Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Sweyn Forkbeard Comes to York Minster. Part 2.

I return to this blog after a long hiatus: over the summer months I was involved in a short research project to investigate a fourteenth-century manuscript, so any spare time was devoted to this, with Viking matters put firmly on hold!

As promised, however, here at last is the image of Nathan as Sweyn Forkbeard, enthroned in his warrior finery at York Minster for a special event during the 2013 JORVIK Viking Festival.  A highlights brochure for the 2014 Festival is already available, and a preliminary web listing has been posted here: http://jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk/event/30th-jorvik-viking-festival/ , with more details to follow soon.

Nathan Wade as Sweyn Forkbeard (image copyright York Archaeological Trust)

York Minster will feature in the city's annual Illuminating York festival (30th October - 2nd November) too, which this year will be on a Viking theme. Visitors to the website (http://illuminatingyork.org.uk/) will notice that Sweyn gets a couple of mentions, and that he will feature prominently in the light projections at Clifford's Tower. 

I've been giving some thought to historical connections between Sweyn and York Minster: there is a tradition (mentioned in various places on the web, and repeated in no less a source than the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) that he was first buried at York Minster, with his remains transferred to Roskilde shortly thereafter. One source for this seems to be the chronicle of the German bishop Thietmar of Merseburg (d. 1018), who as a close contemporary of Sweyn has an interesting take on the Forkbeard years.

The portion relating to the moments after Sweyn's death runs as follows:

Quod cum Aethelrad, rex Anglorum, multo tempore ab eodem fugatus, pro certo comperiret, gratias agens Deo patriam letus revisit et collectis in unum cunctis militibus suis corpus inimicum exterminare conatur. Et ut hoc non fieret, quaedam matrona prius per familiares suos ammonita servatum pignus a terra elevans, etsi indigena, tamen ad patrias navigio direxerat arctos, id est septemtrionalem plagam; quae hoc nomen ab arcturis duabus, hoc est ab ursis minoribus atque maioribus sortitur, quas serpens unus, ut astrologi asserunt, circumdat et dividit.

When King Ethelred of the English, who had fled from him for so long, heard that this [i.e. Sweyn's death] was certain, giving thanks to God he joyfully returned to his country, and having gathered together all of his soldiers sought to destroy the body of his enemy. So that this would not happen, a certain woman, although herself a native, forewarned by her household, saved his remains and raised them from the ground, and sent them to home to the Arctic, which is to say to the north, which takes its name from the two Arctic stars, namely Ursa Minor and Major, which are encircled and divided by a snake, as astrologers tell us. (My translation.)

Image from the digital version of the 1905 facsimile of the manuscript of Thietmar's Chronicle (available here: http://www.mgh-bibliothek.de/digilib/thietmar.html ). The portion quoted begins at line 7.

After mentioning Sweyn's death, which is generally supposed to have taken place at Gainsborough, Thietmar's text gives ibidem sepelitur, i.e. 'he was buried in the same place'. Rather than referring specifically to Gainsborough, however, this is probably a more general allusion to a grave somewhere in his erstwhile kingdom. Thietmar stops short of identifying York Minster as the place, but York is pinpointed by Simeon of Durham and Geffrei Gaimar, both of whom wrote in the first half of the twelfth century. Gaimar adds that ten years or more elapsed before Sweyn's body was moved, and that it was then taken for burial to Norway.

No monuments to Forkbeard survive at either York Minster (which nevertheless has a substantial collection of Viking-era grave covers) or at Roskilde Cathedral, a stately gothic pile in brick that replaces an earlier church built by Forkbeard's father, Harald Bluetooth. The Forkbeard and Bluetooth connection is celebrated on the Roskilde Cathedral website (http://www.visitroskilde.com/ln-int/denmark/roskilde-cathedral---world-heritage-gdk619579), and it would be interesting to know more about how this aspect of the cathedral's past is interpreted for twenty-first century visitors. If any readers have visited, please do post a comment to let me know!