Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Two hours in Gainsborough.

Today I concluded my year in Sweyn's footsteps with a fleeting visit to Gainsborough, the Lincolnshire town in which he is supposed to have ended his days in early February 1014. Even though it was clear to me from the outset that there would be little of Sweyn's Gainsborough to see, at least in the course of so short a visit, I made the journey by car and, taking a recent BBC website article (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lincolnshire-25341754) as my guide, set out to have a quick look at the town on foot. The weather was poor and time was limited, but I managed to get a small number of shots which I share with you here.

Gainsborough Old Hall

The main attraction in town is the late-medieval Old Hall, which is supposed to stand on the site of earlier structures, one of which might have been the eleventh-century fortified dwelling of Sweyn. I know nothing about the archaeology of this site (or indeed anything of the evidence for the layout of pre-Conquest Gainsborough), but would be interested to find out more.

View of Castle Hills from Richmond Park

Also mentioned in the article are Gainsborough's Castle Hills, which can be glimpsed from Richmond Park, a kilometre north of the town centre, and an essential stop for the youngest member of my party, who needed to stretch his legs after being confined in his car seat and pushchair for longer than he would have liked, and was showing signs of transforming into Sweyn Forkbaby.

I'd heard of Gainsborough's Sweyn Forkbeard pub, but I wasn't aware of the Canute just three doors up. These two establishments are the public face of Viking Gainsborough: there is currently little provision for tourist information in the town, which seems to be a sideline of the council offices' counter services. A cursory look inside the council building revealed nothing of relevance. One of the central themes of the BBC website article is a call for better and more visible interpretation of Gainsborough's Viking heritage, an impulse that I would support. The names of the pubs reflect and sustain awareness at a local level of the town's link with the Viking past: it would be interesting to canvass locals on their knowledge of their town's Viking heritage, and to draw comparisons with the situation in York, where the Viking age has been so firmly embedded in the city's sense of itself for the last 30 years.

Why not stop for a drink at the Canute...

...or even at the Forkbeard? If there was a Bluetooth pub in town, I didn't see it

Detail of the pub sign at the Sweyn Forkbeard

Like many provincial market towns in 2013, Gainsborough felt a little bit down-at-heel; I left with the impression that it could exploit its heritage assets better, and that the Forkbeard anniversary should have offered an opportunity for the town to draw in visitors, or at least to cater in some small way for those arrivals who come to celebrate the town's starring role in English history exactly one thousand years ago.

View of the River Trent, looking downstream, near Gainsborough Old Hall

Monday, 23 December 2013

Odds and ends

As the traditional anniversary date (Christmas day) for Sweyn's accession to the English throne approaches, it seems right to round up the few stray references to the man that have entered the public domain (and my consciousness) in the last six months.

I've already made reference to the events of the Illuminating York festival, in which the story of Sweyn, his father and his son provided the inspiration for the light and sound display at Clifford's Tower. The background to the project and the artists' thoughts on the source material are to be found here: http://karenmonid.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Triquetra

The generally disreputable Sweyn was cast in a more positive light in the JORVIK Viking Centre's summer exhibition, Heroes, which told the stories of some of the big personalities of the Viking period. Although Sweyn's credentials as a hero are questionable, we should consider his company within the exhibition: Harald Hardrada and Erik Bloodaxe, who also featured, are scarcely more heroic in any conventional sense of the word.

The Sweyn Forkbeard panel in the Heroes exhibition

Friday, 8 November 2013

Sweyn burns Thetford. Twice.

On 10th April 2013, the first warm and sunny day of the year, work took me to Suffolk. Taking advantage of this visit to an unfamiliar part of the Danelaw, I decided to stop at a Sweyn-specific site on the way home. As my route took me within a few miles of Thetford, I made a small diversion to visit this market town in the Breckland district of Norfolk.

The Viking Great Heathen Army had its winter camp in Thetford in 869-70, when it fought with the army of King Edmund of East Anglia; his martyrdom at their hands has special significance in medieval accounts of Sweyn's death a century and a half later.

Mighty Iron Age earthworks that would have been seen by the Vikings survive just outside the town centre, adjoining parkland and a children's play area. A huge Conquest-era mound, the tallest Norman earthwork in Britain, looms above them. At 80 feet it's quite a climb; scrambling to the top didn't pose me with too much trouble, but getting back down in work shoes was a bit of a challenge.

The town, one of the most substantial in early medieval England, has a heritage trail for tourists wishing to see its many historic sites. I've no idea how much tourist traffic Thetford sees in the high season; my impression as a first-time visitor was of a quiet and unpretentious little town set back from the main tourist routes to the coast and the Norfolk Broads, but with some outstanding features.

