Having completed a run through of the Anglo-Saxon kings in the run up to the Norman Conquest I thought it would be useful to cover similar ground for the Vikings. I’m prone to describing them as freebooters – in order to demonstrate Æthelred’s lack of common sense in trying to pay them off.
During the reign of Edgar the Peaceful who ruled from 959 until 975 it seemed as though England had got itself sorted. It was effectively one kingdom and there was political stability. Edgar applied taxes and also reformed the coinage – which helped him to finance a naval force to deter would be raiders.
After Edgar died the Vikings returned. Æthelred was unable to repel them and all that lovely new coinage found its way into Viking hoards. 35,000 English coins from his reign has e been found in Scandinavia to date. Martin and Hannah Whittock explain that it was Edgar’s reformed coinage with its high silver content that was the lure to the Vikings. It turns out that the silver mines that the Islamic world had relied on until this point were exhausted. Countries to the east were beginning to establish themselves and repel Viking raiders who had found easy pickings in the past. These twin causes had the effect of the Vikings looking elsewhere to maintain their wealth. By chance Western Europe had a new supply of silver – from the Hare mountains.
Part of Æthelred’s problem was that in Denmark King Gorm had managed to establish a more unified state. This was followed up by Harold Bluetooth, Gorm’s son, who extended the range of his influence to Norway. His first achievement is usually listed as uniting Denmark under a single ruler. Bluetooth constructed forts and united resources based on his expanding wealth – this meant he had a larger force of men to command and they were more organised. Secondly he became a Christian and converted all the Danes and Norwegians – part of the reason for this was not just because Harold had been tolerant of Christians but because Otto the Great, the Holy Roman Emperor of the time had taken the opportunity to interfere in Danish affairs there was a war. The outcome was a Christian nation. It’s a bit unclear as to whether it was Harold’s way of keeping Otto at arm’s length or that Otto won the war and insisted on Christianity. in either event it had the effect of further unifying the Danes.
Meanwhile in Norway a similar story can also be told. Harold Finehair dominated Norway following a sea battle in 872. This unity fractured with his death and this was what allowed the Danes to dominate Norway through local earls. However for a short while Olaf Tryggvason, who was apparently Harold Finehair’s great grandson if you believe the sagas, was able to rule independently from the Danes. He was an active raider prior to becoming King of Norway.
Sweyn Forkbeard was Bluetooth’s son. He ruled Denmark from 985 until his death in 1014. He invaded England and dethroned Æthelred the Unready in 1014. We know about Sweyn from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle and from the later Icelandic Sagas that drew on the oral tradition. According to the sagas Sweyn was a mercenary who deposed his father and started raiding England. Bluetooth died in exile shortly after Sweyn booted him off the throne. At the beginning of Sweyn’s reign he formed a loose alliance with Olaf Tryggvason of Norway although this alliance would fracture in due course.
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records the rise in number of Viking attacks throughout the 980s. In 993 the Earl of Essex – Byrhtnoth- wrought his own defeat by allowing the Viking army that he confronted at Maldon to access land on the same level as that as his own army – honourable but not tactically terribly helpful. Æthelred paid £10,000 to the Vikings so that they would go away. The Vikings in question were Norwegians led by Olaf Tryggvason.
The following year Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark joined in the attack on England – a different confederation of Vikings who were looking to cash in on Æthelred’s inability to repel them. In 994 it appears that Olaf was baptised at Andover. He stopped raiding England. It may have been part of a Danegeld treaty. There was also the small matter of his move to become king of Norway and the imposition of unity upon the country – although admittedly this declined the further north he got.
Sweyn continued his campaign. In 1002 Æthelred ordered the murder of all Danes on English soil on St Brice’s day – hardly a move designed to pour oil on a troubled situation. It didn’t help that Sweyn’s sister Gunhilda may have been one of the victims.
Various annals record the raids which culminated in a successful invasion of England in 1013. Forkbeard died five weeks after his conquest at the beginning of 1014. Some sources indicate he fell from his horse at Gainsborough but the thirteenth century illustration along side this paragraph depicts the other version of his demise – at the hands of the ghost of St Edmund.
Edmund of course is the East Anglian king after whom Bury St Edmunds is named. He died in 869 having been shot to death with arrows by an earlier wave of Vikings. He was rather popular during the reign of Æthelred as people prayed to the martyred king for salvation for the current crop of Vikings – which would account for Sweyn being skewered by a ghost.
Sweyn was succeeded by his son Cnut who married Æthelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy in 1016 on the understanding that any son that they had together would inherit the Crown upon Cnut’s demise. Cnut was in his turn succeeded by Harold Harefoot in 1035 and then Emma’s son Harthacnut in 1040. Harthacnut, Emma’s son, had become king of Denmark upon his father’s death.
Whittock, Martyn & Hannah. (2016) 1016 & 1066: Why the Vikings Caused the Norman Conquest. Marlborough: Robert Hale