The Danish Conquest of England (980–1016)

England, 878

The final chapter in the Viking saga unfolded as a decades-long competition among kings for control of England amidst a royal rivalry for the north. Though most of the key players were of Scandinavian descent, sea power played only a supporting role. Perhaps because the Northmen still dominated the northern seas, the only naval battles of any significance were fought between Scandinavian adversaries in Scandinavian waters.

The battle for England began with the mysterious murder of King Edward at Corfe Castle in March 978, because this event brought to the throne Æthelred the Unready (or more correctly ‘the ill-advised’). Alfred’s strong line of successors had dissipated and Æthelred, barely twelve at the time of his accession, was ill-equipped to deal with the renewed Viking assault from the sea. Raids on the south and west coasts of England, taking advantage of the perceived weakness, began coming as early as 980. Initially, the marauders may well have come from Ireland, but soon they began arriving from Scandinavia, due in part to the reduced influx of Arab silver, which had started declining earlier in the century. The raiding parties were small at first and led by minor chieftains, just as they were at the beginning of the Viking era. Seven ships sacked Southampton in 981 and only three plundered Portland in 982. By the 990s, however, great lords and kings at the head of huge fleets were savaging England’s shores.

Olaf Tryggvason, future king of Norway, ravaged Folkestone in 991 with a fleet of ninety-three ships before moving on to Sandwich, Ipswich and finally Maldon, where he slaughtered Ealdorman Byrhtnoth and his army. Three years later he paired up with Svein Forkbeard of Denmark to attack London with ninety-four ships. Only after exacting a tribute of 16,000 pounds in silver did the two agree to depart. It would be the first of several such payments for peace, later called the Danegeld (‘Dane tribute’). Eventually the crown of England would literally pay enough in tribute to fund its own conquest. Moreover, the payments brought no peace. Fleets of raiders remunerated with English silver were often replaced by others equally as rapacious. Another Danish fleet devastated the southern end of the island all the way from Watchet at the mouth of the Severn in 997 to Rochester in the Thames estuary in 999.178 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle lamented that Æthelred answered it all with characteristic ineptitude: ‘Then the king with his councillors decided that they [the Danish raiders] should be confronted with a ship-army and also with a land army, but when the ships were ready, there was delay from day to day, which distressed the wretched people who lay on the ships.’ The Danish fleet finally left for Normandy of its own accord the following summer.

The only respite England received after this last ravaging was when erstwhile allies Olaf Tryggvason and Svein Forkbeard had a falling-out over control of Norway at the turn of the millennium. Olaf exploited the murder of Earl Hakon Sigurdsson, the de facto ruler of Norway, at the hand of a slave in 995 by using his share of the English tribute of 994 to finance his assumption of the Norwegian crown. Svein, however, considered this a provocation, since he regarded himself as overlord of Norway, as had his father and predecessor, Harald Bluetooth. So in September 1000 he arranged with his allies – Earl Erik Hakonsson (Hakon’s son) and Olaf Skötkonung, king of the Svear – to ambush Olaf Tryggvason as he sailed home from Wendland on the south shore of the Baltic. Against the allied fleet of seventy-one warships, Tryggvason had only eleven, but one of these was the great drakkar (‘dragon ship’) Ormrinn Langi (‘Long Serpent’). It was purported to have had thirty-four rowing seats, meaning it was probably about 45m (148ft) long. Moreover, each of these rowing benches was said to have accommodated eight oarsmen for a total of 272 crewmen plus an additional thirty fighters in the bow, giving the vessel a crew complement in excess of 300. And every crew member was specially chosen, most coming from the royal retinue. The Heimskringla claimed it was ‘the best fitted and most costly ship that was ever built in Norway’. When Olaf Tryggvason saw the enemy host approach at a place in the western Baltic called Svöld (the exact location is uncertain), he ordered all his vessels linked together and made certain that the other two dragon ships, Short Serpent and Crane, were lashed to his on either side. ‘This fight was very sharp and very bloody,’ said Snorre Sturlason, the author of the Heimskringla. Nonetheless, the outcome of the encounter was never really in doubt. Svein’s superior numbers enabled him to attack the ends of Olaf’s line and clear each vessel one at a time until reaching the Long Serpent. In time, even this great drakkar fell and Olaf, his shield over his head, cast himself into the sea to become the stuff of sagas.

None of this, however, made the English less vulnerable to Viking attack. The Danish ‘raiding-ship army’ which had wintered in Normandy in 1000 came back for more in 1001. Working out of the Isle of Wight, it ravaged the south coast from Devon to Sussex. Æthelred again resorted to bribery in 1002 to get rid of the raiders: 24,000 pounds in silver this time, along with supplies. He then perversely proceeded to expunge any possible benefit from the transaction by ordering the massacre of all Danes in his realm on St Brice’s Day, 13 November, that same year. Included among those slain was reportedly the Lady Gunnhild, sister of Svein Forkbeard. This, of course, prompted retribution from the latter the very next year. Exeter, Wilton, Salisbury, Norwich and Thetford all paid the price. The only thing that induced the Danish king to finally quit the kingdom in 1005 was a ‘great famine, throughout the English race, such that no one ever remembered one so grim before’, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. But Svein was back with his fleet the following year to pick up, very nearly unopposed, where he had left off. By this time, in the year 1007, the realm’s ransom had risen to 36,000 pounds of silver plus provisions.

