On 13 November, 1002, Aethelred, King of the new land of England, panicked. After years of renewed Viking raids and religious fanaticism over the advent of the year 1000, he decided that the only way to sole his problems was to order the deaths of all the Danes in his kingdom.
After centuries of Danish colonisation, this amounted to what we would now call genocide, and proved to be one of the many decisions which earned the King his nickname, which more accurately translates as the “ill-advised.”
The 10th century was the high point for Alfred the Great’s heirs. His grandson Athelstan had crushed his enemies as Brunaburh in 937, and then been crowned the first King of a land called England (this name means the land of the Angles, a tribe who had migrated to the British Isles with the Saxons after the fall of the Roman Empire).
The remaining Danish forces in the country were finally brought under the King’s heel in 954, and for the first time since Viking raiders had appeared there seemed to be some hope of peace for the English. This hope proved to be short-lived, however. Under the capable hands of Athelstan and Aethelred’s father Edgar, England prospered and the Vikings stayed away.
The Viking resurgence
But when the new King was crowned in 978 at the age of just fourteen, the hardened raiders across the North Sea sensed opportunity and after 980 they began to launch raids on a scale not seen since Alfred’s day. This constant stream of depressing news was bad enough for Aethelred, but humiliating defeat was far worse, both for his prospects as a monarch and those of his war-weary kingdom.
When a Danish fleet sailed up the Blackwater river in Essex in 991, and then decisively defeated the county’s defenders at the Battle of Maldon, all his worst fears appeared to be coming true as the kingdom tottered under the ferocity of the onslaught.
All the King could do was reach into his treasury, which must have been rich after years of competent Kings, in an outrageous bid to buy the Vikings off. At the cost of crippling sums he managed to purchase a few years of peace, but inadvertently sent out the message that if a hungry warrior raided England then, one way or the other, there would be riches for the taking.
In 997 the inevitable happened and the Danes returned, some from as close as the Isle of Wight where they had settled completely unimpeded. Over the next four years the southern coasts of England were devastated and the English armies powerless whilst Aethelred desperately sought some kind of solution.
Though more tribute, or “Danegeld”, was paid to the invaders, he knew from bitter experience that a more lasting solution would be needed. At the same time, the country was in the grips of “millenarian” fever, as thousands of Christians believed that in the year 1000 (or thereabouts) Christ would return to earth to resume what he had started in Judaea.
Aethelred makes an unwise decision
This fundamentalism, as has always been the case, created strong animosity towards people who were seen as “other,” and even though most Danes were Christian by the 11th century, they were seen as enemies of God and his second coming. Aethelred, presumably backed by his advisory body – the Witan – decided that he could solve both of these problems at once, by ordering his Christian subjects to massacre the Danes.
As some of these “foreigners” had settled as mercenaries and then turned on their employers to join their countrymen, stirring up hatred amongst the beleaguered English was not hard. On 13 November 1002, in what is known as the St Brice’s Day Massacre, the killing of the Danes began.
We cannot know now how extensive this attempted genocide was. The Danish presence in the north-east and around York was still far too strong for an attempted massacre, and so the killings presumably took place elsewhere.
However, we have plenty of evidence that the attacks in other parts of the country claimed many victims, including Gunhilde, sister of the King of Denmark, and her husband the Danish Jarl of Devon.
Furthermore, in 2008 an excavation in St John’s college Oxford revealed the bodies of 34-38 young men of Scandanavian origin who had been stabbed repeatedly and hacked to death, presumably by a frenzied mob. It would be easy to suggest that such killings happened across Aethelred’s kingdom.
The genocide makes things worse
As with the payment of the Danegeld, the consequences of the massacre were predictable. Sweyn Forkbeard, the formidable King of Denmark, would not forget his sister’s murder. In 1003 he launched a ferocious raid on the south of England, and over the next ten years encouraged other Viking warlords to do the same.
Then, in 1013, he returned and did what no other Viking had ever been able to do. He defeated Aethelred, marched into London, and claimed the land to be his own. Sweyn’s son Cnut would finish the job in 1016 and Aethelred’s kingdom became an extension of Denmark’s growing Empire. Thanks in no small part to the St Brice’s Day massacre, the Danes had won.
Though Saxon rule was briefly restored after Cnut’s death, Aethelred’s legacy was a bitter one. The heinous act of genocide had, far from solving his problems, doomed his kingdom. He died in 1016, trapped in London as Cnut’s victorious forces took his country.