THE WORK OF STEEL: VIKING RAIDS DURING THE REIGN OF ÆTHELRED THE UNREADY
Among other things, the Old Norsemen are known for their raidings of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms during the Early Middle Ages. Until today, the word ‘viking’ is still debated with regard to its actual meaning. One connotation that is agreed upon is that of someone who goes out for adventure and returns, having acquired fame and fortune. This adventure, however, entailed pillaging, terror and death for the ones on the receiving end. In Early Medieval Britain, periods of raiding took place in the ninth, tenth and early eleventh century. King Æthelred, known as Æthelred the Unready (‘ill-advised’) ruled Anglo-Saxon England in the late tenth and early eleventh century. This period is also known as the Second Viking Age, when the Norsemen raided with accumulating ferocity. Written sources, as well as fortifications provide us with some insight into this period of Early Medieval England, both into the level of violence, as well as the responses to the incessant attacks from overseas.
The first viking raids occurred in the late ninth century. After many years of apparent quiet, during the reign of King Edgar ‘the Peaceable’, viking raids on England had resumed in 980, within two years of Æthelred’s accession.1 Æthelred was nicknamed the Unready, which meant ‘ill-advised’ and he was, overall, portrayed as a weak king in contemporary chronicles. Apparently, the king was unable to keep Anglo-Saxon England unified as well as unable to resist the attacks by Norse tribesmen who went ‘vikingr’.
From 991 to 1005, the English suffered the worst and most sustained viking onslaught in over a hundred years. The remarkable, not to say desperate, nature of the counter-measures provides a taste of the impact these raids had on Anglo-Saxon England A good impression of the English response emerges from the chronicler’s account of the events of 1002. The payment of gafol, or tribute-money, at the very beginning of the year, continued the policy which had first been implemented in the aftermath of the battle of Maldon, in 991, and which has been held ever since to characterize the weakness of King Æthelred’s regime. The murder of the king’s high-reeve and the subsequent disarray displays the unrest at a governemental level, further disabling the English to offer effective resistance. St. Brice’s Day’s Massacre ensued, a brutal way of dealing with Danes who were considered suspect.
The massacre of ‘all the Danish men who were in England’, on 13 November 1002, is said to have been precipitated by the discovery of a plot to kill the king and his councillors, and thereby to take control of the kingdom. These accusations had a particular background. In 994, a part of the viking army, had been hired by King Æthelred to serve as a mercenary force . This army had been bought off and was based on the Isle of Wight, They were instructed to protect the country against Vikings. The mercenaries, however, turned against their paymasters in 997. Another group of mercenaries broke faith with the king in 1001. The massacre in November 1002 was probably targeted at such untrustworthy Danes, The brutal retort can be seen as an expression of the deep-rooted anger of the English towards those who had inflicted so much suffering upon them.
Even though the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle barely mentions other responses to viking raids in the 991-1005 time frame, it points out a pattern of attacks, which only increased in ferocity straight into the last decade of Æthelred’s reign.
Some contemporary charters, issued by the king, provide insight into the response to the viking attacks. A key document is King Æthelred’s charter granting privileges to Abingdon Abbey This charter was drawn up in 993, and and represents the recognition in high circles that viking raids were a form of divine punishment for wrongdoing At this stage of history, the raids were interpreted as an effect of wrongdoing on the part of the king himself.2 Taken on their own, some of these charters might represent the last flourish of the monastic reform movement; a few might reflect a special interest in the promotion of the cults of particular saints; and two would show how prominent laymen at King Æthelred’s court chose to express their own commitment to the Christian faith. The whole, however, is often greater than the sum of the parts; and together, these written sources represent what a significant aspect of the response of Æthelred to the viking attacks during his reign.3 It is clear that there was a spiritual interpretation to the plight of the English people.
