Viking Raids on Britain in the Early Eleventh Century
A saga of brutality and treachery
Life was hard in Britain during the Middle Ages. Terrible weather, terrible neighbors, terrible times. The status quo was that of frequent chaos: Vikings raided yearly, and Englishmen died in winter and war. The latter succumbed to the persistent assaults, and the former took the north and east quarters of England, where they settled and established the Danelaw. The English raised taxes and used the gathered tribute to pay off the Vikings. Yet even with this tenuous peace, the raiders still harassed the English whenever the tribute ran out. This frustrated the English.
This led to the massacre on St. Brice’s Day.
On November 13, 1002, the ill-advised Æthelred, king of England, ordered the extermination of all Danes living on Britain. Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark and overlord of Norway and Sweden, mourned for his sister Gunhilde, who was murdered, together with her husband and son, in the atrocity.
Æthelred’s decree further increased Viking animosity toward England, and in 1003, Sweyn launched a punitive campaign against England to avenge the Danish dead. The Viking raids intensified, razing became widespread, and looting and plundering became more savage. The reaving paused in 1005 as a dire famine struck England, forcing Sweyn to return to Denmark. It seemed the famine was a blessing to the English.
A New Wave of Raids
But in 1009, Thorkell the Tall led the Jomsvikings, a semilegendary mercenary group, to England, where they raided for four years, further devastating the land. Historical sources conflict on whether they were commissioned by Sweyn or were independent. Regardless, the English nobility’s failure to repel the raiders disheartened the realm. When Æthelred managed to accumulate enough wealth to buy the mercenaries’ loyalty in 1012, it proved futile as King Sweyn returned to England in 1013, bringing to bear the entire strength of his forces, intent on a full-scale invasion. The saga was reaching its climax.
Success came swift. Sweyn was a formidable general and a man driven with England’s conquest. All of England was weary from decades of misery, and after seeing the Vikings crush their meager resistance, surrendered to Sweyn. Æthelred went into exile in Normandy, while Sweyn took the throne of England. The invasion took less than a year.
Yet it was not over, for Sweyn passed away after only five weeks in rule. His holdings in Scandinavia went to his elder son Harald, while his younger son Cnut—who would later be given the epithet “the Great”—got elected by the Vikings as king of England. The English, belittling Cnut, reinstated Æthelred as their king. Cnut withdrew to Denmark, where he assembled an army to retake England.
In 1016, Cnut sailed to reconquer England. By this time, Æthelred fell ill and died. His son Edmund took leadership of England and clashed with Cnut on the battle of Assandun. Though Edmund was a valiant warrior—his moniker was “Ironside”—in contrast to his father, Cnut proved greater and defeated the English. Edmund suffered mortal wounds and died later that year, leaving Cnut the undisputed ruler of England.
The North Sea Empire
With the death of Harald in 1018, Cnut inherited the kingships of Denmark and Norway and, together with England, unified them into the North Sea Empire. And so it ends—a saga sung by swords.