Sweyn's connection with Thetford belongs to the very darkest days of Ethelred's reign, when the Danes seem to have ranged and plundered at will throughout the southern half of England. In 1004 at Thetford, however, Sweyn seems to have only narrowly avoided coming unstuck. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell how Ulfcytel, Ealdorman of the East Angles, had concluded a truce with Sweyn after the latter had sacked Norwich, paying the Vikings off in an attempt to forestall the worst excesses of a full-blown rampage through the region. The truce was promptly broken, however, and the Vikings took Thetford, where they remained for a night and set the town alight. Understandably piqued at this display of bad faith, Ulfcytel ordered his men to attack the Viking fleet and to break the boats to pieces. The fleet escaped damage, so Ulfcytel summoned an army to block the Danes' escape. An encounter took place as the Vikings left Thetford, as the Chronicles record.

'much slaughter was made on both sides. There were many of the veterans of the East-Angles slain; but, if the main army had been there, the enemy had never returned to their ships. As they said themselves, that they never met with worse hand-play in England than Ulfkytel brought them.'

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Everyman Press, London, 1912), accessed here: http://omacl.org/Anglo/

There doesn't seem to be a consensus as to precisely where the battle took place in 1004, but Thetford again found itself in Danish hands in 1010. There can be no clearer statement of East Anglia's complete detachment from the old Danelaw than the Danes' treatment of Thetford (in contrast with the more restrained behaviour of Sweyn and his countrymen in north-east England, and in particular York and its vicinity, where Viking sympathies were still strong). Ulfcytel once more issued forth to meet them, but the Danes seem to have carried the day on this occasion, at the Battle of Ringmere, remembered in a poem by Sighvat the Skald (a Viking-era storyteller / poet) as having taken place 'in Ulfcytel's land'.

In looking more closely at the two Thetford incidents, it has occurred to me that I have failed to draw an important distinction in my previous blog entries on the events of 1010. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles strongly imply that the Danish army behind all of the mischief in England in 1009-12 was 'Thorkell's army', that is an army with the Viking leader Thorkell the Tall at its head. Thorkell later allied himself with King Ethelred against Sweyn, so the extent to which the actions of his army were directed by Sweyn and the level of Sweyn's personal involvement in events in England in this four-year period are both open to question, and will be looked at in a future blog post. 

Ground-level view of Thetford's massive castle mound, with an Iron Age double rampart in the foreground

View of the Iron Age earthworks from the top of the castle mound

Detail of a timeline on one of the smart-looking interpretation panels in the Thetford Heritage Trail

Detail of a Thetford Heritage Trail panel: unusually, the date given here for the beginning of Sweyn's career as King of England is 1012

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Sweyn Forkbeard Comes to York Minster. Part 2.

I return to this blog after a long hiatus: over the summer months I was involved in a short research project to investigate a fourteenth-century manuscript, so any spare time was devoted to this, with Viking matters put firmly on hold!

As promised, however, here at last is the image of Nathan as Sweyn Forkbeard, enthroned in his warrior finery at York Minster for a special event during the 2013 JORVIK Viking Festival.  A highlights brochure for the 2014 Festival is already available, and a preliminary web listing has been posted here: http://jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk/event/30th-jorvik-viking-festival/ , with more details to follow soon.

Nathan Wade as Sweyn Forkbeard (image copyright York Archaeological Trust)

York Minster will feature in the city's annual Illuminating York festival (30th October - 2nd November) too, which this year will be on a Viking theme. Visitors to the website (http://illuminatingyork.org.uk/) will notice that Sweyn gets a couple of mentions, and that he will feature prominently in the light projections at Clifford's Tower. 

I've been giving some thought to historical connections between Sweyn and York Minster: there is a tradition (mentioned in various places on the web, and repeated in no less a source than the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) that he was first buried at York Minster, with his remains transferred to Roskilde shortly thereafter. One source for this seems to be the chronicle of the German bishop Thietmar of Merseburg (d. 1018), who as a close contemporary of Sweyn has an interesting take on the Forkbeard years.

The portion relating to the moments after Sweyn's death runs as follows:

Quod cum Aethelrad, rex Anglorum, multo tempore ab eodem fugatus, pro certo comperiret, gratias agens Deo patriam letus revisit et collectis in unum cunctis militibus suis corpus inimicum exterminare conatur. Et ut hoc non fieret, quaedam matrona prius per familiares suos ammonita servatum pignus a terra elevans, etsi indigena, tamen ad patrias navigio direxerat arctos, id est septemtrionalem plagam; quae hoc nomen ab arcturis duabus, hoc est ab ursis minoribus atque maioribus sortitur, quas serpens unus, ut astrologi asserunt, circumdat et dividit.

When King Ethelred of the English, who had fled from him for so long, heard that this [i.e. Sweyn's death] was certain, giving thanks to God he joyfully returned to his country, and having gathered together all of his soldiers sought to destroy the body of his enemy. So that this would not happen, a certain woman, although herself a native, forewarned by her household, saved his remains and raised them from the ground, and sent them to home to the Arctic, which is to say to the north, which takes its name from the two Arctic stars, namely Ursa Minor and Major, which are encircled and divided by a snake, as astrologers tell us. (My translation.)

Image from the digital version of the 1905 facsimile of the manuscript of Thietmar's Chronicle (available here: http://www.mgh-bibliothek.de/digilib/thietmar.html ). The portion quoted begins at line 7.

