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'