up to London and after setting up camp, made an onslaught upon the town, described in the poem composed by his own troops:

Each morning exulting
the war-maiden admires
on Thames banks the bloodstained
battle gear: the black
raven will relish
how the ravenous Dane-king
bravely batters with his blade
the British mailcoats.

And this too:

We were born and bred here
where many a brisk battler
will assume his old shattered
shirt this morning.
We still feed the English
to the ospreys of Odin;
the singer dresses swiftly
in his hammered steel shirt.

But although King Knut fought many battles there, he failed to win the town.

More fighting in England

15. Earl Eirik marched inland with some of the troops, a number of house-carles amongst them, against an English force commanded by Ulfkel the Skilled, a great leader. They met in battle and Eirik won the victory, while Ulfkel was put to flight, as Thord Kolbeinsson tells in his Lay of Eirik:

West of London the warrior
went out to war,
the famed sea, farer
fought for land;
sharp cuts had Ufkel
when clashing over the carles
steel-blue swords shone: so
smoothly my stanzas, flow.

Earl Eirik fought another battle against the English at Ringmere, described by Thord Kolbeinsson:

The sharp war sustainer
scarred the sea-soldiers’
feet and legs, fed
swollen, flesh to the raven:
oft shrewd Eirik
thinned out the English
ranks, destroyed them,
reddening Ringmere.

Earl Eirik gained a victory there, and Thord Kolbeinsson has more to say about his campaign in the Lay of Eirik:

For ages the English
were eaten up with hatred
of the raven-feeders
who foraged with their, fleet:
but the farmers, fretting
to defend their frelds
stood firm: fiercely
the King’s men fought them.

Division of England

16. King Knut laid siege to London, which was defended by King Edmund and his brothers. Their mother, Queen Emma, was married to King Knut, and eventually hostages were exchanged by the two sides, and a truce agreed so that they could talk matters over and negotiate a lasting settlement. Peace was agreed at this meeting on these terms, that the country should be divided between them, each taking charge of half the kingdom during his lifetime, and if either of them were to die without issue, the survivor was to have the whole kingdom: this agreement was confirmed by oath.

There was a powerful man called Edric Strjona who accepted a bribe from King Knut to betray and murder King Edmund, and that is how the king met his death, though Edric was his foster-father and trusted by Edmund as he trusted his own self. After this, King Knut drove all the sons of Æthelred out of England. Many battles were fought as a result of this, but after King Edmund had been killed they could never muster a large enough force against King Knut. As the poet Sigvat says in the Lay of Knut:

Knut the King
soon crushed the sons
of Æthelred, cleared them
clean from the country.
This text comes from Knytlinga Saga: The History of the Kings of Denmark, translated by Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards (Odense University Press, 1986). We thank Odense University Press and Hermann Palsson for giving us their permission to republish this section.


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