Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Edmund (981?-1016)

EDMUND or EADMUND, called Ironside (981?–1016), king, the third son, probably, of Æthelred the Unready, by his first wife, Ælfgifu, daughter either of an ealdorman named Æthelberht (Flor. Wig. i. 275), or of Thored, earl of the Northumbrians (Ailred, col. 362), is said by the St. Albans compiler to have been born in 981 (Chron. Maj. sub ann.); but this date is certainly too early, as Æthelred was then not more than thirteen. Æthelstan, who seems to have been Æthelred's eldest son, probably died in 1016, and Ecgberht, who came next, about 1005 (Norman Conquest, i. 686, 700). In 1015 Eadmund desired to marry Ealdgyth, the widow of the Danish earl Sigeferth, who, along with his fellow earl Morkere, had that year been slain at Oxford by Eadric Streona [see under Edric]. Æthelred, who had seized on the possessions of the earls, and had sent Ealdgyth to Malmesbury, was not willing that his son should make this marriage. Nevertheless Eadmund took Ealdgyth from Malmesbury, married her, and then went to the Five (or Seven) Boroughs of the Danish confederacy, where the murdered earls had ruled, and received the submission of the people. It seems highly probable that this marriage, and the establishment of his power in the Danish district, deeply offended his brother-in-law Eadric, the Mercian earl (Green); for, when Cnut invaded the country shortly afterwards, and Eadmund raised an army to meet him and joined forces with Eadric, a bitter quarrel broke out between them, and the earl, after having, it is said, endeavoured to slay him, went over to the side of Cnut. After this desertion Eadmund was unable to defend Mercia in the beginning of 1016, for his levies declared that they would not fight unless he was joined by the king, who had lately been sick, and by the Londoners. He tried to raise another force, declaring that all who disobeyed his summons should suffer the full penalty, and sent to his father desiring him to come and help him. Æthelred came, did no good, and went back to London. Eadmund then retired into Northumbria, joined Earl Uhtred, and with his help harried Staffordshire and other parts of eastern Mercia which had submitted to Cnut. Uhtred was compelled to draw off his forces and hasten back to his own earldom, for Cnut was marching on York, and Eadmund joined his father in London about Easter. While Cnut was threatening to lay siege to the city Æthelred died on 23 April, and the Londoners, together with such of the ‘witan’ as were there, with one consent chose Eadmund as king, and there is no reason to doubt the assertion of Ralph of Diceto (i. 169, ii. 237) that he was crowned in London by Lyfing, archbishop of Canterbury. Cnut was, however, chosen king at Southampton by the witan generally (Flor. Wig. i. 173), and at the time of his election Eadmund's kingdom was bounded by the walls of London. His elder brother, Æthelstan, who does not appear to have been put forward as a candidate for the crown, and his step-mother, the Norman Emma, seem to have been with him in the city.

Before the siege of London was actually formed Eadmund and Æthelstan appear to have left the city, and it is probable that Æthelstan was slain about this time in a skirmish with a Danish leader named Thurgut (Earl Thurcytel?), for when Thietmar (vii. 28, Pertz, iii. 848) says that Eadmund was thus slain, and that the war was carried on by Æthelstan, he evidently confuses the two brothers together. Meanwhile Eadmund, ‘who was yclept Ironside for his bravery’ (A.-S. Chron. sub ann. 1057), rode through the western shires, received their submission, and raised an army from them. His troops are said to have been British or Welsh (‘Britanni,’ Thietmar), and it is suggested that they came from the ‘shires of the old Wealhcyn’ (Norman Conquest, i. 701); in the twelfth century it was believed that they were natives of Wales, for Gaimar (l. 4222) says that Eadmund's wife was the sister of a Welsh king, and that this gained him the help of her countrymen, and though Ealdgyth had an English name, it does not follow that she was an Englishwoman any more than Ælfgifu, as the English called Emma, the Norman wife of Æthelred. When Cnut heard that Eadmund had received the submission of the west, he left the siege of London and marched after him. Eadmund gave him battle at Pen (Selwood) in Somerset, and defeated his army. This victory enabled him to raise another and larger force, and shortly after midsummer he again met Cnut's army at Sherston, in Wiltshire. He was now at the head of troops raised from Devonshire, Dorsetshire, and Wiltshire, while Cnut had in his army levies from Hampshire and other parts of Wiltshire (Flor. Wig.), so that Eadmund had now extended his kingdom so far east as to take in some parts of Wiltshire. The fight began on a Monday, and Eadmund, who had placed his best warriors in the front line, stood with them and fought hand to hand with the enemy. When evening came the two armies, wearied with battle, drew off a little from one another. The next day they renewed the fight, and the army of Eadmund had, it is said, gained a decided advantage, when Eadric Streona discouraged the English by holding up a head which he declared to be the head of their king (ib.) Eadmund, we are told, got upon some mound, took off his helmet that his men might see his face, and then with all his strength hurled a spear at Eadric, who warded it off; it glanced from his shield, struck the soldier who was standing by him, and pierced him and another man also (Gesta Regum, ii. 180); such was the tradition as to his strength in the twelfth century. The battle again lasted till twilight, and again both armies fell back from each other, but though the issue was undecided Eadmund reaped the fruits of victory, for in the stillness of the night Cnut drew off his forces and marched back towards London, where he again pressed the siege, thus leaving Eadmund undisputed possession of Wessex (Flor. Wig.) A legendary account of the battle is given in the ‘Knytlinga Saga’ (c. 10), and in a still stranger version of it the command of Cnut's army is attributed to Thurcytel, and he is represented as the victor (Enc. Emmæ, p. 15).

