Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Danish Conquest: 1000 Years

1013-1014 sees the 1000th anniversary of a successful invasion of England - and not many people seem to have noticed.  The invader was the Danish king Svein Forkbeard, who in the closing days of July 1013 descended on England with a formidable fleet.  Before the year was out, he had forced the English king Æthelred to flee the country, and was acknowledged as king by large parts of England.  Although Svein did not live long to enjoy his victory, his success enabled his son Cnut to repeat the venture a few years later, resulting in a triumphant two-decade reign, during which England was part of a great pan-Scandinavian empire.

This invasion changed the history of England.  If Svein and Cnut hadn't wreaked such chaos in Æthelred's family early in the eleventh century, the kingdom would not have been up for grabs in 1066, when William of Normandy decided to put his oar in - and no Norman conquest means an entirely different England.  But the story of Svein's conquest is interesting for all kinds of other reasons beside this: what it tells us about England's place in Europe (and Scandinavia), about ethnic and cultural identity among the 'Anglo-Saxon' people then and now, and about the north/south divide within England which persists to this day (literally).  The millennial anniversary of this conquest deserves a little more fanfare, and over the next few months I'm going to do my bit to provide some.

In this series of posts I'll reconstruct, as far as possible, the progress of the conquest through the course of the millennial year.  But we can start by asking ourselves why this conquest has been so comprehensively overshadowed by the later one in 1066.  There are lots of reasons, but here are a few of my suggestions.

1) It's less well-documented.  Or more accurately, it's incredibly well-documented but the sources are complex and varied in nature and language, and take some careful reading to interpret.  They range from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a near-contemporary and reliable source, but not an unbiased one) to the Encomium Emmae Reginae (an account written c. 30 years after the Danish conquest, for those who had lived through it, but creative with the facts and filtered through the perception of an author who knew little about England), to skaldic verse (poetry, not narrative, and always tricky to interpret), to histories written in England and Norway in the twelfth century and later (with all the problems which late sources bring).  By contrast, within a few years of the Norman conquest, historians were writing coherent and deceptively straightforward accounts of what had happened (partly in order to justify it); this makes the telling of that story easy in a way the story of the Danish conquest isn't.  We know that the Danes told stories about their conquest, but unlike the Normans they told them to each other - not to posterity.

2) There's no single decisive and memorable date and battle to fix the moment of conquest in the popular memory, as there would be at Hastings in 1066.  The Danish conquest was a long process - even if you fix the beginning in July 1013, you have to take into account the events of the preceding twenty years of Viking raids, and the two centuries of Danish raiding and settlement which preceded that.  There were multiple significant battles between 1014 and 1016, as well as agreements and peace-treaties, and it was not until late in 1016 (probably) that Cnut was widely accepted as king.  You might fix the final decisive battle as that at Assandun, on 18 October 1016 - strangely, almost fifty years to the day before the Battle of Hastings - but we don't even know for sure where Assandun was, so it's difficult to attach much mystique to it.  To my mind it makes the whole thing a more interesting story, a saga of shifting allegiances and extended periods of doubt and uncertainty, but it doesn't compare in the popular mind with the drama of Hastings: a king killed in battle, a kingdom conquered at a stroke.  (The Norman conquest was a long process too, of course, and involved a lot more than victory at Hastings - but it's usually told as the story of a sudden catastrophe.)

3) Related to the last reason - there's no 1016 equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry.  This sounds like a trivial point, but the Bayeux Tapestry is an extraordinary work of art which today holds a place in popular culture unrivalled by any other medieval object - for examples, take a look at this collection of Bayeux Tapestry memes, and here you can see the tapestry reimagined for Star Wars, The Simpsons, Batman, Winnie the Pooh and more.  Its style is immediately recognisable and it has been almost solely responsible for popularising the most famous 'fact' about the Norman conquest, that Harold was killed by an arrow in his eye.  There's no Danish equivalent, though there easily could have been (there's evidence for other Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian narrative tapestries, now lost) - and how awesome would the Vikings look in tapestry form?

