They wrote bril­liant his­to­ries

BBC History Magazine - - The Anglo-saxons -

It was said in the 980s that Eng­land was a land of “many dif­fer­ent races, lan­guages, cus­toms and cos­tumes”. The achieve­ment of the kings from Æthel­stan to Edgar (who ruled Eng­land from 959–75) was to cre­ate an al­le­giance to the monarch and his law. But with lesser rulers co­he­sion crum­bled, and dis­as­ter struck un­der Æthelred the Un­ready. His 37-year reign saw the re­turn of the Vikings, the de­feat of the English, and the es­tab­lish­ment in 1016 of a Dan­ish king­dom of Eng­land un­der Cnut.

This story is told in one of our great­est his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives, the An­glo-Saxon Chron­i­cle. In its ear­lier years, the Chron­i­cle was a la­conic, im­per­sonal record of the times, but in the first decade of the 11th cen­tury it came into its own, courtesy of a bril­liant ac­count writ­ten by a name­less Lon­don chron­i­cler. Tragic, ironic, scathing, with poignant eye­wit­ness de­tail, it is the birth of nar­ra­tive history in English.

Æthelred’s reign also marked the be­gin­ning of ties with a fu­ture neme­sis from across the English Chan­nel. In 1002, the king mar­ried Emma of Nor­mandy, one of the most re­mark­able women in our history. El­iz­a­beth I and Vic­to­ria may be more cel­e­brated, but in terms of drama, Emma’s 50-year reign leaves them in her wake: only Matilda can com­pare. Her story is told in the first bi­og­ra­phy of a woman in our history, In Praise of Queen Emma, which lifts the veil on 11th-cen­tury dy­nas­tic politics.

Emma later mar­ried Cnut, and her Dan­ish and English sons be­came kings. This was a time when the Dan­ish kings of Eng­land ruled Den­mark and parts of Nor­way and Swe­den too: a North Sea em­pire, and a very dif­fer­ent align­ment for English history. But when Emma’s child­less son, Ed­ward the Con­fes­sor, died in 1066, wait­ing in the wings was a giant of English history, Wil­liam of Nor­mandy.

Emma of Nor­mandy shown in the En­comium, a bi­og­ra­phy of the queen and her hus­band Cnut

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