After the battle of Sherston, Eadric, impressed by the success of his brother-in-law, came to him and owned him as king. Eadmund now gathered a third army, for the local levies appear to have dispersed after every action, ‘whether a victory or a defeat’ (Freeman), and with it set out to raise the siege of London. He marched along the northern bank of the Thames and drove the Danes to their ships, a success which is reckoned as the third of his battles (Henry of Huntingdon). Two days later he crossed the river at Brentford, and it is said again routed the enemy (A.-S. Chron.), who appear to have fought behind some fortifications. Several of his men were drowned in crossing the river, for they rushed heedlessly into the water excited by the hope of plunder (Othere, Knutz-drapa in Corpus Poet. Bor. ii. 156, where the victory is attributed to Cnut). He again went into Wessex to raise another army, and Cnut renewed the siege of London, but after a short time gave it up, and after bringing his ships into the Medway employed his men in plundering expeditions, which showed that his hopes of conquest were dashed by the constant success of the English king. The fourth army raised by Eadmund was made up of men from every part of the country (Flor. Wig.); he again crossed the Thames at Brentford, marched into Kent, fought a fifth battle at Otford, where the Danes made little resistance, and compelled the enemy to take refuge in Sheppey. He did not follow up his success, for when he had reached Aylesford he listened to the counsel of Eadric, who persuaded him not to press the pursuit. The counsel is said to have been evil (A.-S. Chron.), and by later writers to have been given in subtlety (Flor. Wig.) However this may have been, Eadmund is of course responsible for the course he took, and he probably had good reason for it. If his troops had begun to disperse, he may well have hesitated to incur the risk of attacking the Danes when in a strong position. A defeat would probably have been fatal to his cause, for it would have made it difficult to raise new levies, while a victory would not necessarily have been final, for the Danes would have taken to their ships, and have sailed off, only to land on some other part of the coast. The English army now dispersed, and Eadmund, finding that the enemy was again making head, set about raising another force. His fifth army was, we are told, a gathering of the whole nation, and with this vast force he came up with the Danes ‘at the hill which is called Assandûn’ (A.-S. Chron.) This has been clearly identified with Ashington (‘mons asini,’ Flor. Wig.) in Essex, one of two hills which ‘look down on a swampy plain watered by the tidal river’ the Crouch (Norman Conquest, i. 390), though Ashdown (‘mons fraxinorum,’ Enc. Emmæ, p. 18) has also been suggested. Dr. Freeman, in his account of the battle, points out that both the armies were on high ground, and that it was the object of the Danes, who were far inferior in number to the English host, to gain their ships in safety. The raven's beak opened and her wings fluttered. Thurcytel cried that the banner gave the lucky omen, and shouted for the battle (ib.) Cnut, however, did not venture to attack the English army, and began to lead his men down to the plain (Flor. Wig.) Both armies were on foot, and the English were drawn up in their usual close formation. Eadmund himself stood between the dragon of Wessex and the royal standard (Huntingdon). When he saw that the Danes were making their way to their ships, he left his position and charged them furiously. At this moment, before the shock of battle actually took place, Eadric fled with the body of troops under his command, and, according to Henry of Huntingdon, who probably confuses the stories of the two battles, practised much the same trick as that ascribed to him at Sherston. The battle lasted until men could only tell friend from foe by the light of the moon. At last the English host began to give way, and was finally routed with great slaughter. ‘All the flower of the English race’ perished in the battle (A.-S. Chron.)

