By Matthew Firth and James Kane, Flinders University
In recent months, ‘isolation’ has become part of our core vocabulary. For many of us, COVID-19 has imposed our first experience of widespread social isolation. However, among medieval North Sea cultures, where urbanisation was limited and population density low, isolation was a part of life. This was particularly true in Iceland, a primarily agrarian society isolated by the sea, by the weather, and by winters that could see kin-groups sequestered on their farmsteads for months on end. This sort of enforced isolation, then as now, took its toll.
Even voluntary isolation was fraught with risks. In his assessment of the biography of the eighth-century English monk St Guthlac, who spent two years preparing for isolation as a hermit, Graham Jones suggests that Guthlac’s loneliness rapidly took on ‘two clinical forms’, extreme anxiety and…
The St Brice’s day massacre looms large over the legacy of Æthelred II (978-1013/1014-1016) as a well-known tale often held to exemplify the English king’s reign: a poorly considered act of fear, a vindictive mandate for xenophobic violence. But are the events of 13th November 1002 really so clear-cut, or is this a reading of St Brice’s day tailored to our preconceptions of Æthelred ‘the Unready’ and his kingship? Certainly the evidence is that Æthelred did indeed order the violence, and even that it was carried out to some extent. But to fully understand the event, we need to grasp Æthelred’s reasoning for the order, who was targeted on St Brice’s day 1002, and how the story has grown in the telling.
A note that there are images of skeletal remains in this article.
There are only two contemporary, or near-contemporary sources, that narrate the events of St Brice’s day. The C, D, and E texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chroniclestell us that:
In that year the king ordered to be slain all the Danish men who were in England – this was done on St Brice’s Day (13th November) – because the king had been informed that they would treacherously deprive him, and then all his councillors, of life, and possess this kingdom afterwards.
The apparent order to kill ‘all the Danish men who were in England’ is affirmed in a diploma of 7 December 1004 which renews the privileges of the monastery of St Frideswide in Oxford, necessary as the church holding their deeds had burned down during the massacre of the Danes:
…a decree was sent out by me with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death. Those Danes who dwelt in the aforementioned town, striving to escape death, entered this sanctuary of Christ, having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make a refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and the suburbs; but when the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church and its ornaments and its books.
Neither source can be construed as positive. The Chronicles describe a suspicious and perhaps poorly advised king, while the description of the massacre at St Frideswide is particularly blood-thirsty, and Æthelred offers no censure for the deed in the diploma. Based on this evidence, there seems little reason to doubt that the order was indeed given and, to some extent, carried out. There is even potential archaeological evidence.
The discovery in 2008 of a mass burial at St John’s College Oxford, largely of young adult males, prompted some speculation of a link to the St Brice’s day massacre. Certainly these were people who had been subjected to violence – severe blade trauma was evident on their remains. Moreover, some of the bodies were charred, a fact which, more than any other, prompted a comparison to the violence narrated at St Frideswide. However, the grave rendered no grave-goods to aid in identifying the mens’ origins and, while analyses of collagen and enamel point to them likely being Scandinavian, radiocarbon dating indicates that they were buried in the decades before 1002. As such, researchers suggest that what we see here is a slaughtered viking raiding party, rather than an event directly linked to the St Brice’s day massacre. Nonetheless, it gives us a glimpse into the fraught political situation in England leading into 1002, and the types of conflicts which may have informed Æthelred’s decision-making.