Such ever-increasing tribute payments only seemed to invite further violent extortion. Æthelred attempted to break the cycle of pecuniary appeasement in 1008 by ordering that each 310 hides be responsible for producing one warship, but once more weak leadership doomed the enterprise. At least a hundred ships were actually collected at Sandwich, but in-fighting and treachery caused twenty to be misappropriated and the rest burned. The Danish chieftain Thorkel the Tall arrived at Sandwich in August 1009. His campaign culminated in the capture of Canterbury in 1011. It also cost Archbishop Ælfheah his life in 1012 and Æthelred an additional 48,000 pounds of tribute. To be fair, Æthelred thought he was buying Thorkel’s allegiance and getting a fleet of forty-five ships in the deal. It availed him little, however. Svein Forkbeard showed up at Sandwich in July 1013 with a ‘numerous fleet’ of ‘towered ships’ so magnificent that a monk of St Omer’s monastery in Flanders waxed poetic over it for an entire passage of the Encomium Emmae Reginae (an eleventh-century panegyric to Queen Emma of England). Literary embellishment aside, Else Roesdahl is probably right when she says that the ships must have been similar to the Skuldelev 2 and 5 vessels. By the end of the year England was his and Æthelred had taken refuge at the court of Duke Richard II of Normandy, the brother of his wife Emma.

Æthelred’s exile was a short one. Svein Forkbeard died on 3 February 1014, mere weeks after winning the kingdom. His forces pledged their allegiance to his son Cnut, barely eighteen years old, but the English nobility recalled Æthelred from Normandy. For a change, the latter acted with some dispatch, disbursing 21,000 pounds in silver to ensure the loyalty of Thorkel’s fleet. Facing a united English aristocracy, Cnut was compelled to withdraw to Denmark. But he would not yield so easily what he regarded as his patrimony. With the help of his brother Harald, now king of Denmark, Cnut equipped a powerful new fleet, numbering as many as 200 ships according to the Encomium Emmae Reginae. He sailed it back to Sandwich in the summer of 1015 and soon subdued Wessex, prompting the ealdorman Eadric to defect to him with forty of the king’s ships. In the spring of 1016 Cnut penetrated the Thames estuary with a fleet of 160. But even before he could reach London, Æthelred gave up his unhappy life on 23 April. ‘Then at the Rogation Days [7–9 May] the [Danish] ships came to Greenwich, and immediately turned to London,’ recounted the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘and dug a ditch on the south side and dragged their ships to the west side of the bridge [London Bridge], and afterwards bedyked the town around so that no one could get in or out.’ Æthelred’s son Edmund fought gamely on, even relieving London at one point, but at Ashingdon in Essex on 18 October Cnut won his crown. Edmund perished hardly a month later.

The End of the Viking Age (1017–66)

Cnut moved quickly to consolidate his conquest. He had himself formally crowned in London on 6 January 1017 and in July married Æthelred’s widow Emma to curry favour with his new subjects. In 1018 he dissolved his great Danish host, save forty ships, with a tribute payment of 10,500 pounds of silver from London alone and 72,000 pounds from the rest of the realm. His brother Harald died that same year, leaving Cnut in control of Denmark. In 1027 Scotland submitted to him and in 1028 he seized Norway from Olaf Haraldsson by parading a magnificent fleet up its coastline unopposed. In the words of Viking scholar Gwyn Jones, ‘Yet again a king who had lost command of the sea had lost his kingdom as a consequence, and Knut, who held that command, inherited.’ On a pilgrimage to Rome to attend the coronation of Conrad II as Holy Roman Emperor, Cnut penned a letter to the English people proclaiming himself ‘king of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and some of the Swedes’. The Vikings and the Scandinavian inheritors of their legacy had achieved their zenith: they occupied lands as far west as Greenland; Yaroslav the Wise had brought the Varangian Rus to the apex of their power as Grand Prince of Kiev; the Kingdom of Dublin flourished under Sigtrygg Silkbeard; the descendants of the Viking chieftain Rollo ruled over one of the most powerful dukedoms in Christendom; and now the scion of Viking royalty held sway over England and most of Scandinavia.

