History & Analysis

Cnut the Great, the Conquest of England, and the Puzzle of London

In 1016, the young Danish prince who was to become Cnut the Great, King of England, Denmark, and Norway, laid siege to the city of London as part of the campaign that saw him crowned King of England by 1017. London was one of very few English cities of European significance – a trading port, an economic and administrative hub, and population centre. And, in 1016, it was also the centre of Anglo-Saxon resistance to Cnut’s campaign of conquest.  Throughout Cnut’s English offensive, London was a base for the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred II (‘the Unready’) and, after Æthelred’s death, the city unilaterally declared his son Edmund, king of England in the face of Cnut’s aggression. Despite the capitulation of Wessex and the declaration of Cnut as king by a gathering of leading nobles and clerics in Southampton, the city continued to hold out against the Danes. Indeed, the siege did not end in Danish victory, but in treaty and settlement. As such, the resistance of the independent minded Londoners had implications upon how Cnut would conduct juridical, financial and religious policy in relation to the city. Cnut could not allow the city to exert that kind of autonomy unchecked. However, the Danish king had ambitions of establishing an Anglo-Scandinavian Empire and London was strategically important in that vision. Valued for both its continental connections and its wealth, Cnut could not afford to stunt London’s economic life through punitive repression. The Danish king’s early years were then characterised by a series of carefully balanced retributive policies that were designed to remove London’s agency for rebellion, while not crippling it as an established economic and commercial centre. It is these punitive measures that this article will focus on – it should be noted that later in his reign Cnut did adopt a more conciliatory approach to the city.

This post is based on Matt’s published article which can be read in full: ‘London Under Danish Rule: Cnut’s Politics and Policies as a Demonstration of Power,’ Eras Journal, Volume 18, No. 1.

I will be portraying London as a united entity in its relationship with Cnut, and it is worth considering the makeup of London at the time. While it can be problematic to discuss ‘citizenry’ in an eleventh-century English city, it is less so with London. Though the city was made up of disparate social groups with independent needs and opinions, they demonstrated a unity of purpose in protecting their city. Already within Æthelstan’s reign the city had set out its autonomy, putting in place its own ordinances pledging to follow the king’s law, but also put in establishing rules for the provision of aid and self-policing within the city. From this time chronicles begin to mention the ‘citizens of London’ as a body – a term not often associated with other English cities. For example, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that in 994 the citizens of London brought ‘harm and injury’ on a fleet of Viking raiders, yet entries relating raids in Ipswich and Bamburgh discuss only the deeds and death of nobility. Similarly, in discussing the siege of London and the city’s embassy to Cnut, the Encomium Emmae Reginae does not desribe a delegation of nobles, but of ‘citizens.’ Which returns us to the siege of 1016.

In fact, the Danish assaults on London took the form of a series sieges as the Danes were alternatively driven from the walls and returned to besiege the city. Ultimately, the independently minded citizens of the city, with the military aid of the Anglo-Saxon claimant to the throne, held out against the besieging Danes and it was negotiators sent out from the city organised to a surrender on behalf of its citizens that established peace. Yet the garrison held out and Cnut was unable to take full possession of the city until after the death of Edmund later that year.

Turning then to Cnut’s early policies in relation to the city and their potentially punitive nature I am going to look to charters, taxes, and juridical and religious policies that either guided or reacted to events in London. In doing so, I will examine three events from early in Cnut’s reign: the execution of the treacherous Eadric Streona, the levying of a geld from London independent of that paid by England collectively, and the translation of the relics of St Ælfheah from London to Canterbury. These represent the few political events that are firmly set within the city during the early years of Cnut’s reign. That the chroniclers deemed these three incidents alone of suitable significance to warrant record speaks to the political importance of the events within his reign.

A demonstration of juridical power

The execution of Eadric Streona in 1017 was a practical expedient for the new Danish king. Eadric was an ealdorman in the Anglo-Saxon territory of Mercia and had been politically problematic figure for both the Anglo-Saxon and Danes. The Chronicle records that, at the start of Cnut’s campaign in 1015, Eadric was fighting for Æthelred. By the end of the year he was fighting for Cnut. In 1016, after Æthelred’s death, Eadric returned to the Anglo-Saxon fold, only to betray Æthelred’s successor on the field of battle and grant the victory to Cnut. Throughout the two year period of the campaign, the Chronicle lays the blame for the betrayal and execution of four rival thegns at Eadric’s feet. Yet, having taken control of all England, Cnut divided England into four administrative districts in 1017 and gave overlordship of Mercia to Eadric. However, Eadric’s ascendancy was short-lived. By the end of the year, the traitorous ealdorman was executed in London. According to John of Worcester, Cnut ‘fear[ed] that someday he would be entrapped by Eadric’s treachery, just as Eadric’s former lords Æthelred and Edmund.

