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.