A similar discussion playing out around the same time in 2009 related to a mass burial found on the Dorset Ridgeway containing 51 decapitated individuals. The radiocarbon dates here allow us to say with some confidence that the burial occurred between 970-1025, placing it within a context that would allow for this massacre to be tied to St Brice’s day 1002. Enamel analysis identifies the victims as Scandinavian, indeed, with somewhat more confidence than the Oxford burials. Unlike Oxford, however, where evidence of injuries points to the men being warriors and likely dying while fighting (or fleeing), the bodies at Dorset show few injuries, either pre-existing or contemporary with execution. This suggests that the victims were not warriors, and also indicates that they were executed by beheading with little by way of struggle or resistance. So what to make of this burial? It is difficult to draw any definitive conclusions. In some ways it fits the narrative of the St Brice’s day massacre better – a group of non-combatant Scandinavians, executed en masse, perhaps resident Danes murdered in response to Æthelred’s orders. But researchers highlight the lack of injuries in the group, contrasting this with the violent episode at St Frideswide, our only direct detailed account of the St Brice’s day massacre. These individuals do not appear the victims of a vengeful mob, and the prevailing thought at this time is that what we see here is a group of executed Scandinavian hostages.
Whether or not the burials at Oxford and Dorset can be tied to the St Brice’s day massacre, the locations of the burials are interesting – well within the bounds of territories under traditional English control. We do not have evidence for these sorts of burials within the Danelaw during the late-tenth/early-eleventh centuries, nor do our textual sources give evidence of Æthelred’s orders being carried out in those areas. The Danes of the Danelaw had lived in England for five generations, integrating and intermixing with the English inhabitants, evolving into Anglo-Danish societies. The thought that the descendants of the original Danish settlers were identifiable, that their loyalties were suspect, or that there was any desire to carry out Æthelred’s order in these regions and execute members of established local families is not supportable.
In truth, the St Brice’s day massacre was unlikely to have been aimed at all those of Danish descent in England. It has, for example, been pointed out that few, if any, moneyers of apparent Scandinavian lineage (or at least with Scandinavian names) operating in Æthelred’s kingdom appear to have died at this time. Yet Danish mercenaries, viking raiding parties, and the remnants of a large Danish army that arrived in 991 were active throughout the south of the island in 1002. The vikings had been resurgent in England over the previous two decades, raiding throughout the country, making and breaking alliances with the king, terrorising the inhabitants (English and Anglo-Dane alike). The evidence of our sources, of the political context of early eleventh-century England, and of the archaeological finds, rather point to the massacre being targeted at Danish mercenaries and perhaps at newly established Danish frontier settlements. While this certainly does not excuse Æthelred his actions, it does provide them some logical sense – violence, and perhaps even vengeance, directed toward a perceived aggressor. Indeed, the zeal with which the inhabitants of Oxford exercised this mandate implies popular approval for Æthelred’s order.
However, while this may well be the truth of the St Brice’s day massacre – a limited action intended to neutralise the threat of Danish mercenaries – it is a story that has grown in the telling. In recent decades scholars have worked to rehabilitate Æthelred’s reputation, but in many ways the best that can be said (as I have done here) is that his decisions were understandable given his political situation and resources. This does not mean we can argue for his as a successful kingship – understandable policies do not necessarily equate to good ones. The St Brice’s day massacre, for example, clearly did little to resolve the internal political tensions of early eleventh-century England, nor to deter Scandinavian raiders from its shores. Æthelred’s reputation for ineptitude is one that attaches to his reign early in the historical record, and the St Brice’s day massacre is a part of that story.
The earliest account of St Brice’s day that accords with the erroneous image of genocidal violence that seems to have become attached to the event is found in a passage of William of Jumiège’s Deeds of the Norman Dukes composed c. 1050. Here Æthelred is accused of ‘defiling the kingdom’ by ‘murdering in a single day, without charging them with any crime, the Danes who lived peacefully and harmoniously throughout the kingdom and who did not fear at all for their lives.’ William speaks of Danish women being killed by packs of dogs, of their children being crushed to death – acts at odds with the Chronicles, the charter, and the viking mass burials found at Oxford and Dorset which overwhelmingly contained adult males. He also speaks of young Danish men fleeing to Denmark, seeking audience with the Danish king Sveinn Forkbeard who, twelve years later would invade England and depose Æthelred (though this narrative posits only a two-year interval). William is, in essence, providing an origin narrative for the rise of the Danish dynasty. Or, more precisely, a narrative that justifies the rise of the Danish dynasty as divine retribution for Æthelred’s deed, for it was the last king of that dynasty who brought Edward the Confessor to the throne, and through Edward the Confessor that William of Normandy (William of Jumiège’s lord) claimed his right to the English throne. There are no Scandinavian or pre-Conquest English sources that support this narrative.