After mentioning Sweyn's death, which is generally supposed to have taken place at Gainsborough, Thietmar's text gives ibidem sepelitur, i.e. 'he was buried in the same place'. Rather than referring specifically to Gainsborough, however, this is probably a more general allusion to a grave somewhere in his erstwhile kingdom. Thietmar stops short of identifying York Minster as the place, but York is pinpointed by Simeon of Durham and Geffrei Gaimar, both of whom wrote in the first half of the twelfth century. Gaimar adds that ten years or more elapsed before Sweyn's body was moved, and that it was then taken for burial to Norway.

No monuments to Forkbeard survive at either York Minster (which nevertheless has a substantial collection of Viking-era grave covers) or at Roskilde Cathedral, a stately gothic pile in brick that replaces an earlier church built by Forkbeard's father, Harald Bluetooth. The Forkbeard and Bluetooth connection is celebrated on the Roskilde Cathedral website (http://www.visitroskilde.com/ln-int/denmark/roskilde-cathedral---world-heritage-gdk619579), and it would be interesting to know more about how this aspect of the cathedral's past is interpreted for twenty-first century visitors. If any readers have visited, please do post a comment to let me know!

Monday, 29 April 2013

In the Footsteps of Forkbeard. Part 1.

I began writing this blog after a visit to Holy Trinity Church in Eccleshall, Staffordshire, at the beginning of the year. I had been prompted to visit by the advent of the 1000-year anniversary of Sweyn's accession to the English throne, and by my recollection of a link between Sweyn and Eccleshall. I was unable to remember the source that established this link in my mind: ten years had passed since my last visit, and I could find amongst my papers no copy of a church guide or any other text that might have set up this connection in my mind. My copy of A Guide to some Staffordshire Churches, ed. by D. J. Simkin (1983), in its entry for Eccleshall refers to a time 'after the Danish raids of 1010', when 'the ancient church lay in ruins', but this is the most explicit reference to Eccleshall in connection with Forkbeard's raids that I have been able to find within my own book collection. My intention in visiting the church again was to find out if anything had changed in the intervening decade: was the alleged raid of 1010 commemorated in the church in any way?

The current church was built long after Sweyn's time, but preserves within its fabric three fragments of Anglo-Saxon stonework, re-used as building material by later masons. All three carved stones were probably once part of cross-shaped monuments. Two of these are very worn, but the third retains enough detail for us to make out three separate subjects: from top to bottom, we see part of an interlace design, a mounted figure with upturned face carrying a spear, and another human figure holding a cross, also looking upwards. These pieces probably predate the year of the raid, and it is tempting to see them as the shattered remains of a church plundered by Vikings. If Sweyn was indeed here in 1010, these monuments (which belong to a type variously identified as grave markers or preaching crosses, and which originally would have been brightly painted) might have greeted him on his approach to the churchyard. Perhaps their Christian message so offended his pagan eye that he ordered them pulled down as he departed.

Fragment of Anglo-Saxon sculpture, Holy Trinity, Eccleshall

The presence of fragmentary Anglo-Saxon sculpture in a church, however, does not necessarily corroborate a narrative of Viking destruction. Although guidebooks and other sources often make passing reference to Viking attacks when discussing Anglo-Saxon sculptural treasures to be found embedded in the church walls (presumably salvaged from the ashes of an earlier building demolished by heathen raiders), the recycling of earlier monumental stonework by the builders of medieval churches was not at all uncommon, and the practice seems to have taken place even at those locations where pre-existing structures and their sculptural fittings almost certainly did not come to a violent end, in the course of a Viking raid or some other catastrophe. Sometimes this reuse was casual, with the stone used because it happened to be the right size and shape to plug a gap; sometimes the stone was set into its new context in such a way as to draw attention to the designs on the side left exposed. Either way, the stone had outlived its original function, and found itself called into service as a building block.

Holy Trinity, as it turns out, does not currently celebrate or commemorate the events of 1010, and I am beginning to form the opinion that the basis for doing so would be very slight indeed. Although the Eccleshall / Sweyn connection remains tenuous, the opportunity to see and photograph the Anglo-Saxon sculpture at Holy Trinity set me thinking about the other visible, material remains of Sweyn's time in the British Isles. Of all the things that Sweyn would have seen around him in his travels through Britain, the stonework of the period has proved the most durable. It is also the most accessible for anyone wanting to get close-up to a relic of the Viking era. I decided to review the various photographs of Viking-era (and earlier) stonework that I had snapped on my iphone over the preceding twelve months, in an attempt to evoke the material culture of Sweyn's time, and to give a flavour of the sorts of images and iconography that he would have seen all about him. 

