13th November 1002.
Ethelred II (the Unready), the ‘redeless’ or ‘ill advised’, had succeeded to the throne of Angl0-Saxon England in 978 after the murder of his elder brother Edward the Martyr.(1)
He lived in uncertain times as the Vikings had been intensifying their attacks on England forcing King Ethelred to pay tribute, the Danegeld.
By 1002 an uneasy co-existence was being experienced with the Danish settlements in the eastern parts of the country. However Ethelred felt threatened having been told that the ‘Danish men in England would faithlessly take his life and possess his kingdom’.
Ethelred’s solution was to engineer the slaughter of all Vikings in England, ‘like weeds in the wheat’; it resulted in a massacre Today, St Brice’s Day, in 1002.(2)
Whole settler villages were wiped out and Oxford saw the burning of St. Frideswide Church where many Danes had sought sanctuary.
This surely must have been the biggest error made by King Ethelred ‘Unraed’ as it resulted in a renewed conflict with the Danes and eventually led to the loss of his throne.
The massacre was justified in a Royal Charter by Ethelred of 1004 when he spoke of ‘God’s anger raging with ever increasing savagery against us’, when he explained the need to rebuild St Frideswide Church, now Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.
The Dane, Sweyne Forkbeard sought revenge in the following year arriving with a fleet, to ravage the country. Ethelred and his children fled to Normandy. England was now under a King of a Viking superstate of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Though departing in 1005 because of famine, Sweyne was soon to return.
Sweyne became King on Christmas Day 1013 and declared King of all England with Gainsborough as capital. However he was never crowned and only reigned for 5 weeks to his death on 5th February 1014.(3)
He was succeeded by his son Canute (Cnut II. The Great), with Edmund Ironside son of Ethelred being granted Wessex.
In 2008 the remains of over thirty young men were found in excavations at St. John’s College, Oxford and believed to be Danes killed in the massacre.
Coins from the reigns of Ethelred II and Cnut were found in a field near Aylesbury, Bucks in 2015.
If nothing else the above reminds us that we are a mongrel, not a pure race and all the better for it.
(1) As the Anglo Saxon Chronicle said ‘when they [Vikings] were in the east, the English army was kept the west; when in the south the army was in the north’.
(2) Why Brice became popular in Anglo-Saxon England is a mystery, being an obscure Gaulish cleric of the 4th century.
(3) Ethelred returned on Sweyne’s death in 1014. On 23.4.1016 Ethelred died.
historytoday.com/ St Brice’s Day Massacre. V 52. Iss. 11. 11.11.2002.
wikipedia.org/Ethelred and Forkbeard/Coin Pics.