Post-Conquest English sources, however, really do go for it. John of Worcester, for example, who frequently sticks close to his edition of the Chronicles, recites that version of events, yet adds the detail that the massacre targeted ‘all Danish settlers … of either sex’. Henry of Huntingdon posits a conspiracy whereby Æthelred had secret letters sent to all English cities to enact the slaughter of Danes at the same day an hour. There may be some merit to this – that the event happened on a feast day does suggest a level of coordination not otherwise possible in a society without readily accessible calendars. Once more, however, this is described as being directed at Danish settlers and, for some reason, Henry ascribes Æthelred’s actions as deriving from a surge of machismo associated with his marriage to Emma of Normandy!? But perhaps even more extraordinary is the tale put together by William of Malmesbury. Here he unites the two traditions, suggesting that the massacre was targeted at all Danish settlers and was the impetus for Sveinn’s invasion. More than this, he describes Sveinn’s sister Gunnhild as having been caught up in massacre, giving the Danish king personal reason to seek retribution (there is no Scandinavian tradition of Sveinn having a sister Gunnhild). Finally, to really bring the story together, William tells us that the well-known knave Eadric Streona was the person who ordered her beheading. It’s a wild tale and has little to recommend it as historical narrative.
Yet these are all myths of the St Brice’s day massacre that have permeated modern perceptions of the event: the death of Sveinn’s sister asserted as fact, the event characterised as wholesale slaughter, Æthelred’s order viewed as impulsive. But these are contrary to the historical and archaeological record. Sveinn needed little reason to invade other than to extend his hegemony to include the wealthy island to his west. In turn, there was little to benefit Æthelred in enacting slaughter across England’s integrated Anglo-Danish communities, and there is no evidence that this occurred. And while Æthelred’s order can be understood as a poorly considered mandate for xenophobic violence, it must also be read in the context of his reign as having a certain logical intent – the elimination of the threat represented by Danish mercenaries and viking armies residing in England.
Feature Image: St Frideswide’s Church, Oxford
Angela Boyle, ‘Death on the Dorset Ridgeway: The Discovery and Excavation of an early Medieval Mass Burial’, in The Danes in Wessex: The Scandinavian Impact on Southern England, c. 800 – c. 1100, ed. by Ryan Lavelle and Simon Roffey (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2016), 109-21.
Simon Keynes, ‘The Massacre of St Brice’s Day (13 November 1002).’ In Beretning fra seksogtyvende tværfaglige vikingesymposium. Edited by Niels Lund. Aarhus: Forlaget Hikuin, 2007, pp. 32-66.
A. M. Pollard et al., ‘“Sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat”: the St Brice’s Day massacre and the isotopic analysis of human bones from St John’s College, Oxford’, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 31 (2012): 83-102.
Levi Roach. Æthelred the Unready. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.
Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.
Dorothy Whitelock, ed. and trans. English Historical Documents, C. 500 – 1042. 2nd edn. 10 vols. Vol. 1. London: Eyre Methuen, 1979.
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This article is part of an ongoing series of short biographies of medieval scribes (except not really this time – we’re more focused on the source itself).
