On St. Brice's Day, November 13, 1002, Norse people across England were unexpectedly seized, gathered together, and promptly slaughtered on the direct orders of the king. 

It was a deadly massacre that shocked the Viking kingdoms of the north to the core and precipitated a deadly struggle for revenge and supremacy that would lead to the crowning of the first Viking king of England

Yet despite the significance of the event, many of the details of this fateful day have remained unclear for centuries. 

The Viking Herald examines the historical and archeological records available and tries to unravel the details of what really happened, as well as the brutal and convoluted aftermath. 

We also ask whether King Æthelred, who ordered the massacre, was justified in his actions after being pushed to the brink by persistent Danish incursions. 

The boy king 

In 978, Æthelred was crowned king of the English at just 12 years of age. He inherited a kingdom in disarray following a bitter feud among his noblemen and the violent death of his elder brother. 

Æthelred's father, King Edgar, had died in 975, and Æthelred's brother Edward was promptly named king in his stead. Yet there were many who believed that Edward was illegitimate and that the throne truly belonged to Æthelred. 

Amid constant pressure and vicious rumors, Edward was brutally assassinated in the county of Dorset at the tender age of 16, less than three years after his coronation. 

One of the suspects in the murder was King Edgar's wife, Ælfthryth – Æthelred's mother.

Worse, Æthelred's lands were soon under serious threat from primarily Danish raiders. In 991, a Danish fleet landed on the southeast coast of England before advancing inland and defeating a local army in the Battle of Maldon. 

Local forces paid a huge tribute to the Viking army. 

Later, Æthelred met with the Norse leaders to broker a conclusive truce. Olaf Tryggvason, King of Norway, agreed to leave England and never return. 

On August 11, 991, the Battle of Maldon was fought near Maldon, Essex, England. The Anglo-Saxon forces were positioned on the shore (top), while Olaf's troops had to cross the causeway from Northey Island (left). Photo: terry joyce (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The final straw? 

Though Olaf kept to his word, in 997, the Danes began a new series of persistent raids. After a brief respite as the Norse fleet rested in Normandy, further attacks followed in 1001 in the counties of Sussex and Devon. 

Not for the first time, Æthelred would be forced to pay the Vikings to prevent further bloodshed.

While he was not the first king to offer Danegeld to appease Viking invaders, there is no question that the frequent clashes and settlements with the Danes threatened to not only empty the royal coffers but also severely damage the king's standing and prestige among his countrymen. 

It is also easy to imagine that the king felt a growing sense of paranoia at this time. 

His father had only recently managed to remove Viking rule in the Danelaw, which covered large swathes of central, eastern and northern England. Significant numbers of Norse had also settled in the country, often forming an influential part of local industry, trade, and culture. 

Æthelred had also awarded lordships to prominent Viking leaders and personally employed many Viking mercenaries. 

Yet in the years before the massacre, some of these supposed allies are believed to have deserted the king and ravaged the southern coast of England. 

To add to the climate of mistrust, there was also talk of a Viking-led plot to assassinate the king and take control of England. 

Perhaps feeling that he was never going to escape the Norse threat and, possibly feeling strengthened by his recent marriage to Emma of Normandy, Æthelred decided to take drastic action. 

The site of the present-day Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford was once the setting of a tragic event where locals burned down St. Frideswide's Church with Danish families inside seeking refuge. Photo: Julian Herzog (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A brutal step 

Whether acting out of sheer wrath, desperation, or a firm belief that it would help rid him of the Norse once and for all, King Æthelred reportedly ordered the massacre of all Danish men in the country. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle details: 

"And in this year the king ordered all the
Danish men who were in England to be slain;
this was done on St. Brice's feast day [November 13],
because it was made known to the king that they
treacherously wanted to deprive him and then all
his counsellors of life and to possess this kingdom thereafter." 

(Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1002 CE) 

It is hard to know the full scope of this order. It is highly unlikely that, in practice, the king's men set out to murder every Danish man in England. After all, estimates of the Norse population in the country range upwards of half a million people. 

Many historians believe that the attacks would mainly have taken place in the central territories of Wessex, with the victims perhaps limited to recent arrivals, known mercenaries, and suspected conspirators. 

Even if desired by the king, a full-scale genocide would simply have been unfeasible in 11th-century England. 

Nevertheless, one near-contemporary account of an attack on Danish families in Oxford does give an indication of the ferociousness that the edict unleashed. 

The documents show that Danish families attempted to seek refuge in St. Frideswide's Church, but locals proceeded to burn down the church and the Norse within. 

In a chilling charter issued by Æthelred in 1004 to Frideswide, the king recalled his order for "a just extermination" of all the Danes in England, who had "sprouted like a cockle amongst the wheat." 

The Ridgeway Hill burial site near Weymouth, Dorset, revealed a mass grave where predominantly unarmed Scandinavian men appear to have been executed through sword blows to the neck. Photo: Oxford Archaeology

New evidence emerges 

While both Anglo-Saxon and the Norse sagas mention the massacre, until relatively recently, there was precious little archeological evidence to corroborate many elements of the story. 

