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A Viking King of England

11One Thousand years ago this winter, England was a very different place. The year 1013 marks the first eleventh century conquest of England, with the year ending with a Viking, Sweyn Forkbeard, on the throne.

Today, Sweyn Forkbeard is barely remembered, but he was King of England for a few brief weeks. King of Denmark in his own right, Sweyn, along with Olaf Trggvasson of Norway was one of the leading Viking commanders who harried England during the last two decades of the tenth century.

England had been beset by Vikings raiders in the late ninth century, but the first three quarters of the tenth century had been largely peaceful. All this changed in 980, only two years after Ethelred II came to the throne, when a Viking army raided Southampton. This was to prove not to be an isolated incident and, over the next two decades, Ethelred’s kingdom was regularly attacked.

A Viking fleet was a fearsome sight, with one eleventh century description recalling that ‘so great, also, was the ornamentation of the ships, that the eyes of the beholders were dazzled and to those looking from afar they seemed of flame rather than of wood’. According to this source, a life of Ethelred’s wife, Emma of Normandy, ‘so great, in fact, was the magnificence of the fleet, that if its lord had desired to conquer any people, the ships alone would have terrified the enemy, before the warriors whom they carried joined battle at all’. Fleets could be large and intimidating. In 991, for example, ninety-three ships arrived off the coast of England and raided first around Folkestone before travelling on to Sandwich and Ipswich.

Ethelred proved unable to respond to the raiders, attempting instead to buy them off with gold. Payments, such as the £10,000 he gave to the Vikings in 991 ensured that the raiders always returned for more. By 994 it cost Ethelred £16,000 to buy the Vikings off and, by 1006, it had risen to the phenomenal sum of £30,000. Still, the Vikings kept coming.

According to the later chronicler, John of Wallingford, matters came to a head when King Ethelred ordered the murder of all the Danes in England on St Brice’s Day in November 1002. One of the victims was Sweyn’s sister, something which made the Danish king ‘burn’ with ‘revenge’. By 1003 Sweyn and his army were in England, burning Wilton before moving onto Salisbury in order to return to the sea. The following year they came to Norwich ‘and completely ravaged and burned down the town’. In 1011 the Vikings struck a decisive blow with the capture of Aelfheah, Archbishop of Canterbury, whom they carried back to their ships. At Easter the following year he was pelted with cattle bones before being finished off with the butt of an axe.

Matters came to a head in the summer of 1013 when Sweyn again arrived with a fleet at Sandwich, moving northwards into the mouth of the River Humber until he came to Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. Earldorman Uhtred of Northumbria immediately submitted to him, with other more southerly areas soon following suit. Leaving his ships in the care of his teenaged son, Cnut, Sweyn moved his army southwards, intent on conquest. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘they wrought the greatest evil that any raiding-army could do’ as they moved south and it is no surprise that Oxford and then Winchester – the capital city – immediately surrendered.

Although he had captured the old capital of the kingdom of Wessex, Sweyn was still to take the kingdom. He therefore turned eastwards towards London where the king was staying. Unlike the other cities, London refused to submit, with Sweyn suffering a setback when a number of his men were drowned attempting to cross the Thames. Unable to take London, the Vikings moved on to Wallingford and then Bath where they set up camp. While there he received the submission of all the western noblemen and, as he began to move north again towards his ships ‘the whole nation had him as full king’. This was enough to make London finally submit ‘because they were afraid he would do for them’.

Ethelred was with his fleet when he heard the news and took the precaution of sending his wife, Emma, and their young children to Normandy. After a spell on the Isle of Wight where it became plain that everything was hopeless, Ethelred he his wife in her brother’s duchy. He was a king without a kingdom.

Sweyn’s rule as king of England was brief and he died on 2 February 1014, only a few weeks after his conquest. Although his army chose Cnut as the new king, the rest of England chose Ethelred, sending word to him in Normandy that ‘no lord was dearer to them than their natural lord – if he would govern them more justly than he did before’. Unfortunately, Ethelred failed to do so and died, two years later, beset both by the rebellion of his eldest son and under attack from Cnut.

Within a few months of Ethelred’s death in 1016, Cnut was the acknowledged ruler of all England and the new husband of his widow, Emma of Normandy. It was this marriage which paved the way for the return of Ethelred’s heirs to the throne. When Cnut and Emma’s son, King Harthacnut, died childless in 1042, it was his half-brother, Edward the Confessor – the son of Ethelred and Emma – that was chosen to succeed.


Picture Credit: A ninth century Viking ship from Gokstad, Norway (author’s own image)

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