Scribe: Multiple, unknown Lived: c.890 – c.1154 Location: England Notable works: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles
The texts collectively known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (which I’ll call ‘the Chronicles’ throughout), form an inherently complicated source. Many modern readers who are exposed to the Chronicles as quoted in history books, or who own a translated edition could be under the impression that it is a single homogeneous text. It is far from that though! Setting aside partial texts, lost texts, the chronicles of Æthelweard, and that of St Neots, we are actually working from six different texts each with their own nuances resulting from where they were maintained and when they were copied. Continue reading A Scribe’s Life (5): The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles→
It’s nearly two years since we posted our article on the viking tortures of literature and the likelihood that the acts as described ever occurred. This included two implausible instances of brutality: the ‘blood eagle’ and the ‘fatal walk’. We looked at the blood eagle in the context of the death of Hálfdan Longlegs, son of the Norwegian king, at the hands of the Orkney Earl, Torf-Einnar, and in the light of the more famous death of King Aella of Northumbria at the hands of the sons of Ragnar Loðbrók. The ‘fatal walk’ was considered as described in Njals saga as the punishment for Broðir, the Scandinavian mercenary who reputedly killed King Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf. However, these are not the only examples of the two punishments (although it’s pretty close for the blood eagle). In fact, there is one tale in which both tortures are described that I didn’t tackle last time: Orms þáttr stórólfssonar. So that is our focus today, the bloody Tale of Orm Storolfson, the man who ‘blood-eagled’ a troll (or giant). But first a bit of a recap. Continue reading Blood Eagles and Fatal Walks Revisited: Orms þáttr stórólfssonar→
‘In those days’, Gunnlaugs saga relates of the eleventh-century, ‘the language in England was the same as that spoken in Norway and Denmark’. It is an assertion which raises some compelling questions around perceptions of England in saga literature.
Travel to Anglo-Saxon England is common in the Íslendingasögur (Icelandic family sagas), but rarely is it depicted with any distinctively English cultural nuance. Rather, saga authors treat England as an extension of the Scandinavian world of their own cultural milieu with little differentiating detail. This is, broadly, what I want to look at today. The Íslendingasögur are mostly written around two centuries after the events they purport to describe. So knowledge of eleventh-century England (and earlier) was either something drawn from a collective memory that extended beyond living memory, or was a product of authorial invention. Though, if you are familiar with cultural memory theory, you may suggest they are one and the same!
Now, this is not something I have done on the blog before, but the text of this article is largely that which I presented at a recent conference. Usually I reserve conference papers as research to later turn into academic articles. In this case however, I was presenting to a non-expert audience and the paper is geared as such: a general introduction to cultural memory and intertextuality in the Íslendingasögur, and how these may relate to the archaeology of Anglo-Scandinavian interaction. Hopefully you enjoy it!Continue reading Reading England in the Icelandic Sagas: Cultural Memory and Archaeology→
This article is part of an ongoing series of short biographies of medieval scribes.
Scribe: Saxo Grammaticus Lived c. 1150 – 1220 Location: Lund, Denmark (modern Sweden/Scania) Notable works: Gesta Danorum – a history of Denmark from pre-history to the late 12th c.