Winnie the Pooh meets the Bayeux tapestry, from here

4) The problem of distinguishing between Svein's conquest and the Viking Age that led up it.  Let's say there are (to simplify massively) three kinds of Viking activity in England:

a) raiding
b) settling
c) conquest

c) is a product of a) and b), and correspondingly less easy to understand.  The image of Viking raids is one everyone's familiar with (burning churches, killing monks), and is the first thing which springs to mind at the word 'Viking', whether that's fair or not. The fact that Scandinavians settled in certain parts of England is not as colourful and not quite as entrenched in popular culture, but not totally unfamiliar - especially if you live in northern England, or any part of the former Danelaw, where the Norse influence on language and place-names is pretty widely remembered and celebrated (hurrah!).  But the legacy of that settlement, some 150 years before the conquest of 1013, is not what we're talking about here - although it seems to have made Svein's conquest possible, in a way I'll explore in future posts.  So put all thoughts of Lindisfarne and Alfred the Great and cake-burning out of your head - much had happened between then and 1013 ;)  Contrary to what the myth of Hastings would have us believe, conquest is about more than invasion, and is also something different from the settlement of peoples.  There had been Danish kings in England before - the kings of York, for example - but before Svein and Cnut there had never been a Danish king of the kingdom of England.  And this brings us to our last point.

5) This is perhaps the most important one: I would contend that the Danish conquest is less well-remembered than the Norman conquest because the Danes were a different kind of conquerors - and arguably, better. The conquest itself was violent (on both sides) but after a few years of bloodshed, Cnut became a king both English and Danes could accept. There's no evidence of English rebellion against the Danish conquerors, nor much sign of ethnic tension of the kind we associate with the aftermath of the Norman conquest. Cnut largely ruled England with existing English laws; he was conciliatory towards, and lavishly generous to, the English church; he was advised by English churchmen and promoted a few Englishmen (like Harold Godwineson's father) to be his earls. There was no Danish Domesday Book, no 'counting every cow and pig' in the country - no jettisoning of the English language or widescale destruction of the land. Cnut and his followers enjoyed hearing poems about how they had crushed the English in battle, but in most respects they worked with, not against, the society they had conquered. Now, this relative tranquility came after decades of Viking attacks, so perhaps we shouldn't give the Danes too much credit; but the real achievement of Cnut's conquest was to make the aftermath of conquest seem fairly painless - and thus, less memorable.

As a result of these factors (and others) the Danish conquest has never attracted as much scholarly or popular interest as the Norman conquest. Its effects seem less traumatic, less long-lasting, and less well-recorded; it's not surprising there's been less interest. But there's something else I wonder about, which is the hierarchy of cultural interests in England. Popular culture has always liked the myth of the Vikings more than the truth - it is an attractive myth! Even in academia it's not uncommon to encounter a kind of snobbery towards the Vikings, sometimes from the most sophisticated and subtle scholars of medieval literature. When I'm answering the question 'what do you work on?' and get to the point where I have to explain 'oh, Old Norse, it's the literature of the Vikings' - I more often than not get the puzzled reply 'Did the Vikings have any literature?' (They did.) People will swallow any kind of nonsense about the Vikings - witness this BBC article, which quite soberly repeats the ridiculous idea that Svein Forkbeard's army went around impaling babies on spears. (They didn't.) For many people, Vikings belong to the wild north, where savages delight in bloodshed and worship gods with absurd legends; they might have a certain glamour, but we can't see them as conquerors in the way Normans can be conquerors. We can accept them as settlers in far-off 'desolate' parts of northern England, but not as kings enthroned at Winchester and London. If you wanted to think this has a connection with class snobbery, well, I wouldn't disagree with you.

