Anglo-Saxon England died a slow and torturous death. The date of 1066 CE is an easy date for historians: when William of Normandy smashed the Anglo-Saxon armies and took the throne of England for himself, it marked a very clear break with the past. But morbid symptoms had begun to appear in Anglo-Saxon society almost a century earlier. We could choose 991 CE as a turning point: when King Ethelred ‘the Unready’ instituted the Danegeld as a system of paying off the Vikings. His disastrous reign saw the total collapse of the bonds which tied Anglo-Saxon society together. Inheriting a wealthy and powerful Kingdom, King Æthelred would fail to meet the challenges of his age – and a powerful, capable and wily Viking King named Sweyn Forkbeard would be only too happy to take advantage of his shortcomings.

A 13th century depiction of King Ethelred the Unready, from the Abigdon Chronicle. Note the pattern-welded sword he bears, a symbol of kingship. (via Wikimedia Commons)

An ‘Unready’ King

History has not been kind to King Æþelræd II. He is known universally today as Æthelred ‘the Unready’, although that nickname has drifted somewhat from its original meaning. In surviving Old English sources, he was known as Æþelræd Unræd – a pun on his name. Ethelred is made up of the words ‘æðele’, meaning ‘noble’, and ‘ræd’, meaning ‘advice’ or ‘counsel’ – and his nickname is ‘un, meaning ‘not’ as it does today, plus the same ‘ræd’. Thus, he was ‘nobly-advised, the poorly-advised’ – slightly different from ‘unprepared’ or ‘unready’, but nevertheless quite scathing! Æthelred’s long rule – 37 years, one of the longest in English history – would set the stage for the long fall of Anglo-Saxon England, and the rise of King Sweyn Forkbeard.

A contemporary depiction of Ethelred the Unready’s father King Edgar ‘the Peaceful’, whose reign was pleasingly uneventful. From the New Minster Charter, 966 CE (via Wikimedia Commons)

Æthelred came to the English throne under a pall of mistrust. Æthelred was the second son of King Edgar, but Edgar’s reign is somewhat of a black-hole for historians due to the scant attention the few surviving sources give it. Historians have interpreted this as showing his 16-year reign was remarkably peaceful and stable – there was a marked down-turn in Viking raiding, and although King Edgar and his brother Eadwig at one point wholly partitioned the Kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, the Kingdom was apparently peacefully reunited. Some have even ventured that King Edgar marked the high-point of Anglo-Saxon society. But this apogee would not last. Edgar failed to assure a smooth transition of power, and the landed Anglo-Saxon magnates were deeply split between his two sons: the fourteen-year old Edward and Æthelred, four years his junior. Though Edward was Edgar’s undisputed eldest son, and he initially acceded to the throne without challenge, his assent was not unanimous. He was prone to wild and violent outbursts, and unpredictable and alienating behaviour – an opposition quickly formed around Æthelred as an alternative candidate.

Murder of a Brother

Things came to a head in 978 CE, when Æthelred’s retainers murdered the young King Edward. Æthelred himself was still only 12 years of age at the oldest, and so cannot be assigned much responsibility for the maneuvering which resulted in his accession – Anglo-Saxon writers have been quick to blame Aethelred’s mother Queen Ælfthryth, but historians are wary that this plays into ‘scheming woman’ tropes that were the common saw of misogynist ecclesiastical writers. But nevertheless, the seizure of power by Æthelred’s faction was widely seen as a shocking and unprincipled action which deeply tarnished the legitimacy of the throne. Whilst Anglo-Saxon society was deeply violent, such a naked and un-Christian power-grab was unseemly and uncomfortable.

The fortified burhs constructed over the previous century of West Saxon rule over England had created a secure, stable and prosperous Kingdom. Modern illustration of a fortified Anglo-Saxon settlement. (via Huntingdonshire History Festival)

But Ethelred the Unready did not inherit a broken Kingdom in deep crisis: his father’s reign had been peaceful and prosperous. The Viking invasions that had defined the last century had slackened, and all of England from the Lowlands of Scotland to the tip of Cornwall was (fairly) unified behind the Kings of the House of Wessex. The pause in Viking raiding and the ensuing political stability meant that England’s wealth was growing, with new monasteries founded by the Late Anglo-Saxon Kings, flourishing fortified burhs and growing trading wealth driven by Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship. Areas of the former Danelaw remained northward-looking, maintaining strong trading and social relationships with Scandinavia, but the wealth created by these links now flowed into the coffers of English rulers.

