After a period of calm during the rule of Edgar, the beginning of the reign of Aethelred in 978 saw a resumption of attacks by the Vikings on England.
The tactics employed by Alfred and his successors that had been so successful in at least blunting the edge of the old Viking raids were no longer sufficient to stem this new series of attacks. This time around the raiding parties were larger and better organised, their leaders not minor warlords but major players in the Scandinavian political landscape. They were therefore able to command greater resources and were able to lay siege to and capture fortified towns as well as overwhelm any local levies sent against them.
In 980 the Vikings struck Southampton and had "most of the town-dwellers killed or taken prisoner" A and plundered both the Isle of Thanet and the county of Chester. The 980s and 990s saw a further sequence of Scandinavian raids on England with little in the way of any co-ordinated national response. The picture that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle draws of these years is one of rampaging Danish Viking raiders roaming at will over the countryside grabbing hold of whatever they wanted.
In fact Aethelred's main policy response was to call for new rounds of taxation and to use the proceeds to fund large bribes to pay the raiders to go home. In 994 Aethelred raised 16,000 pounds to persuade the Dane Olaf Tryggvason to go away. Olaf duly went home to Norway and, on Haakon's death in 995 became king of Norway.
There were however others to take his place and again in 1001 Aethelred persuaded the Danes to accept a pay off of 24,000 pounds. To deal with this almost continual barrage of assaults and the steadily increasing protection payments Aethelred decided on a change of tack.
Firstly he married Emma the daughter of Richard the Fearless the former Duke of Normandy in the hopes that an alliance with Normandy would help bolster his sagging authority and secondly he proposed a novel scheme that he hoped would undermine Danish power in England.
The St Brice's Day Massacre
For the year 1002 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records, almost in passing you might say, that;
in that year the king ordered all the Danish men who were among the English race to be killed on St. Brice's Day, because it was made known to the king that they wanted to ensnare his life - and afterwards all his councillors - and have his kingdom afterwards
This is an example of what would today be described as 'ethnic cleansing'. As one can see, the reason given for this extraordinarily brutal decision is the belief that the Danish population in England where about to rise up against Aethelred. To what extent there was any such intention is impossible to say, and in any event Aethelred's reaction became a self fulfilling prophecy.
It is doubtful that Aethelred had the resources or the capabilities to literally kill every Dane in England and the extent to which Aethelred's orders were actually carried out across the country is not recorded. One known instance was in Oxford where the local Danes fled to the church of Saint Frideswide seeking sanctuary and the church was set a alight and burnt to the ground killing those inside.1
It is to be presumed that there were similar acts of brutality across the country although there are little in the way of records of other incidents and it has been suggested that they were probably confined to the south of the country and unlikely to have taken place in the traditional areas of the Danelaw in the north and east of the country.
Sweyn Forkbeard, or as he is known to the Danish Sveyn III, had been active in leading many of the assaults on England from the year 994 and had therefore been the recipient of much of Aethelred's generosity over that period. Naturally, Sweyn was now unhappy at the news of his fellow Danes being massacred in such a calculating manner and swore revenge.2
So in the year 1003 Sweyn came to England and exacted revenge. "Exeter was broken down" and in the following year it was the turn of Norwich - "completely raided and burned down" and Thetford - ditto. Aethelred seems to have been incapable of organising any effective resistance or defence of the country.
There was a respite in 1005, but only because there was widespread famine throughout England and the Danes went looking for richer pickings elsewhere. When the Danes returned in 1006, Aethelred fell back on the old standby of raising money to buy off trouble and paid the enormous sum of £36,000 which at least brought two years of relative peace and quiet.
Of course Aethelred's
ability to raise such sums and his willingness to part with the money in exchange for peace only increased the attractiveness of England
as a target.
In 1009, with indications that further trouble was on its way Aethelred
changed tack and raised a large fleet such "there were more of them than there had ever earlier been in England in the days of any king
." But it all came to nothing in the end. Eadric Streona
was said to have persuaded Aethelred
not to attack and is often held responsible for the failure
In 1010 the Danes returned, to find the kingdom more utterly disorganized than ever.
