HUNDING'S SAGA - 36: AETHELRED'S SON TAKES THE KINGSHIP - 'Ironside' Fights On
Eastertide passed with Knut's leaders pressing Aethelred's men into a corner of the kingdom.
Knut was not in a laughing mood when Olaf Haraldsson showed downriver from Lunden Brycg with three ships. When Olaf first showed below the bridge the Danes loosed off their arrows into the ships, killing a few of his crew. Then the three ships rode the tide back downriver to jeering from the bridge.
Braendings Slange was moored upriver of the bridge and Hunding stood on the bridge together with Tofig and Herjolf, watching as the three ships inched upriver again against the strong tidal flow.
'What are they up to now?' Stood close to the northern end of the bridge beside Hunding Tofig shielded his eyes against the low morning sun and watched as Olaf's ships neared the bridge. Arrows rained down on the ships, but this time there were thatched roofs over the decks to keep the oarsmen safe. 'God - get some torches!'
'Why do we need torches in broad daylight?' someone mocked.
'Fool! - to send fire arrows down on that thatch, what else?' Tofig answered, but too late. The bridge lurched as the three ships pulled it away from its moorings in mid-river. Hunding lost his footing and fell to his knees, saving himself from falling into the fast-running water by gripping tightly on the bridge railings. Herjolf caught Tofig before he fell between the decking planks, keeping himself from falling by bracing his legs and clutching at the rail a few feet away from Hunding.
Too late fire arrows flew into the air from the Suthgeweorce end of the bridge, but the ships were already too far downriver, heading fast for Weappinga with spars and joists from the bridge bobbing in the wake of Olaf's ship, the others having already pulled in their grappling hooks. Olaf stood beside his steersman, laughing at us whilst those men splashing about in the river tried to reach the ropes their comrades held out for them. Some sadly drowned, however.
Nevertheless with Knut's army on both banks of the Themese, Aethelred was well and truly boxed in. Knut had pushed upriver against the king's fyrd, and then this upstart shows with his grappling irons and hauls the bridge piers away from under the Danes' feet. Unbeknown to Knut, Olaf had some time ago struck up a friendship with Aethelred. Not many of the Lunden folk knew about this friendship, either, and would have cheerfully loosed off slingshot at the outsiders. Aethelred died before Knut could reach him to demand the crown.
Eadmund, the king's eldest by his first wife Aelfgifu, was now king and Knut felt he had to show something for his and his men's efforts. Thorkel 'Havi' emptied the eastern shires of those loyal to Aethelred and Eadmund, and now Eadmund slipped through Knut's fingers again.
'God, I wish I had more men!' Knut swore. Eirik of Hladir merely nodded. Thorkell grunted.
'We need more silver for that', Eirik offered after thinking for a short time.
'Is that what I give you command for, old man?' Knut shook his head and swore under his breath.
'Where is this new king, Eadmund?' Thorkell asked finally, looking across the dancing flames at Knut. 'Do we know?'
'For all I know he is on his way west to summon more men', Knut answered glumly.
'He is in the west, near Oxnaford', Hunding had heard something on his way to where Knut and the other leaders awaited word of the whereabouts of the 'Iron-sided' son of Aethelred.
Knut looked up, stared at Hunding, glowered sidelong at Eirik and demanded to know how Hunding knew.
'Word has it, he has five thousand men. They have pushed all your men eastward from Wiltun and Readingum', Hunding answered boldly. He had learned that Knut took counsel from those who answered as equals. 'We only have three thousand on this side of the kingdom, my Lord Knut'.
'How is it he knows, and you do not?!' Knut scolded Eirik, glared at Thorkell and kicked at one of the glowing logs at his side of the hearth.
'Who told you?' Eirik asked Hunding.
'I listened in to what men said to one another in inn near here', Hunding gave Eirik a sideways glance, and sensed Thorkell rising from the bench across from him, stretching and stamping one foot on the boards beneath his feet.
