Anglo-Saxon England’s Last 50 Years: A True Game of Thrones

Many fixate on the Wars of the Roses as the ultimate political drama, but the last 50 years of Anglo-Saxon England played host to a conflict even more thrilling.

May 19, 2024By Dan Bulman, MPhil Medieval History, BA Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic

late anglo saxon england


The last half-century of Anglo-Saxon England was perfectly framed by foreign invasions. The first was the Danish conquest of 1016 at the hands of King Cnut. This was to serve, in many ways, as the dress rehearsal for the much better-known conquest of William the Conqueror in 1066.


The years in between saw the emergence of the first recognizable “great families” in England, which by the 1050s were those of Godwine, Leofric, and Siward. With each vying for land, status, and power, eleventh-century England was a volatile realm in which one family would eventually rise from obscurity to win the Game of Thrones.


The Danish Conquest

jernalder boat
Viking ships, Source: Wikimedia Commons


During the tenth century, Anglo-Saxon England featured a series of exceptional kings. Edward the Elder, together with his famous sister Æthelflaed, was able to reconquer the midlands and East Anglia from the Danes who had invaded in the ninth century. Æthelstan (924-39) united England as we know it and defeated a mighty coalition of British, Scottish, and Norse potentates at the Battle of Brunanburh in 934; and Edgar (959-75) initiated an impressive program of monastic reform and ruled with such surety that not a single military encounter took place on native English soil during his reign.


Edgar’s son, Æthelred, was an altogether less impressive monarch facing unprecedented challenges. Coming to the throne in 978, he struggled to entirely escape the shadow cast by the death, in mysterious circumstances, of his elder half-brother Edward (r. 975-8). Although he theoretically ruled an England which in its shape would be more or less recognizable today, comprising the old kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria, this veneer of cohesion proved to be just that. When a coalition of well-organized Scandinavian raider princes descended upon his realm from 980 onward, the visage cracked.

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With increasing rapacity warbands devastated the realm and proved to have the advantage over the local levies, known as fyrds. These were composed of landowners known as thegns, as well as hapless peasants with spears and cudgels hastily thrust into their hands.


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Svein (or Sweyn) Forkbeard, by Matthew Paris, 1230s-40s, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Led by local elites known as ealdormen, these warbands engaged, or attempted to engage, the Vikings, with little apparent success. Ælfric, the powerful ealdorman of Hampshire and “one of those in whom the king trusted most,” according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, defected to the very Danes he had been ordered to attack in 992. He then feigned sickness to avoid battle in 1003, as a result of which the leader of the Danish warband, Svein Forkbeard, looted and burned Wilton. Others — such as the Ealdorman Byrhtnoth who fought the Vikings at the Battle of Maldon in 991 and who was immortalized in Old English epic poetry — managed to engage the Vikings but were slain where they stood.


Cnut Emma New Minster Cross
Cnut and Emma bequeathing a golden cross to the church of New Minster, Winchester, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, Source: British Library


Under pressure from the Danes, and especially from Svein Forkbeard and his ally Thorkell the Tall from 1003 onwards, Æthelred’s regime was brought to its knees in 1013 when Svein sailed down the Humber and gained the allegiance of almost the entire country. Æthelred, who had gone into exile with the relatives of his wife, Emma of Normandy, was able to regain the throne upon Svein’s death, provided, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that he governed more justly than he did before.”


Æthelred’s death in 1016 saw the realm divided between his son Edmund “Ironside,” and Svein’s son Cnut, who eventually succeeded to the whole kingdom a few months later, marrying Æthelred’s widow for good measure. High-born women in Anglo-Saxon England often had little choice but to re-marry, but Emma was to exert considerable influence at the court of her new Danish husband.


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Agnus Dei coins, issued in 1009, Source: History Today


King Æthelred’s famous epithet, “Unræd,” was the caustic jape of a monk writing some 150 years after the events he described, and is translated today as “the Unready.” This belies the word-play involved. Æthelred means “noble counsel,” whil Unræd is an ironic riposte meaning, simply, “ill-counsel.” Jokes aside, there is a kernel of truth to it. Æthelred’s nobles, from the early 990s, advised him to pay out huge sums of money, known as Danegeld, to “buy off” the Vikings.


