From 1013-1014, the Danish King, Sweyn Forkbeard, usurped power in England, displacing the Anglo-Saxon monarch, Æthelred the Unready, and his son, Edmund Ironside. After Sweyn’s death in 1014, Æthelred sailed back to England and was proclaimed king once again by his people. At the same time, Sweyn’s son, Canute, also had a claim to the throne of England. Canute was in a precarious political situation, however, for at the same time that much of England was siding with Æthelred against the Danes, a rival son of Sweyn Forkbeard, by the name of Harald (II) Sweynsen, was simultaneously staking his own claim to Denmark. Thus, unsure about the manpower he could muster or the resources he could access, Canute found himself unprepared for war against the resurging Anglo-Saxons. It would take him about a year to gather enough funds and troops to truly begin campaigning against Æthelred the Unready and Edmund Ironside in 1015 and 1016.
Æthelred the Unready died in early 1016, as a fleet led by Canute was closing in on London. With Æthelred’s death, his crown passed to Edmund Ironside. As his “Ironside” nickname suggests, King Edmund (II) put up a stout defense against Canute’s attempts to reclaim the throne of England. Throughout 1016, Edmund and Canute skirmished and battled in multiple clashes of various intensity, the final of which was said to have been the Battle of Ashingdon or Assandun. After that battle, the rival leaders (or their vassals) tired of war, and a peace meeting was arranged on an island then called Olney or Olanege.
According to the histories of Henry of Huntingdon (c. 1080-1160) and Roger of Wendover (d. 1236), Edmund Ironside and Canute were convinced by their supporters to settle their differences once and for all in a duel. As the story goes, an arena was prepared on the designated island and both monarchs arrived in their best sets of armor. They began their fight with spears at opposite ends of a list, competing in something like a joust, yet the two kings wore such exquisite sets of armor that the spears shattered on impact. Next, the kings unsheathed their blades to continue the duel. The English chroniclers claimed, of course, that Edmund Ironside was the superior of the two in the fight, and Henry of Huntingdon outlandishly claimed that Canute, in a moment of fear, offered Edmund control of Denmark in hopes of stopping the duel. Yet, Canute (in this odd scenario) apparently regained some momentum in the duel, and brought the fight back to a standstill. The peculiar tale concluded with Edmund and Canute ending the duel as friends and they agreed to partition England between themselves.
As you may have guessed, this entertaining but unlikely story is viewed with great skepticism, especially since older sources, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, make no mention of a duel occurring during the peace negations between Edmund Ironside and Canute that occurred on the island of Olney or Olanege. Either way, duel or not, Canute would be victorious in the long-run. Edmund Ironside died of illness before the end of 1016, leading to the ascension of Canute as king of all England. Canute would go on to add Denmark and Norway to his realm, and was eventually given the epithet of “the great.”
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Depiction of Edmund Ironside and Canute the Great at the Battle of Assandun, by Matthew Paris (1200–1259), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester translated by Thomas Forester. London: Petter and Galpin, originally published in 1854.