HUNDING'S SAGA - 34: THE HUNT, Searching for Aethelred

Unready or unable? Feeble counselling by the Witan led to costly mistakes

Aethelred II 'Unraed' or unwitting victim of his advisers' bad counsel
Aethelred II 'Unraed' or unwitting victim of his advisers' bad counsel | Source
Danish noble, a man of distinction with Knut, He could pass for Jarl (Earl) Eirik of Hladir
Danish noble, a man of distinction with Knut, He could pass for Jarl (Earl) Eirik of Hladir
Thorkell 'Havi' was one of many nobles Knut took with him - in time Thorkell would be made Earl of East Aengla before falling out with Knut and leaving again for Denmark. They were reconciled.
Thorkell 'Havi' was one of many nobles Knut took with him - in time Thorkell would be made Earl of East Aengla before falling out with Knut and leaving again for Denmark. They were reconciled.
Knut's fleet leaving the Isefjord, on the north coast of Sjaelland, into the Kattegat with the sun in the east
Knut's fleet leaving the Isefjord, on the north coast of Sjaelland, into the Kattegat with the sun in the east
Leaving the Skagerrak around Skagen on the north of Jylland on the way south-west to the Hymbra. Knut would take oaths of loyalty at Gagnesburh (Gainsborough) where he landed with his father in 1013 before going on to claim the crown.
Leaving the Skagerrak around Skagen on the north of Jylland on the way south-west to the Hymbra. Knut would take oaths of loyalty at Gagnesburh (Gainsborough) where he landed with his father in 1013 before going on to claim the crown.

'Gunnlaug was good, was she?' Eirik asked in the morning, smiled sidelong at Hunding and drained his ale cup.

They were seated near the hearth close to the top table, Tofig and Herjolf across the table. The young Svear giant slurped his porridge loudly. When he let go his wooden spoon on the wooden board he had a ring of porridge around his lips, beard coated with oats and ewe's milk.

'Wipe your mouth!' Eirik hissed, 'The king is coming, and he does not want oafs like you putting him off his morning meal!'

Herjolf hurriedly wiped his mouth on his sleeve and Tofig groaned through hands held over his eyes. Hunding stifled his laughter as Harald strode by, smiling and nodding to those nobles already seated at the benches nearby.

Knut next strode past Eirik and Hunding, shaking hands with newly-arrived men he needed to help him take Aethelred's crown. He and his father Svein had emptied the Seaxan king's coffers with Danegeld, now he - with the help of a newer, greater fleet - sought to rid the infant kingdom of what he deemed a burden. The morning had dawned with a sharp chill; soon it would no longer be safe to cross the sea and Knut knew he had to make that crossing soon, to put Aethelred off his stride. There were men from Skaane here, from Halland and even Svear from the south who had heard their neighbours speak of gold for sword-skills. Men came even from as far away as the eastern lakes of the Svear kingdom, just as their fathers and uncles had done for Svein when he first set out over ten years earlier.

When Svein had died suddenly at Gagnesburh in the Danelaw the year before, to a man everyone in the fleet gave his support to young Knut, the Spear-Danes' war-leader. They had to come back to the kingdom to call for new men, as the Danelaw thegns had been made to give their oaths to Aethelred. Chief amongst the Aenglish nobles who had brought Aethelred back from Northmandige was Eadric 'Streona', who had earlier given his oath to Svein. Use would be made of Eadric, Knut swore, before he dealt the Miercan ealdorman his wyrd. He would first see which way the wind blew, which blades of grass waved more than others and which way the foe first stepped. Firstly he would make safe the burhs - such as Jorvik - that held with him.

For the time being there were ships to make ready, food, ale and drinking water to store aboard the ships. Hunding sat up as Knut came level with him,

'Is Braendings Slange seaworthy, Hunding?' he was asked first.

'She is, my Lord Knut', he answered without thinking.

'Would you think of coming with me, to Gagnesburh?' Knut asked next.

'I must first make landfall in Jorvik, my Lord, to give Osferth and Wulfstan the swordsmith their due', Hunding answered. He would share the profit from his trading at Kaupang amongst the crew.

'Now you are a wealthy fellow, you can plot your own course in life, surely?' Knut hovered, unsettling Hunding. He was not altogether at home amongst nobles and those of the king's blood.

Eirik caught his breath, wondering how Hunding would answer, but another answered for him,

'He has a duty to his trading partners, my Lord Knut', Tofig put in. 'We must honour our agreements, must we not?'

'Hunding has the makings of a nobleman', Knut smiled and patted Hunding's right shoulder as he passed, on towards the king's board.

Eirik breathed out again,

'You lead a charmed life, Hunding. With friends such as you have, you will be an old man before God claims your soul'.

'I am lucky with my friends', Hunding dipped his spoon into the porridge, blew on the small mound and took it into his mouth. He smiled as the hot oatmeal slipped down inside his throat.

'Stay lucky', Eirik rose and ambled along the ranks of benches toward Harald and Knut.

Tofig followed Eirik with his eyes, and winked at Hunding, telling him,

'We are one another's luck'.

