Edmund Ironside: A Resolute Warrior King Who Defended England

Edmund Ironside, also known as Edmund II, was a courageous and esteemed monarch who reigned as the King of the English from 23rd April to 30th November 1016. Born around 990, Edmund was the son of King Æthelred the Unready and his first wife, Ælfgifu of York. His reign was overshadowed by a war inherited from his father, but he earned the epithet “Ironside” due to his exceptional bravery in resisting the Danish invasion led by Cnut the Great.

Early Life and Rise to Power

Edmund Ironside was not initially expected to ascend to the throne of England. However, by June 1014, his two elder brothers had tragically passed away, making him the heir apparent. Later that same year, England was conquered by Sweyn Forkbeard, who died shortly thereafter. Æthelred managed to reclaim the throne despite facing opposition. Sweyn’s son, Cnut, returned to Denmark, where he began assembling an invasion force to reconquer England. The invasion force would not arrive until the following year.

After reclaiming the throne, the royal family, with the assistance of Eadric Streona (Edmund Ironside‘s brother-in-law), focused on strengthening their hold on the country. Those who had sided with the Danes in 1014 faced punishments, and some even lost their lives. Notably, Morcar and Sigeferth, two brothers, were killed, and their possessions were seized by Æthelred. Sigeferth’s widow, Ealdgyth, was imprisoned in a monastery, but she had already captured Edmund Ironside‘s attention.

In August 1015, Cnut returned to England and pillaged large parts of the country. Edmund Ironside joined forces with Æthelred to defend London, but in 1016, he declared himself the Earl of the East Midlands and initiated a revolt against his father. Acting without the king’s permission, Edmund Ironside took Ealdgyth from the monastery and married her—a politically advantageous union since she belonged to one of the most influential families in the Midlands.

Æthelred’s passing on 23rd April 1016 resulted in Edmund Ironside assuming the throne. However, serious conflict did not arise until the summer of that year. Edmund Ironside engaged in five battles against the Danes, culminating in his defeat on 18th October at the Battle of Assandun. Following the battle, both parties agreed to divide the kingdom, with Edmund Ironside taking control of Wessex and Cnut ruling over the rest of the country. Edmund’s reign was cut short when he died shortly thereafter on 30th November. He left behind two sons, Edward and Edmund Ironside. However, Cnut became the king of all of England and exiled the remaining members of Edmund’s family.

The Valiant Warrior Prince

While the exact date of Edmund Ironside‘s birth remains uncertain, it is believed to be no later than 993, as he was a signatory to charters alongside his two elder brothers. Edmund Ironside was the third of six sons born to King Æthelred the Unready and his first wife, Ælfgifu. His older brothers were Æthelstan and Egbert, while he had younger siblings named Eadred, Eadwig, and Edgar. Additionally, he had four sisters: Eadgyth, Ælfgifu, Wulfhilda, and the Abbess of Wherwell Abbey. Edmund Ironside‘s mother passed away around 1000, prompting his father to remarry Emma of Normandy, who had two sons, Edward the Confessor and Alfred, along with a daughter named Goda.

Edmund Ironside maintained a close relationship with his brother Æthelstan and appeared to feel threatened by Emma’s ambitions for her own sons. According to the “Life of Edward the Confessor,” written fifty years later, all Englishmen promised to accept Edward as king if Emma’s unborn child was a boy, demonstrating Edmund’s loyalty and concern for his brother’s position.

The King’s Struggle and Final Moments

When Sweyn Forkbeard seized the throne in 1013 and Æthelred fled to Normandy, Edmund and his brothers chose to remain in England rather than follow their father. In June 1014, Æthelstan passed away, leaving Edmund Ironside a sword that had once belonged to King Offa of Mercia. Æthelstan’s will reflected the close bond between the brothers and the nobility of the East Midlands.

After Sweyn’s death in February 1014, the Five Boroughs acknowledged Cnut as king. Nevertheless, Æthelred returned to England and launched a surprise attack that defeated the Vikings and forced Cnut to flee the country. In 1015, during an assembly in Oxford, Sigeferth and Morcar sought a royal pardon, but Eadric Streona murdered them instead. Following these events, King Æthelred ordered the seizure of Sigeferth’s widow, Ealdgyth, and her confinement in Malmesbury Abbey.

