HUNDING'S SAGA - 37: KNUT WINS AT ASSANDUN, Ironside's Crown now for the taking?
Eadric's loyalty to Eadmund wavers under threat
'Eadmund's fyrd is on the march! - They are close to Maldun and using the road through the marshes'.
The rider leapt from his saddle on seeing Knut Sveinsson and went down on one knee. 'My Lord King, the Aenglish king Eadmund is close by, almost in Maldun* with hundreds of men. Hundreds more are close to Colneceaster, marching south on us!'
'Up, on your feet and tell me everything you know', Knut bade the rider stand and listened closely. On either side of him stood Eirik of Hladir and Thorkell 'Havi'.
Nearby men armed themselves, unhurriedly. They had been given a hiding on the north Centland coast near Sceapig, but were sure Knut would lead them to win this time. Hunding felt it in his bones, as he was sure Tofig and Herjolf did too. This would be their day.
'Who leads the men coming down from Colneceaster*?' Knut asked.
'The banner they march behind has a golden serpent on it, my Lord Knut', the rider answered, and looked to Thorkell, wondering where this would lead to. 'And another banner has a yellow cross'.
'And what banner does the fyrd have, that marches on us from the west?' Knut was not looking at the rider now, but northward... Could he see something there?
'They march behind a red serpent'.
'The West Seaxans and Miercans*', Thorkell spoke up. 'Why are they coming from different roads?'
'King Eadmund and Ealdorman Eadric come from other parts of the kingdom, I would guess', Eirik cut in, looking to Knut, who turned then.
'Highly likely, aye! Eadric has crossed the Danelaw shires from Ceaster*, around the southern rim of the high hills by way of Leagerceaster*. We march north from here and block Eadric, then we turn west to take on Eadmund', Knut cupped his hands over his lightly bearded chin and thought hard. Then he asked the rider. 'What is the lie of the land to the north of here?'
'Low hills to the north and north east, marshy ground to east and west by the river bank, my Lord', the rider thought, looking into the air, trying hard to remember. He had ridden furiously across the baked earth of the lower hills, through dried low flood plain and onto the 'island' of Assandun* before threading his way through woodland to where Knut awaited word from all his riders. The other two had shown, tired and mud-spattered from across the marshes to west and east, given him their news and left it to him to pass everything on to their lord.
'Very well, we march through the woodlands to the higher ground and await Eadric 'Streona'. He will think we are hiding more men in the woods', Knut told Eirik and Thorkell. 'Ealdorman Eadric will not take us on if he thinks he has a hard fight ahead of him. He is a coward at heart, but wishes for gain at any cost. We will give him gain one day - soon'.
'How is that?' Eirik stared at his leader.
'We will offer him silver to fill his coffers', Knut told him in disarmingly simple manner. It sounded too easy to be true. 'You, Eirik, Thorkell and I will ride to the fore and give him cause to think it is the best he can do. He will not fight us for the silver, hoping for his king to beat us instead and he will gain. I know this Eadric only too well. He has no inner strength no real will to fight. He has let down his king before, and I do not doubt Eadmund does not trust him overmuch either'.
The three of them laughed, as did those nearest who heard. The rest readied themselves for the march in the last heat of the afteryear*. Dust rose under the horses' hooves and the men's boot-shod feet in a waist-high cloud until they reached the woods. Their road became a track, bushes and oak saplings growing where once the track had been wider. Booted feet scuffed stones and long-reaching, gnarled tree roots threatened to trip the unwary.
With the northern rim of the woodland in sight knut raised his right arm to halt the column. Eirik and Thorkell told those behind them to fan out across the woodland's northern edge whilst the rest were told to stand in the shade of the trees around them, to stand looking warlike for the sake of their Miercan foe.
Spearheads and helms glistened in the hot, early afternoon sun, bobbing up and down. Eadric's men were on the march. They halted a half mile short of the woods and Ealdorman Eadric rode forward, ahead of his thegns to talk. Knut sent Hunding and Tofig ahead. Hunding knew the Aenglish tongue of the Miercans, so different to that of the Centishmen and Seaxans. When the young king-to-be thought he understood Eadric, he pressed his mount forward and spoke,
'Ealdorman Eadric, you understand we have the woods behind crawling with spear-Danes who are only too willing to surge forward and spill your thin Miercan blood?'
