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:

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