The political expedient of executing a powerful thegn who had proved himself capable of treachery on numerous occasions is clear. Yet the execution was not a simple matter of nullifying a rival for power. The execution a powerful thegn, one who had both served and betrayed the previous administration, demonstrated Cnut’s juridical power of life and death over his new subjects of all ranks.  As such, the staging of the execution is important. The evidence is that Eadric’s execution took place in London with the traitorous thegn executed as an exemplar to of the intransigent city. The little studied F-text of the Chronicle provides the earliest reference to the execution occurring in London and indicates that he was ‘killed most justly.’ This likely reflects an extant tradition present either in local oral narrative or antecedent texts that do not survive. Though the F-text has some reliance on earlier versions of the Chronicle, its author was based at Canterbury, in geographical proximity to London and with access to regionally specific sources. Further, the nomination of London as the location of Eadric’s execution proved tenacious in later chronicles with no dependency on the F-text.

There is significant variety in the records of Eadric’s death. Of note is John of Worcester who, a relentless critic of the Mercian Ealdorman who ‘surpassed all men of that time, both in malice and treachery and in arrogance and cruelty.’ John reveals that Eadric was executed in London due to Cnut’s fears of his inconstant nature, and that Cnut further ordered that Eadric’s body be ‘thrown over the city wall and left unburied.’ The publicly visible body of the traitor would serve as an unambiguous warning. William of Malmesbury, in his turn declares that the act of ensuring that Eadric’s ‘disgusting spirit was transferred to hell’ was a private affair and his body disposed of in the Thames. However, there is no extant correlating record to William’s narrative, which also takes on something of a polemic character – it is difficult to credit the account with any truth. In its turn, the Encomium Emmae Reginae does not provide a location for the execution, though does declare that Eadric was beheaded ‘with a mighty blow, so that soldiers may learn from this example to be faithful, not faithless, to their kings.’ In this, the Encomium does reflect English traditions that Eadric was central to the English defeat and correlates with John’s assertion that the execution was a punitive exemplar. Interestingly however, John further records that six other English thegns died alongside Eadric and that they were subjected to the same treatment. This does suggest a political purge – which would not be a surprising act on the part of a conquering king – and also an implicit visual warning to the citizens of London. The rotting corpses of seven English lords their new king had deemed traitors could leave the citizenry in no doubt of their fate were they to renew hostilities with their Danish overlord.

A demonstration of financial power

John of Worcester’s subsequent entry demonstrates Cnut’s continued retributive attitude to the city: in 1018 the citizenry was required to pay a tribute of £10,500 to the Danish army. This geld was in addition to the £72,000 required from the rest of Cnut’s English territories. In monetary value, this geld dwarfed any payment to Scandinavian kings before or after Cnut’s reign, and the amount paid by London was unequalled throughout the medieval period. As such, it is natural that historians have cast doubt on the veracity of either figure – but I will not bore you with that discussion, and simply quote Barbara York who has asserted that ‘the amounts seem feasible in terms of the country’s wealth and the amount of coin in circulation.’ Considering London’s role as the kingdom’s key trading port and its large minting program, it seems likely that while £10,500 would have been a significant imposition upon the city, its collection was not impossible. Indeed, it is likely that London was already supplying a significant amount to the gelds raised throughout Æthelred’s reign to pay off Viking raiders, and this London geld may simply be the first instance of this in the written record.

That Cnut felt the imposition of such a large tax on his new territories was necessary was a result of his need to reward his conquering army. As such the tax was at once punitive and practical. While the financial burden on the city must be viewed in part as a retributive act, the specific imposition of such a proportionally large tax on the Londoners also represented the proportionally large effort besieging London required in Cnut’s campaign of conquest. It seems clear that, by 1018, Cnut understood the economic wealth in which the city’s power was based and perhaps even had an impression of the city’s wealth from past Scandinavian raiding experiences. Certainly, that there is no record of resistance to the collection of the geld seems to indicate that both the king and the city felt the amount was payable. It is unlikely that Cnut would have imposed a geld that risked inciting an uprising in the city that had so successfully held out against him in 1016.  This line of reasoning brings us to the conclusion that the geld was not intended only as a punishment or a financial expedient, rather it was a tool to proactively hinder London’s ability to resist Danish rule. £10,500 was so significantly high as to damage the city’s ability to finance rebellion, but not so high as to cripple the entrepreneurial ventures of the city’s merchant elites.

A demonstration of religious power

However, the city’s power did not only reside with the secular elite, and the church was certainly an integral part of the community that had resisted Cnut’s kingship. Indeed, it was in targeting the symbols of power of the London episcopacy that Cnut evidently saw the greatest potential for the re-ignition of the city’s hostilities. In 1023, Cnut decided to translate the relics of the martyred Archbishop Ælfheah to Canterbury, the seat of Ælfheah‘s archbishopric. The motivation was fourfold. First, through the practice of pilgrimage, relics were a source of income to a church and by relocating the cult of Ælfheah to Canterbury, Cnut removed a revenue stream from the London bishopric. Secondly, the circumstance of Ælfheah’s death meant that his cult was necessarily anti-Scandinavian. This made the saint’s cult a natural rallying point for a city already inclined toward resistance to Danish rule; Cnut’s removal of Ælfheah’s relics removed this focal point. Thirdly, the choice of Ælfheah’s new home was a respectful nod to his status in life as Archbishop of Canterbury. Cnut’s professed dedication and respect allowed the cult to be appropriated by the King, reorienting it to a more Cnut-friendly footing. Lastly, the removal of revenue and the appropriation of the cult combine in Cnut’s continued desire to demonstrate his political dominance over the city. It is unlikely that such gestures will have gone unnoticed by the citizens and, according to Osbern’s Translatio Sancti Ælfegi Cantuariensis archiepiscopi et matiris, Cnut had to plan the removal of the saint’s body with the precision of a military campaign for fear of aggressive resistance by the Londoners.

