This is a significant date when it comes to men styled king of England because both Cnut (the Great) and Harold Godwinson (Harold II) were crowned kings on this date – Cnut in 1017 and Harold in 1066 – and both have reasonable claim to being kings of England. History is a queer duck, and how it is taught is even queerer. In the 1950s and 1960s I was taught bog standard Whig history – that is, the past is only of interest inasmuch as it leads to the present state of affairs. Sellar and Yeatman lampooned this bad habit mercilessly in 1066 And All That – a volume I enjoyed as a youth for its overall wit, but completely missed their general point about what makes something in English history a “good thing” or a “bad thing.” More and more, also, I am of the opinion that 1066 was a crucial year in English history, but was not the be all and end all of things when it comes to defining the nation of England and its monarchs.
Whig history argues that the Norman kings, starting with William I (aka William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy), were the first REAL kings of England, because William unified England, and made himself king of the land that he unified. This is fair enough – up to a point – if you see England in terms of the present nation-state. But what is England really? Were its current borders set in stone from time immemorial? Or is England more of an historical mental abstraction than a permanent geographical reality? In fact, do historians project back into the past a notion of “England” based on current reality?
There is no question in my mind that the Norman and Angevin kings of England saw England as a province of their territories in continental Europe, and would not have minded much if they had been called Count of England, or Duke of England – which is pretty much what they were. They took the title “king” from their Anglo-Saxon and Danish predecessors. They treated England as part of a much larger whole down to the time of King John, who is arguably the first real king of England in the Norman line – that is, the first king to see England as his predominant realm, rather than as a minor bit of a much larger realm. His brother, Richard I (the Lionheart), clearly had virtually no interest in England other than financial, and spent almost no time there. He was much more concerned with his French holdings and with the Crusades. His fame as a legendary king of England comes directly from 19th century Romantic literature and 19th century historians, not from historical reality.
So who were the first kings of England? How do we make such an assessment? I’ll begin with Sellar and Yeatman:
Memorable among the Saxon warriors were Hengist and his wife (? or horse), Horsa. Hengist made himself King in the South. Thus Hengist was the first English King and his wife (or horse), Horsa, the first English Queen (or horse).
This is, of course, deliberate nonsense but it points up the historical problem of identifying the first “English” invaders and rulers. In his 8th century Ecclesiastical History, Bede records that the first chieftains among the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in England were said to have been the brothers Hengist and Horsa. He relates that Horsa was killed in battle against the Britons [Celts] and was thereafter buried in East Kent, where, at the time of writing, a monument still stood to him. According to Bede, Hengist and Horsa were the sons of Wictgils, son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden (i.e. the chief Norse god).
Hengist is the Old English for “stallion” and Horsa for “horse.” Whether or not they were real men is unknowable at this point.
The 9th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that in the year 449 Hengist and Horsa were invited to Britain by Vortigern to assist his forces in fighting the Picts. They landed at Eopwinesfleot (Ebbsfleet), and went on to defeat the Picts wherever they fought them. Hengist and Horsa sent word home to north Germany describing “the worthlessness of the Britons, and the richness of the land” and asked for assistance. Their request was granted and support arrived. Afterward, more people arrived in Britain from “the three powers of Germany; the Old Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes”. The Saxons populated Essex, Sussex, and Wessex; the Jutes Kent, the Isle of Wight, and part of Hampshire; and the Angles East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria (leaving their original homeland, Angeln, deserted). These forces were led by Hengist and Horsa who were sons of Wihtgils, son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden.
In the entry for the year 455 the Chronicle details that Hengist and Horsa fought with Vortigern at Aylesford and that Horsa died there. Hengist took control of the kingdom with his son Esc. In 457, Hengist and Esc fought against British forces in Crayford “and there slew four thousand men”. The Britons left the land of Kent and fled to London. In 465, Hengest and Esc fought again at the Battle of Wippedesfleot, probably near Ebbsfleet, and slew twelve British leaders. In the year 473, the final entry in the Chronicle mentioning Hengist or Horsa, Hengist and Esc are recorded as having taken “immense booty” and the Britons having “fled from the English like fire.”