The absolute and relative chronology of Ǣlfric’s writings is well established. At Cerne, he had been extraordinarily productive. It was an impressive output, and no doubt the patronage he enjoyed helped in ensuring that his voice was heard. We have to look hard, however, in this large body of writing for allusions to the viking invasions of 991–1005 and for hints of Ǣlfric’s views on the quality of royal government. There is no overt criticism of Æthelred’s regime, perhaps for the simple reason that at this stage ‘Æthelred’s regime’ was the regime of his two noble patrons, yet there are clear indications of growing unease.6
In his ‘private’ letter to Archbishop Wulfstan, written between 1002 and 1005, Ǣlfric expresses his concern that bishops were becoming too closely involved in the judging of thieves and robbers, that they were neglecting their proper duties, and that they were dangerously susceptible to bribery.7 It is easy to imagine that the activities of the vikings in the later 990s, and in the first five years of the eleventh century, were leading to subterfuge in high places, and to the breaking down of standards of behaviour.
When talking of the establishment of God’s laws, Ǣlfric berates the English for their failure to keep these laws, and for the way they make ‘all-new laws’ (eall-niwe gesetnyssa) which are contrary to the laws of God ‘and of all those witan who were before us.’8 Ǣlfric likens those who abandon their faith in Christ to those Englishmen who submit to the Danes, do the devil’s works, and thus betray their own people to death.9 He must have had in mind Englishmen who had failed to withstand the Danish onslaught, though whether this would have been in 1006–7, or in 1009–12, is impossible to tell.10
What do we learn from this? What factors determined Ǣlfric’s view of the affairs of his day, from his vantage-point at Eynsham? If only to judge from witness-lists in the charters of the period, the leading abbots in the last decade of Æthelred’s reign were the abbots of Abingdon, Cholsey, Ely, Glastonbury, Malmesbury, Peterborough, and the New Minster, Winchester.11 The fact is that Ǣlfric, abbot of Eynsham, makes no impression whatsoever: he did not attest the Eynsham charter itself, and indeed he cannot be shown to have attested any charters at all. This need not mean that Ǣlfric was never present at meetings of the king’s councillors, simply that he was not among the most prominent in the king’s council. It is as if Ǣlfric had shared in Æthelmær’s self-imposed absence from the royal court and household, and perhaps also in a sense of disaffection or detachment from those who were now the influential and driving forces at court; yet since by virtue of his own merits he had a platform of his own, he was able, after 1005, to give expression to his views without fear of compromising his patron and protector’s position.12
It is important to stress, that his years as abbot of Eynsham coincided with the viking raids of 1006–7 and 1009–12. This was indeed as bad as it could get, and it is not surprising that Ǣlfric, a member of the clergy, was moved to speak out in such terms. What is compelling is the nature of his analysis. He blames the councillors, who were failing to do their job; he complains about the burdens of taxation, and about all the new laws which run contrary to God’s instruction; he complains about bribery and corruption; and he complains about treachery, and bemoans the readiness of some to submit to the Danes. In short, he blames the English, rather than the Danes. Of course, the Danes were regarded as the instruments of divine punishment for the sins of the English, so to have blamed them would have been to miss the point.13
The viking raids made a deep impact in the 990s, reflected in the Lives of the Saints, and providing a context for Æthelmær’s foundation of Eynsham Abbey in the early eleventh century. Ǣlfric already had views on the way things were going; and when Æthelmær retired, in 1005, he would be able to give vent to them more openly than he had done before. Almost at once the situation became even more desperate for the English, with the raids of 1006–7 and 1009–12; and, if one puts Ǣlfric’s remarks together, one draws that much nearer to an appreciation of the terrible predicament of the English in the closing years of Æthelred’s reign.14 Ǣlfric’s writings from Eynsham were less popular: this was in part due to the fact that his texts were less familiar and that there were fewer texts by him. Another reason was the fact that Archbishop Wulfstan’s writings were more popular.15
To judge from the concluding annals in the ‘Northern Recension’ of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the murder of Edward the Martyr was regarded in certain quarters with particular horror. In the long annal for 978, we are left in no doubt about the magnitude of the crime: how Edward was buried at Wareham, ‘without any royal honours’; how it was the worst deed committed since the English first came to Britain; how he is now after death a heavenly saint; how his earthly kinsmen would not avenge him; and how God has now avenged him.19