Numerous coins, such as the Agnus Dei, attest to the efforts to scrape together enough silver to fill the invaders’ treasure chests. That offers of Danegeld served as a magnet for further Viking raids, as well as attempts to conquer the kingdom itself, is suggested by the ever-increasing payments of Danegeld up until 1016.


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The Cuerdale Hoard, c. 905 CE, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Some noblemen, such as the powerful, perfidious Ealdorman of Mercia, Eadric Streona (the “grasper”), defected to Cnut who was influential in the north of England. Others took advantage of the disorder to pursue their own ambitions and feuds. Eadric’s brother, Brihtric, had in 1009 attempted to arrest a rival, Wulfnoth, losing 80 ships of the royal fleet in the process. The noblemen of Æthelred’s reign were truly an unruly bunch.


Upon becoming king, Cnut was determined not to make the same mistakes as Æthelred, and resolved to rip out the overweening subordinates root and stem, executing both Eadric Streona and another prominent nobleman, Uhtred of Bamburgh, in 1016. Despite his best efforts, the replacement of yesterday’s great men with new, more pliable figures was only to provide tomorrow’s would-be traitors. The Game of Thrones would begin in earnest with the coming of the Danes, even if the potency of Cnut as a ruler kept it simmering beneath the surface.


The Rule of Cnut

cnut and the ocean
Cnut and the Waves, via


Perhaps the most famous anecdote from the reign of King Cnut the Great (1016-35) is that of Cnut attempting to halt the waves. A common misconception is that Cnut, like the ancient Persian God-king Xerxes before him, showed the ultimate hubris in attempting to control the natural world, in this case ordering the waves to stop. According to Herodotus,  Xerxes ordered the waves of the Hellespont to be lashed 300 times with whips. The story of Cnut, which originally occurs in Henry of Huntingdon’s 12th-century Historia Anglorum, is different. Here, Cnut takes the incorrigible behavior of the waves to signify the feebleness of his temporal power next to that of Christ, the true king.


Yet both the misconception and the full picture convey important ideas about the character of Cnut. The haughtiness of the king attempting to command the waves conveys Cnut’s formidable ability to project power over almost the entirety of Scandinavia and the British Isles. The humility of Cnut before the waves, on the other hand, represents a tendency towards conciliation, as well as his stance toward the Christian Church as a generous patron.


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Cnut’s “North Sea Empire,” Source: Wikimedia Commons


As ruler of such a vast territory, Cnut relied on loyal strongmen to pacify the different regions under his authority, and to represent his interests. In Denmark, this was achieved by Ulf Jarl, a member of a prominent Danish family who seems to have represented his own interests more often than those of Cnut. In Norway, Cnut relied first upon the family of Eric, Jarl of Hlathir, who were dominant in the north around Trondheim, and then upon members of his own family.


In England, Cnut relied upon a mixture of Anglo-Saxon noblemen and Scandinavian magnates. Eric of Hlathir held the earldom of Northumbria in the north until at least 1023, and his son ruled Norway on Cnut’s behalf from 1028-9. Leofric, son of Leofwine from an old noble family in the west midlands, was made Earl of Mercia around 1020.


The nobleman who was to rise highest was the son of the disgraced thegn and nautical arsonist Wulfnoth Cild, Godwine. A social climber granted the earldom of Wessex in 1018, Godwine soon became indispensable to his Danish overlords and was invariably the most prominent figure at court.


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Saint Olaf of Norway, by Pius Welonsky, 1893, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Cnut proved skilled at securing the loyalty of his subjects in England. He reduced the burden of the geld, a tax used to pay for his fleet, by scaling down his standing military forces. He also won over prominent Anglo-Saxon clerics such as Archbishop Wulfstan of York, who became one of the king’s staunchest supporters during his early reign. He issued new laws, and improved upon existing ones, showing himself a more conscientious and capable ruler than his predecessor.


