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Edmund II [known as Edmund Ironside]locked

(d. 1016)
  • M. K. Lawson

Edmund II [known as Edmund Ironside] (d. 1016), king of England, was the son of Æthelred II, the Unready (c. 966x8–1016), and his first wife, Ælfgifu, according to Ailred of Rievaulx the daughter of Earl Thored of Northumbria (according to John of Worcester, however, her father was an otherwise unknown Ealdorman Æthelberht). The Liber vitae of New Minster, Winchester, places Edmund second in a list of six of Æthelred's sons, but their appearances from 993 onwards among the witnesses of royal charters show that he was really the third, being preceded by Æthelstan and Ecgberht, and followed by Eadred, Eadwig, and Edgar, and then by Æthelred's sons with his second wife, Emma of Normandy, Edward the Confessor and Alfred Ætheling. In two charters, of 1014 and 1015, he heads the princes, Ecgberht last appearing in 1005, Edgar in 1008, and Æthelstan in 1013. In a document of between 1007 and 1014, witnessed by members of Edmund's household, the church of Sherborne leased him land at Holcombe Rogus, Devon, for his lifetime in return for £20; while the will of his brother Æthelstan of 1014 or 1015 gave him a sword which had belonged to King Offa of Mercia, a sword with a pitted hilt, a blade, a silver-coated trumpet, and estates in East Anglia and at Peacesdele (perhaps Pegsdon, Bedfordshire).

The life of Edward the Confessor, written fifty years later, claims that when Emma was pregnant with him all Englishmen swore to accept a boy child as king; if so, such ambitions probably caused friction with her stepsons, and in 1015, following the murder of the Danelaw thegns Sigeferth and Morcar by Eadric Streona, ealdorman of Mercia, Edmund took Sigeferth's widow, Ealdgyth, from Malmesbury against Æthelred's will, married her, and received the submission of the people of the Five Boroughs (Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, and Stamford). Simultaneously, Cnut of Denmark arrived off Kent, intent on conquering England. Perhaps assisted by his mother's and wife's links with the midlands and north, Edmund raised an army late in 1015, but Eadric and his Mercians joined the West Saxons in submitting to Cnut. The first army assembled by Edmund in 1016 dispersed when Æthelred did not appear to lead it, and the second achieved little when he did. Edmund and Earl Uhtred of Northumbria then ravaged Staffordshire, Shropshire, and Cheshire (perhaps to put pressure on Eadric); but when Cnut occupied Yorkshire, Uhtred returned to Northumbria, submitted, and was executed, while Edmund went to London. Æthelred died there on 23 April and the citizens, and such national councillors as were present, chose and probably crowned Edmund as king.

Edmund then proceeded to Wessex where the people submitted to him, fighting inconclusive battles against the Danes and their English allies at Penselwood, Somerset, and Sherston, Wiltshire, the latter probably on 25 June. He subsequently forced another Danish army to abandon its siege of London, and defeated it after crossing the Thames at Brentford. They renewed the siege when he went to Wessex to raise further troops, but these relieved the city again, overcame the Danes at Otford, and pursued Cnut into Kent. Here Ealdorman Eadric went over to Edmund, while the Scandinavians crossed the Thames into Essex and ravaged in Mercia. After Edmund had 'collected all the English nation for the fifth time' (ASC, s.a. 1016) he was defeated by Cnut on 18 October at 'Assandun' (probably Ashdon or Ashingdon, Essex), where Eadric and his men fled and the English suffered heavy losses.