Danes And Normans

But there were rumblings of future problems. Starting from 980 CE, small Danish raids began to take place on the eastern coast of England. These have been linked to the Christianizing efforts of King Harald Bluetooth: Vikings who refused to convert were sometimes exiled, or left voluntarily of their own accord – and England was a tempting target for raiding. These exiled Danes found a home-away-from-home at the court of Duke Richard of Normandy. The Normans were the cousins of the Scandinavian Vikings, having originally been Vikings who had been bought off with the grant of an area on the north coast of France – and so were more than happy to host the exiled Danes.

Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy, was a Viking warlord who was bought off by the King of Frankia – he agreed to stop raiding and to serve as the King’s bannerman, in return for dominion over Normandy in 911 CE. His descendents retained kinship loyalties with the Vikings. 19th century statue in Falaise. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Although these raids themselves had little impact on England, they did bring about the first known diplomatic dispute between England and Normandy, with the English court outraged that they were giving safe harbor to the raiders. This diplomatic issue was smoothed over in 991 CE, with the signing of a treaty brokered by the Pope between King Æthelred and Duke Richard, one of King Æthelred’s few diplomatic successes. The episode closed uneventfully with the Pope delivering a rebuke to Duke Richard for giving shelter to pagan bandits – but it does mark the first time that the Normans and the English became entangled, in an inescapably interconnected Europe.

The Vikings Escalate

However, unlike the peace of the previous decades, these Vikings were not to be dissuaded so easily. That same year, a large force of Vikings sacked the coastal town of Ipswich before sailing inland up the River Blackwater. We are fortunate that there is an Anglo-Saxon epic poem which describes (a possible version of) the following events. According to the untitled poem, known to scholars as The Battle of Maldon, the Anglo-Saxon nobility was split over the best course of action toward the new Viking menace: one camp who favored an all-out defense of the realm in the manner of King Alfred, and those who sought to use the great wealth of the Kingdom to simply pay off the Vikings. The Ealdorman of Essex named Byrhtnoth was very much of the former: he raised the East Saxon fyrd, and met the Vikings in the field near the village of Maldon.

The battle site at Maldon is marked by an early-21st century statue of Bryhnoth, the Anglo-Saxon hero who valiantly led the doomed resistance to the Vikings. Statue in bronze, by John Doubleday. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The poem records how the leader of the raiders offers to leave England if they are paid in gold and valuable Anglo-Saxon armor – but the Ealdorman refuses. In battle, the East Saxons were heavily defeated, and Byrhtnoth is afterward found decapitated, still clutching his gold-hilted sword. Historians are divided over how to interpret this poem: some argue that the glorious terms in which Byrhtnoth is described argue for a military response to the Vikings. But others argue that Byrhtnoth’s death, whilst glorious, is depicted as ultimately futile – he is described as having ‘ofermōd’, perhaps hubris or recklessness, and ultimately achieved nothing.

The First Danegeld

In the aftermath of the Battle of Maldon, the English court was left to decide how to respond to this crisis. The ‘monastic party’ of nobles demanded that King Ethelred the Unready raise armies to defend the wealth of the Kingdom (predominantly housed at its monasteries) at all costs – whereas another faction led by Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury advised that King Æthelred give the Vikings what they asked for: buy them off with the burgeoning wealth of the kingdom. Fatefully, Æthelred sided with the Archbishop, and gave the Viking army 10,000 pounds of silver, an enormous sum of money. Although the term dates from several centuries later, this is viewed as the start of the Danegeld: literally the ‘Dane tax’, the practise of paying Viking raiders off instead of meeting them in battle.

Runestones like this one (U344 at Orkesta, Uppland, Sweden) give us a vital insight into the lives of some Vikings – this one commemorates that Ulf of Borresta received three Danegelds in his raiding career. The payments came to be an expected part of settled kingdoms’ policy toward the Vikings in the Late Viking period. (via Wikimedia Commons)

This is not the first time that we have seen Anglo-Saxon leaders buying peace from the Vikings: notably, King Alfred bought an expensive peace from the Great Heathen Army when newly ascended to the West Saxon throne in 871 CE. But in the past, these payments had ever only been forced concessions, designed to buy breathing room when under the most dire threat, and would be repaid many times over when new forces could be gathered to fight back. In the Late Anglo-Saxon period, the Danegeld became not the last resort, but the first: King Æthelred did not even attempt to seriously contest the new wave of Viking landings. And so, for good reason, the Danegeld became a byword for unprincipled submission, and for a protection racket that only encouraged its levies to come back for more, over and over again.

