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.

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