The very audacity which had helped to create the Viking victory would now contribute to its defeat. Cnut died in Dorset on 12 November 1035, setting in motion a ripple of successions in a short span. Harald Harefoot, his son by his mistress Ælfgifu, inherited the crown of England, while Harthacnut, Cnut’s son by Emma, took the throne of Denmark. Magnus, the son of Cnut’s erstwhile enemy Olaf Haraldsson, ironically became king of Norway. When Harald Harefoot died in 1040, Harthacnut replaced him as king of England, but he himself passed away in 1042 and was succeeded by Edward, Æthelred’s son by Emma. At the same time Magnus assumed suzerainty over Denmark. This was contested by Earl Svein Estridsson, Cnut’s nephew, who met Magnus in one of the classic maritime confrontations of the era: the Battle of Aarhus in 1043. The two royal contenders lashed their longships together in opposing lines and the two lines clashed bow-to-bow off the east coast of Jutland around Christmas. As Snorre Sturlason told it, the tide was turned when Magnus sprang from his own shield wall to lead the boarding and subsequent clearing of Svein’s flagship. Estridsson himself escaped, however, and in 1045 was joined by Harald Hardrada, Magnus’ uncle and rival for control of Norway, who had just returned from service as captain of the Byzantine emperor’s Varangian Guard. This caused Magnus to placate Harald by sharing the throne of Norway with him. Magnus’ death in 1047 left Harald holding the crown of Norway alone, while Svein Estridsson dominated Denmark. Unwilling to accept this, Harald Hardrada initiated a protracted struggle to absorb Denmark at Svein’s expense. The conflict finally came to a climax at the Battle of Nissa off the coast of Halland in the spring of 1062.

According to the Heimskringla, Hardrada essentially challenged Svein to a winner-takes-all duel at sea: ‘In the winter King Harald sent word south to Denmark to King Svein that the following spring he should come from the south to the Elv [the Göta river in southwestern Sweden just north of Copenhagen] to meet him, and then they should both fight in such a way as to share their lands, and that one of them should have both kingdoms.’ Harald gathered a fleet of 150 ships for the purpose, including a great drakkar as his flagship. ‘Built after the size of the Long Serpent’, said Snorre Sturlason, it boasted seventy oars between the gilded ‘dragon’s head’ at the bow and the ‘dragon’s tail’ at the stern. Svein, however, failed to show up at the appointed place and time, so Harald harried the coast of Halland (a southwestern province of Sweden) to draw him out. It worked. Svein sought him out with 300 ships and found him at the mouth of the Nissan river (present-day Halmstad) late in the afternoon of 9 August. Both sides lashed all their ships together with the exception of a small squadron under Earl Hakon Ivarsson that Harald allowed to manoeuvre freely. This was decisive. The battle was long and hard-fought, lasting through the night, but eventually Hakon’s squadron turned the tide by attacking the flanks of the Danish line and culling out vulnerable vessels so that they could be overwhelmed one at a time. By morning, Svein had fled, along with most of his following, leaving seventy empty ships behind. Notwithstanding the outcome, both kings were weakened by the long war and eventually concluded an even-handed peace in 1064 at the Göta river.

Harald, however, remained determined to increase his holdings. He thought he saw his chance two years later when Edward the Confessor died and his wife’s brother, Harold Godwinson, pressed his contested claim to the crown of England. Harald Hardrada’s own claim to the throne was a tenuous one based upon an alleged promise Harthacnut made to Harald’s nephew Magnus that Magnus would inherit England upon Harthacnut’s death without issue. Nonetheless, Harald probably felt his claim was at least as legitimate as that of either Harold Godwinson or William of Normandy. He would not have let the mundane matter of legitimacy dissuade him in any event, since he was clearly confident that he had the military might to back up his contention.

And, indeed, by joining forces with Tostig Godwinson (Harold’s rebellious brother) on the Tyne in Scotland, Hardrada was able to assemble a fearsome fleet of 300 ships for his planned invasion. With it, he ravaged the coast of Yorkshire in the summer of 1066 before entering the Humber estuary to finally beach his fleet on the banks of the Ouse near Riccall, 16km (10 miles) south of York. He defeated the combined forces of Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria at Gate Fulford on 20 September. York quietly submitted, promising its support in the campaign to conquer England. Harald must have felt supremely self-assured at that point, but hubris would be his undoing. It was at Stamford Bridge, 19km (12 miles) from the Vikings’ vaunted longships, that on 25 September Harold Godwinson, after a forced march from the south coast where he had been waiting for William, surprised and defeated the last great army of Viking invaders, fighting beneath a battle banner appropriately named ‘Land-waster’.

Snorre Sturlason maintained that before the battle which killed him, Harald Hardrada, this consummate Viking chieftain, was heard to have recited the following Skaldic verse:

We do not creep into battle

under the shelter of shields,

before the crash of weapons;

this is what the loyal goddess

of the hawk’s land commanded us.

The bearer of the necklace told me long ago

to hold the helmet high

in the din of weapons,

when the valkyrie’s ice

met the skulls of men.

And so ended the Viking onslaught – not with an encounter at sea, but in an engagement on land, miles from the nearest ships.

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