'True', Hunding took another mouthful and raised his beaker of ale. 'To luck'.

'To luck', Herjolf laughed, raised his own beaker and took a long draught, slamming down the beaker on the table to hard it shook, the noise echoing around the hall.

'Oaf!' Hunding hissed, and smiled as his eyes caught others staring.

Tofig laughed and slurped some of his ale, spilling some down his tunic, then leaned forward and whispered hoarsely,.

'You spent the night with the king's sister?'

Hunding smiled again and tapped his nose with his right forefinger, saying,

'Later... I will tell you, but there will be eager ears flapping in here'.

'As if anybody could hear anything in here', Aesc flopped down onto the bench next to Hunding. 'Is there anybody sitting here?'

'There was, but Eirik is with the king now', Tofig told him and Hunding half turned to see, as Odd brushed past him and sat on the other side of him from Aesc.

'What is there to eat? I could swallow down a horse whole after all that drinking last night!'.Odd blithely told them. 'I had not thought these Danes so open-handed'.

'Careful, Odd!' Aesc warned as Ealdwin came in, looked around and saw everyone he knew was near the hearth. He loped along the bench-ends and pushed in next to Herjolf.

'Help yourself to porridge', Tofig pointed to a great smoke-blackened pot on the other side of the hearth, seething and bubbling. 'There is a ladle at the hearth-side'.

Aesc and Ealdwin made off for the porridge pot, as Odd turned back from staring around in the half-dark. He looked askance at Herjolf, who shrugged. Tofig pointed to his right and Odd looked.

'What?' Odd asked.

'Your friends', Tofig said.

'My friends, what?' Odd looked annoyed.

'Your friends are over there, helping themselves to porridge', Tofig told him, annoyed, just as Aesc came back to the bench.

'You want to eat', Aesc told Odd. 'We do not know when - or where - we will eat next'.

Later Eirik came back to the bench and stared down as Aesc.

'Move over', Hunding hissed.

''I am eating', Aesc pulled apart a piece of chicken.

Tofig leaned over toward him and warned,

'Move over while you can still eat'.

Aesc sullenly moved sideways to allow Eirik onto the bench next to Hunding. The older man said nothing to Aesc, but told Hunding he should keep his underlings in order, and added,

'We will be sailing early in the morning. The sea beyond Jylland will not be flat calm, but the time of the year is fast looming when sudden storms can hit us on our way across. There will be times when we will curse our maker, but on the whole we should have an easy crossing', Eirik finished. 'Aesc has an appetite, has he not?'

Eirik grinned toothlessly down at the Aenglishman as he stood and left their bench. Aesc looked up briefly and set to attacking his chicken again with relish.

Morning dawned grey and a sharp chill wind from the east cut through men's bones. The shoreline was full of ships to east and west of Braendings Slange; men strode back and forth with tools, weapons, chests. Nobles chatted together on their way to the foreshore, and Harald followed with Knut. Behind them men gathered, ready to board their ships.

The late summer morning was almost gone by the time the last of the fleet showed at the mouth of the Roskilde Fjord, skirting the land in a wide 'S' out into the Kattegat. By that time the leading ships behind Knut's own slid through the choppy sea between Jylland and Anholt with the wind out of the south-east. Tofig had the beitass out on Braending's Slange to catch the edge of the wind and swing the prow on a north-westerly course to pass by Laesoe again When the fleet rounded Skagen's ness the light had begun to fail in the west. They would have to put into one of the inlets on the west coast, perhaps in the Nissum Bredning. A great fleet like this needed to be kept on a broad front between Jylland and the Danelaw coast south of the Hymbra.

Gagnesburh lay on the banks of the Hymbra and the Treonta, where the one flowed from north-eastward, from the Ose past the Hvarfe on its western bank, and the Deorewent on the northern bank near Richale. The other snaked across the land from the mountains in the west. The sea was like a plate of iron when they showed from a bank of mist in the morning, to the north Deira and to the south Lindisse. Deira was now better known from its links with Eirik Haralfsson and Sigtrygg Silkeskegg as the kingdom of Jorvik, even though it had an ealdorman who paid taxes to King Aethelred. Few in Jorvik, aside from the ealdorman and his thegns, saw Aethelred as their king. Lunden and West Seaxe was so far away, well beyond Mierca in the west and the Danelaw in the east. King Aelfred had left Northanhymbra to its own wyrd in handing the land east of Watling Straet to Guthrum. Beornica, north of the Tese was now the only part of the kingdom where the Aengla still dwelt without any sign of the Danes amongst its folk.

Knut made landfall at Gagnesburh in the afternoon, but the thegns did not flock to him from the Five Burhs in the south, nor were there many from Jorvik in the north. There were thegns from Treske between the hills to east and west, others from further north where the Tese flows into the sea and still more from Holdernaes in the east, south of Skarthiburh where two bays meet around a broad hill.

Hunding's ship made landfall a couple of days later, where Knut had made camp near the banks of the Treonta. He and Tofig, with the rest of the crew, hastened to where the Danes gathered around Knut and a number of Danelaw thegns from Lindisse and further west.