The twelfth-century Anglo-Norman poet Gaimar tells how Edmund took the sister of a Welsh king as consort and received Welsh support in his campaigns. This latter point, at least, is apparently confirmed by allusions to Welsh troops in two contemporary sources: the German chronicler Thietmar of Merseburg's report of events in England in 1016; and the poem Liðsmannaflokkr ('Song of the men of the host'), composed by one of Cnut's men, which refers to their blows falling upon Welsh armour. A poem about Cnut, Ottar the Black's Knútsdrápa, says that 'Assandun' was followed by a battle at Danaskógar (perhaps the Forest of Dean), and this may explain why Edmund and Cnut eventually made peace at Alney in Gloucestershire. They divided the country, Cnut accepting a promised payment to his army and taking Mercia and probably Northumbria, while Edmund received Wessex. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records his death shortly thereafter, on 30 November 1016 (a twelfth-century Ely calendar gives 29 November), at London according to most later chroniclers. His infant sons, Edward Ætheling and Edmund, left England shortly after Cnut took sole control. Although Edmund's demise was obviously convenient for his enemies, the scanty contemporary sources do not suggest foul play, and exhaustion or the effects of a battle wound might seem adequate explanation. Nevertheless, by the 1070s the German chronicler Adam of Bremen was stating that he was poisoned, while twelfth-century writers tell much wilder tales, which doubtless owe more to folklore than history. Some have him pierced from below, at Eadric of Mercia's behest, when seated on a toilet; Gaimar reports that an arrow was fired up into him from a toilet.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle questions Edmund's political acumen in taking Eadric Streona of Mercia back into favour before the battle of ‘Assandun’, but little is known of Edmund's government. No coin bearing his name has survived. A charter giving land in Suffolk to Thorney Abbey in return for help in this life and the next was probably issued before April 1016, as Edmund calls himself simply 'son of the king'. A second text gives to New Minster, Winchester, estates in Northamptonshire which had belonged to Sigeferth, the first husband of Edmund's wife, Ealdgyth, for the salvation of all three, while a grant of Cnut from 1018 claims to confirm to Bishop Burhwold of Cornwall land which King Edmund had exchanged with him. Fragments these may be, but they are enough to hint that Edmund's activities extended beyond the military matters which are his chief claim to fame.

Although not recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle until 1057, his sobriquet, Ironside, may well be contemporary. The chronicle reports that he was so called 'because of his valour' (ASC, s.a. 1057, text D). The intensity of his struggle against the Danes in 1016 is known to have been matched in pre-conquest history only by the campaigns of Alfred in 871, and contrasts markedly with Æthelred's failure to offer adequate resistance, despite having at his disposal the powerful and sophisticated Anglo-Saxon administrative system built up during the tenth century. Edmund's initial difficulty in persuading his countrymen to fight indicates the poor state of their morale late in his father's reign, while his subsequent success in raising one army after another suggests that there was little the matter with the organs of government once under competent leadership. Probably a highly determined, skilled, and indeed inspiring leader of men, he may also have drawn, at least within Wessex, on deep wells of loyalty to the native royal family. It is noteworthy that, despite his links with the midlands and north, it was Wessex that he took in the division of 1016 and that he was buried, along with his grandfather Edgar, at Glastonbury Abbey. Cnut, who seemingly wished to stress the brotherhood established between them (according to John of Worcester) when they made peace, later visited the tomb on the anniversary of Edmund's death and laid a cloak decorated with peacocks upon it—probably (as the peacock symbolized the resurrection of the flesh) to assist his salvation.


  • ASC, s.a. 1015, 1016, 1057 [(texts C, D, E)]
  • AS chart., S 947, 948, 951, 1422, 1503
  • S. Keynes, ed., The Liber vitae of the New Minster and Hyde Abbey, Winchester (Copenhagen, 1996)
  • Thietmar of Merseburg, Chronicon, ed. R. Holtzmann (1955), 446–9
  • F. Barlow, ed. and trans., The life of King Edward who rests at Westminster, 2nd edn, OMT (1992), 12
  • Adam of Bremen, Gesta, ed. B. Schmeidler (1917), 114
  • Aelredus Rievallensis [Ailred of Rievaulx], ‘Genealogia regum Anglorum’, Patrologia Latina, 195 (1855), 741
  • L'estoire des Engleis by Geffrei Gaimar, ed. A. Bell, Anglo-Norman Texts, 14–16 (1960), 130, 134
  • Willelmi Malmesbiriensis monachi de gestis regum Anglorum, ed. W. Stubbs, 2 vols., Rolls Series (1887–9)
  • English historical documents, 1, ed. D. Whitelock (1955)
  • E. A. Freeman, The history of the Norman conquest of England, 2nd edn, 6 vols. (1870–79), 2.694–8
  • S. D. Keynes, The diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’, 978–1016 (1980)
  • R. Poole, ‘Skaldic verse and Anglo-Saxon history: some aspects of the period 1009–1016’, Speculum, 62 (1987), 281–3, 292–8
  • M. K. Lawson, Cnut: the Danes in England in the early eleventh century (1993)
John of Worcester, ed. R. R. Darlington & P. McGurk, trans. J. Bray & P. McGurk, 2–3; OMT (1995–) [vol. 1 forthcoming]
P. H. Sawyer, , Royal Historical Society Guides and Handbooks (1968)
Oxford Medieval Texts
D. Whitelock, D. C. Douglas, & S. I. Tucker, eds. and trans., (1961)