Sunday, 14 August 2011

Alphege, the Siege of Canterbury, and a Vikingfest

As I mentioned when I last posted about Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury, back in April, this year and next mark 1000 years since the Viking siege of Canterbury and the archbishop's subsequent murder. I learned today that Canterbury Heritage Museum is planning to commemorate the anniversary of the beginning of the siege in September 1011 with a Viking City Trail and other exciting activities.

As someone who has often nurtured her love of Vikings at the little 'write your name in runes' section of said museum (admittedly, for the first time at the age of 19), this makes me happy. I love the name 'Vikingfest'. And words cannot express how much I want one of those 'Viking certificates'.

(The BBC article where I learned this says there will also be lectures and events at the cathedral, but I can't find any information about that yet.)

The siege of Canterbury is not one of those events which shows the Vikings in a very good light. In my post about Alphege I gave the English version of events from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which laments, with very untypical passion and poetic grief, how the chief city of English Christendom was reduced to pitiable wretchedness by the 1011 siege; of all the blows to English morale in the difficult period of Ethelred's reign, when Viking attacks seemed unstoppable and the official response ineffectual, the siege of Canterbury was one of the very worst. The disaster was capped by the murder of Archbishop Alphege by a mob of drunken Vikings the following year, after he had been kept for seven months in captivity.

This fits very well with the conventional view of Viking brutality, and it is no criticism of the Canterbury commemoration to say that this is the version of events which it seems chiefly to recall. However, there is a Viking version of events too, and it's rather interesting and deserves to be better known.

In 1011, England was under attack from a number of different groups of Vikings, working loosely in alliance with each other but led by different and independent-minded men. Among these were Svein Forkbeard, king of Denmark and ruler of Norway, with his son Cnut; Thorkell 'the Tall', a powerful Danish nobleman; and Olaf Haraldson, who, although a descendant of the kings of Norway with a claim to the Norwegian throne, was at this time a landless young man making his way in the world by plundering the coasts of Denmark and England.

Svein and Thorkell had been raiding on and off in England for the past twenty years; since King Ethelred's policy (ever since the Battle of Maldon) was to pay ever-increasing amounts of Danegeld to buy them off, this was a fairly profitable activity. It is, however, possible that Svein always had ambitions to be king of England (there had been Viking rulers in England before, especially in the north and east, and he may have thought he had just as much right to those areas, which had a substantial population of Danish settlers, as Ethelred of Wessex did). We should also recall that Ethelred had been guilty of his own atrocity against the Danes - what we might today call an act of ethnic cleansing - with the St Brice's Day massacre, in which Svein's own sister and her family may have been killed.

Svein and Cnut don't concern us here, at least for the moment. But at some point in c.1010 Thorkell and Olaf went into partnership together, and raided and fought several battles in East Anglia. The following summer, they laid siege to Canterbury.

From their point of view, this was a triumph. Later, when Olaf Haraldson was king of Norway, his court poets celebrated all the victories he had won in England, Denmark, Sweden and Normandy, and among them praised Olaf for his victory at Canterbury. Here's a verse from a poem named Víkingarvísur, by the court-poet Sigvatr Þórðarson (you can read a little about Sigvatr here, and the Old Norse text is from the skaldic project):

Veitk, at víga mœtir
Vinðum háttr inn átta
- styrkr gekk vǫrðr at virki
verðungar - styr gerði.
Sinn mǫ́ttut bœ banna
borg Kantara - sorgar
mart fekksk prúðum Pǫrtum -
portgreifar Óleifi.

In red is the name 'Canterbury'! Skaldic verse is a horrible thing to translate, but here's my best shot:

I know that the warrior, a terror to the Wends, fought an eighth battle at the stronghold. Mightily advanced the guardian of the warriors! The city-guardians could not defend the town of Canterbury from Olaf. Much sorrow befell the proud Portar [a name for the English, the origin of which is obscure].

A verse about Canterbury also appears in a poem called Hǫfuðlausn by another of Olaf's court-poets, Óttarr svarti (Óttarr the black):

Atgǫngu vant, yngvi,
ætt siklinga mikla,
blíðr hilmir, tókt breiða
borg Kantara of morgin.
Lék við rǫnn af ríki
- rétt, bragna konr, gagni -
(aldar frák at aldri)
eldr ok reykr, (of beldir).


Lord, you made a great onslaught on the race of the kings [i.e. on the English]. Gracious warrior, you took broad Canterbury in the morning! Among the houses fire and smoke played fiercely. I have heard that you destroyed the lives of men; you triumphed there, kinsman of kings!

From the Vikings' point of view, then, the siege of Canterbury was a triumph - and why not? But the murder of Alphege was something very different. The archbishop was held captive at Greenwich by Thorkell's men, but his execution (he was stoned to death with animal-bones and ox-skulls) apparently took place spontaneously, not on Thorkell's orders. If Thorkell did order it, he soon repented; apparently as a result of this, he and Olaf both shortly afterwards went into alliance with King Ethelred, and agreed to help the English king against Svein and Cnut. (Their mutual dislike of Svein probably didn't hurt, but such defections were not unprecedented; twenty years earlier, the Norwegian Viking Olaf Tryggvason - he who was probably the leader of the Vikings at Maldon, no less - had also gone over to Ethelred, converted to Christianity, and been baptised by Alphege himself).

Olaf Haraldson kept his promise not to attack England again; he went back to Norway and won control of the kingdom, only to be killed in battle by his own people in 1030. He was known as a devout Christian king and on his death he, too, was considered a saint and martyr - he's the patron saint of Norway, in fact. So there's one part of the Viking story: the destroyer of Canterbury became a saint!

After Ethelred's death, Thorkell went back into alliance with Cnut, who was by that time king of Denmark and England. And did Cnut, the greatest of all Viking kings, triumph in the Vikings' destruction of Canterbury? He did not. Instead, he arranged for Alphege's body to be taken back from London to Canterbury in 1023, with great honour; and thus, said a later chronicler, "he sought to correct everything wherein either himself or his predecessors had done amiss, that the stain of unrighteousness might be wiped out as well before God as before men".

So there's another bit of the story: it's partly thanks to Cnut that Canterbury can celebrate Alphege at all.

See also:
Anselm and Alphege
Stained Glass of Canterbury

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