Gateway to the Classics: Our Island Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Island Story by  H. E. Marshall

How Edmund Ironside Fought for the Crown

G UNHILDA was right. This act of Ethelred's proved to be not only wicked, but foolish, and it brought great sorrow upon England. For as soon as Sweyn, King of Denmark, heard of the cruel murder, he determined to avenge his sister's death. Gathering a great company of soldiers and a most wonderful fleet of ships, he set sail for England.

Over the blue waves came the fierce sea-kings in their splendid ships, with purple sails and glittering, golden prows. Beasts and birds, dragons and serpents were carved upon the painted and gilded ships, and it seemed as if all the monsters of fairyland were gathered to terrify and conquer the people of England.

No storm stayed the ships. Soft winds blew gently over sunny sparkling waters, as nearer and nearer they came. Never before had the Danes come in such splendour and such force. The frightened people fled as these fierce sea-warriors landed, and where they landed, and on through all the country, wherever they passed, they left behind them a track of death and desolation. The people were killed, the towns were burned, the crops and cattle trampled and destroyed; hunger, misery and tears filled the land. Ethelred, weak and cowardly as ever, deserting his country in the hour of need, fled to France with his wife and children.

Ethelred fled to France because his wife, Emma, was the daughter of the Duke of Normandy. Normandy is part of France. Queen Emma's father received them kindly, and no doubt Ethelred enjoyed himself very much at the Norman court, riding and hunting, and quite forgetting his poor country.

So Sweyn, King of Denmark, was master of England. But though he was proclaimed king, he never wore the crown, for he died suddenly, leaving the throne to his son Canute.

But Englishmen could not forget the great Alfred and his good sons. They longed to have a king of their own people again. So when Sweyn died, they sent messengers to France, begging Ethelred to come back, and promising to be true to him and to fight for him, if only he would rule a little better than he had done.

Ethelred came back, and had he had a little courage, he might soon have won all England again. For his people were ready and willing to die for their country. They only waited for a brave man to lead them. But Ethelred was neither better nor wiser than before. Soon his soldiers lost heart again, and some of them even deserted and went to fight for Canute the Dane. This, too, in spite of all that Edmund Ironside, the brave son of Ethelred, could do.

Edmund was called Ironside because of his strength and courage. He tried to keep the army together, but he could not hide his father's cowardice and weakness from the soldiers. Soon, however, Ethelred died, and the people immediately crowned Edmund king.

But some of the wise men and nobles thought it was of no use to try to fight against the Danes any longer, so they crowned Canute king. Thus there were two kings in England, an English king and a Danish, and the wars between the two nations continued as fiercely as ever.

But now the English had a wise king and brave leader. That was all they asked. They took heart again and joyfully followed him. Five great battles were fought, and in nearly all of them the English were victorious. That seems to show that it was truly Ethelred's fault that the English were ever beaten. He did not love his people, and he did not care what happened to them. He thought only of his own pleasure and comfort.

But Edmund Ironside was different. He thought only of his country, and although he was winning battle after battle, it made him sad and sick at heart to see his people die. The horror of war had filled the land for so many years that he longed for peace.

One day as the two armies lay opposite each other ready for battle, Edmund sat in his tent sad and weary. The summer sun shone on unplowed fields and ruined homes. All around there was sorrow and desolation. As Edmund looked across the land with sad eyes, he thought to himself that he would gladly die, if he could bring peace to his dear country.

He sat some time in thought, then suddenly calling one of his captains, he said to him, "Go to Canute the Dane. Say to him that I, Edmund Ironside, King of England, send him greeting, that, weary of battle and death, I challenge him to fight in single combat with me alone. He who dies shall die and be buried as befits a king. He who lives shall be ruler over all England."

The captain bowed low before the King, and mounting upon his horse, he rode off to the Danish camp with this strange message.

When Canute heard it, he sat silently thinking for some time. Then turning to the messenger, he said, "Go, tell Edmund Ironside that I will meet him and, please God, although I am the lesser man, I shall conquer him and still be King of England."

Both kings then arrayed themselves in splendid armour with shield and sword and spear, and rode out to fight. The two armies stood around watching in hope and fear. At first the kings fought with their spears while riding upon their horses, then leaping to the ground they attacked each other fiercely with their swords.

Both were strong, but Edmund was the taller, and Canute soon began to feel that he was being beaten. So in a loud voice he cried out, "Why should we fight thus? Two kings as we should be brothers, not enemies. Let us stop fighting, and divide the kingdom and be at peace."

Then King Edmund, throwing down his sword, held out his hands to Canute. "Brother." He said, "we will be kings together."

So once more England was divided. Edmund Ironside, the Englishman, ruled over the south part, and Canute the Dane ruled over the north part, and there was peace in the land. But this did not last for long, for very soon Edmund died. Altogether he had only reigned seven months, and much of that time had been spent in fighting, yet he had done more for his people than Ethelred had done in many years.

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