'No use stamping like a spoilt chiid!' Knut chided.
'Burning ember, my Lord', Thorkell grinned. 'We would not want to see this hall go up in smoke, would we?'
Knut grinned back slyly. He had half a mind to let Aethelred's hall burn to a cinder, but they needed somewhere to eat and drink.
'Needs must, so they say', Knut laughed. 'We cross the river, southward. Have they rebuilt the bridge yet?'
'As much as we need', Eirik answered. 'Why do we need bridges if we have ships?'
'Our ships are further away from us than Eadmund's men', Hunding told Eirik.
'Then we need the bridge!' Knut looked meaningfully at Eirik.
'Come, then. We must get our men across the river before they are cut to ribbons by Eadmund's', Thorkell made for the doorway.
'What is between us and Eadmund?' Knut asked Hunding.
Eirik scratched his beard fiercely, looking upward at the dark rafters, and answered slowly, trying to think.
'There are men at Bregentforda'.
'Whose are they, will they stand?' Knut wanted to know.
'They are mixed, Danes and Danelaw Aenglish under several of heir thegns. They will not stand for long if they know we are pulling back', Eirik peered through the dim, smoky light of the hall.
'They will stand!' Thorkell growled. 'They had better stand, or I shall follow them down to Hell and split their skulls myself!'
The men at Bregentforda pulled back when told they could by Eirik of Hladir's rider, who narrowly missed being cut down himself as they rode eastward through the hamlet, arrows and spears whistling around their ears.
'We stand here', Knut told them grimly.
As it happened, Eadmund drew back into West Seaxe again for more men to drive the Danes out of his kingdom. Knut, Eirik and Thorkell drew breath again, unsure of where Aethelred's heir would strike from next. The Danes' siege of Lunden was renewed until Knut was pushed into Centland by a furious onslaught from the west again. They were pursued to Sceapig, where many of Knut's men fell.
'Winter is not long away', Eirik spat on the earth, nodding at flying geese on their way south.
Fog crept across the water from the wide river Themese. The East Seaxan shore could barely be made out to the north. Where Eadmund's men were camped was higher ground, and the Danes knew an attack was near.
'Eadmund's ships have been seen to the east', Thorkell smirked, 'close to our own. We will show them how to fight at sea!'
'I want them to come and take us from this bleak isle, to take us across the river', Knut snarled at Thorkell. 'Let them forget about the Aenglish ships for now until we are safe. Hunding will not let me down now!'
Arrows began to fly, dropping from the heavens onto Knut's men, unaware of what was happening until dozens lay dead on the flat, marshy land.
'God, Hunding, where are you?' Knut cursed. His men formed up into a shieldwall, hopeful of rescue, fearing the worst.
'Sails, to the north-east!' someone called out, pointing across the grey bleakness of the broad rivermouth.
'Where?' Knut turned to see, and a finger wagged toward where 'Braendings Slange' made for them with a large fleet to either side.
Eadmund's arrows no longer fell as thickly, but some nevertheless found their mark. Ealdorman Eadric had taken his own men behind Knut's back and thrown in their lot with Eadmund. Whilst Knut still had use for him, he would just as likely forsake his king again.
A long line of shields ranged along the bank of the narrow waterway, enough to show the foe they were not fleeing. When most of the men were aboard the ships, the shieldwall was pulled back and arrows flew anew. Fists shook in Eadmund's shieldwall, spears were hurled in a last-ditch attack but the Danes were pulling away now, and bowmen picked off those foolhardy enough to come within range.
'Where are we headed, Hunding?' Eirik asked, looking back over one shoulder.
'Eadmund's ships lie in a long chain toward the northern bank of the river, so we would be foolish to try to break that. There are more behind. We are headed for Maldun, and overland to Assandun, the only part of the marsh high enough for the Aenglish not to be able to take'.
