This image, created by the monk, historian and artist Matthew Paris (d. 1259) for his Chronica Majora, depicts an interesting tale from English history. In 1016, King Æthelred the Unready died while he was at war with Canute the Great of Denmark. The English cause was taken up by Æthelred’s son and successor, Edmund Ironside, who continued to wage war against his rival, Canute. As the nickname, “Ironside,” suggests, King Edmund was an unshakable warrior and a skilled strategist. The war between Edmund and Canute ground down to a stalemate, and the two ultimately met to discuss peace before the year 1016 was over. A curious tale eventually came into being about the peace negotiations between the two kings—a legend oddly emerged that Edmund and Canute engaged in a duel over the fate of England. Henry of Huntingdon, a 12th-century historian, wrote of the action-packed tale:
“Lists were erected in Olney, and the duel of the kings began. Their spears on both sides were shattered against the highly-wrought armour they wore, and the affair came to be decided by the sword. Both nations heard and saw with groans and shouts the fearful clang and the gleaming flash of their arms” (Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon, book 6, entry for year 1016).
Henry of Huntingdon would go on to claim that Edmund got the better of his opponent and that Canute had to beg for his life, ultimately ending in a divided England split between the two rulers. Earlier sources, however, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Chronicle of Florence of Worcester (d. 1118) did not mention such a duel ever occurring and instead attributed the division of England between Canute and Edmund to more peaceful negotiation methods. Whatever the case, Edmund Ironside died before the end of 1016, and the rest of England was claimed by Canute the Great.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester translated by Thomas Forester. London: Petter and Galpin, originally published in 1854.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.