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An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Earl Siward and the Proper Ways to Die

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This blog discusses  one of the most remarkable figures of Anglo-Saxon history: Earl Siward of Northumbria (d. 1055); a man who knew the proper ways to die.

Siward, earl of Northumbria, first appears in a charter by King Cnut in 1033. He held the position of earl, first of southern Northumbria and later of all Northumbria and, possibly, Huntingdon, until his death twenty-two years later. He made a name for himself as a warrior and, after his death in 1055, his reputation grew. A Latin narrative in a thirteenth-century manuscript from Crowland Abbey even claims that Siward slew a dragon and that he descended from a polar bear! (Parker 2014, 488)

Two other anecdotes, both demonstrating Siward’s ferociousness as a warrior, survive in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum (1129-1135). The first relates how Siward, during a series of battles against Scotland in 1054,  hears of the death of his own son Osbeorn in battle. Upon hearing the news, Siward inquired whether his son had been stabbed in the back or in the front. When he was told his son had incurred a fatal breast wound, Siward said: “Gaudio plane, non enim alio me uel filium meum digner funere” [I am completely happy, for I consider no other death worthy for me or my son] (Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, VI.22). Talk about tough parenthood! Parker (2014, 484-485) has noted that Siward’s enquiry about the location of his son’s wounds has a close parallel in a similar scene in the Icelandic Egils saga. Anyway, Siward, Huntingdon reports, decides to retaliate and leads an army into Scotland himself. There, he defeats the Scottish ruler Mac Bethad mac Findlaich (a.k.a. Shakespeare’s Macbeth!).

The next year, Siward is struck by dysentery and feels death’s approach. He laments:

‘How shameful it is that I, who could not die in so many battles, should have been saved for the ignominious death of a cow! At least clothe me in my impenetrable breastplate, gird me with my sword, place my helmet on my head, my shield in my left hand, my gilded battle-axe in my right, that I, the bravest of soldiers, may die like a soldier.’ (Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, VI.24)

His attendants obey Siward’s last request and he dies in an non-bovine manner. While Siward’s explicit refusal to die like a cow is unparalleled, other elderly warriors are known to have expressed similar wishes to die in battle rather than anywhere else (e.g., Starkad, in Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum, and Egil Ulserk, in the Heimskringla). Given these analogues from Scandinavian literature, the stories of Siward’s reaction to the death of his son and Siward’s speech on his deathbed, both reported by Henry of Huntingdon close to a century after Siward’s death, may not be historically accurate. Rather, they may have originated in Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Scandinavian oral traditions surrounding Siward, or, as C.E. Wright put it, they are “the disject membra of a Siwards saga which must have been still current in Northumbria during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries” (Wright 1939, 128; cf. Parker 2014). These episodes, then, may belong to the same realm of fictionality as Siward’s supposed descent from a polar bear and his slaying of a dragon. Be that as it may, they make nifty anecdotes and may reveal something about the manner of death an early medieval warrior would deem acceptable.

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If you liked this post, you may also enjoy: An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Real Night of the Long Knives , An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How Hengest was led by the nose and An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Alleluia, the Anglo-Saxon Boo! Stay tuned for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!

Works referred to:

  • C. E. Wright, The Cultivation of Saga in Anglo-Saxon England (Edinburgh, 1939)
  • E. Parker, ‘Siward the Dragon-Slayer: Mythmaking in Anglo-Scandinavian England’, Neophilologus 98 (2014), 481-493.
  • Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. D. E. Greenway (Oxford, 1996)

 

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