Feed Them Once…

The Viking army did not even hold by its word – although this is less shocking if we understand the Vikings as far from monolithic, with a fragmented leadership structure and only the most arms-length relationship with King Sweyn Forkbeard back in Scandinavia. Raiding continued until 994 CE, when the Vikings, with a much larger force, sailed up the Thames and attacked London. A battle between was fought to a stalemate, and in the subsequent negotiations, the raiders were paid an eye-watering 22,000 pounds in gold and silver. Some of the Vikings apparently settled in King Æthelred’s England, becoming mercenaries on the Isle of Wight, and in a mirror of the treaty between Alfred and Guthrum, one of the Viking commanders appears to have converted to Christianity with Æthelred’s blessing.

Anglo-Saxon London consisted of a trading settlement within the old crumbling Roman walls. Modern painting by Ivan Lapper. (via ArtUK)

But again, this truce was fleeting: the ‘mercenaries’ soon rebelled and reverted to raiding. This motley crew, as well as others, continued to raid the South and East, and were finally halted in battle outside of Exeter. There, again, King Ethelred the Unready gave another Danegeld – this time of 24,000 pounds. This to us looks like rank cowardice, and was harshly criticized by historians of previous generations. However, regular payments to Viking warriors were becoming more common across Europe, for example becoming a stable part of Charles the Bald’s Viking management strategy, and it may be that the nobles thought that the Danegeld was the best of a poor slate of options – even though they must have winced at the price.

A Most Exceptional Woman

As well as buying off Viking raiders, King Ethelred the Unready also tried to addressing the growing political crisis diplomatically, marrying Emma of Normandy. Emma was the daughter of Duke Richard, and the marriage has been seen as an attempt to present a united front against the Danes who were still overwintering in Northern France (often with tacit Norman support). She is simultaneously one of the least well-understood and more important figures of the period: with Ethelred, she would have three children, including Edward, who would grow up to be King Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England. After Ethelred’s death, she would marry King Sweyn’s son Cnut, giving birth to Harthacnut, who would rule as King of England, and Gunhilde, Queen of the Germans. Thus, Emma’s children would be rival Kings from two competing dynasties. Despite her absolutely critical position, and despite her active participation in politics, like many women in this period she is occluded by the condescension of the sources written by and for men.

A very rare contemporary image of an Anglo-Saxon queen, Queen Emma of Normandy receives the Encomium, depicted in the Encomium of Emma of Normandy, c. 1050 CE. Emma was an elderly woman by this time, the mother of King Edward the Confessor. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The St. Brice’s Day Massacre

However, King Æthelred combined the worst possible traits in a leader: cowardice, and massive over-reaction. Existing sources tell of how, in late 1002 CE, King Æthelred was informed of a plot against his life by ‘faithless’ Danes within his Kingdom, as a precursor for a massacre of his court and the seizure of his kingdom. Whether any such plot existed, we cannot know – some historians link this panic to the desertion of Pallig, a prominent Danish warlord in King Æthelred’s service. Nevertheless, in response to this perceived threat King Æthelred decreed that every Dane in England should be put to the sword – a truly jaw-dropping over-reaction that would have consequences that were both dire and immediate. Perhaps King Ethelred the Unready was beset by the same extreme paranoia and impulsive violence which had marred his brother’s short reign – or perhaps this was a coldly calculated move to solve the problems bequeathed by the Danelaw once and for all.

The St. Brice’s Day Massacre of the Danes of England, depicted by Alfred Pearse, 1922. (via History Hit)

The massacre of the Danes was carried out on St. Brice’s Day (13th November) 1002 CE, and though we cannot estimate reliably the scale of the massacres, historians universally agree that widespread killings of Danes took place on the King’s orders. Genocides in the 20th century give us a framework to understand the mass violence: old feuds and property disputes that had accumulated in the years since the collapse of the Danelaw doubtless provided a tinderbox for the King’s orders. In 2008, an archaeological excavation discovered the bodies of 37 Scandinavian people, who had all been subject to a frenzied attack whilst defenseless, and who were buried in the late 10th or early 11th century. At Ridgeway Hill, in neighboring Dorset, the grisly beheaded bodies of 54 executed Scandinavian men were discovered in 2009, also dating from the same period. But where there appears to have been some compliance with King Æthelred’s orders in lands under his direct control in the South and West, it is very unlikely that there was a wholesale murder of all Danes in the entire Kingdom of England. There is little evidence of similar mass violence in the lands of the former Danelaw, where a much greater proportion of the inhabitants had Scandinavian heritage – and those people instantly lost any reason to bear loyalty to an English King who loudly ordered their deaths. As we shall see, these Anglo-Danes will be a natural reservoir of support for King Ethelred the Unready’s enemies. Some sources even indicate that Pallig’s wife Gunhilde was also killed in the massacres – and, critically for what follows, she may well have been the sister of King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark and Norway.