If we assume that Wulfstan was involved in the production of the ‘Northern Recension’, he may have taken much the same line. The chronicler’s point was, of course, that the English people in general were being punished by God for their complicity in Edward’s death (978), in the form of the renewal of the viking invasions (980); so the ‘official’ enforcement of Edward’s cult, at Enham, in 1008, might have been an aspect of Wulfstan’s way of helping the English people to avert further punishment. Unfortunately, the vikings did not read the script. Encouraged, no doubt, by tales of the ravaging of England in 1006–7, and evidently not discouraged by the helmeted image of King Æthelred which had appeared on his coins, a new army assembled in Denmark under the leadership of Earl Thorkell, and arrived at Sandwich in early August 1009.20 As has been mentioned ealier, the early 990s attacks were seen as a punishment for wrongdoings of the king. By 1009, however, there was clearly a feeling that the vikings came as instruments of divine punishment for the sins of the English people as a whole, requiring an act of penance on a national scale.21 The arrival of the ‘immense raiding army’ at Sandwich in early August 1009 met with an extraordinary response: for a period of three days, in late September, all of the people were to fast, and to process daily to church; and, for as long as the emergency continued, the communities of religious houses were to maintain a programme of intensive prayer. The ship-levy of 1009 had ended in confusion; and, after its arrival, the Viking army had first threatened Canterbury, before taking up position on the Isle of Wight, and from there ravaging Hampshire, Berkshire, and Sussex.22
The viking army would appear to have remained at its base on the Isle of Wight, striking out into south central England, for about three months from mid-August to mid-November 1009, at which point it returned eastwards to Kent and took up winter quarters on the Thames, probably at Greenwich. We have no detailed knowledge of the king’s movements at this time, and have to make do with the evidence of charters. There was a meeting of the king and his councillors in late December, at which the king granted land in Derbyshire to his thegn Morcar.23 After Easter (9 April) in 1010, the vikings came to East Anglia, and effectively took control of the region for three months; it was at this time that the relics of St Edmund were said to have been taken to the church of St Gregory in London, where they remained for three yearsIn the summer and autumn the vikings were active again in the Thames valley and in the south-east midlands; and so it went on, for the rest of the year, until they returned to their ships at Christmas. Not one charter has survived from 1010; and if this signifies that relatively few were issued, it might well reflect the turmoil of that year and the interruption of normal business. In 1011 King Æthelred and his councillors sent to the army and asked for peace; but the ‘peace’ did not stop the vikings from ravaging in small bands, and in mid-September they entered and ransacked Canterbury, capturing Archbishop Ælfheah and taking him back to their ships.24 The two surviving charters issued in 1011, both from the archives of Burton Abbey, emanate from a meeting (or meetings) held before the attack on Canterbury and the capture of Ælfheah; so if not the meeting at which the English had resolved to ask for peace, it was a meeting held later in the year, with the peace already in force.
One of the charters was a grant of land in Derbyshire to a thegn called Æthelmod. The scribe of this charter employed a very distinctive form of pictorial invocation, composed not simply of the Greek letters chi (X) and rho (P), representing the standard invocation of Christ, but also incorporating the Roman letter ‘A’, attached to the stem of the rho. The resulting device could clearly be read as ‘PAX’, and was thus, quite appropriately, a combined invocation of Christ and peace. In 1012, Ealdorman Eadric and all the chief councillors gathered at London for two or three weeks in April, in order to supervise the payment of 48,000 pounds to the viking army; a few miles to the east, at Greenwich, the captured archbishop was put violently to death. When the tribute was paid, and oaths of peace were sworn, the Danish army dispersed ‘as widely as it had been collected’.27 The ‘PAX’ chrismon captures the mood of the moment, and show how the testimony of law-codes and coins is matched most elegantly by the evidence of charters.28
