Thursday, December 26, 2013

Cnut and the Earldoms. 1016—1035

Cnut was one of those rulers who, like the Emperor Augustus, shrink from no barbarity in gaining power, but when once they have acquired it exercise their authority with moderation and gentleness.

He began by outlawing or putting to death men whom he considered dangerous, but when this had once been done he ruled as a thoroughly English king of the best type. The Danes who had hitherto fought for him had come not as settlers, but as an army, and soon after Eadmund's death he sent most of them home, retaining a force, variously stated as 3,000 or 6,000, warriors known as his House-carls (House-men), who formed a small standing army depending entirely on himself. They were not enough to keep down a general rising of the whole of England, but they were quite enough to prevent any single great man from rebelling against him.

Cnut therefore was, what Æthelred had wished to be, really master of his kingdom. Under him ruled the ealdormen, who from this time were known as Earls, from the Danish title of Jarl, and of these Earls the principal were the three who governed Mercia, North-humberland, and Wessex, the last named now including the old kingdoms of Kent and Sussex. There was a fourth in East Anglia, but the limits of this earldom varied from time to time, and there were sometimes other earldoms set up in the neighbouring shires, whereas the first-named three remained as they were for some time after Cnut's death.

It is characteristic of Cnut that the one of the Earls to whom he gave his greatest confidence was Godwine, an Englishman, who was Earl of the West Saxons. Another Englishman, Leofwine, became Earl of the Mercians. A Dane obtained the earldom of the North-humbrians, but the land was barbarous, and its Earls were frequently murdered. Sometimes there was one Earl of the whole territory, sometimes two. It was not till after the end of Cnut's reign that Siward became Earl of Deira, and at a later time of all North-humberland as far as the Tweed. The descendants of two of these Earls, Godwine and Leofwine, leave their mark on the history for some time to come.

Beyond the Tweed Malcolm, king of the Scots, ruled. He defeated the Northumbrians at Carham, and Cnut ceded Lothian to him, either doing so for the first time or repeating the act of Eadgar, if the story of Eadgar's cession is true. At all events the king of the Scots from this time ruled as far south as the Tweed, and acknowledged Cnut's superiority. Cnut also became king of Denmark by his brother's death, and king of Norway by conquest. He entered into friendly relations with Richard II., Duke of the Normans, by marrying his sister Emma, the widow of Æthelred.

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