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Chapter XVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1

Reign of Edmund II, surnamed Ironside.
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Immediately on the death of Ethelred, his son, Edmund, who had given so many proofs of courage and devotion to his unhappy country, was proclaimed king, to the great joy of the English. At the same time the Danes declared for Canute, who was already in possession of a great part of the kingdom. London, however, still held out against him.

This city the Danish monarch felt it necessary to possess; and in the absence of the new king he laid siege to it with a very considerable force; but the citizens defended themselves so bravely, that Edmund had time to pour in such succours as obliged his rival to abandon his attempt.

Both parties were impatient to decide their claims by battle. The armies met, and so obstinately was it contested that neither side could claim the victory, although the English, it is recorded, were near being defeated by the cunning of Edric Streon, who fought on the side of the Danes. Perceiving that the English troops fought with such desperate courage, he cut off the head of Osmer, a soldier who so resembled Edmund that he might easily have been mistaken for him.

Placing the bleeding head upon his lance, he advanced with it to the front of the English army, and exclaimed, "Fly, villains, fly! Behold the head of your king in whom you trust!"

This stratagem had nearly succeeded; the soldiers of Edmund began to waver, on seeing which the king threw aside his helmet and rode bareheaded through the ranks, when he was received with cheers of delight.

The battle lasted till nigh!;, without any decisive advantage on either side. In the morning Edmund intended to renew the battle, but Canute, who had other intentions, retired to his ships and set sail, hastily landed his forces, and besieged London a secoud time with no better success than the first.

This battle was fought at Sceorstan, which Camden supposes to be Sherston, in Wiltshire; other writers suppose it to have been where four stones, called Shire-stones, part the counties of Oxford, Gloucester, Worcester, and Warwick. Matthew of Westminster relates that the battle lasted two entire days, and that Edric's stratagem occurred on the second.

Edmund, like his father, was doomed to be the victim of treason. In one of his battles, in Essex, he would have vanquished his rival, but for the bad advice of Edric Streon, who, continually changing sides, as ambition or caprice prompted him, was then in the English army. Although he had sworn to be faithful, he was little better than the spy and agent of the Danish monarch, whose cause he lost no opportunity of serving.

Seeing the Danes in retreat, he advised the king to cease the pursuit, under pretence, that if too hardly pressed, despair might cause them to rally.

The greatest act of treachery occurred at Assandun, where he threw aside the mask, and went over with his troops to the enemy. The English, in the utmost consternation, believing they were betrayed on every side, threw down their arms. Edmund's loss was immense; the chief of his nobility were slain in the defence of their unhappy country.

On the spot where Canute gained this signal victory, now called Ashdon, in Essex, he built a church, and caused four hillocks to be thrown up, in memory of those who fell in the battle. Two of these monuments have been opened; several stone coffins were found filled with bones and iron chains, something like horse-bits.

These hills are known by the name of Bartlow Hills, though situated in Ashdon parish; whence some writers contend that it was Bartlow Church which the Danish conqueror built.

After this triumph, Canute fondly imagined that all serious rivalry between himself and Edmund was at an end; but he knew not the temper of the English, who, roused by the greatness of the danger, made extraordinary efforts for their deliverance.

Edmund had long possessed the affection of the inhabitants of London, who flocked to his standard in such numbers that in an incredibly short space of time he found himself at the head of an army more powerful than the one he had lost.

His rival, unwilling to give him too much time to recover his defeat, hastened to meet him; and the two kings, each at the head of his respective army, confronted each other once more; but neither appeared willing to give the signal to commence the contest.

Edmund knew that if he lost the battle it was irretrievable ruin to his cause; nor was Canute without apprehension that, in case of a defeat, all the English would rise and unite against him.

In this position, Edmund proposed to decide their claims to the crown in single combat; an offer which his rival declined, under the plea that he was small of stature and of a sickly constitution; but added, that if the English king wished to avoid the effusion of blood, he was quite willing to refer the cause of quarrel between them to arbitration.

To this offer the nobles, who desired to put an end to the war, compelled Edmund to accede, and plenipotentiaries were named on either side; they met on a small island in the Severn, named Alney, opposite Gloucester, and peace was concluded by the division of the kingdom. "Wessex, and all the country south of the Thames, including London and the greater portion of the ancient kingdom of Essex, being assigned to Edmund; whilst Las rival had Mercia, Northumbria, and East Anglia.

The kings afterwards met on the Isle of Alney, and swore to observe the peace, after which ceremony they separated.

Edmund did not long enjoy the repose which he had suffered so much to establish: his old enemy, Edric Streon, fearing that his life might be endangered from the union between the two kings, caused him to be assassinated by his chamberlains, whom he bribed to commit the crime (November 30).

The murdered king had not occupied the throne a complete year; but even in that short time he had given frequent proofs of an undaunted courage, a consummate prudence, and a generous nature. He was buried next his grandfather Edgar, at Glastonbury; and with him fell the glory of the English Saxons; for by his death the Danes prevailed, and the Saxon monarchy in reality ended, after it had lasted one hundred and ninety years from its establishment by Egbert, four hundred and thirty-two from the founding of the heptarchy, or octarchy, and five hundred and sixty-eight from the arrival of the Saxons under Hengist.

He left, by Algitha, his wife, two sons, Alfred and Edward; and he had also a natural son, named Edwy, who was afterwards put to death by Canute.

The infamous Streon, who prided himself upon doing Canute so signal a service, hastened to carry him the first news of it; but Canute detested the barbarous deed. He, however, concealed his sentiments at the time, feeling he should have further occasion for him, and consequently promised to advance him above all the nobles of the realm; a promise which he kept in a very different manner from that which the traitor expected.

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Pictures for Chapter XVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1

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