Given the recent dramas engulfing the British Royal Family – involving the death of a well-loved monarch, manipulated photos, and supposed princess body doubles – one might assume that, despite all the glitz and glamor, being a royal can be tough. 

Before you shed a tear or two for the largest landowners in the United Kingdom, spare a thought, however, for their ancestral counterparts, the Anglo-Saxon House of Wessex, who ruled much of England in the early medieval period. 

Now, no one doubts that the current British Royal Family comes under a lot of media scrutiny, but things are a little more peaceful than they were back in the early medieval period. 

Whilst simmering tensions indeed exist between Princes Harry and William and possibly involving King Charles and his heir, Prince William, these disputes are primarily debated in newspapers and online forums, unlike the battlefield resolutions of their 11th-century counterparts.

For the House of Wessex and some of its neighboring kingdoms, specifically across the North Sea in the Viking kingdoms of Norway and Denmark, the acquisition and control of power was very much a family business that operated with the point of a sword. 

Forkbeard & son 

One of these royal families was headed by the famous Viking king, conqueror, and warrior Sweyn Forkbeard

By combining brute force, political cunning, and intrigue, Forkbeard managed to unite the kingdoms of Denmark, England, and Norway under his personal rule. 

Forkbeard forged these three kingdoms into an empire connected only by the sea, with later historians dubbing it the North Sea Empire. It was unique because it was the only thalassocrat empire in medieval Europe. 

The jewel in his crown was when he seized the rich Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England. This was a relatively new creation, led by the House of Wessex, whose scion Athelstan, Alfred the Great's grandson, was crowned as the first King of the English in 927. 

However, Athelstan's descendant, Æthelred the Unready, was forced into exile when Forkbeard and his young son Cnut invaded England in 1013. 

Forkbeard had only ruled England for about five weeks when he dropped dead, aged but 50 years, in 1014. 

His empire crumbled instantly, and Cnut, who had accompanied his father in his English exploits, was forced to see this great glittery imperialist prize slip from his clutches. 

Prior to the Battle of Assandun in 1016, the Viking presence in England dated back centuries, with Sweyn Forkbeard's conquests uniting Denmark, England, and Norway, setting the stage for Cnut's ascension to power. Illustration: The Viking Herald

In Exile 

Whilst Cnut was lamenting the day his father dropped dead, his brother, Harald, seized the initiative and claimed the Danish throne – a third of the Empire – for himself. 

Stranded in England following his father's death, Cnut was declared, by the large Viking population in Anglo-Saxon England, as their rightful king. 

However, the Anglo-Saxon nobility had other ideas and pleaded for Æthelred to come back and claim his throne. 

With more popular support than Cnut, Æthelred managed to win back England for the House of Wessex and saw himself back on the throne in 1014. 

It was now Cnut's turn to play the role of exile, and he, along with his retinue, slipped away to the safety of his brother's kingdom in Denmark. 

However, Harald was less than thrilled about a rival claimant for his throne and wanted him to leave the scene immediately. 

He managed this by offering support for Cnut's invasion of England on the condition that he not press his claim for the Danish throne. In desperate need of men and resources, Cnut agreed. 

In the fair weather of summer 1016, Cnut set sail across the North Sea for England. If we are to believe the sagas and chronicles, which are of questionable historical accuracy, he may have possessed as many as 10,000 warriors. 

Neighboring rulers, including Olof Skötkonung and Boreslaw the Brave, Duke of Poland, were said to have lent Cnut forces due to political alliances largely secured through familial connections. 

The famous mercenary band, the Jomsvikings, was also said to be part of Cnut's force. 

On October 18, 1016, the Battle of Assandun took place between Cnut the Great and King Edmund Ironside. One potential location of this historic event is Ashingdon in south-east Essex. Photo: Lonpicman (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Political turmoil, death, and a family divided 

From late September 1015, the nascent English kingdom was plagued by invasion and turmoil. This was a time for unity, both in the nation and the ruling family, but unity they did not get. 