Hogback stone, Govan Old Parish Church

There can be few places in Britain better suited to evoking the visual riches of a Viking capital than Govan Old Parish Church in the suburbs of Glasgow. I have been lucky enough to visit on a couple of occasions in the last 18 months, as York Archaeological Trust staff contribute to an ongoing effort to reinterpret and redisplay the church's fabulous collection of Viking-era sculpture for the benefit of a wider audience. For anyone with an interest in the Viking period, the Govan stones are a must-see. The thirty individual pieces, thought to have been carved in the tenth and eleventh centuries, adorned the churchyard of the principal religious house of the kingdom of Strathclyde; many were probably grave markers, designed to cover the graves of the rulers of the kingdom. The former capital of the kingdom, the fortress at Dumbarton Rock, had fallen to a Viking army in 870; re-established at Govan, the capital seems to have had a distinctly Viking flavour, as is best exemplified by the stones, including five massive 'hogbacks'. These longhouse-shaped grave markers, gripped at either end by a ferocious beast of some kind (in other examples these animals are clearly bears), only use conventional Christian iconography in that they may have been inspired by building-shaped reliquaries (shrines for holding saints' relics): they are otherwise found almost exclusively in those places where Viking settlement took place, in all probability at a time when full conversion to Christianity was still a work in progress.

Barbara E. Crawford of the University of St Andrews had the following to say in a conference paper delivered at Perth in 2002 (the full text is available here: http://www.tafac.org.uk/crawford.pdf): 

Very few raids against Scotland are recorded from the Second Viking Age. Maybe there was enough to occupy the raiders in England. Maybe there was not enough wealth in the form of silver coin to attract them to Scotland! Maybe Swein had some convenient mutual arrangement with one of the kings in the north, for the German chronicler, Adam of Bremen, records in the later eleventh century that Swein had taken refuge with a ‘king of Scots’ after his father died in 986. Whatever the reason, Scotland/Alba appears to have been immune from the threat of Danish attack in the second Viking Age. 

This account of Sweyn's sojourn(s) with a friendly king in Scotland may be reason enough for us to imagine him at the royal court of Strathclyde, in the surroundings suggested by the Govan stones. More on the collection of stonework at Govan can be found here: http://www.thegovanstones.org.uk . Tim Clarkson's excellent blogs are also worth a look, here: http://earlymedievalgovan.wordpress.com/ ; and here: http://senchus.wordpress.com/ .

I am fortunate enough to have more of this stonework on my doorstep in York, including pieces that share obvious stylistic similarities with grave slabs at Govan. I've been able to snap many of these pieces in the course of my everyday business in the city, and have reproduced below a couple of examples from my iphone's picture gallery.

Grave slab from St Mary Bishophill Senior, now at St Clement's, York

This grave slab from the demolished church of St Mary Bishophill Senior is now found in St Clement's church. It shares obvious parallels with the grave slabs from Govan, all of which conform to a particular design, with a central cross dividing the upper face into four panels, each filled with interlace. St Mary Bishophill Senior stood on the south bank of the River Ouse, at a site which may have once been the seat of the earliest bishops of York. The presence of a grave slab of this kind suggests the burial there of high-ranking individuals, either churchmen or noblemen or women.

Another example from York is found in the church of All Saints, Pavement, and is pictured below. Small enough to have once covered the grave of a child, here the interlace designs are formed by the sinuous and knotted bodies of the dragon-like creatures so favoured by Viking-era carvers in stone, instead of the more abstract patterns seen at Govan and St Mary Bishophill Senior. Look closely and you'll be able to see several of the creatures; they have gaping mouths, and some have wings and projecting tongues. The Christian content of the imagery on display here is not obvious: the central 'cross' (now damaged) lacks arms, and may never have had any.

Grave slab, All Saints Pavement, York

Although not necessarily datable to Sweyn's lifetime, these pieces of stonework remind us of the richness of the visual culture of Sweyn's Britain, and express something of the beliefs of his contemporaries and immediate ancestors. They hint at a degree of ambiguity in attitudes towards conversion and Christianity in the years following Viking settlement in northern Britain. More obviously, however, they remind us that although once the despoilers of churches and their treasures, the Vikings and their descendants in time became the patrons of churches and creators of religious artwork. The process of conversion from 'practising pagan' to 'fully Christian' can be traced across three generations of Sweyn's own family, and will be the focus of a future blog post.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Sweyn I vs Richard III

Although we're only into March, it seems clear that 2013 will not be Sweyn's year: his thunder is being well and truly stolen by another historical figure, a later English king with a reputation even more tarnished than that of his Viking predecessor. Bones exhumed at the site of Greyfriars in Leicester are exciting frenzied media interest throughout the English-speaking world: they are alleged to be the remains of the last of the Yorkist kings, Richard III, slain at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

Richard's reputation has suffered over the last four centuries by dint of having the most powerful and persuasive of detractors in the person of Shakespeare: his Richard III portrays the late king as a deformed, jealous and duplicitous killer, responsible for the murders of his wife, a brother and two young nephews. But a change was set in motion in the middle years of the twentieth century, when Josephine Tey's novel The Daughter of Time appeared for the first time in print, sparking popular interest in what suddenly appeared to be a historical miscarriage of justice, a character assassination performed by the real villains of the piece, Henry Tudor and his supporters.