Eadric looked over Knut's shoulder, and back to the Dane, and asked,
'You would have me believe you have a whole wood full of men - that I cannot see? What feeble joke is this?'
Knut raised his right arm and hundreds of men, the first ranks with Thorkell stood up straight, spears, swords, axes glinting in the sunlight that shone through the trees. He raised his left arm and Eirik stood with the front ranks of his men,
'Tofig, give my men -' Knut began.
'Very well then, I believe you. What will you have me do? My king comes from the west, I should not be seen lacking in the will to fight you', Eadric showed his true colours. He knew how to talk, very well. Could - or would - he fight?
'We have silver', Knut beckoned forward two of his warriors with a small, stone-studded chest and told them, 'Open the chest'.
Eadric stared hard at the heaped gold and silver coins that the two Danes held up for him, as if he could not believe his eyes. He looked up at Knut, who told him there were two other chests like it. Eadric swallowed. He thought hard, or tried to look as though he were thinking hard about whether he should betray Eadmund again.
'Close the chests and take them back to the ships', Knut told his men. He only had the one chest full of coin, the other two - true to Knut's word - like it - but filled with stones picked up from the Colneceaster road.
'Wait', Eadric halted, stroked his beard, began again. 'Wait, we can talk perhaps?'
'Talk - about what, Ealdorman Eadric?' Knut knew only too well what kind of talking was meant. The 'how' was all that was missing. Another rider came from the west, through the wood, but was halted by one of Thorkell's men halfway through the woods, out of sight of Eadric. The rider was told to dismount and tell Thorkell what he came about and Thorkell sent one of his own men forward. Could Eadric understand the Danish as spoken in Halland or Skaane?
Knut heard the man out whilst Eadric looked on, trying to look disinterested. His ears were wagging, though, like a puppy's! The news passed on, Knut thanked the fellow and turned to look at Eadric,
'Your king has halted to the west of Maldun', Knut lied. 'They have put up tents for the night'.
Eadric looked crestfallen suddenly. Had he hoped for Eadmund to press on and take Knut's left flank, he must have felt let down. The silver would be tainted with the blood of Aenglishmen after all! He looked deep in thought and Knut knew the ealdorman was held fast, as with a shield-rivet.
'Go back to your men, seek their counsel and we will talk again', Knut sounded as though he were trying to be helpful. This was a 'game', he thought. A hard game of bluff that would only be won by the boldest. Knut was the boldest. His men stared ahead, eyes like ice, sword-arms iron-hardened by weeks of fighting.
To Eadric's eyes there were endless ranks of Danes throughout the woodland ahead of him that he could see or know the truth of, not knowing what - if anything - was behind them. He plainly did not wish to test Knut's word. In truth there were only the men from fifty-five ships. The rest were spread across the shire, the men from another fifty-five ships. Against them were untold hundreds of Eadmund's fyrd and his household warriors.
Eadric left to rejoin his thegns. They might argue with him to fight, but he held sway over them. He was the ealdorman, after all. They would not attack, nor were they going to go to the help of their king, the son of West Seaxan kings, after all. They would bide their time and await the silver their lord spoke of... Three chests-ful!.
Leaving two hundred men to the north of the woodland to ensure Eadric did not double back and go to help his king, Knut took the rest of his men and summoned the other fifty-five crews from Cealmsford and west of Maldun to attack Eadmund from the north. Fighting raged the day-long until the sun began to drop below the skyline to the west.
King Eadmund's men fought hard, pushing Knut's Danes back towards the water's edge. Some fell back onto the island to the north, but the Seaxans were spent. More of Knut's fleet came from across the mightyThemese* from northern Centland* where they had gone - thinking their comrades to be there still. And still Eadric stayed put, thinking his way blocked by a greater army, unwilling to scar their shields lest they forfeit Knut's silver.