Æthelred's son, Edmund Ironside, had rebelled against his father and seized power in the northern regions of the kingdom. 

Like the Vikings had done in the British Isles and beyond, since the turn of the 9th century, they exploited this political and familial division to their advantage. 

England's situation worsened when Æthelred died in 1016, with some sources suggesting it was from a broken heart due to this betrayal by his own flesh and blood. 

Soon, Cnut and his forces seized most of England before Edmund was crowned King of the English on 23 April 1016. 

By late summer, Edmund knew that a major battle was brewing and raised an army mainly of troops from Wessex and southern England. 

His subjects had been subjected to marauding hordes of Viking warriors putting the country to the sword, and even London – growing in importance as a political, economic, and cultural locus of power – had been taken by the Viking force after a bitter siege. 

After winning London, Cnut's forces were confronted by Edmund's mostly West Saxon English troops at a place called Assandun in Essex as they were retreating to their ships. 

Matthew Paris's illustration in the Chronica Majora manuscript depicts the Battle of Assandun, featuring Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Great, resulting in Cnut's eventual kingship over England. Source: Matthew Paris (1200–1259), Public domain

The Battle of Assandun 

Like so many early medieval battles and events, we have only the barest records, many of which lack sufficient detail or reliability. 

Edmund wanted to seize the initiative by harrying Cnut's forces and gaining an element of surprise. He was said to have fought amongst his men whilst Cnut did not, preferring to strategize rather than fight – or so the chronicles would have us believe. 

The English forces, led by Edmund, who won his nickname by his willingness to face adversaries head-on and in the ranks, seem to have been putting up a good fight until an act of betrayal. 

An Anglo-Saxon noble, the ealdorman of Mercia, Eadric Streona, left the battlefield, allowing a considerable gap in the English forces. Cnut then ordered his men to surge, and with that withdrawal, England was won. 

The Viking force cut down the English, and Edmund managed to flee the field of battle badly injured. 

Though Edmund's force was larger, the Vikings inflicted a huge loss of life, and Edmund was fortunate to escape with his own life. 

Upon witnessing Eadric's betrayal, Edmund charged headlong into the Viking force, earning the nickname Ironside for his bravery. 

What is interesting is that Eadric has only recently come back into the English fold, having originally defected to the Vikings when Cnut landed in England. 

We will never know whether this was a deliberate deception or if he simply foresaw an inevitable Viking victory that day and chose to take pragmatic, life-saving action. 

Between 1016 and 1035, Cnut the Great presided over a united English realm, integrating it into his expansive North Sea Empire that also encompassed Denmark, Norway, and portions of Sweden. Source: Hel-hama (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Legacy 

Following this battle, Edward limped off with his forces and fled into hiding. Eventually, he met Cnut to sign a treaty granting the Viking king all of England except Wessex. 

Furthermore, upon the death of one of the kings, the surviving royal would inherit all the other's kingdoms, and his son would be heir, too. 

Cnut must have known that Edmund was wounded severely and only had to bide his time before Wessex fell within his clutches. 

Edmund II, King of the English, died on 30 November 1016, having reigned for little over eight months. 

Wessex passed to Cnut, who now had won back the English throne and would go on to seize the crowns of Denmark and Norway over the next 12 years. 

Upon his death in 1035, Cnut's reign was regarded as the culmination of more than two and a half centuries of the Viking presence in the British Isles, as he successfully reestablished the empire his father had created. 

Edmund's sons were forced into exile in Hungary. 

The House of Wessex's rule over England was reestablished by Edward the Confessor in 1042 but would eventually fall from power upon Edward's death in 1066. He would be the final ruler of England from the House of Wessex. 

Although England's early medieval period was influenced by the House of Wessex, its later medieval era would be shaped by the House of Normandy. 

For more information on the legacy of Cnut's victory at Assandun, visit the History Hit website here

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