After this defeat Eadmund went into Gloucestershire, and there for the seventh time began to gather a fresh force (Huntingdon). Cnut followed him, and though Eadmund was anxious to make another attack upon the enemy, Eadric and other nobles refused to allow him to do so, and arranged that the kings should hold a conference and divide the kingdom between them. This conference, which was held on an island of the Severn, called Olney, has by Henry of Huntingdon and other later writers been turned into a single combat. As the whole story is imaginary, the only detail worth noticing here is the tradition that Eadmund was a man of great size, far larger than the Danish king (Gesta Regum, ii. 180; for other accounts of this supposed combat see Huntingdon, p. 185, Map, De Nugis, p. 204; Flores Hist. i. 407). The meeting of the kings was peaceful, a division of the kingdom was agreed upon; Eadmund was to be king over the south of the land and apparently to have the headship, Cnut was to reign over the north [see under Canute]. It seems probable that it was arranged that, whichever survived the other should become sole king (Knytlinga Saga, c. 16; see under Canute). Very shortly after this meeting Eadmund died, on 30 Nov. 1016, at London (Flor. Wig.), or less probably at Oxford (Huntingdon, followed by the St. Albans compiler; the statement of Florence is accepted by Dr. Freeman, while Mr. Parker, in his Early History of Oxford, argues that Oxford must be held to be the place of Eadmund's death; his strongest argument is met in Norman Conquest, 3rd ed. i. 714). The cause of his death is left uncertain by the chronicle writers, and Florence; the author of the ‘Encomium Emmæ’ (p. 22) implies that it was natural. William of Malmesbury says that it was doubtful, but that it was rumoured that Eadric, in the hope of gaining Cnut's favour, bribed two chamberlains to slay him, and adds the supposed manner in which the crime was carried out: ‘Ejus [Edrici] consilio ferreum uncum, ad naturæ requisita sedenti, in locis posterioribus adegisse’ (Gesta Regum, ii. 180). Henry of Huntingdon makes a son of Eadric the actual perpetrator of the deed, of which he gives much the same account. Later writers ascribe the murder to Eadric. Among these ‘Brompton’ tells the oddest story, for he makes out that the king was slain by Eadric by mechanical means, being shot by the image of an archer that discharged an arrow when it was touched (col. 996). Of foreign authorities, the ‘Knytlinga Saga’ (c. 16) says that Eadmund was killed by his foster-brother Eadric, who was bribed by Cnut; in the ‘Lives of the Kings’ (Laing, ii. 21) it is said that he was slain by Eadric, but Cnut is not mentioned; Saxo (p. 193), while relating that the murder was done by certain men who hoped to please Cnut by it, adds that some believed that Cnut himself had secretly ordered it; Adam of Bremen (ii. 51) says that he was taken off by poison. Dr. Freeman, who discusses the subject fully (Norman Conquest, i. 398, 711 sq.), inclines to the belief that his death was due to natural causes. The matter must of course be left undecided. In the face of the vigour he had lately shown at Ashington it is impossible to accept the statement that ‘the strain and failure of his seven months' reign proved fatal to the young king’ (Conquest of England, p. 418). His death happened opportunely for Cnut, but there does not seem sufficient evidence to attribute it to him [see Canute]. On the other hand, unless we are to believe that it was caused by sudden sickness, it certainly seems highly probable that it was the work of Eadric. Eadmund was buried with his grandfather Eadgar at Glastonbury, before the high altar (De Antiq. Glast. ed. Gale, iii. 306). He left two sons, Eadmund and Eadward.

[Anglo-Saxon Chron. (Rolls Ser.); Florence of Worcester (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Henry of Huntingdon (Rolls Ser.); William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum (Engl. Hist. Soc.), De Antiq. Glast. (Gale); Ailred [Æthelred] of Rievaux, Bromton, Twysden; Ralph of Diceto (Rolls Ser.); Flores Hist. (Wendover) (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Thietmar's Mon. Hist. Germ. iii. (Pertz); Gaimar, Mon. Hist. Brit.; Encomium Emmæ, Adam of Bremen, Pertz in usum Schol.; Knytlinga Saga, Antiq. Celto-Scandinavicæ (Johnstone); Saxo (Stephanius); Sea Kings (Laing); Vigfusson and Powell's Corpus Poet. Boreale; Kemble's Codex Dipl. iii. 369; Freeman's Norman Conquest, i. 3rd ed.; Green's Conquest of England; Parker's Early Hist. of Oxford (Oxf. Hist. Soc.)]

W. H.