Murder on the Hog’s Back

View northwards from the Hog's Back

James Lloyd visits a hillside near Guildford in Surrey, a world of gin, Jags and mass murder.

The Hog’s Back is a ridge in Surrey, part of the North Downs range and now desecrated by the A31. The name “Hog’s Back” is relatively modern. It was anciently known as Guildown and the town of Guildford was built where the ridge is bisected by the River Wey. Despite its pretty appearance, with views that (on a cruel day) can reach as far as London, this was the scene of a gruesome discovery.

In 1929, in the garden of a house in Guildown Avenue in south-west Guildford, a gardener uncovered human remains. The archaeologists were called in and eventually the skeletons of two hundred and twenty-three men were found. Many of them had been bound before or behind. Two had been beheaded and some had been mutilated further, with their limbs severed. The skeletons were dated to the middle of the eleventh century. If correct, then this would make irresistible their identification with the victims of a horrific political atrocity.

The story begins in last week’s blog. Edmund Ironside, son and heir of King Æthelred II, was defeated at the Battle of Assandun in Essex in 1016, forcing him to divide England with the Danish prince Cnut, who inherited the whole country on Edmund’s death later the same year. By 1020, Cnut’s elder brother had died, making him King of Denmark too. In 1028, he added Norway to his portfolio.

Cnut’s love life was the stuff of soap-opera. During his war with Edmund Ironside, he had somehow found time to marry Ælfgifu of Northampton, a noblewoman whose father had been murdered and her brothers blinded by order of King Æthelred ten years earlier, which explains her lack of loyalty to the English cause. She rapidly bore Cnut two sons, Swein and Harold.

One wife, however, was simply not enough. After Cnut’s conquest, the late King Æthelred’s second wife, Emma, had fled to the court of her brother Duke Richard II of Normandy, along with her young sons Alfred and Edward. Cnut, fearing (fifty years too early) that the Normans would invade England on Alfred’s behalf, pulled off a diplomatic coup that now seems bizarre but was undoubtedly effective: He married Emma.

This made Ælfgifu an inconvenience and later chroniclers cast aspersions on the legality of their marriage. It was probably a common-law marriage, acknowledged by most laymen but unlawful in the eyes of the church. Nonetheless, Æfgifu was not put away privily. In 1030, she and Swein were sent to rule Norway but they were unpopular and were driven out in 1034. They went to Denmark, where Swein died and Ælfgifu returned to England. Cnut himself died in 1035 and this was when the trouble began.

When Cnut married Emma, they had agreed that his first-born son by her would succeed him. This was Harthacnut, who was born shortly after their marriage. He, however, was in Denmark when his father died. Although the Danes immediately accepted Harthacnut as King, Harold, now Cnut’s oldest surviving son, pressed his own claim to England. When the Archbishop of Canterbury refused to crown him, Harold foreswore the church and for the rest of his life spent his Sundays hunting (it may have been from such sporting activities that he earnt his nickname “Harefoot”).

This provoked a schism. England north of the Thames acknowledged Harold as King but the territory south of the river remained loyal to the original agreement and to Harthacnut. This was the work of two dominant personalities. One was Godwine, an obscure Sussex thegn whom Cnut had appointed Earl of Wessex, giving him administrative authority from Kent to Cornwall. The other was Emma, the Queen Dowager, who spent most of her time at her palace in Winchester but after a while her ambitions shifted from the shoulders of Harthacnut to her two sons by Æthelred, Alfred and Edward, still in exile in Normandy.


In 1036, Edward attacked Southampton and, although repelled, he returned to Normandy laden with loot. Shortly afterwards, Alfred turned up, claiming only to want to visit his mother but the massive army of Normans he had brought with him suggested grander ambitions. In fact, he had received a letter from Emma advising him of his superior popularity to Harold’s and recommending an invasion. Emma’s own biography, which she commissioned after Harold Harefoot’s death, claimed that Harold had faked the letter himself, a telling admission, which concedes that the invitation did exist and betrays an urge to clear Emma of responsibility.

Her denial was necessitated by what happened next. Alfred was met at Southampton by Earl Godwine, a known ally of Emma and Harthacnut, who agreed to escort him to London. On the way, they stopped off for the night at Guildford and the following morning Godwine took Alfred out for a stroll along the Hog’s Back. He pointed out the beautiful view and told him “Look around on the right hand and on the left and behold what a realm will be subject to your dominion.”

Just as Alfred was admiring his kingdom, Godwine’s men suddenly tied him up and Godwine revealed that he had switched sides and now supported King Harold. He ordered that nine out of every ten of the Normans be executed. They were buried in a mass grave and would remain hidden until 1929. Alfred himself was conveyed by ship to Ely. By the time he arrived at the abbey, his eyes had been cut out to disqualify him from any further attempts on the throne. He soon died of his injuries. Emma fled to Flanders, while Harold was everywhere accepted as King and crowned at Oxford.

He did not live long to enjoy his success. In 1040, at the age of only twenty-four, Harold contracted a sickness that, according to one account, turned his skin black before it killed him. He had the distinction of being the first English monarch to be buried at Westminster but Harthacnut, now returned from Denmark in triumph, had Harold’s body dug up, beheaded and thrown into a marsh, whence it was later extracted by a fisherman and re-interred in Saint Clement Danes. Harthacnut himself reigned for only two years before dying of a stroke at a friend’s wedding (it happens). The crown passed to Edward, known to history as Edward the Confessor for his monkish ways, the polite contemporary explanation for his inability to beget an heir.

Edward’s lack of productivity would prove to be the undoing of England. Armchair time travellers who like to imagine how different history would have been if the Norman Conquest had never happened tend to speculate on ways of changing the outcome of the Battle of Hastings but really it is the outcome of the Battle of Assandun fifty years before that should be reversed. If Edmund Ironside had defeated Cnut, then Edmund himself and then his descendents would have ruled England and the complex permutations of the succession that followed upon Cnut’s death and that ultimately led to the Norman Conquest would all have been averted. The seeds of England’s doom that flowered in 1066 had been sown in 1016.

Even then, disaster might still have been avoided if Alfred’s attempted coup against Harold Harefoot had succeeded and he had become King Alfred II. That it failed was largely the work of Earl Godwine’s timely coat-turning. He always denied knowing that Harold intended to kill Alfred when he handed him over but Edward the Confessor neither believed nor forgave him. At a banquet in 1053, when the matter was raised yet again, Godwine offered to swear that he was innocent of involvement in Alfred’s grisly death. Edward blessed some bread and Godwine, the denial on his lips, ate it.

He choked and died on the spot.

Photo credits: View from the Hog’s Back – Facing North (Neil Maidment) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Hay Bale on Guildown (Colin Smith) / CC BY-SA 2.0

View from Guildown (Alan Hunt) / CC BY-SA 2.0


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