Now such special interest groups as the Richard III Society (which raised the funds for the excavation that recovered the bones) and the Richard III Foundation exist to promote interest and to restore the reputation of this maligned king. Richard III remains a controversial figure, and not all historians are in agreement that the crimes laid at his door can safely be attributed to other agents, but a pro-Richard lobby is now increasingly vocal and visible, and it's hard to imagine his enemy Henry Tudor inspiring such enthusiasm and passion.

Richard has especially strong support in York, and this appears also to have been the case in his lifetime. In 1461, at the time of the Battle of Towton, York had been a Lancastrian city in terms of its allegiances. This had apparently changed by the 1480s: great pomp attended the arrival of Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) and the Duke of Albany in June 1482. All the people of the city awaited their arrival at Micklegate Bar at dawn, with ordinary folk instructed to arrive at 3am and the aldermen and 24 councillors at 4am. The city aldermen were dressed in scarlet, the 24 councillors in crimson. Formalities of this sort were attendant on any formal visit to the city by a member of the royal family, but this and Richard's other visits to the city seem to have inspired a degree of loyalty that went beyond mere duty.

Nearby Middleham Castle was a childhood home; 1483 saw the investiture of Richard's son as Prince of Wales at the Archbishop's Palace, next to the Minster; the city sent troops to fight for Richard at the Battle of Bosworth, and the city's sadness on receiving reports of his death was formally recorded in the city archive. Henry Tudor's envoy to the city, sent the day after the battle, reportedly did not dare to enter York ‘for fear of death'. In spite of a great show of loyalty when Henry visited in 1486, the city seems to have remained turbulent and hostile, to the extent that the king issued a formal warning to the mayor in 1494, threatening 'I must and will put in other rulers that will rule and govern the city according to my laws' should order not be restored.

Panel commemorating Richard III in York Guildhall, erected on the 500th anniversary of his accession

York continues to proclaim its loyalty to Richard: an online petition argued the case for the Minster over Leicester Cathedral as the final resting-place for Richard's bones (the Minster itself has never pressed these claims, and has recently issued a statement of support for Leicester); Monkgate Bar houses a Richard III Museum (recently rebranded in the excitement surrounding the Leicester dig), and there seems to be a popular awareness of the idea that Richard has been the victim of a historical whitewash.

Popular support for York's medieval hero, February 2013

But what has this to do with Sweyn Forkbeard? The parallels are not obvious, but they are interesting, and can perhaps be instructive in the processes at work in the building or demolition of medieval reputations in the modern world. In both cases, York has special relevance: the city has a strong sense of its own identity, and of the debt that this identity owes to the distant past. The city, in a sense, is 'Yorkist'; it is also very much aware of its Viking heritage, almost entirely as a result of the Coppergate dig of 1976-81, and of the work of the JORVIK Viking Centre ever since. Whereas the city's understanding of its late-medieval self is driven by big historical personalities, however, its Viking self is rooted in an archaeological project that uncovered the evidence of life for ordinary people living in York in the tenth century, at a time when the city was the seat of power for the Viking rulers of England's 'Danelaw'. 

Of the Viking kings of York, who ruled at a time when the city was effectively the capital of the Danelaw (the Viking successor to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria), relatively little is known, and none has the twenty-first-century profile of a Richard III: the most well-known is probably Erik Bloodaxe (d. 954), and most people in York would likely be hard pressed to tell you anything specific about Erik or his life. They might, however, be able to tell you a great deal about the craftspeople and traders who were Erik's contemporaries in York, and who left behind such rich archaeological evidence for everyday life in the Coppergate area of the city 1000 years ago.

Erik's reputation in York benefits from an exciting episode in the early medieval Icelandic Egil's Saga; Sweyn, as far as I can tell, is only mentioned in connection with York post mortem in early medieval records, although presumably during his lifetime he visited the city, which retained its 'Anglo-Scandinavian' character long after its absorption into the kingdom of England, and which may have been sympathetic to Sweyn's cause. York was apparently never targeted by Sweyn, who perhaps looked to the old Danelaw and its capital for natural allies in his English adventure. 

The city's enduring 'Viking' spirit has been identified as a root cause of the disobedience that greeted an earlier upstart than Henry Tudor: in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror faced serious challenges in the north, most notably in 1068/69 , when a rebellion in York saw the Norman castle destroyed and the city gates thrown open to an army led by three of the sons of Sweyn II of Denmark (himself a grandson of Forkbeard). The Conqueror's subsequent 'Harrying of the North', in which the Yorkshire region was laid waste in a cruel punitive campaign, is still recalled with distaste in York.

Negative perceptions of William I, however, have done nothing to cast the Viking kings of the north in a more heroic light. What Sweyn needs, perhaps, is a literary champion to rescue his name. Could he feature in a salutary piece of historical enquiry, of the type exemplified by The Daughter of Time? Might he be fit for use as a hero (or anti-hero) in a piece of historical fiction? Until such time as this transpires, JORVIK will continue to play its part in keeping Sweyn and his contemporaries in public view.