The Rise of King Sweyn Forkbeard

The history of Viking Scandinavia is notoriously difficult to chart with any degree of certainty – the Vikings themselves were an almost exclusively oral culture until after the end of the Viking Age, and often we are forced to work from either from sources which long post-date, or contemporary Christian sources which are highly biased against the ‘pagans’. Thus, with appropriate caveats, we can talk about Sweyn, who would become King of Denmark and Norway by the early 11th century. He was either the son, or possibly the adopted son of King Harald Gormsson, also known as ‘Bluetooth’. As well as the namesake of the modern wireless communication system, Bluetooth is widely credited with introducing Christianity to Denmark, which brought with it useful tools of administration, loyalty and the beginnings of literacy. Bluetooth briefly asserted his right as King over Norway as well – but this clearly did not stick: the Viking world was ruled by highly independent jarls and chieftains, and so Kingship was a contested and precarious position. His son Sweyn succeeded him as King of Norway in about 986 CE – some German sources say that he rebelled against his father and reimposed paganism, although this might well have more to do with his preference for importing English bureaucrats over German ones, and in any case he continued old King Harald’s church-building programme. By 1000 CE, he had led an alliance of Danish and Swedish jarls to overthrow the King of Norway, becoming King of a patchwork of Scandinavian territories and holding the nominal crowns of both Denmark and Norway.

A miniature depicting King Sweyn Forkbeard, from a 13th century manuscript. (via Wikimedia Commons)

We shouldn’t see the Viking raids on England in this period as some master plan by Sweyn Forkbeard; as we have seen, Scandinavian traditions of leadership are far more fragmented, and if any of the Danegelds given to the Vikings in this era made it into his coffers, it was only indirectly. However, this significantly changed with the St. Brice’s Day massacre. Whether it was in revenge for the murder of his sister, or whether he was merely exploiting a golden opportunity to consolidate the fractured Scandinavians behind him in pursuit of loot, King Sweyn Forkbeard lost no time in gathering an invasion force, and sailing for England.

From Raider to Contender for the Throne

Our timeline again becomes fractious as events become chaotic in the affray. Sweyn secured an agreement from the ever-eager Normans that they would buy any booty stolen from the English, and thus he sailed for England. He landed in the East of England, sacking Norwich in 1004 CE, but instead of making concerted attempts at conquest, he appears to have gotten bogged down in battles with the local East Anglians – it seems at this stage he was only interested in the money. The following year, Sweyn withdrew from England, possibly driven out by severe famines which struck most of Europe. However, he was back the following year, and in 1007, he was granted a Danegeld of 36,000 pounds of silver. A temporary peace reigned whilst King Æthelred built a navy with which to dissuade the persistent Vikings – but disaster struck when one of the English nobles mutinied, and took a sizeable part of the fleet with him into piracy. Rather than fighting this new threat, the conflict-averse English court again paid out… Another large Viking force, this time led by the legendary chief of the Jomsvikings named Thorkell the Tall, rampaged across England for three years. They even plundered and burnt Canterbury Cathedral, taking the Archbishop hostage – until they were finally bought off at the enormous price of 48,000 pounds of treasure in 1012 CE.

Thorkell the Tall was a larger-than-life Viking warlord, the subject of numerous sagas, and is a recurring character in the Japanese anime series Vinland Saga. (via IMDB)

Sweyn Forkbeard had kept to his word for the time being – he had not raided England since receiving his Danegeld of five years earlier, but he had carefully watched the fortunes of other Viking incursions. Where once the burhs and ealdormen of England were a formidable deterrent to all but the largest Viking forces, now they had become a prison. The ealdormen cowered in their fortified settlements, whilst they dutifully squeezed the English people dry for their precious metals to hand over to any Viking who came knocking. The King is unpopular and paranoid, and has decreed death to a vast swathe of his subjects. This Kingdom is ripe for the taking, thought Sweyn. And thus, in 1013 CE, Sweyn launched his concerted attempt to take the Kingdom of England: to unite the crowns of Denmark, Norway and England. Sailing with him was his son, named Knut – and it would be he who would complete Sweyn Forkbeard’s lofty ambitions, and forge a North Sea Empire.