The Seaxan king was wounded in the battle, but fought on, his men having to drag him away from defeat. And still Eadric stayed as if riveted to the south of Colneceaster. When Eadmund was put on his horse, his thegns leading, they headed west. Eadmund must have wondered if Eadric had heard his summons. Many of his own nobles did not wonder; they knew.
'Hunding I want you to take your ship with fifty others and lead them around to the west, to the Seoferna', Knut told Hunding. 'We will keep Eadmund on a westward flight beyond Lunden. He must yield sooner or later. I do not wish to make him my vassal, but that is something I shall speak to him about'.
Braendings Slange headed out of the wide mouth of the Themese and turned to steerboard, wide around Sceapig with fifty of Knut's ships, ten abreast. The wind was such that the ships were buffeted through the channel between Suth Seaxe* and Northmandige*but beyond Bosanham* their sails were filled once more, pushing the ships beyond West Wealas and to the west of the islands before turning north-east again. Straining on the oars upriver on the Seoferna* Herjolf looked back at Hunding and grinned broadly, happy with his lot.
'The fool thinks we are here for our health!' Hunding laughed, tapping Tofig to show him where Herjolf strove on his oar side-by-side with one of Tofig's friends.
'Who knows, friend. Perhaps we are here for our health. Are we here to fight? I do not think Eadmund can withstand us for much longer. The number of armies he has brought from the west and lost must have weakened their will to fight us!'
'Where do we come together with Lord Knut?' Hunding had turned to Eirik, standing at the stern.
'We are to meet upriver from here, somewhere near Glaewaceaster*', Eirik answered without turning, his eyes fixed on the shore to the south-east. 'Knut will send word'.
*Geographical references: taken from A S Chronicles, 'E', (Peterborough)
(pronounce 'ce/ca' in Ceaster/Ceadd/Mierca is modern 'ch' = Ceaster becomes 'Chester'; 'g' in mid- or word ending as 'y' , thus 'Leagerccaster' becomes 'Layerchester', now 'Leicester' (pron. 'Lester')
Maldun - Maldon, East Essex; Colneceaster - Colchester, Central Essex; Ceaster - Chester, Cheshire, near the R Dee and Welsh frontier; Leagerceaster - Leicester, East Midlands; Miercans - Mercians, Central Anglian kingdom (also Myrcans); Assandun - Ashingdon, south Essex, near Thames; Suth Seaxe/Seaxan/Seaxne - Sussex/South Saxon(s); Northmandige - Normandy; Bosanham - Bosham, West Sussex, towards Hampshire; Seoferna - Severn, river that flows into Bristol Channel between Wales and England, also flows east of Herefordshire and Shropshire; Glaewaceaster - Gloucester, southern Mercia.
No prizes for guessing 'Themese' as 'Thames';
Also: afteryear - autumn/fall; foreyear - spring, both Scandinavian references to the seasons between winter and summer
Following the Angles and Saxons through Danish invasions to the rise of the English state, new Danish takeovers and the Anglo-Danish state, Eadward and Harold, A brief reign by the uncrowned Eadgar the aetheling before England's history follows the pattern you probably know.
Names, dates, timelines and family links show you the way the bloodlines went from Cerdic's line via Aethelstan and Aethelred to Svein 'Forkbeard' and Knut
A Guide to Late Anglo-Saxon England
Eadmund 'Ironside' was Aethelred's third son by his first wife Aelfgifu. The first two, Aethelstan and Ecgberht died young. Eadmund had two sons, Eadmund and Eadward, spirited away as children first to Sweden and sent on by Knut's enemy the Swedish king Anund Jakob to Holmgard (Novgorod) and Koenungagard (Kiev). Read the story of the king who was never crowned, Eadmund's grandson Eadgar the aetheling, 'The Lost King of England' by Gabriel Ronay, published by the Boydell Press 1989, reprinted in paperback 2000, ISBN 0-85115-785-8
Next: 38 Eadmund agrees to share the crown