I'll close with a couple of images from the 2013 JORVIK Viking Festival, which tempered Richard III mania in York with a range of spectacular events on an early medieval theme. Sweyn's own countrymen and women were present in Parliament Street, where they promoted tourism in Denmark with displays, talks and giveaways (including chocolate 'Danegeld', handed over with a tongue-in-cheek apology for having taken it from the English in the first place).

Tasty Danegeld

Leaflet celebrating the coming of 'King Svein Forkbeard and his son Canute'

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Sweyn Lives!

As today is the first day of the 2013 JORVIK Viking Festival, I thought I might showcase the Festival's own Sweyn Forkbeard (appearing at the Heimkoma event at the Minster on Wednesday evening), and find out about how he is preparing for the role. Nathan Wade has been a member of JORVIK's Viking interactive team for the last 7 years: having worked with him throughout that time (both in his day-to-day role and in numerous special projects), I know that his commitment to and enthusiasm for re-enacting the Viking past is second to none, and that working as a Viking is more than just a job for him. Indeed, this will be his second time as a Viking ruler, having been selected by his re-enactment group to be Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge anniversary event in 2012. 'I only found out two nights before, so I had a short time in which to do as much research as possible,' he confesses. Nathan, I know, is being modest, as his long track record in interpreting Viking history for the public would have allowed him to pick up a role of this sort with ease. To prepare for the role, he recalls with a laugh, he trained himself in haughtiness, deliberately avoiding eye contact with fellow commuters on his bus by looking over their heads. The Stamford Bridge experience, he tells me, was a surreal one. 'As well as leading the Viking army at the re-enactment, I had to hold court and greet a modern-day visiting dignitary from the council: I made it clear at this encounter that I was the figure in authority.' As Hardrada, Nathan dispensed justice, hearing the case of a jilted wife and of a man accused of stealing a loaf of bread. He had one man dragged away for lying; his grisly fate was to have his tongue cut out for such an affront to the king. 'It all took place on a cricket pitch, with goalposts in the background,' he remembers.

The setting for his spell as Sweyn will be more impressive: he will take his place at the head of the royal party in the quire at York Minster. As well as developing a suitably kingly persona, he has spent time cultivating Sweyn's trademark feature: a large, forked beard. 'I'll need to age by about 20 years for the part, so I've been experimenting with watered-down face paint as a grey dye for my beard. To add volume, I've got a bundle of theatrical hair to mix in with the natural growth. If this doesn't work, I'll resort to hair gel and I'll sculpt it!' In his research for his beard, as in other matters relating to Sweyn's life, Nathan has found that useful sources are lacking. 'They're more thin on the ground for Forkbeard than for Hardrada, who is generally more highly praised.'

None of this will deter Nathan from making the role of Sweyn his own, however, and he is clearly looking forward to being king for a day. 'The pomp and ceremony will be quite cool, and previous ceremonies at the Minster have felt very authentic. Besides, this is the closest I will get to being a king for real!' 

Images from the event will appear in a blog entry in due course. Good luck, Nathan! 

Nathan (and his beard)

In more Sweyn news, York Archaeological Trust's latest education newsletter features as its headline a new offer, the 'Sweyn Special', for local primary schools. The item is illustrated by an image of a warrior wearing a replica of the Anglo-Saxon Coppergate helmet and sporting a beard that has been plaited to create a 'forked' effect. These themed outreach sessions were piloted for the first time this week, and aim to create a greater awareness amongst local children of the significance of 2013 as an anniversary year. 

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Sweyn Forkbeard: a Very Bad Man? Part 1.

It turns out that you don't have to look far to find out why Sweyn Forkbeard is something of a forgotten king, and it isn't just to do with the brevity of his reign. The years of his ascendancy in England (roughly 997 - 1013) were a disaster for the kingdom, marked by violence, destruction and plunder on a scale not to be repeated until the years of the Norman Conquest half a century later. Even when the English rallied to inflict occasional defeats on the Viking army on the battlefield, nothing seems to have checked the incessant raids or the kingdom's slide into the hands of a foreign power. To an English observer, the Sweyn Forkbeard episode is a regrettable one, and one from which it is difficult to draw any easy or comfortable lessons.

For medieval chroniclers looking back on the first two decades of the eleventh century, the repeated sacking and burning of English towns and the targeting of their churches made an unambiguous villain of Sweyn. His death so soon after his accession meant that unlike his son Cnut, Sweyn never had the opportunity to mend his ways and rebrand himself as a Christian monarch: in the records that have come down to us, he remains a figure of Viking excess, presiding over a campaign of robbery and casual cruelty, the accounts of which still have the power to shock. 

While the cold weather keeps me close to home, I've decided to look more closely at some of these accounts, and have turned first to the writings of Henry of Huntingdon and John of Worcester, both of whom wrote in the first half of the twelfth century, and who reworked material from earlier sources. I started by looking at the entries for 1010 by both authors, in case either corroborated the alleged burning of Eccleshall in that year (see my first blog entry). English translations of both can be found easily enough on the internet, but the descriptions of the cruelties of Sweyn's men were so lurid in these that I decided to go back to the original Latin to see for myself the exact nature of the accusations levelled at the Vikings.