The Dominoes Fall

Likely spending his vast sums of Danegeld to outfit his warriors and hire mercenaries, Sweyn knew that he would be most well received in the East and the North of England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates how he made landfall in Kent, but quickly sailed northward, around East Anglia and up the Humber into the Five Boroughs. The Northumbrians and the jarls of the Five Boroughs quickly bowed to him, hailing him as their King without battle: the Danes of the region clearly felt far more loyalty to the Scandinavian King than to King Æthelred, who wanted them all dead. But Sweyn Forkbeard was taking no chances: he took hostages, provisions and horses from all of the northern regions, before striking south with the main part of his army. He received the submission of Oxford, deep into the heartland of the English Kingdom. If he could crack the important trading city of London on the Thames, he would be in an unassailable position, and the rest of the Anglo-Saxon dominoes would fall with barely a sword drawn in anger.

A coin issued by King Ethelred the Unready, depicting him in armor. However, King Ethelred rarely if ever led troops in battle, and fled the throne without fighting a battle. (via University of Cambridge)

But London proved to be a tougher nut to crack: it was held by both King Æthelred, bolstered by the Jomsviking Thorkell the Tall, who had accepted service at King Æthelred’s court. As we have discussed before, taking cities was a tricky art in this era before systematic siege warfare, and Sweyn Forkbeard broke off to the West, pillaging through Wessex and receiving the submission of the Western thegns at Bath. Penned up in London, with the rest of his Kingdom deserting him to this foreign invader, King Æthelred sallied forth in one final heroic defense of the City… Just kidding, this is King Ethelred the Unready we’re talking about here. The Londoners made it plain to King Æthelred that they had no intention of risking the slaughter of the city for him, and so Aethelred snuck out the City at night, and fled into exile to his wife’s homeland of Normandy. Sweyn entered the City of London victorious, King of Norway and Denmark, and now conqueror of England as well.

Sudden Death

If Sweyn had survived long enough to entrench his hold on power, and had passed his North Sea Empire on to his sons, then the whole of English history might well have been different. But it was not to be so simple. Sweyn Forkbeard ruled England for but five brief months. In February 1014 CE, at the age of 50, the legendary Viking King died suddenly. Sources differ as to the manner of his death: some say it was from a short but terrible illness, others have him falling from his horse in a freak accident. But nevertheless, Sweyn Forkbeard never had the chance to secure his North Sea Empire – and his death ended a truly remarkable campaign across the Viking world.

By the 13th century, Sweyn’s sudden and unexplained death had spawned a whole host of supernatural tales, including that he was struck dead by a spear-wielding St. Edmund, the martyred king of Anglo-Saxon East Anglia who had been killed by the Great Heathen Army in the preceding century. Depicted here by Matthew Paris, 13th century. (via Clerk of Oxford)

Sweyn was survived by his two sons, Knut and Harald – Knut was hailed as King in England in his father’s stead, whilst Harald appears to have taken over as King in Denmark, with Norway being lost to other Viking leaders for the time being. Æthelred knew that there would be no better time to dislodge these upstart Vikings from his throne, and so he began plotting his return…

The Conquest before The Conquest

There ends the tale of King Ethelred the Unready, Sweyn and the Danegelds. King Æthelred will return to the throne – but for not much more time than King Sweyn Forkbeard. Within two years, he too will be dead, and the sons of Ethelred and Sweyn Forkbeard – Cnut and Edmund Ironsides – will contend for the throne of England.

Anglo-Saxon England is shattered: not laid low by ruin, raiders or conquest – but torn apart at the seams by dissolute leadership, the shearing forces of the Viking Age, and a series of spectacularly poor political decisions. Indeed, Sweyn Forkbeard’s ‘conquest’ of England featured no major pitched battles, and no successful sieges: merely the total collapse of all opposition. England was not poor, nor was it militarily incapable – but it was led by a political class that had become unable to govern itself. King Æthelred typifies this dissolution: though he was dealt a tough set of international circumstances, with Viking raiders and a hostile Normandy, he was utterly unable to meet those challenges, taking refuge in burning through the considerable resources of the Kingdom in pursuit of buying elusive peace. But King Ethelred the Unready was not yet spent. In our next historical blog, he will re-invade the Kingdom of England to try to reclaim his throne – but he will be fatally hamstrung by the same kinstrife which brought him to the throne. At the same time, Knut will grow into Canute the Great: inheriting his father’s claims, he will masterfully exploit the chaos of Late Anglo-Saxon England, and he will bring his father’s North Sea Empire to fruition.


About Charles J Lockett

Ever since Charles was a lad, he’s been a history obsessive – summer holidays were always spent dragging his family around Welsh castles! He pursued that passion through University, studying Early-Modern Europe and the French Revolutions, receiving his MA in Politics from the University of Sheffield. Nowadays, he is a writer specialising in history and politics, based in Yorkshire, UK. In his spare time, he is a Dungeon Master, aspiring fantasy novelist and cat dad.