Hardicanut’s Moat in Burnham Beeches and a Speculative Parallel with Warren Wood

Local folklore has it that Hardicanut (Canute’s son and the king of England from 1040 to 1042, also known as Harthacnut) had, as one of his lodges, the intriguing double enclosure in the woods at Burnham Beeches.  After all it’s called Hardicanut’s Moat (as well as Harlequin’s palace and Hartley court).

I would like to talk a little about this intriguing Viking king, but first it is interesting to look at the double enclosure itself, as there are good physical parallels between it and our dig at Warren Wood (albeit on a smaller scale as our entire enclosure is roughly the size of their inner enclosure).  The date range for the construction of both enclosures is the same (see Warren Wood news and article).

Hardicanut’s Moat lies in ancient woodland that was probably once a part of the Royal Windsor forest; the inner enclosure covers one and a half acres, and the outer another eight.  The outer moat and ditch form a somewhat wonky fat diamond shape and the inner enclosure is sub-rectangular and sits at an angle to it.

Hardicanute's moat in Burnham Beeches
After DD and MM Miller, Records of Bucks 1978

The inner enclosure’s ditch is broken by a few gaps, though these are probably not original.  No buildings have been found within the enclosure (but as it is scheduled they may simply not have been found yet).  However, the inner enclosure is divided by several banks and it has been suggested that one may exist between two of these.  There is also evidence of a well (though I couldn’t spot it with the naked eye) and a suggestion of a second building (possibly a kitchen / brew / bake house) nearby.

There are other slightly raised areas, which may be building platforms.
Pottery and building materials are common and easy to spot laying on the surface (especially around the entrance way).  But, sadly these are modern, some probably dating from a local 19th century pottery kiln and others even more recent, from the time the Beeches was used as a vehicle depot for the D-day landings.

Hardicanute’s Moat
Hardicanute’s Moat - taken before the clean up

The ditches and banks of the outer enclosure are much smaller and in poorer condition than those of the inner.  They are believed to have enclosed an area to keep domestic animals, probably pigs and deer, as well as an area for vegetables or grain.  Evidence implies that much of the degradation of the outer banks and ditches has been in the last hundred years.

This leads to the obvious speculation that the outer enclosure at Warren Wood could also have been used for animals or crops.  Warren Wood’s inner enclosure, with its mass of flint and roof tiles, as well as its pottery is an obvious parallel to the probable dwelling in the Burnham Beeches inner enclosure.

Hardicanut’s moat is believed to date from between C12th and C14th, which ties in neatly with the new 12th to early 13th century pottery dates from Warren Wood.  This was the golden age of building moated houses – though surprisingly they were often a fashion item rather than for defence.  There are literally dozens of them in Buckinghamshire, two more lie within Burnham parish alone.

Sadly the date puts the enclosure around two hundred years after the death of Hardicanut, and so it seems that local folklore has played us false!  However, Park Lane lies just 100 metres west of the enclosure and, together with Green Lane and it formed the boundary between Burnham and Dorney.  Green, in a boundary name, is said to derive from the Old English Gemaere and indicates a Saxon origin.  So it is still, just, possible that there is a link to a time before our Viking after all!

This tenuous link was enough to set me off on the trail of Hardicanut, though I no longer believe he had a hunting lodge nearby.  Anyone who has the bad taste to die while making a toast at a wedding, is always interesting to investigate!

Hardicanut – King of England

Coin of Hardicanut
Coin of Hardicanut

Having dispelled the local story that Hardicanut ever lived in Burnham Beeches, I have to say that this is a good thing as, unlike his father Cnut (also spelled Canute) he and his brothers were not pleasant people.  When Hardicanut became king he had his half-brother’s (Harold) body disinterred from Westminster, publicly beheaded, thrown in a sewer, retrieved and then thrown into the Thames.

To be fair, Harold had not only usurped his place as king of England, but had tricked their younger brother, Prince Alfred, into capture and had six hundred of his men barbarously tortured and killed.  Alfred was then stripped naked, tied to a horse, taken from Guildford to the Isle of Ely, where his eyes were torn out and he died miserably a few days later.

Hardicanut was the son of Cnut and Emma of Normandy (who had previously been married to Æthelred the Unready and had held out against Cnut’s invasion after her husband died).  Though Hardicanut was made King of Denmark when his father died, it is unclear why he didn’t also become King of England, though it is possible that it was arranged for him to rule south of the Thames while his brother Harold would reign to the north.  Certainly the penny coin shown supports this as it was struck around at this time.  However, Harold became overall regent.

Hardicanut meeting Magnus of Norway
Hardicanut meeting Magnus of Norway

Fear of invasion from Magnus of Norway probably kept Hardicanut away from England, and two years later in 1037,Harold was accepted by the English as their king.  Having come to an agreement with Magnus, Hardicanut and his mother Emma planned an invasion of England but delayed it as Harold became ill and died.

Hardicanut was welcomed to England with open arms, (probably because he came backed with 62 warships at a time when the English navy had only 16!)  However, as these “peaceful” invaders needed payment, a geld of £21,000 was levied – a huge sum of money for the times.

Although the English were used to a king ruling with a council, Hardicanut ruled as a ruthless and feared autocrat.  He caused great hardship in 1041 by increasing taxes in order to to double the size of the navy at a time of a poor harvest.  His tax gatherers were so harsh that people in Worcester rioted and killed them.  Hardicanut reacted by imposing the legal but unpopular punishment of “harrying” and ordered his earls to burn the town and kill the population. Fortunately most fled.

After a reign of just two years Hardicanute died from a seizure at a riotous drinking bout in Clapham to celebrate the marriage of the daughter oh his Thane, Osgod Clapa. Collapsing whilst making a toast, he never spoke again and died a few days later.  As he had never married and had no children, he was succeeded by another half-brother, Edward the Confessor, restoring the Saxon line for the next quarter of a century.  Hardicanute was buried at Winchester Cathedral where he still lies along with both Cnut and his mother Emma.

By Gerry Palmer

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