Henry of Huntingdon on Sweyn's army in the vicinity of Balsham, Cambridgeshire, in 1010, after Thetford and Cambridge had been burned (taken from an 1879 edition of the text):

quosquos invenerunt in eodem loco, neci dederunt; puerosque jactantes super acumina lancearum recipiebant. Quidam vero fama dignus extenta, in gradus turris templi, quod adhuc ibidem stat, ascendit; et tam loco quam probitate munitus, ab omni solus exercitu se defendit.

Whomever they found in that place they killed, and they impaled unweaned boys on the points of their lances. One man, truly worthy of lasting fame, climbed the stairs of a church tower which still stands there, and protected as much by his courage as by the location, defended himself against the whole army. (My translation.)

Child killing also features in John of Worcester's account of Sweyn's army in Canterbury the following year (Latin text taken from the 1995 edition by Darlington and McGurk):

pars ciuitatis incenditur, exercitus ingreditur, urbs capitur. Alii ferro iugulantur, alii flammis comsumuntur, plures quoque de muris precipites dantur, nonnulli per uerenda suspensi deficiunt, matrone crinibus per plateas ciuitatis distracte, demum flammis iniecte, moriuntur. Paruuli a matrim uberibus auulsi aut lanceis excipiuntur aut superacto carro minutatim conteruntur. Interea archipresul Alphegus capitur, uincitur, tenetur et uariis modis afficitur.

Part of the city was burned, the army entered, and the city was captured. Some were slaughtered by the sword, others were consumed by flames, and many were thrown headlong from walls; several men died suspended by their private parts, and married women died, dragged through the streets of the city by their hair, then thrown into the flames. Small boys, snatched from their mothers' breasts, were either impaled on lances or crushed to pieces, run over by wagons. In the meantime the archbishop, Alphege, was captured, chained, held and assaulted in various ways. (My translation.)

These descriptions are horrifying, but they are also familiar, and call to mind reports of wartime atrocities from another era. Coincidentally, when I first came to these descriptions, I had recently read a short story called The Soldier's Rest by the World War I propagandist Arthur Machen, whose story The Bowmen made such an impact on the national consciousness in the early years of the Great War. The Soldier's Rest first appeared in print in the London Evening News in 1914, and contrasts the recollections of a dying Tommy, whose final heroic moments were spent rescuing his comrades from an ambush, with the war crimes of a villainous detachment of 'Boshes', one of whom bayonets a little boy. Accounts of inhuman cruelty on the part of the enemy (whether accurate or not) were a means of demonising the foe and galvanising support for the war effort. The spiking of children seems to be a recurring motif in the literature of outrage, a gruesome piece of shorthand for enemy barbarism that links polemical writing across the centuries.

John of Worcester has much more to say about Sweyn, none of which is favourable. I'll return to his version of events in a future blog entry.

To close, here's an image culled from the internet: it shows the Balsham village sign, which commemorates the English hero of 1010 on his way towards the stairs in the church tower. I'd be interested to know how long it has been there; it's quite rare as a piece of public artwork that depicts a moment from the Sweyn years.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Sweyn Forkbeard comes to York Minster

I will at this point declare an interest: as Head of Interpretation at York Archaeological Trust, the company that operates the JORVIK Viking Centre in York, it is part of my job to promote learning about and interest in our Viking heritage. I also have prior warning of a number of Sweyn-based initiatives in the pipeline for 2013. The JORVIK Viking Festival, an annual fixture in York's festival calendar for almost 30 years, incorporates a loose narrative thread that links its constituent events, and in 2013 the circumstances of Sweyn's accession to the throne will form the basis of the Festival story. The Heimkoma event in York Minster on Wednesday 20th February promises to be an especially glittering moment for Sweyn; also of interest is the presence of a Danish tourism development agency, Visit Denmark, with a prominent spot on Parliament Street for some storytelling on a 'King Forkbeard' theme. The listings all appear in the full Festival programme, currently available via the JORVIK website. I will post images and report on event format and content in due course.


Monday, 7 January 2013

Sweyn Forkbeard: a short account of his life

I produced the following as a very short account of Sweyn's life, career and reputation. It contains the details on which most of the historical sources agree. I have omitted much that I intend to revisit and explore in future blog entries, but I hope this account will serve as an introduction to Sweyn's story for Viking enthusiasts and non-specialists alike. It will also provide me with a range of jumping-off points (via several significant historical events and named personalities) in my own search for Sweyn.

King Sweyn I of Denmark, often remembered by his nickname 'Forkbeard', was the first Dane to rule the kingdom of England. His reign was very short, and his most significant role in the history of England is that of a raider and warlord who conducted terrible Viking raids, extracting huge payments from King Ethelred the Unready in exchange for temporary truces.