The Sermo Lupi ad Anglos has long been regarded as an invaluable witness to the dismal state of affairs during Æthelred’s reign;29 so it is important to understand the historical context from which it came, or, perhaps more accurately, the historical contexts in which it developed. As matters stand, the date of the Sermo Lupi is not controversial. Both of its modern editors, Dorothy Whitelock (1939, 1963) and Dorothy Bethurum (1957), settled for 1014,30 and this dating underlies the very effective discussions of the text published in recent years by Stephanie Hollis, Malcolm Godden and Jonathan Wilcox.31
The presumption is that the sermon would have formed part of Wulfstan’s efforts in that year to galvanise the English into acknowledging and repenting the sins for which they had been so severely punished in the recent past, and so that the most natural context for its composition would have been at the time of or soon after the re-establishment of Æthelred’s regime.32 ilcox has recently proposed an interesting refinement, in suggesting that the sermon was first delivered to a gathering of the nation’s councillors which had assembled at York in February 1014, soon after the death of Sven Forkbeard but some time before Æthelred’s return from Normandy.33
Although the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos might seem on first reading to have been composed in the heat of the moment, in response to a perceived decline in contemporary standards of behaviour, and an imminent threat of Danish conquest, it is now recognized that even a sermon of this nature has identifiable literary sources and models. When James Cross and Alan Brown looked for the ‘literary impetus’ of the Sermo Lupi, they fastened on a sermon by Abbo of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, written in the 920s and addressed ad milites, in which Abbo expounds his view that the sinfulness of the Frankish people had brought punishment and defeat upon them, and that the remedy lay in confession, penance, and righteous living. A copy of the complete text of Abbo’s sermon is found in the Copenhagen manuscript of Wulfstan material.34 Wulfstan warns the English that their sins were worse even than those of the British had been, with the clear implication that just as the British had been conquered by the English, so too would the English now be conquered by the Danes.35
In the absence of a contemporary ‘portrait’ of King Æthelred the Unready,36 the spectacular images of Henry II, king of Germany, in the Regensburg Sacramentary, made between 1002 and 1014, serve symbolically to remind us of the dignity of the royal office in the early eleventh century,37 and to draw us closer into Æthelred’s world. Homilies and other works written by Ælfric at the time or in the aftermath of the viking raid of 1006–7, and perhaps also at the time of the sack of Oxford in 1009–10, suggest what attitude he might have taken to the developments of the period; and, if we acknowledge the possibility that it originated four or five years before 1014, Wulfstan’s Sermo ad Anglos takes us to the heart of the period when Thorkell’s army was ravaging the country (1009–12).38 The writings of Ǣlfric and Wulfstan paint a clear picture of the religious light in which the problems were seen.
It is all too easy for modern historians to condemn King Æthelred and his councillors for looking in this way to prayer, as well as to gold and silver, to do the work of steel;39 yet there could be no more compelling indication of the predicament in which the God-fearing English people found themselves, in the face of such relentless and overwhelming attack. It would be just as easy in retrospect to attribute the disastrous outcome of Æthelred’s reign to the supposed weaknesses of the king’s character, but this would be missing the point. The events of the period 1006–12, from the arrival of a ‘great army’ at Sandwich in the summer of 1006 to the martyrdom of Archbishop Ælfheah in April 1012 must have left the English in a state of bewilderment and despair. The raids had exposed the weaknesses in the political and other structures of a kingdom only recently unified. Old loyalties were tested, people were turned against each other, and many individuals must have decided to follow their own priorities and to protect their own interests. The king and his councillors at the centre, not to mention the ealdormen and reeves in the localities, must have made heavy demands on all holders of bookland and folkland for the various obligations which related to local and national defence; and, well before the introduction of the heregeld, in 1012, there may have been new laws, imposing new forms of taxation, to help raise silver and gold for all forms of military expenditure, including of course the huge payments of ‘tribute’ (gafol) in 1006–7 and 1011–12. No doubt fresh opportunities were thereby created for unscrupulous officials to take advantage of the situation.40 It was indeed a recipe for disaster; and it is no surprise that the reign of King Edgar was reinvented in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries as a period of peace and prosperity, and regarded with the nostalgia that is said to be a symptom of decline.41