Cnut’s promotion of local power-brokers in some areas, and foreign jarls in other, more Scandinavian areas, ensured that England was at peace for almost 20 years. He astutely tied the magnates of different regions under his command to each other. Earl Godwine, for example, was encouraged to marry Gytha, sister of Ulf Jarl of Denmark.


It was in Scandinavia, ironically, that Cnut met most resistance. Norway proved a thorn in his side, with the claimant Olaf Haraldsson, later St. Olaf, ousting Eric of Hlathir in 1015 and ruling until 1028. Cnut was to contest the kingship until 1030, with Olaf’s death at the Battle of Stiklestad, whereupon he installed his son Svein and first wife Ælgifu as co-rulers. Even Cnut’s power base in Denmark was periodically under threat. Olaf, along with the King of Sweden, had threatened Denmark in 1026 until their defeat at the hands of Cnut. Ulf Jarl himself may have conspired with the foreign rulers to strike at the heart of Cnut’s power.


Yet by 1030, and for the last five years of Cnut’s reign, both England and Scandinavia were at peace. Notwithstanding some errors in judgment, his rule had brought peace and prosperity to all corners of his “North Sea Empire.” With Cnut’s death, the Game of Thrones was on.


Cnut’s Heirs

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Harold Harefoot, from The Life of King Edward the Confessor, by Matthew Paris, 13th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


After Cnut’s death, unsurprisingly, his kingdoms went to his offspring. Cnut’s legitimate heir, as the son of Emma of Normandy, was Harthacnut, who succeeded in Denmark but was forestalled there by the threat of invasion and was unable to attend a coronation.


Another son of Cnut, Harold Harefoot, gained the support of the majority of English magnates, led by Earl Leofric of Mercia. There is evidence that Ællgifu issued bribes and made promises to the leading men of the kingdom on her son’s behalf. His power base lay primarily north of the Thames, where Leofric and his ally Earl Siward held sway.


Coin King Harold Harefoot
A coin of King Harold Harefoot, Source: Numis Bids


Godwin and Emma of Normandy, on the other hand, were left out in the cold. Godwin was the richest and most powerful magnate in the realm and attempted to rule England south of the Thames on Harthacnut’s behalf until 1037. The two halves of England even minted coins with the names and visages of the two kings. However, he could not maintain his isolated position for long.


Godwine’s desire to ingratiate himself with Harold, perhaps knowing that the prodigal king was not returning any time soon, is perhaps what prompted his most ruthless act: the murder of ætheling Alfred. Son of Æthelred and Emma of Normandy, and thus Harthacnut’s half-brother, Alfred landed on the southern coast with a large Norman force at his back in 1036, in what may have been a serious bid for the throne. Godwine, intercepting the young prince, had him blinded and taken into custody, where he died soon afterward. The episode was to cause Godwine no small amount of trouble in the years to follow. But for now, firmly in Harold’s good books, Godwine could rest easy in pledging his earldom to the king.


With Harold’s death in 1040, Harthacnut came to England to secure his throne, and Godwine finally secured the king he had wanted. Yet his cause to hope was misplaced. Harthacnut, seeking revenge for his half-brother’s death, identified two culprits. The first was his brother Harold, whose body he had disinterred from its grave at Westminster and publicly beheaded. The second was Earl Godwine, who was put on trial. Slippery as an eel, Godwine secured his acquittal by the gift of a rich ship decked in gold.


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Harthacnut, 1880, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Remaining obsequious to the new king, Godwine participated in a savage reprisal on the town of Worcester in 1041, occasioned by the murder of two of Harthacnut’s tax collectors by the townspeople. The reaction of Earl Leofric, within whose earldom Worcester lay, was unknown. We may imagine at least some rankling at the order to lay waste one of the earl’s own towns, among the largest and richest. Other earls were to grow only more powerful with the accession of Harthacnut. In 1041, the Danish Earl of Northumbria, Siward, acted with the collusion of his king in luring the earl of Bamburgh, Ealdred, into a trap and murdering him. He also claimed Ealdred’s earldom for himself.