Was Hengist, therefore, the first king of England? He did not really rule a whole lot of what is now the nation of England. On that score Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, is often thought of as the first king of all England (although his kingdom was much smaller than modern England). While Alfred was not the first king to lay claim to rule all of the English, his rule represents the first unbroken line of kings to rule the whole of England (as it then was) – the House of Wessex.
Arguments are made for a few different kings who controlled enough of the ancient kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons to be deemed the first king of England. For example, Offa, king of Mercia, and Egbert, king of Wessex, are sometimes described as kings of England by popular writers, but not by all historians. In the late 8th century Offa achieved a dominance over southern England that did not survive his death in 796. In 829 Egbert conquered Mercia, but he soon lost control of it. By the late 9th century Wessex was the dominant Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Its king, Alfred the Great, was overlord of western Mercia and used the title King of the Angles and Saxons, but he never ruled eastern and northern England, which was then the Danelaw. His son Edward the Elder conquered the eastern Danelaw, but Edward’s son Æthelstan became the first king to rule the whole of England when he conquered Northumbria in 927, and he is regarded by some modern historians as the first king of England.
So, what about today’s coronations of Cnut and Harold II? Both are recorded as taking place on Christmas Day, which in Old Style is 25 December, but in the Gregorian Calendar is today. Cnut the Great (c. 995 – 12 November 1035), also known as Canute, was king of Denmark, England and Norway, together often referred to as the Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire. After his death, the deaths of his heirs within a decade, and the Norman conquest of England in 1066, his legacy was largely lost to history. He is still chiefly remembered for the falsely re-told legend that makes him out to be so boastful that he claimed he could command the tide and got wet feet in the process. The actual tale is much more kind to him. In it his lords try to flatter him by saying that he is so mighty as to be able to control the elements, and he proves them wrong by showing that he cannot control the tide.
Cnut’s father was Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark (which gave Cnut the patronym Sweynsson, Old Norse Sveinsson). As a Danish prince, Cnut won the throne of England in 1016 in the wake of centuries of Viking activity in northwestern Europe. His accession to the Danish throne in 1018 brought the crowns of England and Denmark together. Cnut maintained his power by uniting Danes and English under cultural bonds of wealth and custom, as well as by sheer brutality. After a decade of conflict with opponents in Scandinavia, Cnut claimed the crown of Norway in Trondheim in 1028. The Swedish city Sigtuna was held by Cnut. He had coins struck there that called him king, but there is no narrative record of his occupation.
The kingship of England lent the Danes an important link to the maritime zone between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, where Cnut, like his father before him, had a strong interest and wielded much influence among the Norse–Gaels. Cnut’s possession of England’s dioceses and the continental Diocese of Denmark – with a claim laid upon it by the Holy Roman Empire’s Archdiocese of Hamburg-Bremen—was a source of great leverage within the Catholic Church, gaining notable concessions from Pope Benedict VIII and his successor John XIX. After his 1026 victory against Norway and Sweden, and on his way to Rome for this coronation, Cnut, in a letter written for the benefit of his subjects, which only now exists in two twelfth-century Latin versions, deemed himself “King of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and of some of the Swedes.” The Anglo-Saxon kings used the title “king of the English.” Cnut was ealles Engla landes cyning—”king of all England.” In this respect he was king of England in the same way that the Norman kings were – that is, England was a province within a much larger realm.
Harold Godwinson or Harold II (Old English: Harold Godƿinson, pronounced [hɑroɫd ɣodwinzon]; Old Norse: Haraldr Guðinason) was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England although his reign consisted entirely of fending off contenders for the throne. Harold reigned from 6 January 1066 until his death at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October, fighting the Norman invaders led by William the Conqueror.