One should observe in the same connection that Archbishop Ælfheah was not succeeded at Canterbury until 1015, and that it was not until 1018 that Lyfing seems to have recovered primacy over York in the king’s charters;42 so it would appear that from 1012 until 1016, and beyond, the spiritual leadership of the nation belonged to Archbishop Wulfstan, perhaps giving the Sermo Lupi, in any of its forms, even greater force. The crucial decisions taken during these years were the payment of gafol in 1011–12, and the employment of Thorkell as a mercenary from 1012. Yet at the same time the English had been so seriously weakened by the combination of the viking raids of 1006–7 and 1009–12 that the invasions which followed, in 1013 and 1015, appear to have met with little effective resistance.43
Whatever one’s understanding might be of the circumstances behind the Danish conquest of England, Cnut himself will fully deserve the accolade, for with guidance from Wulfstan, archbishop of York, he soon learnt to discharge the responsibilities of his high office with authority and distinction. Cnut’s accession to the whole kingdom of the English marked the beginning of twenty-five years of England’s position at the heart of a ‘North Sea empire’. However, Cnut’s spectacular achievement was made possible by the activities of those who had gone before him. The monument to this is the runestone at Yttergärde, in Uppland, Sweden; for there is no better symbol of the bitter truth, from an English point of view, that Cnut owed his success not so much to the invasion of England in 1013, led by his father, Sven Forkbeard, but more particularly if less directly to the earlier viking raids of 1006–7 and 1009–12, led by Tostig (it seems) and by Thorkell the Tall.44
Barbara Yorke notes that stronger fortification and increasing use of garrisons within a co-ordinated framework were important advances and responses to the Vikings’ own use of fortifications and methods of fighting but also grew out of a longer tradition of lower level defensible capacity within Wessex. The role of ealdormen in directing defence within their jurisdictions in the ninth century has probably been underestimated because of the (deliberate) focus in the narrative sources on King Alfred. The Chronicle annals for the campaigns in the 870s do not name any ealdormen. It is possible, for instance, that Odda (named only by Ealdorman Æthelweard) may have placed watchers not only in Countisbury but in other Roman signal stations along the north Devon coast so that he could receive warning of the approach of just such a fleet. Some aspects of defence were directed from the centre, but it is also likely that ealdormen made their own decisions within their shires. Some aspects of defence in the Viking Age may be poorly recorded, as has been suggested for a system of warning beacons that is ignored in the narrative sources, but seemingly alluded to in charter boundaries.46 Written sources are obviously framed by their authors’ knowledge and intent. Asser and the Chronicle compilers seem to focus on King Alfred’s achievements to the detriment of wider appreciation of how defence was organized in ninth-century Wessex, but they were at least well-informed and interested in the use of defensive sites.47 The point emerges more clearly when the accounts of fortress-use in the annals for Alfred, Edward, and Æthelflaed are contrasted with those for the reign of Æthelred II in manuscript C of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The narrative sources have much to offer in the study of Anglo-Saxon fortifications, but always need to be read in the context of the individual circumstances of composition.The point emerges more clearly when the accounts of fortress-use in the annals for Alfred, Edward, and Æthelflaed are contrasted with those for the reign of Æthelred II in manuscript C of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The narrative sources have much to offer in the study of Anglo-Saxon fortifications, but always need to be read in the context of the individual circumstances of composition.48
