Monday 5 August 2013

The Danish Conquest, 1000 Years: Part 2

First of all, welcome to the readers who came to my previous post on the Danish conquest via Reddit!  It's absolutely wonderful to know so many people are interested in this underrated bit of history.  And a huge thank-you to the reader, whoever you are, who put the post on Reddit in the first place - your efforts in Project 'Publicise the 1000th Anniversary of the Danish Conquest' are much appreciated!

(I need a snappier name for the project, though).

Svein invading England, from the 13th-century MS Cambridge University Library, Ee 3 59, fol. 4r (via wikipedia)

So, after Svein Forkbeard and his fleet had gathered at Sandwich, on the tip of the Kent coast, what happened next?  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us:

[O]n þissum ilcan geare toforan þæm monðe Augustus com Swegen cyning mid his flotan to Sandwic, 7 wende swyðe hraðe abutan Eastenglum into Humbra muþan, 7 swa upweard andlang Trentan oð he com to Gæignesburh, 7 þa sona beah Uhtred eorl 7 ealle norðhymbre to him, 7 eall þæt folc on Lindesige, 7 siþþan þæt folc into Fifburgum, 7 raþe ðæs eall here benorðan Wætlingan stræte, 7 him man sealde gislas of ælcere scire. Syþþan he undergeat þæt eall folc him to gebogen wæs, þa bed he þæt mon sceolde his here mettian 7 horsian, 7 he þa wende syþþan suðweard mid fulre fyrde, 7 betæhte þa scypu þa Cnute his suna, 7 syþþan he com ofer Wætlinga stræte worhton þæt mæste yfel þæt ænig here don mihte. Wenda þa to Oxenaforde, 7 seo buruhwaru sona beah 7 gislude, 7 þanon to Winceastre, 7 hy þæt ylce dydon.

'In the same year, before the month of August, King Svein came with his fleet to Sandwich, and swiftly turned around East Anglia into the mouth of the Humber, and from there up along the Trent, until he came to Gainsborough. Then Earl Uhtred and all the Northumbrians at once submitted to him, and all the people in Lindsey, and after that the people of the Five Boroughs, and very soon all the army north of Watling Street; and he was given hostages from every shire.  When he saw that all the people had submitted to him, he commanded that his army should be supplied and given horses, and then he turned south with his whole army, entrusting the ships to Cnut his son.  After they crossed Watling Street they did as much harm as any army could do.  Then they turned to Oxford, and the citizens quickly submitted and gave hostages, and from there to Winchester, where they did the same.'

We'll stop at that point, before the Danes get to London, so we can focus on the really extraordinary things this entry tells us.  The first thing to note is the speed with which all this happened: the Chronicle emphasises this several times, and it suggests an invasion which was premeditated and carefully planned. The whole period from arrival to the submission of Winchester may have taken not much more than two months - that would take us to the end of September.  But the initial submission (what one historian calls 'the Gainsborough Accord') took place almost at once, and may well have been pre-arranged via messengers travelling between Denmark and England.  It's difficult to imagine Svein coming all the way down the Trent to Gainsborough without being sure he would meet no opposition; that's a long way inland if your enemies decide to cut off your escape to the sea!

Historians have various theories on why the leaders of the north joined forces with Svein so quickly. What's clear is that they weren't under duress - Svein wasn't raiding or harrying in their lands. They may not have had the forces to resist him, but the swiftness of their submission - just a matter of days - suggests they didn't try to.  Why would these men be so ready to join Svein? The most likely reason is dissatisfaction with King Æthelred and his favourite advisors, such as the notorious Eadric Streona.  These were the people doing the bad advising which earned Æthelred his nickname 'Unready' (or 'Bad Advice Æthelred', as I like to think of him).  Æthelred had done a number of things to lose the trust and support of his ealdormen: the biggest was failing to prevent or respond to Viking attacks in any effective way, but equally damaging was his collaboration in violence against his own men, apparently allowing Eadric to pursue personal feuds with the backing of the king.  The most shocking of these had occurred seven years earlier, in 1006, when the king permitted or ordered (the whole thing is a bit of a mystery) a full-out assault on one of the most powerful families in England.  Ælfhelm, ealdorman of Northumbria, was killed and his two sons were blinded - and it was the surviving members of this family who in 1013 made an agreement with Svein.