'What has happened here?' Knut asked one of the few thegns, who had bothered to make the ride from Deoraby. Homes lay in ruins, land stood idle with only weeds growing everywhere.

'When you left last year, my Lord, King Aethelred came back from Northmandige with his new queen and took his revenge on them for holding to you. His son Eadmund told them they would profit from him and they have flocked to his banners. Now Eadmund is set to fight both you and his father'.

'I thank you for being honest with me. Why is it you have showed to welcome me?'

'I am not here to welcome you, my Lord. My task was to break the bad news, but I am no great friend of either Aethelred or Eadmund. They are both West Seaxans and I have no fondness for them. Should you give me an undertaking that you will offer them better than Eadmund, I can spread the word quickly', the thegn boldly told Knut.

Thorkel Havi behind him muttered threats and offered to cut off the man's ears for being so bold, but Knut would have none of it,

'The fellow trusts to my fairness, Thorkel. If I punish him he will send word everywhere that I am not to be trusted. I want these men on my side', Knut turned back to the thegn and asked his name.

'I am Thegn Tovi, my Lord'.

'Thegn Tovi I would thank you for being open with me, but first I shall ask if you will fight by my side?' Knut smiled at the man's honesty.

'Why would I do that?' Thegn Tovi asked outright.

'You would do that for me because I know this kingdom to be worth more than the way either Aethelred or Eadmund see it. They see this kingdom as a means to enrich themselves', Knut answered, still smiling. 'A king must put something into the land in order to gain from his kingship. His stewardship will being rewards to all for enriching the kingdom'.

'Suppose I had been talked into fighting by your side, my Lord, what would I gain?' Tovi was treading on soft soil here, almost like walking on eggshells. Several of Knut's nobles behind him looked on Tovi as if they might be ready to cut him down.

'If the kingdom gains with me at its helm, so will you', Knut's smile was now wearing thin.

'Very well, my Lord, I am yours to show the road to greater wealth', Thegn Tovi bowed his head to Knut, as did the men with him.

'Now, where is your king?' Knut was now wreathed in smiles at this testy thegn's boldness. He knew Tovi would hold with him, all he needed now were a few thousand others.

'King Aethlred is in the south, as ever. We never see him here', Tovi sneered. 'He hardly knew where Lindcylne or Deoraby was, let alone Gagnesburh! I hope we can talk many more thegns into joining you, or Eadmund might yet win the day without his father!'

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Glossary and geography: pronounce 'g' in mid-word as 'y', 'Gagnesburh'; 'y' as 'umlaut' 'u', 'Jylland' (Yuelland); 'd' after 'n' not pronounced; 'Hv' as heavy/breathy 'v'; 'ae' as 'ey'; 'oe' as umlaut 'o'; in 'ld' as in Roskilde, 'd' not pronounced; 'aa' as 'aw' (law), 'Skaane'; 'sj' - 'sy' as in 'Sjaelland'

Aenglish - English; Danegeld - minted coins handed over by Aethelred to avoid invasion (protection money); Anholt - isle in Kattegat midway between Jutland and Halland; Danelaw - eastern English shires between the Wash and Humber; Deoraby - Derby, on R. Trent west of Nottingham; Deorewent - R Derwent, flows south into Humber past Riccall; Five Burhs - Five Boroughs, main Danish settlements of Danelaw (Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, Stamford); Gaegnesburh - Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, near confluence of R. Trent and Ouse; Halland - Danish holding east across the sea from Sjaelland (now Sweden); Hvarfe - R Wharfe, flows east past Tadcaster into Ouse; Hymbra - R. Humber, between Yorks. and Lincs.; Jylland - Jutland; Kaupang - trading haven on west side of Oslo Fjord; Kattegat - seaway to the south of Skagerrak between Jutland and Sweden; Lindcylne - Lincoln, main burh of Lindisse - Lindsey, northern third of Lincolnshire; Northmandige - Normandy; Ose - R Ouse, flows through York south-east to Humber; Roskilde - Danish royal seat in 11th C; Skaane - across the Oresund from Copenhagen; Skagen, Skagen Point - northernmost tip of Jutland; Skagerrak - seaway northward between Jutland and Norway, westward from Sweden; Snotingaham - Nottingham; Svear - Swedes; Treonta - R. Trent, flows north past Gainsborough into Humber;

Thegns - or thanes, minor nobles below earls and ealdormen (earlier English rank before earls), wrongly ascribed by Shakespeare to Macbeth, who was 'Mormaer of Moray', early mediaeval Scots' equivalent of Prince of Wales


As Aethelred succeeded to the throne at the tender age of 10 he relied heavily on the counsel of the Witan, 'the Wise Ones', being Churchmen and nobles (ealdormen, supplanted by Knut with Earls after the Danish fashion). His decision to follow their counsel on ridding him of his Danish subjects resulted in the St Brice's Day Massacre, 13th November, AD 1002, in which many prominent Anglo-Danes and Danes were slain on his orders. One of these was Gunnhild, daughter of King Harald Gormsson, sister of Svein 'Forkbeard' Haraldsson.


Next - 35: King Eadmund Betrayed

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