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 Chronicles tell 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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