According to Howard, “the impact on England of invasions during the so-called Second Viking Age has been misunderstood."50 England was a country enjoying increasing population, trade and wealth during most, if not all, of King Æthelred’s 38-year reign. The king employed mercenary forces, mostly Scandinavians, as did many other rulers at this time. Although there were incursions into England over the land frontiers and there were piratical raids along the English coast, such incursions and raids also occurred during the reigns of Æthelred’s predecessors and successors; they should not necessarily be regarded as a distinguishing feature of his reign.51 That Æthelred was no weak and indolent king is shown by the fact that many of the most famous warriors of the Second Viking Age were his allies, with Olaf Tryggvason, Thorkell the Tall and St Olaf showing a significant degree of loyalty to his cause. The Scandinavian sources refer to Æthelred with respect. It is true that the viking raids developed from coastal incursions into a full-scale invasion and, finally, a war of conquest; but the later invasions and the conquests by Swein and Cnut were largely possible because they were supported by the indigenous population. The support of Northumbria and the Danelaw for King Swein in 1013 is partly a reflection of a shift in economic and political power to the north and east of England and away from Wessex.52
Furthermore, Æthelred did not pay raiders to go away; he paid for winter truces or for the invaders to change their character and become mercenaries acting in his political interests. Though the biased account of events in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that English forces were unsuccessful and badly led, there seems to be no doubt that armies and fleets were raised to combat the invaders and that they were probably, on occasion, more successful than the ASC would wish to allow – as, for example, in 1004/5 when Swein Forkbeard’s army suffered heavy losses in battle and withdrew from England without having forced the English into any sort of negotiation or gafol payment, and also in 1014 when Æthelred’s forces re-conquered England.53 A reconstruction of the chronology of events in the sources allows us to understand the nature of the marriage agreement between King Cnut and Queen Emma; in effect, Cnut’s ‘conquest’ of England was based, in part, upon a negotiated settlement with members of the English establishment. It was civil conflict over the succession to the throne of an ailing king which brought about the final disasters of Æthelred’s reign and allowed the Danish king, Cnut, an opportunity to establish himself as king of England.54
The viking raids during Æthelreds reign induced a despair since these raids were seeminly impossible to stop. Factor that contributed were political instability in Anglo-Saxon England, which is attested for in spiritual writings and the occasional prayer instead of raging against the machine. Since the attacks were not a novelty and the large neglect of the reign of a king, it seems that, in the long haul, resistance seemed futile.
By Birgitte Breemerkamp
1.Simon Keynes, “An Abbot, an Archbishop, and the Viking Raids of 1006–7 and 1009–12.” Anglo-Saxon England 36 (2007): 152.
2. Ibid., 154.
3. Ibid., 154-155.
4. Ibid., 157-158.
5. Ibid., 160.
6. Ibid., 161-162.
7. Ibid., 163.
8. Ibid., 169.
9. Homilies of Ælfric, ed. Pope, II, 511–27 (XIV), at p. 521 (lines 132–9), with frontispiece, and Keynes, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Trinity College, Plate XXIIb, showing MS. B. 15. 34, p. 358 (XIV, lines 126–44) cited in Keynes, “An Abbot, an Archbishop, and the Viking Raids,” 169.
11. Keynes, Atlas of Attestations, Table LXI cited in Keynes, “An Abbot, an Archbishop, and the Viking Raids,” 169.
12. Keynes, “An Abbot, an Archbishop, and the Viking Raids,” 170.
15. Ibid., 163.
16. Ibid., 170.
17. Ibid., 171-172.
18. A Last Eccentric: a Symposium concerning the Reverend Canon F. A. Simpson, Historian, Preacher and Eccentric, ed. E. James (London, 1991), p. 88 cited in Keynes, “An Abbot, an Archbishop, and the Viking Raids,” 172.
19. Keynes, “An Abbot, an Archbishop, and the Viking Raids,” 178.
20. Ibid., 179.
21. Ibid., 181.
22. Ibid., 190.
23. Ibid., 201.
24. Ibid., 201-201.
25. Ibid., 202.
28. Ibid., 203.
30. Ibid., 204.
34. Ibid., 205.
35. Ibid., 206.
36. Ibid., 213.
39. Modifying E. A. Freeman, A History of the Norman Conquest of England, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1867–79), I (2nd ed.), 275 cited in Keynes, “An Abbot, an Archbishop, and the Viking Raids,” 213.
40. Keynes, “An Abbot, an Archbishop, and the Viking Raids,” 214.
43. Ibid., 214-215.
44. Ibid., 215.
45. Gareth Williams, “Military and Non-Military Functions of the Anglo-Saxon Burh, c. 878–978,” Landscapes of Defence in Early Medieval Europe (Brepols Publishers, 2013): 158.
46. Hill and Sharpe (1997) cited in Barbara Yorke, “West Saxon Fortifications in the Ninth Century: The Perspective from the Written Sources,” Landscapes of Defence in Early Medieval Europe (Brepols Publishers, 2013): 105.
47. Yorke, “West Saxon Fortifications in the Ninth Century,” 104-106.
49. Ian Howard, Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England 991-1017 (The Boydell Press, 2003): 144.
50. Ibid., 145.
54. Ibid., 145-146