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Vikings Valhalla 1.3: The Viking War on England Begins

Remember, we’ve telescoped time in this series. Events that happen in the course of a year are actually pulled from an entire decade between 1002 and 1015.  Episode 3 starts with gruesome scenes of battle and plundering in Kent. We are given a miniscule hint of Cnut’s character when he reaches a hand down to help a captured English lady to her feet. It’s a kind act after scenes of mayhem and cruelty.

In London Edmund is praying at his father’s bier. There is a fire burning in a fireplace. Note: there were as yet no such things as fireplaces and chimneys. Just saying.

There is a brief meeting between Godwin, Edmund and Emma as she thanks them for gaining Eadric Streona’s cooperation in defense of London. Although Edmund wants to fight the Viking army, Emma insists that as king-in-waiting he is too valuable to put his life at risk. This works beautifully in the scenario that’s been set up here, as we watch a young Edmund and a young Leif come into their own. But actually, when Cnut invaded England—for conquest—it was 1015. Edmund and Cnut would both have been about 26 years old.

Near the end of this conversation Edmund suggests that if Eadric Streona is successful at vanquishing the Vikings, the nobles might look to him as a more suitable king. This was unlikely. No noble would have been chosen over an adolescent son of the king. Æthelred’s half-brother took the throne at about 13 when their father died in 975. Æthelred himself was crowned at age 10. Nevertheless, this works within the framework that the showrunners have set up. And, in fact, in 1066, when King Edward the Confessor died childless, it was a wealthy noble—a son of Godwin—who was crowned king of England because there were precious few alternatives (that anybody really liked, anyway).

This show is making much of the conflict between the Christian Vikings and the pagan Vikings. Poor Freydis is running into this as she makes her way to Uppsala, and that acrimony would have been an issue, certainly. There were definitely indications that pagan Scandinavians were coerced into accepting Christianity about this time, sometimes at sword point. Cnut doesn’t really take part in this conflict—at least, not that we’re seeing—but he was, in fact, a Christian. His mother was very definitely Christian, and later in his life he made a pilgrimage to Rome.

I liked how Godwin put young, arrogant Edmund in his place, humiliating him at sword play. Still, it wouldn’t have been Godwin doing this, who was probably about the same age as Edmund, and Edmund wouldn’t have needed the lesson because he was, you know, Edmund Ironside. 

In one scene we find Queen Emma seated at the head of a council table in London, meeting with the ealdormen of Sussex, East Anglia, Northumbria, and Kent. One of them worries that Streona of Mercia might not want to fight London’s battle against the Vikings. And this was a real issue in 1010 when Thorkell’s army ravaged England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mourns, “Then all the privy council were summoned before the king to consult how they might defend the country. But whatever was advised, it stood not a month; and at length there was not a chief that would collect an army, but each fled as he could: no shire would stand by another.”

In 1010 the Vikings were raiding, but at the council we’re witnessing Emma points out that what England is facing is not raiding, but war. And this is true. By 1013, Swein Forkbeard was already king of Denmark and Norway, and he’d made up his mind to conquer England. When he did, Cnut sailed with him.

So then we see Cnut, Olaf and Harald on a ridge looking across a marsh toward the Thames, with London in the far distance. Cnut is dubious. How do we get an army across that? Actually, there was a fortress on the south side of the bridge, and there had been a village there since Roman times. In Æthelred’s day there was even a mint in Southwark. Yes, there was a marshy area right along the River Thames, but an army would have to pass through Southwark first.

Now, about that bridge. When Harald and Leif cross it, they are stopped in the middle because it is a bascule bridge, meaning that part of it is hinged to raise up, like a drawbridge, so that ships could pass through. Leif stared at it, stunned. Me too! In medieval times, London bridge had a bascule section, but that was much later. In the 11th century, ships made it past the bridge in either direction at low tide, when they could go underneath it. There is going to be more about that bridge in future episodes, I’m certain.

And I want to say something about Cnut. In this episode he is finally given some character-revealing dialogue. He recognizes that the English know they are coming, and that they are actually daring the army to go ahead and strike from the south; he gives the English credit: “They may be smarter than we are.” I’m a little confused by how little we have seen of his capabilities so far. Cnut was a brilliant strategist. His biographer Timothy Bolton* describes him as “…a cunning and resourceful military leader…” We haven’t really seen much of that yet.

At another council session in London the ealdormen, with Godwin’s tacit approval, agree to crown Edmund, and they call him the Bretwalda. This is an Old English term referring to the ruler of all Britain, first used in the 9th century back when a united Britain didn’t even exist yet. But that’s what it means: ruler of Britain. It’s a little Anglo-Saxon garnish. Nice. Emma, though, is not happy. She’s worried about Edmund being too impulsive. Godwin disagrees with her, telling her that they must make sure Edmund succeeds. Like it or not, he insists, she has a stake in this because she has much to gain if Edmund wins against the Vikings, but even more to lose if he fails.

So, they both have the same goal in mind, but they’re not agreed on how best to attain it. This is reflective of the relationship, over 30 years, between Emma and Godwin. He was a strong supporter of the queen until….well, spoilers. It will be interesting to see how this relationship is explored as the series continues.

*Bolton, Timothy. Cnut the Great. Yale University Press, 2017.


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