The son of Harald Bluetooth, King of Denmark, Sweyn began his reign after leading a rebellion against his father, during which the old king perished. Historic sources disagree as to the details of his life during the next few years, but he may have been driven out of Denmark and into exile in Britain. His first recorded expedition in England was in 993, when he and the Norwegian Olaf Tryggvason besieged London with a fleet of 94 warships. The siege was unsuccessful, but the Vikings plundered the surrounding countryside and coastal areas so extensively that King Ethelred was forced to come to terms with them, eventually paying them off with £16000. Whereas Olaf accepted Christianity and promised never to attack England again, Sweyn returned to Scandinavia without making any such promise, and instead turned against his old ally, eventually defeating Olaf and adding Norway to his territories around the turn of the millennium. Danish raids in England continued with little respite throughout the 990s. 

There were violent reprisals in 1002, when the so-called St Brice's Day massacre of Danes who had settled in England took place on the orders of King Ethelred, who feared assassination at their hands. According to some accounts, Sweyn's own sister died in the massacre, and Sweyn thereafter pursued a vendetta against Ethelred, with devastating raids in the southern half of England that worsened as disillusioned Anglo-Saxon noblemen began to collude with the Danes. Finally, in 1013, Sweyn (accompanied by his son Cnut) began to receive the submission of English earls, and Ethelred fled into exile in Normandy. Sweyn was acclaimed king by an exhausted and terrorised populace, but his reign lasted for a matter of weeks; he died suddenly at Gainsborough in 1014. One account describes him falling from his horse, but a later legend has him slain in his sleep by the English St Edmund, who had himself been martyred by Vikings in the ninth century. The ousted King Ethelred returned to the throne until his death in 1016.

Although it is difficult to see Sweyn's impact on England in anything other than a negative light, he prepared the way for his son, Cnut, to eventually succeed him in England, and to rule over an empire that also included Norway and Denmark.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

In 2013 it will be 1000 years since a man called Sweyn, nicknamed 'Forkbeard', became King of England. I personally know very little about Sweyn, and cannot recall having heard anything about him at school. Nor can I remember learning about him in any books or TV programmes dealing in general terms with the Vikings in England. His son, Cnut, is more familiar, if only by name, and the coverage given to Cnut in popular history books so far exceeds that given to his father that Cnut is clearly marked out as the more significant and impactful of the two. Even a cursory glance at the documentary evidence, however, is enough to show that Sweyn was a major player on the stage of English history for two decades at the end of the tenth century and the beginning of the eleventh.

This year, I have set myself the task of monitoring responses to Sweyn's anniversary in the media and in the UK heritage industry. I am curious to find out whether it will be acknowledged, and if so by whom, and in what ways. What impact (if any) will the anniversary of the commencement of his short reign have on his popular profile in 2013? Who will adopt this now-obscure-but-once-infamous Viking ruler, and to what uses will he be put?

This blog is not primarily concerned with the historical Sweyn Forkbeard: rather, it is to do with Sweyn's survival (or non-survival) in art, literature and the popular imagination, and with any traditions (either current or historical) associated with his name at a local or national level.

Despite this bias, it is with conventional historical accounts of Sweyn (otherwise 'Sven', 'Svein', 'Sveinn', 'Sweyne' or 'Swein') that we must begin, so that we can better understand the origins of the figure who is the focus of this blog. I'm certainly better informed than most Britons on Sweyn's life and times: I've worked in Viking history and archaeology for the last nine years, so have in that time absorbed plenty of Viking trivia. Even so, when I recently set about writing a very short account of his life (with reference only to my own memory and to search results on the internet), I realised that I knew very little, and quickly found that there were precious few useful online sources to be found. I only recalled a reign that had been very short (a matter of months), followed by an ignoble death (a fall from horseback).

I dimly remembered some connection with Eccleshall in Staffordshire, a picturesque market town in the midlands, just east of the Shropshire county boundary and not far from where I grew up (and which I had last visited perhaps ten years before). Some quick internet searches failed to clarify matters, beyond turning up (via Google Books) a reference in William Pitt's 1817 'Topographical History of Staffordshire' to a moment 'in the year 1010, when the Danes laid Eccleshall town and castle, and all its churches, in ashes by fire'. The year coincides with Sweyn's career as a raider in England, but the completest contemporary literary source on the period, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, does not corroborate this account of a Viking campaign this deep into the West Midlands, an area that was to some extent protected from the worst of the Viking period by dint of its relative remoteness from the coast. Indeed, it was to an unspecified location in Shropshire that Ethelred, the English king, is said by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have retreated in midwinter 1006 to escape the Viking army that roamed and plundered at will through the English countryside, apparently with Sweyn at its head.

As it happened, a trip into Shropshire on family business was in order for the very beginning of the year, and the route was to take me directly through Eccleshall. It seemed as good a place as any to start, so on 3rd January 2013, a fine day that presented lovely views of the countryside between Newcastle-under-Lyme and Newport, and thence to the Wrekin, Caer Caradoc and the Welsh Marches beyond, a little before 11am, I arrived at Holy Trinity Church, Eccleshall, to kick off my year-long search for Sweyn. My findings there will form the basis of a future blog entry.