They did so in a particularly interesting way.  It's not mentioned in the Chronicle, but shortly after Svein's arrival a marriage took place between his son Cnut and Ælfgifu of Northampton - daughter of the ealdorman Ælfhelm who had been murdered in 1006.  Since Ælfgifu's father was dead the marriage was probably arranged by her kinsmen Sigeferth and Morcar, two brothers who are not named in the Chronicle entry but who held authority in the Five Boroughs and probably arranged the submission of that region to the Danes.  Presumably this marriage too had been planned in advance of Svein's coming, and in this way Svein married his son into the family of one of his most useful allies.  This, more than anything, says to me 'the Danes had come to stay'; smash-and-grab Vikings do not arrange diplomatic marriages.  It also tends to argue against the possibility (suggested by some historians) that the 'northern rebels' were only using Svein and his fleet, to frighten or control Æthelred, and never intended to set Svein up as king.  Well, maybe that was their plan, but if so it wasn't a very sensible one - once you've welcomed a foreign king into the country, and got him to marry his son into an English family (providing a ready-made heir with strong English connections), he's not very likely to just sail off again when you're finished with him.  As, indeed, he did not.

After this mutually beneficial marriage young Cnut - who appears in history for the first time at this point, aged probably somewhere between 15 and 20 - was left behind in Lincolnshire with his new wife and the Danish ships to look after, while his father marched the army south.  Their route took them from Gainsborough to Lincoln, which seems to have become the army's administrative headquarters; then down Ermine Street towards Peterborough, and then into Northamptonshire, where they crossed Watling Street, probably near Towcester. I've made a rough-and-ready Google Map to show these places, for those of you who don't have English geography at your finger-tips!  The line running north to south shows Svein's probable route; the line running west to east is an approximation of Watling Street.  (I've based this on the route outlined in an excellent book called Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991-1017, by Ian Howard (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2003).)

Watling Street - a cross-country roadway known to the Saxons as a paved Roman road, though in fact a track older than the Romans - is a hugely important psychological border in the Danish invasion.  In the days of Alfred the Great this border was set as the boundary between English and Danish-controlled land, as part of the agreement Alfred made at Wedmore in 878.  The Danish army who had been Alfred's opponents settled north and east of Watling Street - 'they began to plough and support themselves', as the Chronicle has it.  In many ways they integrated quickly with their English neighbours, but it seems the mixed Anglo-Danish heritage of these areas remained part of their local history and sense of identity, as their surviving legends reveal.  Many of the men who came to meet Svein in 1013 might have had Danish ancestry, a few generations back, and they probably knew that Danes had controlled parts of northern England before.  If you'd asked them, they probably could have told you a story or two about the legendary sons of the Danish Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, Ivar the Boneless and his fearsome brothers, who conquered York with a raven banner fluttering above their army and put the English kings to flight.  (Cnut's army would later say that he, too, had a raven banner which predicted victory in battle, and his poets would compare him to Ivar as a scourge of English kings).  Whatever Uhtred, Sigeferth and Morcar were hoping to achieve by submitting to Svein, there may have been some inhabitants of the former Danelaw who hoped Svein could do what those Danish kings had done - or, as it turned out, go one better.

These people don't get a voice in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which instead tells us that the Danes "did as much harm as any army could do" - but note that they only did this after they crossed Watling Street, that is, once they had crossed out of their allies' lands.  This suggests they had not been harrying the Midlands into submission as they went.  Once they got into Oxfordshire and further south, it was a different story; no wonder the citizens of Oxford and Winchester (and probably one or two other places on the route, unmentioned by the Chronicle) gave in so quickly.  They clearly didn't think they could resist by themselves, and they weren't expecting any English army to come and help them.

We can finish with something which nicely illustrates some of the points I was making in my previous post on the conquest.  I was just perusing the website of the Jorvik Viking Centre in York (as one does) and came across this characterisation of Svein Forkbeard:

The son of King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark, Sweyn began his reign after killing his father. In 993 he began a series of raids to England, forcing King Ethelred ‘the Unready’ to pay off the Viking plunderers with 16,000 pounds of silver in Danegeld. Sweyn added Norway to his territories in the year 1000, overthrowing King Olaf at the Battle of Svolder. He continued devastating raids in the south of England in retaliation for the massacre of Danes by Ethelred on St Brice’s Day in 1002. Finally, in 1013, Ethelred fled into exile and Sweyn was acclaimed king by his terrorised English subjects, only to die suddenly a year later.
Leaving aside the fact that Svein did not exactly kill his father, what bothered me about this description is the 'terrorised English subjects'.  How many of the English people we've discussed in this post seem to you like they might have been terrorised into accepting Svein as king?  The citizens of Oxford and Winchester, certainly (though Oxford suffered hardly more from the Danes than from Æthelred's St Brice's Day massacre) - but all of those people in the list given by the Chronicle, from Uhtred and the Northumbrians to the inhabitants of Lindsey and the Five Boroughs, were not being terrorised; these were desperate times, but they turned to Svein of their own free will.  Ælfgifu of Northampton wasn't carried off as a helpless captive of war; her family strategically married her to a young prince whose father was winning him a kingdom to rule, and it proved a smart decision (Cnut later made her ruler of Norway, not a bad career move for an English girl from the Midlands...).  Now, we don't rely on the heritage industry to tell our historical stories accurately, only entertainingly - and just as well! - but this illustrates how easy it is to tell any story in which Vikings are involved as one of violence and brute force.  The story of Svein's invasion did eventually involve battles and bloodshed - but the success of the conquest we're considering, which brought Svein to be ruler of all the region north of Watling Street and a big chunk of the south of England, was achieved more than anything by Danish diplomacy.


Anonymous said...

Nice commentary. For a detailed analysis of Svein Forkbeard take a look at "Svein Forkbeard's Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England 991 - 1017" by Howard Ian.

As an aside, for a future discussion you may wish to visit this website:

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you. Howard's is indeed an excellent book - I actually cited it in the blogpost.

Caecilia Dance said...

Thank you for your posts on this - they're really interesting, and also very helpful from my point of view, as one of my Finals papers is on early medieval British history. Unfortunately, the relative obscurity of the Danish Conquest seems to be reflected in university teaching. Last year I ended up writing essays on the Danelaw and the Norman Conquest among other things, but never really got round to the Danish Conquest.

It's fascinating how the Norman Conquest has obtained such a strong hold over the popular imagination since. I imagine that it has something to do with the fact that it was ostensibly the 'last invasion' of England, whereas many people tend to dismiss the Danish Conquest as just a brief interlude before, as you say, the 'real' beginning of English history.

One point you made in your first post on this topic particularly intrigues me; you argue that the Norman Conquest effectively 'cut us off' from Anglo-Saxon history. I had an interesting discussion about this last year with one of my tutors, where I speculated that the popular perception of the 'inferiority' of Saxon art, architecture and culture (as opposed to the Normans, who brought in 'European' culture, stone buildings, etc) would be very different were it not for the Norman Conquest. I would be interested to see how Anglo-Saxon culture might have developed if left to itself.

Finally, I wasn't planning to post this yet, but your recent posts inspired me to do so - Thackeray's/Miss Tickletoby's unique take on the Danish Conquest, featuring poetry from the suspiciously shadowy bard named 'Snoro', and many wonderful anachronisms:

Clerk of Oxford said...

Excellent - I've been enjoying your posts on Miss Tickletoby very much! I was hoping she would cover the Danish Conquest too.

It's so interesting to think about how Anglo-Saxon England would have developed without the Norman Conquest - I'm sure there would be have been an increasing 'Europeanisation' over time, but to speculate what might have happened without that sudden stigmatisation of the Anglo-Saxon past is endlessly fascinating. Literature and the language, not to mention the physical appearance of the country, would all be very different.

Unknown said...

I'm coming 2 years late to your wonderful posts about Swein's conquest of England. As it happens, I'm writing about these events just now as I pen my 3rd novel about Emma of Normandy. One character who is a big puzzle for me is Uhtred. He was married to Aethelred's daughter; in De Obsessione Dunelmi we're informed that he refused to aid Cnut against Aethelred; he allied with Edmund against Cnut; and he was murdered with, apparently, Cnut's acquiescence. So I have to wonder if his submission to Swein in 1013 was under some kind of duress, and that the Danes never really saw him as an ally. I have a theory about it -- from the mind of a novelist, not a historian. I can't help wondering if Uhtred was somehow convinced (even lied to) that when Swein landed at Gainsborough, Thorkell, who was allied with Aethelred at the time, would abandon the king and join the northern alliance; that Uhtred believed resistance was futile. I'm fascinated by all of this, and extremely glad that I didn't live in England in the 11th century.