In recent decades, however, two finds – at St. John's College at the University of Oxford and at Ridgeway Hill near Weymouth, Dorset – have offered further clues to the true nature of the attacks. On each site, excavations uncovered a mass grave of predominantly unarmed men. 

In Oxford, the team unearthed the skeletal remains of 37 people, with radiocarbon tests dating the bones to a period of 960-1020. 

The men were of fighting age, tall, ate lots of fish and seafood – far more usual among Vikings than Anglo-Saxons – and suffered brutal deaths, with multiple stab wounds in many cases. 

At Ridgeway Hill, in Dorset, the men are believed to have been stripped naked and publicly executed through a blow (or several) to the neck from a sword. 

Here, isotype analysis has suggested that most or perhaps all of the men were from Scandinavia, and radiocarbon testing has placed their time of death somewhere between 970 and 1025. 

Although it is impossible to link these two finds conclusively to the St. Brice's Day Massacre, they do appear to indicate how it may have unfolded. 

The first reprisals 

Though the exact number of victims and the extent of the massacre is unknown, there is no question that the attack made a deep impression on the Vikings to the north. 

It is even believed that Gunhilde, daughter of Harald Bluetooth and sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, was one of the dead. 

Gunhilde had been married to Pallig, a Danish nobleman who had served the king, and both could conceivably have been considered a danger to the crown. 

Less than two years after the massacre, Sweyn Forkbeard himself would arrive in England at the head of a large army and rampage through East Anglia. 

This time, Sweyn was eventually stopped in his tracks by local Anglo-Saxon nobleman Ulfcytel Snillingr and returned to his homeland. 

Nevertheless, two more expeditions from Norse forces would follow in 1006 and 1009. 

Though both were brought off with hefty settlements, they further highlighted England's immense vulnerability to attack, and surely gave Sweyn further encouragement to complete his revenge. 

Between 1016 and 1035, Cnut the Great presided over a united English realm, integrating it into his expansive North Sea Empire that also encompassed Denmark, Norway, and portions of Sweden. Source: Hel-hama (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The final battles 

In 1013, some 11 years after the St. Brice's Day Massacre, Sweyn launched another major assault. 

This time, his attacks brought overwhelming success. Cowering, Æthelred was forced to flee to Normandy, and Sweyn was duly crowned England's very first Viking king. 

Yet the story does not finish there. Just a few months later, Sweyn died and was replaced by his son, Cnut the Great

Though the Viking warriors naturally pledged their allegiance to Cnut, English noblemen reluctantly looked to restore Æthelred to the throne. 

Returning to England, Æthelred successfully recaptured London – reportedly with the help of a Norwegian leader, Olaf Haraldsson – and Cnut promptly withdrew to Scandinavia. 

In 1016, however, Cnut returned to find that Æthelred's son, Edmund, had revolted against his father and established himself in the north of England. 

With Cnut's arrival, however, Edmund returned to his father's side in London, only for Æthelred to pass away in April of the same year. 

A swift, brutal war ended with a decisive victory for Cnut at the Battle of Assandun. The two parties agreed to divide England, with Edmund taking Wessex and Cnut the whole country beyond the Thames. 

A few weeks later, however, Edmund died. Once again, Cnut became king of the whole country. In the year of his coronation, Cnut also married Emma of Normandy, Æthelred's widow. 

King Æthelred the Unready, despite ruling as the longest-reigning Anglo-Saxon monarch, ultimately saw his reign deemed a failure due to his inability to protect England from Viking invasions. Photo: York Museums Trust / Yorkshire Museum

A doomed legacy 

This, then, was the legacy of King Æthelred, who would be known to posterity as Æthelred the Unready (or ill-advised) for his apparently abject decision-making. 

In many ways, his period at the helm could be judged a success. 

At a combined total of 37 years, he was the longest-reigning Anglo-Saxon monarch ever. His era also saw a rise in the population, food production, and general living standards. Yet, most fundamentally, Æthelred's reign must be regarded as a conclusive failure. 

Above all, a monarch is expected to protect their people from the threat of foreign invasion. 

Æthelred was the man who let the Vikings take the keys to the kingdom – first temporarily, but ultimately conclusively. 

Faced with the potentially devastating external threat of Norse invaders, in the first part of his reign, Æthelred followed a policy of intermittent resistance and appeasement that was both expensive and ultimately ineffective. 

Then, his patience apparently at an end, he lashed out and invited the wrath of the Vikings upon himself. 

The 11th century was a different, brutal age, and slaughters were all too common. 

Yet even so, the decision to apparently indiscriminately massacre an entire group of people is still an extreme and reprehensible act. For purely political reasons, too, the St. Brice's Day Massacre was surely a mistake. 

If the records are to be believed, the killings led directly to Sweyn's invasions and the first Viking kings of England. 

Not that the Scandinavian dynasty would fare much better. Just 64 years after the St. Brice's Day Massacre, the death of Edward the Confessor would lead to another struggle for power. 

Æthelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy's son, Edward, had restored the throne to the House of Wessex for the last time. Yet his lack of an obvious heir left the country reeling in uncertainty once more. 

It would be left to William the Conqueror to sweep across the Channel from Normandy to take control of Albion. England has never been successfully invaded since.

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