Saxo Grammaticus was a Danish historian working at the same time as Snorri Sturluson (who we have already covered in this series). While his life was not the roller-coaster of political intrigue of Snorri’s, Saxo still hobnobbed with the elites and wrote history under some significant pressure from these patrons. Indeed, Saxo was in the employ of the archbishop of Lund, Absalon (apparently as his secretary according to Absalon’s will), and important enough to have appeared in a witness list on one of Absalon’s charters. Continue reading A Scribe’s Life (4): Saxo Grammaticus→
There is something of the sea inherent in English identity. After all, the ocean makes up over 90% of England’s borders, it has long dictated external political and military policy, and defined mercantile activity. Throughout the middle ages, the sea enabled England’s engagement in everything from international politics to the exchange of ideas, from commercial fishing and the wool trade that made her rich. Englishmen crossed the oceans as merchants, mercenaries, fishermen, warriors, and diplomats to foreign ports and courts, while in turn continental traders and dignitaries were frequent visitors to busy southern cities such as London and Canterbury. So it should be of little surprise that the sea would have a presence in the conversations of, say, thirty pilgrims making their way London to Canterbury. Likewise, it is unsurprising that Geoffrey Chaucer, that adept observer of fourteenth-century English culture, should provide some commentary on the role of the sea in English life within The Canterbury Tales.Continue reading Chaucer and English Maritime Culture→
The tale Yvain ou le Chevalier au Lion (Yvain, Knight of the Lion) is simultaneously one of the most famous of the Arthurian romances, and one of the more bizarre. In essence the hero marries the ‘Lady of the Fountain,’ a somewhat awkward situation given that he was also the man who killed her previous husband. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Yvain falls prey to the ‘knight errant’ trope, and subsequently loses his wife when he favours the life of an adventuring warrior. He mopes, he finds a lion, he undertakes heroic tasks with lion in tow, he regains the hand of said Lady of the Fountain. This tale as it comes to us in written form is 12th c., composed by Chrétien of Troy. However, this French version of the romance is not the only extant version with, for example, Norse, Swedish, and German versions of the tale. Interestingly though, in these divergent traditions can be identified – those based on Chrétien’s Yvain, and those adapted from the tale Owain found in the Welsh collection known as the Mabinogion. It is this version of the tale I want to focus on today, examining what, if anything, is preserved of Celtic mythology within the Welsh romances (using Owain as a case-study). Continue reading Owain and the Giant Herdsman – Identifying Celtic Mythology in the Mabinogion→
Edward I is considered by many to be the mightiest warrior and most formidable leader of the Plantagenet kings; which, considering the competition, is an impressive feat. So, the question has to be asked: with such a formidable background, how on earth was his son so utterly dreadful at both kingship, and warfare? Did he simply not care? Was he distracted? Did he lack the support of his lords and nobles? Is his opposition not given enough credit? Or was he simply weak and incompetent? Now, rather than attempting to directly answer all of these questions, this article endeavours to provide an overview of the situation in Scotland, and of the Battle of Bannockburn, and in doing so, will leave the decision up to you. Continue reading The Battle of Bannockburn: English Arrogance and the Failure of Edward II→
There is nothing like a good outlaw story, they tend to contain some very enjoyable motifs – a trickster hero, feats of derring-do, vengeance, comeuppance and, usually, some interesting female characters. A bit of recent Twitter chatter (here and here) have brought to mind a couple of strong women in two Icelandic outlaw sagas – Auð Vesteinsdottir of Gísla saga Súrssonar and Thorbjorg ‘the Stout’ in Grettis saga. So today I thought we would take a look at these two women, and their roles in the male-dominated Icelandic society in which law, feud, and honour created and pursued outlaws. Strong female characters can be found all throughout Old Norse literature – it is one of the things that makes the sagas so pleasurable to read, and speaks to a culture in which women were able to exercise some personal agency. Auð and Thorbjorg are excellent examples of this agency and we will focus on them as such – the broader topic of women in Old Norse society would be a book-length study (which happily Jenny Jochens has provided). Continue reading Viking Women & Authority in the Icelandic Outlaw Sagas of Gisli and Grettir→
A man of no mean ambition, by 927 King Æthelstan found himself walking on untrodden ground, the ruler of much of what we would consider modern England. His grandfather, Alfred, had beaten back the vikings and united much of southern England (primarily Kent and Wessex) under his crown. Æthelstan’s father and aunt, Edward the Elder and Æthelflæd of Mercia, picked up where Alfred left off, further taking the fight to the viking invaders and settlers. These two brought East Anglia and the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw under the control of Mercia and Wessex, though upon Æthelflæd’s death Edward also absorbed Mercia into the widening Wessex hegemony. Æthelstan thus inherited the kingship of more territory than had ever before been held under a single Anglo-Saxon ruler (despite some apparent hiccups in doing so). And now, come the death of the Viking King of York, Sihtric, in 927, Æthelstan seized control of Northumbria and Viking York. Continue reading A Case of Clerical Diplomacy – King Æthelstan and the Church in York→
On the death of Sihtric, the Danish King of York, in 927, King Æthelstan seized control of the Viking Kingdom of York. It was an event reasonably early in his reign, Æthelstan had only come to the throne of Mercia in 924 and of Wessex in 925. In 926 he had sought a peaceful co-existence with York and Northumbria, marrying his sister to Sihtric, but with the Dane dying less than a year later, things didn’t go according to plan.
