the danish devastation of england -- 7/24/17

Today's selection -- from CNUT the Great by Timothy Bolton. From the demise of the Roman Empire to the triumph of William the Conqueror in 1066 CE, the British Isles were the scene of repeated looting and invasion from the Scandinavians. In fact, the English, or Anglo-Saxons, were themselves invaders who had arrived in the fifth century from parts of Saxony, Frisia and Jutland, and seized control over the crumbling remains of post-Roman Britain. The greatest of these invaders were Swen Forkbeard and his son Cnut the Great, who ruled until 1035 CE and was simultaneously king of Denmark, England and Norway, known as the Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire:

"Scandinavian ships and their raiding parties were all too familiar to the inhabitants of England who must have watched Swen and Cnut's fleet appear on the horizon and draw up their longships on the beach at Sandwich. ...

North Sea Empire of Cnut the Great, c.1030

"It is important to note that Swen and Cnut's arrival in 1013 came at the end of some thirty-five years of devastating Scandinavian raids on English territory. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is normally a rather dry account, reading like a sparse bulletin of events, condensing even the most emotive of acts into a few blank words, but here it descends slowly into a deeply impassioned narrative describing the violence of the invaders and the collapse of a society. These events left substantial scars on the memories of the English, and a century later John of Worcester, presumably working from oral accounts, would describe harrowing scenes of violence and the systematic murder of every man the warbands encountered. Confronted with this tide of destruction many of the English seem to have despaired, and turned towards prayer and public appeals to God to rid them of the raiders.

Swein arrives in England in an illustration from the Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund (1434-44).

"The invaders came first in 981, striking Southampton, and this force was followed, until 1001, by numerous small raiding armies that struck at coastal sites or headed inland on raiding campaigns. In 991 a larger raiding party arrived and remained in England until 1005, closely followed by another in 1006-7. Then in 1009 a 'great army' headed by the warlord Thorkell the Tall arrived at Sandwich and appears to have received reinforcements in August of the same year from another immense fleet, apparently under the control of Thorkell's brother and close associate. This force seized the archiepiscopal see of Canterbury and pillaged the southern coast­line, before making a winter camp on the River Thames and seizing provisions from the surrounding Essex countryside. From that site they struck into Oxfordshire and East Anglia in 1010, burning Thetford and Cambridge, before returning to Oxfordshire and proceeding to lay waste the counties of Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, and burning the town of Northampton. At the peak of this orgy of carnage, they took the archbishop of Canterbury prisoner along with many inhabitants of the town. The archbishop was imprisoned for several months, and then executed on 19 April 1012; the other captives were presumably sold into slavery. ...

"Æthelred 'the Unready' had been king of the English since 978, and was a descendant of the West Saxon line of Alfred the Great who had reconquered the various kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England after the viking raids of the ninth century. Despite the unfortunate byname that history gave to him, Æthelred appears to have been a strong and effective ruler, and more ill-counselled (as the Anglo-Saxon unræd means) than not up to the task. However, he was powerless in the face of such large and mobile forces, and had to resort to paying the bulk of the invaders off and hiring the remaining crews of forty-five ships under Thorkell the Tall to stay on as mercenaries in his service. Within months the weaknesses of this arrangement were tested and found wanting, as early in 1013 Swen and Cnut's vast fleet appeared, and the English, broken, beaten and at the end of their tether, capitulated to Swen's seizure of power. ...

"It is crucial to note that Swen's arrival in 1013 was quite different from that of the other Scandinavian raiders, including several earlier attacks in which he appears to have played a part. Here his aim was conquest not raiding. He sought to seize control at the level of central and local government and permanently rule the country, rather than just raise wealth through pillage and ransoms. ... From the English perspective, Swen's Christianity must have set him apart from many previous viking raiders, and may have made him a more palatable figure to accept as an overlord."



Timothy Bolton


Cnut the Great


Yale University Press


Copyright 2017 by Timothy Bolton


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