The events of 1035-42 demonstrate that the sphere of political action for earls in Anglo-Saxon England was growing. Earls would act as the agents of kings and important local power brokers in their own right. To secure their loyalty, kings would let earls aggrandize themselves at the expense of their rivals. When Harthacnut died in 1042, and Edward the Confessor became king, the issue of where power truly lay would come erupting to the surface.


Restoration and Restitution

king edward bayeux tapestry anglo saxon england
Edward on the Bayeux Tapestry, sitting in majesty, possibly in a representation of Westminster Abbey which Edward founded, photo by Myrabella, 11th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Having spent his youth and early adulthood at the court of his maternal cousins, the Dukes of Normandy, Alfred’s brother Edward returned to England in 1042 as Harthacnut’s heir. With his half-brother’s death, Edward’s first act as king was to ride to Winchester, with Godwine, Leofric, and Siward, the three most powerful men in the realm, at his back. Here, he took his mother Emma into custody and secured the royal treasury. A 26-year grudge at being passed over in favor of a mother’s younger sons by another marriage, it seems, proved a difficult one to bury.


Godwine retained and even extended his dominant position among the earls. He married his daughter Edith to the new king in 1045 and secured earldoms for his sons Svein and Harold. The Domesday Book, compiled in 1086, lists the wealth of the Godwine family second only to the king, the vast majority of their land lying in Godwine’s own earldom of Wessex.


Despite his wealth and power, Godwine remained an object of suspicion for the new king. Godwine, in 1048, advocated at a royal council for naval reinforcements to be sent to aid his nephew, King Svein Estrithsson of Denmark, who was fighting against Magnus, king of Norway. This was resisted by Earls Leofric and Siward, who cared little for Svein’s plight, and the northern earls’ advocacy carried the day.


The Godwine family was also, perhaps, discredited by the actions of Godwine’s veritable black sheep of an eldest son, Svein. After attempting to abduct Eadgifu, the noble abbess of Leominster, and marry her, covetous of her estate, Svein was expelled from England in 1047. Two years later, appearing to plead forgiveness, Svein had his cousin, Beorn, murdered, having just received a promise of aid from him.


Earl Godwin returns from exile to England in 1052, 13th century, Source: Historic England


What proved to be decisive, however, was King Edward’s distrust of Godwine himself, and the shifting of Anglo-Saxon England’s political and cultural orientation from Scandinavia southward to France and Normandy. When Edward became king in 1042, he brought with him Norman knights and clerics, one of whom, Robert of Jumièges, became Archbishop of Canterbury. Edward turned to them as an alternate source of counsel.


In 1051, one Flemish kinsman, Eustace of Boulogne, attempted to billet his troops in the town of Dover, within Godwine’s earldom. A local brawl broke out which ended in the deaths of nearly forty Normans and Englishmen. Furious, Edward asked Godwine to punish the townsmen of Dover. After all, the same had been asked of Leofric in 1041. Godwine refused. When Edward summoned Godwine before him, he went, but with a large army at his back.


Sensing the mood of the nation, who wanted to avoid war that they might not leave the land at the mercy of our foes,” Godwine backed down. He himself went into exile in Flanders, and his sons went to Ireland via Bristol. The power of the Godwine family, it seemed, was broken.


The Godwines: Apogee and Apotheosis

reconstructed viking ship
Reconstructed Viking ship, Source: LJ World


King Edward’s triumph was to be short-lived. Godwine and his sons, with the men of their earldoms once again behind them, and stiffened by Flemish and Irish mercenaries, returned in 1052 for a second showdown with the king. Godwine received his earldom back, as did his son Harold. The following year, Godwine’s death at a feast left his son, Harold Godwinson, in charge of the earldom of Wessex. Furthermore, the death of Siward, Earl of Northumbria, in 1055 was followed by the appointment not of Siward’s son Waltheof but of Tostig, another son of Godwine.


