Edmund Ironside, Hero or fool?

Combat between Canute the Dane and Edmund Ironside, Matthew Paris, Chronica Maiora, Cambridge, Corpus Chrisit, 26, f. 160
Combat between Canute the Dane and Edmund Ironside, Matthew Paris, Chronica Maiora, Cambridge, Corpus Chrisit, 26, f. 160

Edmund Ironside’s foray into written history was as dynamic as it was brief. 1016 was a pivotal year for England, as we see the death of two kings and an awful lot of Danish activity. By the time King Aethelred the Unready died in April of that year, Canute was entrenched in Wessex, with London as his aim. Edmund was declared Aethelred’s successor and immediately set about to bring Wessex back to fold, so to speak. He was generally successful in both finding men willing to fight for him, and giving Canute a run for his money.

Things might have gone very well for Edmund except for his uncanny adhesion to the infamous Eadric of Mercia, or Eadric Streona, also known as Eadric the Grasper and the most rascally traitor in Anglo-Saxon history. Eadric was famous for changing sides at the most critical moment, usually with dire consequences. Why Edmund kept forgiving him and trusting him remains a mystery—unless it’s because Eadric was married to his sister.

In October, the Battle of Assandun was the turning point. Up to that time, Edmund had won a couple of bloody battles against Canute, but at Assandun, Eadric is said to have cut off the head of a man who looked like the king and held it up, throwing the army into confusion and turning the battle against the English. Most historians believe that Eadric was in the pay of Canute at this time.

Edmund Ironside was soon on the run, and the Danes followed him up the Bristol channel into the Severn, where both sides paused at Olney Island. Legend has it that Eadric, once again at the side of King Edmund, suggested that both chieftains resolve their dispute by single combat. Edmund, by far the larger and more powerful man, agreed as did Canute, who could not afford to lose face.

We can only assume that Eadric managed to secretly communicate his plan to Canute, as its result bore the hallmark of the wily man’s tactics. For, as one would have expected, King Edmund was the stronger fighter and soon hammered the Dane, breaking his shield and beating him down when Canute called a stop to the fight.  “Bravest of youths,” he cried out, “why should either of us risk his life for the sake of a crown?”  Edmund paused, considering.  “Let us be brothers by adoption,” the Dane continued, “and divide the kingdom, governing so that I may rule your affairs, and you mine.” (this came from Florence of Worcester)

And so it was.  Whether it happened by single combat or not, in the end Edmund Ironside agreed to partition the kingdom between them, with the understanding that one of them would inherit the whole on the other’s death.  No mention was made of Edmund’s heirs (remember Eadgar Aetheling?).  Canute got the Danelaw and Edmund held Wessex.

Unfortunately for Edmund Ironside, he did not survive the winter.  Canute had taken up residence in London and the Saxon king died  a couple of months later – some said from exhaustion, or from wounds taken in battle.  But others declared that he was killed by Eadric Streona, who hid in the king’s privy and drove a hot poker through his nether regions (sounds like propaganda). The story goes that Canute, on hearing of Eadric’s despicable murder, ordered his execution on the spot.

Canute was certainly finished with the traitor. Got rid of him, I reckon.


9 thoughts on “Edmund Ironside, Hero or fool?

  • I agree with you to the extent that ther’s definately something missing in our understanding of the events. Why on earth would Edmund have trusted Edric after he’d defected once to Cnut? Either because he had to, or possibly becuase the histories we have are at fault. Many of them are 12th century rehashes, and I suspect that it simply becomes easy to blame Edric for everything that goes wrong. I think a revisionist history of Edric is due !

    • Hi David,
      I agree that Eadric probably became a convenient scapegoat , though most historians seem to be in agreement about his involvement in the major events that turned the tables, so to speak, on Edmund Ironside. I have bumped into other opinions that Edmund just couldn’t afford to be too picky about his allies, since Eadric had so many resources at his disposal. It does make sense, doesn’t it? BTW, there is a new historical novel by Jayden Woods called “Eadric the Grasper: Sons of Mercia Vol. 1” which does paint him in a more favorable light (I haven’t read it yet). It has gotten some good reviews on Amazon.

  • Richard Tearle says:

    Hi Mercedes – thank you for this piece: Edmund is something of a forgotten man, but could have been so important in the shaping of English history. I think he needed Eadric’s men more than he needed Eadric and, yes, Eadric was married to his sister so there is probably some truth in that too. The ‘beheading’ incident, I believe was at an earlier battle – Penselwood or Sherston, I can’t remember which. Eadric lasted just over a year with Canute, being ‘executed’ at Chhristmas 1017, if memory serves me right. whether he was bragging about being involved in Edmund’s death, or complaining about his ‘lack of reward’ is debateable, but, so the story goes, Canute told Earl Erik to give ‘him what he is due’ and was promptly strangled. Or maybe beheaded. Depends upon which story you believe!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>