Yet there is a duality in the presentation of the translation narrative. Osbern informs us that Cnut sent his Danish troops to the gates of the city to provide diversions and set others to guard ‘the bridge’ and the banks of the Thames ‘so that the people of London would not be able to stand in the ways of those leaving with the saint’s body.’ He further records the reaction of the serving archbishop, called by Cnut to London, upon hearing the king’s intent:

Let Almighty God not blame you, my Lord King, for wishing to do this and for not telling me the purpose of your mind, so that I might have come better equipped and better prepared for it all, lest I should be cut down and die in the middle of such a great city.

However, these representations of a city prepared for revolt do not have a bearing upon the moral rectitude of the dramatis personae. Cnut’s act, couched in terms of a vision from the saint, is enacted with the aid of miraculous feats of strength and, upon arrival in Canterbury, the citizens run in joy to greet their ‘father in life and companion in death.’ This attitude to the translation as a just act is similarly presented in the Chronicle, John of Worcester and William of Malmesbury. Nonetheless, there should be little doubt that the removal of Ælfheah’s relics from London was a punitive measure. The reasons for Cnut relocating the saint’s cult to Canterbury are logical and compelling. That these motivations are mixed in with hagiographical rhetoric simply bestows an additional aura of sanctity of the participants. The details of the translation recorded in the Translatio Sancti Ælfegi are not elsewhere independently attested, with other sources simply noting that Ælfheah’s relics were removed to Canterbury without embellishment. Yet it remains that, whether or not the citizens of London intended to resist Cnut’s decision to move the remains, it was nonetheless a political act motivated by Cnut’s desire to impose his rule on the city.

The translation of Ælfheah’s relics in 1023 seems to have been among Cnut’s final depredations of the Londoners, and subsequent charters c. 1030 exist that reaffirmed the rights of city institutions. A decade after conquering England it seems that Cnut understood himself to hold enough authority with the people of London to once again allow its enterprising citizens to forge their own way. Yet it is important to remember that Cnut’s selected methods of didactic retribution seem to have been calculated to punish, but not cripple. The execution of Eadric, the removal of Ælfheah’s remains and the levying of the geld were all repressive exemplars, and the latter two were undoubtedly financially disruptive, yet none stopped the city’s operations as an economic and political centre.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Cnut the Great, BL Royal MS 14 B VI.
  2. Timothy Bolton, The Empire of Cnut the Great: Conquest and the Consolidation of Power in Northern Europe in the Early Eleventh Century. Leiden: Brill, 2009.
  3. Christopher Brooke and Gillian Keir, London, 800 – 1216: The Shaping of a CIty. Berkley: University of California Press, 1975.
  4. Alistair Campbell, ed., Encomium Emmae Reginae, reprint, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998 (1949).
  5. Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards, trans. Knytlinga saga. Odense: Odense University Press, 1986.
  6. David Hill, ‘An Urban Policy For Cnut?’ In The Reign of Cnut. Edited by Alexander R. Rumble, 101 – 105. London: Leicester University Press, 1994.
  7. Derek Keene, ‘London from the post-Roman period to 1300.’ In The Cambridge Urban History of England. Edited by D. M. Palliser. 3 vols. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  8. M. K. Lawson,  Cnut: England’s Viking King, 3rd edn, London: The History Press, 2011.
  9. Russell Poole, ‘Skaldic Verse and Anglo-Saxon History: Some Aspects of the Period 1009-1016.’ Speculum 62 (No. 2, 1987): 265 – 298.
  10. Peter Townend, ‘ Contextualizing the Knútsdrápur: skaldic praise-poetry at the court of Cnut.’ Anglo-Saxon England, 30 (2001): 145 – 179.
  11. Dorothy Whitelock, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.
  12. Dorothy Whitelock, ed. and trans., English Historical Documents, C. 500 – 1042. 2nd edn. 10 vols. Vol. 1. London: Eyre Methuen, 1979.
  13. Barbara Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages. London: Leicester University Press, 1995.

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

Danish Invasion, Viking Violence, and Cnut’s Mutilation of Hostages at Sandwich

King Eadwig, St Dunstan, and the Ménage à Trois – Propaganda in the Anglo-Saxon Court

Kingship in the Viking Age – Icelandic Sagas, Anglo-Saxon Kings, & Warrior Poets

Easter in Athelney – King Alfred and the Great Viking Army

See our bibliographies on Cnut the Great and Chronicle Editions.

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