Clearly, we’re back with Æthelstan today. Specifically, I’m going to look at his annexation of north-eastern England – York and the region of Northumbria. Chronologically, in previous articles I have worked through Æthelstan’s youth, and his (potentially) troubled succession to the throne of Wessex (I’ve also published an article on the reliability of our key source for these early years of Æthelstan’s life). So, we’re moving the narrative forward today. Originally, my intent was to do this via the medium of a charter (like our article on Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey). The grant of land in question, contained in a charter known as S407, gifts lands at a place called Amounderness to the church of St Peter, York. It provides interesting evidence of Æthelstan’s methods of territorial and political control. But I am going to save that for my next article. You see, I started writing up the context we needed in order to be able to understand the content and strategy behind that charter and, as it grew and grew, I realised that what I had written a full-length article looking at how Æthelstan assumed control of the northern territories without ever getting to the charter! So we’ll stick with the annexation of the Kingdom of York and territories today.
There was a man named Thórarin, who live in Sunnudalur; he was old and nearly blind. He had been a fierce viking in his youth, and in his old age he was not an easy man to deal with. He had an only son, whose name was Thorstein; he was a big man, and very strong, but even-tempered. He worked so hard on his father’s farm that three other men together could not have done better.
This simple introduction to Þorsteins þáttr stangarhöggs (The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck) immediately lays out the problem at the heart of this brief tale. Thórarin was a warrior in his youth and remained a violent and problematic character into his old age, Thorstein in contrast was a farmer, a hard worker who was disinclined to engage in violence and feud. But which man conformed to medieval Icelandic expectations of masculinity? Could Thorstein remain an even-tempered farmer his whole life, even when slighted? What of honour? What of vengeance? What of shame? Continue reading Shame and Masculinity in Medieval Iceland – The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck→
Hárbarðsljóð is a flyting poem from the Poetic Edda, in which Thor is challenged to battle wits with a ferryman named Harbard (Hárbarðr) for passage across an inlet. Interestingly, Harbard gets the better of the exchange, ultimately denying Thor passage and sending him around the bay on land. By which we may surmise that Harbard is not a simple mortal to have bested a god in a flyting and confidently sent him away.
In fact, it is something of a trope within Old Norse/Icelandic mythological and legendary literature for gods to travel the world in disguise. There are possibly two figures within the Norse pantheon best known for this trick. Loki, variously appearing as a salmon, a mare and, possibly, an old woman, also noted for disguising himself and Thor as a bridesmaid and bride (respectively) in the famous wedding-feast sequence from Þrymskviða. Loki certainly has form for embarrassing Thor and, of all the gods, he is the most noted for flyting, courtesy of his exchange with the gods Asgard after gate-crashing a feast in Lokasenna. (Both Þrymskviða and Lokasenna also form part of the collection known as the Poetic Edda). Yet Loki’s disguises almost invariably involve shape-shifting. The old ferryman is far more in line with the trope of the Odinic wanderer – Odin-as-vagabond, wandering the worlds of Norse mythology and meddling. And, among his varied roles, Odin does perform as the god of (good) poetry. Cases have been made for Harbard being either of these gods in disguise, and that is what I intend to look at today – the elements of the poem that correlate with other representations of Odin and Loki and thus point to Harbard’s true identity. (Spoiler – it’s Odin). Continue reading Harbard the Ferryman & the Embarrassment of Thor – On the Presence of Odin or Loki in Hárbarðsljóð→