Normally past tense take a dim view of the kind of reactionary approach to history that concentrates on the doings of kings and queens. Today we make an exception: this post will focus on kings. And their doings. Or more accurately, what happened to them while they were doing their doings.
Edmund Ironside was briefly king of England in 1016 CE. He was a son of Æthelred, known to history (possibly due to a bad translation of old English word ‘Unraed’) as the Unready, the Saxon monarch forced from his throne in 1013 by a Danish invasion led by Danish viking Swein Forkbeard. When Swein died the following year, Æthelred returned from exile, but had to contest the kingdom with Swein’s son Cnut (‘King Canute’)
Æthelred being elderly and maybe a bit of a crap leader, his son Edmund took charge of the actual fighting (Now being a serf at the time, it’s a tossup generally as to whether you’d want a ‘weak’ king who would avoid battle or a strong one who might win – since you had fuck all choice as to whether to fight at all, as you’d get your head staved in and your pitiful rights to land taken away if you didn’t. Though in the anglo-saxon society of the time a slightly more egalitarian sharing of the land was practiced, than under later Norman rule, and there’s also the community self-defence thing of not being killed by invaders determined to nick your patch. So. Complicated. Anyway. We digress.)
When Aethelred died in 1016, Edmund was crowned king, but lost the Battle of Assundun in 18 October 1016, after one of his earls, Eadric Streona of Mercia, fled the field with his men at the height of the battle, leaving Cnut victorious.
Edmund was forced to agree to divide the England between them, with Edmund retaining the Saxon heartland of Wessex and Cnut taking the north and east of England. This arrangement, known as the Treaty of Alney, was made around the end of October. It lasted less than a month.
On 30 November (says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; though a 12th century Ely calendar gives the date as the 29th) Edmund died. Many histories make little of this, and although sudden death was common at the time, Edmund was said to be young and fit. But speculation that Cnut had had him done in was rife. Henry of Huntingdon, writing in the 1120s, asserts that king Edmund was murdered when he went to the toilet:
“King Edmund was treacherously slain a few days afterwards. Thus it happened: one night, this great and powerful king having occasion to retire to the house for receiving the calls of nature, the son of the ealdorman Eadric, by his father’s contrivance, concealed himself in the pit, and stabbed the king twice from beneath with a sharp dagger, and, leaving the weapon fixed in his bowels, made his escape.”
As Mike Dash has commented:
“There are plenty of problems, it must be said, with this story as it stands. For one, how could the killer be sure that the posterior he was stabbing was the king’s? For another, could he have got close enough to use a dagger? Cesspits, after all, were often deep, and the drops to them long, and at least two variant accounts wordlessly address this problem. The first suggests that the assassin employed a spear rather than a dagger; the second, by the French chronicler Gaimar, reports that the murder was carried out by the diabolical contrivance of a ‘spring-bow’ – a deadly sort of booby trap consisting of a loaded crossbow that could be triggered by pressure and was known to the French as li ars qui ne fault, or ‘the bow that does not fail.’ According to this account (it is a late one, dating to about 1137), Edmund was shown into a privy rigged with ‘a drawn bow with the string attached to the seat, so that when the king sat on it the arrow was released and entered his fundament.’ [Bell p.134; Bradbury p.256]
The truth, it is safe to say, will never be known. Several reliable chroniclers, such as William of Malmesbury and John of Worcester, say nothing of any murder. The chroniclers who do are not entirely trustworthy; Gaimar’s romance, for one, was denounced by Warren Hollister as ‘so grossly error-ridden as to be altogether unreliable.’ [Hollister p.103] And there are a number of variants of the murder story; the German chronicler Adam of Bremen, writing in the 1070s, reported that Edmund was poisoned. [Schmeidler p.17] Several modern historians stress that no contemporary source mentions murder, and conclude that Edmund merely died of natural causes. [Lawson p.20]”
However, Ironside was far from the last monarchs to snuff it on the bog; some of ‘natural causes’, others not so…
Godfrey the Hunchback, Duke of Lower Lorraine (an area roughly coinciding with the Netherlands and Belgium) was murdered in 1069 when staying in the Dutch city of Vlaardingen. Allegedly, the assassin worked out which of the latrines, which were built and drained on the outer side of the wall, according to medieval building style, belonged to the duke’s sleeping room, hid underneath, and stabbed him in the arse with a sword, spear or dagger, depending on different accounts. It took Godfrey several days to die. The assassination was said to have been ordered by Dirk V Count of Holland and his ally Robrecht the Frisian, Count of Flanders.
King Wenceslaus III of Bohemia was also murdered with a spear while sitting in the ‘garderobe’ on August 4, 1306.
More recently, king George II of Britain died on the loo, on October 25, 1760, from an aortic dissection. According to Horace Walpole’s memoirs, King George “rose as usual at six, and drank his chocolate; for all his actions were invariably methodic. A quarter after seven he went into a little closet. His German valet de chambre in waiting heard a noise, and running in, found the King dead on the floor.”
Finally, leaving aside all these petty ‘kings’, there’s The King – Elvis Presley, who left the building on August 16th 1977, collapsing, from a heart attack, probably induced by imbibing a cocktail of ten or more prescribed drugs he was addicted to at the time, having become deeply unhealthy, lonely and in pain.
The latter is missed much more than any of the warmongering parasites above. Although he was a complex character and expressed somewhat reactionary views, he made some fucking great music.
Anyway, that’s all the kings we’re going to cover for a while. Monarchy remains a pain the arse, and creative solutions for its permanent removal are always to be welcomed. But back to history from the grassroots up. Or the bottom up, if you like.
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.