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.

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