'Did Knut tell you to make for there?' Thorkell wringled his nose. To his thinking they were no better off.
'There is a stronghold there, my Lord, that we can use. An island within a marsh. If it rains, Eadmund's men will be hard-pressed not to sink in!' Hunding laughed.
'And if it does not rain?' Thorkell peered at Hunding in the faling light.
'We are still higher on the ground than those around us', Hunding answered. Tofig nodded behind him.
'You know this stronghold?' Eirik asked.
'I have been there, trading with the thegn who held the land from the king. The stronghold was built by the Aenglish to keep out Danes', Tofig grinned lopsidedly, and laughed with Thorkell and Eirik.
'To keep out the Danes!' Eirik laughed out loudly.
'Then we must show them we will not be kept out!' Knut was now forward near the prow, having spoken with Hunding about where they would make landfall. 'The ships to our east have not moved, so they are only there to see we do not sail back out of the rivermouth. They want a fight, so we give way to them!'
Landing near the causeway, now in plain sight, the men scrambled ashore to gather around the banners of Knut, Eirik of Hladir and Thorkell 'Havi'. Under orders from Knut the ship-masters were told to stand offshore until signalled. A rider had been sent north overland from Lunden, to summon more ships. Hopefully, Knut thought, they would round the coast soon and scare Eadmund's crews away. The men strode across the land for the stronghold of Assandun behind Knut, darkness drawing in now. They would await Eadmund there, and see who still stood when the last arrows fell.
Hunding, Tofig and Herjolf were with Eirik's men, Knut and his men ahead, Thorkell's men to their west to ward off any attacks made in the darkness. Hunding wondered who would bring the new ships to their aid?
Next - 37: Assandun and a Crown
Glossary of place names (pronunciation guide first: 'cg' = 'dge' as in brycg, bridge; 'ce' as 'ch' in 'Suthgeweorce' - Southwark; 'g' in mid- or word-end = said as 'y', 'Bregentforda' - Brentford; 'C' in Centland is pronounced as 'K')
Lunden Brycg - London Bridge; Suthgeweorce - Southwark, south side of London Bridge; Waeppinga - Wapping; Themese - Thames; Oxnaford - Oxford; Wiltun - Wilton; Readingum - Reading; Bregentforda - Brentford; Seaxe - the early Saxon kingdoms were East Seaxe (now Essex), Middilseaxe (Middlesex, now Greater London), Suth Seaxe (South Saxon, now Sussex - East and West), West Seaxe - West Saxon, now Hampshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Berkshire; Centland - Kent, Jutish kingdom overrun by Wessex; Maldun - Maldon; Assandun - Ashingdon
One of the most influential kings of mediaeval Europe in general, Denmark in particular, Knut was king of England first. His common law wife Aelfgifu of Northampton bore him two sons, Svein and Harold. When older brother Harald died Knut took the reins of an 'empire' that stretched from Devon to Gotland south-western Sweden, and southern Norway. He attended to matters of state as an 'elector' to the Holy Roman Emperor and in 1027 attended the coronation of Conrad in Rome. Daughter Gunnhild was wedded to Emperor Conrad in 1036 after Knut's death.
Cnut the Great
With Aethelred gone, Eadmund knew the throne was his...
If he could only shake off the Danes. This would be a harder task than he foresaw. Knut was equally set on becoming king in England. His older brother Harald had inherited the Danish crown from their father Svein 'Forkbeard' after his death at Gainsborough in 1014. Knut felt he should aim for the top and his men would be well rewarded for standing by him. Unusually there were even Swedes who came with him in search of riches and/or land - as they did earlier that century with his father Svein 'Forkbeard' to collect the Danegeld.
Eadmund's clashes with Knut would go on until 1016, after the last battle in the Severn Valley in Gloucestershire. He would die of wounds suffered at Assandun (Ashingdon, near the Thames in south Essex) after agreeing to share the throne with Knut.
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