The fact is that we have only really just managed to persuade the world to accept that the Anglo-Saxons were a complex, sophisticated people with a rich history, culture and literature, rather than a bunch of savages whose chief distinguishing characteristic is that they weren't the Romans (though this view persists); the Danes will have to wait their turn.  It's not one or the other, though.  As I said above, there is much interesting discussion to be had about the Norman conquest, 'its causes and results', and I don't want to make it sound less complex than it was to talk up the Danes; there's only so much you can say in a blogpost.  But there's no question that whatever other effects the Norman conquest had on England, it produced one illusion which has never faded: it made Anglo-Saxon England look like another world.  To the endless irritation of scholars of Old English, 1066 is still treated as a starting-point: the beginning of 'English' history and language.  To take one example of how the Norman conquest cut Anglo-Saxon England off from us decisively: what I wrote recently about jokey suggestions that the royal baby should be named 'Æthelred', as if that were self-evidently absurd and comic, is a direct result of the Norman conquest. Æthelred, and many other Anglo-Saxon names, are alien to us, and the people who bore them seem correspondingly further away, stranger, perhaps more primitive and barbaric. You'd be amazed how many people I talk to about medieval literature just can't get past the strangeness of the names; it's as if they can hardly see people with names like Guthlac and Byrhtnoth and Ælfheah as human beings at all, let alone English ones.  The only Anglo-Saxon names familiar and not-strange are those of kings the Norman conquerors wanted to remember - like Edward - or those rehabilitated by enthusiastic later historians, like Alfred.  A handful of saints make certain names familiar (Cuthbert, Mildred, Oswald, Hilda), although if you hear a sermon or glance at Twitter on the feast-day of a Saxon saint you're as likely to encounter jokes about the saint's name as anything that takes seriously the memory of an actual living person.  In this view of English history, the Danes are with the Saxons - on the other side of the gulf of 1066, all barbarians and foreigners together.

So let's try and bridge the gap, in this millennial year.  Take yourself back exactly 1000 years, to the closing days of July 1013.  Svein and his fleet have sailed from Denmark and are mustering at Sandwich, on the Kent coast.  If you're Æthelred, there's no real way to predict what a fleet like this is going to do - sometimes they raid and go home, but two years previously, in September 1011, a fleet led by the Danish earl Thorkell had sacked and burned the city of Canterbury (which is just inland from Sandwich) and then gone over to the English side.  Æthelred and his supporters had no reason to expect an attempt at invasion - they were perhaps anticipating nothing worse than more raids.

But some people in England knew different.  And so we come at last to what is, for me, one of the most fascinating features of the 1013 invasion: that when Svein came he was welcomed. Not at Sandwich, but a few days later, at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, where the leaders of Northumbria and the East Midlands came to Svein and acknowledged him as king.  Within a few weeks all the country north of Watling Street - the ancient dividing-line between the north and south of England - had broken oaths of loyalty to Æthelred to accept the Danish king as their ruler.  That's roughly half the country - and they did it without any threats of violence, without any harrying, and without a single battle.  In a few days we'll ask ourselves why.

Sandwich harbour (it was bigger when the Danes were there!)

ETA: All the posts in this series (so far) can be found here.


Matthew said...

Thank you for this post! I had lamentably forgotten Svein and was awaiting next year for Cnut to celebrate the 1000th! Clearly I need to review my Anglo-Saxon history. It is important to highlight the gulf we have imposed between ourselves and the Anglo-Saxon past, some of it the accident of history, some of it not. Yet these events of 1000 years ago are interesting of themselves, even if they are not currently 'sexy'.

Thanks also for the Winnie Ille Pu Bayeux Tapestry. Magnificent.

Clerk of Oxford said...

It's wonderful, isn't it? I think my favourite part is Pooh being lured by 'miel'.

Stephen Wigmore said...

I love your passion for the period. It's so hard to find. I can't wait to read the rest of your posts in the series.