However, Edmund defied his father’s orders and married Ealdgyth, potentially to consolidate his power in the East Midlands. He also secured the submission of the Five Boroughs. Meanwhile, Cnut launched a fresh invasion of England. In late 1015, Edmund raised an army, likely with the help of his wife’s and mother’s connections to the Midlands and the North.

However, the Mercians, led by Eadric Streona, joined forces with the West Saxons and submitted to Cnut. When Æthelred failed to lead the army due to illness, Edmund assembled a new one and, in conjunction with Earl Uhtred of Northumbria, ravaged Eadric Streona’s territories in Mercia. However, when Cnut occupied Northumbria, Uhtred submitted to him and was subsequently killed. Edmund then headed to London.

Upon Æthelred’s death on 23rd April 1016, the citizens and councillors of London selected Edmund as king and likely crowned him. Meanwhile, the Witan, meeting in Southampton, elected Cnut. Edmund made a final attempt to revive the defence of England. While the Danes besieged London, he sought support in Wessex, where people pledged their allegiance and joined his army.

Edmund engaged in inconclusive battles against the Danes and their English supporters in Somerset and Wiltshire. He managed to lift the siege of London, which had been valiantly defended by its citizens. Edmund also defeated the Danes near Brentford, renewed the siege, gathered more troops in Wessex, and returned to relieve London once again. He triumphed over the Danes at Otford and pursued Cnut into Kent.

Eadric Streona eventually switched sides and supported Edmund. However, their fortunes changed dramatically on 18th October at the decisive Battle of Assandun. Eadric and his men fled, and Cnut emerged as the clear victor. There may have been one final battle in the Forest of Dean, after which the two kings, at the behest of the Witan, negotiated a peace settlement that divided the country between them. Edmund retained control over Wessex, while Cnut assumed power over Mercia and potentially Northumbria.

On 30th November 1016, Edmund passed away. The exact location of his death remains uncertain, though it is widely believed to have occurred in London rather than Oxford, as suggested by Henry of Huntingdon in a later account that describes Edmund being stabbed while using a privy. Geoffrey Gaimar recounts a similar event involving a crossbow.

However, several medieval chroniclers, including the Encomium Emmae Reginae, do not mention murder, leading to speculation that Edmund’s cause of death may have been battle wounds or an illness. Nevertheless, the possibility of foul play cannot be entirely ruled out.

Edmund was laid to rest near his grandfather, King Edgar the Peaceful, at Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset. Unfortunately, the abbey was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, making the exact location of his remains unclear.

Legacy and Descendants

M. K. Lawson notes that Edmund’s fierce resistance against the Danes in 1016 ranks alongside the determined efforts of Alfred the Great in 871, highlighting his notable achievements compared to his father’s failures. Edmund’s ability to rally successive armies suggests that effective leadership allowed the government to function smoothly. He was undoubtedly a resolute, skilled, and inspiring leader of men. Cnut visited Edmund’s tomb every year on the anniversary of his death, placing a cloak adorned with peacocks upon it as a symbol of resurrection and to aid in his salvation.

Edmund had two children with Ealdgyth: Edward the Exile and Edmund Ætheling. According to John of Worcester, Cnut sent them to Sweden with hopes of their murder and subsequent oblivion. However, King Olof of Sweden forwarded them to Kiev, where his daughter Ingegerd was the grand princess. Eventually, the boys ended up in Hungary, where Edmund died, while Edward prospered.

In 1057, Edward returned from exile to England but died shortly after his arrival. His son, Edgar Ætheling, was briefly proclaimed king after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 but ultimately submitted to William the Conqueror. Edgar led a long and eventful life, participating in rebellions against William from 1067 to 1075, joining Robert Curthose on campaigns in Sicily from 1085 to 1087, and accompanying Robert on the First Crusade from 1099 to 1103. He was still alive in 1125.

In 1070, Edward the Exile’s daughter, Margaret, became the queen of Scotland. Through her and her descendants, Edmund Ironside is an ancestor of subsequent British monarchs.


Edmund Ironside: A Resolute Warrior King Who Defended England
Image: Wikimedia

Edmund Ironside, a formidable and determined warrior king, valiantly defended England during a tumultuous period of Danish invasions. Despite inheriting a challenging situation, he showed unwavering courage and skill in battle. Edmund’s reign was cut short, but his legacy lives on through his descendants, including future British monarchs. His resolute spirit and dedication to his kingdom continue to be remembered and admired to this day.

*Feature Image: Wikimedia