In the end there was no head man who wanted to gather an army but each fled as best he could nor even in the end would any shire help the other.
is the lament recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Incapable of offering resistance, the king again offered money, this time no less than £48,000. One band of Danes
even went so far as to sack Canterbury
and execute the Archbishop Alphege
when the promised ransom was slow in arriving.4
The Conquest of England
In the year 1013 there was a remarkable change in Sweyn Forkbeard's policy towards England; instead of coming to plunder and extract money from Aethelred he decided to stay and take territory.
What prompted this change of heart is not known; it may well have occurred to Sweyn having been the recipient of such largesse in previous years that it was now time to cut out the middleman but it is probable that contacts made during previous expeditions had convinced Sweyn that there was substantial body of opinion within England that would welcome a change of regime.
Hence in 1013 when Sweyn sailed a large fleet up the river Trent, most of northern England rapidly submitted to him. He then marched south on London, but London resisted so he swung west to Bath which quickly surrendered. By the Christmas of 1013 it was clear that Aethelred had lost control of the country and so he and his wife Emma escaped to Normandy.
With Aethelred gone London fell into line with the rest of the country and acknowledged Sweyn as king; "the whole nation had him as full king" as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded.
The Conquest in doubt
Within a few short months the conquest was in jeopardy as Sweyn unexpectedly died at the beginning of the February of 1014. Whilst the Danish army in England now recognised his son Cnut as king, the English nobility seemed to be having second thoughts about the whole affair and opened negotiations with Aethelred.
Aethelred therefore returned from Normandy, gathered an army and moved against Cnut's forces on the banks of the river Humber. It was probably fortunate for Aethelred that Cnut had problems in Denmark that demanded his attention and promptly sailed away, leaving Aethelred in charge of the country once more.
In 1015, with things sorted out in Denmark, Cnut returned. Despite his apparent success in reclaiming England in the previous year Aethelred was simply unable to retain the loyalty of the English nobles who were soon defecting to Cnut's side.
Cnut was readying himself to take London when Aethelred conveniently died on the 23rd of April 1016, seemingly leaving Cnut in control of the country.
The Conquest Challenged
With Aethelred's death in April 1016 his son Edmund now claimed the crown of England, and whereas Cnut had gained the support of much of the nobility Edmund was able to attract some support as well particularly in Wessex and London.
Unlike his father, Edmund was both decisive and militarily capable and set about the business of establishing himself as king with a fair amount of determination. He defeated the Danes at the battle of Pen in Somerset and seemed to get the better of the two engagements at Brentford and Otford. It was for his stubborn and determined resistance during these engagements that he became known thereafter as Edmund 'Ironside'.
However despite these initial successes, defeat at the Battle of Ashington on the 18th October 1016, where the last minute defection of Eadric Streona played a part, gave Cnut the advantage; but the inconclusive nature of the subsequent conflict at Deerhurst in Gloucester seems to have convinced both parties to come to terms. Whereas Edmund had been unable to have commanded sufficient support and loyalty to drive out the Danes he was able to do enough to force concessions from Cnut.
At the end of October 1016 with the Treaty of Olney, the two rivals agreed to divide up the country between them; Cnut kept Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria, and Edmund got Wessex and the south, very much along the lines of the old division of the country agreed all those years ago between Alfred and the Viking Guthrum.
The agreement did not however last very long as on the 30th November 1016 Edmund was dead; most probably as a result of wounds received at the battle of Ashington, although suggestions have been made ever since that he was assassinated.
With Edmund now out of the way the whole of England fell neatly into Cnut's hands
The Conquest Completed
Cnut succeeded to the whole kingdom of the English race and divided it into four; Wessex for himself and East Anglia for Thurkell and Mercia for Eadric and Northumbria for Eric.
England was now part of the Scandinavian empire of Cnut which included both Denmark and Norway; Cnut in fact was later to describe himself in 1027 as "King of the all England and of Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden"5.
Given that Cnut was ruling a sprawling empire that spanned the North Sea, his attention was constantly being diverted elsewhere and he was therefore forced to delegate authority, in place of the old Anglo-Saxon eaoldermen Cnut appointed a small number of powerful 'Jarls' 6 who inevitably held far more power than the ealodermen and came to exercise an quasi-royal authority in their allotted districts. They were essentially Cnut's trusted henchmen; some were Danes such as Thurkell Or Siward Bjornsson (who replaced Eric in Northumbria) some were English such as Eadric Streona (soon dispensed with and eventually replaced with Leofric).