Shortly after, the Godwine brothers acted in concert to defeat the first and last king of Wales, Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, in 1063 with an amphibious invasion. The Godwine family was once again firmly in the ascendancy.


last king of wales
Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, the king of Wales beheaded on Harold Godwinson’s orders, Source:


Other families, furthermore, appeared to be in decline. Waltheof, the only surviving son of Siward, was a minor. Meanwhile, the Leofric family had produced its own black sheep. Ælfgar, the only surviving son of Leofric, had turned for help when exiled to the Welsh King Gruffydd and had fought against Edward’s forces to reinstate himself as Earl of East Anglia. He was to be exiled again in 1058, repeating the formula of armed insurrection with Welsh support. With his death in 1062, the realm must have breathed a sigh of relief.


Yet Tostig also proved to be an unpopular earl. Accused of rapacity after having taxed his subjects too heavily, Tostig was driven out of Northumbria, and 200 of his retainers were killed. Although Edward commanded the thegns of Northumbria to reinstate him as earl, Harold himself acquiesced to their choice of Morcar, son of Ælfgar and brother of Edwin, Earl of Mercia. Harold Godwinson was able to tie both earls into a formidable coalition after marrying their sister.


With their support, Harold was able to become king of England upon King Edward’s death in January 1066, passing over the claimant with the best blood-claim, Edgar Ætheling. Arguably, this was merely to solemnize a de facto authority that had already been Harold’s. The betrayer Tostig on the other hand, would bring the king of Norway, Harald Hardrada, to the shores of northern England.


A Clash of Kings

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In this scene, Harold declares an oath, on sacred relics, to support Duke William’s claim to be king of England, the Bayeux Tapestry, photo by Myrabella, 11th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Harold, though the obvious choice from the perspective of the Anglo-Saxon nobility, was seen as illegitimate by other claimants in Europe. The most prominent, William the Conqueror, claimed that Edward had promised him the crown and that Harold had sworn on holy relics to uphold his claim. The slimness of Harald Hardrada’s claim reveals how weak Harold Godwinson’s position was seen to be. Harald derived his claim from a pact between Harthacnut and his half-brother, Magnus of Norway, that whoever outlived the other would inherit their domains. Harald had not even been mentioned in the arrangement.


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The death of Harold depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, the words Harold interfectus est (Harold is killed) lies over both the figure with an arrow in the eye and the one being struck by a knight, 11th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


1066, then, saw three battles that were to decide the fate of England. The first two were fought against Harald Hardrada, and culminated in the Norwegian king’s death, alongside Tostig, on the banks of the Humber at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Harold Godwinson was not to be so lucky against the fresh Norman troops of William of Normandy, among whom could be found mounted knights. With inexperienced, nervous peasants falling prey to William’s feigned retreats, Harold was eventually overwhelmed on the field of Hastings. Harold’s family had weathered a tempestuous 50 years and thrust themselves from obscurity to the heights of political power. Yet on Senlac Hill, whether by a sword stroke or an arrow in the eye, Harold finally hit his glass ceiling.


The last Anglo-Saxon half-century had truly been a golden age for noble king-makers in England. Regional strongmen, both Danish and Anglo-Saxon, accrued great landed fortunes, acted with a large degree of autonomy and did much to shape the political life of the nation. Though the Norman aristocracy would have their say in future succession disputes, they were very much lesser figures than their pre-conquest counterparts. While Cnut had attempted to replace one grasping aristocracy with another, William the Conqueror would ensure that no magnate would ever again be able to hold a candle to the king.

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By Dan BulmanMPhil Medieval History, BA Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic Dan studied at Queens’ College, Cambridge (BA) and Emmanuel College, Cambridge MPhil), specializing in the history of the British Isles during the Central Middle Ages (900-1200). He was particularly interested in social history, including the relationship between land and power, documentary culture, and the expression of social status. He wrote an undergraduate dissertation on the family of Earl Siward of Northumbria and his MPhil on the role of the Warenne family in Anglo-Norman politics during the first two generations of the Norman Conquest. He is an avid reader and is pleased to be contributing to the Collector as a writer.