Harold was a powerful earl and member of a prominent Anglo-Saxon family with ties to Cnut the Great. In 1051 Harold’s boat in which he was perhaps fishing or traveling for some reason was driven across the Channel by an unexpected storm. There is general agreement that he left from Bosham, and was blown off course, landing at Ponthieu. He was captured by Guy I, Count of Ponthieu, and was then taken as a hostage to the count’s castle at Beaurain, 24.5 km up the River Canche from its mouth at what is now Le Touquet. Duke William of Normandy arrived soon afterward and ordered Guy to turn Harold over to him. Harold then apparently accompanied William to battle against William’s enemy, Conan II, Duke of Brittany. While crossing into Brittany past the fortified abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, Harold is recorded as rescuing two of William’s soldiers from quicksand. They pursued Conan from Dol-de-Bretagne to Rennes, and finally to Dinan, where he surrendered the fortress’s keys at the point of a lance. William presented Harold with weapons and arms, knighting him. The Bayeux Tapestry, and other Norman sources, then record that Harold swore an oath on sacred relics to William to support his claim to the English throne. After Edward the Confessor’s death, the Normans were quick to point out that in accepting the crown of England, Harold had broken this alleged oath.
At the end of 1065 Edward the Confessor fell into a coma without clarifying his preference for the succession. He died on 5 January 1066, according to the Vita Ædwardi Regis, but not before briefly regaining consciousness and commending his widow and the kingdom to Harold’s “protection”. The intent of this charge remains ambiguous, as is the Bayeux Tapestry, which simply depicts Edward pointing at a man thought to represent Harold. When the Witenagemot convened the next day they selected Harold to succeed, and his coronation followed on 6 January, most likely held in Westminster Abbey, though no evidence from the time survives to confirm this. Later Norman sources point suspiciously to the suddenness of this coronation but some modern historians suggest that all the nobles of the land were present at Westminster simply for the feast of Christmas and not because of any usurpation of the throne on Harold’s part. This seems quite dubious to me. Christmas was not a major feast in those days.
Hearing of Harold’s coronation, Duke William began plans to invade England, building 700 warships and transports at Dives-sur-Mer on the Normandy coast. Initially, William could not get support for the invasion but, claiming that Harold had sworn on sacred relics to support his claim to the throne William received the Church’s blessing and nobles flocked to his cause. In anticipation of the invasion, Harold assembled his troops on the Isle of Wight, but the invasion fleet remained in port for almost seven months, perhaps due to unfavorable winds. On 8th September, with provisions running out, Harold disbanded his army and returned to London. On the same day Harald Hardrada of Norway, who also claimed the English crown joined Tostig and invaded, landing his fleet at the mouth of the Tyne.
The invading forces of Hardrada and Tostig defeated the English earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria at the Battle of Fulford near York on 20 September 1066. Harold led his army north on a forced march from London, reached Yorkshire in four days, and caught Hardrada by surprise. On 25 September, in the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold defeated Hardrada and Tostig, who were both killed.
According to Snorri Sturluson, before the battle a single man rode up alone to Harald Hardrada and Tostig. He gave no name, but spoke to Tostig, offering the return of his earldom if he would turn against Hardrada. Tostig asked what his brother Harold would be willing to give Hardrada for his trouble. The rider replied “Seven feet of English ground, as he is taller than other men.” Then he rode back to the Saxon host. Hardrada was impressed by the rider’s boldness, and asked Tostig who he was. Tostig replied that the rider was Harold Godwinson himself.
So that’s our kings for today. Today is also Epiphany which in many countries is called Three Kings because it marks the arrival of the “kings” (or magi) in Bethlehem. We have only two kings but we can celebrate in traditional way with a king cake. What counts as a king cake varies enormously from culture to culture and throughout history. The Victorians are legendary for their highly decorated efforts. These were pretty solid fruit cakes, much like Christmas cake.
New Orleans king cakes go on sale now and are regular features until Mardi Gras, perhaps a remnant of the fact that in the Middle Ages the Christmas season extended until Lent.
For my king cake I’ve made an Anglo-Italian hybrid – a zuppa inglese (a version of panettone) topped with mincemeat and whipped cream.