Most importantly was the Earl Godwin who was placed in control of Wessex emerged as the most powerful of them all. With Wessex in his hands the Earl Godwin had command of essentially the same powerbase as kings such as Aethelred and Edgar had relied on as the source of their wealth and power.
This was all very well when such men where faced with an overlord such as Cnut himself to keep them in check; but neither of his sons were able to exercise that kind of authority and nor was Edward the Confessor that succeeded them.
Cnut also married Aethelred's widow Emma of Normandy in order to maintain an image of continuity and legitimacy but he was also fairly ruthless in eliminating those elements within the English nobility he considered untrustworthy. As it was, after the turbulence of the previous thirty years Cnut's rule at least brought relative peace and stability to the kingdom.
The Conquest Unravels
Cnut died at Shaftesbury on the 12th November 1035 at the age of only forty and was buried in Winchester. His unexpectedly early death left the question of succession in England undetermined.
It is worth noting at this point that there is a certain amount of uncertainty regarding the precise nature of Cnut's marital arrangements. When he married Emma of Normandy in 1017 he already had a 'wife' in one Aelgifu of Northmampton. Opinions seem to differ as to whether Cnut was technically married to Aelgifu and therefore whether his marriage to Emma was bigamous or not.7
The end result of these relationships was that there were two claimants to the throne Aelgifu's son Harald known as Harold Harefoot and Emma's son known as 'Hardicanute' or Harthacnut. Emma naturally favoured her son, but Harthacnut was in Denmark so initially Harald was appointed as regent and presumably some kind of joint kingship or division of the country was envisaged.
There was also Alfred and Edward the two sons of Emma of Normandy and Aethelred who had been languishing in exile in Normandy ever since 1013 and didn't as yet feature in the succession game. Alfred, perhaps rather unwisely, made an appearance in England in 1036, when he fell into the clutches of the Earl Godwin, was blinded and dumped in a monastery where he died soon after.
It soon became apparent that Harald with the support of Earl Godwin intended to take the crown for himself alone. Emma consequently fled to Flanders in 1037 leaving Harald as undisputed king of England. Harald however, proved a shortlived king and was dead by 1040 and was succeeded by his half brother Harthacnut. Emma therefore returned from Normandy towing her son Edward alongside her.
Harthacnut died very unexpectedly in 1042 "as he stood in his drink" and "suddenly fell to the earth with an awful convulsion" and may very well have been poisoned. With the last of Cnut's sons gone, the only remaining candidate was Aethelred's son Edward who duly took over as king and became known as Edward the Confessor.
So after a gap of twenty six years the line of Aethelred reasserted itself and the Danish Conquest of England was truly over.
Unfortunately for Edward the Confessor the old powerbase of Wessex which had been the foundation of royal power was in the hands of the Godwin family not his. Edward was therefore never capable of exercising the same kind of royal authority as his illustrious ancestors and was reliant on the sons and heirs of Cnut's 'Jarls' to govern the country.
The main consequences of the Danish Conquest were to undermine the authority of the 'King of the English' and establish through Aethelred's Norman alliance of 1002 a clear link with the duchy that was to lead directly to that other conquest of 1066.
1 The information on the Oxford incident comes from a charter signed by Aethelred regarding the rebuilding of the church destroyed - The Cartulary of St Fridedwide.
2 It is also said that amongst those that were killed were his sister Gunnhilde and her children which, if true, cannot have improved his temper much either.
3 Of course it must be said that the main source for these events is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which was composed after the event when the ultimate result of all Aethelred's efforts were known; hence the note of fatalism.
4 The tribute was paid soon afterwards; and about the same time the Danish leader Thurkell the Tall defected to Aethelred's side in disgust at the killing of the archbishop.
5 In a letter written from Rome addressed to his English subjects.
6 Or 'Eorls' as the native English called them at the time and 'Earls' as we would call them today.
7 To add to the confusion Emma of Normandy was also apparently known to the English as 'Aelgifu' as well.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swanton (Phoenix Press, 2000) From which the quotations above are sourced.
Steven Muhlberger Medieval England at
Information on The St Brice's Day massacre, 1002 from
The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica entry for Aethelred II The Unready